In the driver's seat


March 10, 2006


Though it's often described as an indie-rock supergroup, there's no doubt about the driving force behind Canada's acclaimed power-pop band the New Pornographers.

A veteran of Zumpano, the exuberant redhead Carl "A.C." Newman launched the New Pornographers in 1996 as a busman's holiday, making music with his pals Neko Case, fellow singer-songwriter Dan Bejar of Destroyer and other friends in Vancouver. Full of pleasant Kinks-flavored pop tunes, the group released "Mass Romantic" in 2000 and "Electric Version" in 2003. But it wasn't until last year that it lived up to the hype.

On "Twin Cinema," Newman and Bejar delivered their strongest collection of tunes to date, as elliptical and inscrutable as ever in the lyrics, but overflowing with indelible melodies delivered via impressive orchestral pop arrangements and choruses built from magnificently layered backing vocals.

For their current tour, the New Pornographers are missing Case, who just released her strong new disc "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood," and Bejar, who's promoting Destroyer's new album "Rubies." But Newman is as enthusiastic as ever. We spoke by phone from the tour bus as the band made its way to Chicago for a sold-out show tonight at the Riv.

Q. "Twin Cinema" has been the New Pornographers' most successful album. Was there a feeling in the studio that you'd done something special?

A. I felt that way about the first two records, but in the end, I was kind of unhappy with them. But I felt with this one that it finally came out the way I wanted it to. I was worried that I would become one of those deluded people who thought their worst album was their best album! [Laughs]

Q. What was the recording like?

A. There were some songs that were real studio creations more than ever before, like "The Jessica Numbers" and "Falling Through Your Clothes," but for the most part it was a conscious effort to just do something a little different. I was getting kind of bored of being as pop as we were. We're always going to be really melodic, but I just wanted to be a little quieter; acoustic guitar shows on this record for the first time. But when it rocked, I wanted it to rock really hard. I just wanted a little more extreme album.

Q. I don't think a lot of fans understand how the band works, with all of these different members contributing.

A. It's pretty easy, actually. Dan [Bejar] hardly does anything with us live; he's only toured with us once. We basically just call him up and say, "Dan, we need some songs," and he'll come and record and practice with us. Neko [Case], we basically just get her to come into town for a few days, we have her parts figured out before she gets here, and we go, "Here, Neko, you do this and this and this." She's always busy, and these days she's only playing with us [live] half of the time. But other than that, the lineup is pretty much set, and our band can function now like a normal band for the first time ever -- we can do the things we need to do, like tour Europe, or just tour, period.

Q. I'm still confused about the differences between a New Pornographers song and an A.C. Newman solo song.

A. [Laughs] I don't really know myself anymore! I thought I knew when I made [my 2004 solo album] "The Slow Wonder." There were songs that were quiet, and people thought, "Well, he's putting his quiet songs on a solo album." Then after I realized that my quiet songs were my favorites, I thought, "Why not take that into the Pornographers as well? Why should we not be allowed to do ballads? It's ridiculous! The Shins are allowed to do ballads!"

Now, this basically makes it so that I don't have a clue what's a solo song and what's a Pornographers song. When I'm writing, I don't really have a clue who is going to be singing what. I think it's just hard enough to finish the song! Basically, we just go into the studio and I'll start a song and just go "Nah, this isn't working" or "OK, this could be something."

Q. When do you know you've written a keeper?

A. I don't know! I just know the ones that don't bug me. There were some songs like "The Jessica Numbers" where I remember thinking, "This is going to be my favorite song on the record or it's not going to make the record at all." Now, it's still my favorite song on the record.

Q. It's one of my favorites, too, though I don't have a clue what it's about.

A. I don't know, either! There are songs on the record that are sort of narratives and I could go through them line by line, but that one is sort of a word-salad song.

Q. When will the New Pornographers be recording again?

A. We're just trying to figure out when and how we can do it. I'm living in Brooklyn now, and we're doing a lot of touring, so we have to figure out how to squeeze it in there. But I'm writing and trying to figure out where to go next. I have what seem to be a lot of mellower songs, so I'm not sure what will happen with that. Maybe they'll turn into epics, or maybe they'll stay mellow; I don't know.


What did we ever do before DVD? Newly arrived in stores are several shiny video discs that will be greeted like manna from heaven by hardcore fans.

Topping this list is Kraftwerk's Notebook (Astralwerks), which chronicles the group's recent tour in support of the "Minimum -- Maximum" album of remixed greatest hits with a two-disc 5.1 Surround Sound CD (which also plays on regular CD players), a two-disc concert DVD and an 88-page full-color hardcover book, all packaged in an unbelievably cool silver box designed to resemble a laptop computer.

Priming the pump for the April 4 release of the Flaming Lips' new album At War with the Mystics, there's also a two-disc 5.1 remix of 1999's The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.). Enticing extras include the videos for "Race for the Prize" and "Waitin' for a Superman," three cool and previously unreleased outtakes (including "The Captain," one of the best songs the band ever recorded) and four tunes from radio sessions taped circa the album's release.

Finally, there's Velvet Redux Live MCMXCIII (Sire/Rhino), a concert DVD (top of page) chronicling the short-lived reunion of the Velvet Underground for a series of concerts in Paris in 1993. Given that most films of the band during the '60s are sketchy at best, that bandleaders Lou Reed and John Cale are once again at war, and that rhythm guitarist Sterling Morrison died in 1995, this is as close as we're ever likely to get to seeing one of the most influential bands in rock history on stage.