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The New Pornographers Embrace Synthesizers on 'Whiteout Conditions'

Apr. 18, 2017
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Photo credit: Jenny Jimenez

It’s no secret that mainstream pop has shifted away from organic, guitar-oriented sounds to music that features synthesizers, electronic tones and programmed rhythms. With their newly released seventh album, Whiteout Conditions, The New Pornographers have fully embraced this sonic setting for their otherwise rather traditionally rooted style of pop music. But singer/guitarist A.C. Newman says the new sound of the new album isn’t an attempt to capitalize on a current sound.

“I’ve never thought it was a good idea to start chasing any style,” Newman explains. “I thought if we start chasing what’s popular, we’re never going to catch up. Like, by the time we get there, something else will be popular, and we’ll be chasing that.”

Instead, Newman says the more synthetic character of Whiteout Conditions is simply the product of his affection for sounds he’s been hearing that can be created on computers and keyboards.

“A lot of music that I think is incredibly cool, like Animal Collective or Tame Impala or MGMT, a lot of it is moving toward electronics,” Newman said. “It’s arguably psychedelic pop, but it’s also very electronic. So when I hear these bands that I love, some part of me just thinks let’s do something like that, not that we’re actively trying to chase them.”

In fact, Newman said he’s always liked “cool keyboard” and other unique synthetic sounds. But for most of the New Pornographers’ history, these leanings haven’t been obvious in the music. Instead, this Canadian-bred group—which has often been touted as a pop super group, thanks to the notoriety several of the band members have gotten through solo projects or other bands (Newman, singer Neko Case and keyboardist/singer Kathryn Calder are established solo artists, while guitarist/singer Dan Bejar leads the group Destroyer)—emerged sounding like a fairly straight-forward, albeit uncommonly talented, pop band.

The 2000 debut album, Mass Romantic, immediately established the New Pornographers as a force on the indie music scene. A power pop gem, Mass Romantic received rave reviews and in 2007 was ranked at No. 24 on Blender magazine’s list of the best indie albums of all time.

Six more well-received albums have followed, but their latest is the first where keyboard/electronic instrumentation has taken center stage over guitars. Songs like “Second Sleep,” “Avalanche Alley” and “Play Money” especially take on an electronica feel, as their hooky pop melodies come wrapped within keyboard/computer-generated instrumentation and programmed beats.

In addition to using more of an electronica/keyboard-centric sound, Newman went into Whiteout Conditions with some other objectives.

“I wanted it to be up tempo, but also wanted it to be sort of laid back in its way. I wanted it to be driving, but not really aggressive,” he said. “I wanted to use a lot of drones as textures and just keep the song structures fairly simple and keep the songs to maybe three or four chords.”

Newman and his bandmates achieved those goals, and also overcame the absence of Bejar. An idiosyncratic songwriter who has generally contributed a few tunes to each of the previous six albums, Bejar added a quirky dimension to the albums of The New Pornographers.

Newman said Bejar’s absence from Whiteout Conditions doesn’t mean he won’t be part of The New Pornographer in the future, but a couple of issues prompted Newman to complete Whiteout Conditions without his songwriting co-hort.

“He was right in the middle of a Destroyer album, which I think he’s just finishing. It’s probably getting mastered as we speak,” Newman said. “And another part of it was I told him the kind of record I wanted to make, which was the record that we made. And then he said he was writing weird, quiet songs. He didn’t think he had anything that fit into the vibe.”

Bejar also will be absent as The New Pornographers begin touring behind Whiteout Conditions. But the rest of the band—Newman, Case, Calder, bassist John Collins, keyboardist Blaine Thurier, guitarist Todd Fancey, drummer Joe Seiders and violinist/singer Simi Stone—will be on stage for the first run of shows. The song selection figures to vary a bit from night to night.

“Now that we’re on album seven, I realize there’s just not enough room in the set for all of the songs,” Newman said. “There are always songs we want to play, but there isn’t the room for them. There are always like couples of songs that we’ll trade out. Like one show we’ll play ‘Use It’ from Twin Cinema and the next show we’ll think why don’t we do [the song] ‘Twin Cinema’ instead of ‘Use It.’ Or why don’t we do ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’ instead of ‘Use It?’… I feel like we have a lot of songs that feel like very competent live songs to interchange.”

The New Pornographers headline the Pabst Theater on Thursday, April 20 at 8 p.m. with openers Waxahatchee.

Thursday, Apr 20
Pabst Theater

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