Published Jan 22, 2009Allan Carl Newman is a Canadian-born singer-songwriter and humble indie rock demi-god whose musical projects have included Superconductor, Zumpano and national treasures the New Pornographers. Newman's second solo album, Get Guilty, doesn't clobber with radio-friendly potential hits, but there is an artfulness and maturity that shines through the complex melodies and dense, poetic lyrics. From Polynesian imagery to European submarines, the album tends to mirror surreal dreamscapes and obscure literary works. "I have been reading a ton over the last year," confesses Newman. "When the New Pornographers were on tour at the end of 2007, we were in Europe and I suddenly got on this reading kick. I couldn't sleep because of jetlag and so I just started getting really into reading. It's been about a year and a half now. I've been reading a lot more than I ever have in my life. It's become this regimen that I'm trying to stick to. I'm trying to average at least a book a week."
Newman's lyrics are also inspired by his surroundings; having moved to Brooklyn fairly recently for love, at least one of the haunting songs on Get Guilty is inspired by his new neighbourhood. "I think a lot of the songs, for whatever reason, I would have an image in my head. And I just couldn't shake it. In my head, ['Young Atlantis'] is about the block that I live on being completely submerged under water."
What are you up to?
My record's coming out so there are a lot of things on my mind. I'm doing the in-store at the Virgin Megastore at Union Square on inauguration day - the same day as my album release. I'm still a little nervous about that. I kept saying "I don't want to do an in-store on inauguration day! It seems like this kind of holy day. People would not go to an in-store. They would do something Obama-related."
What are your current fixations?
I'm reading 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, which I guess is a fixation because it's a 900-page novel and those tend to absorb your life. Massive novels become a challenge. It's like "I am going to finish this novel!"
Why do you live where you do?
It's called Park Slope. It's very close to Prospect Park, which is basically the Central Park of Brooklyn. I've always liked it here, but I started dating a girl from New York and we got married and we bought a place here. So this is where I've settled in.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
It's kind of an obvious answer, but Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon really, really blew my mind. It blows everybody's mind. I finally got around to reading it last year and I had to admit that it was pretty close to mind-altering. Moreso than an album or anything like that can alter your mind, because you're absorbed in this massive happening you can barely understand and yet there are glimpses of brilliance. It's like this massive world that you think you can grasp, but you can't.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
There was a book that came out a year or two ago called The Concerts That Changed My Life. They asked me to write about one. And the concert that I wrote about, which I'm sticking with, is I saw Redd Kross play in 1987. It was at the Town Pump in Vancouver and there couldn't have been more than 20 or 30 people there. It really changed my life. I started trying to dress like them. It really made me think, "I wanna be in a rock'n'roll band! I wanna be like Redd Kross!" Of course, it's that kind of influence that a band can only have on you when you're a teenager. I don't know how many people, when they're 35, go and see a band and think "Oh my God, that's changed my life!" They go and see a band and go, "That's one of the best bands I've ever seen." But they go back to their lives and continue. Actually, Flaming Lips about a month later was also a game-changer, but not quite so much.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
This is the meanest thing, but I actually thought it was kind of funny, at the time. We were playing in Brisbane, Australia and we were having technical difficulties. I had just learned a Go-Betweens song called "Love Goes On," so I played it acoustically. The Go-Betweens were from Brisbane so I thought, "This will go over well." It went over well, but in the bridge, I screwed up on one of the chords. Afterwards I apologized and said, "Damn! I got that chord wrong!" And I heard this voice in the audience say, "You're not the first person to take a shit on that stage." I thought that was a pretty good heckle... everybody sucks at some point in their life.
What should everyone shut up about?
Bush. Everybody should shut up about Bush. It's like getting to the end of a long car trip and you've only got a half an hour to go and that last half an hour is so painful, you can't take it. I just want Bush to be erased from everybody's minds. What is it, another five days until he hits the lecture circuit?
