Carl Newman Says the New Pornographers’ Longevity ‘Seems Crazy': Exclusive Interview
Every New Pornographers album is a gift, a sweet, sublime set of perfect indie rock.
Each year, the outside projects of members Neko Case, Dan Bejar, Todd Fancey, and Kathryn Calder gather more devotees (Case is arguably more famous than the New Pornographers). But since the tremendous debut Mass Romantic in 2000, the Canadian band has kept working together. Well, most of the band.
For the first time, Bejar sits out a New Pornographers LP while he works on another Destroyer record. And they have a new drummer, with Joe Seiders replacing Kurt Dahle after 2014's Brill Bruisers. Yet, somehow, their new disc Whiteout Conditions is as great as any previous effort. Band leader Carl Newman explains his process and talks about lengthy tours, artistic longevity and how Bejar’s absence changed -- and didn’t change -- the sound.
From the kick off in Los Angeles on April 12 to the closing show on May 18 in Paris, you have a pretty ambitious spring calendar, were you surprised to see this many dates line up for the Whiteout Conditions tour?
Initially we were going to do the West Coast separately from the rest of the country, then the two legs got squished together and then it turned out it made sense to go straight to Europe. It’s strange to be that person that goes, “Oh, I don’t want to go to Europe. I’ve been gone for four weeks, I don’t want to go to Paris.” Sometimes I have to recognize the absurdity of it.
Right, you’re seeing places most people never get to see and you’re doing it while playing rock ‘n’ roll.
That’s right. I remember one time, right before an Australian tour, I was thinking, “Uh, I don’t want to go to Australia.” And then immediately I thought how completely ridiculous that thought was. Most people would jumping up and down for joy at the chance to see Australia. But at some point you’ve been on the road so long you dream about being home and just watching TV.
By now you have to look back and say, “I’ve been doing this a really long time.” With so many members, so many other projects, you have kept the band going. How?
That really struck me with this album. When I started doing the math I was like, “Holy s---, it’s been over 15 years since we started this.” That seems crazy to me. Years start compressing and you think, “No, that record couldn’t be 10 years old, no way.” But it all makes sense when I look at it all it seems like all the events add up to about 15 years worth of life. I moved to New York, I got married, I have a five-year-old son, I put out a few records. Yeah, it seems about right.
In my mind, it’s nice for you to have Dan to lean back on and help fill an album. With Dan off doing the next Destroyer record, was there a moment when you said, “Damn, this is going to be a little bit harder?”
I chose to look at it as an opportunity to do something different. His absence freed it up in my head so I could make the record as different from the past stuff as I wanted. Another positive spin was that I could make the record as focused as possible. Ultimately, I think if Dan would have been on the record it would be the same thing but with three Dan songs. The way the band works is I’ll be in the studio working on Dan’s songs but Dan isn’t in the studio working on my songs, so from my perspective my songs would be the same.
It also sounds like you and Dan were going in different sonic directions over the last few years.
I talked to Dan about the kind of record we wanted to make, which is essentially the record we made. He told me had been writing a lot of weird quiet songs and he couldn’t think of a song that would fit with mine. It’s weird because there’s such a lack of drama. It just didn’t work out.
This is the first album since the debut that starts with Neko’s vocals. I like that she’s right up front. I always figured she’d either leave or want to contribute some songwriting, but that has never happened.
Because she has her whole own career I don’t think she feels like she needs a creative outlet in this band. Also, she’s not insanely prolific. She’s not the type of person to say, “Hey, here are five songs, maybe you want to do one of these on the new record.” So I think she’s very happy to just be in a band where she can just be a member. And it’s very easy. She can come in for a few days then go away for a month, then come in again for a couple more days and leave again.
I wonder if you ever envy her and her ability to cruise in and sing a couple songs and then take off for a while.
I’ve never thought of that way. Hmm.
Maybe you like the heavy lifting of always being in the studio working arrangements out?
It’s one of those things where I love it and I hate it. You don’t want to do it but you don’t trust anyone else to do it. Like any creative thing, if you want it to be what you want it to be you need to sit down and do the work. Not that it’s just me doing the work. I always want as much help as possible.
But you have to be there for every moment?
Right. Whenever I read about other artists or any people who do creative things it’s nice to know that they all find it so difficult. You’ll never find anybody who is really good at what they do who says, “Oh, yes, this is all so easy for me.” You’ll always find people going, “Sometimes it’s torture doing this.” But you do it because you love it.
I love these songs on the album that seem like dance tracks and ballads at the same time. “Second Sleep” is a good example of this. Where did this sound come from?
I give Krautrock as a reference, because it’s light but it’s driving. Using that as an approach to a set of songs seemed fun to me. I hate when I feel like I’m repeating myself. I remember on Twin Cinema there were songs like “Use it” and “Twin Cinema,” where I thought, while we were making that album, “God, how long am I going to keep writing songs like this? Are people going to think we’re just spinning our wheels?” Finding new ways to shake it up has always been the game for me.
Did you know right away that “Play Money” would be the first song? It has that “opening song” feel.
That song came together fast. I thought all we need to do is sprinkle some pixie dust on it and, wow, it’s ready. In the same way as on Brill Bruisers, we had the song “Brill Bruisers” done very early and I knew it would start the album. It’s good to know, even if you are only a quarter way through the record, what you’ll open with so you can ask yourself, “Okay, where do we go next?”
For me only “Play Money” or the title track could open the album.
We’ve had four albums where the title track was first song, so we’re are messing with the formula a little. I almost made “Whiteout Conditions” the first song for no other reason than to stay with the formula. But when it came down to it there was something in the arc of “Play Money” that made it right. I like the first song on an album to be a declaration of intent. If you don’t like song number one, you might as well leave right now.
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