Lately, Carl Newman has been listening to a lot of music. That may not be surprising, considering that the 46-year-old has made a career out of playing music, but as Newman explains, “sometimes when you’re a musician, you’re so absorbed in music being your life. For me, I would just forget to listen to music.”
For the last 15 years or so, Newman has led the New Pornographers, a Canadian power-pop band that not only boasts a bit of star-wattage — singer-songwriter Neko Case and indie-rock raconteur Dan Bejar, who records under the moniker of Destroyer, are both members — but has also built a brainy and electrifying body of work. Earlier this week, the group released Brill Bruisers, their first album in four years and sixth overall.
Compared to the “herky-jerky” rhythms (as Newman described them) of the Pornos’ previous LPs, Brill Bruisers stands out as the most cohesive work in the band’s catalog to date — a well-paced 13-track collection that benefits from the presence of sci-fi synths and Newman’s renewed ability to devour music the same way he did when he was “18 or 20.”
“I’ve been buying a lot of vinyl,” he says over the phone, from his home in Woodstock, New York, where he lives with his wife and their toddler son. “[It’s] a smart thing for a musician to do, just like an author is supposed to read.”
Newman, who also has a released three solo records under the semi-pseudonym A.C. Newman, spoke with SPIN about ten of the songs that informed the making of Brill Bruisers. Read what he had to say below and scroll down further to stream a Spotify playlist featuring some of the tracks he highlighted.
Electric Light Orchestra, “Shine a Little Love” (1979):
There are influences [on this record] that are just memories. We didn’t sit down and go, “Let’s study ELO and try to be like them.” We just remembered. And we never knew what we were looking for, but sometimes we’d hit on it — like the arpeggiators on “Marching Orders” and “Champions of Red Wine.” I just thought, “This is ‘Xanadu.'” So the child inside me says, “Stop. We’re there. We’ve found it.” But actually, the ELO example I put on my list was “Shine a Little Love.” We’d listen to it and try and find out the tempo. Listening to “Shine a Little Love” was the only time I remember actually listening to them. And it had nothing to do with the style. It’s all about tempo.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik, “Love Missile F1-11” (1986):
That was a song that I said to Dan [Bejar], “Let’s try to sound more like this.” And he took me at my word. And then all of Dan’s songs were very fast and I thought, “Well, now I have to speed up my songs.” I forced my own hand. I told him to be as fast as Sigue Sigue, and he did it. Not that we’re anywhere near as fast as “Love Missile F1-11”; I don’t think anything on the record is. [It’s] just that one little thing raised the energy level of the record.
The Moody Blues, “The Voice” (1981):
[This] was a huge record, but you can tell they absorbed some ELO influence because “The Voice” has a Jeff Lynne-vibe to it. And that was a song that was in the back of our mind as a reference for [the Brill Bruisers track] “Champions of Red Wine” — that psychedelic strumminess. A song that has late-’70s, early-’80s synthesizer flourishes, but yet it’s still driven by an acoustic guitar.
The funny thing about that was when John [Collins, New Pornographers member,] and I were talking about this, John had the name wrong. John was thinking of “The Voice,” but he was saying “Your Wildest Dreams,” which is a Moody Blues song from around 1985, which I don’t like. And he kept saying, “This reminds me of ‘Your Wildest Dreams.'” And I kept getting so mad, like, “No, I don’t like that song. That song sucks!” But then a month later I realized, “Oh, you mean ‘The Voice.’ Thank you. I take that as a great compliment if you think it sounds like ‘The Voice.'”
Robert Palmer, “Johnny and Mary” (1980):
Around the time we were beginning the record and talking about general ideas for how it should sound production-wise, Dan was talking about how much he loved “Johnny and Mary” by Robert Palmer. And I think Dan said it was one of his favorite productions by Todd Rundgren. So we used that as a reference point. We’d work on the record and think, “Now let’s listen to ‘Johnny and Mary.’ How close to ‘Johnny and Mary’ does it sound?”
Tangerine Dream, “Betrayal” (1977):
You know that ’70s movie, Sorcerer? It’s a remake of the French film The Wages of Fear and it stars Roy Scheider. It’s about him and two other guys driving a truck full of nitroglycerin — of course, they’re trying not to explode and die. And Tangerine Dream do this really cool soundtrack, which is a little more aggro than they usually sound. It’s less atmospheric, more tense thriller music.
John Barry, “Midnight Cowboy Theme” (1969):
Essentially it’s composed by John Barry, but what we were really listening for was the harmonica by Toots Thielemans. I think he was the world’s most famous harmonica player. It’s that harmonica song that goes [imitates sound]. I was playing a lot of harmonica on Dan’s songs, so I was trying to get some notes on how to be a good harmonica player. I think there for an hour, we just listened to harmonica playing.
SPIN: That melody you hummed, it sounds just like…
“You Only Live Twice,” which is written by John Barry. He totally ripped himself off. He totally recycled that melody for “Midnight Cowboy Theme.” I think you’re allowed to do that if you wrote it.
Prelude, “After the Gold Rush” (1973):
You know the song “After the Gold Rush” by Neil Young? There was an a cappella version that was a hit in the early ’70s by this English group called Prelude. And it’s got this thick wall of harmonies, which I kept coming back to when we were doing the song “You Tell Me Where,” the last song on the record. Once [“You Tell Me Where”] gets to the halfway point, the vocals just go crazy: It’s me and Kathryn [Calder] and Neko [Case] and Kelly Hogan, and it becomes this wall. I thought, “I want it to sound like this crazy ’70s choir.”
U2, “New Year’s Day” (1983):
This is a fairly minor one, but on [the Brill Bruisers track] “Marching Orders” I remember thinking the drums should have that military swing of “New Year’s Day” by U2. Now when U2 rocks, it’s different. But, of course, you can’t say anything: U2 are one of the all-time greatest rock bands.
Game Theory, “Waltz the Halls Always” (1985):
Scott Miller, the main singer-songwriter from Game Theory died last year, which really bummed me out because I was such a huge fan. His sense of melody and songwriting had a big influence on me. People have said that they think I’m influenced by Big Star, but really I’m more influenced by Game Theory, who were influenced by Big Star. I got it in my head that I would try to write something that musically was a tip of the hat to Game Theory, and that was “You Tell Me Where,” the last song on the record.
It started out like, “I’m gonna write something like Game Theory.” Then it gets to the point where I’m saying, “Now I want this to sound like an a cappella group from the ’70s.” You don’t finish songs like this, but it’s a good way to start songs.
Gerry Rafferty, “Home and Dry” (1978):
There are songs from City to City by Gerry Rafferty like “Home and Dry” and “Baker Street” and “Right Down the Line” that have just become my all-time favorite songs. And I think they’re so perfectly arranged and executed, and there is a strange psychedelic vibe they have that is very unique. It doesn’t quite sound like the ’70s; it doesn’t quite sound like the ’80s, and I think when I was working on a song like “Hi-Rise,” that’s what I was really going for.
I know whenever I tell people, “I was trying to sound like Gerry Rafferty there,” they always shake their heads and go, “Well, it doesn’t sound like Gerry Rafferty, man.” That’s the vibe I was shooting for — just a mellow, woozy, spacey vibe.