It's 2010, and technology has failed us. Carl Newman, chief songwriter, singer, guitarist and de facto leader of the New Pornographers is having issues with his terrestrial telephone line from his house in Woodstock, New York, thus making the morning's spate of phone interviews a real hassle. "I hate to sound like a grumpy old man, but it does seem like we're digressing," he says, after finally connecting. "Things are getting more complicated and broken." Newman, however, is far from grumpy when it comes to the New Pornographers, and its intra-band dynamics are far from fractured. He's led the collective through five albums of brightly colored, unstoppably catchy pop music; as in the past, the group's latest album, Together, combines Newman's own power-pop chops with the talents of vocalists Neko Case and Kathryn Calder. (Destroyer's Dan Bejar, the New Pornographers' perennial wild card, also contributes and will appear in the full-band lineup at this week's concert.) Newman spoke with B-Sides about the band's progress, his approach to writing cryptic love songs and the almighty power of really great guitar riffs.
B-Sides: Did you ever think the New Pornographers would make it to album No. 5?
Carl Newman: No. When we put out the first one, I didn't think we were gonna put out a second one. We didn't have any five- or ten-year plan. The band just took on a life of its own. Which is very convenient, because if it hadn't, I think we would have just stopped. Now we're fairly driven, but then we weren't. There, we just thought, "Let's make this record and see what happens." If it had failed, we would have shrugged our shoulders and done something else.
You have gone from being a one-off, hodge-podge thing to being a fairly established and respected band. Does each record have its own feel when you're writing and recording it, or is there a rhythm that you have established at this point?
There may be a sort of rhythm, but there's no real pattern to it. We go into a studio, and we make a record, and we just trust our instincts. Some songs, if they come together very easily when we're starting out, then fair enough. That's good; that means one down. But there are some songs where all I know is that I really like the guitar riff in it, or I really love the feel of it. And I spend quite a while just trying to figure out how to make the entire thing work. That's become a sort of formula, which is not the most effective formula because it takes a lot of time.
It certainly seems that your last few records have those songs with more upfront riffs. A song like "Your Hands (Together)" on the new one seems to be one of those songs that I could see being borne out of that process.
That one was kind of the reverse of that [formula]. It was a song that I turned into a riff-rock song. When we first starting playing it, I thought it sounded too much like a textbook New Pornographers song. I didn't want it to sound like a rewrite of "Mass Romantic" or some other shuffley song we do. So we spent quite a long time, and then I came up with playing it in that style, which I always thought sounded like [Black Sabbath's] "War Pigs." Even though in the end it doesn't sound like "War Pigs," that was the idea. I think I had just heard "War Pigs," and I thought, Hmm, why don't I try that? But there are other songs like "Moves," the first song on the record, I basically had that riff. I thought, I really like this, but where's the song gonna go?
And then "We End Up Together" was another song that started out with a riff. It doesn't sound like a riff song — it ended up sounding more like an orchestral pop song. But when it started out, I had that [sings main riff], which, in my head, was a rewrite of the riff from "Everyone's a Winner" by Hot Chocolate. You know that song?
I don't know that song.
It has this riff that goes [sings a faster, funkier riff], so I thought "We End Up Together" was a really boneheaded rewrite of that riff, although I'm sure it was a rewrite of a ton of other riffs as well, in that every riff is a rewrite of another riff, usually.
I have no idea how you guys come up with new ones every few years.
That was the fun part of it. I'd never really done that before. You hear a song like [the White Stripes'] "Seven Nation Army," and you think, "Wow, Jack White came up with his own monster riff." Though I know it came from somewhere else.
The last time you were in town, Neko had to bow out with an injury. Can you guarantee that she won't bust her ankle this time around?
That whole injury was so maddening. The way it happened was very laughable. I think Neko turned to Kathryn [Calder] and said, "Watch out for that thing there; watch out you don't break your ankle." And then a second later, Neko broke her ankle on it. That was really so maddening. It really pissed me off that she was gone for the last few shows of that tour. I know people going to the shows were annoyed too, but if it makes them feel any better, I was equally annoyed.
Why was that?
When one person's gone, you have to re-jig the whole machine. All of a sudden you have to go, "Oh God, who's gonna sing this? Who's gonna sing that part now?" It just changes the whole feel of the tour. You just have to change gears. But I think we're gonna get through this tour without any injuries.