The New Pornographers Reflect on the "Baroque Garage Rock" of 'Mass Romantic'

"I have to step back from my life and try to look at it as an outsider. And I realize, 'Well, you fucking did it,'" says Carl Newman
The New Pornographers Reflect on the 'Baroque Garage Rock' of 'Mass Romantic'
Photo: Shannon Oksanen
"Visualize success, but don't believe your eyes."

That chorus lyric from Mass Romantic's "Jackie" pretty much describes the career arc of the New Pornographers, from their humble beginning as a casual songwriting project to their sharp rise to become one of the leaders of Canada's 2000s indie rock boom. Their giant-sized pop hooks and their veritable Indie Rock Mount Rushmore of a lineup meant that they were always destined for big things. And yet, the very thing that propelled their success has also held them back, as members Neko Case and Dan Bejar (Destroyer) have been too busy with their own projects to commit to large-scale tours. Any time they've seemed on the verge of even greater things, their own members have had to pump the breaks.

Principal songwriter Carl Newman formed the band in the late '90s in Vancouver, when he and a few friends cut a four-song demo that they shopped around to labels with little success. Assuming it was going to be a one-off, they finished a full-length, finally releasing it on November 21, 2000. That, it seemed, would be that.

But Mass Romantic was undeniable, its 12 tracks packed way past full with fizzy guitar distortion, funhouse keyboards, vintage pop harmonies, and tempos just a few bpm faster than were comfortable. It takes an everything-all-the-time approach to pop songwriting: there are no ballads, and no songs without Beach Boys-style melodies competing for space with dizzying synths and careening drum fills. Even the breakdowns are layered with towering vocal harmonies, sounding every bit as grand as the rock crescendos.

Case's powerhouse vocals make "Mass Romantic" and "Letter from an Occupant" the album's immediate standouts — but Bejar's esoteric bark, wonky song structures and sharp-tongued turns of phrase make "Jackie" and "Breakin' the Law" every bit as enduring.

But, 21 years since its release, what really sets Mass Romantic apart is the home stretch on side B; where normal albums might coast towards the finale, the New Pornographers ramp up the energy even higher with pummelling tracks like "The Body Says No," "Centre for Holy Wars" and "The Mary Martin Show." The New Pornographers have since reached similar levels of quality — the mature refinements of 2005's Twin Cinema or the synth-driven grooves of Brill Bruisers — but they've never delivered such a pure adrenaline rush.

The New Pornographers had intended to tour for last year's 20th anniversary of Mass Romantic (and the 15th of Twin Cinema), but after those plans got delayed by the pandemic, they're doing it for the 21st anniversary instead. With Mass Romantic getting a vinyl reissue, we called up Newman to talk about the his self-deprecating outlook while making the album, becoming a peer to his heroes, and why he actually considers Brill Bruisers to be the quintessential New Porns record. He also offered an update on the band's upcoming album, which will feature a lot of Case.

Listening back to Mass Romantic now, what stands out about it?

It's a snapshot of that time, and that makes it great, but there's some times I think, "Oh, we could have done that better." But it is what it is. I could spend a month trying to re-record "Mary Martin Show" and do what I think is a better version, and it probably wouldn't be a better version.

We spent so long on it, so there are moments where it was so highly sculpted, but there are also parts of it that were very thrown off. I think it gives off that vibe. It's a kind of baroque garage rock. I think that might have been its appeal. We kind of sounded ramshackle. It some ways, we weren't that far off from some K [Records] band, but it was also very much me trying to be Jimmy Webb or Brian Wilson or Blondie or Shocking Blue or Neutral Milk Hotel or Supergrass or Belle and Sebastian.

I remember very well, when we first started playing together — this was probably around '98 — our first drummer was Fisher Rose, and he had a practice space that he lived in. Y'know like people do: they combine their home and their practice space. In those early days, most of the band smoked — I didn't — but they'd stop for a smoke break. I have this very clear memory of being in that space and taking a break from practicing, and Belle and Sebastian was playing. If You're Sinister and the first three EPs, and also Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane [Over the Sea]. And I remember thinking, "We're so terrible. This is so fucking good, and we're so bad." And that's what I wanted to be. When I think of the bands from that time that inspired me the most, it was Belle and Sebastian, Neutral Milk Hotel and probably the first Supergrass record. I thought, "Let's do something like these guys. Let's try to take the things that we like from these different bands and throw it in the pot."

