The New Pornographers Together Forever
Published Aug 27, 2014When the New Pornographers first emerged, they were frequently billed as a "supergroup," despite the fact that none of the members of the Vancouver collective were particularly famous. Over time, however, the group have gradually grown into the "super" label: Neko Case is one of alt-country's preeminent stars; Dan Bejar has become critically revered as Destroyer; former Immaculate Machine member (and current solo artist) Kathryn Calder has joined the group; John Collins is one of Vancouver's foremost indie rock producers as one half of JC/DC studios; and ringleader Carl Newman has released a trio of LPs as A.C. Newman. "The irony is, now we really are a supergroup," observes Newman. "We weren't back then, but we are now." And yet, for all of their individual successes, many of the musicians' finest moments have come together. Ornate power pop anthems, dazzling group harmonies, and some of the catchiest hooks in the business remain their stock in trade on their sixth album, Brill Bruisers, out August 26.
1968 to 1989
Allan Carl Newman is born in the Vancouver outskirt of Surrey, BC. He spends his childhood living just outside of Vancouver in North Delta and White Rock before moving into the city after high school. No one in his immediate family plays music, but he grows up on a diet of country (from his parents) and classic rock and punk (thanks to his older brother). He develops an interest in contemporary rock bands like KISS, Cheap Trick and the Cars.
He doesn't begin playing music until his early 20s. "It seemed like a massive barrier to cross," he remembers. "It blew my mind. It was such a chasm — that few feet between audience member and guy who's standing on stage. I thought, 'How dare I?' It seemed like hubris. I was like Icarus flying too close to the sun: 'Do I dare do this?'"
1990 to 1995
In 1990, Newman forms Superconductor, a hard rock collective that features as many as six guitarists. Their first show is well attended, and Newman is thrilled, even though he considers the band a joke. "I didn't even have a clue how to write song. And you've gotta remember the musical time. There was grunge, and a lot of even more abrasive music was really popular," he tells Fresh At Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records many years later. "So, at the time, it seemed like, 'Well, I'll just play a couple of these riffs, and then I'll scream over top of it, and that's a song?'"
They release a couple of seven-inches and make their full-length debut with 1993's Hit Songs for Girls on Boner Records. They earn a fan in Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices.
Superconductor tour as GBV's opening act, and Newman recruits John Collins and his JC/DC production partner Dave Carswell to perform as additional guitarists.
Newman also forms Thee Crusaders, a faux-religious group that includes future New Pornographers keyboardist Blaine Thurier and future Destroyer drummer Scott Morgan (aka ambient producer Loscil), among others. They release a double seven-inch EP on Scratch Records. (Newman's day job is working in Scratch's retail store.) "We weren't really serious about it, and yet we had a genuine love for all those Christian campfire songs," Newman reflects. "We weren't really trying to mock religion. I think we were mocking some element of religion and celebrating a different element of religion. No one could tell how far in either direction we went."
Newman wants to start a more earnest project, so he co-founds Zumpano, a four-piece who get their name from drummer Jason Zumpano. They record an album called Look What the Rookie Did and sign with Sub Pop. Newman will tell Fresh At Twenty, "And then we thought, 'Holy shit, we've got it made in the shade. We've been signed by Sub Pop.' And that's when I realized that you can be on a famous label, but that doesn't mean you're going to be popular." Sub Pop releases Rookie in 1995.
Around this time, Newman becomes acquainted with Mint Records co-founder Bill Baker. At first, their relationship consists of friendly ribbing. Superconductor bandmate Keith Parry will later tell Fresh At Twenty, "Carl on more than one occasion got up to the microphone and said, 'I think I have a joke for you: Bill Baker.' Like, really mean-spirited."
Newman also befriends Neko Case, an American who is living in Vancouver to study at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. Case plays drums in various bands, including the Mint Records "cuddlecore" group cub and the punk-y trio Meow (who later change their name to Maow). The latter band particularly captures Newman's attention.
"My first impression ever was when she was playing in Meow, before the name change," he tells Exclaim! "I remember they played at a day-long concert in somebody's backyard, and they wore fur bikinis and cat ears. Meow played and at end of their set Neko randomly started go-go dancing. I remember thinking 'Who the hell is that girl? Oh, that's Neko, I've heard talk of her.' I don't think I really knew her till like a year later. One night I started randomly talking to her and we hit it off." Maow becomes the first-ever band to record at JC/DC Studio.
Newman also meets Dan Bejar, who is a member of the indie rock band True Love Forever. "[They] were sort of a Pavement-esque band that I thought were pretty cool," Newman recalls. True Love Forever release a cassette demo with a couple of Bejar's songs.
