Working Blue

The smutty business of pop music through the eyes of the New Pornographers.

Once in a great while, a band hits its stride when everyone is looking for it to. This is a surprisingly rare confluence.

When the New Pornographers--current titleholders of the coveted but elusive "darlings of indie pop" designation--released their first full-length, Mass Romantic on itty-bitty Mint Records in 2001, that gem of an album came from the literal left field of Vancouver, British Columbia, cobbled together out of the not-fully-realized hopes, dreams and talents of the participating aspirants: Carl Newman, who had tasted a modicum of indie respectability with Sub Pop's Zumpano in the late '90s; alt-country chanteuse-on-the-rise Neko Case, whose red tresses and haunting, powerful voice hint at a legacy in the making; Dan Bejar, who recently struck critical gold with his main outlet Destroyer; John Collins, who plays bass and serves as the engineer; drummer Kurt Dahle; keyboardist and erstwhile independent filmmaker Blaine Thurier; and guitarist Todd Fancey.

For the group's new album, the just-released Electric Version, the rock (and roll) stars seem aligned, and one of the finest power pop groups in years is hitting its stride at what seems like the perfect moment.

The genesis of Mass Romantic was a demo recorded in 1998 that confirmed then, at least for the participants, that they were on to something--specifically, a well-crafted assemblage of pop tunes that hit the right power-pop touchstones without sounding too much like anything else, containing more hooks than the average tacklebox. But the response from labels was tepid. Despite the widespread and varying contacts the group had built up in their various endeavors, nothing immediately came of the Mass Romantic demos.

Newman had reached the pack-it-in stage--the demo languished for nearly two years--when Mint Records asked for a track for a benefit; the song, "Letter to an Occupant," with vocals by Case, is regarded by many to be perhaps the best pop song of any year with the number "2" at the beginning of it, including the 20s and 200s. That, in turn, led to Mass Romantic, which unleashed a pop fury on an unsuspecting North America (and the world, for that matter, although the NPs have yet to tour Europe).

Mass Romantic's success was abetted a great deal by the success of Ms. Case, vis-à-vis her rising emergence as a solo star, not to mention her visibility as an active player on the Bloodshot Records roster and the recording/performing she's done with the increasingly high-profile Calexico.

But there was another factor in the success: The sheer quality of Mass Romantic as an album and an individual work of art. It's no less than a pop masterpiece, more akin to the groundbreaking work that only seemed possible when the medium of rock and roll was new. Comparisons to the Beatles aren't necessarily musically accurate, but aren't really as ridiculous as some may find them. There are closer musical comparisons to make (XTC for one), but didn't someone call comparisons odious?

The point is that Mass Romantic did something so rare as to be nonexistent: It leapt out of the speakers at the listener, in an unrelenting fashion, so much so that some found that to be a basis for criticism. To paraphrase these complaints: This pop music album is TOO UNRELENTING! TOO EXCITING! The real contention here is that so much modern music is pabulum by comparison that it's jarring to hear something like it--that in and of itself makes it singular.

So the New Pornographers went very quickly from unwanted to sought-after; one listen to Mass Romantic should suffice to explain how a band from Vancouver that almost never existed would find itself in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, onstage with Ray Davies, winners of a Juno award (that's a Canadian Grammy equivalency to those of you who are "Canuck Challenged"), in the freakin' Wall Street Journal and even sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom.

(Just testin' ya there; Bush hates music, duh.)

The dreaded sophomore slump comes in the form of Electric Version, the New Pornographers' take on the digital age or something. Usually, a sophomore slump happens because a new artist has had their entire lives to come up with the material on that first release; the second release, especially if the first one succeeds, will inevitably suffer because the artist has much less to draw from, and the pressure is then far greater. For the New Pornographers, however, the first part of that equation is irrelevant, since all the participants have been involved in one manner or another in performing or recording in some cases for over a decade; now all they have to do is live up to a bit of pressure. (Hey, don't sweat the Late Show With David Letterman appearance on June 17!)

Carl Newman, acknowledged by the rest of the NPs as the "mastermind," is polite, self-effacing and thoroughly Canadian. No doot aboot it. (Just a note of warning, Canada: Considering that you've adopted a sensible marijuana policy like the rest of the civilized world, and your citizens--like the fine, upstanding gentleman Carl Newman--continue to represent Canada to the rest of the world in a fine fashion, prepare yourselves for massive immigration, especially if Bush somehow wins in '04. You might want to inquire with the Quebecois--who are "down" with the French--about the cost of another Statue of Liberty; put it on Baffin Island or Halifax.)

The Weekly talked to Newman. Here's what he had to say.

Could talk about what your strategy was for Electric Version--if you had a cohesive plan for what you wanted the whole album to sound like, or if you just had a number of songs and you just decided to use what worked ...

Um, I can't say we had much of a plan. I mean, the plan just came together as we were recording. As the songs start coming together, you begin to sense a vibe that the record has; it's kind of a snowball thing. I think at the beginning it just seems like a lot of disconnected songs ...

