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Stage Buzz Q&A: New Pornographers at Thalia Hall • Chicago

| May 4, 2023


THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS (Carl Newman – center) (Photo credit: Ebru Yildiz)

Fans (and critics) hailed The New Pornographer’s debut album Mass Romantic in late 2000 as a highlight from the world of indie-pop. However, few would have predicted that the “supergroup” experiment would become such a reliably great and durable band operating in parallel with its members’ individual careers. Ringleader and principal songwriter A.C. (aka Carl) Newman has guided the beloved Canadian rockers through nine acclaimed albums, including the captivating new release Continue as a Guest. The group are longtime favorites in Chicago, with roots established during early-career shows at The Hideout and Metro. This week, The New Pornographers return to play two sold-out concerts at Thalia Hall. Newman spoke to IE’s Jeff Elbel by phone from a tour stop in Austin, Texas.

IE: In a solid month of touring dates, your Thalia Hall shows were among the first to sell out. Can you tell me about the band’s connection to its audience in Chicago?

CN: When we first started, Neko [Case] was living there. We played our first Chicago show at The Hideout. Even when we outgrew the Hideout pretty quickly, it was still the place we went to hang out. It’s funny, I was just on the Cayamo Cruise, and I was hanging out with a lot of Chicago people like Liam Kazar and Macie Stewart, and Jim Elkington. They were all playing with Jeff Tweedy. I bring them up because that’s the newest Chicago crew we know. There’s the Chicago crew that we knew way back. We knew Mike Bulington because he used to date Kelly Hogan way back in the day. He’s on tour with us right now doing merch. Chicago’s always been a great place for us.

IE: I was aware that you played at the Metro in 2003 for Electric Version. You must have been playing at The Hideout around 2001 for Mass Romantic or earlier.

CN: I think we played the Hideout in February 2001, and then we played about a month after 9/11 at the Hideout Block Party. It might have been one of the first-ever Hideout Block Parties. I don’t know where they hold it now, but it was out in the parking lot in front of the venue.

IE: I believe the last one was in 2018, but it’s returning this year with a lineup of local heroes, including Andrew Bird, Mavis Staples, and Jon Langford.

CN: There was a point in the early 2000s where I thought maybe I should move to Chicago, too. I wanted to get out of Vancouver. I saw success in music as a springboard out. I thought, “Now that I’ve got a job where I can live anywhere, where should I go?” I went to San Francisco for a while and ended up in New York, where I still am. [Chicago] was definitely tempting because there was such a cool scene. I knew Nora O’Connor [Kean], who still plays with us, Andrew Bird, and lots of other people.

IE: Will Nora join you for anything from Electric Version or Twin Cinema while you’re here?

CN: If she’s around, she’s definitely invited. Nora’s amazing. There’s a lot of singing on Electric Version and Twin Cinema that people think is Neko, but it’s Nora. It’s mainly the backup stuff. We didn’t have Neko for a huge amount of time, so I mainly concentrated on getting all the Neko leads. Then it was like, “We need all these female backups.” So, we brought in Nora. She’s all over the place.

IE: They certainly blend well. I’ve been lucky to see them together when Nora’s joined Neko on tour.

CN: I’ve been playing in Neko’s band when Nora’s in the band.

IE: I actually saw that in September when you played Out of Space in Evanston.

CN: Over the last couple of years I’ve been playing a ridiculous amount with Nora because she’s been touring with Neko and the Pornographers. She’s an awesome person. One of the best.

IE: That Out of Space show by Neko was the first time I got to see you and [The New Pornographers drummer] Joe Seiders play. That type of mutual support of everybody’s music within The New Pornographers seems to go back at least to Neko’s album The Virginian, where you co-wrote two songs. What brought you together initially, and what makes that partnership still work so well?

CN: We just became friends. Neko and I just hit it off when we met in 1996 or whenever it was. I didn’t know she was a singer for a while. When she started making the record, she asked if I would help a little bit, and I said sure. When I had my new project I wanted to do, I was like, “Hey, will you sing on it? Because it turns out you’re a killer singer. This will be very convenient <laughs>.” Then I played in ’99 and 2000 in her band and on Furnace Room Lullaby.

