New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman catches us up

We talked to Carl Newman about disappointment, carrying on and twenty years of the New Pornographers.

April 2, 2017

For the last 17 years, Carl Newman has fronted the New Pornographers, an internationally renowned power pop collective that have released seven critically acclaimed albums and counting. With their latest, Whiteout Conditions, the band have made some changes: new record labels (Dine Alone in Canada, Concord Music Group elsewhere), no contributions by co-founding member Dan Bejar for the first time, and an exciting new direction they call “Bubblegum Krautrock.”

Before Newman arrived at this comfortable stage in his career, he went through a period he refers to as one where he was “paying his dues.” His first band, Superconductor, were never supposed to amount to anything, but they managed to tour, release two albums on California’s Boner Records and even appear on magazine covers. At the same time, he also launched the chamber/power pop group Zumpano, who signed to Sub Pop, only to always find themselves as the support band, and never the headliner. Although they released two wonderful albums on the iconic indie label, Zumpano are perhaps best known for how few copies they sold.

It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when Carl Newman was considered to be anything but a genius at crafting pop songs, but getting the New Pornographers heard in the first place wasn’t an easy task, despite having the talented Neko Case and Dan Bejar (Destroyer) writing songs with him.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the band, we called up Newman at his home in Woodstock, New York to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of his career… so far.

I guess I should start at the beginning. Superconductor was your first band, correct?

Carl Newman: Yeah, and once again, it was a very accidental band. It was just guys jamming together in a practice space making noise. The weirdest thing is I just fell into being the singer. We had this group of people and no one wanted to be the singer. Usually you’d think someone would say, “I want to be the singer,” but in this group there wasn’t. I’m not usually the guy to step up in that situation, but I just did it. And it went from there. A friend of ours named Dale Weise said, “I like you guys. I wanna put you in the studio.” So we did that and recorded a single, put that out and toured down the coast for fun. Then Tom Flynn from Boner Records (Melvins, Steel Pole Bath Tub) saw us and asked if we wanted to put out a record. I thought the band was essentially done. It just seemed like a toss off, like, “We just recorded a single that nobody bought and we’re not gonna do anything else.” So we did that for a few years.

I’m a fan of your first album, Hit Songs For Girls, but you lost me with the next one, Bastardsong.

Oh, it’s a tough listen! Definitely Hit Songs For Girls is the best thing we did. There are some great moments on Bastardsong. I’m just proud of Bastardsong because I think it represented the aesthetic of the band. We were this band that did it for fun. We weren’t trying to become popular. Some shows were just performance pieces, like, “What if we did a show where we all stood on our amps? Or behind our amps?” It was that kind of stuff. I think Hit Songs For Girls was our one real attempt to make an album. That is when I started to try and write songs. When it came to Bastardsong it was like, “Let’s just go over the edge with this one. Let’s not even try. Let’s become some abrasive, prog, noise band.” And it wasn’t like I expected anyone to love it.

When you were doing Superconductor you formed Zumpano.

Yeah, and I think that’s why making something like Bastardsong was a good outlet because it was on the other side. Zumpano were this band that was trying to do this classic pop thing, so I didn’t feel the need to write pop songs in Superconductor. I wanted to go farther away from that. I think when those two bands stopped, the New Pornographers was trying to look back at what I’d done and then decide what I like and what I didn’t like.

In the early ’90s it seemed like being on a label like Sub Pop should have resulted in album sales, but that didn’t happen for Zumpano. And that lack of success always seems to overshadow how great those songs were. Was that disappointing?

Yeah. That was sort of eye-opening. Like I said, it later made me a little cynical. I realized that the label doesn’t count for much. I still think that even the biggest, coolest labels have these rosters where three-quarters of the bands are bands you’ve never heard of. You can look at Sub Pop and go, “Oh, there’s Father John Misty and Beach House.” Those bands are huge, but then you’ll also see these 20 other bands and think, “Who are they?” So that was a cold splash of water to the face. Especially because in 1994, when Sub Pop wants to sign you, your immediate reaction is, “Holy shit!” They were the coolest label. So we thought, “Okay, we’re going somewhere.” And it was better than not being on Sub Pop. I’m sure those records were heard by more people than if we put them out ourselves in Vancouver. But it was an interesting thing to go through.

There are moments of thinking about Zumpano that I remember so clearly. We played in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and it was one of those gigs where we were essentially playing in a coffee house where we played in the corner. While we were playing some employee was putting the chairs up. There was nobody there and this person was cleaning up, so that when we ended they could just go home. That night I remember thinking, “Am I paying my dues right now? Or is this just what happens?” I realized that it’s a tough thing paying your dues because you don’t know that you’re paying your dues. You just think you’re failing.

I’ve always wondered why you named the band after your drummer, Jason Zumpano.

