Powerful Bonds: The New Pornographers
Sometimes, music bonds can stretch and remain shining despite geography and rising popularity. For Canadian power pop-rock band The New Pornographers, a band complete with a batch of rising singers-songwriters, this has been the reality. Each of the members not only kept from straying far, they kept coming back to the band that band leader Carl "A.C" Newman created more than a decade ago.
Hailing from Vancouver, the persistent "super group" of an ensemble also features the talents of Neko Case, Dan Bejar (Destroyer), Kathryn Calder (Immaculate Machine), Blaine Thurier (independent filmmaker), John Collins (The Evaporators), Kurt Dahle (Limblifter and Age of Electric), and Todd Fancey (Limblifter).
The band's energetic, orchestral, catchy and free-flowing power pop melodies swim around the diversity and intelligence featured in each of the band's songs. Newman, Bejar, Case and Calder split singing duties, providing for differing styles, but that same feel that it's the same band.
While many have picked the New Pornographers to go extinct a while ago, and while rising careers of some of the band's membership like Case might doom some groups, they've managed to keep together even without seeing each other in person often. The band's latest release, "Together," shows the band, well, together -– more so then in the past even.
"I think it helps for people to go off and do their own things and come back and do the New Pornographers and makes it so it's not stressful," says Newman.
The album was crafted and recorded throughout Canada and the U.S, including Newman's guest cottage on his property in Woodstock, N.Y. It also benefited with the help of a roster of additional musicians which included Will Sheff from Okkervil River, Annie Clark of St. Vincent, The Dap Kings, and Zach Condon from Beirut.
Before Newman joined the New Pornographers Saturday night at The Pabst Theater, OnMilwaukee.com got to talk with him in length about the togetherness of the band and what keeps him and the others going strong with the band that's lasted over a decade..
OnMilwaukee.com: The band's been through a lot, both as a band and solo artists. Where do you think New Pornographers are this point in time?
Carl "A.C." Newman: I feel like the band's in a good place. For our first show for the record we added a cello/saxophone player to the lineup. Dan and Neko are with us, so we're this big band. I don't think we've sounded as good as we do now.
OMC: You've mentioned elsewhere that with "Together" you wanted to make more of a straight-forward rock record than just a band playing together in a room.
CN: Yeah, in as much as we can make a straight-forward rock album. I knew even if we tried to it would be this strange new New Pornographers creation. Even the first song on the record, "Moves," I pictured it a riff rock song but then it turned into this riff rock song come orchestral pop song. And it ended up sounding like us. Whatever we do it gets bent into shape that is the New Pornographers.
OME: The previous album (2007's "Challengers") was a more mellow album and you mentioned in an interview that the band had gone as far as it could with that sound. Could you talk about how that and how it transitioned to "Together"?
CN: I think my songwriting style had gotten mellower and mellower through the years and just because I wanted to try new things. I had listened to music that was really mellow and I really liked it and I always thought "Well, how come I'm not allowed to write mellow songs?" I always thought I should be allowed to write ballads as well as upbeat songs. I thought "All bets are off, I'll do whatever I want." After "Challengers," I thought "Um, yeah, let's try a more rock approach." It might be more due to my contrary nature not giving people exactly what they want.
OMC: What was the experience like recording "Together?"
CN: It was good. It's always fun recording together because we don't really see each other too much. So we're not sick of each other. Plus a lot of it we did up in Woodstock, I have a guest cottage on my property. So we did a lot of it there and it was summer and sunny out, it was very pleasant.
OMC: The biography on the label's page for the band describes the band's music pretty interestingly as a joy delivery system. What do you think of the connection listeners have gotten from the band's music?
CN: That was Rick Moody and he's our friend. I told him to write whatever he wanted and wrote that. I guess I agree, yeah, we want our music to be a joy delivery system. I've always loved pop music to make you happy when you're sad. Not that that's all we're about but sometimes I love that music that has that effect.
You want to connect with listeners on a lot of different levels. Sure you want to make them happy but you also want to give them something musically interesting that they'll want to listen to multiple times. Or you want to have something in the lyrics that they can relate to. There's a lot of different ways you can go about it. All of our songs have a different effect because some songs are all about the lyrics and some songs are all about the music. So I hope people get a lot out things out of the record.
