We originally ran this interview on November 17, 2014, shortly after the release of Brill Bruisers. The New Pornographers are on round 2 of that albums tour cycle. They’ll be in D.C. tonight Friday, July 10 at the 9:30 Club (sold-out, sorry), Brooklyn July 11 at Celebrate Brooklyn! (free!) and in Chicago July 18 for the Pitchfork Music Festival.
“Neko can’t make the June shows, so Kathryn’s going to be the girl.”
This is how Carl Newman noted a line-up change for a handful of New Pornographers concerts in 2005. It was late June, and the performances were intended to preview a forthcoming record called Twin Cinema.
“We’re going to be kind of like the Fiery Furnaces,” Newman would add. “The relatives band.”
The full cleverness of that last quip is at least partially ensconced in the mid-aughts, but its factuality holds true: In adding his niece Kathryn Calder to the New Pornographers’ live ensemble, Newman was making the supergroup a family band. At the time, Calder had already released four records with indie pop outfit Immaculate Machine, but Newman’s announcement was likely the first that most people had heard of the 23-year-old singer and keyboardist. And as he indicated, Calder had been asked to handle Neko Case’s vocals in her absence, which is about as unenviable and daunting an assignment as they come. There is one Neko Case, and she is a force of nature.
But Calder would survive those shows, and in the decade that has since passed, she’s done much more than sub duty: She’s carved out a well-defined presence of her own in the New Pornographers. Her voice has become a steady presence in the band’s wall of sound, a soft and sweet thing floating in and out of almost every song of the band’s most recent records: 2007’s Challengers, 2010’s Together, and this year’s Brill Bruisers. There have been star turns too, on Calder-fronted tracks like “Failsafe” and “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk”.
In other words, no longer is there just the singular role of “the girl.”
While the New Pornographers’ line-up has been flexible enough to accommodate the various commitments of its eight members – most notably Case and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar – its records have remained parochially the domain of Newman. For the punch-packing Brill Bruisers, that meant members individually visiting his home studio in Woodstock, New York, recording their contributions, and leaving Newman – often with the help of multi-instrumentalist John Collins – to sort through the resulting material and erect the band’s trademark power pop. “Often when I hear the record, so much has changed since I was there months before that it’s hard for me to recognize my piano or keyboard parts,” Calder shared on Friday afternoon.
I reached her in Chicago, where she was bemoaning the surge of prematurely winter weather. “I’m pretty wimpy with the cold,” Calder confessed. “Being from the west coast of Canada, it’s not very cold there. It doesn’t snow very often. It’s just rainy. It’s like Seattle.”
Calder grew up in the Vancouver Island hub of Victoria – Canada’s 15th most populous city – and she hasn’t yet found a reason to leave. “I know it’s not a glamorous description, but it is quite lovely. It’s a very big island. It’s basically a little city,” she explained. “And the cold rules out a lot of other places to live.”
Is there a different energy when the full line-up performs together?
Every time that you add a person or a person leaves – not the band, but certain shows for whatever reason – it changes the dynamic. It’s very cool to have everyone here, though. I love having everyone here. It’s like your buddies are on tour with you.
And it’s nice to have the full force of the band, and to play all of the songs, and to hear all of the parts and just to be on stage with everybody. It’s a big group when all get together – there are eight of us. When everybody’s there, it’s quite fun.
The process of making New Pornographers records seems to be the opposite of that – it’s not an all-hands-on-deck situation. Has a regular process developed at this point?
There’s definitely a regular process, and you’re right that it’s not at all what it’s like when we’re on stage. We’re not all playing together.
Carl [Newman] usually has a bunch of songs written, and he gets a few from Dan [Bejar] as well, and then he and John [Collins] start working on arranging those songs. Carl also writes lyrics throughout the whole process, which is a really fun part to watch. When I went in to do my vocals for [Brill Bruisers], it was just me and Carl and John in the studio, and I sang something, and then a few weeks later, he’s like, “I’m going to need you to come back to Vancouver, because I’ve changed the words. You’re going to need to sing that part again with different words.” [Laughs]
Carl does that a lot through the whole recording process – he’ll pick away at a song, and change it and change it, bit by bit. Even when they’re mixing the record in its final stages, we’ll still be recording things, because maybe there’s something that needs an extra voice. They’ll be mixing the record throughout the entire recording process – like, getting all the levels of everything, or taking things out and putting things in, or changing the structure if something’s not quite working. As a songwriter, there are always things that may not be working, and sometimes you’re not exactly sure why, so you try a bunch of different things.
Often when I hear the record, so much has changed since I was there months before that it’s hard for me to recognize my piano or keyboard parts, because things have gone through vocoders or whatever they’ve used to get a certain frequency. It’s quite an involved process, and it takes quite a while.
When you’re in the studio with Carl, is it a two-way street? How much direction do you receive?
