The Hardest and Most Harmonious of the New Pornographers, According to Carl and Neko

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Frank Mullen/WireImage

After the New Pornographers reached mid-2000s indie acclaim, their leader, Carl Newman, had an admittedly “super-shallow” thought. “I would go, ‘Must be nice to be Sufjan Stevens,’” he says. “Not realizing, You’ve got a great thing happening here.” He certainly did: A band of some of his favorite musicians that he’d assembled on a bit of a lark in the late 1990s, making skillful, immediate power-pop. (That early lineup included singer-songwriter Neko Case, Destroyer leader Dan Bejar, Evaporators and Destroyer bassist John Collins, filmmaker Blaine Thurier, and Age of Electric and Limblifter drummer Kurt Dahle.) Though the members all had other projects to fall back on, they continued to return to the Pornographers. And in the years since, Newman came to terms with the group’s success. “I’m just gonna do this till I die,” he says. “And it’s not because I can’t afford to stop; it’s just because it’s what I like to do.”

It’s an ethos that extends to everyone in the New Pornographers, and one that Case has a term for. “We somehow ended up with a whole lot of people who are lifers,” she says, of the group that currently includes her, Newman, Collins, Kathryn Calder, Todd Fancey, and Joe Seiders. Now they’ve found two more lifers in signing to Merge Records, the indie label founded by Superchunk’s Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. The Pornographers’ ninth album, Continue As a Guest (out March 31), closes a loop that’s been open for decades, since they first spoke with the label in the early ’00s, around the same time Destroyer signed to Merge.

When I call Newman and Case, they’re three time zones and thousands of miles apart: she’s in Vancouver, where the band was formed, and he’s in Woodstock, where he now lives. (I am in Chicago, which Newman notes is another important site to the band: the home of frequent collaborator Nora O’Connor.) Despite the distance, Newman and Case mimic a good Pornographers song in conversation, with Newman often leading and Case smoothing things out with a harmony.

Best harmonies

Newman: The ending of “Bleeding Hearts Show,” I think, always jumps out because it has everybody on it. It has Nora O’Connor, who plays with us a lot, and Kathryn is on it and Neko is on it and I’m on it, and whoever else. John’s doing his Oak Ridge Boys baritone. So it sounds really massive. It’s such a simple little part, it’s just a bunch of people going, “Hey la, hey la.” There’s not a lot of words, there’s not a lot of melodic movement, so that makes it easy to just make a massive wall of harmony.

Case: And it has a lot of parts where there’s harmonies, but they’re built of people singing unison in certain places. There’s something about that kind of vibration, when there’s a large group of people doing that, that immediately makes people react very emotionally. Often I tear up singing it a little bit.

Newman: If you can do a three-part harmony with two people in unison on each voice, that’s a cool effect.

Case: Well, that’s Queen and Roy Thomas Baker, to a T.

Newman: The sausage machine, is that what he called it? Also the Cars, that’s what he did with the Cars as well.

Most surprising new song

Carl Newman: Probably “Continue As a Guest.” I just thought it was an interesting loop and I built the song around it, and it had lap steel, you know, it was kind of low-key. It just had a different vibe that I thought, Huh, what are people going to think about that? But then when we were making the record, I noticed that that was a song that people gravitated toward. I have no perspective. It’s always been that way, that every record I’ve ever made, you could tell me it’s brilliant and you could tell me it sucks, and I would agree with both of them. Like, sure. You just lose all perspective.

Neko Case: I haven’t heard the record finished yet, so I still remember everything as being really beautiful vocal overlays. And this happens with every single record we make — I get to hear the record and it sounds like something I’ve never heard, even though I participated in singing on it. [Laughs] It’s this really weird space to be, because you listen to something that you’re kind of a fan of, but then you’re also on it, which feels wrong somehow. So it’s all one record to me, like one big song, because I don’t know them individually yet.

Newman: I have to wait like 15 years to get to that point, where I can listen to a record for what it is.

Hardest song for Neko to sing

Case: I think “Letter From an Occupant” is still the most athletically challenging one, because there’s a lot of range in it and the notes are very large and they’re very loud.

Newman: Even I, on the record, I think there’s a super-high note that I just go to in falsetto. Maybe I’m wrong. Do you remember that?

Case: I would not doubt that. We need John Collins to answer that question.

Newman: I feel like there was a note that was just so stupid high that we couldn’t get it, and I said, “I’ll just screech it, and they’ll mix it in in a way so it doesn’t seem too weird,” which has always been our way. I feel like we’ve always been just trying to patch things together. Back then, I think I was so into the idea of the song, the idea of songwriting and composition, I didn’t really concern myself with who was going to sing it. I think about those things more now. But I think I just presented it, like, “Here it is.” I don’t think we changed the key.