We just didn’t know what to call ourselves and it just seemed funny. It’s like we were taking the piss out of Jason to name the band after him. Connected to the Superconductor thing, it shows that we didn’t take anything that seriously. Like we weren’t going, “Let’s pick the right name.” Initially, because we were trying to do this Bacharach-esque style of pop that was purposely light in the age of grunge, one of the names we threw around was the Snowflakes. It seemed like such a funny name. Like today I think it would be cool if a band, especially a heavy one, showed up and called themselves the Snowflakes.

I just learned that you formed the New Pornographers in 1997, which makes the band 20 years old this year.

That sounds about right. I think most of that was sitting around, having drinks and going, “We should do this,” and trying to figure out who would be in it. We didn’t expect to reach 20 years, not at all. I’d already sort of given up in a way. I shouldn’t say given up because I wanted to make music. But I’d already gone through trying to make a living out of it and realized that it’s not as easy as I thought it would be. Maybe I became a little cynical about the industry and I felt very D.I.Y., like, “let’s just make a record and if people like it they can find it.” Because I’d already seen that a label can’t make you a popular act. They can help to a certain degree, but they can’t make it happen out of nothing. In fact, I remember it was at the end of the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000, and Ian Danzig of Exclaim! had us on his radio show [CKLN’s Hooray for Tuesday], and it was this weird retrospective looking back on my career. To me it felt like, “Yeah, yeah, I used to make music.” I guess I just didn’t expect anything to happen with the New Pornographers. So it was very interesting to think that was the beginning of my career, as far as most people were concerned.

I’m guessing that when you put the New Pornographers together you had no idea what it would become.

No. Not at all. I think about that sometimes, because I think everybody when they make a record has some sort of fantasy in the back of their mind that it’s going to be super popular. Even though you’re making it for yourself, there is still part of you that wants it to be popular. But I can honestly say I was really shocked. [Releasing Mass Romantic] was a really interesting time. We didn’t get that big, but it seemed like we did. Like coming to Toronto in 2001 and selling out Lee’s Palace. I thought we were huge! Or selling out the Bowery Ballroom in New York, which is 550 or 600 people. To us that just seemed insane, because I had been in bands that were happy when 50 people showed up.

It was pretty shocking to hear that no one was interested in the first demo you guys made. Like I read in Have Not Been The Same that both Sub Pop and Matador had no interest at all.

I always see quotes from writers that say, “If you wanna be a writer, you have to write.” And I think I was just compelled to keep writing. When I look back and try to psychoanalyze myself, it was almost like I was writing as self-defence. It’s not like I only write when I’m in a bad state, but maybe being crushed that nothing was going on with my music didn’t make me think I’d stop. I just kept doing it. It all seemed conceptual. Like Superconductor was conceptual, the New Pornographers was conceptual.

More than the other two bands, this seemed like a project designed for you to write big hooks. Is that something that comes naturally or do you have to work at it?

Some part of it is relatively easy for me. I think I have a pretty good sense of melody and harmony, but for a lot of it I don’t. I had to learn arranging, and I’ve never been good at any instrument, and I’ve always found it tough to write lyrics. And I think that’s all hard because I start with the music, what is natural for me which is melody and harmony. Neko, for example, starts with lyrics. That’s why some of her songs have weird forms, because they come from writing songs around this weird prose. Dan is pretty lyric-heavy as well, I think. So there is a part of it that is work for me. At the heart of it you might have something you think is really good, but you have to work in order to present it.

Was the first album, Mass Romantic, the most collaborative New Pornographers record?

It probably was. I only think that because I remember being way more hands on with Dan’s songs. Like I think later on he would just present the song and I’d go, “Great! ‘Myriad Harbour’ – this is perfect!” But on the first few records it was more like, “what if we do this?” There was that kind of thing. It’s always been a different kind of collaboration through the years. Even from song to song. Some songs are almost a solo track by me, and other songs will have great contributions from other members. Like, John Collins does a lot of manipulating and arranging, and that can make it for me. A lot of the songs transform over time, which is something I love. That is sort of new to the New Pornographers. I bring in a song I thought was finished and we start working on it and then I want to change the melody or the key or ditch the bridge or flip the verse and chorus. Just messing with it to see what works best. That is the modern collaboration, whereas on the first record it was us doing the gang vocals on “Breaking the Law” together.

Is it still hard to get everyone together for a tour the way it was in the beginning?

Yeah. It always has been and it always will be. It’s just a burden. I remember not that long after Twin Cinema, when were at the height of critical acclaim, I talked to a manager, which we didn’t have at the time, and said, “what you want to do for us is wasted on us. You’re gonna try and get us on Saturday Night Live and then we find out Neko can’t do it? It’s just the nature of our band.”

You are the indie rock Wu-Tang Clan.

I feel the band we are most parallel to is Broken Social Scene. In that sort of revolving line-up there are some key members always there but others change. Like a female singer who became popular on her own.

Whiteout Conditions is the first album to not feature Dan Bejar. I think I expected that to happen sooner than album number seven. Do you think that was bound to happen at some point, that either Dan or Neko wouldn’t be on an album?

