By Philip Runco.
Rare is the New Pornographers song that approaches perfection.
Or so says the man who writes most of them.
“Usually, I’ll listen to one of our songs and think, ‘Oh, this bugs me. I wish I had done that differently,’” Carl Newman admits. “Other people don’t hear that; other people just like the song.”
When it comes to songs that other people like, the Canadian singer-songwriter (who now resides in upstate New York) has erected an entire skyline of towering power pop. In fact, over the course of two decades and seven albums, the New Pornographers have gone from a lark that might never release a record to one of the most consistent acts of this young century.
But for Newman, success is calibrated one song at the time, which makes the perfection of “Play Money”, the opener of the band’s recently released Whiteout Conditions, all the sweeter.
“That’s one of my favorite things we’ve ever done,” he says on a Friday morning in early April. “I like the vibe of the song, and I like that it sounds like something new to me. I listen to it, and I think, ‘I haven’t done anything like this before.’ I think I appreciate that because sometimes you get sick of yourself. When I listen to it, I think, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing. The song is exactly the way I want it to be.’”
The first 15 seconds of any New Pornographers record have a way of setting the scene for what’s to come. See: the zany, dizzying new wave of “Mass Romantic”, the tightly wound, hard-charging “The Electric Version”, the majestically unfurling “My Rights Versus Yours”, the bulked-up and grand orchestration of “Moves”, and so on. In these brief opening moments, you have a good sense of where the band is headed for the next 40 minutes.
“Play Money” is no different. The snappy, unrelenting clip of programmed drums is an unexpected welcome. As distorted, ’80s-tinged guitar and synth begin to slash back and forth, it’s clear that Newman has indeed stumbled upon a new, skittering palette for his power pop.
“’Play Money’ was one of the first songs to come together when we were recording, and even back then, I thought, ‘This has got to be song number one,'” Newman recalls. “It felt like a statement of intent. It felt like a good way to immediately say: ‘This is what you’re in for. If you don’t like this, you should stop listening. You can just move on.’”
To some degree, this is what Dan Bejar did.
The mercurial mind behind Destroyer has been a steady presence on previous New Pornographers efforts, contributing exactly three songs per record and not much else. (In concert, he hangs out off stage, appears for one of those songs – usually with a beer in hand – and then retreats until his next one.) But when it came to make Whiteout Conditions, Bejar decided that the record’s aesthetic didn’t quite jive with the material he had and opted to sit this one out.
“He was like, ‘All these songs I’m writing are quiet songs. If you know what you want to do on this record, maybe I’ll sit this one out,'” Newman told Noisey earlier this year.
(Talking with Bejar in October, there wasn’t any indication this was more than a one-time blip. “I don’t know, it’s like hanging out with old friends,” he said of his involvement with the band. “I have ideas for songs that make no sense in the Destroyer world, but I can picture them somehow being something more outlandish in a late ’80s, Iggy Pop kind of way.”)
Newman and his cohorts – most notably Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, and John Collins – would forge ahead, though, ultimately producing perhaps their most cohesive collection of songs to date.
“I feel pretty good about it,” Newman adds. “I never have any perspective, but there are things on this record that are some of my favorite things I’ve ever done.”
The New Pornographers are currently on tour with Waxahatchee. They play NYC’s Terminal 5 this Wednesday and DC’s 9:30 Club on Friday and Saturday. Whiteout Conditions is out now via Concord Music Group.
Did Dan’s decision to sit out this record change how you approached it? Did losing that card from your deck – knowing that you wouldn’t have a few of his songs and the texture of his voice – have any effect on your songwriting or, at the least, the sequencing of Whiteout Conditions?
This album was way easier to sequence. On other records, there was always this question of: Where should I put Dan’s songs? Sometimes it felt like a game. I’d be sitting in the studio trying to make an entire album, but then Dan would deliver his his songs and I’d take them and go, “OK, how do I fit these three songs into the arc of an album?” And we just did it.
When I found out he wasn’t going to be on this record, I thought, “Well, how do I make lemonade out of these lemons? Maybe we could use this as an excuse to just try to make a very focused record.” Some people might say, “Oh, it doesn’t have that weird Bejar angle in it, and that’s a weakness.” I thought, “There’s nothing I can do if people feel that way, but what I can do is try to make something that’s very clear and driven and focused.”
But I knew what kind of record I wanted to make from the beginning. When we started making it, I called Dan and said, “I want to make a record where all of the songs are going to be, like, 160 BPMs or more.” I told him what I wanted to do. And he told me that he was really wrapped up in the Destroyer record, and that he was writing weird songs, and that he didn’t think he had anything that fit into what I wanted to do. So, I thought, “OK,” and I went back and continued what I was doing.
