New Pornographers: Carl Newman Reflects on Unlikely Indie Supergroup

There’s no music story like the saga of the New Pornographers. The beloved Canadian indie-pop savants made their debut 21 years ago with Mass Romantic, a low-budget classic full of eccentric guitar tunecraft and perverse wit. It blew up into a word-of-mouth sensation, with gems like “Letter From an Occupant” and “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism.” Three lead singers, 12 warped tunes, a ragtag team of rock misfits. Everybody figured it was a one-off fluke. Yet somehow, they turned into one of the 21st century’s longest-running all-star bands.

The New Pornographers are celebrating their anniversary with a hotly awaited tour, which kicks off Nov. 29 at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York. They’re doing two-night stands, playing two of their classic albums in full — Mass Romantic the first night, Twin Cinema the second. (Most of the dates sold out immediately.) Old friends are back on board: Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar, who hasn’t played with the NPs in years, and alt-country virtuoso Neko Case.

Mass Romantic is getting a deluxe reissue as part of Matador’s Revisionist History series, including a limited-edition vinyl LP out on Dec. 10. It includes a bonus seven-inch single of “Letter,” which made Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Debut Singles.

You couldn’t make this story up: Vancouver songwriting wizard Carl Newman tries to hit the big time with his Nineties band Zumpano, but their albums flop. So he recruits buddies like Bejar and Case, both already indie cult heroes in their own right. Mass Romantic comes out of nowhere to become everyone’s indie cup of tea in Y2K. But the band keeps mutating through the years, a rotating cast of characters with Newman as bemused ringleader. Result: a string of great albums, right up to 2019’s The Morse Code of Brake Lights. The NPs might be the band that best sums up their era’s most noble rock virtues: independence, humor, unflagging creative commitment.

“Sometimes I feel like we had to fight destiny to get here,” Carl Newman says, tongue firmly in cheek. “Maybe this isn’t our fate, we should not exist, but we’ve willed it into being. And maybe that’s our appeal: a band that should not exist, yet we still exist.”

Newman caught up with Rolling Stone from the West Coast, while on tour opening for Neko Case, for a long stroll through the strange-but-true history of this band, with all his usual wit. He discusses the weird indie-rock gold rush in the early 2000s, along with imposter syndrome, record stores, mental illness, falling in love, artistic persistence, and building a life out of music fandom.

Congratulations on this new tour. What’s it like having this New Pornographers crew back together?
It feels good — the shows sold out really quickly. But I’m just so psyched that I convinced Dan to do it. I couldn’t believe he agreed. It’s been in the works for a long time. The idea came to me early 2019. I just texted Dan and I said, “Hey, would you do this if we put this together?” He was like, “Sure, OK.” Then we booked it. And then the world went to shit. So it got postponed by a year.

People are clearly fiending for these shows.
I’m looking forward to it myself. I’m going to be half audience member, half band member. I guess it says something about the dynamic of the band that we never broke up, but it feels like a reunion. Because Dan’s there, and he hasn’t really been playing with us for a few years. But I was just watching the Sparks documentary — you know the part where they have to learn 21 albums? I thought, “If Sparks could learn 21 albums, we can learn two albums. How hard could this be?”

You’re celebrating the 21st anniversary of Mass Romantic. Is it surprising that that album has such an afterlife?
It’s always a shock to me. I remember before Mass Romantic came out, we were talking to Mint Records. They mentioned a second record. I was like, “A second record?” It never even popped into my head that we would make a second record. And now we’re … shit, what’s it been? Eight now? It’s crazy. I’ve always felt, “When is this house of cards going to collapse?”

You brought all these strange characters together into this one group. A New Pornographers show feels like a Robert Altman movie with these different people who look like they don’t belong in the same story. But they’re all part of this together.
Yeah, we’re like Short Cuts, the band. Except I don’t think any of us are murderers — not that I know of. Maybe that twist is still coming.

