The New Pornographers are a band. Not a shocking revelation by any means, but it's a fact that Carl Newman, the Canadian septet's founder and primary songwriter, feels compelled to reinforce. They're a band, simple as that. But apparently, something about the joined talents of trade-off vocalists Newman, Daniel Bejar and Neko Case (not to mention Blaine Thurier, Kurt Dahle, John Collins and Todd Fancey, in supporting roles) has caused some confusion.
"OK, first of all -- I don't know where people got the idea that we were a collective," Newman says, sounding a note of sustained incredulity over the phone line from his Vancouver home, where he's holed up in advance of the New Pornographers' summer tour. "It's not like we all live together and spend our free time, I dunno, chanting or having drum circles," he adds with a snort.
"And it's not a side project either. Yes, Dan is still doing his Destroyer thing, and Neko is Neko --well, maybe it's a little bit of a side project for her, because she writes her own songs for her solo stuff. But I think she prefers the idea that she just has two simultaneous things going on.
"And then there's 'supergroup.' We get that one a lot," continues the ex-Zumpano member, his incredulity edging into cheerful exasperation. "Probably because we've all been in other bands. But I don't know, haven't most musicians been in a few bands? They might not have name recognition, but -- OK, the Traveling Wilburys. That's a supergroup. Dylan, George Harrison, who else -- Roy Orbison? Tom Petty? We're just not that super."
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold up there, Carl. Anyone who has heard the New Pornographers' sophomore LP, Electric Version (Matador) would beg to differ. The song "It's Only Divine Right" alone may have single-handedly saved thousands of Midwesterners from seasonal affective disorder. Its swaggering keyboards come on like a hit of sugar, magically turning frowns upside down and laying waste to the clinical mopes. Supergroup, perhaps not. Superheroes, yes indeedy.
And, like most super stuff, the New Pornographers' story begins with a bolt of lightning.
"The idea for the band was pretty simple," Newman explains, "though I guess it's one of those master-of-the-obvious things. At some point, it struck me that most of the bands with amazing energy had lousy songs. And the bands with good songs -- they're mostly all downers. So I thought, 'Why not make good music that's also fun?'"
Aha. So, in fact, the New Pornographers are a "party band."
"OK, I'll accept that one," Newman replies, laughing. "People can unironically wear Hawaiian shirts to our shows, and that'd be OK. But we're not selling them at the merch booth," he adds dryly.
That acerbic note occasionally creeps into Newman's New Pornographers songs, as well -- and it's a big part of the power in the band's pop. Electric Version and its predecessor, 2000's Mass Romantic, may be fun albums, but they are not dumb fun; for every bright, cartoony song like "From Blown Speakers," there's one like "Letter From an Occupant," in which bracing lyrics add a bittersweet note to Case's window-rattling vocals and giddy tambourines.
If Mass Romantic perfected the formula for New Pornographers songs -- full-throttle vocals, matched in the mix by backup harmonies and guitar and keyboard hooks that layer on and pick up speed, verse on verse -- Electric Version, true to its name, turns both the energy and the amps up to eleven.
"The biggest change is that we're louder," Newman says. "That, and the fact that, because we've played together and toured together quite a bit now, I'm more adept at writing songs with other vocalists in mind. With me and Dan, it's still usually a casting process -- who sounds best. But writing for Neko, in particular, is something I'm still getting a handle on -- I have to write way higher than my range, and that's still not high enough, most of the time. But then, that's why I wanted her to join the band -- she doesn't sound like anyone else."
Aside from recording and touring, the business of being the New Pornographers mostly falls to Newman and Bejar. Newman writes most of the songs (ten of the thirteen tracks on Electric Version are his; the rest are Bejar's), and he and Bejar collaborate on production and mixing. Bejar, identified in the liner notes as the band's "secret member," limits his participation mostly to the studio and doesn't usually tour with the band.
"It works for us," Newman explains, "because it means when we do get together, there's something inescapably spontaneous about it. And maybe a little frenetic, which doesn't hurt the energy. Like, we get Neko to sing as much as possible while she's there, which is always a good thing. Sometimes people will show up to do overdubs, but usually it's all of us hanging out -- which is also nice, because we knew and liked each other before I ever started the band. We have a good time together."
So, now that summer's in full swing and the New Pornographers are officially in season, everyone else gets to join in the fun. Hawaiian shirts all around.
"Actually, I've been thinking about that shirt thing," Newman jumps in, preempting a boring question about his songwriting process. (He prefers not to analyze it too much, which is probably a good thing.) "Maybe we should sell Hawaiian shirts at our shows. Or maybe, better yet, fans could just show up with their own Hawaiian shirts that they want to get rid of, and we could auction them off between songs. People could make back the money they spent on the ticket and have enough left over for a couple beers. It could work. We'd take a cut, of course.
"I don't know, though," he doubles back. "If we did that, people might start thinking we're primarily entrepreneurs. But we're not. We're a band."