OMC: How does the sound to these new songs compare to when you first started, in your opinion?
CN: In a lot of ways I think we have our formula intact from when he made our first record. We came out the gate knowing what we wanted to do. I didn't want to be the band where people thought "Oh, their first album was OK but then they got really good on album three." I want them to go "Their first album was really terrific and went from there." So although we've changed it up, I think the formula for our band was intact on the first one. As a live band I think we've been getting better and better, and having just rehearsed and done a show, I just feel like we're so much better as a band then we used to be. And that feels pretty good.
OMC: With so many voices contributing there must not be too many dull moments. What do you think has made this band be able to work so well together and not let egos get in the way?
CN: Yeah, we try not to leave too many dull moments. I think what helps it along is that everyone's got their own thing. I tend in be in charge for a lot of things and make a lot of the musical decisions in the band and nobody really fights me on it because everyone has their own thing. Everybody's got their own lives and their whole isn't wrapped up into this one thing, this band. So it makes it so things are relatively mellow.
OMC: What about working with the rest of the band makes you wake up and say "I can't wait to work with these people"?
CN: Everybody's my friend. It's really important to me to be friends with the people you're in a band with. Even the people in the band that weren't my friends yet other people in the band vouched for them. Like when we need a guitar player in 2001 Kurt [Dahle] said we should get Todd Fancey, great guy, he plays keyboards, sings and plays guitar. And I thought "If you like him he's in." It's just important to have a good relationship with everyone.
OMC: How would you describe a day on the road as a member of the New Pornographers?
CN: [Laughs] It's not that exciting; usually we tour around in a bus. There's not a lot of insane rock and roll hijinks go on, although there are people that are out until four in the morning. But it's pretty mellow for the most part.
OMC: What does the theme of "Together" mean to you?
CN: Aside from the obvious that we're still together -- we're the band that everyone thought would splinter apart but we're still doing it -- one of the first songs we learned was "Together" by a band called The Illusion. When I was naming the record, I remember thinking that calling the record "Together" was a reference to our very early days. And I like the idea. I like using the word together because it's such a generic word; I wanted to co-opt something, co-opt an everyday word, and get our own. Hopefully that's what happened.
OMC: Could you talk a little bit about the songwriting process? Do you have any unique specialties you try to implement?
CN: For me it's an ever-evolving process. Sometimes I'll bring in a fully formed song and other times I'll bring in the song and it's half finished; I'll have an idea of where it should go and where it's "Let's see what happens in the studio." Sometimes I'll cut it up and reassemble it. I just love having options of doing whatever I want so I love modern recording. If you're in the middle of recording you can change it, you can add a few bars to it and rewrite it. In some ways it's like writing an essay on a word processor. You start writing in your rough copy and morph into your final copy.
OMC: What typically are essential ingredients for a successful New Pornographers song?
CN: I don't know. For me it's about having a good melody. I like when the song goes to places that you don't really expect. I like using a lot of harmony and a lot of vocals. There's something that's our sound but I can't quite put my finger on it.
OMC: The video for "Put Your Hands (Together)" was recently released and features people doing karate to the song, which has an equally powerful punch or kick. Could you tell me how that developed?
CN: The idea of it came to me when we were mixing the song "Put Your Hands (Together)." It seemed like a song, because of the way the riff went, it seemed like a song people would do karate kicks to or punch. And I thought, "Let's make this a video."
OMC: What are you doing unique for the tour you're on now?
CN: With the current setup we have with everybody there we're capable of doing faithful versions of all of our songs. On this tour we went through the effort of trying to learn every song, almost every song we know, for when we have to do two nights in a city. It's interesting to go out of tour and have five albums's worth of songs to delve into.
OMC: What's one moment or story from the band's history that really showed the band's character?
CN: There have been a lot of good shows along the way. I remember at the end of June last year we were playing Prospect Park band show in Brooklyn and it was one of the first shows we played without Neko and one of the first shows with Kathryn and we weren't sure if we could play without Neko. But it went OK and I ended up meeting my wife there so that was a key moment in my life and in the band.
OMC: It sounds like one of the biggest things you've learned is to keep at it.
CN: It's one of the only things that I take pride in. I kept going even though a lot of people I know who play music had quit.
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