For Mass Romantic, you had to put the team together. It’s almost like a heist movie.
It was very much like that. The heart of it was me and Dan. It was the first time I’d ever encountered another musician in Vancouver that struck me as world-class. I think I met Neko around ’96, and she’s a killer singer. [Filmmaker] Blaine [Thurier] was basically just my friend. He didn’t play anything. That’s a testament to the fact that I had no delusions of success — asking my friend who didn’t play an instrument to join the band. I felt more like I was just starting a club.

I asked [bassist] John Collins because I worked with him in Zumpano. We knew [drummer] Kurt [Dahle] from around the scene. I remember calling him up on the phone. “Hey, Kurt. How’s it going? I was wondering …” “I’ll do it.” He didn’t let me finish my sentence. “Yeah, I’m in.” That’s when we became a real band.

It was like indie-rock fan fiction. “What if you put the Destroyer guy in a band with the Zumpano guy? Wouldn’t that be cool?”
Somebody had the idea to call us a supergroup. I was like, “No, we’re not. None of us are popular.” The most famous person in the band was Neko. She seemed super popular at the time. Looking back, she wasn’t. I toured with her in her band in ’99 and 2000, right before Mass Romantic came out. I remember thinking, “Wow, there must be 200 people here. This is crazy!”

Another thing that helped us on the street — we had some influential record stores that got behind us, like Aquarius Records in San Francisco and Other Music in NYC. All the bands that we loved were these mid-size indie bands who were the favorite bands of record-store clerks. We just wanted to be one of those bands.

You were always popular with people who hung out in record stores.
I consider myself a music fan before being a musician. I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 18. So I was a fan long before I crossed over and tried to be a musician. Every record we’ve ever put out, I’ve thrown around Rock & Roll Love Letter as a possible title. Never used it, but I always thought albums are basically my rock & roll love letter to the world. It’s just absorbing music I love and just spitting out my version of it. And hoping that something original comes out.

You were obviously into the more obscure corners of pop history.
The song that I think had the biggest influence on Mass Romantic was “Son of My Father” by Giorgio Moroder.  I was also trying to do Sparks. Nobody noticed, because those reference points were perhaps too obscure in the year 2000. But I also think an important part of it was that I completely failed. Maybe I was trying to do “Son of My Father,” but I didn’t know how. So we accidentally did something original. I think that’s how a lot of originality happens. When bands are too good, they sound too much like their influences.

When Neko and I first became friends, we would hang out at her apartment and listen to Shocking Blue, the Vapors, stuff like that. When we were did “Letter From an Occupant,” she started singing it with that country twang in her voice. I told her to sing it like [Mariska Veres], the singer in Shocking Blue. “Get rid of that twang. Or sing it like a Germanic robot.” But those are influences that came from us hanging out and listening to records, the shared music that we loved. We had those shared touchstones.

Dan Bejar already had his own style with Destroyer.
When we were working on Mass Romantic, he had just come up with Thief. That was the album where you could hear what Destroyer was going to be for the next 10 years. Neko had just done her album Furnace Room Lullaby. I remember that feeling of, “Our record just has to be as good as this.” It wasn’t trying to keep up with another band. I was just trying to keep up with the people inside the band! They were the artists I was chasing, but also the people I was working with, which was very convenient.

“It wasn’t trying to keep up with another band. I was just trying to keep up with the people inside the band!”

But Neko and Dan were really individual, idiosyncratic artists. At the time, it was weird to think of the two of them being in the same band. It’s weird to think of them being in any band.
Neko has always said she likes the fact that she doesn’t have to worry about things. She’ll come and sing in the Pornographers, but somebody else is doing the work. She described doing her vocals and then hearing the record six months later — she said it was like she went on vacation, then she came back and her house had been remodeled. “It was nice that somebody else magically made this into a record while I was gone.” She likes that because she’s so involved in the minutiae of her own music. She’s very fierce about her own music, but when it’s working with the Pornographers, she goes, “Yeah, just tell me what to do. I’m here to be the voice.”

