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Interview: The New Pornographers – “We’ve never had a precise sound”

7 Jul, 2015

The New Pornographers Cinema shot


Written by Tommy Juto

Despite the fact that gusts of wind hints at autumn it’s early summer in Stockholm as I sit down in a sunny corner lounge outside of Debaser Strand for a talk with Carl Newman. He’s here with The New Pornographers to brighten up an average Thursday with some glorious pop melodies.

You went to Oslo last night, right? How was that?

– Yes. It was really good. Oslo has always been one of our best places. When our first record came out we sold a lot in Norway, for whatever reason. We sold more in Norway than in many other countries.

Per capita?

– Even in record sales, we sold a lot of records.

But you still have a quite an audience here as well, although you play a rather small, but great, venue.

– I think this place is too big for us! No, but it’s always nice. Wherever we can play where there’s a few hundred people to come and see us, it’s worth doing. It’s always fun.

How long can you tour an album? Brill Bruisers came out about nine months ago, so are you now more in-between projects?

– Well, I’ve already started working on other things musically, but it’s hard to know how long to tour a record. When you’re a new band you tour for longer, when your album is gaining attraction you do a lot more touring. You keep going back to the same places, you go back to New York to try and play bigger and bigger venues. We’ve been around for a long time, so you sort of know where you sit. You go to a city and you play where you should play, so these days we really don’t go back unless it’s for a festival or something like that.

So you’re in a position where you can pick or choose as you like?

– I don’t know if it’s pick or choose, just knowing how much we should play. Knowing we shouldn’t play too much.

In 2007 you were in Stockholm and played Debaser Slussen…

– Oh, that’s the place that’s right by the water?

Yes, but it’s closed now due to the city rebuilding that area. I remember early that night I was sitting at a table and you were sitting at the table behind me, although it wasn’t until you got up to prepare for your show I realized it was you. Do you still go unrecognized and blend in as anybody?

– Yeah, definitely. I mean, I get recognized sometimes, but not that much.

Also, when The New Pornographers started out, you said that Neko was the only of you that people knew.

– I think people recognize Dan(Bejar) a lot more these days because of his very unique look.

Neither Neko nor Dan are with you on tour…

– This tour is actually the first we’re doing without Dan during the last year.

But not usually, though?

– Well, with Brill Bruisers he’s been doing almost everything with us since July last year. Only in the last few shows he’s not been there and that’s mainly because he’s getting ready for his next record.

Do you ever get in conflict with them because of this?

– Do we ever get mad at them? (Laughs) No, it’s always been the case. Dan plays with us when he can, or when he wants to. It’s just how it’s always been, and I’ll try to convince him to do things. Sometimes he agrees, sometimes he don’t, sometimes you bribe him. You say “hey, if you do this you’ll get so much money…”. He’s got a mortgage, a wife and a daughter, so he has to think about the bottom line… But it’s just how it’s always been.

You’ve got a son yourself, and I understand you’re singing to him?

– I’ve only started singing to him recently, because he’s taken an interest in singing so I thought now’s the time to sing to him when he goes to bed. The big one I’m singing to him now is “All Together Now” by The Beatles, because it’s such a kids song.

That album has got a few kids songs on it.

– Yeah, “Yellow Submarine” is another one I also sing. “Octopus’s Garden”.

People always use references when describing someone’s sound, but I rarely see anyone referring to The New Pornographers. My theory is that it’s because your sound is pretty unique, no bands really sound like you.

– If a band ever is loud and has a lot of harmonies we’ll get compared to them. But we’ve never had a precise sound. Like Spoon, they always sound like Spoon. The National always sound like The National. There’s a group of bands that have a precise sound, but we don’t. The song “Brill Bruisers” compared to the song “Challengers”, it’s very, very different. Different lead singers, different style. So I think we’re maybe a bit more all over the place. It’s like The Shins, I love them, but are there many bands that get compared to The Shins?

Well, if you ask me I think I see them being referenced to from time to time, but never yourselves. Still it must be a good thing, maybe it shows how you stand out?

 – Yeah, I hope we have a style but I don’t know what it is.

What’s it like playing Dan’s songs when he’s not with you on tour?

– This time we’re only doing one, “Testament To Youth In Verse”, but there are other songs that we just can’t. That’s what bums me out. When Neko’s not there, Kathryn sings Neko’s songs and it’s not a big deal, but there are Dan songs that I can’t sing. The songs are so uniquely “Dan”, so when he’s not there we don’t sing them and that’s why I’m always happy when Dan’s there. Then we get to do “Myriad Harbour” or “War On The East Coast” or others like that. But luckily we have enough albums and songs even if we remove the Dan songs.

Kathryn’s got a new soloalbum out just a few weeks ago and Neko also is a gifted songwriter. Is there a possibility that they will get songs of theirs on your next album?

– I don’t think so. It’s just the nature of the band. It’s always been me writing almost all of it and then Dan contributes three songs, and that just seems like the way it should be. Neko has occasionally talked to me about writing with her on her records and I think “no, I shouldn’t be a part of your records”. I feel like “that’s your thing”.

Well, I don’t think you’d spoil anything…

– No, I wouldn’t spoil anything, it would just change it. Plus, I like the weird control. Even if I don’t know what I do in The New Pornographers, even though I’m always grasping, I don’t know… Maybe if somebody contributed a song I’d see that. As long as I could tear it apart!

I was thinking about Belle & Sebastian, on the Fold Your Hands Child… album Stuart Murdoch let his bandmates contribute more than earlier, and as much as I love them that album didn’t stand up quite as well as their other releases. Even if it had some great songs it somehow changed them a bit.

– Yeah, yeah, that’s true. There were some songs on it that were very cool, but they didn’t sound like Belle & Sebastian.

Would it do the same for you, if you tried something different?

– Yes. I mean, some people would argue we’ve already done that. By the time we got to Challengers there was an effort made to become a different band. I like we’re we are now, ‘cause I feel like we made the first three records and at that point I thought “I don’t wanna do the same record again”. Or like I wanted to get away from that style. I feel like Brill Bruisers was the album where I thought we’d veered away from the sound enough. I thought “let’s go back and not be afraid to make a record like our first couple of records”, but at the same time adding new elements. So now it’s fun to be in that place, where I feel like I’m looking forward to doing the next record. It’s nice to have that momentum. Brill Bruisers was a fun record to make and now I’m thinking I want to make another one like that.

Your lyrics are often regarded as difficult to interpret. Are they?

– Well, sometimes I write lyrics that are personal and sometimes I don’t.

Can other people tell when it’s personal or not?

– I think the quieter songs you can tell are more personal, like “Challengers” and “Adventures In Solitude”. But a lot of the time I’m just playing around, not overly worried if anybody can understand what I’m talking about, and sometimes I’m just playing with words. But it’s what a lot of my favourite lyricists do. Like Dylan did, he just played around, or going in another direction like David Byrne. Talking Heads songs don’t make much literal sense, they even had a movie called Stop Making Sense. But it’s all about the music. I’ve always felt that it’s way more about the song.

But if you look at it the other way, it’s more important to not write a bad lyric.

– Well, that’s the game, yeah. I’m not trying to be the best, all I’m trying to do is not suck!

I’m also talking to Dan Bejar tomorrow, is there anything you want me to pass on to him?

– (Laughs) I don’t know… I haven’t talked to him in a few weeks or maybe a couple of months. Well, I heard he’s gonna be in Porto the same time as us. I hear he’s doing press at Primavera in Porto. So tell him if he doesn’t come do some songs with us I’m gonna be really, really insulted and angry.


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