A.C. Newman's 'The Slow Wonder' Turns 20: The Understated Masterpiece of the Canadian Indie Boom

The New Pornographers leader came off tour, got a grant and had his "zeitgeist" moment

Photo: Karin Bubas

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jun 6, 2024

In the aughts, the Canadian indie world abounded with maximalist collectives: Broken Social Scene in Toronto, Arcade Fire in Montreal, Hey Rosetta! on the East Coast, and the New Pornographers out West.

Into this fray came the humble solo debut from New Pornographers leader A.C. Newman on June 8, 2004. Miles away from its anthemic contemporaries, The Slow Wonder was a streamlined pop rock record, its succinct songs packed with knotty rhythms and graceful acoustic melancholia.

It came out in the midst of the New Pornographers' most prolific period — a year after 2003's giddy Electric Version and a year before 2005's definitive Twin Cinema. At times, The Slow Wonder doesn't sound all that different from the music Newman was writing for the New Pornographers. Boppy power pop opener "Miracle Drug" could have been transplanted onto Electric Version without seeming out of place; the same goes for hard-charging late-album highlight "The Town Halo," if only its scorching riff had been played on a guitar instead of a cello.

But the album also opened a new chapter for Newman, who was able to tap into a softer side of his songwriting than had previously been possible with the Pornographers. "Drink to Me, Babe, Then" is a quirky country-tinged number, its simple acoustic strumming pulled off kilter by cascading toms and a rickety soundscape of seasick slide guitar, melodica and whistling. "Come Crash" and "The Cloud Prayer" are plaintive ballads, their tender baroque instrumentation complementing uncharacteristically emotional sentiments: "I should be sleeping in your bed / Instead, I'll crash on your floor" in the former, "You don't think that I tried for you / I went into disguise for you / So, of course, almost no one knew" in the latter.

The Slow Wonder changed the course of the New Pornographers' catalogue, its positive reception showing Newman that critics and listeners were open to his more stripped-down and experimental tendencies.

With the album turning 20, Exclaim! caught up with Newman to discuss being included in The O.C. and Gilmore Girls, putting aside his solo project in order to better support his family, and his bewilderment at me telling him The Slow Wonder is my favourite album of all time. He also sheds light on his latest project, which likely will be under a new name and not part of either the New Pornographers or A.C. Newman.

How does it feel looking back on The Slow Wonder now, 20 years later?

I was just listening to it in the car because I was thinking about this interview, and I was thinking about all the songs on the record. I was going through my head. And then I got to the song "35 in the Shade," and I thought, "How does that song go?" So I put it on. I was like, "Oh yeah, okay. It's got this rumbling-drums-and-piano thing. Okay, right." But then the choruses hit, and it kind of stops and goes into this Vince Guaraldi piano thing. I kind of surprised myself. It's been so long since I've heard it — it was like I was just a person hearing it. I had forgotten that I wrote it. I'm finally at a point where I can appreciate what I was trying to do a little bit more.

And then I put on Get Guilty, the next one, and it made me remember what I was trying to do. I was like, 'Oh right, I was trying to do this weird junkyard band kind of thing. Time made me appreciate my past self a little bit more. Sometimes, when a record is too close to you, there's too many things that affect your judgment of it. Your judgment becomes clouded by, like, "How many records did it sell?" Or, "What were the reviews like?" It takes a long time before you can just put it on and appreciate it for what it is. It's just there. You don't you don't remember what people said. You don't remember what it sold. You don't remember who you were when you made it. You don't remember writing the songs. It's nice to get to that point.

The Slow Wonder came out in 2004, which was one year after Electric Version and one year before Twin Cinema. Why did you make a solo album at that point in your career?

When I was writing Electric Version, I had an idea in my mind of what the Pornographers should be, and any song I was writing that I didn't think was a Pornographers song, I just made a list of other songs. And then, eventually, I had a list of 10 or 11 songs. I'd never tried to get a FACTOR grant. How can I put this — in grant situations, I knew that it was not always the most deserving person that gets it. You hear about Sarah McLachlan getting FACTOR grants, so I thought to myself, "I'm popular now because of the Pornographers. And because I'm in the Pornographers, that's my foot in the door. I'm probably likely to get a FACTOR grant." So I filled it out and said, "Hey, I'm the guy for the New Pornographers. Look at me." I was very happy that I got whatever it was called, the independent grant. It was for people who didn't have a label, which I technically didn't. I think it was $18,000.

