Twenty years ago, Carl Newman was a 30-something, still-aspiring rock star from the Vancouver area who as founder, creative force and bandleader of The New Pornographers, was working on their debut album, Mass Romantic.
Now 51, living with his wife Christy and their son Stellan in an idyllic setting in Woodstock, New York, the bandleader celebrates his success with the power pop-rock indie powerhouse, including the remaining members who performed on that first record.
Newman was born in 1968 in Surrey, British Columbia, but raised in White Rock, where the red-headed youngster and his friends rode bikes across the nearby U.S. border to play video games. Today, he is pleased to still be standing behind the wheel steering the older but wiser Pornographers, who in September released In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, their eighth full-length album.
If Newman is the first rock musician to be compared with football coach Bill Belichick, who led the New England Patriots dynasty to six Super Bowl titles despite the ever-changing lineups and ongoing drama, so be it.
“I feel like … it’s just staying in the game,” Newman quips during a phone interview with the Observer last week, laughing perhaps at his own cornball sports analogy.
“To succeed is to just be able to still do it,” he adds. “You go through points where it’s like, ‘Well, we’re not as popular as we were at that point in time,’ but [thinking] at the same time, ‘But we’re still here.' At some point, you’re heading up, then you just hit the plateau. And then you’re just like, ‘Well, here we are. (laughs) What do we do now?’”
First on the 2020 priority list for Newman and his colorful, and original, cast of characters: remarkable co-lead vocalist Neko Case, John Collins (bass) and Blaine Thurier (keyboards, synths), is a tour that began Jan. 29 in Seattle.
After 15 more U.S. dates — including a Feb. 8 stop at Canton Hall in Dallas — the group will play seven shows in Australia (and intend to honor the victims of the massive bushfires), then one in New Zealand.
Rounding out the group are lead guitarist Todd Fancey, who joined in 2003; 2005 addition Kathryn Calder, another accomplished singer who plays keyboards and guitar who just happens to be Newman’s niece; Joe Seiders, the third drummer in the band following the departures of Fisher Rose in 1999 and Kurt Dahle in 2014; and Simi Stone, a violinist-vocalist who became a full-time member in 2019 after touring with the band since 2015.
“It’s dangerous to keep adding members,” jokes Newman, whose band’s songs are consistently built around swirling harmonies, tantalizing hooks, catchy phrasing and shrewd lyrics. “And the slices of the pie get ever smaller.”
On Seiders and Stone, the most recent additions, Newman says, “Not that the band is a force of negativity, but they are such positive presences. And Joe’s a mixologist, which is amazing. He brings his homemade bitters onto the bus and he’s always making us fancy cocktails. And Simi is just like a joyous presence. If you watch us with her on stage, you can sense she lifts the overall energy of the band by about 20%.”
Balancing Act of Power
Since adept artists such as Case and Calder (and occasionally the guy billed as A.C. Newman) have pursued solo careers while most of the others work in other groups or on side projects, mixing and matching some powerful players with strong personalities into a cohesive and content crew can be a challenging balancing act.
“Well, it’s always tricky,” Newman asserts. “I’m amazed that it doesn’t get any more difficult.”
With technological advances and fewer miles to travel since his first move from the Vancouver area to Brooklyn 15 years ago, Newman finds it much easier to record these days. He can comfortably lay down vocals with Case (a four-hour drive away, with her boyfriend-studio technician) or Calder, whose husband has a studio attached to their house in Victoria, British Columbia. Then it’s just a matter of scheduling time with the power trio or quartet to “try and get that rock attack ... We’re not trying to be an in-studio synth band or anything,” says Newman, who was In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights’ sole producer.
Likely the most significant adjustment made during the life of the New Pornographers has been making up for the absence of Dan Bejar, the talented, eccentric Vancouver singer-songwriter who had coexisted as a key player in the New Pornos until 2017’s Whiteout Conditions while fronting his own band, Destroyer.
In their current publicity bio, Bejar, who contributed a few lines to Newman’s “Need Some Giants” on their latest release, is described as a “former (and possibly future) member” of the New Pornographers.
Newman tries his best to clear up Bejar’s status within the group.
“I don’t know. We’re friends. I talk to him, he says sheepishly before sounding optimistic about some possible Bejar guest appearance.
“Whenever he’s around, if we’re playing and he’s around, like he always jumps onstage with us,” Newman adds of Bejar. “It’s never like we’re trying to distance ourselves from the guy. He’s definitely always gonna be a good friend.”
If Case is the voice and Newman is the heart and brains behind this supergroup, then Bejar had to be considered its soulful, indomitable spirit, a player whose songs are as intriguing and quirky as he is, a truly independent and spontaneous character who would come and go as he pleased during a show, sometimes returning to the stage with a beer or sandwich in his hand. But his “The Spirit of Giving” and "Testament to Youth in Verse" are hardcore Porno classic concert keepsakes as much as Newman’s “Use It,” “The Bleeding Heart Show,” “Moves” and “All the Old Showstoppers.”
Just days before his band started a series of Pacific Northwest dates, Newman not only discussed digging deeper into his songbook and preparing for a couple of anniversaries but also how the unpredictable Bejar always keeps him guessing.
Who’s Ready to Celebrate?
