In the Studio: The New Pornographers' Carl Newman on the Band's Next Album | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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In the Studio: The New Pornographers’ Carl Newman on the Band’s Next Album

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Feb 25, 2014 Issue #49 - February/March 2014 - Portlandia
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Back in 2000, it was easy to assume that The New Pornographers would probably be the sort of band that would make one classic album, Mass Romantic, and then quietly fade into inactivity. For one, they were building their career on a kind of musicpower-popthat never really goes out of style but never completely breaks through in a significant way, either. For another, supergroups have an even shorter shelf-life than regular bands, and two of The New Pornographers' main contributors, Neko Case and Dan Bejar, already had critically acclaimed careers in their own right (Case as a solo artist, Bejar as the frontman for Destroyer). But 13 years later, The New Pornographers have not only survived but have become one of the only supergroups that have achieved a level of notoriety equal to any of its individual members. Here, lead Pornographer Carl Newman talks about their yet-to-be-titled sixth full-length album, his work on the soundtrack for The F-Word, and his surprise at how his band has been able to last longer than just about any supergroup before them. [Note: There's a separate in the studio article on The New Pornographers in our current print issue. These are portions of the interview with Carl Newman not included in the print article. Pick up our current print issue to read more about The New Pornographers' next album. Keep in mind that the album is still a work in progress and the details and direction of the album may have changed since this interview; consider this a snapshot of the album's recording process.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So how far along is the next album?

Carl Newman: It's pretty close. We're not trying to rush it out or anything, but it's pretty close. I feel like if someone leaked everythingall the mixes we have right nowit would feel like a finished album. But we still have some ways to go on it. We always want to tweak things, so it's good to have a little bit of that luxury. Neko is still touring her album, so there's no point in us rushing or anything. It's nice to have a record done and I can go and do something else for a while, or get a head start on the next one, even.

So when did you officially start working on this album?

In the spring [of 2013]. John Collins, our bass player, who has done a lot of producing for us through the years, he came to Woodstock and would essentially live at our place for a couple weeks, because we have a cottage. I built a separate studio space and then we also have this little cottage that came with the place, so it was really handy that I could have my regular life. It wasn't regular life for John, but, for me, I could be at home with my life and my baby, and John would live in his house next door, and we would go to work at the studio. It felt very civilized. It's a very nice way to work.

So you made the demos at that point?

Yeah, yeah. And I went to Vancouver a couple of times over the spring and summer just to rehearse and do drums. There were a few songs where we did the drums the first time, and I changed them, because I wanted to speed up the song. Usually, I'd speed up the song, and then we redid some. Now I'm back in Vancouver doing some mixing. I did a soundtrack for this move called The F-Word, this Daniel Radcliffe romantic comedy, so that took up a good chunk of time. And when you consider that John would come for two or three weeks and then go home for two or three weeks, it made it so that even though we've been working on this record for nine months now, it hasn't been nine months, because he'd work for two weeks and then he'd be gone for two weeks. And then he'd come back and we'd work on the soundtrack, and then he'd be gone again. There were a few months where the Pornographers album was in limbo, but now it's not. It's very close. It's very much how it used to be. I think about Mass Romanticit was made over such a long period of time. Back then, it was for different reasons, but I think there was something I like about that. I know there's something cool about knocking out an album quickly, but usually when I knock it out quickly, there are too many things that I regret later. It works for some bands, but for us, I like it when songs have some time to evolve.

Does taking more time allow you to hear things that you wouldn't otherwise, since you can come back to tracks and hear them with fresh ears?

Yeah, it's nice to have perspective. I noticed something on this recording that I always thought but that I realize must be true: it's that the longer you listen to a song, the faster it seems to become. A song sounds its slowest the first time you listen to it, and I think there's a scientific reason for that, just because your brain in taking in a lot of information, maybe that creates the illusion of time slowing. And when you're very used to a song, it sounds faster. Things like that will mess with your ears, and that's a good reason to step away from a song for a while. That's my long way of saying that it's good to step away from a song for a while and then come back and listen to it, because you can lose perspective. That's why people talk about wanting to bring in fresh ears in the studio, someone else who hasn't been working on the album for so long. They have some perspective sometimes, and the other people are going crazy.

