Three Monkeys Online

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Challengers – The New Pornographers interview

There’s nothing I like more than getting hooked on a melody, then stepping back an instant and realising that there’s an intelligent lyric shouldering the song up. Sure, there are plenty of good songwriters where the poetry is the element first and foremost that you notice – an arresting line, an alliterative glance that catches the ear, but for me it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

The first New Pornographers song that I ever heard was Sing me Spanish techno (from their 2005 album Twin Cinema), which stood out immediately from a mix-tape of odds and ends given to me by a friend. Its musical pace, positivity and solidity had me interested from the start, but when my ears fine-tuned to the lyrics behind the chorus I was hooked – “listening too long, to one song, sing me Spanish Techno”. Listening through their albums, from the latest Challengers to their 2000 debut Mass Romantic has become, for me, an exercise in finding new old-favourites. Like The Slow Descent into Alcoholism, or Go Places,or the laws have changed, or the brilliant title track of the latest album Challengers – enough already, you get the picture.

The band led by A.C. Newman is often described as a Canadian Supergroup – a title they, with a mix of humility and pragmatism eschew. Humility because the band does have the credentials> It features folk star Nekko Case, whilst Newman has been in critically acclaimed local bands before the New Pornographers and has also released his own solo work, not to mention the work of other band members like Dan Bejar of Destroyer/Swan Lake. Pragmatism because it’s a recognition that on a global scale we’re not talking Cream here. The truth is that the New Pornographers as a band have achieved success on a scale equal to and exceeding that of most of the individual members. The supergroup tag though gives an interesting insight into the band, because it highlights that this incredibly talented group have plenty of other options. If they get together to make music and release it, it’s because the music they make together is extraordinary.

Band leader Carl Newman kindly exchanged emails with TMO recently:

You describe two of the songs on Challengers as New York songs. Let’s talk a little bit about what qualifies a song as a ‘NY song’ – geography, state of mind, or something else entirely?

Well, Myriad Harbour was Dan’s way of writing a song for the NewPornographers, and so he thought he would make it about me moving toNY and came up with his surreal take on the subject.

Talking about theNY state of mind, as it were. I have a couple of songs on the record(Challengers and Unguided) which are MY New York songs and, as obliqueas they may seem, they are more literally about my experiences in NYin the last few years. Finding the girl that would become my wife,moving here and getting married, etc… Everybody writes NY songs. Thecity is such a huge part of our culture, it is America’s Mecca.

The essential word in any review of The New Pornographers is Pop. Is it a label you’re happy with, and how would you, as a band, define ‘Pop’. It’s a label, it seems to me, that means everything and nothing at the same time.

I think people can call us whatever they want. A mutual agreement bycritics that we are ‘Pop’ doesn’t seal our fate. It’s just an easytag-word that makes it easier to write about us in 100 words or less.The definition of pop has changed through the years. It’s hard to saywhat it means now. Rhianna is pop now, and I don’t think we sound like her. Again, it’s just a tag-word. It doesn’t have any realmeaning or significance to me. It’s like asking me to talk at lengthabout my red hair. It just is. What else can you say?

We, at Three Monkeys, think the New Pornographers are a band with a number of truly ‘great’ songs. What makes the difference between a good song, and a great song?

That’s a tough one. Often it is a quality that you can’t quite place.A great line or a great melody or a great beat or some combination ofthem all. It’s so subjective. People are individually listening fordifferent things and superimpose their own lives over them and everysong can be heard in a million different ways. That is the difference.

Writing in Pop Matters, Roger Holland judged that “Challengers, it now seems clear, is what the New Pornographers always wanted to sound like. It just took them four albums to get here.” Is that a fair analysis – how would you describe the progression?