To commemorate 20 years since the release of Mass Romantic, which included songs like his “The Fake Headlines" (long before President Donald Trump’s popularized “fake news”) and “The Mary Martin Show,” Newman says the group's developing a series of one-off shows, where Pornos (old and new) will play the entire album — a plan still in the wishful thinking stages.
“I brought it up with the band a little bit,” he offers about performing songs from the Juno Award-winning lid-lifter of the band’s career. “I brought it up with Bejar and I brought it up with Neko ’cause I thought if we do it, I’d want to make sure that we had pretty much the original lineup.
“Anything else we’re doing for [Mass Romantic], I don’t want to talk about it for fear that I don’t do it. I don’t want to be the guy who’s all talk and no action. I’d rather be all action and no talk.”
His fondness for Mass Romantic and the 15-year anniversary of 2005’s Twin Cinema, their third studio full-length that was among 10 finalists for Canada’s Polaris Music Prize, goes beyond warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia, though.
While the band’s two most recent albums were released on their own Collected Works Records imprint in partnership with Concord Records, a licensing deal with Matador Records for their first three records (including 2003’s Electric Version) ended in 2017. Twelve years after Twin Cinema’s release, those rights were in the hands of the New Pornographers.
“In 2005, I’m thinking, ‘We’re gonna retain the rights in 2017? What the hell’s my life gonna be like in 2017?’ Like I couldn’t conceive of it,” Newman admits. “Now we’re sitting here in 2020 and we’re going, ‘Well, we own the rights to those first three records. What are we gonna do with them?’ And we’re still here. …
“Back in 2005, I would not have been the person going, ‘Yep, you’re still gonna be going in 2020.’ That’s fucking absurd!”
So expect to hear more deeper cuts — possibly one or two from every record — while they tour in 2020, promises Newman, who has been telling himself, “We gotta relearn all of those songs.” Whether Bejar will be there is anyone’s guess, though.
Coming and going
The steady hand of a frontman conducting business was shaken by a hair-raising experience early in his career: Bejar’s stunning decision to move to Spain about a month or so after Mass Romantic’s release on Nov. 21, 2000, while the New Pornographers were still basically toiling in anonymity.
“So almost immediately, I thought, ‘Oh, give me a fucking break. Bejar’s moving the moment our album comes out?’” Newman recalls, the memory seemingly as fresh as his exasperated tone. “But then he came back about a year later. And it was like as if he’d never left. … And he was back in the band again.”
Though Bejar wrote and recorded songs for the sophomore album, Newman wasn’t sure about the intentions of a mover and shaker who didn’t tour with the group until 2005.
“It never really seemed like a future with Bejar in the band,” Newman admits. “He toured with us on the Twin Cinema record, possibly because he needed money. And at the end of that tour … I remember feeling like, ‘This is bittersweet. Will we ever play together … will this lineup ever play again?’”
Of course they did, with Bejar hitting the road after the next three albums — 2007’s Challengers, 2010’s Together and 2014’s Brill Bruisers.
“So that’s why when people say, 'Is he ever gonna play with you again?’ I think, ‘I have no idea,’” Newman says. “There have been a couple times where I’ve thought, ‘He’s never gonna play with us again.’ And he did.”
So the Workingman’s Bandleader is fairly confident that any loyal followers still eager to attend a show will eventually see Bejar appear again with the New Pornographers. By then, hopefully they’ll all know even the rarities and will heed Newman’s suggestion: “Play to the person who you think is just a big fan of all your records.”
Still Enjoying the Ride
How long the New Pornographers will endure is hard to say, but rest assured that Newman wants to keep going.
“Like I’m dreading the moment when somebody taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Hey, you gotta find another job. This rock thing isn’t working anymore,’" he says.
FACES, PLACES AND CURRENT EVENTS
Newman, an opinionated and frequent Twitter contributor, takes on a few random subjects.
What are you more interested in — the Grammys, the Oscars or the Super Bowl?
Newman: It’s funny, I’m not super-interested in any of them. (Laughs) I feel like I’m just too involved in my own life. Like it’s hard for me to care about things like that.
Does that go for the impeachment trial?
Newman: I care about the impeachment trial but I also want to keep my distance from it. I know how I feel about it and I think anybody who’s followed me on Twitter for more than 20 minutes probably knows how I feel. And I don’t want to become too embittered and angry. I think I just wanna be more strategic about things. … When millions are planning on hitting the streets, just tell me. I’ll show up.
It is my opinion as a man without a country that Bernie should be the nominee. Will not be taking questions.— Carl Newman (@ACNewman) January 23, 2020
How do you think the impeachment trial’s outcome will affect Trump’s run for reelection?
Newman: I have no idea. (laughs) The world is so absolutely screwed that nothing would surprise me.
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How do you feel about Meghan and Harry’s possible move to Canada?
Newman: Are they moving to Vancouver? (It’s one of the rumored destinations, along with Victoria.) Well, I think it’s a smart move to get out of there. I’m all for like, “Yeah, do it Harry!” That life killed his mother. I can see him. He’s probably looking at his wife and son and thinking, “I need to protect them.” I want them to have a happy life.
What are your thoughts about returning to Dallas for the Feb. 8 show?
Newman: We had a great show the last time we played in Dallas (on May 5, 2017). I forget the name of the venue (Granada Theater), but we had a really great show. Fingers crossed.