Whether or not you know what an arpeggiated diminished triad is, you may be glad to know you’ve been playing one—that is, if you’ve played the New Pornographers’ “Electric Version” on Rock Band I. Lovers of pure pop were amazed and impressed when this song made it onto our tracklist. Giddy and harmony-driven, it’s one of the most classic pop tracks in the game, and an especially tough one to sing—Shimmering harmonies like the ones Carl Newman and Neko Case sing don’t come along everyday.
Group mastermind Carl Newman is not only a gifted songwriter—he’s also a Rock Band fan, so he had a few things to say about playing his own song on the game. He also told us a bit about his forthcoming solo album Get Guilty (due out in January), and even dropped some hints about a surprising direction on the next Pornographers album.
Brett Milano: Have you gotten to play your own song yet?
Carl Newman: Yeah, I was pretty happy when I finally got to it. I immediately did it on Expert vocals and got 84%.
CN: Which is pretty good.
BM: Did you try it on guitar as well?
CN: Actually, I've been really into the drums. I guess because a lot of the fun of Rock Band is doing something that you don't normally do and so whenever I'm doing the singing I'm like, "This is boring." It's what I do for a living. But when I get behind the drums I'm like, "This is awesome." I'm always hogging the drums.
BM: I've had a really good time screwing up the drum part on "Electric Version."
CN: It's pretty hard. It's no "Green Tides and High Grass," or whatever it's called.
BM: No, I've gotten through that. I've played all ten minutes of "Green Grass and High Tides" but whatever it is, three minutes and twenty seconds of "Electric Version" always throws me right out.
CN: I have to say, it took me so long to get past the beginner's level on the drums. Actually the one song I remember really throwing me for a loop was the R.E.M. song, "Orange Crush." I don't know why. I came back to it and I could do it, but when I was just starting the game I thought, "How could anybody ever do this?"
BM: The drum part on that one's a little ridiculous.
CN: It is. And then there's the ones that just involve really incessant timing where it's just going "dididididididididi" over and over again for about thirty seconds.
BM: It's the ones with ridiculous kick drum that always kill me.
CN: It's one of those games where, back to the drumming, I feel like I'm becoming a better musician by having just a better understanding of drumming. Because I've never really been a drummer.
BM: That's great.
CN: I put together rhythm parts with a tom and a tambourine and shaker and things like that, but I'm rarely sitting there trying to use three limbs at once.
BM: How do you think the experience of playing a song like yours differs doing it in the game versus doing it in real life?
CN: [laughs] Obviously it's very different. It's like when Kurt, our drummer, sat down and tried to play the drums, he was totally thrown off. Because if you're the person who actually plays the real drum part, you're like "What the hell is it asking me to do here?" And I guess you have the same reaction when you're trying to play the guitar on it. You're like, "This is harder than actually playing the real guitar." Even when everybody's screwing up really badly, it's still sounds like music. It doesn't sound like a real band screwing up badly.
BM: Yeah, true. I don't know if you've seen the boards, but this is one of the most loved and most hated songs in the game. I think a lot of people have a real hard time singing it right.
CN: I kind of figured it would be. Of course, nobody likes to be hated. I just knew - I looked at the song list and ours is just one of the most obscure songs on it. After us you've got OK Go or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or something. And also, it's got a pretty crazy melody line to it. It's a cruel thing to ask your average ten-year-old to sit down and sing "Electric Version." Part of me just thinks that's great, that millions of people all across the world have been literally forced to play our song or sing our song. And they have to, because it's the only way you can get to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Iron Maiden.
BM: By the same token I would hope there's a bunch of people that became fans of the band because of that.
CN: We just played in San Francisco at this little outdoor show and when we started playing "Electric Version" I remember seeing a large group of kids running towards the stage. And I thought, obviously these kids - this is probably the only song of ours they know. Sort of like, "Oh it's that song from Rock Band." It's a strange phenomena. It's kind of like having a hit, but it's kind of not a hit at the same time. I'm definitely thankful for it, and it definitely helped us out a lot.
