Published Nov 01, 2000Carl Newman is being modest again. "It's just a mess," he says. "I'm just trying to make sense of the turmoil inside my head." In the last few minutes he's referred to his new album, Mass Romantic, by his new band, the New Pornographers, as a shit mix, a shit storm, and now, "just spontaneous brain activity." But for those in the know, for those who've heard the New Pornographers long-awaited debut, there are different adjectives: spectacular, remarkable, simply rocking.
The New Pornographers are a super-group, as deserving of the tag as Vancouver - or any city across the land - is likely to produce. Take a great singer, peerless songwriter and stunning studio arranger in Newman, and remove him from the complex, overwrought easy listening environment of his band, Zumpano. Add to it Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer, a musician-about-town and brilliant songwriter in his own right, whose own work has established him as a reluctant hero, an underground underdog actually worthy of the spotlight he's anxious to shun. Add a third singer in the distinct pipes of bad girl/darling of country, Neko Case; a fourth voice takes the form of Limblifter drummer Kurt Dahle, who contributes from behind the kit to the backing chorus. Engineer, bassist, member of Narduar's Evaporators and sometime Smuggler John Collins and keyboardist Blaine Thurier round out the line-up.
It began in 1996 with a name. Zumpano had just released their excellent sophomore effort, Goin' Through Changes. Yet Carl Newman, ever restless, had other plans. "I always wanted to be the new somethings," he says. "The New Pornographers had a good ring to it."
In its initial stages, the New Pornographers were more of a good idea than a working band. With so many other projects on the go - including Newman's participation in Vancouver's Superconductor, whose magnum opus Bastardsong was released that summer of '96 - the band started slowly, in fits and starts.
Even Newman's explanation of where the name came from was after the fact. "I didn't find out until recently that it actually had some kind of meaning," he admits. "[Televangelist] Jimmy Swaggart wrote a book called Music: The New Pornography. Holy shit, it fits so perfectly. Ever since, I tell people Jimmy Swaggart said music was the new pornography. The New Pornographers are merely musicians.' It's completely innocent, and poo-poos people who say what an offensive name you have.'"
Their first rehearsal took place early in 1997; their first show, one of only a handful the band has played, took place more than a year later, and finally this month, the band releases their stunning debut, Mass Romantic. "A long road," Newman laughs, "but there were many, many naps along the way."
To those outside a group of tape-circulating friends in Vancouver, the New Pornographers were announced to the world earlier this year on a compilation called Vancouver Special. The track, "Letter From An Occupant," caused an immediate stir of excitement amongst anyone who heard it. A driving rock song - "more straightforward than anything I've ever done," Newman says ? it featured epic, improbably soaring vocals from Neko Case, with chugging guitars and backing woo-woo vocals aplenty, a rock tour de force.
Case didn't even know the song before she arrived to sing on the recording. "Carl said, Sing it as cold and as heartless as you possibly can. You are a robot.' It's awesome not to be involved [in the writing process]," she continues with relief. "I go in and do what they say - I'm just a total puppet in this band, and it feels great."
"I didn't want her to sing with that twang she always sings with," Newman explains. "It sneaks in there once or twice. When I used to hang out with Neko, we'd listen to Shocking Blue a lot. [The Dutch band is best known for their oft-covered Venus.'] This woman had a very clear, Germanic-sounding voice; we used her as a reference point. I wanted robotic, [Neko] gave me Germanic - it was close enough."
The band completed four songs in 1998, including "Letter," but life got in the way. Case moved from Vancouver, eventually landing in Chicago where she now resides; Bejar has completed and released two Destroyer records since; Blaine Thurier wrote and directed a film called Low Self Esteem Girl (in which both Newman and Bejar appear); Collins was occupied with his studio and other bands; and the band's first drummer, Fisher Rose, decided he was over-extending himself and quit. Newman toured with Zumpano and as one of Neko's backing band "Boyfriends" and the four songs languished in limbo. When Carl struck upon the idea of inviting Limblifter drummer Kurt Dahle to replace Rose, and with prodding from different quarters, both band members and fans who'd heard those early recordings, the New Pornographers cranked up, and recording began again this year.
If Neko Case is a puppet in the New Pornographers, there's little doubt who the puppeteer is. Even Dan Bejar, whose own songwriting and musical contributions to the group are substantial, downplays his role in the New Pornographers process. "Once in a while I'd look up from the computer solitaire game and say Hey, that sounds good.' You can hear my voice chiming in, I pound on the piano here and there," he says modestly. When I tell him Newman likes to downplay his own role, emphasising Bejar's brilliant melodic and musical vision, he's stands firm. "I think you can trust me on this one," Bejar says. "Don't trust him ? he's a slippery character. I'm telling it like it is."
