By Christine Leonard
CALGARY – Orchestrating the polyphonic activities of the Vancouver-spawned supergroup known as The New Pornographers for over a decade and a half has given singer-songwriter/guitarist A.C. Newman a certain knack for capturing a musical snapshot of a moment in time and preserving its essence like an insect suspended in amber. Recently, when tasked with pulling together a cohesive sting on compositions for the band’s ongoing tour, Newman discovered that skimming through a scrapbook of past recordings unlocked the sweetest of memories. Those that have yet to be made.
“We always try and mix it up, it’s just about the math of how we’re going to split up songs, which takes a while cuz at the beginning of a tour because you’re just sort of guessing what the set will be,” says Newman.
“It’s funny with our drummer, (Joe Seiders), maybe because he’s only been in the band for three years, but he would still put on our songs and listen to them. So, we were in the bus one night and he started putting on B-cuts; songs that you normally wouldn’t think were worth playing anymore. There’s a song from Twin Cinema (2002), called “The Jessica Numbers,” that we hardly ever played, and then we relearned it, and now it’s one that we have to play every set. And we think, ‘How did we not play this the whole time?’ It was a very strange feeling hearing that song playing and forgetting how it goes and just listening to it, as if I was another person, and thinking, ‘Wow! This is great! This may be the best thing I’ve ever done! I forgot about this!’”
Despite having relocated from Victoria, B.C. to Woodstock, New York City years ago, Newman reckons he doesn’t have to venture far to experience a proverbial stroll down Memory Lane. Though separated by physical miles the group’s many members; vocalist Neko Case (Cub, Maow, The Corn Sisters), lead guitarist Todd Fancey (Fancey, Limblifter), vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Kathryn Calder (Immaculate Machine), bassist John Collins The Evaporators, Destroyer), keyboardist/synth-player Blaine Thurier, and aforementioned drummer Joe Seiders (Beat Club), are never far from Newman’s thoughts as he pens their next pop-rock opus.
“There is an element of – You make a record and then you have to learn how to play it! It can be tricky. I’m actually amazed at how much was figured out on this last record, Whiteout Conditions (Dine Alone Records, 2017). Especially with Kathryn (Calder), I thought ‘How are we going to play this?’ and she figured out a way to play it,” Newman recalls with admiration.
“I feel like these days, we’re trying harder, especially on this record and Brill Bruisers (2014). It was the first time where we said, ‘Let’s go out there on stage and just try to be as close to our albums as possible.’ Whereas before that I think we were a little more lackadaisical about it, now we’re slightly more disciplined and it’s cool to go out there and go like, ‘Okay what you hear on the record – We’re going to try to do that live.’”
Thus far the popular response to conductor Newman’s dynamic, high-fidelity approach with Whiteout Conditions has been overwhelmingly positive. After all, what better way to secure affections of a new generation of listeners than by fulfilling every frustrated delinquent’s wildest fantasy and running amok in the hallowed halls of education? John Hughes would applaud the scorching adolescent angst vented in The New Pornographers’ video for their latest runaway single “High Ticket Attractions.”
“We were just talking to directors and Dan Huiting said ‘Okay, I know of a high school that’s slated for demolition and I think I could destroy it.’ And I said, ‘Let’s do that.’ The cool thing is that what makes that video look so high budget. It was real, filmed destruction! I made a couple of contributions to the video; I wanted the kids to have medieval weapons and I wanted a flaming motorcycle and after that I was just, ‘Do what you want!’”
Ordering up battle-axes and stuntmen on a whim may seem out of character for a thoughtful alt-rock troubadour who has coaxed so many to crash on the floor, or psychiatrist’s couch, of his well-appointed artist’s studio. But truth be told, Newman has always had his eye on the prize, it’s just that the prize in question has gradually gotten a lot more impressive.
“We just did The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and every time I’m in those situations there’s always that feeling of, ‘Holy shit. How did I get here?’ It’s almost like the nightmare where somebody throws you into a situation that you’re not ready for. But before we ever did TV I use to think, ‘Can you imagine? What else it there? That’d be the coolest thing in the world to ever experience that – to be a band that performs on a late-night TV show!’ And then it just becomes this weird thing where it becomes our reality. And it’s always surreal, and it’s fun, but there is an element of that nightmare scenario where you’re like ‘Oh my God. I’ve got to go play my song in front of a million people and I can’t fuck it up!’ It’s like child is the father of the man.
The New Pornographers perform October 2 with Born Ruffians at MacEwan Hall [Calgary], and October 4 at the Winspear Centre [Edmonton].Born Ruffians, MacEwan Hall, The New Pornographers, Winspear Centre