Guilt Complex: Prolific A.C. Newman Rolls Solo, Again

Text by Michael D. Ayers

As the front man for critically acclaimed indie-rock act The New Pornographers, you’d think that front man A.C. Newman would have his hands full. The group has released four records this decade; Newman first branched out in 2004 with The Slow Wonder, a jangly pop record that mixed a love for ’60s rock, while honing a knack for wry, crafty lyrics. This year, he returns with Get Guilty—another collection of infectious pop songs. In person, Newman is a rather soft-spoken guy, humble about his place in the rock ‘n’ roll hierarchy. SOMA caught up with him on a dreary winter evening, in a lonely Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn.

You mentioned in a recent interview that you treat making records and the process as your day job now. Is that a hard or risky day job to have?
Like, you don’t know when you’re going to get fired from your day job?
Yeah. Well, obviously you don’t have a boss. Or do you?
Well, no. You have to force yourself to work, but it’s what I do. I killed myself to get my first record done. I was working full time and going straight to the studio. Luckily I had a collapsing relationship that I didn’t care about, so I didn’t care about being away all the time. I’d head to the studio until two o’clock in the morning, and then wake up and go back until I couldn’t stand it. I figured having some sort of career where I could make money out of it was my payout for that initial burst of suffering. But I try not to take it for granted or waste time.

Do you think about the stability factor?
I’m pretty stable now, so I feel like I should be grateful. Yet you never feel entirely stable. People that have a few million dollars still don’t feel stable. I’ve done very well, but there’s always someone above you and someone below you. I feel like it’s boring—because I still make rock music, but I don’t really live a rock life. And I don’t want to have to be some kind of “rock ‘n’ roller.” It feels like a child’s game in some ways.

The bulk of the success of your career was in your 30’s. When you were in your early 20’s was this a reality you were always shooting for?
I think I sensed that I was going to keep making music, but maybe not making a living of it. It’s something that you’re obviously striving for, and when you’re making a record you want a ton of people to like it. At the same time you don’t expect it, you hope. I’ve said it many times, but I didn’t really think we’d get popular. I was really shocked that we did.

That whole hope thing you mentioned. At least initially, you don’t really know, and hope for the best.
And it’s still what I do. There’s so many bands, that’s what kills me. There are so many bands that are really good. But there are bands that you think are way better than you that no one likes, and there are bands that you think you’re way better than, who are very popular. It almost feels like I won the lottery. Some money I feel like I earned, like when I go on tour. But other money, when someone calls up and says, “The Office wants to use your song and they’ll give you $10,000,” you go, “Yeah, okay. Sure.” And then a month later someone gives you a check for $10,000. That seems absurd to me. But I think about it as back pay. I think I made more money last year than I did in the entire ’90s. That tells you how little money I made then. Now we’re in the direst of times.

When you’re thinking of songs, do you characterize things as “this would be good for the band” versus “this would be good to leave for myself?”
Not really. I thought that on The Slow Wonder, my first solo record, and I really liked the quiet songs—they’re my favorite ones. And there were some slower songs on Twin Cinema and again on Challengers. And then at the end of Challengers, when I began Get Guilty, I started thinking, “I’ve done quiet enough.” And that I could get a little louder. I think this record, contrary to what people would think, is a little more rock than The New Pornographers.

Get Guilty to me reminds me of certain elements of ’60s pop songs that I’ve always enjoyed.
Yeah. I always have that. I can’t really escape it.

This might be more so than past New Pornographers work.
There’s definitely stuff on it—like the song “The Palace at 4 A.M.” At one point it sounds like a Phil Spector beat to me. The rumbling drums and insistent piano. That one also had a vocal that was very Beach Boys-like. I think I promised myself a long time ago that I would never strive to constantly be original, never be ashamed of the influences that I have. And by doing that, I’ve made some things that are ’60s-tinged. There are some influences I really wear on my sleeve. But sometimes… I make stuff that accidentally sounds like me.