Zumpano issue their sophomore album Goin' Through Changes, which was initially demoed at JC/DC Studio. Superconductor's sophomore album, Bastardsong, comes out the same year. Around this time, Newman comes up with the moniker "the New Pornographers." At first, it only exists as a name.
A few years later, Newman tells Exclaim! that he thought up the name because "it had a good ring to it," but he later discovers its hidden meaning. He will say in 2000, "I didn't find out until recently that it actually had some kind of meaning. [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.'"
Dan Bejar releases his first solo album as Destroyer. Titled We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge, it includes lo-fi acoustic versions of future New Porns songs "Streets of Fire" and "Breakin' the Law." Coincidentally, it also includes a track called "The Pornographers." Newman says, "It's a very flawed record compared to what Dan would become — obviously. But I heard songs on that and I thought, 'Wow, I haven't encountered anybody in Vancouver who writes songs like this.'" One of Destroyer's first shows is opening for Zumpano.
Maow sign with Mint for The Unforgiving Sounds of Maow. With 16 songs in just 20 minutes, Neko shares lead vocal duties on the album. Baker will tell Exclaim!, "That voice was literally a surprise out of nowhere. I remember saying to [Mint co-founder] Randy [Iwata] at the time, 'How can we get her to sing on the whole record?' It was the kind of thing that seemed so uncool to suggest so we never said anything to anybody."
1997 to 1999
The New Pornographers have their first rehearsal in 1997, in the basement of a downtown Vancouver storage building. The lineup includes Bejar, Case, Thurier, bassist John Collins of Nardwuar's band the Evaporators, and drummer Fisher Rose. That same year, Case releases her debut solo album The Virginian through Mint. Unlike her previous work in punk and indie pop bands, her solo work is alt-country, and Grant Lawrence is initially sceptical. He later tells Exclaim!, "When I heard that, I went 'Country record? What are you talking about? This is a rock'n'roll girl. She can't do country.' Boy, was I ever wrong." Newman plays in Case's backing band, dubbed Her Boyfriends.
The Virginian features input from producer Darryl Neudorf, who has previously worked with cub and Zumpano. He will continue to be involved in most of Case's major solo releases. The New Porns play their first show at a local clothing store called the Good Jacket. They continue to perform live only sporadically and, by 1998, record four songs: the Case-sung debut single "Letter From An Occupant," "Mystery Hours," and Bejar's cuts "Execution Day" and "Breakin' the Law." Newman hopes that Sub Pop will release them, but he never hears back from the label and the songs remain in limbo. Matador also passes.
They are slow to continue work, as Case moves to Seattle after completing school and presses ahead with her solo career. Before she leaves, she visits her friend Carolyn Mark in Victoria and the two form a duo called the Corn Sisters. They record a live set at Hattie's Hat, a Seattle restaurant where Case will later get a job.
Meanwhile, Bejar releases a Destroyer cassette called Ideas for Songs in 1997. This is followed by the 1998 album City of Daughters, which Bejar records at JC/DC Studio with Collins and Carswell. The album is a diverse collection of CB radio static, stripped-down folk, avant instrumentals, and arty electronics; it marks the beginning of a lengthy collaborative relationship, and JC/DC work on every subsequent Destroyer album.
Newman meets his long-lost niece, Kathryn Calder. She will later explain to Cleveland.com in 2007, "My mom was adopted as a baby and about ten years ago she found her birth family and Carl is in her birth family. At that time I was a teenager and playing in a band and didn't really know I had that family."
In February, Neko Case releases the sophomore album Furnace Room Lullaby. In the fall, the Corn Sisters' previously recorded live album is released by Mint Records under the name The Other Woman. Also in 2000, Bejar issues Thief with Destroyer; this collection of elegant folk rock is his most sonically focused recording yet.
The band contribute "Letter From An Occupant" to the charity compilation Vancouver Special, which is presented by the Good Jacket and released by Mint Records. They are billed as the New Pornographers and Neko. Baker is so impressed by the song that he asks Newman for more material.
"We approached him and asked if there were more. He said yeah, there were like six or seven songs," Baker remembers. "Eventually, in a back alley — I think we were at Yo-Yo a Go-Go or Ladyfest, something in Olympia [Washington] anyway — finally, out of nowhere, down this alley here comes Carl. He produces a cassette tape from his pocket and hands it to me. I didn't even know he was going to be there. So on the way back from Olympia we listened to it and thought, 'Oh my god, we have to put this out.'"