Before that, Neko [Case] had said — I think The Tigers Have Spoken, her record, was coming out in 2004. So she basically said, "I can't do anything in 2004." So there was that frustration of: you're in this band and you finally got some momentum. The Electric Version tour was so great. We did Letterman and absolutely everything was exciting. It's like, "Holy shit! We're on our way up!" And then knowing at the end of that, that the spigot was gonna be turned off. "Nope, no more for you."

Literally a week after we finished touring Electric Version, I went home. I knew I had the grant, and so I got some friends together and I said, "Let's start working on these new songs." I think we finished touring Electric Version maybe in September, and I remember getting it into my head that I wanted to finish the [solo] album and give it to Matador before Christmas break. I figured out when they stopped working, it was like December 19 or December 20. And I thought, "I gotta finish this record and just give it to them." I don't know what I was hoping for, but I did it. I got it in under the wire. I finished the record and sent it to them. I didn't know if they would want to put it out, but I thought, "Well, I gotta try." It was interesting to do something with zero expectations.

It's funny that you thought these songs couldn't be New Pornographers songs. With where the Pornographers went after this, they absolutely could have been.

It changed my approach to what the Pornographers should be. I put out The Slow Wonder and I thought, after that was done, maybe anything goes. Maybe I shouldn't worry about what I think is a Pornographers song. So then Twin Cinema had songs like "Bones of an Idol" or "These Are the Fables," or kind of weirder songs like "Falling Through Your Clothes." And that was because I got a lot of positive feedback from Slow Wonder. I was moving out in another direction, and people were like, "Yeah, we like this too." I thought, "This is this is a good lesson. Just do whatever the hell you want." And then I realized: don't worry about chasing a fan base, chasing a market or an audience. Just do what you feel like doing, because that's the only thing that's ever worked.

It was like you took the electric guitars and synthesizers of the New Pornographers and turned them into EBows and cellos and melodicas and pianos.

The song on my record that I go back to and feel the proudest of is "Come Crash," because that's the one where I felt like I was really moving out into something different. That was my attempt to do something closer to orchestral pop, which is something I really loved, and I felt like, "Okay, this works. If people are cool with me doing stuff like this, then alright."

"On the Table" was in The O.C. What did you think about being in that show at that time?

It was nice to think that I was part of the zeitgeist. This is the hot new show, and they're using a lot of new indie music, and I was part of that. And also I was starting to make money. It felt like winning a series of little lotteries. We didn't even have any kind of management at the time. We were totally DIY. Somebody from The O.C. called the label, and the label called me was like, "They want to license the song and you'll get $12,000." It was even better than that, because I would get everything on the publishing side, and I would get half of what was on the master side. So it felt like, "Wow. Yes, of course, I want this free money. Yes, I'll take it all."

This is a slight tangent, but one of my wife's co-workers came up to me and she said, "I was rewatching Gilmore Girls and one of them mentioned how much they liked the New Pornographers." She said, "I had to rewind it. Like, 'Did I did I hear that?'" We were licensed by Gilmore Girls, but we also got name-checked a few times as a band that the teenage girls liked. And that was another thing where I thought, "Cool. We're in that zeitgeist." And even now, we have our little place. We're the band that gets occasionally mentioned when somebody's watching reruns of Gilmore Girls.

One thing that really stands out about The Slow Wonder is that the drumming is pretty unusual. Can you tell me a bit about how the drums were written?

Which songs feel like unusual drumming?

I would think a song like "Drink to Me, Babe, Then" would have snares on the two and the four, but it doesn't. It's just toms.

I still love that stuff! I'm still fighting the snare. As I get older, I don't even want a full drum kit anymore, because you don't always need it. The one drum thing that jumps out is the song "Most of Us Prizefighters." [Producer John Collins] and I were recording MIDI keyboards, but then the computer crashed. And then there was a MIDI glitch where, instead of a keyboard, the sound got changed from a keyboard to a drum. So basically, a keyboard part started getting played by a MIDI drum. If you listen to "Most of Us Prizefighters," there are two beats. There's a live drumbeat, but then there's this weird syncopated tom, which was just a happy accident.

