New Pornographers’ Carl Newman Can’t Define Power-Pop

But he’s picked five of his favorite power-pop songs for us anyway.

As the de facto leader of supergroup The New Pornographers, Carl Newman has been tagged as a power-pop purveyor for many years. He doesn’t exactly understand the genre, nor does he necessarily consider himself part of it. But the recent publication of Go All The Way: A Literary Appreciation For Power Pop had him thinking about it, and when he began tweeting about power-pop, we asked him to talk about it, and make a short list of songs for us. 

This is all perfectly timed with a funny “competition” that the New Pornographers have launched, a 32-song bracket-style vote to determine their best song. (As voted by fans.) They’re down to eight now, and you can vote here.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

I’ve always tried to distance myself from being a power-pop band, mainly because I don’t even know what it is. I’ve read about people who like power-pop and I think I’ve gleaned what they think it is. Big Star and Cheap Trick are power-pop, apparently, and I love them! If you think we sound like Big Star and Cheap Trick, that’s good! 

But yet Cheap Trick have classics that were hits! “Surrender” is a classic. I feel like I had this conversation with a friend years ago, and my argument was that if we’re power-pop, then how come we’re popular? Who am I to say? It’s a shadowy definition. The Knack and the Records and the Shoes — if somebody says power-pop, those names come up. Or Tommy Keene. Or Dwight Twilley. Having known enough nerdy power-pop guys in my life… Oh and Todd Rundgren! It’s always the guys that are obsessed with Todd Rundgren. By most definitions of power-pop, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are power-pop. The Who and the Kinks are power-pop! So what is the line between classic rock and power-pop? Is power-pop just unpopular classic rock? I don’t know. 

Big Star, “Life is White”

I have this very clear memory of being in high school and air-guitaring to that song in my room, and my mom walking in, and feeling so mortified. “Oh no, my mom caught me air-guitaring to Big Star!” That song will always be special to me for that reason. Is it the most classic example of power-pop there is? I don’t know. Maybe? It’s got a great stomp to it. Obviously it’s got a great melody. I just love the way it moves. [Sings: “Don’t want to see your face, don’t wanna hear you talk at all!”] Who invented that feel? The bands just really hitting hard on the one and the three? It’s sort of a slow tempo. It rocks but it has a laid-back tempo. It’s kind of like “Benny and the Jets” a little bit.

Cheap Trick, “Come On Come On”

I probably should’ve put “Surrender” in there, but “Come On Come On” is a song I liked just as much as a kid. I was obsessed with Live At Budokan when I was 12-years-old. I just absolutely loved that song, and I was happy to find out that they’re a power-pop band, because I love them. What can you say about Cheap Trick? One of the greatest rhythm sections in rock history, for sure. One of the great singers. One of the great guitar player/songwriters. They’ve got the whole thing. They’ve got it all down. And they invented the “two hot guys and two weirdoes” formula, which is pretty brilliant.

Redd Kross, “Ballad of a Love Doll” (Neurotica version)

I was obsessed with them when I saw them when I was 19. It really was a life-changing concert. They have this almost religious devotion to fun and rocking and pop culture. They took all these very trashy ‘70s touchstones and made them so cool. I’ll always love them, they’re one of my all-time favorite bands. Jeff McDonald, killer voice and a great songwriter. Steve McDonald, an amazing bassist and producer and rock ‘n’ roll presence. They’ve run the gamut in their career. Start at the first EP and then fast-forward to Third Eye, they barely sound like the same band. And then I think in the last 10 years they’ve gone back to a more garage-rock attack.

The Someloves, “Don’t Talk About Us”

They’re an Australian band. The main guy used to be in a band called the Stems, who were relatively popular in Australia. It was just a seven-inch I bought. When I was around 19 or 20, I was really into reading magazines like The Bob, Bucketfull Of Brains, and finding out what the cool underground music coming out of Europe and Australia was. When I say underground, I mean under the underground. Not Hoodoo Gurus. I would search out singles by bands, and I found that single, The Someloves, and I remember absolutely loving it. When people starting writing on Twitter about power-pop, I started cycling through my head, “What is a really good power-pop song?” I asked people what they thought, but what do I think? That song popped into my head. And I listened to it and I had remembered it correctly. It’s a great, great song.

The Posies, “My Big Mouth”

My first band, Zumpano, used to play with the Posies a bunch, so I knew those guys a bit. It’s just a great song. Their sound was just not right for that time. I think that record came out in like 1990 or 1991, so here’s this band, they get signed to a major label but they have nothing to do with grunge. They’re just these two guys who loved writing tuneful pop songs. I just love the way that song moves. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s a cool song.

When I made this list, I told myself that it wasn’t going to be, “What are the five best songs?” I wanted it to be the songs that popped into my head, and not overthink it. I think it’s a good thing when a song reminds you of something else, but you can’t figure out what. When people say that about us, I feel like we’re doing it right. Like, “You remind me of something, but I don’t know what.” I think that’s a good sign. All my favorite bands I’ve had that reaction. When I first heard the Pixies, I thought, “What does this remind me of? I can’t describe it!”

As told to Josh Modell.

(Photo Credit: left, Ebru Yidliz)

Carl Newman is the frontman of the New Pornographers. The band is set to release a special 7” record for Record Store Day Black Friday on November 29. The band’s highly anticipated new full length albumIn The Morse Code Of Brake Lights is out now via Collected Works Records