Case: No, we did not change the key. [Laughs]

Newman: But on Electric Version, I remember I wanted you to sing “All for Swinging You Around,” and we didn’t have much recorded at the time. I think we had the drums and maybe just a guitar and bass, so I remember sitting down with you and saying, “What’s a good key for you?” That’s the only time I remember that. And I think I laid down a quick guitar in that key and John laid down a bass, and you sang it. But other times, we just ran with it. I think I used “Letter From an Occupant” as a reference point for how high she can sing. I thought, I have to stop just short of this, because I always remembered “Letter From an Occupant” was just a little too high.

Hardest song to relearn for the Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema anniversary shows

Newman: It was definitely “Broken Breads,” which is a Dan song. I was very glad that I did not have to sing that one. That one is really weird. A lot of them, thankfully, we knew. We relearned “Jessica Numbers” years before, just because one day our drummer, Joe, started playing our old deep cuts. We were in the bus and he said, “These are songs that I like by you guys that we’ve never learned.” He put on “Jessica Numbers,” and it had been so long since I’d heard it. Like Neko said, it was like I was hearing somebody else’s song and I was struck by this song rules! It was that weird feeling of, This song I wrote is so good. So we learned it back then, but I think that was probably the hardest one to relearn just because it’s very prog.

Case: Yeah, the timing is very odd. Same with “Falling Through Your Clothes.” That one wasn’t as hard to learn as I thought it was gonna be, but I think “Falling Through Your Clothes” was the most satisfying to get.

Newman: One of the things about doing these Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema shows was trying to play the songs correctly, even if for the first time. Because back in the day, as a live band, we kind of half-assed it. Not that everybody was half-assing it, but there wasn’t enough of a general agreement within the band that we should all practice hard and learn songs even when they were difficult. Songs that were difficult or were giving us trouble, they got scrapped very quickly. So we never played “Jessica Numbers” more than once or twice. We never played “Falling Through Your Clothes” or “Three or Four.”

Case: We were young and undisciplined.

Newman: You know what it is to be in your 30s — you don’t care about anything!

Song you’d most want Dan to return for on the next tour

Newman: “Myriad Harbour” always kills. That’s gotta be the most popular of all the New Pornographers Dan songs. If we were gonna play one, it would definitely be that one.

Case: “Wild Homes” makes me cry, though.

Newman: That one’s kind of tough. That one’s got some parts in it where, if you haven’t listened to it in a while, you just go, What the fuck, where did that part come from? There’s a guy whose music style has changed quite a bit through the years. He would never write a “Wild Homes” now, that’s for sure. I even felt that way learning songs of mine from Mass Romantic, like, Who is this guy? I feel like I remember Dan better than I remember myself.

Favorite of each other’s solo songs

Newman: I think it’s “Pharoahs.” Or is it called “The Pharoahs”?

Case: It’s just called “Pharoahs.” Or it might be “The Pharoahs,” I don’t actually know. [Laughs]

Newman: It has a quality that a lot of my favorite songs have, especially like Bacharach songs, where it feels simpler than it is. It’s a song that moves in a very strange way, but it feels very natural. Playing in Neko’s band, I really appreciated it, because I was learning the chords and like, Oh cool, I love how these chords move. It gives you a new appreciation for the music when you have to learn how to do it.

Case: I haven’t had to learn how to play it except for one time, but I love the song “Strings” off of Carl’s Shut Down the Streets record. It’s just really beautiful and it’s got all those vocal parts that I love to do — and did do, and it sounds terrible ’cause I sang on the record. [Laughs]

Newman: I honestly do not remember how that song goes.

Person you most want to recruit for the New Pornographers

Case: We have so many people in the band. I don’t know how we could fit more people, so I don’t really think about that.

Newman: I’m trying to think, like, is there somebody who plays an instrument that we could use?

Case: Like a good saxophone player?

Newman: Well, I know somebody who is gonna be playing with us who’s really awesome. Maybe I can just say him. We asked him if he wanted to do it, and he agreed literally an hour ago, so let’s assume that he’s gonna do it. It’s Adam Schatz, who has a project called Landlady, and he plays in Japanese Breakfast. The guy got to play SNL; I’m so jealous of him. He plays saxophone; he’s a great singer and just plays a ton of instruments. I got my first choice in the world, can you believe it?