And then, I didn’t play with her doing Neko songs until basically 20 years later, during the pandemic in 2020. She wanted to do some stripped-down shows. I was nearby. I was four or five hours away, and we were in each other’s [pandemic bubbles], so it made sense that I would play with her. I always thought it was ironic that because of the pandemic, we saw each other more than we normally would. Because of the pandemic, I joined the Neko Case band. It made it easier for me to get her to sing on Continue as a Guest. I would say, “Why don’t I drive down to your place, and you can record?” And sometimes she just wanted to get away, so I’d say, “Well, come up to Woodstock and record with me.”

IE: Does your does your partnership with Neko go back farther than with John Collins? Or have you all known each other about the same amount of time?

CN: I think I’ve known John a little longer, but it’s all kind of blurry. The partnership with John goes deeper. We’ve spent a lot more time together. Neko and I have always worked together very quickly. I’d bring her in, and she’d have two or three days, and we get stuff done. John’s the guy I sit with in the studio for months at a time, hammering out the records.

IE: You toured the coasts and Canada in late 2021. I think that was when you were doing the Mass Romantic and Twin Cinemaanniversary shows. Had you planned to visit Chicago any time after 2019 for In the Morse Code of Brake Lights? Was there any pandemic disruption that prevented you from getting here?

CN: I think we basically finished it. We had some shows booked for summer 2020, but not that many. We basically finished our touring for Morse Code literally three days before the world shut down. We were doing an Australia/New Zealand tour, and I think we got back on March 8th, 2020. It’s funny how it all happened so quickly. We came back, and we thought our son was gonna go back to school, and we thought, “Oh, people have been sick. Maybe we should hold him out for a couple extra days before he goes back.” And the school said yes. Then two days later, it’s like, “Nope. No school for a long time.”

IE: But your son had accompanied you for the Australia run?

CN: Yeah, which was a good idea. When we brought that up with the teachers, they said, “Obviously, going to Australia and New Zealand is better than being in school.” The education and going to those two places were much better than him sitting in the classroom for a month.

IE: What age was he at the time?

CN: He turned eight in Australia, and he just turned 11.

IE: Those must be good memories for him and the family. The band has been going for at least 25 years. It’s hard to think of The New Pornographers anymore as it’s often presented – as a pop supergroup. You’re well-established and beloved in this incarnation. Does the group’s longevity surprise you? What makes this band work so well?

CN: I’m shocked at the longevity as well. A couple of band members have left, and a few have been added. At the heart of it, I just love making music. I will always be there. I will always show up and go, “Hey, here are some songs I’m working on.” And I feel like they’ll always be like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” There’s always been a part-time nature of it that I think might help.

IE: Part-time for everybody else, more so than you.

CN: Basically. It makes it so that nobody’s fighting or jockeying for position within the band. Neko was never fighting to get songs in, and Dan Bejar was always just very loose and kinda like, “Whatever.”

IE: The impression I had is that Dan’s got his good thing with Destroyer, so he was free to enjoy himself in The New Pornographers. The group seems a bit like a getaway or clubhouse for everybody, but the quality never suffers. It seems like an outlet for you to produce people at their best and really create.

CN: It’s always felt kind of unique. I’ve looked around, and I’ve never quite seen another band like us, just in terms of the setup. The closest one I can think of is Broken Social Scene, in the way that [Leslie] Feist and Emily Haines were sometimes in the band, but they mostly weren’t – this kind of revolving troupe of musicians. I’ve always felt like we’re on our own. How do you do this? How do you be a band like The New Pornographers? I don’t know how to do it any other way except to just continue.

IE: However you’re doing it is how you do it.

CN: Yeah. I just keep trying. Nobody’s stopped me yet. There hasn’t been a point where everybody drops out and says, “Nope, we don’t wanna do it.” But I could see the band continuing, even if I was the only one left. I have no problem with it morphing into something different. I’ve thought about that. As we get older, it kind of has to morph into something different, you know?