The New Pornographers have no plans to tour or make future records — two strict no-nos for Mint Records — but the label signs the band nevertheless. With Mint's encouragement, Newman and company (now including Limblifter drummer Kurt Dahle) resume work in earnest and complete a full-length album. All of Dahle's drum parts are tracked in a single evening in his practice space. "It was kind of low-tech," says Collins. "It was about as cheap as you could possibly go. No fancy pre-amps or compressors or anything like that."
Mass Romantic is released on November 21, 2000. With its relentless hooks, cryptically inscrutable lyrics and jubilant energy, it successfully captures the potential heard on the initial recordings. It also establishes the blueprint for the collective's division of labour: Bejar writes and sings four songs, while Newman pens the rest and oversees the arrangements, and Case contributes harmonies and occasional lead vocals. Although the album fails to chart, it receives positive reviews and the band embark on successful mini-tour.
The band appear on the cover of Exclaim! "I was still begging for change on the sidewalk, but I was on the cover of Exclaim!," Newman says in 2012. "That really seemed to make a difference. That seemed like the very beginning of the groundswell."
Close to the end of the year, Bejar tells his bandmates that he is moving to Spain with no plans to return. Newman says, "I remember thinking, 'Yeah, this is fucking typical. The moment something good happens, of course Dan has to fucking move to Spain.'"
2001 to 2002
Mass Romantic has only officially been released in Canada, but word begins to spread overseas, with the band receiving rave reviews internationally. Despite technically coming out in 2000, the album lands on "best of 2001" year-end lists from Pitchfork, Magnet and The Village Voice. At home, it is awarded Best Alternative Album at the 2001 Juno Awards.
As a replacement for Bejar, who is still overseas, the band recruit Todd Fancey to play guitar on their North American tour. During a showcase performance at South by Southwest, they are joined on stage by the Kinks' Ray Davies for a cover of "Starstruck."
Abandoning their initial plan for Mass Romantic to be a one-off, the band work on a new studio album, with sessions stretching over a span of almost a full year. "We were just following the laws of supply and demand," Newman later tells Pitchfork in regards to their changing plans. "It's like, well, 'If people want to see the New Pornographers, we'll go out and play for them.'" He quits his job at Larrivée Guitars to play music full-time.
Recording for the new album takes place at local studios JC/DC and the Factory. Local producer Howard Redekopp — who will later be known for his work with Tegan & Sara, Mother Mother and Hannah Georgas — contributes engineering and mixing. He will reappear on many of the group's future albums and side projects. Despite the Pornographers' momentum, the members remain occupied with other projects.
Bejar hits a new artistic peak with Destroyer's stunning glam rock masterpiece Streethawk: A Seduction in 2001. He signs to Merge Records for 2002's sprawling This Night, a bombastic 68-minute opus that arrives in 2002. For a while, it is unclear if he will continue to be involved with the New Pornographers, but he moves from Spain to Montreal before eventually returning to Vancouver and re-joining the fold.
Case covers Canadian artists like Neil Young, Lisa Marr and Mike O'Neill for her 2001 EP Canadian Amp, which includes a collaboration with the Sadies and contributions from Andrew Bird. In 2002, she releases her third solo LP, Blacklisted.
Newman, meanwhile, is half-finished a third Zumpano album. These plans are eventually abandoned. Years later, Sub Pop boss Jonathan Poneman will tell Pitchfork, "I've been a thorn in Carl Newman's side over the years, because there's a third Zumpano record that is near completion, but he says he just doesn't want anything to do with it."
The New Pornographers sign an overseas deal with Matador Records, and Mass Romantic is issued in the U.S. and the UK. Matador will continue to be involved in all of the group's subsequent albums.
2003 to 2004
Neko Case is voted the "Sexiest Babe of Indie Rock" in a Playboy poll; she turns down the magazine's offer of a nude spread.
The New Pornographers release Electric Version in May of 2003 through Mint in Canada and Matador internationally. Although a little more stripped-down than the sonically dense Mass Romantic, it follows in a similar vein with its brash electric guitars, buzzing keyboards and dazzling group harmonies.
Once again, Newman handles the bulk of the songwriting and wields tight control of the arrangements. Case and Bejar are only in the studio for a few days each, but they make key contributions to the record: Case sings lead on the Newman-penned standouts "The Laws Have Changed" and "All for Swinging You Around," while Bejar contributes three of his own songs.
"If Dan didn't want to sing on the record, we would have done a few Dan songs without him singing," Newman tells Exclaim! in a 2003 cover story. "But he moved back to Vancouver 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 ['Testament to Youth in Verse'] and we'd just kind of intimidate him. We forced 'Chump Change' out of him, and just kept saying 'What else you got?'"
