The band makes sense of a changed world
By Jeff McCord
“I don’t mean to be the last one standing / only meant to be the next best thing”
This line, from “Cat And Mouse With The Light”, one of ten gems from the New Pornographers’ ninth album, Continue As A Guest, neatly sums up songwriter/frontman AC Newman’s current headspace.
In a way, the album title says it all: the weird anonymity of the pandemic years, and the pondering of where a band of 26 years fits in a changed world.
We’re chatting after the band’s recent Studio 1A performance, and it’s all clearly on Newman’s mind.
“I think at some point we felt like more a part of the zeitgeist in some way. All the cool Canadian rock bands were showing up. We showed up first, but by no means the biggest. Then it was Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade. There were a ton, so many that nobody blinked to see a Canadian band anymore. The first five years of the 2000’s were a good time for us. But then you realize like, oh, there’s a new zeitgeist. We’re the band that’s still here and you’re happy to be here, but you realize, yeah, maybe we’re just continuing as a guest. Maybe that doesn’t matter. I should be happy to just make music and think it’s somebody else’s time to be the hot new thing. Just be the band that continues doing their best and making music.”
The Pornographers’ stripped-down trio set at KUTX was high-energy. Newman is relishing being back out on the road after such a long layoff. But the band is also out for a long time – five weeks – and it’s enough to reflect on what it all means.
“It’s a very weird one,” he admits. “I haven’t done a tour this long in about ten years. My son just turned 11, and he was nine months old the last time I did a five-week tour. Kathryn [Calder] has a two-year-old, and John [Collins] has a four-year-old, we’re the band of parents going ‘Why are we doing this five weeks away?’”
The ‘why’, of course, is demand: the expectations that go along with a very popular band releasing a new album. Zeitgeist or not, fans want to see the band and hear the new songs.
“There’s the part of me that played in bands for so long where there was nobody there, even though we’ve had crowds for over two decades now, that is legitimately shocked to show up and there’s still an audience. It’s great to see the songs take a new form. Sometimes songs just jump out and become great live songs and you didn’t even know they would. Some songs are hard to play. Sometimes on the record, it’s hard to get them right.”
Getting the songs right became a singular pursuit during the pandemic. Immersing himself in home recording, Newman, like the rest of the world, found himself with unexpected time on his hands.
“Before this [record],” says Newman, “I was moving down that road, doing more on my own. And I had a ton of time. There was no rush. We didn’t know when people were going to be touring again. I could sit in my studio and it was kind of therapeutic to have something to do. A lot of people were taken away from their jobs. I just had to learn how to do some parts of it that I wasn’t very good at, and I’m sure I took it took me ten times as long to do the same thing a professional could have done, but it was fun and it was a time to reflect on the songs, be a harsh critic of myself and think, ‘What do you want to change?’”
I mention that can be both a good and a bad thing, and Newman instantly agrees.
“I was very aware of that! Yeah, people have gone crazy doing this. Sometimes I would listen to where the song was two months ago. And sometimes you’d realize, ‘Oh, I’ve been moving away from it.’ The early version is the best. I would scrap everything we’ve done, and I think that is to counteract that part of you that goes crazy. Sometimes you can lose the plot.”
From the beginning, Newman has been smart and hyper-aware about his songwriting, even if in the beginning, the New Pornographers seemed less like his band than a loose alliance of musicians and songwriters. Dan Bejar [of Destroyer] was on their early albums but is no longer part of the group. Neko Case sings on their records but does not always tour with them (though she is in the lineup this time out).
“Neko never wrote in the band. The Dan [Bejar] thing is weird because he was never quite in the band. He didn’t tour with us until Twin Cinema [their third album, from 2005]. Then after that, he would do like one, two or three dates, but then he wouldn’t do anymore. The band’s always been weird that way. It started more as a club, just trying to make a record with my friends. I still think of it that way, and it’s strange that we’ve solidified into this act. I wanted us to be kind of open-ended. Sometimes I meet musicians and I think they should come and play on a record. Then I realize, ‘Oh, I’ve already got a band.’ I can’t keep inviting people to be in The New Pornographers. We’ve already got a lot of members. But that was very much the spirit of the band. So when it changes, it doesn’t seem that strange to me. For this tour, we’re bringing along Adam Schatz, whose main gig is in Japanese Breakfast. He plays saxophone and keyboards. And it’s amazing just to absorb this cool person and I know he’s just temporarily in the band, but it’s like, well, you’re in the band for this five weeks. You’re not just the guest, you’re in the band. I like the idea of the band being a spirit more than an exact collection of people.”
But these days it’s Newman writing the songs (with a couple of exceptions: the new single from Guest, “Really Really Light” is a jigsaw of scraps left over from their 2014 release Brill Bruisers, featuring a chorus written by Bejar. And “Firework in the Falling Snow” is a co-write with Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis.) Newman explores the fish-out-of-water themes and pandemic-bred online angst on the title track. Another standout on Guest is “Pontius Pilot’s Home Movies”, a slow-build rocker that imagines Pilot showing off in this over-sharing era.
Not a fan of social media, I ask?
“I am not,” says Newman. “But I also am. I mean, I’ve been sober for about 15 or 16 months and it’s a similar thing. I’m not a fan of alcohol, but I guess I am, you know? I feel that saying and trying to cut out social media or at least trying to be on social media less felt very similar to not drinking because it’s obviously addictive. It’s very easy for a person to wake up and open something without even knowing you’re doing it, just automatically go to Twitter or Instagram. That song is very much about that. I was well, I was thinking about how fractured the information is, how something hilarious is juxtaposed with something incredibly tragic and sad or something that makes you very angry and you’re just endlessly taking information and these little bite-sized bits that seem to have no order or reason or rhyme.”
Newman has made a career of exploring life’s absurdities and foibles, set to smartly structured and endlessly addictive power pop. This band, which first assembled back in 1997, may no longer be the next best thing, but they’re doing what they do as well as they ever have.
Is he still having fun?
“It’s great!” he exclaims with a big smile. “I’ve been talking about it the last couple of days, like putting together a setlist. It feels like writing my resume in a way. I’m going through like 23 years of songs and presenting them to people. Here this is, this is what I’ve done. Do you like it? You know, like the audience is your prospective employer.”
FOLLOW THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS
Artist: The New Pornographers
Really Really Light
Last & Beautiful
Firework In The Falling Snow
Album: Continue As A Guest (Merge Records)
Musicians: Kathryn Calder – keys; Carl Newman – vocals/guitar; Joe Seiders – drums
Credits: Producer: Deidre Gott; Production Assistant: Confucius; Audio Engineer: Jake Perlman; Rene Chavez; Audio Mix: Rene Chavez; Cameras; Michael Minasi; Renee Dominguez; Edit: Rene Chavez Host: Laurie Gallardo