And then, eight years later, when we found ourselves touring with Belle and Sebastian, it felt like such a validation. It was like, "Holy shit! Remember when we listened to them and thought they were so fucking good?" Eight years pass and we realized this band we idolized are our peers, our labelmates and our friends. That's the kind of thing that, when I look back over the 20 years, still blows my mind. Just the idea that we are considered peers. I mean, obviously Kanye West or Amy Winehouse didn't think of us as peers. But a lot of bands I loved think of us as peers.

What was your goal when starting the New Pornographers?

When we were making Mass Romantic, to me, the light at the end of the tunnel was just finishing the record. It wasn't even the record coming out. It was just: let's get to the end so the record is done. I had no delusions beyond that. I didn't think, "Oh, what are we going to do for a second record?" I honestly couldn't see that far ahead. I didn't know if there would be a second record. So the fact that it's 21 years later and it's being reissued and I'm sitting here talking to you about it, and the fact that we still exist, it's kind of hard to believe. I try and step back from my life, like that Joni Mitchell line about "Your dreams have lost some grandeur coming true." I have to try to look at it as an outsider. And I realize, "Well, you fucking did it. You got further than you ever thought you were gonna get." Not set for life, but further than I ever thought I would get.

At what point did you realize this was going to be a real band with some staying power?

It's a tricky question to answer, because I feel like, for the entirety of our existence, there's always been something in the way. Mass Romantic did well, and Electric Version did even better, and then Twin Cinema did even better. I think that was the point where I thought, "Let's try and do this." We weren't all on the same page. I knew we could never be that band that said, "Let's go on tour for six months." I realized we wouldn't have Bejar. I realized we wouldn't have Neko. There was a time when, at the same point that everything was going so well and we were getting more popular, there was that frustration of: we can't be that band I want to be. We can be that band when we make records, but we can't be that band where we go out and tour half the year. I realized we're kind of limited.

Even at our most popular, I don't think I was ever going "Yeah! I'm gonna ride this! Fame is a-comin'!" There was only so far we could take it. If somebody had booked us on SNL, it would have been something like, "Oh, but they want a Dan song, and Dan can't do it." Or, "They want it to be a Neko song, and Neko can't do it." I've had 20 years of coming to an acceptance that my career, my main mark in this world, is in a band that is essentially a part-time band.

It's worked out very well for me, because we've done well and I'm a songwriter — I write about 10 songs per album. We've been very lucky in a lot of ways, but I don't think there were many points where I thought, "I'm cruising free and easy now." Maybe I felt that way around 2005, 2006. When I started dating the woman who is now my wife and she lived in New York. We were doing well and I had a lot of money, and I thought, "Yeah, I'm going to move to New York." Everything felt like, "This is the dream. Holy shit. I've got this girl that I love, and we live in New York City, and that's where the label is, and my band is doing very well."

You mentioned that you hear things that you wish you could change about Mass Romantic. What stands out as something you'd like to fix?

I wish there was a little more bass on it. I remember when it first went out to mastering, it was mastered by a friend of mine, and he gave it back to John [Collins, bassist and producer] and said, "Hey, man, this record needs more bass." That was his advice as the person mastering it. "I can't add bass in mastering it." So John turned up the bass, and even then, it doesn't have that much bass. There's a push and pull there that has always been a part of the band. That there's a sort of maximalism, I guess — maybe "maximalism" is the polite way of putting it. But there's a lot of things that are kind of overplayed. Like drums that are a bit too busy, a bass that is a bit too busy, and then you're trying to put it all together, and there's not a lot of space. And so that I feel like every record has been like that: trying to find the space for all the noise. And on Mass Romantic, I think we basically said, "Okay, we're sacrificing a big rhythm section for this big noise."