I get a fair amount of direction from Carl, but it is a collaboration. They’re working with me to figure what sounds they’re looking for, and I’m trying to figure out what kind of style they have in mind. I’ll say, “What do you think should go here?” And then they’re kind of like, “Well, we’re looking for something like this.” I’m trying to help Carl get his vision out from in his head. That’s my job in this band. I’m trying as best can to do that, but, of course, whatever I play is going to be me. It’s going to be my interpretation of whatever that is.
For this record, I went to Woodstock, and I basically improvised for a week on the keyboards and the piano. Then they took all of that, sorted through it, and came out up with the final product. They also added synths – John’s on there playing synths, and Carl too, I think. And everyone else shows up in Woodstock and does the same thing that I do.
One of your songs on the record – “Another Drug Deal of the Heart” – had existed as a b-side for “Moves” with vocals from Carl. What made you want to take another crack at it?
I think that Carl really liked that hook, and he wanted to do it again. Don’t quote me on that – actually, your job is to quote me on that. [Laughs] But I’m not sure. He just liked that chorus and said, “We’re going to do it again.” And, of course, I’m just like, “OK, that’s cool.”
When you first joined the band, you were often responsible for singing Neko Case’s songs live. What kind of task was that? Were you intimidated?
When I first came into the band, I was 23, and I was just so incredibly excited. I think being a little younger, I didn’t think about it. I was like, “This is going to be really cool. I’m really excited.” And when we got to the shows, I just did my best to belt out all the parts as hard as I could. [Laughs] That’s essentially all I did. There are definitely Neko-isms that she does that are very much her own, and those I generally don’t replicate. But I found that we actually have certain similarities. And, obviously, belting is belting, after all.
I remember feeling like I had to prove myself every night. It was like, “OK, I gotta really do a good job. I don’t want people to be disappointed.” Everybody’s been very supportive over the years. Of course, there are some people for whom Neko is a favorite, and that’ll never change. You can’t make everybody happy.
We just try to do our best with the crew that we’ve got. Some songs we don’t play when Neko’s not there, just because they’re so Neko, and it would be weird to sing them. I don’t want to be an impersonator.
Most of the time, we’re singing together anyway. Most of the songs lend themselves to group vocals. Even when I listen back to records, I’m like, “I’m not even sure if that’s Neko or that’s me.” It’s hard to tell in the mass and the mix. A lot that happens live too – it’s hard to tell who is doing what. It’s a big wall of sound.
Given that you everyone doesn’t make the New Pornographers records together, how you describe the band dynamic on the road? And, you can be honest: What’s Bejar like?
[Laughs] What’s funny is that Dan is one of funniest and nicest people that I know. That’s the truth. I know that he gives off a certain thing, but he’s very nice and very funny.
The dynamic of the whole band is like we’re on a traveling sports team, you know? It’s very reminiscent of going to camp. You’re with the same group of people of weeks at a time in a confined space. There’s lots of joking around. There’s lots of laughs. There’s lots of music DJing on the bus after shows – when we’re driving but everyone is still a little wired from the show. Then you get the city and you wake up and find food with whoever is around and happens to be up. And then you go and play a rock show. That’s the day-in and day-out. Sometimes, if you’re on a different schedule from somebody, you might not see them until sound check and the show.
Of course, if things are really hard for whatever reason – sometimes people can miss their families or something – there’s always somebody to talk to. But for the most part, it’s pretty upbeat. There are always lots of things going on, and we’re all having a good time, and it’s nice to see everybody. That’s especially the case with this tour, because we haven’t made a record in four years. I hadn’t seen some of these guys in almost four years, because they live in a different city. It’s like a reunion.
What did those four years entail for you personally?
The last time that we stopped, I didn’t know that it would be for four years, of course. I released my first record when the last New Pornographers record, Together, came out. Then I released [another] a year later in 2011. All of that kept me busy until the end of 2011.
In 2012, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, but I was incredibly tired. I was just so tired from being away. I had some unfortunate life events – both of my parents passed away in a relatively short span of time – and it was quite dramatic and traumatic. By the time I was done touring my last solo record, I could barely move. I was trying so hard to fill my time with stuff that I needed to go home and process and regroup. 2012 was a very mellow year. But I did some other life things – I got married and bought a house. It was all very personal life building.
And that all basically kept on. I was working on a new record, which I just finished and will get a release next year. When in doubt, I just keep writing music, and cobbling together shows here and there, and my solo stuff. It’s self-employed work, basically. It’s freelancing.
So, it was nice when Carl was like ,“Let’s do a new record.” I was like, “OK. All right. Good. Thank God.” [Laughs] I was excited that we were going to play music together, and that it gave me a break from my own thing. It’s nice to have a break from both things, you know? It’s nice to do the New Pornographers, and it’s also nice to do my own solo music and songs. They’re quite different in terms of the space that they hold in my life. I feel very lucky that I get to do both. Because this band sometimes doesn’t tour for long periods of time, it does give me time to go do other things, which I think is helpful for your sense of perspective.