It really felt bound to happen. I’ve been telling people that a month after Mass Romantic came out, Dan told us he was moving to Spain, and I remember thinking, ‘Of course. We finally seem to be getting somewhere and you’re moving.’ I thought that was the end of the band. But then the record started getting attention and we went on the road and hired Todd Fancey, and we noticed that nobody realized that Dan wasn’t there. Nobody even knew what he looked like [laughs]. But then he came back a year later and appeared on Electric Version. As far back as 16 years ago I thought that Dan wasn’t in the band anymore. Back then it was different because we didn’t see a future for the band. It wasn’t until Matador signed us that we saw a future. It’s been going on for so long. Dan didn’t tour with us until Twin Cinema, and at the end of it I remember thinking, ‘Is this the last time we’ll play together?’ That tour felt like a one-off. Even on Brill Bruisers I was shocked by how much he toured with us. It was the most he’d ever done, for whatever reason.

During the writing for this album he was doing Destroyer, and I was telling him what kind of album we were making and he came back and said, ‘I’m just writing these weird, quiet songs and I don’t think I have anything for you. I would give you something if I did.’ That was essentially it. That was a drag, but I remembered that it doesn’t really affect what I do. If Dan was on this album it would be the album plus three of Dan’s songs.

I’m a fan of his songs, and Destroyer, but before I knew he wasn’t on it I had listened to the album a few times and didn’t even notice his absence.

I’m sure there are a lot of people that don’t like when Dan isn’t playing with us or not on a record, but I think there are a lot of people that don’t care. Like I always think of shows we’re playing where Neko isn’t there and they yell at Kathryn [Calder], ‘I love you Neko!’ Like, you love Neko and you’re a big fan but you don’t know what she looks like? It just seems so weird to me. You have to remember that a large amount of your fanbase aren’t weird, comments section people. There are the people that will say, ‘Oh, there are no Dan songs on the record? It’s fucking useless! He was the only good thing in the band!’ With those people, they’re gonna have their knives out no matter what I do. I try not to think about it too much.

You’ve described the new album as “Bubblegum Krautrock,” which not only seems fitting, but also signals a new and exciting direction for the band. On the previous record, Brill Bruisers, you began using synthesizers more. But this album they kind of take over.

We never go into it with a fierce idea of what we’re going to do. I can’t remember if that concept came first or there was a song that made us think, ‘This sounds like Bubblegum Krautrock, let’s do more of this. I remember ‘Play Money’ was one of the first songs to come together and I thought it was a good template to use going forward. I wanted to have if not the same vibe, a vibe that fit with that song. I like the robotic repetition of it.

You went solo as A.C. Newman in 2004 after Electric Version. Were you still unsure about the future of the New Pornographers or did it just feel like the right time?

Oh yeah, I absolutely was. When I made [The Slow Wonder] I didn’t know if anybody would want to put it out. In fact, I applied for a grant and made it in secret. I did it at the end of 2002, and I remembered I wanted to get a mastered version to Matador before everyone left for Christmas. There was no real reason for it, but the day before Christmas vacation I sent it to everybody and said, “Hey, I made an album. Here it is.” And then I was very happy that people liked it. Essentially I made it because I knew in 2004 that Neko would be touring her album, so I should also do something. Like, “I’m a musician now. I should keep going.”

In a recent interview you said writing songs for the New Pornographers instead of a solo album just seems like a better financial move. Did you always write songs specifically for solo releases or was it just whatever was the best fit?

The first solo album was just a bunch of songs I was writing while I was writing Electric Version that I felt didn’t work on Electric Version. So I’d just make a note in my notebook, and then realized there were 11 or 12 songs, so why don’t I just make this record? I feel like that record was the beginning of me doing whatever I wanted. Like Mass Romantic and Electric Version seemed like the New Pornographers were this garage band. And Slow Wonder was the first record with these arranged studio recordings. I took that with me into the making of Twin Cinema. The approach to making Slow Wonder was a cool, new way to make New Pornographers records.

For the next two solo records then, was there a different approach?

I don’t know. I think with Get Guilty I just needed a little break. When we finished Challengers I was already working on new songs. I just wanted to get away from the band and do something else. But it came out a year after Challengers, so I didn’t take off much time. And I made Shut Down The Streets right around the time my son was born. I thought when he was a newborn I didn’t really want to get into the rat race of the band. I shouldn’t call it a rat race, but putting out a New Pornographers album just involves a lot more travelling, whereas with a solo album I can tour for only a month if I want.

When people talk about my solo career, it’s not really a separate career. For me it’s all part of the same thing. It’s all part of what I do, which is mainly the New Pornographers. And now, I probably won’t make another solo album. Like I said in the other interview, logistically it doesn’t seem like a good use of my time.

Whiteout Conditions, the latest from the New Pornographers, is out April 7th via Concord Music Group.

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