On the next record, I think we tried to change it. On Electric Version, I was already thinking, "What else can we do?" I remember Kurt [Dahle] wanted the drums to be very dry, like a '70s record like Fleetwood Mac. So I listened that record and you can tell that there are songs like "Testament to Youth in Verse" that are actually super minimal and kind of dry sounding. Now I look back and I'm not that into the sound of that record. But, again, it kind of is what it is. It felt like Twin Cinema was the first record where it was sounding more like what I wanted us to sound like. Or even Brill Bruisers. To me, that is the quintessential "this is what the Pornographers are good at" sound. That was like 14, 15 years in. I felt like, "Okay, we figured this out. This is what our other records should have sounded like." Just take the the sonic imprint of Brill Bruisers and just overlap that over the first few records and maybe we've got some classics in there.

A lot of the bands you cite as influences on Mass Romantic, like Belle and Sebastian or Neutral Milk Hotel, are quite acoustic-sounding bands with strings and horns, but it seems like maybe you didn't have the resources for that at the time.

I wasn't inspired by their arrangement so much. I mean, I think their arrangements were great, but it was more the way they wrote songs. Coming out of being in Zumpano, I was trying to write these ornate Bacharach-esque pop songs. But then I would hear a song like "The State I Am In" and it has this beautiful melody that was just based around two chords. Neutral Milk Hotel did that a lot. They had these great songs that have great melodies, but at the heart of it, it was just him strumming his guitar hard and singing. That made that made me think, "I should do more of that. Maybe I should simplify a little bit." And so when I wrote "Letter from an Occupant," to me it just seems so obvious. It was like, "Okay, it's A, and then it goes down to F#m, and it goes to D, and it goes to E, and it goes to D, and E, and back to A." I thought to myself, "This is just the most obvious chord progression." But I was also trying to play around with it. I was like, "What can I do with these obvious chord progressions? Because that's what bands I really like are doing." The arrangements, all the bells and whistles, that came that came later. At the heart of it, I was just inspired by the way they wrote songs.

You mentioned "Letter from an Occupant" — were you surprised by the reaction to that song? It seems like that song was partly responsible for the momentum that that swelled up around the band.

Yeah. I remember, our first demo — I shouldn't call it a demo. The first four songs from the record were finished in 1998. "Letter from an Occupant," "Mystery Hours," "Execution Day" and "Breakin' the Law" we had sitting in the can in 1998. "I remember playing it for people and thinking, "This is great. Listen to what we've done," and being shocked that nobody seemed to think it was that great. Some people did, but I sent it to Sub Pop and they were not interested. I sent it to a couple of smaller labels and they were not interested. It's hard to have confidence when you make something and you put a lot of yourself into it, and you put it out there and people just shrug. It's hard to have confidence to keep going. And then around 2000, [vintage clothing store] the Good Jacket was putting out this compilation [Vancouver Special] and they wanted a song, and I said, "Well here, have this song "Letter from an Occupant." I also thought we were gonna remix it, so they could have this version. In the end, we didn't do anything. We just put out that version. But that song on that record gave us attention, and that was the only reason Mint [Records] signed us. I'm pretty sure Mint heard our demo and they weren't interested. But then they put out the Good Jacket compilation, and all this feedback came back, where we were song one and everyone was going, "Who is this band the New Pornographers? And Neko Case is singing!" It got us so much attention that Mint said, "Guess what? We're interested now." I remember sitting down with [Mint co-founder] Bill Baker and him saying to me, "This record is so good, I think we could make our money back." That's pretty much verbatim what he said to me. I remember thinking, "Wow, you really think? That's cool. We could not lose money on this."

What was the moment you realized the album was starting to catch on?

Almost immediately, things changed for us. It started on a very local level. We played a handful of shows but didn't seem like we ever played to anything more than our friends. The record came out and all of a sudden it was like, "Wait, people are interested in us now." Exclaim! put us on the cover. That helped. That was probably the first big piece of press we got, so that got our foot in the door in Canada. The New York Times had their end-of-the-year list where they listed the 10 best records you didn't hear this year, and we were on that list. I thought, "Holy shit." I think we even showed up on the Pazz & Jop poll, way down.