The album is again heralded critically and it marks the band's first appearance on the Billboard charts, barely squeaking into the Top 200 at number 196. They appear on the Late Show with David Letterman to perform "The Laws Have Changed."
The New Pornographers contribute a Case-sung cover of Toronto's "Your Daddy Don't Know" to the 2003 soundtrack for the previous year's Canadian mockumentary FUBAR.
Barely a year after Electric Version, Newman issues his debut solo album, The Slow Wonder, through Matador and Last Gang Records. He sees this as a way to keep busy while his bandmates are busy with their own projects. Released as A.C. Newman (after his full name, Allan Carl Newman), it features a mellower, more organic sound than his work with the New Porns, with restrained arrangements containing acoustic guitars, melodica, piano and EBow guitar. This is the first step in a trajectory that will see Newman gradually embracing chamber pop lushness.
"When I was writing Electric Version I would go through demos and take note of the ones that wouldn't work for the band and eventually I had a list of 15 songs," Newman tells Exclaim! that year. "So I thought I'd record an album." It is nominated for the Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year; Feist's Let It Die wins.
The year is productive for the other band members as well. Case teams with the Sadies for the live album The Tigers Have Spoken, and she returns to the Corn Sisters to record music for the 2004 wrestling documentary Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling.
Destroyer goes MIDI for Your Blues, overhauling his sound with synthesizers and computer-based arrangements. When he tours behind the album, he reinvents the material with Victoria, BC's Frog Eyes as his live band.
Guitarist Todd Fancey releases a self-titled soft rock album under the mononym Fancey.
Collins, as a member of the Evaporators, issues Ripple Rock, with the Canadian release handled by Mint. They play a show in Victoria with Calder's band Immaculate Machine. Calder introduces herself to Collins, explaining that she is Newman's niece. Collins is impressed with her singing voice, and suggests that she sings with the New Pornographers.
Destroyer documents the past year's tour by bringing Frog Eyes into the studio. Notorious Lightning and Other Works, which comes out in January, reworks six songs from Your Blues as organic-sounding art rock. Another EP comes from Fancey, who follows his prior album with the similarly soft rocking Magical Summer.
Immaculate Machine sign with Mint Records and issue their sophomore album, Ones and Zeroes. It's produced by JC/DC, and it invites comparisons to the New Pornographers with its bright pop-rock sound, shared vocal duties and sunny guitar/keyboard interplay. By this time, Calder is singing backup in the studio with the New Porns. She begins occasionally filling in on lead vocals when Case is unable to attend live shows, and becomes a full member of the group. With Calder on board, the band are no longer beholden to Case's limited availability, and they begin to tour more consistently. Bejar joins the band on the road for the first time.
Carswell's parents sell their house, meaning that JC/DC must relocate. The pair set up shop in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. One of the first albums recorded at the new facility is Twin Cinema, which comes out in August. Newman tells Pitchfork, "I called the album Twin Cinema because I was thinking of the disconnect between the way we see the world and the way the world actually is. They are two different things. Also, the fact that in our culture, we're raised on so much entertainment that sometimes it's hard not to look at the world as fiction, some story that's unfolding."
The record represents a progression for the band, and follows a similar sonic path to The Slow Wonder by interspersing electrified power pop material with acoustic guitars, piano and horns. While Case had previously fronted the band's most upbeat anthems, here she handles slower tunes: she sings lead on the mid-tempo "The Bones of an Idol," takes over the final passage of the climactic power ballad "The Bleeding Heart Show," and handles the folksy "These Are the Fables."
Collins says, "We were in my studio with all this gear kicking around, and so we were using every instrument on every song, basically, to see if it worked. We were trying to make a more complex sounding, verging-on-orchestral record, but in a pretty novice style."
Twin Cinema receives rave reviews, landing on numerous high-profile year-end lists. "I wasn't really happy with Mass Romantic or Electric Version at the end of recording them," Newman admits to Pitchfork. "I like them now, but when I finished both of them, I wasn't too sure if they came off the way I wanted them to. But for this record, at the end of it, I really liked the way it came out." It is the band's final album for Mint Records.
Twin Cinema is on the short list for the first-ever Polaris Music Prize; Final Fantasy's He Poos Clouds wins. It is also nominated for Alternative Album of the Year at the Junos; Broken Social Scene's self-titled LP wins that one.
The New Pornographers spend the early part of 2006 touring North America with Belle and Sebastian. This tour — along with previous shows from 2005 — provides the basis for LIVE!, a concert CD sold exclusively at the merch table and online. In addition to 12 live cuts from the group's back catalogue, a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" is included as a secret track.