Maybe this is a weird thing to hear about a 20-year-old album, and if so I'm sorry, but I've frequently cited this as my favourite album of all time.

Really?! Well, thank you. So what's your second favourite record, then? You've gotta give me some context.

You're going to think it's really stupid if I say it's Pet Sounds, but it's probably Pet Sounds.

That's crazy. I don't know what to do with that. The reason I brought that up is because I remember, years ago, somebody coming up to me, I think it was on a Zumpano tour, and he said, "You guys are my favourite band! You and Phish." I remember thinking, 'Wow, that compliment just immediately turned into insult." Nothing against Phish — they're great. But at the time I was like, "That's what you think we sound like!?"

This happens, through the years. Not a massive amount, but I'll meet somebody and they'll go, "You're A.C. Newman. I love The Slow Wonder." One fond memory I have is that my old bandmate Mike Ledwidge from Zumpano saying to me, "This record is really great. This is what you should be doing." It meant a lot from him, because we were ex-bandmates and we had been through the shit of being in a band that breaks up [and had] a lot of arguments. He thought, more than the Pornographers, this is you. This [is] the music you should be making.

In light of a compliment like that — does this feel like a definitive work to you, or is it just another album in a career full of them?

I haven't thought about it much, but I looked at the tracklisting last week. I went through all the songs on it, and I was like, "This is a great record." I was going through it song by song. For what it is, it feels like it's pretty solid from beginning to end. Even albums you love, whether they're records I made myself or somebody else made, there's usually a few songs that you can live without. There's always songs like, "Oh my god, what was I thinking when we did this?" If you find a record where you absolutely love five of the songs, then don't like the other five, you don't think, "Oh, it's an okay record." If you love those five songs, you think it's a brilliant record.

It's the beauty of an 11-song, 33-minute record.

I think people were making kind of shorter records. I think the Shins' Chutes Too Narrow was only 35 minutes. It was a time of shorter records. So I thought, "All I need to make is like a 30, 35-minute record. Now we're in the age where a 75-minute album isn't even unusual. Every Lana Del Rey record is over 75 minutes. Or, to take it way into the present, the Cindy Lee record, which is like two hours long.

And the Cindy Lee album is so good, too.

I haven't listened to it all the way through yet, but I really like what I've heard. I love the DIY story of that. I realize that very few people get get to experience it like that, where all you do is put your album out as mail-order WAV files or a YouTube post, and it gets all this massive acclaim from all over. That's such a rare thing. It's inspiring, because I feel like it's what I have to do now, to a certain degree. I'm working on a bunch of music right now, and I don't know if it's the New Pornographers, but I'm not sure that it's A.C. Newman. I don't know what to call it. I'm thinking to myself: where will this go? What's the best way to release an album that you don't have big expectations for? The Pornographers have to put out records in a certain way; they have to have a rollout. If we do what Cindy Lee did, our record would probably get less attention than Cindy Lee. What is what is a good way to be DIY? It's ultimately the best of times and the worst of times. It's easy to reach people through the internet, but also very difficult to reach people, because the internet is so huge. You are just a drop of water in the ocean.

It's been 12 years since your last solo album, Shut Down the Streets, and 11 since your score for The F Word. Why did you decide to set aside your solo career?

There's going to be something else — I just don't know if it's going to be called A.C. Newman. I'm not sure I want the baggage of the name. Maybe put out of a project like Purple Mountains. Not that it's going to sound like Purple Mountains. But David Berman could have called it a Silver Jews record. If you listen to it, it's like, "How is this different from a Silver Jews record?" But he decided to call it Purple Mountains. I think it could be something like that. And whatever I call it, I would just have to make sure that people know this is me; file it under "N" if you want. It's probably going to have a big sticker that says, "This is the project by the New Pornographers' A.C. Newman."

But really, I think the reason I stopped was essentially because I put out Shut Down the Streets and it didn't do that well. I went on tour and the tour didn't do that well. My son was nine months old at the time, and it made me kind of worried — like, "You have a family to support. Maybe you should pour everything you have into the band." Brill Bruisers was the next record, and I still think it's our best record and one of the best things I did, and I was just going into it all guns a-blazing. I felt like I had something to prove. Like I said, I got a family to support. I gotta fucking do this.

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