The New Pornographers Make a Kraut-Pop Masterwork

Carl Newman, frontman of The New Pornographers, lounging in Manhattan. Justin Joffe for Observer

Vancouver’s The New Pornographers have thrived in the place between body music and mind music, between ephemeral pop and rich storytelling, for almost 20 years.

Since forming in 1999 and releasing their debut, Mass Romantic, a year later, frontman Carl Newman has learned to walk this line with wit to spare, balancing literary indulgence with catchy hooks and giving the NPR crowd profound reason to wiggle.

Over those 18 years and seven records, Newman’s troupe has expanded and contracted—singer Neko Case is a stalwart studio presence but an off-and-on touring member, while Dan Bejar left for Spain after the first record and didn’t start touring with the band until 2005’s Twin Cinema. Both also have illustrious and sprawling solo careers, Case under her own name and Bejar as Destroyer, rendering that “supergroup” label slapped on the band ad nauseam a little after-market.

When we meet, Newman’s sipping water in a cozy nook in his publicist’s Midtown office, its lobby decorated with the same Art Deco flourishes adorning the storied Brill Building 10 blocks down, which served as a central office for Tin Pan Alley songwriters and contained 165 music businesses in 1962, when the likes of Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond Carole King churned out hit after hit. Newman and co. explored The Brill on 2014’s Brill Bruisers, looking outward at the pop zeitgeist with a celebratory, catch-your-breath exuberance.

Today, The New Pornographers release Whiteout Conditions as an evolution of the same themes, looking deeper inward at how the music industry affects the actually musicians who make it turn.

From forthright opener “Play Money,” with its lyrics about people who may be in the game for the wrong reasons borrowed from The Frogs, Newman also examines the bureaucracy of industry and politics in “High Ticket Attractions” (a tradition going back to Mass Romantic‘s “The Fake Headlines”). Prophecies of fame and success called into doubt by questions of authenticity pervade “Coliseums,” while “Clock Wise” laughs in the face of transience with a line about “the valley of lead singers.”

Newman’s already made it clear that this album was envisioned as “bubblegum krautrock,” and the motorik, accelerated beats-per-minute rhythms accompany the feelings of anxiety that run through these lyrics to make for a cohesive, exhilaratingly urgent set. The band also left Matador Records to start their own imprint, Collected Works Records, on Concord Music Group, bringing Whiteout Conditions themes of industry and media infrastructure to a timely and relevant place worth chewing on.

“You sort of fictionalize everything, even if you try to be personal,” Newman told me about writing new tune “This Is The World of the Theatre” in our chat below. “I’m trying to write something personal, but it still sounds like fiction to me.”

We’re 10 blocks from The Brill Building right now, and I understand how, thematically, Whiteout Conditions continues to explore those themes of entertainment media, industry and band dynamics from Brill Bruisers. You’ve also described this sound as a conscious move toward bubblegum krautrock. How do these themes and this sound connect?

We just liked the vibe that krautrock had. Instead of this rock shuffle or things we’ve done in the past, [makes a chugging, motorik krautrock beat with his mouth] knowing that it would just be bubblegum. What we would put on top of that would sound nothing like Neu! or Can or Amon Düül [II], it would just sound like our songs having that vibe. And I thought it sounded like a cool starting place.

Have you invented a new genre?

I don’t think we invented any kind of genre [laughs], in fact, Kraftwerk were arguably bubblegum krautrock.

I asked Moderat how hallowed they were over there, are they a hallowed music geek band like over here or are they ubiquitous? They said Kraftwerk were Coca-Cola, that they’re everywhere.

Oh yeah. My son, “We Are The Robots” is one of his favorite songs. It’s universal and incredibly cool music. But backpedaling, it was more the idea of krautrock. It’s not like we studied it.

The high BPM speed of these songs also play into the themes, too, though. We’re rushing through this world we can’t keep up with, we’re in this economy that’s unsustainable. As a listener, the sound and the subject connect seamlessly.