Newman is dating Christy Simpson, who at the time is a marketing manager at Matador. He moves to Brooklyn to be with her; the group will continue to be based out of Vancouver, with the songwriter acting as a ringleader from afar. "We didn't do anything at all together until we were both single; we just kept it a long-distance crush," he tells New York Magazine of his relationship. "We just started, like, hanging out. Realized we really liked each other. And I ended up here in New York."
Despite moving to the U.S., Newman displays patriotic pride by soundtracking the film adaptation of Douglas Coupland's book Souvenir of Canada. He releases a six-song soundtrack EP. It features a Calder-sung song called "TransCanada" plus five instrumental cuts, some of which are slow and textural, marking a big departure from his pop material.
The band's other U.S.-based member, Case, hits a commercial and creative peak with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which comes out in March. Its haunting country noir sound is a hit among fans and critics; it's her first album to crack the Billboard 200, coming in at number 54, and Exclaim! names it the third best roots album of the year.
Case also releases Live from Austin, TX on DVD through New West Records. The concert film, which includes a cover of Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain," originally aired on PBS in 2003. (A CD version will follow the next year.)
Bejar earns rave reviews with Destroyer's Rubies upon its release in February. The most lush and soaringly beautiful of all his albums, it includes "Painter in Your Pocket," a song he had previously offered to the New Pornographers that Newman had turned down for sounding too much like Destroyer. The album receives an aggregated score of 88 on Metacritic.com — higher than any New Pornographers release.
Bejar also launches a new Canadian supergroup, this one with Spencer Krug (of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown) and Carey Mercer (of Frog Eyes and Blackout Beach). They originally go by the name Thunder Cloud, but this turns out to be already taken and they change it to Swan Lake. "I think it's a one-time thing, something we all just wanted to try out with each other," Krug tells Billboard. "But you never know. We were all joking about doing something together one time and Carey decided to take the joke all the way."
Swan Lake release Beast Moans in November through Jagjaguwar, with the three members sharing vocals and songwriting duties. Its dark distortion and murky echo mark another stylistic shift for Bejar, who fronts the standout cut "The Freedom." He also contributes album closer "Shooting Rockets," which will later reappear as a Destroyer song.
Immaculate Machine release Les Uns Mais Pas Les Autres through Mint. This JC/DC-produced EP features six French translations of songs from Ones and Zeroes.
The New Pornographers work on a new album, with some of the recording taking place in Brooklyn with co-producer Phil Palazzolo. In August, they release Challengers through Matador and Last Gang. The album emphasizes the mellow, folksy inclinations of Newman's recent work. Many of the arrangements are dominated by acoustic instruments, with woodwinds, violin, mandolin, harp and accordion frequently taking the place of electric guitars and keyboards. Songs like the title cut and "Adventures in Solitude" are gentle, solemn ballads, while the Bejar-sung "The Spirit of Giving" features lullaby-like orchestrations. Even upbeat numbers like "All the Old Showstoppers" and "Mutiny, I Promise You" highlight the organic new instrumental approach.
The album features Calder's first lead vocal contribution on "Failsafe." The song initially appeared during Newman's solo sets in support of The Slow Wonder, which had inspired Vancouver band the Choir Practice to record a cover for their self-titled album for Mint Records; this comes out several months before the New Pornographers' own version.
Challengers is generally well received, but its reviews are more mixed than for past efforts; its aggregated score on Metacritic.com is 74, more than 10 points lower than that of Mass Romantic or Twin Cinema.
Newman marries Simpson in a ceremony in Brooklyn. Case performs a set at the reception with numerous band members in attendance, including Bejar, Calder, Collins and Thurier. The night also includes performance from indie pop duo Mates of State and a karaoke party. The festivities are documented for a lifestyle article in The New York Times.
To end 2007, the New Pornographers release The Spirit of Giving, a three-song Christmas EP. It includes "The Spirit of Giving" from Challengers plus the holiday-themed "Joseph, Who Understood" and a covers mashup called "Arms of Mary / Looking at a Baby" (the first half is originally by Sutherland Brothers & Quiver, the second is by the Collectors). As usual, the year includes a few side-projects: Fancey releases his second full-length, Schmancey, while Collins and the Evaporators release Gassy Jack and Other Tales through Mint. Immaculate Machine release a new full-length called Immaculate Machine's Fables on Mint; it's again produced by JC/DC along with Calder's future husband, Colin Stewart, and features violin from Owen Pallett.