And for me, I’m given this insane secret weapon. How many people in bands have a voice like hers to work with? She transforms songs. Sometimes I’m not sure about a song, but then I’ll hear her sing it and I’ll go, holy shit, now it’s a song. I used to think it was just a bunch of words and chords, but now that I hear her sing it, it’s a fucking song.

How did the record come out?
I don’t know if this story’s been told, but when we made our first Pornographers demo, we actually made it with some money from Sub Pop, because Zumpano had broken up and I told [label co-founder] Jonathan Poneman, “I’m doing some new songs,” so he gave me a thousand dollars to work on some demos. Then I gave him the four demos:  “Letter From an Occupant,” “Mystery Hours,” “Execution Day,” and “Breaking the Law.” And I was shocked that there wasn’t much reaction. I was like, “What do you mean Sub Pop doesn’t want to put it out?” There were a few other small labels I gave it to, but they just weren’t interested.

Then Mint Records put out a compilation, a benefit CD, and we said, “You can have this song, ‘Letter From an Occupant,’ because nobody else wants it.” That was the first song on the compilation, and then Mint noticed everybody was going crazy about this first song. We called ourselves “The New Pornographers and Neko” on that CD — just a funny touchback to the obvious reference point. But only then did Mint go, “OK, maybe we should put this album out.” The label guy told me, “This record is so good, I think we could make our money back!”

There’s a classic Nineties line.
This magazine in Canada called Exclaim — they put us on the cover. Then we got this review where somebody in Toronto said, “This is a once-in-a-career lightning strike!” I thought, “Wow, I’ve never had a review like this before.” And then we got these rave reviews in Rolling Stone and Spin and The New York Times, we played SXSW, we were a buzz band. We were still kinda obscure, but I thought, “Holy shit, we’re huge.” It didn’t matter that I still had a day job. We were huge.

Were you confident in the quality of the album?
Dan’s songs made that easier. My own songs, I’m always second-guessing them. But when people wrote about the band, I noticed my worst fear wasn’t happening. People weren’t saying “the four Dan songs are good and the other eight are shit.” People were liking the whole thing. I thought, “OK, if they like my songs as much as Dan’s songs, which are fucking brilliant, then maybe I’m OK.”

I feel like I’m still doing that in my life. I’m always second-guessing, and sometimes I have to stop and look around and go, “Look, you bought this house with your music. Logically, you must be pretty good.”

Did the low expectations make it more fun?
They did — it’s great when your band becomes your life, but it changes it, you know? There’s a point where you’re just freaking out because you sold 10,000 copies. “I can’t believe we sold 10,000 copies! Holy shit!” Then five years later, people are shaking their heads, going, “Bad news. You only sold 100,000 copies.”

My favorite version of that story is when we were opening for Death Cab for Cutie on a bunch of shows on the West Coast, and I ran into Ben [Gibbard] backstage at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver and he said, “Yeah, I don’t know about today, man. We only sold 6,000 tickets.” I thought, “Wow, if we ever sold 6,000 tickets, we wouldn’t believe it.” But the game changes.

I actually feel like we were very lucky, and I think we also arrived at a great time to be an indie band, because we were there right at the beginning when indie bands started selling. When we got on David Letterman in 2003, people said, “Holy shit, this is big.” Because we weren’t at a point yet where there was an indie band on Letterman every week.

I remember when Twin Cinema came out and it sold around 20,000 in the first week. The Shins — all those bands were doing big numbers. It was nice to be a band at that time. If 1991 was the year that punk broke, I think 2001 might’ve been the year that indie broke. No, actually, it was 2004. I think the arrival of Arcade Fire was the year that indie broke wide open.

There was a lot of people licensing music, which was awesome. Every couple of weeks, we’re getting a phone call: “They want to use your song in this video game, or this trailer or this TV show or whatever.” We were in there — we were one of those bands.