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
Let's see...what do I dislike about myself? I know I'm lazy. Stupid. What else am I? Lazy. Stupid. Selfish. What do I like about myself? I've written a handful of good songs. I think I have pretty eyes! That's about it.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Well... getting back to the laziness... being a musician who tours quite a bit, I really love just sitting around and watching TV. I'm really addicted to those shitty VH1 reality shows. I don't even like them! A new one just started, Bret Michaels' Rock of Love Bus. It's so terrible and I hate it, but I can't not watch it! It's hard to escape those shows. It doesn't help when you don't have a real job, you know? When you're forced to be somewhere 40 hours a week, I think it disciplines your life and makes you value your free time. Whereas, when you have more free time, you find yourself watching those shows, which is essentially the most hideous waste of your time. It's basically like being a heroin addict.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Don't buy those mutual funds.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
I don't think there are many things. Considering my wife makes me sleep with an annoying Daschund in the bed half the time, I think I can put up with almost anything.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Myself. Ian & Sylvia. Gordon Lightfoot. Stompin' Tom Connors. Tommy Hunter. Wayne & Shuster. You know - all the classics.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
I think it was KISS Alive II. It's hard to know. When you're a kid, there's a thin line between your money and your parents' money. Because it's basically money that they gave you. But I'm pretty sure the first record I bought was KISS Alive II and the second record I ever bought was Heart, Little Queen. I remember those two records as a kid seemed kind of momentous, because up until that point, I'd only ever listened to my brother's and sister's records and I liked the idea that I was buying this thing that was mine.
What was your most memorable day job?
The most obvious one is when I was in college, I got a job through my cousin on the CP Rail steel gang, basically working on a railroad gang where I had to swing a spike maul and a sledgehammer. For four and a half months, I basically slowly travelled from BC to Saskatchewan, changing rail as we went. The funny thing about that is that I worked one shift there and I thought, "This is hell on earth." Because there were no other college students there. And then my second shift there, this Pakistani guy started working who I started talking to. And I thought, "Wow, this guy's pretty cool, he's from Montreal." And that was how I met Suroosh Alvi who started VICE Magazine. I remember thinking at the time that he was a friend sent from God. You know, when you're in this environment and there's nobody you have anything in common with, it was cool to find somebody you could talk to about Soul Asylum and the Replacements. Just so you were anchored in your life, you remembered that you had another life once, with interests and things that made you happy.
How do you spoil yourself?
My most guilty pleasure... I think because I'm all stressed out when I'm working on music, even though it's kind of an easy job, it just inhabits my head and I can't forget about it. When I'm finished doing anything, I want to become a total videogame loser! Like, whenever I finish a record, I feel this urge to sit in front of a TV and play Grand Theft Auto for a month. But I can never bring myself to do it because there's that overwhelming feeling that I'm a total loser. And also, I don't want to do it in front of my wife, because I don't want her to think I'm a total loser. We've got a lot of video game systems and video games that don't get played enough. It's such a guilty pleasure that I don't do it.
If I wasn't playing music I would be...
Dead and unemployed.
What do you fear most?
I guess just the classic - dying penniless and alone. I think that's always in the back of my head. Like whenever I'm looking at my career and how it's going, I think "Hmm... Things are going pretty well! I may not die penniless and alone!"
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Naked ladies. One particular naked lady.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
My most surreal celebrity encounter was, in my first band Superconductor, we played in L.A. in the mid-'90s. We were playing with some Japanese band, I think Machine Gun TV. We were playing in this really tiny place and I didn't think anybody was there to see us. After we played, in between bands, "Mongoloid" by Devo was playing. This guy walks over to me and says, "I really enjoyed your set." I shook his hand and said "Thank you" and I realized that it was Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo. It seemed so bizarre! I thought, "Am I thinking you're the guy from Devo because 'Mongoloid' by Devo is playing?" And I was kind of stunned into silence, that kind of "thank you... mis-ter!" And then we parted ways and I had to go to my bandmates and go, "Hey, that guy over there? Is that the guy from Devo?" And they said, "Yes." And I thought "Man! I wish I had said something to him!"
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
I know would definitely serve them a casserole, because that's macrobiotic and that's important these days. I'd probably invite the Beatles, I like them. Jesus, of course. I'd invite Shakespeare and just grill him. Tell him I haven't read a ton of his work, but "A lot of people speak highly of you, so I thought I would invite you."
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
I think she's proud of me. I think she's constantly amazed by my life. Like every time I talk to her, she just can't believe the things I do. Because whenever I talk to her, I'm always on my way somewhere. To Japan or Australia or I'm going to go on tour or I'm going to go on TV or something. Or just living in New York. I think my mom thinks I'm a bigger success than I actually am, which is a good facade to keep up.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
My gut reaction, for a kind of bittersweet one, I would go with "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" by Leonard Cohen. For a more upbeat one, I would pick "King of Kings" by Jimmy Cliff. Maybe one after the other.