Published Aug 22, 2014Over the course of the New Pornographers' career, the band have gradually been shifting away from the electrified, keyboard-spiked energy of their early work in favour of a more organic sound. The upcoming Brill Bruisers, however, flips this trajectory on its head.
"We don't care if we sound real," reflects frontman Carl Newman — otherwise known as A.C. Newman — in an interview with Exclaim! "We just want to sound good."
Bassist and co-producer John Collins concurs. He says, "Whatever drove the song — we weren't going to second guess it by saying, 'No, we have to make this sound like a band in a room.'"
This meant scrapping the horns and strings that frequently dominated the arrangements on 2007's Challengers and 2010's Together, replacing them with distorted electric guitars and arpeggiated synths. Much of the recording took place at Newman's Little Blue studio on his property in Woodstock, NY, with the frontman and Collins building up arrangements overtop of stripped-down vocal demos.
Newman notes, "When you have an arpeggiator with live drums, that's a very propulsive rhythm. When you're using arpeggiators, the keyboards become part of the drums. They become very percussive because they're so locked into the time."
The frontman adds, "In the past, we were never really concerned about the groove of a song."
This is no longer the case, since Brill Bruisers contains some of the band's more danceable, upbeat material to date. The Neko Case-sung "Champions of Red Wine" is anchored by a slinky, twinkling pulse, while Dan Bejar's "War on the East Coast" is hard-charging and urgent.
Another Bejar-penned standout, "Born with a Sound," adds another indie star to the New Porns' mic-sharing collage of vocalists: Amber Webber of Black Mountain and Lightning Dust.
"That was the last song mixed," remembers Newman of the song. "The record was essentially done, and Dan was still working on 'Born with a Sound.' Everybody was gone. Neko was gone, Kathryn [Calder] was gone. Amber's an amazing singer, so Dan brought her in."
While Brill Bruisers is by far the band's most electronic, computerized record, it's not the first time that Newman has worked with arpeggiators: his 2012 solo effort, Shut Down the Streets, also features a textured burble of synths. But while that album featured plaintive folk ballads about the recent death of his mother and the birth of his son, Brill Bruisers is less sombre in its tone.
"I can only write when I'm not absolutely crippled by something horrible and sad," he says about his productive current mindset. "I wouldn't say I'm the happiest person by any means. It's not that I want to be happy when I'm working — I just want to be focused, because I'll do my best work when I'm focused. And if something horrible is happening, I'm unfocused."
Newman notes that the record includes some autobiographical lyrics: "Wilde Eyes" is for his son, while "Fantasy Fools" is about getting older. But there's also plenty of the band's enigmatic imagery and difficult-to-parse poetry.
"There's a lot of personal stuff in the record, but I don't think that's the main thrust of it," Newman observes. "Ultimately, I just wanted it to be a cool-sounding record."
In that case, mission accomplished.
Brill Bruisers drops on August 26 through Matador Records/Last Gang Records. See the band's tour schedule here.
Read our recent Timeline on the New Pornographers here.