The New Pornographers: Interview
“Let’s move back towards the rock.”
The New Pornographers are hardly new. The Vancouver supergroup’s awe-inspiring debut, Mass Romantic, was released 10 years ago. They followed with Electric Version and Twin Cinema, before mellowing out. While they’ve remained stable, only adding frontman Carl Newman’s half-niece Kathryn Calder to the mix five years ago, new album Together adds a large number of collaborators, including Annie Clark of St. Vincent and Zach Condon of Beirut. While the sound is invariably New Pornographers, it’s definitely taken up a softer touch.
We caught up with Carl Newman while the band were on tour in Arizona. After being delayed by a haircut, we discussed said haircut, as well as the tour and Together. We also discussed TV Tropes, and the roles of key players in recent years. But most importantly, we looked backed on the record that started it all for them.
How was the haircut?
It was actually really good. It just so happened there was a really great guy across the street from the theater, who was really cool, and it was nice. When you’re on the road, you feel like you’re just falling apart: You don’t shower as much, your facial hair gets out of control, your hair gets out of control. I was beginning to feel like bugs were crawling all over me. So it was nice to feel like a human again.
Yeah. I gotta get a haircut myself. Speaking of the tour, how is that going?
It’s been going great. We’ve been on the West Coast leg of the tour; you know, Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, LA. We just did two nights in LA that were great. Yeah it’s been going really good. Sometimes, you forget when you’re at home, that you’re in a band. You travel around, people see you. I’m always shocked when people show up at a show.
Are Dan Bejar and/or Neko Case on this tour?
They are with us. Which is cool, because it doesn’t happen all the time. It’s also strange because, when we’re making a set list, suddenly all these songs which we usually wouldn’t do because they weren’t with us are on the setlist now. We got this massive collection of songs to work with, and we have no idea which ones we should play.
That’s cool. I know that, in particular with Dan Bejar, after Twin Cinema, he seemed like he was doing a lot less touring with you guys.
He does even less with Destroyer. He doesn’t like touring in general.
Now, given that you had a lot of collaborators on Together, does it feel more or less empty not having those collaborators on tour?
Not really, because they were all sort of brought in, in a very last-minute sort of way. We were working in New York, and there were a few things that the songs needed. We were lucky. For example, the song “My Shepherd” really needed a guitar solo, so I thought, let’s call up Annie from St. Vincent. Luckily enough, she was available, and she came in the next day and did it. And then there was a song that needed trumpet, so we called Zach Condon, and he came in a couple days later. It was really cool, but it wasn’t like we were sitting with them jamming through the songs from the beginning. There’s enough of us in the band, so we can usually fill it all in.
Let’s go into Together briefly. What seemed different for you, going into this, besides what we just discussed?
I think our records are getting progressively more mellow. I thought Challengers was about as mellow as were going to get. Then I thought, “Let’s move back towards the rock.” I wanted to have a few more songs that were more riff-rock. So we have songs like “Moves” or “Your Hands (Together),” where you’re writing a song that sounds like you, yet you end up trying to be yourself in a slightly different way. That was the one thing I remember going into this record, that I wanted it to be more rock. But I realize that we have a certain kind of style, we have a certain sound, and it’s hard to fight it. We come out the other side, and it sounds like The New Pornographers.
“I would sing some of Dan’s songs and Kurt would sing some of Dan’s songs. No one ever said anything. But as soon as he started playing with us on Twin Cinema and onward, people saw what it was like with Dan playing, and they started asking ‘Where’s Dan?’”
I actually noticed that mellowness. It made me think of this mid-to-late ’70s vibe, kind of like Fleetwood Mac. Did any of the bands from then give you some inspiration writing this album?
We’ve always loved Fleetwood Mac. Especially Tusk. From the very beginning, in our first show, we did a Fleetwood Mac cover. The song was called “Walk a Thin Line” from Tusk. We used to cover that a lot in the first couple years of our existence. Tusk was always an influence to us, and it was always with us. It is just that, in the beginning, we were a lot more angular and spazzy. As the years have gone by, we started sounding more and more like Fleetwood Mac. It got to the point that, I was concerned that with the song “Challengers,” people would point out how much of a Fleetwood Mac ripoff it was. But nobody did. Still, that kind of thing stays with us. We love that kind of music. And I know that, because we made our name being this really, really upbeat, energetic band, people want you to stay the way they remember. Yet we couldn’t help but move on from that, doing things that we wanted to do. Some of those things turned out to be mid-tempo.
You bring up an interesting point about that time period that I want to bring up later. But going back to that mellowness, do you think that was a natural progression because you’ve been together for so long?
Do you mean because we’re getting old? (laughs)
Well, I don’t mean it like that, but…
Yeah, I think so. It happens to most bands. I think that’s what you want them to do. Does everyone want us to make Mass Romantic over and over again? Or, for that matter, Twin Cinema over and over again? Hopefully, you want your band to move into different directions, so that they’re always interesting. Sometimes, I think you settle in and become more confident in what you do, and become less afraid of letting a song be a little bit more barren than it was. It’s a little bit more dangerous when you starting moving into slower, mid-tempo songs, because there is more of a craft to it than just barreling through an upbeat pop song.
