The New Pornographers

Mass Hypnosis

Photo: Erica Henderson

BY James KeastPublished May 1, 2003

"I thought if we could sell 2000 copies, if Mint [Records] could make their money back, that's success. That was my big dream for the Pornographers — have something to give to my friends."

It was simply realistic thinking, in the summer of 2000, for New Pornographers bassist John Collins. It had been nearly four years since Carl Newman, the sonic architect behind Sub Pop easy-listening prog band Zumpano, envisioned a rock band with a "the" name. Almost three years since he invited some of his favourite Vancouver musicians to lay down four songs in the hope that Sub Pop — Newman's label, after all — would consent to releasing a two-song 7-inch. They weren't interested. Those four completed tracks, including the spectacular "Letter from an Occupant," sat, unloved and unreleased, on a single DAT in the back of a drawer, without even a single backup copy.

When Newman resurrected the idea and the tunes again a couple of years later, he was able to lure those musicians back to the studio, more as a lark than anything. "We'd existed as a half band," says Collins, who has been a member of the Evaporators for nearly 14 years. "If I had an Evaporators gig that conflicted, I'd do the Evaporators show. What am I going to do? Blow off two or three gigs for these weird, one-offs? I'm sorry guys, but my real band has to come first — everyone had that attitude."

The planned release of Mass Romantic in November 2000 seemed to have even worse timing for the band's myriad scheduling nightmares. Neko Case had blossomed from Maow drummer into an burgeoning country diva. Dan Bejar's Destroyer was putting the finishing touches on their magnum opus, Streethawk: A Seduction. Carl Newman had an unfinished third Zumpano record to complete. At that point, even Neko Case wasn't the star power in the band — the arrival of Limblifter drummer Kurt Dahle, replacing Fisher Rose, provided that.

But that summer, an unlikely compilation featuring pretty much the whole Vancouver music scene, dropped from the sky. The Good Jacket Presents Vancouver Special gave the world the first taste of, as they were billed, the New Pornographers and Neko (very Velvet Underground) on "Letter from an Occupant." Even daily doses of its bombastic ambition couldn't answer questions about what the hell it's about, but its sheer catchy accessibility, the soaring Neko vocals and its melodic audacity meant you couldn't ignore it. The New Pornographers were coming.

"The first few years of the band, we'd only played a few shows [in Vancouver] — there would be 75 moderately interested people standing about," says Collins. "I've been involved with a lot of stuff that I thought was genius. I'm surrounded by geniuses. We rule! There's no reason why people shouldn't raise us up on their shoulders. And then nothing happens at all. I've seen it happen to so many people in Vancouver. It's just weird that it worked."

This time, each show seemed like a new milestone. Within weeks of its November release, the New Pornographers were Canada's buzz band and their first Toronto gig, which sold out the mid-sized Lee's Palace (a venue none of the members' other bands could fill, even all together) was more a coronation than a performance. The band went from a casual concern to a top priority, and plans for an American incursion were made. They sold out shows in Cleveland — okay, perhaps the cross-border buzz would explain that — then San Francisco, then New York City. The New York Times named Mass Romantic one of the 10 best unheard albums of 2000 without an American release of the record. The snowball got bigger — Rolling Stone, Spin and Entertainment Weekly all jumped on board, and Matador Records picked it up for international release.

John Collins characterizes the last three years as "surprising."

This month, the New Pornographers once again hoist their leader, Carl Newman, aloft on their shoulders in a celebration titled Electric Version. Fears of a sophomore slump are immediately alleviated; Electric Version is less relentless than Mass Romantic, expanding on without abandoning their signatures, while ramping up the wall of sound elements: more voices and bigger sounds. It's a lovely creeper of a record that rocks and breathes and soars, balancing dynamics in a way their debut didn't.