IE: Well, you haven’t made a record under your own name since Shut Down the Streets in 2012. You’ve made four New Pornographers albums since then. Is New Pornographers enough to carry your own music?

CN: Oh, it definitely is. I don’t think there was ever a huge stylistic change from my solo records to The New Pornographers. The reason The New Pornographer started was that I just wanted to make a record. I didn’t even wanna be a real band. I just wanted to surround myself with people that I thought were interesting and cool and say, “Let’s make a record.” I didn’t see it as something that was gonna tour and have longevity and be a career. I just thought Neko’s got a killer voice. I like Dan’s songs. I like John. I just collected people. I still feel that way. Talking about being on the Cayamo Cruise and hanging out with Liam Kazar and Macie Stewart, and Jim Elkington, I think to myself, “They’re cool! I want them to come play on The New Pornographers’ record,” but I realize we’ve already got all those things [that they offer]. We’ve already got members. But the spirit of the band was just to have these friends and this community and make music with those people.

IE: You’re at the point where you’re hitting significant anniversary milestones, and I wondered how much those mean to you. This tour focuses on introducing Continue as a Guest, but do you do anything special to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Electric Version?

CN: It’s not happening on this tour. We’ve learned some more of those songs just so we could throw them into the set because we know it’s coming up on 20 years. But yeah, it is crazy to hit those milestones. It’s like, “Holy shit, it’s been 20 years!” That’s insane.

IE: I read not long ago that you said how happy you were with Brill Bruisers, and how that satisfaction was unusual compared to the other albums once you’d finished creating them. Do you feel similarly about Continue as a Guest in comparison to that?

CN: You know, I do. Sometimes it’s hard to make the songs come alive, but I feel like these songs are. I guess it’s because I’m working on another record as we speak. Continue as a Guest feels like a jumping-off point and a new chapter of the band. I feel like it’s the beginning of a style we’re going into. Especially with a song like “Marie and The Undersea.”

IE: I like that one.

CN: There’s something musically in there that I think is not necessarily new, but it feels new for us. It was also a song that I wrote with a very clear narrative. It was about a nurse in the COVID wards when everything was insane – just madness. At the time, I was just really sick of myself. I was like, “I don’t wanna write about myself. I wanna write about somebody else.” I was just reading about all the nurses and thought I could tell this little vignette, this little story. That was “Marie and the Undersea.” I remember thinking, “I wanna write more songs like this.”

IE: It’s interesting to think how that story song connects to the album’s overall narrative, which seems very personal. The title cut seems especially connected to songs like “Really Really Light” and “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies,” although the title cut seems a bit more haunted. “Really Really Light” has a joyful sound even though it’s describing disaffection and isolation. The title cut leans into the mood you create with lines like “odds are not in favor of a renaissance.” It sounds like somebody who’s resigning themselves to the idea that maybe they’ve been rendered obsolete. At the same time, there’s a sense that you’re welcoming the ability to detach while looking for a place to settle in. Is any of that on the right track?

CN: There was very much that feeling. I remember during the pandemic, when everyone was isolated, there were some people that talked about how much they liked it. I remember Trevor Noah saying on The Daily Show, “I’m an introvert. I love just being by myself and being separate.” I have my little place in Woodstock with four acres, and I just thought, “This is an okay place to be.” I was thinking about making music, and I thought,” I’m always gonna wanna make music, but maybe it doesn’t matter if the audience is there anymore.” Maybe it doesn’t matter if I’m relevant. Like, who cares?  But I didn’t want it to be negative or sound like a suicide note or anything. There was just that sense.

IE: You’ve done those extroverted things. Now you can do this introverted thing.

CN: Exactly. I’m getting older. We all get older. It’s like, why fight? Why would I wanna fight something that every person who’s ever lived has dealt with? Maybe it’s kind of a Buddhist idea. It was an acceptance that maybe I’m moving into a chapter of life, and maybe that’s nothing to be sad about. Maybe it’s just something to go into happily. But again, I don’t want it to seem like “Carl wants to die.”

