City Paper is not for tourists
Vancouver’s New Pornographers—-on the heels of releasing their fifth album, Together—-perform at the 9:30 Club tonight for the second part of their two-night stand. It’s the band’s first tour since 2007 with all three of its main vocalists—-Carl Newman of Zumpano and solo-work fame, Neko Case, and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar—in tow. I spoke with Newman a few Saturdays ago—-mostly about his smart, eccentric pop songs, how the band approaches recording albums, and his thoughts on his critics. That’s all after the jump.
Our conversation also hit some other topics—-about making a living as a middle-class indie rocker, about what he dislikes about the term “power-pop,” about the novels of David Mitchell. Look for those outtakes later today.
Washington City Paper: Thanks for chatting early in the morning.
Carl Newman: Well, my wife gets up early in the morning, so it kind of forces me up. Even if I sleep in two hours past her, it means I still get up at 9. And I think there’s a certain level of guilt there, you know? I think two hours is the maximum you’re allowed to sleep in past your wife.
WCP: Well, what time of day do you do your best songwriting?
CN: Oh, God, I have no idea. I’m guessing like really late at night when I’m kind of delirious. But, I don’t know. Because for me, the songwriting—-a lot of it’s spontaneous. Sometimes it comes from listening to some music and being really inspired by it and writing a lot of little pieces and little ideas. But then, there’s the part of it that’s work, where I have to sit down with all my ideas and try to piece them together. I’ve never been one of those people who’s lucky enough to be able to just sit down one night and write a song. I could never tell that story, the ‘Oh, I was in a hotel room in Texas and this song just poured out of me. I remember the day and the time.’ I’m never like that. The songs always take form over a course of months, you know?
WCP: I wanted to ask about that—-I wanted to know how you balance spontaneity and craft, whether there’s any sort of formula to it.
CN: That’s the whole game for me in writing songs. For me, a lot of it is in the spontaneity, and that’s the fun part of it, you know? When something comes from nowhere. I call it the ‘Eureka!’ moment, when you’re just playing and you’re like, ‘Wait, this is good. I think I’ve got something that’s good!’ And it’s also nice to know that I have a platform for it, you know? I know that if I was somehow to write the greatest song in the world, I would be able to get it heard, you know? So that’s really something that I think is lucky.
WCP: You haven’t written that song yet, though?
CN: No, of course. Have I written the best song in the world? No, I haven’t done that yet. But, you know, it’s the striving that’s important. But then, after that, there is a lot of craft in making that song. And when you’re doing that, you can’t help but dip into the thousands of records you’ve listened to in your life, you know? And that’s when it gets kind of crazy.
WCP: What do you mean, ‘gets kind of crazy?’
CN: Well, all these influences just sink in from the oddest places you don’t even remember. There might be a drum beat or a bass line that you really like, and you don’t even remember why you like it, and then you’ll remember two years later, ‘Oh, because it’s from this song by the The.’ The thing about us is we’re all just huge music fans, so between us we have this massive library of musical knowledge from which we’re culling things from.
WCP: In an interview from last year when you were promoting your solo record, you said for the new New Pornographers record you wanted to record it really quickly. Did that happen?
CN: I always say that, you know? We didn’t. I don’t think it’s in the cards for us to ever record an album quickly.
WCP: Why not?
CN: I often will just go into the studio and think, ‘I just have this riff that I think is really good, and we’ll just have to build a song around it.’ Sometimes I’ll have more than that. I’ll often have a song that’s incomplete, where I know where this song should go, I just haven’t figured it out yet. And I think to record an album quickly, I think you have to have, you know, all the songs completely finished, you have to have them completely well-rehearsed, you know? I’m never like that. Some songs are like that. But often, I’m just cruising along, working on it as we go. And I realize that I like doing that, the songs that have changed and get rewritten while we’re recording are often some of my favorite things.
WCP: Give me an example.
