Ten years and five albums into their career, the New Pornographers are one of modern rock’s more interesting success stories. A.C. Newman, Neko Case, and Dan Bejar of cult-prog act Destroyer dominate the group, all three expert songwriters at this point. Combined, their new album Together follows the same line that they’ve always towed: classic, 1960s Nuggets-style garage-rock hooks and quirky lyrics, with Newman commanding a majority of the songwriting duties. With that much talent in one space, you might suspect that the New Pornographers struggle with sounding bloated. But they don’t overdo it: songs rarely go over four minutes and consistency is their defining quality.
This weekend the New Pornographers play two shows: the cavernous Terminal 5 on Saturday, June 19, and the tiny Bell House on Sunday, June 20. We caught up with Newman earlier this week in his Toronto hotel room.
Like the biggest hip-hop star in the world right now.
Oh, okay. I’m a little slow on the draw.
I feel like no riots have never happened at a New Pornographers show.
No, no they haven’t. I think you have to be the biggest hip-hop on act on earth for that to happen. I don’t think they happen at Animal Collective shows either.
It seems like the general consensus about your band, is how you all write perfectly constructed pop songs. But have you ever written a terrible song, one that just disgusted you?
Sometimes we do. We write tightly constructed songs. Hopefully a song like “The Bleeding Heart Show”-I wrote it so it would unfold in a certain way. But other times, I just feel that songs are very simple. But sometimes I’m fighting that [simplicity]. Some of the greatest songs just have three chords. Like every Neil Diamond song. So sometimes, I’m just trying to write a simpler song. Like the song, “A Bite Out of My Bed,” on Together. I just wanted to write a three-chord song. Of course, I fuck with it. But it’s like a game. It’s like a haiku, where I can see how good you can make your song with just a few chords.
I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 18. I always came at it from the point of a view as a music fan…I think I still do. I’m still not really much of a musician. I guess I am, I’ve picked up some things along the way. But I’m not a really great musician, in terms of having much dexterity on any instrument. My first band, we were essentially a prog-grunge band. And we’d come up with riffs and I’d scream over top of it. And then I started thinking about throwing a chorus in here. Around the age of 22 or 23, I really got into Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb and Brian Wilson. All these classic songwriters. That’s when I got it in my head that I wanted to write songs like these people. And I feel like I’ve been chasing them.
You mentioned simplicity. Do you see other acts these days making things more difficult than they need to be?
I don’t know. I hear a band like Dirty Projectors who are very bizarre and complex and I think it’s genius. They’re a band that’s reaching for something strange and they’re getting it. What I like to call “next level shit,” is what they’re doing. But I can’t think of a band that’s doing it and failing.
The new album is called Together, but outside of touring, you’re rarely together.
Yeah. It’s nice when we do these big tours, when Neko is along and Dan is along. We’re an interesting band that way. We’ve been together for 10 years, but it’s not like we can’t stand each other. We’re still friends.
Over the last few years, this band, Neko’s solo work, your solo work, Dan’s Destroyer have all been very successful. When it comes time get the material for Together, together, does it become difficult? Or is it because your experiences are so plentiful, maybe it’s become actually easier?
It’s not really easier or harder. The big difference is people’s levels of success. Ten years ago, Neko toured just as much, but she wasn’t as successful. In fact, she may have had to tour more back then because she was making less money. So the fact that she has a lucrative solo career, in a way, could give her more free time to do the Pornographers. Instead of playing 10 shows that pay $2,000, she could just play one show that pays $20,000 and have the other nine days.
One of the odder tunes of the new batch is “Valkyrie In the Roller Disco.” It feels like you’re experimenting with many more instruments than usual in a three-and-a-half-minute time span.
That’s a very divisive song, I’ve noticed. It seems like people either think it’s the worst song or the best song. It’s clearly the most mellow song and the strangest one. If somebody’s going along and they’re like, “I like this record, it’s upbeat” and that shows up, they’re going to get angry. But other people appreciate it because it’s one of those stranger ones. But I like the strange songs on the albums. I listen back to [2005’s] Twin Cinema and my favorite ones are “The Jessica Numbers” and “Falling Through Your Clothes.” I’ve always told people that one of the most influential albums is The White Album. It’s so unfocused. I love how ramshackle it is. They put “Wild Honey Pie” next to “Bungalow Bill.” For me, in making a record, I’ve always wanted it to have these peaks and valleys. Even within a single song. I just want it to move in a lot of places. I do like it when a song unfolds but people don’t notice it unfolding.
Has the songwriting duties with you and Dan changed over the years at all?
I think we have that relationship that Lennon/McCartney had with Harrison, you know? Dan’s never shown up saying, “I have eight songs for the new record.” It’s more like me bugging him, saying, “Dan, we need some songs for the record.” And he’ll give three. And I think that’s the agreed amount. We don’t really write together-maybe when we’re rearranging certain parts.
Who’s more confident in their first drafts?
Oh, Dan, definitely. He’s just more prolific than me. I’m just not a person that presents a song and goes, “Here, here’s a song.” I’ll often change the words. Or I’ll have my first draft words, then I’ll rewrite them, then two months later I’ll go back to the first lyrics.
You left Brooklyn for upstate recently.
Yeah, Woodstock. I like it so much that it’s recently been hard to be on tour. It’s my little Shangri-La out there. I have four-and-a-half acres. And when you tell people you’re a musician [up there], they say, “Oh, you’ve come to the right place.” Being a musician is a respected profession. To me, it’s the ideal small town. They don’t have a lot of fast-food chains there. It’s all very independent, it’s self-sufficient. It feels like what a small town should be.