Yeah, that’s true to a certain degree. I don’t think we’ve really beenchasing anything over the years. We’ve generally used the “It’s betterto travel hopefully than to arrive” method. It has been a naturalevolution. Challengers was the record that we wanted to make at thattime. All you can do is work on your music honestly, trusting yourinstincts, and see what comes out. That’s all we’ve ever done, withoutany forethought of what we should be sounding like, or aiming at aparticular market or radio format. I still don’t know what thePornographers sound is. I am thinking about it now actually, as I amcurrently in the beginning stages of writing the next record, havingjust finished my solo album about a week ago. The next record is goingto be the definitive NP album. I have decided.

From fairly early on, judging by interviews, you had decided on ‘Challenger’ as the title for this latest album. What made you decide on it specifically?

The title wasn’t picked until a month or so before it was completed. Ijust liked the sound of it. Usually you throw around a lot of titlesand one sticks, there is one that is filled with portent.’Challengers’ obviously represents the message of the song, but italso made me think of us as the contenders, the underdogs, and I’vealways thought of us as the long-shots, the guys hustling to make endsmeet in the world of indie rock. More than that, I just liked thesound of it. My first choice for the title of what would be ElectricVersion was ‘Our Brother Goes Electric’ but John Collins shot itdown, said it sounded like ‘All That Jazz’ or something. I stillregret listening to him. I sold myself out, didn’t follow my heart.

With the beautiful melodies and harmonies, it almost doesn’t matter what you’re singing – and yet, the lyrics are one of the things that really sets the New Pornographers apart from other bands. How important are they to you?

They are becoming more important to me. I have always started with themusic and then I would bend the lyrics to the music’s will. These daysI am more and more concerned with the lyrics. I can’t say why, I justfeel that way. It seems to me that lyrics are usually more importanton the slower songs. On the rock songs, the tune and the beat are moreimportant. Not that it SHOULD be that way, I just see that pattern inmy own music. Lyrics push around music in the ballads, music pushesaround lyrics in the rockers. There have to be rules.

We’re always interested in geography, here at Three Monkeys. What kind of influence has Canada had on the band – or to put it another way, do you think you’d write the same kind of songs if you lived in Hamburg?

For me, writing music is so solitary that my surroundings don’t affectme. I can see how living in a nowhere town may affect your music inthat it makes you focused, you are without any distractions, but Ihave never felt that in my life. As terrible as it may sound,sometimes I have felt like we had to prove something, become a greatband, in defiance of all the mediocre Canadian music that was aroundus. That was before the Canadian music renaissance, back in the lateNineties. These days, all the amazing Canadian music fills me withpatriotic pride. But do I think there is anything inherently Canadianabout us? No.

One question we ask virtually all songwriters we come across, relates to the relationship between songwriting and sadness. There’s a lot of darkness in your songs, however upbeat their effect may end up being. Can a happy man write a great song?

I can’t write a song when I am depressed. It would always remind me ofthe sadness, and who needs that? I think there is something hopefulabout writing a song, writing a song is a defiant act for me. I’venever been into wallowing in my own sadness. You have to fight it.Some of my favorite songs in the world are happy songs, like DaydreamBeliever or Happy Together. Writing a happy song is actually abrave act. You open yourself up to ridicule far more than if you writea sad song. Sad songs are considered cool. It takes guts to writeWalking On Sunshine.Vic Chesnutt and Morrissey really nailed the balance betweendepressing and funny, which I think is a classic combo, not usedenough these days.

Finally, what’s next for the New Pornographers? Any chance of rescheduled European shows?

We’re playing in SF at the Slow Food Festival (with Gnarls Barkley!)and then right after that we’re playing Vancouver on the Labour Dayweekend. It’s our own little fest called ‘The Stanley Park SingingExhibition’. It should be tons of fun. Many of our friends are playingwith us. Neko and Destroyer are doing it. Black Mountain, Andrew Bird,Stevie Jackson, Deerhoof, and others. As I said, I’ve started writingthe next record, I just finished a solo album, we’re about to record aRock’A’Teens song for the Merge 20th anniversary album, we’re doinggigs here and there, living life, things like that.

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