Talking about rock music, in particular the indie-pop strain, is necessarily an exercise in talking about time, and talking about time necessarily involves talking about dislocation, so in a way it's perfectly appropriate to be chatting with Carl Newman, the linchpin of the New Pornographers, as he prepares to go on tour.
Though after seven albums and 17 years, they are indisputably veterans, the commercial and cultural landscape into which the band's new LP, Whiteout Conditions, has emerged is difficult to predict. The record continues in the vein of 2014's vital and wonderful Brill Bruisers, with synths and dance music textures rising up to bolster the ebullient power pop that has always been Newman's métier.
For a band that has always kept one foot planted in the gloaming of mid-'60s antiquity, Whiteout sounds very contemporary, very physical, and, like the best of their material, totally thrilling. Between Newman's manic verbal hooks, and lead and harmony vocals by Neko Case (the most powerhouse Northwest singer who ever drew breath) and Kathryn Calder (who shines despite having to reside to some degree in Case's shadow), everything feels right in the world of the New Pornographers.
If only you could say the same about the rest of the world.
"It's definitely always been the nature of the band that we don't tour a lot," Newman says. "We just don't want to. I couldn't be that person who's on the road constantly, especially now that I have a 5-year-old son. I'm settling into domestic life, and the thought of me being gone all the time as he's growing up seems depressing. It's a good balance now, because when I'm home, I'm home. I'm not the dad who's working 70 hours a week. When I'm home, I'm here. I can hang out with him all the time. It's just that I have these times where I have to go for a few weeks, and I don't see him at all. I guess that's a fair trade."
And yet, all you ever hear these days is that the life of the professional musician demands constant touring. Not so for the New Pornographers?
"That might be the case very soon," he says. Now, there's certain income that you used to have that you don't have anymore. Being a songwriter, there's still income there, but there are royalties—sales royalties and mechanical royalties—that aren't there anymore, because music is basically free and all that kind of stuff. Licensing goes in waves. Sometimes it does very well, but it giveth and it taketh away. I know I've been telling people for a while now, 'Hey, maybe my career's over and I don't even know it yet.' It's hard to say in this world."
I wonder if this is why the past two New Pornographers albums in particular have sounded so aggressively (not to say displeasingly) pop. Not pop in the sense of their early records, which sounded like they were distilled from memories of 1965–'75 AM radio, but pop in the sense that it wouldn't sound out of place coming out of a retail environment PA in 2017.
"It's funny," Newman recalls, "10 years ago, I was thinking, 'How can somebody age gracefully in this business? How do you do it?' I would talk to other musicians, who were my age or older. I don't want to start playing country blues. I'm just not going to be that guy. A few years ago, I just realized, 'Nope, you're not going to age gracefully. This is going to be ugly. You're going to be the guy who's in his 60s, and he's still going to be making these pop music records. Maybe people will just think you're a weird old guy.' But that's just my fate."
Nonetheless, somewhere along the way—after Twin Cinema (2005) and before Brill Bruisers (2014)—came a period where New Pornographers records were conspicuously more complex, less blatantly fun. Not to suggest the fun bits are any less artful than the heavier ones, but was there a sense of wanting to get more serious?
"Sometimes the sadness of life just seeped in," Newman explains. "At some point, even if your life is going good, somebody else that you know and love might be going through a hard time or an illness. There are all these things. At the same time, I met my wife. I was just a little bit more emotionally raw, and it made it so I wanted to write different songs."
That's not to say he didn't try to keep the band's signature sound intact.
"I remember the two main ballads on Challengers , 'Adventures in Solitude' and 'Challengers,' we tried playing them as rock songs, and they didn't sound right until I stripped everything away. It wasn't me trying to do that. That was just my instinct for what sounded right."
But versatility has always been part of the band's MO.
"I feel a certain pride in that I, or we, have always done what we want to do," Newman says. "We didn't follow up Twin Cinema, our most popular album, with Twin Cinema Two. I thought, 'Let's do something different.' That's what all my favorite bands do.' They do whatever the hell they want and don't worry about what's expected."
On the last two albums, that has included an increased presence of dance music elements—not what you'd call EDM (if you even feel comfortable using those initials), but a sort of all-purpose disco-friendly rhythm track of the mind alongside the (always killer) live drums, now played by Joe Seiders. There was a time not so very long ago when indie rock bands weren't supposed to play with drum machines, and it took Newman and his cohort a while to incorporate them—but not for lack of interest.
"I think it was in the back of our minds for a long time," he says. "It just never came together. Even on Mass Romantic, there's a song called 'The Fake Headlines,' and near the end of it, I got it in my head that I wanted to give it a massive hiphop beat. I remember being in the studio with John [Collins] and Dan [Bejar], and them going, 'Oh, come on. Let's backpedal a little here. Don't get ridiculous.' I think we would try to throw those elements on the albums, but if they didn't work, we would acknowledge it. It wasn't until Brill Bruisers where we really got into using that stuff. I don't know what that was. Maybe technology was just becoming a lot more user-friendly. It used to be, even using an arpeggiator there was a learning curve, but now it's so easy. It's almost like using a word processor. We finally got to a point where it was fun to manipulate sounds, and it was really working. For us, it was a great thing. I know a lot of people have been doing that for years, but it felt new to us."
The idea that certain tools were somehow not okay for certain musicians to use feels ancient now.
"In a lot of ways, it feels like music has opened up so much," Newman says. "So much more is acceptable. If our next record was all Auto-Tuned vocals, I'll bet people wouldn't even blink. Indie-rock R&B is some of the hugest indie rock. Even on the last couple records, we used, sparingly, but we've used Vocoder just because, y'know—'This is fun.' At another time, people might have gone, 'What are you doing? Using Vocoder?' Now it doesn't make a person look twice."
As ever, the sense of increased freedom opens up further possibilities to use those tools in the service of making more idiosyncratic music.
"There's that scene in the Brian Wilson movie Love & Mercy where they're making Pet Sounds," Newman recalls, "and the guy who's playing piano plays something and Brian Wilson goes, 'What'd you do there?' He says, 'No, nothing. It was a mistake.' And Brian says, 'Well, if you do it every four bars, it's not a mistake anymore.' I love that. I've always loved taking something that's abrasive, and if you repeat it enough times, it's not abrasive anymore. It's just part of the song."
The New Pornographers emerged into a world that was just getting used to the reality that George W. Bush really was going to be the president, and the resulting despair made an interesting contrast with the manic, explosive joy of the band's early music. I can't help asking, as Newman prepares to head out into the world again, whether he anticipates any consonance between being a band back then and being one now in what can only be called a—
"Far worse time?" He sees the question coming a mile away. "I don't know. It feels like so many people were so drastically affected by this election. It felt like it was hard to go back to normal. I think for a lot of people, there was a couple months like, 'What am I supposed to do? How can I go back to my normal life when the world has changed in such a terrible way?' I think about that. It gives me a little bit of perspective in that, whereas I used to be really worried about what people were going to think of the record. Now I'm like, 'In this world, how can I be concerned about something so petty? How can I be concerned about a bad review?'
"Some parts of me think I wouldn't be surprised if we sold less tickets or less records just because people might be in a state where they just don't want to go out anymore. It could be that people are looking at the world in a different way, and maybe they don't want to go to rock concerts as much. I don't know. The interesting thing about these times is, every time you put out a record, you put it into a new world. I don't know what the world is like now. You don't know until you go out there. Maybe everything's the same as it was, but I'm not sure. It is very strange."