IE: Those are good thoughts. We’ll emphasize the positive side.

CN: We’re 25 years into this band, and we still wanna make music, but it just transforms a little bit. When I was right in the middle of the pandemic, it was hard to avoid. It’s weird to be in a rock band just trying to sing about your quiet life. Like, I like being with my wife and son when we’re just sitting at home watching The Lord of the Rings. I like my little quiet happy life.

IE: The album Continue as a Guest seems like an exercise in working through that forced isolation and finding the silver lining. But now you’re going out to celebrate it in public among friends, your bandmates, and the audience. Will you miss that ability to retreat into private space?

CN: I’m enjoying it. I’m still trying to figure it out. We’ve only done four shows. I’m still trying to figure out what these songs mean in terms of playing in front of people. It transforms them. When we get up on stage, and we play a song like “Continue as a Guest” as a rock band, I think, “This is a cool rock song.” It’s kinda meditative. It’s got the same message and everything, but it’s us up on stage playing our groovy slow-burn rock song, and that changes it.

I was just saying to somebody today that I realized writing a set list is like I’m writing my resume. It’s like, “Here’s a collection of songs that I think are really good, and I’d like to play them for you. I hope you like them.”

IE: Are you playing something from every record in this show?

CN: I try to keep at least one song from every record in the setlist. We’re playing two for most records. It’s hard to avoid playing two or three from Twin Cinema because that was such a big record. It’s hard to avoid playing two from Mass Romantic or Electric Version.

IE: Then you run through it as the resume, and say, “I hope we pass the audition.’

CN: It’s funny you should say that. We were rehearsing at Mitch Easter’s studio in North Carolina.

IE: His Fidelitorium!

CN: Yeah. I think we were rehearsing “Use It.” He came in and just watched, and it felt that way [like an audition]. I was such a massive R.E.M. fan in high school. I loved Let’s Active, and I loved the work he did with Game Theory. So, it was funny that I was in the room with this person watching me. And it felt like, “You were my hero when I was a teenager. Here I am all these years later, playing my song in front of you. Did I pass the audition <laugh>?” It was a strange feeling. I’m a big fan.

IE: Was writing Continue as a Guest really different than writing In the Morse Code of Break Lights due to the pandemic?

CN: I took a lot longer on it. Because I had the time, I thought, I’m gonna go as slow as I want. I do go back and listen to older version songs, and I can hear how I improved upon them just by working. Sometimes it’ll just be one line. I think, “I don’t like the way I sing this line,” and I sing it a few different ways. And I go, oh, there it is.

IE: You had the luxury of refining.

CN: There was definitely a lot more refining. I try not to go crazy. There are legendary stories about bands taking ten years to make a record.

IE: The New Pornographers present Chinese Democracy.

CN: Yeah, but I found it helps. I try to be honest with myself and ask myself if I’ve lost the plot. Am I moving farther away? Sometimes you have to go back and listen to an earlier version, and the earlier version is better. So, you scrap what you’ve been doing the last few weeks and go back to the version you did two months ago. I try to be a harsh critic. It bums you out for a while, but then you realize it’s ultimately good because you’re getting closer to the answer.

IE: I love the sound of “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies.” John’s bass line hooked me instantly, and I liked the imagery I could extract. The lines “I only like art when it’s changing the subject,” and “bursting through the Overton window” grabbed me right away. The images are vivid, but they’re indirect. I was trying to figure out what the song was telling me. Is it about oversharing? Is it about social media and how we dove into that during the pandemic?

CN: It was definitely about social media. It was about how fractured social media is. If you’re scrolling through Twitter, sometimes there will be a hilarious joke. Then the next thing you see will be the story of a school shooting. There’s constant juxtaposition of things that don’t belong together. It’s very fractured. I thought maybe my song about social media should have that same quality.

[The song] should be statements that are kind of disconnected, but they’re all about the same thing. One of them is, “A painting of a wasteland, beautiful, I guess. But I only like art when it’s changing the subject.” Another is about falling through the “kaleidoscope of your mentions, you’re buried in daydream, you think it’s an entrance.” It’s not a narrative, but they’re related.

