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Renewed Pornographers

After an introspective record, the pop group returns to the upbeat

Jun. 9, 2010
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“I feel like even if The New Pornographers weren’t around, I’d still be making music. It’s shocking to think that this would become a career,” says Carl “A.C.” Newman, head of indie-pop pros The New Pornographers. “I’ll get checks in the mail and feel like I’ve won the lottery. I don’t feel like it’s real, sometimes.”

Though Newman may still be in that euphoric, sleepwalking state that follows a practicing musician who becomes a working musician, to indie-pop audiences his work is satisfyingly real. With a formula of ridiculously hooky musical composition, smart lyrics and the one-two knockout punches of Newman’s own quintessentially quirky voice paired with alt-country goddess Neko Case’s soulful tones, The New Pornographers carved out a nice little niche for themselves with their first release, 2000’s Mass Romantic

Newman explained the band’s dense, hyperactive pop sound to Pitchfork in a 2001 interview almost flippantly: “The New Pornographers sound developed out of fucking around.” After that playfulness partially disappeared from the band’s feelings-laden, introspective 2007 release, Challengers, the group decided to backtrack, leaning more on upbeat pop for their fifth, most recent album, Together.

Together is more of what people have come to expect from us,” Newman says. “With Challengers, some people thought it was our best record, some people thought it was our worst. I like that. It’s that really thin line between love and hate.”

Along with fellow songwriter Dan Bejar of Destroyer, who contributed three of Together’s poppier tunes, Newman strikes a balance between the soul-searching and the exuberant on the album, wavering back and forth between heady energy and wry witticisms woven with strings, brass and giddy, choral vocals.

Writing Together held a lot of stops and starts, Newman admits. “Sometimes I have 20 melodies for one song and it’s really hard to not go back to those and want to use them all,” he says. “I’ve often thought about releasing B-sides of those songs with different melodies. I think Guns N’ Roses have one of those sorts of B-sides. It’s cool to see I’m on the same wavelength with Axl Rose.

“Sometimes the band just doesn’t know where the song is going,” he continues. “For example, I won’t have the vocals done, and they really don’t quite get it yet—they still have it in their minds that it’s just an instrumental song. I add the vocals; then they get it.”

To add to the interpretive, seat-of-the-pants recording process, Newman and company invited guest musicians to the roster while at Brooklyn’s Seaside Lounge Recording Studios.

“There was no conceptual reason for adding guest musicians; we were just almost done with the recording process and a lot of the band mates had already gone home,” Newman explains. “We wanted to add more parts still, so our manager said, ‘Why don’t you call Annie [Clark] from St. Vincent to fill in on some guitar parts? I wasn’t really happy with what I had originally been adding in on guitar, so we went for it. Same thing with Zach Condon of Beirut; I called up Zach to add some trumpet and he came in right away and played.

“The only musicians we had planned to add were The Dap-Kings,” he says of the Sharon Jones horn players who contributed to two tracks. “I’m not sure if they really enjoyed playing our music or not, but if they didn’t, they never let on.”

The band plans to continue their guest tendencies on the road for their Together tour, where they’ll be joined by The Dodos and The Dutchess and the Duke.

“It’s looking like The Dodos might have a trumpet player, so we’ll probably have him play with us at our show,” Newman says.

And will the band be ready for their famous group-whistling stunts? Newman is pretty confident.

“I’m getting used to it,” he says of whistling. “On my last solo tour, I did it a lot; in a big group it’s a bit easier, actually. If a few people drop off, it’s cool.”

Newman pauses to give quick props to a fellow indie-pop whistler. "I don't know how Andrew Bird does it," he says admiringly.

He should give his New Pornographers just as much credit—sounds like they could give Bird a run for his whistling money.

The New Pornographers play the Pabst Theater on Saturday, June 12, with The Dodos and The Dutchess and the Duke.


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