It’s interesting that you refer to playing Twin Cinema and Mass Romantic again without mentioning Electric Version among them, especially because a lot of people seem to favor that album. I mean, the other night, I was on TV Tropes, and on your page, they refer to the “Crowning Music of Awesome” as being “by most accounts, Electric Version.”
You know, that’s funny, because I personally don’t think that. It’s hard for me to say, because I like all of our records, but Electric Version doesn’t jump to me as our best album. If someone said, “I think Twin Cinema is your best album,” I’d go, “Yeah, OK, maybe I can go for that, sure.” But I’m no judge [of] our music, I have no context to judge it. It’s too subjective, and I’ll hear things that other people don’t. Sometimes, though, it makes me worried that I’m unable to really judge my own music. It makes me wonder, am I going to be one of those people that starts to really suck but don’t know that they suck? I mean, have you ever thought that about bands? Bands that you love, all of a sudden putting out terrible records and you thought, “You’re capable of making genius records, why are you making bad records? Don’t you know how?”
There’s usually a reason why for that, though, sometimes. Like for example, it might be because they got an entirely new producer or something, and it makes you go “Huh. That changes a lot of things.” I’ve seen a couple bands simply do that on the producer alone. It’s quite impressive what producers can do.
Of course, it’s true. A record like Z by My Morning Jacket. That was produced by John Leckie. Of course, people loved that and thought, “what an amazing reinvention.” That was a record that took them to the next level. But I’ve read interviews with Jim James where he says, “I don’t know if I was that into what he did.” Maybe I’m completely misreading what I read, but I got the vibe that John Leckie had a big influence on that record. And there’s an instance where the producer had an influence on the record, and it was a really good thing. It helped the band advance with something different.
But yeah, sometimes having a producer can really backfire. I’ve never really wanted to go to a big outside producer because it’s a scary leap. We did our first three records with John [Collins, instrumentalist]. It was just mainly me and John, and then Kurt [Dahle, drummer]. There was a lot of internal production. Then, for the last two records, our friend Phil [Palozzo], who was our sound guy from 2005, we brought him in. We had a very similar aesthetic, and we worked together well, so it seemed like a logical progression. But I’d feel weird if we suddenly decided to use Dave Fridmann to record a record. Even though I love his production style, I’d be worried. What will this do to our band? What will this do to our sound? I’m fascinated by the idea. Even using someone like Danger Mouse. It’d be amazing if the new record was done by Danger Mouse. But it’d be a leap of faith.
“I mean, have you ever thought that about bands? Bands that you love, all of a sudden putting out terrible records and you thought, ‘You’re capable of making genius records, why are you making bad records? Don’t you know how?’”
Getting back to Dan Bejar not touring as much. I started to notice with Twin Cinema onward, his presence isn’t really felt outside of his own songs, and I feel that’s especially the case with Together. What brought about this? Was it Dan’s decision to scale back?
He isn’t less involved. On the first record, when we were all living in Vancouver together and we were just screwing around, there was a lot more of that. He sang back-up on my songs. Honestly, I don’t think he did that on any record other than Mass Romantic. I don’t think he really is scaling back involvement. He’s actually toured a lot more with us in the last 5 years than in the first 5 years. It wasn’t until the Twin Cinema tour that people even knew what he looked like. When we first started touring for Mass Romantic and Electric Version, I was worried because I always thought, aren’t people going to wonder where Dan is? I would sing some of Dan’s songs and Kurt would sing some of Dan’s songs. No one ever said anything. But as soon as he started playing with us on Twin Cinema and onward, people saw what it was like with Dan playing, and they started asking “Where’s Dan?” It was a little annoying, because we wanted to yell back, they never asked that 5 years ago. If anything, it’s just the way our band has changed. We don’t live in the same city anymore.
But really, there was a lot of interplay on this record. When we were mixing it for two weeks, Dan was there. We were doing a lot of stuff like winging it as we go. Like, we’d be mixing it and thinking “Let’s do some Queen vocals here,” and Dan would go, “Yeah let’s do that.” Then Katherine [Calder, keyboardist] and I would go in and do 10 tracks of swelling vocals. As a result, there [are these] swelling Queen-style vocals in “Silver Jenny Dollar,” right before the chorus. There is still a lot of creative interplay between all of us, which is good.
Kathryn Calder, your half-niece, has been involved with the band since 2005. What can you say about her development over the past 5 years?
She’s definitely grown into her own. At the same time, I was totally impressed by the way she just jumped in. For example, she did a show with us back in June 2005, a couple months before Twin Cinema came out, in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Initially, we turned it down because Neko couldn’t do it. We went back and said we couldn’t do it because of that, and the promoter said, “I don’t care if Neko can’t play. Can The New Pornographers play?”