It was a few months later that things really started happening, when we got a great review in Rolling Stone, and we got a great review in Spin, and we went to South by Southwest. That's when people really started paying attention.

I also remember, I was at the Toronto Film Festival. In one of the weeklies, somebody wrote a review of our record, which was the first glowing record I had ever received. This writer said something like, "This is an absolute once-in-a-career lightning strike." It was the first over-the-top review filled with hyperbole that I'd ever received. It came when I was at a real low point. I was in Toronto and I just didn't feel like being there. I didn't really want to be at the film festival at all. I had a big zit on my nose, and I thought, "Life fucking sucks." I felt like, "I'm a struggling musician. I'm here in Toronto, and I don't want to be here, and I've got this big zit on my nose. This is bullshit." And then I read that review and I thought, "Huh! This is nice!" Whoever that writer is, I hope he or she knows how good it made me feel, at that moment in life, just to know that somebody was listening.

But I also have a very clear memory that, after all that, I was still at my job that I hated at Larrivée Guitars. I didn't have a car. I took the bus to work and there was a transit strike. It was a rainy day, and I left work and I was just getting soaked. I was walking like five miles home, and I felt like I'd never been so low in my life. And I thought, "What do I need to fucking do?"

You've mentioned the difficulties of getting Neko and Dan to be involved in touring through the band's career. What does it mean to you that they agreed to take part in the Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema tour?

It's very cool. In fact, when this whole idea came up, before I even brought it up to anybody, I texted Dan, and I said, "Hey, if I tried to put these shows together, would you do it?" And I was shocked that he said yes. I probably went to Neko after that. I only wanted to do this if could get Dan and Neko back to do it, because then we're making it something very special. Even back in 2005, at the end of the tour, I didn't know if Dan was ever going to tour with us again. It felt bittersweet. At the end of the Twin Cinema tour, I thought, "Is this it? Is this the last time the classic lineup is ever going to play together?" But it wasn't. I'm a little more zen about it, I think, now. It just is what it is. That was our path. Maybe my path will change a little later, I don't know.

Has revisiting Mass Romantic for this reissue shaped the music that that you're making for the next New Pornographers album?

It has, actually, just because Mass Romantic has been on my mind. Maybe it's not for me to say. But I feel like there have been points where I've been pulled back, thinking, "I'm going to write a song that has this vibe." Listening to an old song and thinking, "We haven't recorded a song with that vibe in so long. We should do that. People like it when we do that! Why don't we do that?" For me, the creative process has always been this push and pull between trying to do something new but not trying to go beyond what you're good at. I don't want to turn into Primus or anything. I don't want to repeat myself, but I don't want to go over the edge and disappear up my own ass.

So there is a new album in the works?

Yeah. We're very close to finishing. We've been working on it for a long time. It's obviously been a weird time to make music. I've had to take the reins in a way that I've never had to do before. I would usually be there working with John, or John would come here and work with me. And now it's like, "Well, you can't come here." And on top of that, John is a dad now. He has a two-year-old daughter. And Kathryn [Calder] just became a mom a few months ago. So there's an element of me in Woodstock, thinking, "Okay, well, I've got to do this." These people have a lot of things going on in their lives. They have young children. So it's been new and different, and in some ways great but in some ways frustrating.

But I feel good. I feel lucky that I built this thing in my life where I can go to my home studio and I can make a record. I have a separate space that I can walk to — it's 100 feet from our house, and I can go in there and I can work on my music. And that's my job. I feel incredibly grateful to be able to do that. At the same time, this last year and a half has been kind of solitary.

The ironic part is that Neko, who has always been the hardest person to pin down, has been the easiest person to work with on this on this last record. I'd drive to visit her and record at her place, or I'd say, "Hey, come visit us and stay with us." In a time where everybody is losing track of everybody, I've seen Neko more than I've ever seen her before. A strangely ironic twist.