Two decades in, power-pop supergroup The New Pornographers still evolving
NORTH ADAMS — Carl Newman says that he didn't necessarily want to be the leader of The New Pornographers, that's just the way it turned out. Currently on tour in support of their new album, "In the Morse Code of Brake Lights," the New Pornographers are now eight albums away from their beginnings in the Vancouver music scene. Though some may say that the band has evolved over that time, Newman has a different way of putting it.
"I feel like it's always in transition," said singer, guitarist and songwriter Newman. "It's been like 20 years of permanent transition being in the band. I feel like we've never really been able to settle, but yet we're still together."
The band will perform in the Hunter Center at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art at 8 p.m. Thursday. Pasrsonfield will open the show.
Besides Newman, the band includes Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, Todd Fancey, Blaine Thurier, John Collins, Joe Seiders and Simi Stone.
The New Pornographers has the feel of a music collective, but it's Newman's vision that has always fueled the project. It's taken him some time to accept that aspect of his role in the band.
"Other people have come and gone and we just rejig things, but if you take me out of the equation, I guess there isn't really a band," he said. "All these years in, it's been difficult trying to find that balance between trying to be essentially a democracy, but also realizing that there needs to be a leader. If you're trying to be like a Greek-style democracy and no one's in charge, all of a sudden you can turn into this rudderless boat. So I've realized that, even if I don't want to be the leader of this band, I am the leader of the band and you have to do your job."
Within that structure, other members are definitely given the space to step up and define their place in the band, and Newman points to keyboardist Calder, also his niece, as a prime example, describing the new album as having a "Kathryn Calder stamp" as a result of her contributions. Partly that's the result of a change in working dynamic for Calder, who spent a lot of solitary time in her home studio in Vancouver creating her keyboard parts for the first time.
"I realized I don't need to be standing behind her while she's playing keyboards," said Newman. "She can work on keyboards and she can send them to me and then I can listen to them that my home studio and I can call her up and say, Hey, I really, I really liked this one. Could you try this with a different sound? And then she'll send it back to me a few hours later. And it's the same as if we were in the room together."
Newman's also been working more by himself but he's been getting as much input from the band remotely as he ever did standing in the studio together. The current album is also the first time that he's produced the band without the partnership of bassist Collins, and that's the area that he had to seize his moment.
"I think spending so much time in the studio with John working on records through the years, just through osmosis learned how to do things," Newman said. "While we were making this record, John was becoming a new dad. So I think he was happy that I wasn't trying to drag him to Woodstock to record, but I would still call him and ask him for advice or get him to send me ideas."
Newman says that even with the initial remote band interaction, the process for creating this album wasn't much different from previous ones. It involved him writing songs alone and then creating demos so he can hone in on what he thinks the song should be.
"When you get into a room with somebody, it's hard just to find that skeletal arrangement.," said Newman. "Sometimes the song will just take off in its own direction just because people will start playing it and it will just start sounding a certain way. And that can be good. But it can also be bad. So it's nice to have a demo that you can bring in and go, I want it to have this vibe."
After the band records the song, Newman will take it back to his studio and shapes the song, possibly inserting overdubs and experimenting with the arrangements. It's at this stage that the music truly becomes a New Pornographers song.
"So much of it is about the relationship between the instruments," said Newman. "That's a lot of the process for me and it can drive me into madness. But I enjoy it. It's like any large creative endeavor. It can be frustrating, but it's great to finally get to that Eureka moment where you realize, yes, this is it. It was so hard to find, but I finally found the sound."
Newman says he isn't precious about keeping the songs adhering to the letter of his original composition. He knows they will change and he might even end up switching the structure or even writing new lyrics. The songs are alive for Newman and he knows that if he doesn't like it, he can just strip it down and build it back up into something that works — and something that bears the stamp of all the players involved, coming together as the New Pornographers.
"I love that creative freedom of knowing that if you don't like something, you can fix it. I love that part of the creative process, knowing that the bad work fertilizes the good work. I'll always love that part of it."
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