We said, “Shit, no one’s ever said that to us before.” Katharine had just played and sung on the record, and we thought, “Why don’t we do some shows and have Katharine be lead singer?” So, we did that show, a free show in front of 10,000 people in Prospect Park, and I think it was Katharine’s second or third show with us. I was really impressed with the way she handled it all. Now she’s become a pretty indispensable part of the band. She plays a lot of instruments for us and such. When Neko’s there, we still need her on vocals.
Well, with that in mind, do you think Neko’s role has diminished as a result?
No, not at all. People always ask the question, “Neko’s become so popular. Does that make her less involved?” I think the answer is, because she is so popular, it gives her more time to be involved in the band. Ten years ago, Neko had to tour constantly because she wasn’t making much money. She had to tour constantly to make a living, and therefore it was hard for us to get her to tour with us. But now, she is incredibly popular, and she doesn’t have to tour as much. It frees her up to tour with us. Also, I think Neko really enjoys playing with us, because it’s a sort of “busman’s holiday” away from her own career, where she’s still playing music and having fun, but doesn’t have the pressure of worrying about the career of Neko Case. She can just be a member of a rock ‘n’ roll band, and I think she likes that.
That is an interesting juxtaposition. I was thinking it was more in parallel to Leslie Feist, who has become extremely popular in the past few years…
Oh, there’s definitely some Broken Social Scene-New Pornographers parallels here. Seriously, the Canadian mega-group with the female lead singer who has a wildly successful solo career? (laughs) You know what’s funny about that? People have always liked to write about trouble within the band. Like, somebody will see a bad show and Neko seems annoyed with something on-stage, and then they’ll write about it and say, “Oh, Neko looks like she hates being in the band. Are they about to break up?” People also like to talk about how she’s about to quit at just about any moment. No one ever said that about Feist and Broken Social Scene, and yet, look what happened there. Still, it is interesting what the parallels are between both bands.
You dedicated Together to Katharine’s late mother. How did that figure in to the album’s development?
It’s hard to say because, we had a bunch of bed tracks in already, and then she had died a couple months later. It’s a tough question. It definitely put a cloud over making the record, but it was important for us to work on it. Even just to distract away all the sadness from it.
“So we have songs like “Moves” or “Your Hands (Together),” where you’re writing a song that sounds like you, yet you end up trying to be yourself in a slightly different way.”
November marks the 10-year anniversary of Mass Romantic. How do you feel about this album, looking back on it now?
I’m very proud of it. So much time has passed, and I don’t remember making it. We were relearning the song “To Wild Homes” because we hadn’t played it in years, yet some fan requested it. I was listening to it, and I thought, “Shit, this is really good. I’d forgotten!” Also, it changed my life. That record basically changed everything for me. It gave me a career, and so many of the things since came from that record. We ended up on Matador, and my wife was the marketing manager at Matador. That’s how I met her. Were it not for that record, I think my life as I know it would be gone. I owe a lot to Mass Romantic.
It’s funny you say that. Mass Romantic, when I got it 5 years ago, changed my life too. Especially given that time period in my life, it had a significant effect in how I viewed everything from that point forward. Just as well, hearing something so upbeat and energetic restored my faith in pop music.
Well that’s good. Thank you.
So I was very pleased when about a month ago, a record store I went to had two copies of the original Mint Records version of Mass Romantic. And I was amazed at how different it was from the Matador remaster. For example, “The Mary Martin Show” sounded completely different to me.
You mean you can’t hear the sax in the Mint version, or the sax was louder?
Actually, I think the sax was incredibly soft in the Matador version, if it was there at all. When I heard it in the Mint version, I was like, “That’s something I haven’t heard before. Where did that come from?”
That’s funny, I’ll have to compare those. I keep forgetting that was the thing, that Matador remastered it. I guess that’s the only collectible version of Mass Romantic. Because all of our records have never been out of print, none of our records are very collectible. There are a hundred thousand copies of them. Of course, I recently noticed on eBay, the Mint vinyl version of Mass Romantic was selling for a decent amount of money. I thought, “Well, that makes sense: It’s a first-edition vinyl, it’s a different mastering job than almost everybody has.” If you’re going to be a completist, it makes sense to have that. When you say that, it makes me want to go back, because I never compared the two versions very much. It’s like mono Sgt. Pepper versus stereo Sgt. Pepper.
That said, if you were to revisit Mass Romantic, would you change much from it?
I don’t know, that’s tough. I might have made “Letter from an Occupant” a few BPMs faster. That’s the only thing that ever seems weird when you’re going back to a record, because inevitably when you start playing songs live, you start speeding them up. So there’s this live version, and then you go back to the record, and you think, “God, this is so slow!” But that’s about it. I’m sure there’s always some little detail I’d go back and change. But also, I look back at Mass Romantic and think, why fuck with it? It is what it is. Maybe it has some flaws, but maybe those flaws are what made it unique.