Did you know what kind of album you wanted to make before you started recording?

We had a pretty good idea of where the album should go at the beginning, and I think we stuck with it. At this point, I hate talking about the record, because it always comes back to bite me on the ass, but I feel like we've done what we meant to do. I think we wanted to make a certain kind of record this time around, a record that was a little bit more upbeat. I said to myself, "No ballads on this record." There are a couple of mid-tempo songs on this record, and I thought, "That's okay. But no ballads." I just wanted to make a good rock record.

Does that mean that these songs are more straightforward and less proggy?

They might be a little less prog. I've noticed through the years that when we have to do acoustic sessions, I have so many songs that are hard to play acoustically. Because of the way we work, I just couldn't. It's hard to play "Move" acoustically. But on this record, I feel like there are a lot of songs that are very much not folk songs, but there are a lot that I could sit down and play for somebody on an acoustic guitar, which makes life a lot easier when we have to play acoustic sets.

To what extent do you think this album is a reaction to your solo album? That one had a fairly restrained mood.

I think I had this record in planning when I was making Shut Down the Streets. With that one, I knew I wanted to make a certain kind of record. With everything happening in my life with my mom dying and my son being born, I wanted it to be a quieter record, a record I thought my mom might like. And it just didn't seem proper to put a really sad song on a Pornographers record. So I thought, "I'll get this out of my system and then I can get back to making a rock record," or what I think is a rock record, at least.

Did working on the soundtrack influence the way you approached this album?

It did in that it was good to remember that you can just spontaneously create when you need to. With the soundtrack I sat down in the studio and we'd look at a scene, and we'd go, "Well, we need to make a piece of music that's a minute long." And sometimes I'd listen to the music they'd used as temp music and use that, but it was interesting to just go, when you have nothing written and go, "Let's write something that sits here." And there's one song on the record that was actually an abandoned idea for the soundtrack that I thought was really cool, and I built on it. Now when I look back on it, it bears absolutely no resemblance to where it started, but still, it started with just sitting down and being spontaneously creative. Which is cool. You hear stories of the Brill Building songwriters, how they'd sit in a room with a piano and they'd just pound out songs...not that it felt like the Brill Building, but I like the idea of trying to be disciplined about it. Like you'd go to work every day and be like, "Let's make music." And sometimes you're shocked at what comes out. It makes me think, "Yeah, I should work on my music more."

Is it different to be working on something where you're aiming to please someone else more than yourself?

I actually liked that a lot more, because it makes life simpler. You're not overthinking it or going "what is this statement that we're trying to make here? Where does this album sit in our oeuvre?" There's all these things you're thinking about in making an album, and it's so much simpler to write a piece of music and all you're trying to do is make the director happy. And if they gave me a piece of temp music they really liked I'd listen to it and go, "Okay, I'll do something like this. This makes my life easier." And the fact that you rarely have to write lyrics for that stuff makes life even easier. It was fun. I'd love to do more of it. It's more fun. It's less soul-searching making a soundtrack.

It seems like doing a soundtrack would be much more reactive, since you're trying to create something that is a reference to something else.

That's true. It was nice to worry about mood more than anything. I like the idea with soundtrack music that you could just bang two sticks together and say, "Yeah, it seems like this would work best in this scene. I'll just bang two sticks together, and that will be the best thing for us." Like the Ligetti stuff in Eyes Wide Shut, just the long held notes. It's brilliant soundtrack music, but it's also the kind of soundtrack music where you'd go, "Well, anybody could do that." Well, anybody could but they didn't.

Do you think these new songs have a certain theme that is running through them?