BM: Great. I never noticed quite how tricky that song was until I saw it within the context of the game. There is maybe a lot of complexity in your writing that a lot of people don't notice because it's pop music.
CN: Well the thing about that song is, I think I'm always trying to reel in the complexity in my songs and that song has such a complex chord progression to it that I didn't even give it a bridge. I thought, "This song is just going to be verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus." Because this has a lot, eight or ten chords in it. So it's basically structured like a very, very simple pop song. But within that structure, it's not that easy. Sometimes I'm playing it live and if I lose track of the chords, it's hard to get back on the track again because they're changing every second.
BM: You gave yourself a lot of vocal things to contend with in that song with all the jumps you make in the high registers and back and all that. Do you like to torture yourself in that way when you're writing melodies?
CN: I guess I used to. I guess I do like to torture myself. I don't really like to sing that way, but it's just that I go where the songs tell me to go, I suppose. I like songs that go into falsettos, like old Kinks songs from the old Village Green Preservation Society era. I love that late '80s lazy falsetto. I think I've always followed that in my own singing. A little known fact is I think that was a song that I wanted Neko to sing, but she wasn't around for whatever reason. I think we had some kind of weird technical screwup when we were recording and Neko had to leave town. So I thought, "Well, I guess I'm singing it."
BM: The main harmony of that is her though, right?
CN: Yes, so it worked out well.
BM: Last Rock Band-related question is, you can create a character to sing a song and you can make your singer look like anything you want. Is there any kind of singer you'd like to see doing this song?
CN: Well, what I've designed my own character is that he's inevitably skinny guy with a large orange afro.
BM: Oh, great.
CN: I guess in tribute to myself, he's pretty tall and skinny and muscular, but always with the big orange afro.
CN: So if they were going to design a bunch of preset characters into the game, I would definitely suggest a tall guy with an orange afro.
BM: Great. So let's talk about the new record you're about to put out. When you do a solo record, how does that stand in the progression of the band? The last New Pornographers album I thought was a bit of a progression from the previous ones, slightly new direction. How does that affect what you're about to do solo-wise?
CN: Whenever I decide to do a solo record, I'm always thinking I've got to something slightly different from the New Pornographers, but I also know that I can't veer too far from the New Pornographers because the New Pornographers is basically my thing. And everything I do will have a certain stamp on it. It's really hard for me to say. I actually think my solo record might be a little more rock than the last Pornographers record was. I think that Challengers was a more conscious effort to put out a mellower record, because I think we put out enough really rock records. Now I can feel myself moving towards the rock again.
BM: I think a few people pointed out that you got married when Challengers was made. Was the more thoughtful or subtle direction a product of that, do you think?
CN: I don't think so. I actually got married after Challengers had been finished for about three months. There's definitely something to be said for being happy. But I don't know if the albums have ever followed my life as any kind of pattern. I think for me, making music is so, the writing of it is so solitary that it doesn't really matter where I am or who I'm with. Obviously things in your life leak into your music. I just approach music conceptually. I just start thinking, "Where's this record going to go? Where are we going to go musically?" I think of it from an academic level more than I'm going to follow my heart on this one. I am writing this Pornographers record right now. I'm just trying to figure out where to go with it.
BM: Any indications thus far?
CN: I'm trying to make it a little more riff rock, but we'll see. In my head, that's what I'm thinking.
BM: That would be great fun to hear you do that.
CN: But my version of what riff rock is, is probably very different. Not like AC/DC or anything, but maybe a little more prog. Maybe a little leaning toward the King Crimson vibe or something like that.
BM: Wow. Well you passed six minutes on the last record. You can probably push that a little further and do the eight or ten minute prog.
CN: But only in the sound. I don't think we're going to go to King Crimson lengths. Just slice it off at about four minutes, I think. Or maybe have the extend-o album people can buy if they want. Three hour version - three hour or the forty-five minute, either one.
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