With the strength of their accumulated talent, it's obvious to call the New Pornographers a supergroup, but it's all channelled to serve the vision of one man: Carl Newman. He is the head chef in the Pornographers kitchen; each member is a willing ingredient in his brew of crazy radical drum beats and four-part harmonies.

"[Carl] would boss people around with really vague ideas," says Collins, who as a studio engineer is the technician responsible for capturing their sound. "In the nicest possible way, people would indulge him. I would think, I'm really glad this guy is putting these songs together, but it's kind of a miracle that no one is saying, 'Stop telling me what to do,' or, 'I like what I'm doing so butt out.' Sometimes I couldn't tell if he was writing the song or if the band was and he was just saying what he didn't like. It was a long process, with him as the chairman."

"When I'm making a record, I'm never worried about stepping on other people's toes," Newman says. "'Oh, I can't play guitar here because that's his job.' We're just trying to make a record — I try not to be concerned about my own ego and try not to be concerned about anyone else's either."

Back in the studio for Electric Version, this time weighted with the pressures of a successful debut, Newman had to recapture a sound that had been a happy accident the first time around. "I feel like we never really had a guide. I'm sure Elephant 6 bands can listen to Sgt. Pepper's and say, 'Here's the album we're going to use as a marker.' To a certain extent, the only reference point was our first record. Trying to figure out what made us sound like us, then moving in a slightly different direction — going down the same road but sometimes turning left when we would have turned right."

In important ways, the New Pornographers in concert and in the studio are two different bands. "Until we started touring, all the people on this record were never really together," Newman says. "You feel more like a band when you tour, and then when we started making [Electric Version], we kind of disintegrated again."

Before the release of Mass Romantic, Vancouver resident and co-songwriter Dan Bejar played live with the band, but shortly after, he moved to Montreal and retreated away from the spotlight that quickly swung in their direction. Neko Case sang lead on "Letter from an Occupant," but her contribution to Mass Romantic had been otherwise limited to a handful of backing vocals, and she had no hand in the songwriting process. She hadn't played with the band before the album's release, but she quickly became an essential element of the concert experience. The overly gregarious Case was the perfect foil to the occasionally self-conscious Newman.

Two early shows in San Francisco were the first sign that something odd, something special, was happening. One San Francisco record store, tastemaker Aquarius Records, jumped on Mass Romantic. "I think we sold 500 copies just in this little indie store," Newman says. The attention got them booked into a mid-sized venue, jumping over the club level many bands never rise out of. "That was the first show that seemed really crazy to us," he continues. "[Keyboardist] Blaine [Thurier] got flashed by a girl in the front row during the first show. We were thinking, 'These San Francisco crowds are wild,' but the people in the audience were like, 'What's up with this crowd?' It was just a strange chemical reaction, caused by us. It's a perplexing little phenomenon."

It was on their second trip to the Bay Area that a pair of women's panties suddenly flew onto the stage. "It was a testament to hilarious people that liked the music we make," says John Collins. "It's just so goofy that we all got the joke immediately, and before we knew it, there were a half-dozen pairs of panties on stage during one song. It was a weird ironic moment where everybody got the joke. It was postmodern panty-throwing."

John Collins has been the least-known important scenester in Vancouver for more than a decade. As a bassist, he's a long-time member of the Evaporators, and he has toiled part-time in bands like the Smugglers, Vancouver Nights, Superconductor and Zumpano. In the New Pornographers, he's the right-hand man to Carl Newman, a low-key enthusiast with the technical skills to help realize what may only be half-formed musical ideas.

About a decade ago, the proliferation of digital eight-track recording technology sparked ambitions in Collins and Smuggler David Carswell; they pooled their cash, started a studio in Carswell's basement, and JC/DC was born. In order to facilitate their own learning curve as producers and engineers, Collins and Carswell initially charged very little for their space and services, and quickly, Vancouver's underground took advantage. The first band to lay down tracks at the newly minted JC/DC Studios was a young punk trio calling themselves Meow, featuring Neko Case on drums — they would become Maow shortly after.