2008 to 2009
In January of 2008, Bejar and his partner, visual artist Sydney Vermont, release an album under the name Hello, Blue Roses. They are billed as a duo, but Vermont handles the bulk of the vocals and folksy songwriting on The Portrait Is Finished and I Have Failed to Capture Your Beauty..., with Bejar contributing backing vocals and instrumentation. The songs were previously demoed during a trip to Spain; like nearly all of Bejar's works, the album is completed with JC/DC. It comes out through Locust Records.
Less than two months after that, Destroyer release Trouble in Dreams. It's the first time that a Destroyer album hasn't represented a major sonic evolution, since its arrangements recall the stately folk rock of Rubies. It includes a new version of Swan Lake's "Shooting Rockets" (now titled "Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night's Ape)"), which has been transformed into a theatrical eight-minute epic. It's a standout on the album, although Bejar tells self-titled that he finds it "unlistenable" and "harsh."
A year later, Swan Lake return with Enemy Mine, with each of the group members contributing three of the nine tracks. The album is less murky and dense than Beast Moans, stripping away some of the chaos of the arrangements and emphasizing the distinctive voices of those involved.
Yet another Destroyer release follows: Bay of Pigs is a two-song twelve-inch featuring a 13-and-a-half-minute A-side described in press materials as "ambient disco." On the flip is "Ravers," which is a slowed-down version of the Trouble in Dreams track "Rivers." These songs hint that Bejar's material is moving in a dreamy, synth-filled direction.
Case breaks ties with Mint. Baker tells The Georgia Straight, "She wasn't contractually obligated to do anything with us after [The Tigers Have Spoken], but she actually offered us Fox Confessor for Canada, kind of as a thank-you gesture for all the hard work. We obviously said we would like to keep working with her and made what we thought was a compelling pitch. But five records in 12 years? That's a pretty decent body of work. It sounds so corny, but we wish her all the success in the world." She joins the Epitaph offshoot ANTI- full-time. The label had previously been involved in the international releases of The Tigers Have Spoken and Fox Confessor.
In March of 2009, she releases Middle Cyclone. It moves 44,000 copies and reaches number 3 on the Billboard 200, beaten only by U2 and Taylor Swift. This is the best chart performance by a member of the New Pornographers. The album features a piano orchestra, consisting of eight pianos that she finds on Craigslist and moves to the barn of her property in Vermont. Exclaim! names it the second best roots album of the year.
Newman releases his second solo LP, Get Guilty. Again recorded with co-producer Palazzolo in Brooklyn, it showcases the songwriter's now-signature mix of hook-filled power pop and organic chamber rock. Though less balladic than Challengers, it again finds Newman tempering his exuberant rock with quieter material. Superchunk's Jon Wurster plays drums on much of the album.
The same year, Newman leaves Brooklyn and moves upstate to Woodstock. "I like it so much that it's recently been hard to be on tour," he later tells The Village Voice. "It's my little Shangri-La out there. I have four-and-a-half acres. And when you tell people you're a musician [up there], they say, 'Oh, you've come to the right place.' Being a musician is a respected profession. To me, it's the ideal small town." He takes up beekeeping and making his own maple syrup.
Immaculate Machine release High on Jackson Hill. By this point, drummer Luke Kozlowski has left the band to return to school, while Calder spends much of her time caring for her ailing mother, Lynn, who has been diagnosed with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's Disease) and dies in 2009. Calder makes limited contributions to Jackson Hill, which features a new band lineup and is essentially a solo vehicle for guitarist Brooke Gallupe. The Evaporators team with Andrew W.K. for a split EP, A Wild Pear.
Although this period is dominated by side-project releases, the New Pornographers host a late summer mini-festival in Vancouver called the Stanley Park Singing Exhibition in 2008. They headline one of the two nights, while the other features Destroyer and Neko Case. Also on the bill are Black Mountain, Andrew Bird, Stevie Jackson of Belle and Sebastian and Deerhoof. Challengers is long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize.
In early 2009, the New Pornographers contribute a cover of Destroyer's "Hey, Snow White" to the Red Hot Organization's AIDS benefit album Dark Was the Night. Originally sung by Bejar on This Night, Newman sings lead on the new version.
The New Pornographers return with Together, with much of the recording having taken place at Newman's Little Blue studio on his property in Woodstock. They dedicate the album to Calder's mother. Pre-order copies come with a bonus seven-inch, Togetherness: The New Pornographers Play Outrageous Cherry.
The 12-song Together follows a similar stylistic path to Get Guilty by combining upbeat rock arrangements — generally more hard-hitting that Challengers — with strings. Cello plays a particularly major role, as the instrument is used to play rock riffs on songs like "Moves," "Crash Years" and "We End Up Together."