From my point of view, it didn’t really change much for me, which is weird to say. On previous albums, I would be in the studio when Dan was recording songs, but he was never around when I recording mine, so making an album of just my songs didn’t feel that much different. It was different in that I never got a break. I never got those fun break days where I could just hang out in the studio when Dan was there and, like, occasionally speak up and say, “Hey, turn up your vocals.” It was more: “OK, I just need to focus on doing what I’m doing.” So, in terms of the day-to-day business of recording my songs, it felt like business as usual.
It feels like you utilize Neko a little more.
That makes sense because, yeah, where there might have been a Dan song, now it’s us again.
Sometimes people can’t tell Kathryn [Calder] from Neko, though. That’s always been the case, in the same way that no one knows that Nora O’Connor did a lot of the female vocals on Electric Version. People just hear the female and think it’s Neko.
But I think that Neko is used in some very key ways. She sings lead on the first song, and then she sings the chorus in the second song, and then the third song is her and Kathryn but she’s definitely in there, and then the fourth song is her singing lead again. So, right off the bat, there’s a sense of, “Oh, there’s a lot of Neko here.” That’s the initial impression.
There might be more Neko, but I don’t really think about it too much. That was the easiest thing about sequencing this record. Previously on records, I’d always be trying to go the back and forth, like, “OK, here’s a song where I sing, and then a song where Dan sings, and then a song where Neko sings.” I was trying to balance those. On this record, it seemed less important. On this record, it felt like I could take the songs and put them in different orders, and it didn’t really matter that much.
How do you decide who sings on a track? Does a song’s meaning or tone shift in the hands of another vocalist?
I write the songs, and I don’t really write them for anybody. On this record, I remember thinking with “Play Money” and “This Is the World of Theatre” that they just made sense for Neko.
I do find it interesting how the singer can change the tone of the song. With “Play Money”, I was initially thinking of changing the key because “Play Money” was written in a key for me to sing – it was written in a lower key. Then I gave to Neko and I said, “Oh, we can make his higher. We can change the key.” But she said, “No, no, I like it. This is a good key for me.” It made her delivery a little more laid-back than I thought it would be. There’s something about the way it’s delivered that feels very important to me.
When we’re doing shows and Neko’s not there, I feel like I have to say, “It has to be sung in this way or it’s a different song.”
There’s been a shift towards the more personal in your songwriting over recent years but it’s still striking to hear a song like “Whiteout Conditions” on a New Pornographers record. What’s driven that candor? Is it a matter of feeling more comfortable putting yourself out there or has life just given you more to reflect on?
It’s a combination of both. I’m more comfortable writing like that. Sometimes it’s just the song. “Whiteout Conditions” has a very rapid-fire melody, which made it easier for it to be more of a narrative. There was so much more room for me to write. Sometimes my melodies are minimal and more clipped, so you can’t say a ton in there because the song is not letting you. “Whiteout Conditions” was a little bit more opened up.
And there definitely is a difference in living life. In the fifteen years since the Pornographers started, a lot of things have happened – some of them really great, some of them very bad, like losing people you love. I think I’ve got a little more perspective.
To a certain degree, it’s hard to avoid. When things happen to you that are very intense, they just come out in your songs. Maybe you don’t want to be entirely clear about them, though. Sometimes when you’re writing about someone else, you don’t want that to be public knowledge. If you’re writing a sad song, you don’t want to say, “Oh, this is about a particular person in my life, and this is about what they went through and what they’re going through.” You want to mask it a little bit.
There was definitely a point where things changed. There was a cut on Challengers, and then all of sudden things that were very personal started sneaking out. That’s not true of all the songs, but some for sure.
Whiteout Conditions has sharpest edges of any New Pornographers record in a while – a sound you’ve dubbed “bubblegum krautrock” – but at the end of the day, it’s power pop at its core. Is that something you think the band will always be locked into?
It’s funny, I’ve had this argument with our drummer Joe [Seiders] so many times. Because he’s sort of new in the band, he says, “You guys are power pop!” And I’m always going, “No, we’re not.”
I’m always saying, “What is power pop anyway?” When I think of power pop, I think of bands from the late ‘70s with skinny ties. But when somebody tells me, “No, power pop is like Big Star, Cheap Trick, and Bad Finger,” then I think, “OK, if you’re going to throw us in with those bands, I’m all for it.” I’d rather you throw us in with those bands – because I absolutely love them – than The Records and The Shoes and The Knack or whatever.
I just love the pop song. It’s just what has always has come out of me. I always try to warp it, but I love the song. There are bands through the years who I’ve worshiped that are a little weird, like Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, but even a band like that, as weird as they were, inside them I heard these great pop songs, and I love that. It’s the same way that I love Animal Collective – as bizarre as they are, clearly inside there are these amazing pop songs.
It’s just my go-to place. It makes me feel better to write songs like that. It’s like I’m chasing the ultimate pop song. I feel like my whole career is just trying to find that one song and write it. Every album, I think, “I got close there a few times, but let’s keep trying.”