Collins and Carl Newman intersected sporadically as well; both attended Simon Fraser University, and Collins had seen Newman behind the counter at local record store Scratch Records, but it wasn't until Superconductor and Zumpano burst onto the scene that Collins took notice.

"Superconductor were the best band in the world," Collins gushes. "I couldn't believe they were from Vancouver. They should have been a legend I only heard about, not a band that was playing my town. They would just floor me with the logistics." Those logistics included at least nine people, many of them guitarists, performing a bombastic brand of epic rock that bridged indie vogue with more aggressive, metal leanings. "Superconductor was just concentrated coolness," he says. "So many people with such hilarious rock nonchalance. Not four super rock stars, but eight or nine."

Collins got his first opportunity to work with Newman when his band Zumpano used JC/DC studios to do demo tracks for Zumpano's second record, Goin' Through Changes. Zumpano's label, Sub Pop, was sending them to Chicago to work with producer Keith Cleversley (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), but it was in the chilled-out atmosphere of JC/DC that the recordings first took shape.

"We had such a relaxed, take-your-time attitude when we were doing the demos," says Collins. "It was an important gig for me and Dave [Carswell] because we liked Zumpano so much, so we took our time, indulged ourselves and indulged [the band]. When they actually got to the recording date in Chicago and had a finite amount of time, they actually kind of blew it a little bit and didn't do a lot of the finer finishing touches that Carl would have liked. I was really into his singing and I just wanted to do tons and tons of vocals — we did stacks of vocals on the demos. When they went to do it [in Chicago] the vocals got burned, scheduling wise. Carl didn't get a chance to really indulge himself."

The combination of Collins' laid-back approach and Newman's deliberate working process proved a fortuitous match. "He's kind of a slow worker in general," Collins says of Newman. "He takes a lot of time and patience, — especially back then, when he was really learning to sing with himself. For a lot of that session, there was a real reliance on gin gimlets for inspiration. A lot. Carl really enjoyed singing when he was loosened up with a couple of gimlets. I think he was still a bit nervous about singing in the studio, but we all treated it as an extension of a party we'd been at. When it's one of a bunch of things going on, you can actually get a lot done, rather that sitting and obsessing, psyching yourself up."

That approach was an extension of why Collins wanted to start a studio in the first place. "I loved how the Evaporators sounded when we were practising," he says. "It was freeform, and still is. Just let 'er rip. I noticed that the more I tried to play well, the less well I played. Whatever I have going for me as a musician would slowly slip away. I wanted my own gear so I could indulge myself and take the time that I wanted.

"Sometimes, when we're really busy, Dave and I will act really pro," he continues. "If we're in a big studio trying to get something done, we can be efficient, but generally we want to maintain the casual attitude. If you're going to do the same thing every day, there's no point in turning it into something that's going to give you an ulcer. You'd probably turn out a lot worse music and lose a lot of friends and clients."

Cheap recording and good times at JC/DC is how Dan Bejar entered the picture. In 1996, he had released his first effort as Destroyer, a sloppy bedroom recording called We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge. Bejar was seeking help to record a follow-up, and JC/DC was the perfect environment. Collins wound up playing bass on what would become Destroyer's City of Daughters; when it was finished, he found himself in the band and stayed for almost four years.

"It was fun, kind of like being in the band," Collins says. "I really felt like I was in a cool rock band. When we played, it wasn't always as good, because there was regularly too much booze involved."

Dan Bejar's songwriting approach was, and is, the complete opposite of Carl Newman's. Whereas Newman is very detail-oriented, Bejar prefers the spontaneous joys of on-the-spot creation. "Dan would almost intentionally not let [Destroyer] work over songs too much. He would actually withhold songs until a certain time before the show or before recording, so they still had a bit of looseness to them."