"I've always loved the cello as a rock instrument," Newman tells Exclaim! "And it seemed to work very well for us. We're more of a rock band. It's interesting to try and use strings in a rock context."
Also on the record, St. Vincent's Annie Clark plays a guitar solo on Case's climactic "My Shepard," Okkervil River's Will Sheff sings backup on "Moves," Beirut's Zach Condon plays trumpet on the jaunty "A Bite Out of My Bed," and members of the Dap-Kings play horns on various tracks. Ted Leo makes a cameo on a song that gets cut from the album, but he subsequently appears in the music video for "Moves."
The album comes in at number 18 on the Billboard 200, the band's highest chart performance. It is again long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize.
A few months after Together, Calder releases Are You My Mother?, her debut solo album for File Under: Music. Produced by her husband, Colin Stewart, its atmospheric folk-pop sound was captured at her ailing mother's house where Calder was acting as caregiver. She tells The Huffington Post, "I would bring mixes into the bedroom and go, 'OK, well, what do you think?' And she'd go, 'Umm, yeah, really good. I wish those vocals would be louder.' I'd go, 'Oh, mom, the vocals are supposed to be quiet. It's a rock song.'" Contributors to the album include Calder's New Porns bandmates Case, Dahle and Fancey.
Destroyer releases Archer on the Beach, another twelve-inch that hints at an electronic direction. The A-side finds Bejar singing atop a soundscape created by Tim Hecker, while B-side "Grief Point" is a spoken work piece with accompaniment from Loscil.
2011 to 2013
In January of 2011, Destroyer releases Kaputt. It represents another reinvention of his sound compared to past LPs. His vocal delivery is more relaxed than ever before, and backed by intricate arrangements of dreamy synthesizers, jazzy Avalon-style grooves, and smoothly romantic adult contemporary sax. "Bay of Pigs" re-emerges in slightly truncated form as the final track.
Despite Destroyer's solo origins, Kaputt emphasizes collaboration. "I'm just a singer," he tells Exclaim! "I really can't play an instrument. I can compose on an instrument and I can come up with parts and I know some chords, but I can't play in a way that's expressive." The band hit the road as an eight-piece, performing "Downtown" on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Kaputt is short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, and Pitchfork names it the second best album of the year. Exclaim! names it the fifth best pop rock album of the year, and it's nominated for Alternative Album of the Year at the Junos; Dan Mangan's Oh Fortune wins.
Immaculate Machine announce their breakup. In a blog post dated February 8, 2011, they write "You may have figured out, from our extended absence from the internet and touring, that we are no longer a band. It took a while to admit to ourselves that we had broken up, but we have all shifted our priorities to other projects."
Barely a year after Are You My Mother?, Calder releases her second solo alum, Bright and Vivid. Its eclectic sound spans electronic pop, soft folk and swirling distortion. "When your husband is the producer, it means that we can spend a whole bunch of time doing a whole bunch of weird things to the songs," she says of her work with Colin Stewart.
Film director Brent Hodge announces that he is making a documentary with Calder about her musical journey and experiences as an ALS caregiver. Entitled A Matter of Time, it is partially funded via a Kickstarter campaign, which surpasses its $50,000 goal by raising $66,130. The film is expected out in late 2014.
JC/DC experiences a setback in 2011 when it is evicted from its longtime location in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Belle and Sebastian's Stevie Jackson is the last person to record at the old facility. Collins tells Exclaim!, "We were just another group of people on the wrong side of the real estate market in Vancouver." He and Carswell find a new location in a converted paint store in East Vancouver. In 2012, Collins and the Evaporators put together the compilation Busy Doing Nothing!, which features Andrew W.K., Franz Ferdinand, the Cribs, Sage Francis and Kate Nash.
Newman undergoes major life changes when his mother dies and he and his wife have a son. He channels these experiences into his third solo album, Shut Down the Streets, which comes out in October of 2012. While Newman has long been known for his difficult-to-parse lyrics, the new album is often autobiographical: "They Should Have Shut Down the Streets" documents the world-shattering loss of a parent, while "There's Money in New Wave" offers advice to his newborn.
Produced by Stewart, the album fully embraces the folk influences that have gradually been creeping into Newman's music over the years. It's the most sombre, baroque record he has ever made, and also includes an undercurrent of electronics. Neko sings harmonies on many of the songs, meaning that, despite the stylistic departure, it frequently resembles a New Pornographers record.
