This week, the New Pornographers will release their fifth album, Together, which finds the Canadian-American power-pop group (featuring frontman A.C. Newman and indie heartbreaker Neko Case) cranking out some of their best songs: nerdy AM gold with a mix of Anglophile harmonies, strings and Hollies-esque melodies. To celebrate the release, we asked Newman to take over the RS blog to write about the new album and songs that have inspired him over the years. Check back each of the next five days to track his progress, and read his first post, about the inspiration for the Pornographers' heavy, Black Sabbath-esque single "Your Hands (Together)":
When you've been writing songs for a long time, you find that you have a style whether you want to have a style or not. There is a certain kind of song that you write. You just have to accept it.
When we first began practicing the song that would become "Your Hands (Together)" last year, it was what I call a "New Pornographers Shuffle," which is a variant on "The Kansas City Shuffle." "The Kansas City Shuffle" is a term that our drummer Kurt Dahle taught me. When we recorded the song "Mass Romantic," Kurt used a variation of the shuffle beat from the song "Kansas City," a beat that Bun E. Carlos used quite a few times in classic Cheap Trick. When Kurt, John and I first fell into "YHT," we naturally went for the shuffle. That's our natural tendency as a band. We shuffle.
The initial GarageBand demo that I brought in was built around the internal guitar effect called Big Wheels, a really driving tremolo effect. When I played the chords through that effect, it reminded me of the song "Sister Hell" by Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, another tremolo-driven song. Because of that, the working title became "Sort of Like Sister Hell." No one ever asked why the song had such a bizarre title. It got changed by someone to "Sister L" some time later. I didn't question it. It's a working title.
After a few days of rehearsing the song, the tremolo disappeared. The guitar that was mimicking the tremolo effect inadvertently fell into the shuffle and I decided that I didn't want the song to be another shuffle. The trick was to figure out where to go with it.
I sat at home and played around with the song. One arrangement that seemed to work, at least in my head and on acoustic guitar, was to take the feel of "Waterloo" by Abba. When we tried to do this, somehow it began to sound like "Christine" by Siouxsie and the Banshees. This amused us so much that we actively started trying to sound like "Christine." We soon got bored of that. The next idea was to make it sound like "What Difference Does It Make?" by the Smiths. Soon I realized that the chords were eerily similar to the Smiths song. Maybe we'd go in yet another direction. At that point I gave up. Fuck it, I thought, we'll work on something else.
A few weeks later, a few days before we were going to record bed tracks, I had another idea. I kept it to myself until we were in the studio. We had tracked everything else and still had some extra time. I brought up the song and told them that it might be a crazy idea but I wanted to try doing the song in the style of "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath. We fell into it almost immediately, as if John, Todd, and Kurt had been waiting for the moment to unleash the rock. It still had the hint of shuffle in there, it still sounded like us, but it suddenly had this ridiculous rock edge. When we got to the chorus, it just seemed natural to go into an old Iron Maiden-style metal gallop. We were very happy with it. We knocked it out fairly quickly. The big challenge was for everybody to stop at the same time.
We laid down all the guitars shortly afterward and I did not think about it for a long time. Was this song too rock? Did it sound like something that we would do? We pretty much finished the entire album before we came back to it. I had nearly forgotten about it. When I listened to an early rough mix, I was shocked at how much I liked it. I had that perspective or objectivity that you get when you step away from a song and forget that you wrote it. It's not like I thought it was "Like a Rolling Stone" or anything, but it really did rock. Full marks for rocking. It was enough for me. It made the cut.