I really don't know what the theme is. I feel like we've never really had themes. I feel like a lot of the themes that have come out in Pornographers records have been on the mid-tempo songs, like on the slower songs when they get personal. I feel like when we get to the more upbeat rock stuff, we've always been a little...I don't know how to describe it. There's less...I guess I don't know. I'd have to think too hard right now to figure out what are the overarching themes on the record. I guess there isn't one.

This will be the sixth New Pornographers album. Does it get easier to get everyone together and make the process work?

No. It absolutely does not. There's always something weird. It's strange when you've been in a band for so long. It's like every family thinks they're the craziest family, and I think to myself, "Are we the craziest band?" And who knows? We're all inside of it, and we don't really have any perspective. But I think we might be the craziest band. Difficult to work with. Crazy. It doesn't get easier.

In a practical sense, it doesn't seem like a band like The New Pornographers should work. 

It's shocking to mevery shocking that we've made it this long. It blows my mind that it was 13 years ago when Mass Romantic came out. It means that I officially have a career. If it goes on this long, I think you have to say it's a career. So far so good. I've been looking over my shoulder thinking my career was over for about nine years now. Over nine years. Nine to 10 years. It's interesting to still be here.

Was there a point when you realized that you actually had a career?

I guess there was a point when Twin Cinema came out, which was right around the time I met my wife and I moved to New York. I think that was a point where it was self-perpetuating. It felt like, "Hey, everything is going my way!" It's like Maslow's hierarchy of needs. You spend most of your life just making sure you can pay the rent, and it's weird to make the jump to "Let's not just pay the rent. Let's buy a place." And now we have a baby, and we have to take care of the baby. It's interesting. I feel very lucky. We never got huge and I'm not massively wealthy, but I feel very grateful for the little niche we have. I started thinking, "Maybe we're the band that gets to stay." Because so many bands have a few years, and they get kicked out of the spotlight, like "We don't want to hear about you anymore. You were big in 2006. That's it!" Maybe we're already that band. It's nice to know that we're allowed to stick around. And it comes back to if we've been allowed to stick around for 13 years, what's a few more years? They might as well let us stick around a little longer.

There really aren't any other bands that have sustained such a complicated creative relationship like The New Pornographers.

The only other one I can think of is Broken Social Scene. But even they've broken up, haven't they? Or did they reunite? Who knows? I've always felt a lot of parallels between us and them, just the weird rotating lineup. The large band. Canadians. And just the loose structure of it. There really aren't that many other bands like us, for both good and bad.

Is it difficult at this point to keep from repeating yourself?

[Laughs] I don't know. I feel like the goalposts have already shifted for us. I feel like from the beginning, when I think of Mass Romantic, I went into the next record thinking, "We can't make another Mass Romantic." And then Electric Version was still a lot like Mass Romantic, which I think was good, because people wanted another Mass Romantic. And I think you can tell, if you listen to it, that on Twin Cinema I wanted a change. And on Challengers, then I really felt like "Let's just throw out the window any preconceived notions of what people think we should sound like." But all that said, it has been really enjoyable making this record. It has been cool to take time off from the band and feel refreshed and into playing new songs. It has been nice.

How do you feel about Mass Romantic now being regarded as one of the classic albums of the past 20 years?

I don't know. If people think it's a classic, I think that's awesome. It's nice to be well thought of. That was a very fun time of life, because you only get one chance to be the hot new band. Not that we exploded, but it felt like it to us. We showed up at the same time as The Strokes and The White Stripes, and they were the huge bands, but it felt like the same thing, like "Wow! We used to play for nobody and now 400 people showed up. This is amazing!" I have a lot of fond memories of that time, and it was obviously a turning point in my life. That was the year in which my life turned, so Mass Romantic will always have a dear place in my heart.

www.thenewpornographers.com



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Mike Miledi
February 25th 2014
5:59pm

A new New Pornographers album is coming, thank God. I wonder if they actually realize how great they are? When reading interviews of various band members, I some times feel that Kurt Dahle is the only one who really believes they are.