"Initially, I think I really liked the idea of it being like a psychedelic late '70s [album]," he tells Exclaim! "I'm very fascinated with a lot of that music, where singer-songwriter music started having synthesizers in them. Stuff like Gerry Rafferty, or you know that song 'Daylight Katy' by Gordon Lightfoot? I love the sort of psychedelic wooziness of it." Shut Down the Streets is long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize. It is nominated for the Juno Award for Alternative Album of the Year; the award goes to Ron Sexsmith's Forever Endeavour. Newman promises that the next New Pornographers record will be more energetic.
In 2013, Newman scores The F Word (known in the U.S. as What If), a Daniel Radcliffe-starring rom-com from FUBAR director Michael Dowse. It premieres at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and the soundtrack will come out nearly a year later.
Like Newman, Case undergoes personal struggles following the death of her grandmother, with whom she is close. (Both of her parents also die, although she has long been estranged from them.) "I was going through really a hard time and pretty depressed," she tells The Guardian. "Just grieving. Lost a lot of family and stuff. It hadn't happened all at once, but I had never really slowed down to grieve."
She seeks help and takes medication. She spends much of her time reading and listening to ragtime jazz. She eventually returns with The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Unlike her previous solo works, which had emphasized countrified arrangements and pastoral fables, this album is more eclectic and overtly personal: "Man" is a fiercely distorted, patriarchy-smashing rock juggernaut, while "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" is an a cappella lament about an abused child. Exclaim! names the album the third best roots album of the year. It is nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, but loses to Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City.
Bejar covers Spanish-language songs by Sr. Chinarro on Destroyer's EP Five Spanish Songs. Although just five tracks long, it's a diverse collection with folk rock ("Maria de las nieves"), glammy riff-rock ("El rito") and funkily spaced out samba ("Babieca"). In an about-face from his Kaputt-era shows, Bejar embarks on a solo acoustic tour. He promises to spent the next year making a new album at JC/DC Studio.
Collins spends half of 2013 with Newman in Woodstock, NY, working on material that will become the New Pornographers next album.
Bejar and his Kaputt live band work on a new Destroyer album at JC/DC. Calder also has a new album in the works, and she performers a new song during a radio appearance. Fancey's website promises that a new LP called Fancey IV is on the way.
The New Pornographers unveil their sixth album, Brill Bruisers. After Newman's folksy recent work, this is his catchiest and most upbeat material in nearly a decade, with the focus placed back on distorted guitars and keyboards. The band's sound is more electronic than ever, with programmed synths and arpeggiators factoring heavily in the arrangements. "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," Newman says. "In the past, we were never really concerned about the groove of a song."
This new approach can be heard in the twinkling, slinky pulse of "Champions of Red Wine," the vocoder-aided chug of "Backstairs," and the danceable surge of Bejar's "War on the East Coast" and "Born with a Sound." The latter Bejar cut was the final song to be completed on the record; both Case and Calder were out of town, so the group tapped Black Mountain's Amber Webber for a memorable lead vocal cameo.
Like Shut Down the Streets, the lyrics on Brill Bruisers touch on autobiographical themes, and Newman identifies "Wilde Eyes" as being written for his son and "Fantasy Fools" as being about growing older. He offers, "There's a lot of personal stuff in the record, but I don't think that's the main thrust of it. Ultimately, I just wanted it to be a cool-sounding record."
The New Pornographers will tour extensively in the second half of 2014. Case and Bejar are on board for most of the shows, although Coco Hames (of the Ettes) is filling in as Case's vocal replacement for a few gigs.
Newman is already plotting the next New Pornographers record. "I've been doing a lot of writing for the next one," he says. "Doing this soundtrack [The F Word] and doing this record felt like such a positive experience that I want to keep doing it."
Mass Romantic (Mint Records, 2000)
This debut remains their definite statement — they have never sounded more joyously infectious than on these 12 classics. Neko-sung cuts "Mass Romantic" and "Letter from an Occupant" are towering pop masterpieces, while Bejar's contributions are jittery and enigmatic, and Newman's jubilant arrangement tie it all together with summery, sugar-spiked energy.
A.C, Newman The Slow Wonder (Matador Records, 2004)
Newman's solo debut is a quiet, autumnal affair where the highlights are the low-key moments: "Drink to Me, Babe, Then" features sleepy slide work and whistled hooks, and "Come Crash" and "The Cloud Prayer" are stunningly intimate ballads.
Twin Cinema (Mint Records/Matador Records, 2005)
The mid-point between the exuberance of 2003's Electric Version and the baroque subtlety of 2007's Challengers. It's the band's most sprawling, ambitious effort, ranging from the pop rock surge of "Use It" to the loop-based quirks of "Falling Through Your Clothes" to the grandeur of "The Bleeding Heart Show" and "Stacked Crooked."