The New Pornographers’ Carl Newman on the band’s legacy, ahead of Wednesday’s Truman show
In November of 2000, a Canadian band made up of members of bands like Zumpano and Destroyer, along with an American country singer, released an album called Mass Romantic. Unless you were particularly clued-in to north of the border indie pop, it likely didn’t grab your attention until Matador Records reissued it just after releasing the band’s sophomore LP, Electric Version.
In the 20 years since Mass Romantic, The New Pornographers have released seven more LPs, toured the world, and seen that American country singer — one Neko Case — go on to make quite a name for herself. The band’s albums are big, catchy pop, like Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac without the cocaine and infighting. Their most recent, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, came out in September via Collected Works Records, the band’s own imprint.
We spoke with the band’s founder and songwriter, Carl Newman, by phone from his home in upstate New York about the band’s storied history.
When you started The New Pornographers, did you have any hopes or expectations that it would go on as long as it has?
No real hopes, but I think whenever anybody’s making an album — no matter how pragmatic they are — there is a fantasy and there is a dream in the back of their mind. You would like to think that this record you’re making is going to catapult you into fame, even if you know that is a ridiculous thing to think. I didn’t even think there was going to be a second record.
It took so long to make the first record that getting it out was the end game for me. The end game was to finish it, even if only 500 people want it. But that’s not how it played out.
This year is the 20th anniversary of Mass Romantic, but that’s 20 years from when it first came out, even though most people didn’t hear it until the Matador re-release.
It sold way more in years four to six than years one through three. We thought we were doing so great — like, I remember when we found out that Mass Romantic had sold 15,000, I thought, “Holy shit, we’re huge! This record sold 15,000!” I’d always been in bands that were fighting to sell one or maybe two thousand, so that felt very strange.
During your first few mainstream years of existence, it seemed like the band’s music was also existing in all of these other things. The music was appearing in TV shows, like a spring break episode of Gilmore Girls.
I never watched Gilmore Girls, but I knew they’d licensed one of our songs. Somebody told me recently that the main girl was talking to one of her friends on the show and her hip friend was like, “Hey, check out The New Pornographers,” so we were a plot point! We weren’t just the background music. That’s cool. We had a pretty good eight-year run, where we were we were kind of — I don’t wanna say omnipresent, but our music was getting licensed a lot.
You ended up in video games like Rock Band. What’s it like having your song in a video game where other people can play it and live a digital fantasy of being you?
It was just sold to me like, “Hey, we are making this game called Rock Band and want to use your song. It’s like Guitar Hero, but it’s got guitar and bass and drums.” When they described it to me, I thought. “Holy shit, this is gonna be huge! There’s no way this game is not gonna be really big,” and it was for a couple of years. I was very excited about that, and so shocked when I saw the list of bands that I was in there with, because we were, hands down, the most obscure band.
There was the OK Go treadmill song, and then there was “Maps,” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs and then, even further down the obscurity chart, there was us. But us alongside Aerosmith and Queens of the Stone Age. That was a very strange moment.
The New Pornographers have really succeeded by being a very diverse and adaptable group. You’ve toured with and without folks, and people slid into roles. Kathryn Calder and Simi Stone are now members of the band, in addition to just being part of your touring group.
I still think of Kathryn as a relatively new member of the band, but she’s been in the band for three-quarters of our lifetime. She’s basically going on her fifteenth year of being with us.
Do you think that’s allowed the group to keep going on? It started out as this sort of Canadian supergroup, but now it seems as though it’s no longer a side project.
It will always be an established band and a side project simultaneously, and it just depends on who you’re talking to you. To me, it’s an established band, but to Neko, it’s a side project. That’s how it functions.
Does that help you as the main songwriter, because you’re writing for new voices and having new things to vocalize through them?
I don’t know how to write for new voices. I really don’t know how to write for my own voice. I’m just trying to write how I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always wanted the band to be something that could change, and something that could transform, but I realized as you get popular it becomes your job. What you do for a living. It gets slightly more difficult to just say, “Hey, I want to toss out everything we’ve done and completely reinvent the band.”
We’re The New Pornographers. It’s maybe not the best idea for me to put out an album of acoustic ballads and call it The New Pornographers. I’d like to think we’ve messed around with who we are over the years. I know there are there were some people that didn’t like the shift from the sound of Twin Cinema to the sound of Challengers, and at the time, I felt a little self-conscious about it. Now, I look back and I feel like I’m proud that we just did what we wanted to do. I’m proud that we didn’t say, “What works? Let’s do more of what makes us popular.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The New Pornographers play the Truman on Wednesday, February 12, with Diane Coffee. Details on that show here.