Definitely, I think that connects to a sort of anxiety that runs through the music. And one great thing that krautrock did, I think, is it was still sort of light. It wasn’t metal. The music pulled back, and I liked the idea of that. Trying to create a sort of sonic slight of hand, then trying to make the songs not as fast sound faster. The arpeggiators can make a song sound faster, while playing acoustic guitars on top of a fast song can make it sound slower.

“Hearing a note where it sounds like someone just pressed record in the middle, it’s obviously artificial, and that just appealed to me…Especially in an era of making stuff on computers, that’s liberating…Let’s try and make it sound as fake as possible.”

Did you learn anything from your fellow AM pop brethren, like Belle & Sebastian, about what heavy ideas you can fit into a seemingly happy song?

Yeah, when we first started playing together, that was not that long after The Boy With The Arab Strap. That was the end of the ’90s, when they were super hot. When I was writing for what would be The New Pornographers, that was in the back of my mind. For me The New Pornographers were simplifying music, because previous to that I thought my songs were too complex.

A song like “Letter from an Occupant” I thought was just dumb…then I realized, no, other people don’t think it’s dumb! Nobody thinks that’s a “Louie Louie”-type song. But the reason I tried to simplify was [listening to] bands like Belle & Sebastian or Neutral Milk Hotel when I thought, “This is absolutely brilliant, not because they’re presenting new chord changes, but because of the melodies, the arrangements, the lyrics.” I thought, “O.K., this is something to keep in mind.”

This record is taking that as far as we’ve ever taken it, in that a lot of the songs only have three of four chords. Going back to that krautrock thing, let’s let the song go for four minutes, it’s not gonna have many chords, it’s all gonna be in the same key. If it’s in the key of G let’s have a G drone that goes throughout the whole thing, and let’s have another droning synthesizer playing a G chord that runs through it. You create these weird, little dynamics where you’ll sometimes hit a point where that rubs just a little bit, but it’s O.K.!

You’re not trying to hide the process, it’s O.K. if the blemishes are shown.

Yeah! And there are parts on this record…the song “Second Sleep” starts with this ping-pong choral thing that’s basically just hacked up vocals. I was trying to edit vocals myself and realized it was sort of ham-fisted and you could hear all the edits. I thought that was awesome.

You never hear the edits.

Hearing a note where it sounds like someone just pressed record in the middle, it’s obviously artificial, and that just appealed to me. Not even trying to fool anybody. Especially in an era of making stuff on computers, that’s liberating. Let’s not even try and make this sound like real strings, let’s just make it sound like something messed up. Let’s try and make it sound as fake as possible.

Carl Newman, frontman of The New Pornographers, in Manhattan. Justin Joffe for Observer

You’ve always been great at world building, but albums like Twin Cinema are full of little vignettes where each song its own story, while these last two albums in particular have sounded like whole universes, singular statements. And you guys have been around for almost 20 years. At some point most artists look back at the narrative that’s formed around their practice, the paths that it’s taken, and it starts working its way into your work consciously or subconsciously. Is there any biography in here?

I think so, like the first song [“Play Money”], I mean it’s a line I took from The Frogs, “I only play for money.” They made It’s Only right and Natural, amazing. A total cult band, they were really great, but super offensive. But they knew they were offensive, and were very funny. [Our] line “I only play for money” was a reference to getting to a place where this is what you do. Not that it’s literally true I only play for money, because I’d actually still be writing even if I wasn’t making anything. But when it becomes your career, and you have to, you sort of have to think that way.

That’s what’s so cool and profane about this, though, you say it straight up in the first song. Baring the process of your own reality before the listener. Pop music doesn’t have to do that, which is why I asked about Belle & Sebastian earlier I guess. It’s pop music, but it’s also not.

Yeah, I love that. Somebody asked me what my favorite song of the last [several] years was and I said, “The State I’m In” by Belle & Sebastian. Almost every line is so quotable, “I was so touched, I was moved to kick the crutches from my crippled friend,” or “So I gave myself to God, there was a pregnant pause, before he said ‘O.K.’ ” That’s brilliant, and there’s more!