CN: Like “Moves” from this record was done that way. Some of my favorite, stranger songs from Twin Cinema, like “The Jessica Numbers” or “Falling Through Your Clothes,” were done that way. That’s us at our strangest. Or, “Unguided” from Challengers. Just, yeah. For me, I think it’s doing something new and kind of messing around with arrangements is what fascinates me. Like, I know people like our songs that are really upbeat and have the great melodies, the really catchy ones. But to me, although I really like those songs, it just seems too easy to me. And so, even though I personally discount them, not because I think they’re lesser songs, it’s because just that that’s the kind of thing that’s really easy for me. Like, I know that everyone likes this song on the [new] album called “Crash Years,” and I knew everybody would. Because it’s got—-it’s a really upbeat song, with this big Neko lead vocal, and I think yes, arguably the best song on the record, but it’s so easy.
WCP: Do you still believe in it?
CN: What—-how do you mean?
WCP: I guess you were suggesting that songs like that excite you less?
CN: I shouldn’t say that they excite me less, but I think because they’re moving less into a new direction, that there are other songs that I like more. But I know that it’s just me, and not the song. If we have a song that’s in 7/4 time, I’ll think, ‘That’s my favorite song, it’s got that weird time signature.’ I think maybe because I look at our record more academically, you know? Whereas another person listens to it and just has this sort of gut reaction to it, and they go, “Well, I don’t care what the time signature is. I don’t care if this is a new direction for you. This is my favorite song.”
WCP: A lot of people that I’ve talked to about the record really liked “Valkarie in the Roller Disco”. Maybe it’s just the weirdos I hang out with.
CN: That’s interesting because that’s definitely the divisive song in the record, I’ve found. It’s either people’s favorite song or it’s the one they hate. Yeah, I like that one. It’s definitely the least like us. It’s also the kind of song that people get angry about us making when we did Challengers, you know? Because Challengers was where we first started pulling out ballads, and people were angry. They were like, “We don’t come to you for ballads, we come to you for upbeat pop songs.”
WCP: How did you and the band respond to that?
CN: Um, I don’t know. What can you do? It’s like when people call you “power-pop.” You just turn the other cheek. I mean, part of me understands, like I was just saying, I think people expect a certain thing from a certain band. Like people buy a Spoon record or a National record or a Grizzly Bear record because they want it to sound like that, and they know what they’re going to get, and no one wants those bands to turn into something else. And so, part of me understands that if you were a big New Pornographers fan, and you liked our huge pop songs and if we made a record that was a bit slower and midtempo, that they would be angry, and they’d go, “This sucks.” They’re not listening to it like they would from a new band. I think if Challengers was our first record, the same people who hated it would listen to it and be like, “Wow, this band is great!” but, as it is, they just listen to it and compare it to our other records and go, “This isn’t exactly what I expected.” Then again, I can’t look into people’s heads. Maybe people just thought that record sucked.
WCP: I liked it.
CN: Yeah, I mean, I do too. I feel very—-I feel like I have to defend that record. I’ve found on this record, we’ve gotten a lot of back-handed praise, people who are like, “Oh, I loved Together, especially after that snooze that was Challengers, and I think, “OK, fair enough.” To praise one record you have to put another record down. But, sure.
WCP: Yeah, I don’t know. One guy’s context is another guy’s back-handed dismissal.
CN: Yes. It’s true. And it’s another reason why I should never read press, you know. Because I can always read too much into it. And, at the same time, I don’t feel like I could ever go back and change anything, you know? Like, if I could go back to 2007, I wouldn’t rewrite Challengers. It’s the record that we wanted to make. And I think in the end, it makes sense.
WCP: Is it constructive to think of bands in terms of these career arcs?
CN: I don’t know. I mean, we can’t help but think of things like that. We’re all these rock scientists, where we’ve studied music for so long, or the history of music, that you can’t start your fourth or fifth record without going, “What did other bands do at this point?” The big one was album three. I remember when we were making Twin Cinema, the big concern was “Album Three. This is a key album. What do bands do on Album Three?” I don’t know if that’s healthy, but we can’t help it.
Photo by Jason Creps