This kind of friendly banter demonstrates how close the whole band is, but keyboardist Blaine Thussier's comments reveal more truth about the working process. "Dan's a lot more easygoing about how the song evolves. Carl can be a little more, um, specific about what he wants it to sound like."
Had Mint Records not given the band a deadline, Carl Newman would still be in the studio, leaning over engineer John Collins' shoulder and saying "yeah, that should be up," or "we gotta have a lot of that," digging through various instruments, asking "what can we put some pump organ on?" to no one in particular. "Even when it was finished, I was thinking Geez, I'd really like to remix those two songs,'" Newman admits now. "It's kind of hard to let go of that, but I have to remind myself, what are the chances of me being completely happy and satisfied with anything? Maybe it's possible, but those are the people who spend six months mixing their record. I don't have the time and money to do it. You could go crazy doing that kind of thing." He pauses. "I'm willing to take that chance.
"Maybe it's just setting your goals really high," he continues. "When I write a song, I can't help but compare it to every song I've ever loved in my life. To make a record and in the end realise that it's not as good as The White Album, I think I'm ultimately kind of disappointed."
"I don't think it's a real tyrannical vision that he has," says Bejar for clarification. "He's just less lax than I am - it's not tyranny, it's just a lack of passivity." For fans familiar with both Zumpano and Destroyer, it's not difficult to figure out who wrote what; Bejar's NP contributions are just more arranged, more elaborate than the treatment they might get with his more straightforward Destroyer band. "I trust [Carl and John] implicitly and their musical ideas and instincts are solid," he continues. "In a lot of ways I presented up the songs and said run with it. I don't have the knack or the patience for studio orchestration."
Newman is an equal partner in this New Pornographers mutual appreciation society, and his excitement at having Bejar as a bandmate is palpable. "A New Pornographers song by Dan is one that I just steal," Newman laughs. "Sometimes I'm mad about the songs that I've missed. I went to see Dan play solo late last year, and heard a couple of new songs that were really good. Then I realised that those songs could be in my band - it was a very interesting feeling. That's how Jackie' ended up an NP song.
"It's a weird relationship when dealing with Dan's songs in the New Pornographers," Newman continues, "because I tend to mangle them quite a bit, which I love doing. I think they end up coming out a lot different when they go through the NP meat grinder. I don't know how far I can push that before he attacks back. It's not really stealing though - we're both in the band!"
"I know you're not supposed to say things like this," says Bejar, "but I think it's an insanely catchy record. When I listen to it, I'm fairly wowed. It's such a visceral record, and the momentum is relentlessly upbeat. It's kinda gross, how good it is."
If the New Pornographers don't become the biggest band in the world, keen music fans will be once again lamenting a great injustice (surprise!), but other commitments might be working against them. Dan Bejar has returned to work on a follow-up to his brilliant Destroyer album Thief, to be released by New York-based Misra records next year. After a long hiatus, work on a new Zumpano album has begun in earnest for Carl Newman. In addition to geographical considerations, Neko Case has her own country diva muse to follow. John Collins has the Evaporators and a full plate of engineering and studio work (including Destroyer). Blaine Thurier is riding the high of Low Self Esteem Girl's entry in September's Toronto International Film Festival, and is returning to work writing and directing a follow-up feature. Kurt Dahle has returned to drum duties behind the kit for Limblifter.
Day jobs, other commitments? It's the same story for many bands, but the New Pornographers have added their own quirks as well. Newman's perfectionism, for one, can be a hindrance. Not fully comfortable with the "front man" role, it was tough enough to get him to the front of the group for this month's cover photograph. He might prefer a combination Brian Wilson/Wizard of Oz role, manipulating levers and pulleys behind the scenes, the unseen mastermind.
Dan Bejar, for his part, would prefer no photographs at all; having reluctantly agreed to the cover shoot, he wanted the whole group to put their backs to the camera. He spurns even a joking suggestion that the band is heading towards a spot on an Edgefest tour with this album, declaring that "I'd probably have to ditch the band if that happened. I've had a couple of minor experiences with sheer hilarity, and I find the absurdity factor wears off pretty quick, and you find yourself in what I think is a depressing and compromised position. But I think I might be alone in that in the band. It's a completely personal decision; maybe that stuff's not important. Maybe to politicise things like that is irrelevant as long as you're making good music."
The sense of excitement is so high amongst these musicians that they're setting doubts and other commitments aside to give Mass Romantic a boost. This month sees the band play almost as many live dates, on a West Coast mini-tour, as they have in their entire history. Nearly four years after Newman thought of a good name, the band is now real. "Since we started forming, it seems the world has come to realise the great talents of Neko Case and Dan Bejar," Newman enthuses. "I feel like I was a great talent scout. I wanted a band of people that I liked a lot, that I was friends with. That's a big driving thing. Maybe there's something to be said for playing with your friends."