“That stuff seems sort of obvious to me, the idea of fakin’ it. That I only play for money, that I’ve been fakin’ my way through this. Just trying to put it out there, that it’s confusing doing this. Some elements of the process are pure, but some elements of the process aren’t.”

That song is so personal it becomes universal. It turns inward to turn outward.

There’s obviously a debt to The Smiths there, with their album covers [when they were] just starting, but Morrissey did that incredibly well, and Stuart does as well—creating this odd world of slightly damaged young people. [Laughs]

Well this new record of yours is about slightly damaged older people of industry—coliseum shows that become soothsayer prophecy.

Yeah that song also has the line, “Don’t listen when the fools say, ‘you can’t fool your way.’ ” That stuff seems sort of obvious to me, the idea of fakin’ it. That I only play for money, that I’ve been fakin’ my way through this. Just trying to put it out there, that it’s confusing doing this. Some elements of the process are pure, but some elements of the process aren’t.

Do they meet halfway on “World of the Theater”? When you acknowledge you’re involved in an inorganic process, you could equally be talking about the career of The New Pornographers as you could be turning it outward to the world at large. Storytelling is theatrical, sure, but so is the information we absorb, the news, the content that comes into our ears.

You sort of fictionalize everything, even if you try to be personal. That’s what I was thinking when writing that one—I’m trying to write something personal, but it still sounds like fiction to me.

You’re talking about playing with money, the valley of lead singers, the ancient ritual of the colosseum sardonically and sarcastically, and you’ve been in this business a while now. There’s been a transformation in how things have been done over the last several years since file sharing and the death of record sales, the grind has changed. Have you gained any perspective about what’s changed for a working musician, even one of your reach?

I still wonder how to do it. I’m not looking at it as an academic argument like, “What would one do if one had to survive in this world?” I’m O.K. now, but at some point you wanna keep going and think, “What do I have to do?” I’m not sure.

For the longest time just doing what I do seemed to be enough, and I’m still using that method. But I’m still reaching out, trying to figure out what else you can do in this world. I’m never gonna stop working on music, so it’s not a punishment. It’s not like I want to stop, but I’ve encountered musicians who say, “The only time I’m gonna write is when the record company calls me up and says they want another record.”

I find that hard to believe. I find it hard to finish a record, but not because I don’t want to, because it’s hard, you know? [Laughs] It’s like trying to get yourself on a jogging or weight-lifting regimen—you want to do it, but it’s hard, it takes discipline. You have to work at it. Harmony and melody, putting chords together, that’s the part I’m pretty good at. But after that you have to arrange it, you have to play it, and how it’s sung makes a big difference, the lyrics make a big difference.

You must have to let go of a lot of that when you tour. The nature of the Pornos as an expanding and contracting troupe means there’s gotta be some ego death happening there.

I’ve thought about that…I think it sort of helped me that I’m the leader and the main person in The New Pornographers, but I’m not the most famous member. I’m primary, technically, but also secondary. It’s not like I need people fawning over me, but it’s not like people aren’t nice to me.

“It’s a confessional, but because it’s in the past, it becomes fiction.”

But you write a lot for Neko, too, and there’s classic American musical history of the girl-boy singers. Writing for those dynamics I imagine you can project things about yourself through other characters.

I look back at The Crystals or whatever, something like that, and Phil Spector’s like, “Whoever, the female singer who’s brought in is just singing my stuff. I just need a singer.” In our case, I sort of did that with Neko, but Neko is obviously this very amazing artist.

Self-actualized.

Yeah. So I bring her in the same way that somebody might bring in a studio singer—she comes in for a couple of days, goes, comes in later for a couple of days and goes—but there’s absolutely not that dynamic. We’re a cool inversion of that, in that she’s sort of doing what all those singer for hires that got no attention did, who were essentially being used by some great producer or artist—

—But she’s also made some of the greatest alt-country records over the last 10 years.

Exactly! So it’s not that. She doesn’t have to be the brains behind our operation because she’s got her own operation that she’s the brains behind. She’s friends with us and is like, “I’ll just come in and do what you tell me to do.” It’s just a different version of that. She’s coming in as the person with the power, not coming in just trying to find work.