IE: Did I read that this was song connected to the book The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov?

CN: Somebody else told me that. I’ve read The Master and Margarita, but I forget which part is a reference. I remember talking to the writer and saying, “I love the reference.”

IE: I guess it would be the part where the writer character in the book recharacterizes the encounter between Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ, leading to Christ’s conviction and crucifixion.

CN: Now I’m gonna have to reread.

IE: It’ll be my first time; I’ve only skimmed.

CN: It’s a classic worth rereading. But when I started with the whole idea of Pontius Pilate showing his home movies, I just thought that was a good metaphor to base the whole song around. It seemed obvious to me that if there had been social media around then, he probably would’ve posted pictures of the crucifixion because he knew it would get lots of views. A lot of attention.

IE: “Last and Beautiful” reminded me of the Pixies a little bit. The hook really stuck with me. “I don’t wanna go by myself, come with me.” Can you tell me about that song?

CN: I was trying to write what I thought was a very simple kind of formulaic song. A lot of my favorite songs are kind of formulaic. Like for [Bob] Dylan, I would throw out something like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” It’s written like a simple formula. “Where have you been? I’ve been here, I’ve been here. I’ve been here. A hard rain’s gonna fall. Where have you been?” There’s a formula, and you fill in the blank.  I thought, I’m gonna write one of those “fill in the blank” songs, continuing the theme of isolation. You might think you wanna go off by yourself, but no, you don’t.

IE: What were you going after as a guitarist or riff writer?

CN: To me, it felt pretty primal. I’m not sure if I was trying to go for anything, but I think it dates back to something as simple as “You Really Got Me.” It’s just a chromatic change between two chords going [Newman sings the riff]. I wanted a simple, cool vibe. I’ve always written songs in a stranger [complicated] way, and I wanted to write a song based around two or three or four chords. I wanted it to be lyrically clear. I wanted the chorus to tell you the main idea.

IE: Serve one to the listener on a silver platter. I heard the Pixies and Dandy Warhols in the sound, but the Kinks and Dylan references make a lot of sense.

CN: I love the Pixies. I think they had one of the hugest influences on me of any band. They had that kind of punk rock influence on me. They made me wanna make music. I listened to their music and I thought, I understand what they’re doing. They’re using very simple ingredients, and they’re using dynamics. That made me think, I’m gonna try and do something like that. It was a good jumping-off place. It doesn’t surprise me if Pixies influence gets in.

Also, the Pixies were amazing at being abrasive and rocking, but also being the most insanely melodic band. Few bands fused that together like they did.

IE: I understand that you built “Really Really Light” around Dan Bejar’s leftover chorus hook from the Brill Bruisers sessions, so that told you where to go musically with the song. That upbeat and joyful sounding song sugarcoats some heavy lyrics. Is that something that you do on purpose?

CN: Yeah. That was a fun exercise because we had an old song that I knew was never gonna get released. When I listened to it, I thought, I liked the chorus where [Dan] talks about “heart like a feather, really, really light.” It was fun to change the meaning of it. When I started writing, I thought of that chorus as aspirational. Going back to being in the pandemic, it was the idea that at some point in the future, we won’t have to talk about this shit anymore. We can just talk about the weather, and everything’s gonna be light.

IE: You know where you’re stuck now, but you know where you want to be.

CN: Yes, exactly.

IE: The angels in “Angelcover” don’t really seem like guardians. They seem like loose cannons. I liked the line, “Melody ain’t got nothing at all on the delivery,” suggesting style or attitude over substance.

CN: I was thinking of George Saunders. I hesitate to say that, but I always loved his surreal little short stories. That’s an almost dismissive way of describing them, but I just love his writing. I thought about the idea of all the anxieties that wake you up in the middle of the night, and that mine manifested themselves as this angel sitting on my bed – all my imposter syndrome, everything I feel about playing music, this angel was saying it back to me. It obviously represents my own insecurities and all that stuff.

IE: It’s being dangerously honest, then.

