A.C. Newman on 'Shut Down the Streets,' the Allure of Jam Bands and Banjos

[caption id="attachment_56485" align="alignnone" width="640"] Photo courtesy of Matador Records[/caption]

Over the last decade, A.C. Newman has become one of indie rock's more revered songwriters, for a few different reasons. He's fiercely adept at crafting power-pop gems, both as a solo artist and with his band the New Pornographers. In both projects, he's fond of writing wry, witty lyrics that are confusing at times, funny at others. But on his third solo album, Shut Down the Streets, Newman shifts. He explores more of a warm, '70s folk-pop vibe throughout, and is more direct in his storytelling -- one result of two significant personal events: the loss of his mother and the birth of his son. Hive spoke with Newman from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. about the intricacies of Shut Down the Streets, the allure of jam bands and the future of the New Pornographers.

The reviews of Shut Down the Street are quick to point out that this is your “most personal record” to date. Is this indeed true?

It absolutely is. To a great degree. Seven of these songs are deeply personal, you know, whether they’re about my mom or son. And a couple of them are about both. The feelings you go through when you’ve gained somebody, when you’ve just had a child, and the feelings you go through when you’ve lost somebody. There’s a lot of that.

A handful of the songs seem to be looking towards the future. Songs like “There's Money in New Wave,” “Strings,” “Troubadour” are all forward-looking songs.

Definitely. A lot of it is about trying to reconcile when bad things happen in your life, or you go through a lot of struggles. Reconciling that and trying to be happy. The things that everybody goes through. You can’t be all happy or all sad, you’re trying to make them all work together and not overpower you too much.

As a new Dad, do you find yourself looking back at your own time growing up and how you were with your parents?

You want [your kids] to avoid the things that may have screwed you up as a kid.

Let's be honest here: What screwed Carl up when he was young?

Oh, I don’t know. Nothing really. I grew up in the most secure, nuclear family. My parents were together for “death do us part.” I was the youngest of five kids. There were not a lot of demons, you know? But you want your kid to be sure of himself. You want him to do everything. Learn to play every sport, play every instrument.

Correct me if I’m wrong: this is the most instances of a banjo appearing on an A.C. Newman project.

Definitely. I knew it was a tricky thing to use, because the banjo has become a very overused indie-rock instrument. Of course, Sufjan Stevens really took it as his own. I was really trying to use it in a Glen Campbell way. That sort of rambling countrypolitan thing. I don’t know if it came off that way. Or even using the banjo as a rhythm instrument, you know?

The song that highlights it the best is “Strings.” It’s subtle in how it drives the song along.

We were fascinated because it sounded middle of the road, but at the same time, it sounded kind of odd. We were listening to it, and like “I can’t quite figure out what this sounds like, so that’s good … I guess.”

Would you ever do anything folkier down the line?

I don’t know …. Maybe? I … I didn’t make this record thinking “this is my new direction.” I just felt like going in this direction. Some of the songs, I wanted to be “respectful” if that makes any sense. The songs that were a tribute to my mom, I wanted to play them in a respectful way. It didn’t make sense for them to be New Pornographers songs. But going into the future, it’s hard to say. Sometimes I do feel the urge to start a jam band. Just because it seems like there’s money in being in a jam band.

There’s lots of money in being in a jam band.

I know a lot of musicians around here who could be in an amazing jam band. Also, another thing about being in a jam band, you can be as old as you want in a jam band. There’s no dishonor in being 60 years old and playing in a jam band.

Stream "I'm Not Talking":

Do you meet up with musicians and have "jam sessions" in Woodstock?

No, no. It’s not my way. But this is a good place to go for it.

One of the more interesting songs on Shut Down the Streets is “Encyclopedia of Classic Take Downs.” I have an idea what this song is about.

Isn’t it obvious?

Well, I try not to jump to too many conclusions.

I was thinking about the absurdity of being in a band. All of the other stuff I was talking about, like my son being born and losing my mom, in the middle of that, I still had to maintain being a person in a rock band. And it all seemed all completely pointless and absurd. You know?

Stream "Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns":

I imagine that it's a weird identity struggle.

Yeah, I love doing it, but all of a sudden, when you’re thinking about the bigger things in life, it struck me that I have such an absurd job. I realized that the things I worried about didn’t matter, whatsoever. Like when you start worrying about how many people are going to buy your record, or how many tickets you’ve sold to a show or whatever. Something else happens in your life and puts it all in perspective. That’s what I was thinking when I wrote that.

Bands have so many decisions these days that they have to make: marketing, streams, ticket sales, social networks. Does it ever get overwhelming?

It is very true; everything has changed, to a degree, where record sales don’t even tell you anything about your popularity anymore. Girl Talk sells 20,000 records, but Girl Talk is massive. Hot Chip sells 40,000 records, but Hot Chip is massive. You look at your numbers, and it’s hard to say what that means.

A couple weekends ago, you had a series of Tweets about Spotify’s less-than-desirable pay rate for streams. Is this platform not the great artist savior that we were told it was going to be?

You know what’s funny? I feel like I get always sucked into this. I don’t have the fiercest opinions. I know Spotify is there and I know you can’t get rid of it and people are going to listen to your record for free and that’s the way it is. People want me to say that I like it. It’s not enough that I accept it. It’s “say you like it!” [Laughs.] And I sent that Tweet out as a joke, a snarky joke – [I was asked] when was [the album] going to be on Spotify and I thought it was more of a snappy comeback than anything. But people were angry at me, like, “How could you say that?” But why not? It’s not just about me. I feel like I’ve done okay, but I know a lot of other people who don’t. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with empathizing with other musicians and wanting to live in a world where musicians are making money from it.

Is there any talk about working on a New Pornographers record?

Yeah … um … I’m thinking a lot about it now. I’ve just got to figure out exactly where to go with it. And I’m not sure yet.

Does that band have an infinite timeline?

Does it have an infinite timeline? Are we going to break it up sometime soon?


The interesting thing about the band is we started as not a real band. We were just a studio project for a long time. It wasn’t until 2005 until we gave it a college try and started touring regularly. We got to field this team. There’s no reason why the New Pornographers couldn’t go back to being just a studio project. This ongoing thing, where 10 years from now we’ll put out a New Pornographers record and maybe play a show but that’s the end of it. Because that’s the way we were for the first few years and I didn’t mind it. I could just concentrate on writing music, you know? That’s why I was so prolific and could put out records in 2003, 2004, and 2005. Because that’s all I did. I treated it like a full time job.

Shut Down the Streets is out now on Matador.