So I feel very lucky that way, just from a purely … what’s the word? Is “Machiavellian” the word? But there was a decent amount of money to be made, whereas right now it’s not quite like that anymore. People were still buying records then. People talked about Napster, but it was a really small thing. Nobody knew that would completely take over.

I remember I met you at dinner the night you played Letterman in 2003 — and you guys never even mentioned you were in a band. You and I had this geeky conversation for half an hour about obscure Jimmy Webb songs, but you didn’t tell me you were a songwriter.
I was a shy little kid, which I think is the story for a lot of musicians. They started out being shy and somehow they became singers in bands. And so there’s a part of me that’s still like that — the child is the father of the man. I’ve become more confident in the world, but there’s always some percentage of you that’s still the shy little kid. So I always feel that way.

I don’t think I’ve ever been super comfortable about that. I was terrified to play Letterman — “What, I have to get in front of millions of people and play a song? And it’s making girls like me now? Holy shit.” That wasn’t the reason I got into it, but I realized, “Oh yeah — girls like guys in bands. I’ve heard about this happening.”

I’m not comfortable being the guy who talks about it. I’d rather be the guy who just does it. People still accuse me of name-dropping when I mention Neko. I go, “Hey, she’s one of my best friends! She’s my son’s godmother! I can talk about her if I want to!”

On a personal level, you sure seemed unusually modest for a lead singer.
Later that night, I remember we went to see Mogwai, then went to some Korean karaoke place. One of the guys from Mogwai said, “Oh, shit, I didn’t think you were the singer.” He thought Kurt was the singer because Kurt was like the louder, more gregarious one, and I was just the mellow guy they were talking to. I said, “Nope, I’m the singer.”

You also started making the A.C. Newman records, with The Slow Wonder in 2004. How did you begin your solo project?
The honest reason I made that record was because I felt like, well, what else am I going to do? Neko put out her Tigers Have Spoken record. So we knew we couldn’t have Neko for 2004. So I thought I might as well do something.

Then Twin Cinemas had quieter songs — instead of giving Neko upbeat pop hits, I gave her a couple of ballads, “The Bones of an Idol” and “These Are the Fables.” Then for Challengers, I even went more extreme down that road. I’d rather have people dismiss us for changing than dismiss us for staying the same. And I think there was stuff going on in my life then reflected in those songs, songs like “Adventures in Solitude” or “Challengers.” Some of them are wistful love songs and some of them are very sad.

You were really into doing something different on every record. Challengers was a really bold departure.
After Mass Romantic, I was really afraid of just spinning our wheels.  On Electric Version [in 2003], I thought, are we putting out the same bullshit again? Are we just giving them more of the same? Even on Twin Cinemas, I thought songs like “Use It” or “Sing Me Spanish Techno” were classic Pornographers-sounding songs. I thought, people will get sick of this. Now I realize that’s what people wanted us to do. So many of my favorite bands, they just do one thing, like they’re locked into it. But we’re always moving around — we have different people singing, different styles. It’s just our fate, I guess.

It was so great when your niece Kathryn Calder joined in 2005 — you were willing to change it up on that scale.
She brought a new level of musicianship we needed. But what a crazy story. “Carl had a long-lost sister that he found out existed in the late Nineties, and she had a daughter and she ended up being in the band.” When I tell people that family history, it sounds almost gimmicky.

It’s such a unique New Pornographers twist. It seems like something that could only happen to your group.
Yeah, I can’t think of another band where the singer’s long-lost half-niece joins the band. Kind of a unique one. But it’s a fascinating story about fate. All the things good and bad that have to happen, over a century, to bring you where you are. Kathryn joining the band — that story begins in northern Norway in 1880.

And you really have to give her maximum credit for being thrown into the fire. She was just 23, and one of her first shows was playing Prospect Park in front of 10,000 people.