And then there's a thread that merges ...

Mmm-hmm. Yeah. Then, I think, for some of the songs that were newer, that I hadn't, say, written all the lyrics for yet, I think I began to detect themes that were running through the record and ... in a way it's kind of a concept album ...

And what's the concept you're trying to articulate, specifically?

It's funny, this might sound really lame, I just figured out a day or two ago. ... When people ask me what the lyrics are trying to communicate ... I don't know what to say. I'm always stammering and having a hard time explaining myself, but I just realized I'm just trying to combine ... with the work of Jorge Luis Borges.

Oh, really.

Because my girlfriend just downloaded this little thing off the Internet, called The Preliminary Guide to Borges, and it was talking about ... major themes running through his work. ... I've always been really fascinated by the way he writes, the ideas in his writing, the structure of it; it's always kind of blown my mind, 'cuz it's always seemed a little beyond my grasp. ... (For instance), there is no difference between fiction and fact--created reality is as real as observed reality and vice versa--and any attempt on our part to describe reality is bound to be a fiction. ... When I read that, I thought, "That's basically what I really wanted to get at with the record," which is why the record is called Electric Version, just about the ways that ... saying something through the medium of pop music, and going into a studio, and recording it with electric guitars, and then burning it onto a CD, is just ... it warps the whole initial message so much that how can you say the initial message even remains, ya know?

Yeah, it's kinda like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that you can't actually observe something, because the mere act of observing it changes it.

Yeah, exactly. So it was that kind of crazy. So in the record, I think I had these vague kind of ideas beyond my intellectual grasp, and yet, I think I had that kind of idea running through my head but at the same time I knew that we were a party band, y'know? So, in writing lyrics, I found myself really wanting to avoid writing lyrics that were literal. I appreciate it when other people do it, but it just bored me. I didn't want to write songs about how I'm sad, y' know, and I'm sad because I don't have enough financial security, or something boring and mundane (like that). Musically, I really appreciated the feeling of the early '70s British glam bands like Roxy Music or T-Rex or The Sparks. There was just something--some soul. There was some soul in their lyrics that transcended their literal meaning.

Yeah, non-specific kind of feeling.

Yeah, like I just love it when, in "Remake, Remodel" (on Roxy Music's eponymous debut) when Bryan Ferry goes, "I could talk, talk, talk myself to death," there's just something in it that just seems so profound to me. But it's just a feeling.

So that brings me to the comment you made in the little, ah, Spin thing that was in the June issue, where you said you can understand why people make experimental music, but you have no idea why anyone would ever want to listen to it. I personally agree with that statement, but I'm curious because you're describing an approach to songwriting that involves taking all these ideas that are sort of esoteric and, in a way, an experimental approach to songwriting, but that manifests itself in a more digestible and kind of, pop experience for the listener.

Well, yeah, I mean, I think it's good to work within some kind of discipline in art, if you want to call it art. The sky's the limit. I actually kind of felt embarrassed about even saying anything like that. I don't even remember saying it. It's what I think, but at the same time, I'm like, "Yeah, people can make whatever kind of music makes them happy." But for me ... I appreciate the discipline of someone working within, say, pop music, and just trying to push it, 'cuz it's very easy just to abandon all form and method and make "music." I think anybody can do that, y'know? I don't know how to play violin, but I could pick up a violin and make some screechy noises on it, and put it out, and maybe somebody would say I was a genius ...

And call yourself "Merzbow"...

Yes! Or just record 20 minutes of feedback. I don't consider that genius. I understand the idea behind it, and I think it's interesting that people do that, but ...

But there are people that do things like that where there's more going on than simply, y'know, the recording of noise, I mean, like (Lou Reed's) Metal Machine Music obviously was a piece of shit, but y'know, then there's somebody like Jim O'Rourke, for whom, well, there's much more going on.

Yeah. Well, I think that's why I felt so uncomfortable about being quoted like that, because I felt like it made me seem like kind of a dick.

WE WENT ON TO TALK about many other things, including how he thinks Interpol are all dicks (kidding!) and how fond he is of the New Pornographers' new label, Matador, and their other suitor, Merge Records, whom the NPs had to turn down because of their just-inked deal with Matador. But space (and ink) runs short.

The New Pornographers (with the exception of resident "eccentric" Bejar, who is too busy with Destroyer and doesn't tour with them) are ready for their close-up. This time, the attention is on them from the outset--already, the album has been reviewed and featured in The New York Times, on MSN's Slate and a much-anticipated appearance on Letterman on June 17--a rarity for an indie-label band.

Electric Version represents them well, despite the fact that they consciously took their foot off the gas a bit, in part due to the feeling that the unrelenting pop overdrive on Mass Romantic earlier lauded in this article was perhaps a bit over the top.

"Attack pop," I called it toward the end the interview with Carl.

"What did you call it?" he asked. I couldn't tell if he didn't hear me or was pissed off and perhaps wanted to fight.

Then I remembered he was Canadian.

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