And you know, people always wanna talk about politics now…I think there’s a message in there. Even if you’re not singing about political things, to step onstage and be like, “we’re a bunch of men and women and we’re equals,” the women aren’t back-up singers, the women are two of the key members of the group, as musicians, as artists. It’s very subtle, but in this day and age it’s a good thing.

Well to whatever degree there’s biography and personalization on this record, it sounds like songs that someone can only make after some sort of self-realization or therapy, after they realize what’s been going on with themselves.

Yeah, definitely. It’s a confessional, but because it’s in the past, it becomes fiction.

You’ve soldiered through the music industry game for years with this expanding and contracting troupe, and that’s something a lot of people have trouble with, finding routine and career stability when all the factors are constantly changing. How do you do it when everybody’s all over the place? How do you reckon with the singularity of your own vision and stay sane?

It’s hard to! People always ask me how it’s changed, and it hasn’t changed. The setting’s changed, and the payback’s changed, but the difficulty is still the same. Initially I did it because it was something I just really wanted to do, and instead of crossing town to work with John it’s like, “John, you gotta fly to Woodstock, let’s work.” But at the heart of it, when we get together and work, it’s the same thing. The things that annoy me and drive me crazy about the band have been going on for so long.

The New Pornographers. Jenny Jimenez

So long that you can write about them?

Yeah, I haven’t written about all of ’em! But things can be thrown at me and instead of being crushed I’m just like, “Oh fuck me, we’ve gotta deal with this bullshit again?” I realize there’s a weird irony, too, in a band when there’s been 16 years since our first record, but yet from day one there’s been a sense of impermanence.

A month after Mass Romantic came out, Dan got us all together and said, “Yeah, I’m moving to Spain.” I remember thinking then, well, Bejar’s out of the band. But even back then, it didn’t seem like such a big deal, because it never occurred to me that this was gonna turn into something.

Bejar’s kind of your Neil Young, the archetypal loner who shows up when he wants to.

Yeah, he sort of is. People have been asking me if it’s weird to make this record without him, and it’s actually weird that this is the first one he hasn’t been on. For huge swaths of our career he hasn’t been around. It wasn’t until Twin Cinema that he came on tour with us.

You’ve said that you still feel tethered to the New Pornos brand somehow, that there’s more expectation there than with other projects.

It’s my job, and I don’t separate it too much from solo records. But when I look back now, what’s the difference between solo records and The Pornographers? In The Pornographers I appreciate having the other input. On solo records everybody’s looking at me like, “What do you wanna do?”

Whereas I wanna go to the producer or engineer and say, “I don’t know what I wanna do, what do you think I should do?” And in The Pornographers, I have that—”I’m out of ideas, you think of something cool.” And then somebody will have a cool idea that gives me an idea—”Your idea gave me an idea, hopefully my idea gives you an idea,” and it compounds.

Between New Pornographers and the great Wolf Parade and Swan Lake [and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Stars, Broken Social Scene, etc.] there’s something to be said for the Canadian socialist collective vibe with regard to how communication positively affects the songwriting process.

I think it has to come with a certain amount of ditching your ego, or at least, disagreeing in a way.

Disagreeing constructively?

Yeah—I remember on Brill Bruisers there were points when I was just sitting there with Dan and John, and I was disagreeing so hard. That’s what you can do with people you respect who are your friends. Especially when it’s not your idea. When it’s something somebody else has done, and they’ve done this one version and this other version, and you go, “that version is way better. You’re fucking crazy if you think the other version is better!” That’s when we get into arguments.

It’s not like, “My idea is the best, you’re an idiot!” It’s not about me, it’s about us. “I want this to be good, and you’re fucking crazy if you think this is the best version.” And sometimes you have to give in, like, “O.K., but you’re fucking crazy!”

It’s good to have that dynamic, and it usually happens when you’ve gone through a few bottles of wine between you, and you’re arguing about shit like, “Whatever, we’ll start this again tomorrow, we’re friends, goodnight.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The New Pornographers play Terminal 5 with Waxahatchee on April 26. 

The New Pornographers Make a Kraut-Pop Masterwork