Carl Newman discusses life as a New Pornographer
Frontman of power-pop band talks politics, upcoming concert
Since forming in 1997, the New Pornographers have become an indie rock household name. The group’s music is both thought-provoking and effortlessly infectious. After less than a minute in conversation with lead singer Carl Newman, the source of at least some of this thoughtfulness became clear. Monday, the Cavalier Daily had a phone conversation with Newman about the band’s recent album “Whiteout Conditions” and their upcoming show with Spoon in Charlottesville.
Arts and Entertainment: The album seems like a stylistic continuation of your last work “Brill Bruisers” — it takes the synth-rock to a new level. Is that sort of sound more difficult to achieve live than your older power pop music?
Carl Newman: Not really … it takes some effort. We used to be more of a garage band. We used to not care too much about playing songs live and being true to the record. Now, I really care about that. I feel like we gotta go out there and play these songs right. There are some songs that, as we play them over the course of a few years, we forget how to play them. I’d have to go back to the album and say, “Listen! This is how it goes.” But I feel really good about playing all the songs live. I feel like we sound as good as we’ve ever sounded — like we’re finally taking it seriously.
A&E: You’ve mentioned in interviews that a few tracks from “Whiteout Conditions” address America’s current administration. Do you think that one of music’s roles is to serve as political commentary?
CN: Yeah, it is. I don’t think it’s our role — I don’t think we’re a big political band. I think there are other people who do it better. For me, it’s just inescapable. It was hard to write anything in 2016 and not have that come out. I think I would have been annoyed if the entire record was like that. I would have been like, “Why did I let that a—hole take over my mind? Why am I letting myself only think about this?” But there’s a couple of songs where that’s definitely what I was thinking about. More generalized, though … just a fear of where the world is going. It’s something I’ve thought about for 10 or 15 years.
Like there’s this American empire — could it be we’re near the end of this empire? I was reading something somebody wrote about America a couple days ago. The question was like, is this the end of the Roman empire? Or is this just a little blip where Caligula takes over? And then we get rid of Caligula and it goes back to normal. I hope Trump is just like Caligula and then the empire can continue. It’s hard to say, though.
It’s easy to look at Trump or whoever — all your favorite villains in the administration and think they’re the cause of all the bad things that are going on. But it goes so deep. Being Canadian, I’m very concerned about the cost of healthcare here. I’m thinking I might have to leave this country because I can’t afford healthcare here. I see in New York and California … overwhelming support for healthcare, but Democrats have actually stepped in to stop it! Democrats who are basically in the pockets of insurance companies and drug companies … It just makes me think, man, this goes so deep. Get rid of all your favorite villains and you still have these people who are owned by corporations. But I didn’t go too deep into that on the record.
A&E: Dan Bejar [singer, lyricist, and occasional New Pornographers collaborator] is missing from this album. Is he also going to be absent from the upcoming show?
CN: He hasn’t been touring with us on this leg. Maybe he’ll play with us in Vancouver, but who knows … The whole Dan situation has always been so odd from the beginning. He didn’t do any tours with us until 2005. “Twin Cinema” was the first time he ever toured with us, and I remembered even back then thinking, this is probably just a one-off. I thought, he’s probably just doing this because he needs some money and then he’ll never do it again. But he kept doing it. And also, about a month after “Mass Romantic” came out, I remember Dan getting all of us together and saying, “Hey, I’m moving to Spain.” Back then, we hadn’t gotten anywhere yet — nothing had happened for us — but I remember thinking, well, Dan’s out of the band. So now people are saying, “Is Dan out of the band?” and I say, “I just don’t know.” I thought he was out of the band in November 2000. But it turns out he wasn’t … I can’t really speak for him. He might be, he might not, but it doesn’t change anything between us. We’ll still go to Vancouver and hang out with him in the same way.
A&E: What are your thoughts on sharing a stage with Spoon? You’re both such high-energy bands.
CN: I love Spoon. I think they’re one of the greatest straight-up rock bands of the last 20 years. It’s been cool to know them through the years, and have them be peers … it’s awesome. I’m really looking forward to it. They’re classic at this point, they’re a classic band. It’s weird when you think about it — how long bands have been around for. Spoon has been around for over 20 years. That’s like the Beatles still being together in 1984. It’s quite a long time … it’s been a long time for us too. It’s an odd thing when you start becoming a career band.
A&E: You’ve been around for close to 20 years, but every album has a unique sound — nothing is recycled. What do you attribute to that success?
CN: It’s definitely an effort. I’ve never wanted to repeat myself. On the first three records I remember thinking, oh man, this is getting a little repetitive. On “Twin Cinema,” I remember thinking, aren’t we spinning our wheels by writing songs like this? But then, those songs ended being some of our most popular. Even then I was thinking, what else can we do here? … I’ve always tried to keep doing different things, and that explains why after “Twin Cinema,” “Challengers” was a lot more mellow of a record. I wanted to see if I could do mellow songs, because I like mellow songs as well.
It’s all just seeing what I can do. I don’t want to necessarily just settle into a style … for me, it’s always trying to stretch. That’s what makes it interesting to me. And some of it’s just instinct, like I know I write a certain kind of song, but where that can change is when I take it in the studio. What will I do in there? How will I arrange it? Will it be a slow song or fast song or what kind of structure will it have? We have to wait until we get in the studio and then just see what sounds best. Sometimes you think you’ve written a rock song, but then you strip everything away but a piano and vocals and you say, “Wait — it’s better as a ballad.” You’re just trying to find the vibe of the song. Ultimately, it’s more that than a conscious effort.
A&E: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the New Pornographers’ first time in Charlottesville,
CN: That’s right. That’s one of the things I’ve really liked about this tour — we’re going so many places we’ve never been before.
A&E: That must be pretty rare — being around for so long and still finding new venues to play.
CN: Yeah! It definitely is … That’s why it’s really good to do this sort of thing — to go somewhere with Spoon. Going to Charlottesville alone might be different, but with Spoon, it’s gonna be good. If people don’t show up to Spoon and New Pornographers, I don’t know what to do. We did our best.
The New Pornographers will play alongside Spoon at the Sprint Pavilion July 19.