CN: Yeah. And so, saying things like, “melody ain’t got nothing at all on the delivery,” is something I do kind of believe, even though I’m a big melody person. I realize like there are a lot of amazing artists that just “sell it” through pure force of will and charisma. It doesn’t matter that their lyrics aren’t that good, and their melodies aren’t that good because they have the power to sell it.

IE: That implies that you do trust your own ability with melody, but maybe not your own force of will and charisma.

CN: Yes, exactly. I just wanted to paint a little picture there. I think a lot of the times my lyrics have moved into nonsense because I just give up on a narrative because I feel like there’s no time to tell a narrative. I’ve written this music, and I don’t want it to be eight minutes long.

IE: You might have to go to the length of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” to tell the whole story.

CN: Yeah. So, in the past I’ve always just been way more impressionistic and not really concerned if people understand what I’m going on about. On this one, I thought, “Angelcover” is a short little song. I’m gonna describe a very short little scene.

IE: I catch facets of the electropop and krautrock that you’ve incorporated before. For a concise song, it’s pretty hooky. It comes in forcefully right away to grab you.

CN: That’s good. I feel like I’ve been trying to simplify as much as possible. I’ve done my time writing these songs that have like six parts, and I’m always trying to come up with new chord progressions. So, it’s fun to write a song where I go, “The only chords in the song are gonna be E, G, and C. I’m gonna see where I can go with them.” And there’s a lot of places you can go within two or three chords or even a single chord. It’s a fun new way to write.

IE: “Wish Automatic Suite” seemed to serve a couple of purposes. It sounded like a way to collect different ideas when you wanted more than you could fit onto a record. I compared it to the Beatles’ Abbey Road medley, “Band on the Run,” or Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien.”

CN: I’ve always loved songs that unfold in weird ways, but I try not to write too many of them. I think “The Bleeding Heart Show” is one of those.

IE: “Wish Automatic Suite” also serves as a good thematic conclusion to Continue as a Guest, with some hope of finding a way out of the trap of isolation.

On “Wish Automatic Suite,” I kept coming back to the idea of this carnival. When I was a kid, there was this thing called the Pacific National Exhibition that came to Vancouver every year. It was two weeks at the end of August. It was the exciting place where all the bands would come and play. Fleetwood Mac would play at the Coliseum, and there was the rollercoaster, and your standard county fair. There was something about the excitement of it that always stuck with me. When you were a kid, it felt so adult, even though it was really kind of dumb. It felt kind of dangerous, even though it wasn’t dangerous. It felt fancy, even though it wasn’t fancy.

IE: It was an illusion.

CN: Definitely a lot of illusion. I wanted to write a song about that. I remember going into the Hall of Mirrors as a kid and thinking it was impossible to find your way out. Then I realized all you have to do is look at the floor, and it’s easy to find your way out. I thought that was a good way to end [the album]. If you’re using the metaphor of the pandemic with all that isolation, you may feel like you’re in a Hall of Mirrors and you can’t find your way out. But the idea that you just have to look at the ground, and just follow it.

IE: Look to the foundation that you can trust, whatever that happens to be for you.

CN: I thought that seemed like a good way to end the record.

IE: Trying to connect the new with the old, it’s probably fair to say that Continue as a Guest is a more sophisticated and mature record than Electric Version. The older record is very crafty, but it’s raw and brash. What is in common with these two albums?

CN: God, I don’t know. Electric Version feels like a transitional record to me. I could tell that I was trying to make Twin Cinema. I could tell I was heading towards that. We had one foot in being a trashy garage band like when we made Mass Romantic, but the other foot was trying to move towards the next thing. I always like those records. To a certain degree, I feel that’s what Continue as a Guest is. I feel like it’s a big footstep toward the next place we’re heading. I think the next record is gonna sit pretty nicely next to Continue as a Guest. In a way, they’re concurrent.

This conversation was quoted for a story in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The New Pornographers perform Friday, May 5 and Saturday, May 6 at Thalia Hall. The shows are sold out, but a limited number of tickets will be available when doors open at 7PM on both nights.

 – Jeff Elbel

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