A.C. Newman's Strange Barthelme Connection

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A.C. Newman, leader of the New Pornographers, doesn’t consider himself a reader. But listen to either of his two solo albums or the Newman penned Pornographer tunes and it’s evident that he’s, at the very least, a thinker about words.  While his music is mostly associated with a jangly-60s power-pop concoction, his lyrics are often witty and at times quite cryptic (is he singing about Spanish techno? Or just saying he wants to sing about Spanish techno?).

In our inaugural feature we’re calling Rock Lit, Newman discusses the obvious and not-so-obvious literary references that populate his musical past, including a coincidental connection with postmodern short story writer Donald Barthelme and a purposeful collaboration with contemporary novelist Rick Moody.

A good place to start seems to be to ask how you got Rick Moody to write the press sheet for the last New Pornographers album.

That was funny, I just met him randomly in the [Brooklyn] recording studio Seaside Lounge. He was there recording with his band the Wingdale Community Singers and we just met each other. I thought “Holy shit, it’s Rick Moody” and then I was talking to him for a while and after about ten minutes he realized “Oh you’re Carl Newman from the New Pornographers. I was just listening to you.” We were both fans of each other so periodically I’d write him on Facebook or I’d see him and say hello. When I was talking to our publicist about getting somebody to write a little press sheet I thought “Why don’t we just get Rick Moody to write whatever he wants.”

Did he have complete freedom?

Yeah. It’s a press sheet and so many of them are so boring and like “Buy this new important album by this important band.” So I thought why don’t we just let him write whatever he wants. In a way I felt like I’d done him a favor, although it wasn’t really a favor, because he Facebooked about having just finished his last book, Four Fingers of Death, and I wrote him off-handedly saying “If you need someone to read it, send it to me.” And he said “I actually would like somebody to read it.” He sent me this thing that was like a foot thick and I read his book. It was cool to read somebody’s manuscript—it still had spelling errors in it!

Was that press sheet the first time you had partnered with a literary writer on something?

Yeah. Pretty much. I don’t know if I’d call it a collaboration, but it was the first time. I was pretty excited about it because in the last few years I’ve been doing a lot more reading than I had before. For some reason I got it in my head that I wanted to read more. I’m the person that, through my life, would buy hundreds of books but would never read them. Or I would read half of them. At the point when I met [Rick] I thought of writers as sort of rock stars. I was awaiting the release of books the way I used to await the release of albums. Like “I’m going to buy 2666 by Roberto Bolano the day it comes out!”

Was there a certain book that sparked this new found desire to read?

Oddly enough I think it might have been [Bolano’s] Savage Detectives. I remember we were on tour in Europe and I was jet-lagged and staying up all night and so I just thought “I’ll read!” So I read Savage Detectives and then I also had Blindness by Jose Saramago and I thought that was amazing. Then I read Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. I guess maybe because I read three really good books in a row—which doesn’t always happen—I thought “I should do more reading!” And it’s inspirational. For what I do, I think it’s good to expose yourself to a lot of language. I find myself always loving the writers the most that play around with language.

Does reading that often affect your songwriting in any way?

Sometimes I just go through book and find a turn of phrase I really like or just some word or phrase I’ve never encountered before and think “Oh that’s really good.” Like the word “hipshot” or the term “broken field run.” I remember encountering those in books and for whatever reason thinking they were cool and writing them down. And then when I’m writing songs I’ll keep a page of disconnected phrases because I liked the sound of them. That’s the main influence. I don’t think I ever try and chase any books thematically. I didn’t read Four Fingers of Death and think “I’m going to write a song about a dystopian future.”

If any of those phrases end up in a song are they recognizable? Could people tell where they’re from?

Sometimes it’s not even a phrase that’s completely unique to that writer. It’s just something they wrote that I liked. Sometimes I’ve taken little lines from novels just to see if anybody picks it up, but I’d be shocked if anybody ever figured it out. I don’t think we’re popular enough that people are dissecting every single line and word. There’s a song—it might have been from the last record—where I took a line from a Joseph McElroy novel, it was from Smuggler’s Bible. It was just a little line that I thought was really great and I took it almost verbatim and just stuck it in a song. I thought “No one’s ever going to spot this!”

And no one has?

No, of course not. Who’s read Smuggler’s Bible? Also a very key line from a chorus on a song on our last record I took from a Nicolas Mosely book, but nobody will ever notice.

It’s almost like a game for fans to figure it out now.

Yeah, I can’t tell anybody what it is.

There was a lot of attention given to your references to Donald Barthelme on your last solo album. People definitely noticed those.

That’s an example of a writer where I just love the way he plays with language. He takes the form of the story and just completely fractures to the point where you read him and you think “That was a great story but I don’t know what the hell happened in it.” I took my album title, Get Guilty, from a really passing sentence in one of his stories. Talk about seeing just a couple words I like the sound of and writing them down. It wasn’t even a sentence; it was just in the middle of a sentence. I though “That’s an interesting turn of phrase.” So I stole it.

Did that influence go beyond the album’s title?

This doesn’t really apply necessarily, but I was reading The Beetle Leg by John Hawkes and I finished it and put the book down. And an hour later started reading Sixty Stories by Barthelme and the first story in the book has a character named Carl who talks about how much he likes The Beetle Leg by John Hawkes. Isn’t that weird?

That’s weird.

And a similar coincidence was right after I’d finished recording my solo album I was reading Forty Stories by Barthelme and I just turned the page and there was a story called “The Palace at 4 a.m.” And “The Palace at 4 a.m.” is the name of one of the songs on my solo album. What’s funny is the reason I came up with that title is completely random. The setting of the song was hotel in Vancouver called The Waldorf but I thought I didn’t want to call it that so I called it The Palace. And then it was late at night so I picked a random time. The Palace at 2 a.m.? At 3 a.m.? 4 a.m. So I randomly had this song title and I realized it’s a Donald Barthelme story. Then I realized it was also a sculpture by [Alberto] Giacometti. And then also Jay Bennett had an album called The Palace at 4 a.m. So maybe that was my fascination with Barthelme at the time, all these weird Barthelme-themed coincidences.

What’s next on your list of books to read?

A friend just gave us a copy of The Collected Stories of Tolstoy. I’ve never read much Tolstoy so I want to read that. I just started reading the collected stories of Amy Hempel. It’s really good. There’s a ton of them. A lot of bricks. I want to read The Recognitions by William Gaddis because I’ve loved his other books I’ve read and this is considered one of the towering achievements of 20th century literature. But it’s a 1000 pages so I’m afraid of going down that road. I’ve been trying to put together my own personal library over the past couple of years. I like being able to look at my bookshelf and go “What am I going to read next?” I have hundreds of them on the wall.

Do fans ever gift books to you on tour since you’re clearly such a reader?

That’s only happened to me once. I remember a guy came up to me in San Diego and gave me Pale Fire by [Vladimir] Nabokov. Which was funny because I was actually thinking I wanted to read it. But I don’t get that often because I don’t think people think of me as a smart guy. I’m sure Andrew Bird and Colin Meloy and Will Sheff from Okkervil River get more people going “Here I brought you this book by this author I love.” But I don’t really get that. I think I’m just generally thought of as a dummy by the public. How else would you explain the fact that no one gives me books?