That approach extended to Bejar's contributions to the New Pornographers as well. The Bejar songs that appear on Mass Romantic were mostly unrecorded Destroyer songs that Newman heard first and snagged for the New Pornographers. One of them, Mass Romantic closer "Breakin' the Law," appeared originally on his first album, We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge.

When it came time to record the second New Pornographers record, Bejar was even less involved and initially, there was doubt if he would return to the band at all. "If Dan didn't want to sing on the record, we would have done a few Dan songs without him singing," Newman says. "But he moved back to Vancouver [from Montreal] a few months before we started doing any serious work on the record. We already knew one of his songs we were going to do" — the Thief-era composition "Testament to Youth in Verse" — "and we'd just kind of intimidate him. We forced [Electric Version song] 'Chump Change' out of him, and just kept saying, 'What else you got?'" Bejar even came to the band with a song he thought would be perfect for the New Pornographers; it didn't even end up on the record. "It was really unwieldy, and we didn't know what to do with it," Newman says, "but I've figured it out and it will be a great song on the third record."

Bejar's nonchalant approach gives Newman the freedom to tinker and rearrange to his heart's content. Working on someone else's tunes is rather freeing for Newman, in fact — and he loves to give Bejar songs the opposite treatment their composer would. "His songs are so separate from mine. I think they're easier to work on," he says. "I don't second guess them. My own songs, I listen to them and sometimes think, 'This is just some stupid thing I made up in my head.' It doesn't sound complete to me, because I know the genesis of it. When I hear Dan songs, because they're someone else's, they already seem fully formed. With Dan songs, I always do vocal stuff with four or five people singing, maybe because that's something Dan would never do. 'Dan would never have a five-part harmony chorus at the end of his song. Let's do that!'"

John Collins' increased confidence and skill behind the boards, combined with Carl Newman's ambitious songwriting visions ensure that the New Pornographers are here to stay — regardless of how a live incarnation of the band might manifest itself. "Dan stopped playing with us and we went on; now everybody knows us as a live band without Dan. It used to be that Neko wasn't in the live band — and she doesn't do much on the record or write any songs — yet people would expect us to break up the band if she [stopped touring]."

Since Electric Version was recorded piecemeal — Bejar and Case were only in the studio for a few days to record vocal tracks — there's no reason why the New Pornographers can't continue indefinitely. At least, as long as Newman still thinks there's something worthwhile there.

"I consider it a challenge to keep making good records. There are a few bands that are inspirational for how long they've been making good records: the Flaming Lips or Yo La Tengo or Guided By Voices. I'd like to use them as a model and try not to start sucking. Although sometimes I wonder if it's up to us to not suck. When you spend a lot of time on something, you totally lose perspective. At the end of making this record, we thought, 'What have we done? I don't know. Is it any good? I can't tell.' It makes me think of those bands that put out records that are terrible. Maybe they just don't know. That's scary."

Newman considers the half-finished third Zumpano record a dead issue. "For a while I thought that record would be finished, but now, no. There are a few songs that are pretty much done, but the amount of effort I would have to put into doing it, I just can't see happening. I would be spending a month or two making something for basically no reason. The underground of Zumpano fans is pretty small — they are not a huge legion."

The increasingly prolific Newman has considered dismantling a few of those Zumpano songs for parts, and is also forging ahead with a solo album of his own. "It will definitely be a little mellower," he says, but likely not an acoustic singer-songwriter record. "I really want to avoid that because it's such a cliché. I always want to slap guys that do that."

For a band that began so shakily, whose first forays into recording were full of false starts, their future seems assured — there will be a third New Pornographers record, one that Newman wants to start on soon and that, he hopes, will be his best work yet.

"It's better to travel hopefully than to arrive," he muses. "I think that's a healthy way to work. In anything you do, you want to be the best. If I was a tennis player, I would be aiming to be world champion. I wouldn't say, 'I want to be the best in Vancouver, then I'm laying down my racquet.' You're aware that you may never get there. It's the striving that's important."

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