That was also the night I met Christy, my wife. The song “Challengers” is basically about that night.  We were just hanging out, it was innocent, but we were both on the same page — “Wow, I really like this person.” We both lived with other people, which is one of the first lines in the song. I couldn’t figure out an artful way to say it, so I just put it into the song. “Yeah, you live with someone, I live with somebody too.”

It’s a different kind of love song.
I feel kinda proud about that song, because it captures a weird in-between feeling that maybe not a lot of songs have captured — where you’re in a relationship, but then you meet this person that you love. And you’re like, what are we supposed to do now? We don’t want to cheat on our respective others, but at the same time, something has to change here.

That sums up a lot of your songs, right? You write about in-between feelings. Instead of writing about big moments, you write about waiting for the big moment to happen.
There was definitely a lot of that — just trying to make sense of the reality of the rock & roll dream. I’m here, so now what do I do? I’ve gotten to that place I wanted to get to. Now I’m just kind of hanging around here. All the people that I aspired to be like — now they’re my peers. I know Yo La Tengo. I’m on a label with Belle and Sebastian — I’m friends with Belle and Sebastian. I’m inside this crazy world where all my dreams are coming true, and I don’t know what to make of it. Just that uneasy feeling, like imposter syndrome. A lot of the songs, I think, at the heart of it, are about that. That, and mental illness.

A weird thing, but when I look back to the beginning, I wanted the band to be faceless. I wanted us to be like a computer program. I would flippantly mention the Alan Parsons Project, but I liked the idea that nobody knows what the Alan Parsons Project looked like. Nobody knows who the singer is. They might think Alan Parsons is the singer, but he isn’t. At the beginning, I wanted to do that, but then very quickly I realized, oh, shit, we’re not. This band has a cult of personality. We have Neko who’s this very charismatic force; we have Dan, who’s a charismatic force. All of a sudden this faceless band became this band full of personality.

You didn’t see that coming?
I couldn’t look into the future and see what was going to happen. It seemed ridiculous to even think about, until we were doing it.

Have you ever heard the story about how the Turtles needed to write another “Happy Together”? The label wanted another hit, so they decided they would just do an inverted version of “Happy Together,” as a joke. That was “Eleanor.” I took “Letter From an Occupant” and played it backwards. That was the core of “The Laws Have Changed.” I took a few pieces of backwards melody and said, “OK, this is cool. I’ll write new parts for this.” That became the single.

One of your greatest hits.
It made me think, wow, aren’t I a genius? Talk about flipping the script. I flipped the song backwards, took what I liked and wrote the next single. I couldn’t pick a Beatles song and play it backwards and steal a melody, because to me that wouldn’t be kosher. But I thought, I can flip my own songs.

I love picking the process and letting the process do the work. It suits the sort of Alan Parsons–esque aspect where you’re a song factory, just cranking them out. I think that kind of thing happens a lot more than people want to say. A lot of artists don’t want to admit how little effort went into a song. Have you noticed, how many songs these days, it’s just a loop and somebody standing on top of it and that’s it?

Yeah, most of them.
And I think if it works, it’s cool. I listen to Drake and go, “Yeah, this is fucking great.” It makes me realize a song doesn’t need that much. Often, it’s just a random noise you pull from the universe and you just loop it and you sing along with it and you go, “There it is, it’s a song.”

That adds up to a lot of songs over the years.
I still can’t wrap my head around the fact we’ve been doing this for 21 years. When we signed with Matador, the license term was 12 years. That just seemed absurd. “Where are we going to be in 12 years?” 2017 just seemed like this ridiculously futuristic time. Then all of a sudden, “Wait, 12 years has passed. Wow, the rights to our albums have reverted back to us. And we’re still together.” I want to be that weird old guy who never stops making music. I want to be 75 and have people going, “Yeah, he’s a weirdo. But he’s got some good songs still.” That’s my best-case scenario.