Weirdest reaction to the band’s name

Case: We had shows canceled. Weren’t we doing a benefit for a children’s hospital or something in Vancouver?

Newman: All of those reactions, they didn’t seem shocking to me. They just felt like Ahh, give me a break. Actually, the fake feud with Raffi, that was really entertaining. That one really made me laugh. I felt bad about that because I thought, Oh my God, why am I messing with this poor old man? He doesn’t deserve to be teased like this. I started it. Raffi did openly say that he was offended by the name the New Pornographers, but I was absolutely not offended by his opinion — I just decided I would pretend to be. So I am definitely the villain in that scenario. Poor Raffi did not deserve it.

Next album that deserves to be played live in full

Newman: Well, in two months it’ll be the 20th anniversary of Electric Version, so I guess it’s that, but I don’t know if I wanna do it. I used to think I didn’t wanna be one of those bands that played the old records, but one day I thought, Why not, let’s do it. I’d like to do Brill Bruisers one day. That’s one album I think would be cool to play front to back because it might be my favorite of our records. For me, it’s really rare to not feel frustrated at the end of a record. I always get to the end and think, Ahh, half of it’s good. There’s always something that frustrates me. But Brill Bruisers was one of the only records where I got to the end and I thought, Yeah, this is good. I listen to it and I don’t know what else to do. At the end of it, I remember thinking, Man, if people don’t like this record, they just don’t like us. I think they’ve just gotta move on. [Laughs]

Case: I’m a big fan of Challengers.

Newman: Yeah, people like Challengers. That one’s been a dark horse throughout the years. At the time, I think people were like, What are you guys doing? Because it was a departure. But I think as the years go by, people appreciate the departure.

Song you most want to change

Newman: There are actually a few songs that I’ve made the band do bed tracks of in the last few years because I thought, I wanna take another crack at it, just for fun. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish them, but they’re there.

Case: Every time I hear “Letter From an Occupant,” the recorded version, I’m like, God, I wish I could sing that again, because I can sing it now.

Newman: We did new bed tracks for “Letter From an Occupant.” So we could do another “Letter From an Occupant.”

Case: Which would be absolutely super-weird to do. But it’s there, so who knows?

Newman: John Denver’s Greatest Hits album in the ’70s, he rerecorded all the songs. So I remember thinking we should do a greatest hits record where we do that, where it’s like new versions of these old songs. It would also make it a little more necessary, because sometimes a greatest hits record seems kind of pointless. Like what, we’re going to sell the same songs back to the fans who already have them? So I thought, What if we did new versions of these songs and then called it “Greatest Hits”? I think we’re trying to do hopefully just a different enough take that people can appreciate it. Like the live version of “I Want You to Want Me” versus the studio version. They’re just two very different things. But even though we have a bunch of tracks for that, I know it’s going to be more work than I think it is, and you have to ask yourself, Do I want to spend a couple months of my life doing re-records? I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but we’ll see.

Best advice for keeping a band going

Newman: [Laughs] I don’t even know if we’re the best band to ask. I mean, we haven’t had the same members the whole time.

Case: Maybe that’s the answer — maybe it’s you have to let people go do what they want and not be weird about it.

Newman: It’s never been a case where everybody’s got their eggs in one basket. Where everybody’s betting on, This is our project. So that eliminates weird ego stuff. Like, what if there was just one band, and it was me and it was Neko and it was Dan all writing songs? That might get weird if there was that “Who’s getting what songs on the record?” But we don’t have that, because Dan does Destroyer and Neko does her thing and I’m the main Pornographers guy, so it makes all that stuff simpler.

Case: Which isn’t really advice to keep a band together. [Laughs]

Newman: At the beginning, I never really thought of the New Pornographers as an ongoing, functioning thing. I remember thinking of it almost as a computer program. I just thought, I’m gonna take my songs and I’m gonna plug them into this and see what comes out. So the idea of us as a band still seems kind of alien to me.

Case: Maybe the answer would be, don’t be sure of what you’re doing. [Laughs]

This interview has been edited for clarity.

While Bejar doesn’t perform on Guest, he did co-write the lead single, “Really Really Light.” A Southern gospel and country vocal quartet founded in 1947 and still active today. The longtime Queen producer is known for his multi-track approach to layering vocals on songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Collins produced the album with his partner David Carswell. “The determination of Challengers to sound mature and not get too crazy is frustrating in the context of the Pornographers catalog,” Pitchfork wrote in a 6.0 review. A bare track of a few instruments and/or vocals that can act as a guide to a song’s melody and rhythm.
The Hardest and Most Harmonious of the the New Pornographers