Music » Interviews

The New Pornographers pump up the drone


Newman, Case and cohorts yearn for simplicity. - JENNY JIMENEZ
  • Jenny Jimenez
  • Newman, Case and cohorts yearn for simplicity.
It’s no secret that mainstream pop has continued to shift away from organic, guitar-oriented sounds to music that features synthesizers, electronic tones and programmed rhythms. But it is somewhat surprising that the New Pornographers’ recently released seventh album Whiteout Conditions fully embraces the latter approach.

The Canadian-bred band — which has often been touted as a pop supergroup due to the individual success of members A.C. Newman, Neko Case, Kathryn Calder and Dan Bejar — emerged sounding like a fairly straightforward, albeit uncommonly talented, pop-rock band.

But singer/guitarist/guiding force Newman is quick to point out that the stylistic change-up is not an attempt to capitalize on a current sound.

“I’ve never thought it was a good idea to start chasing any style,” he says. “I thought if we start chasing what’s popular, we’re never going to catch up. Like by the time we get there, something else will be popular and we’ll be chasing that.”

Instead, it’s been less overtly pop-oriented bands whose use of synthetic sounds has stoked Newman’s imagination.

“A lot of music that I think is incredibly cool, like Animal Collective or Tame Impala or MGMT, is moving toward electronics,” he says. “It’s arguably psychedelic pop, but it’s also very electronic.”

The New Pornographers first became a force in the indie-music scene after the release of their 2000 debut album Mass Romantic. A power pop gem, it received rave reviews and was later ranked at No. 24 on Blender magazine’s list of the best indie albums of all time.

And while power pop has remained at the center of the band’s sound ever since, Newman brought shades of difference to each of the group’s subsequent albums.

On 2005’s Twin Cinema, for instance, the group’s sound ranged from the frisky pop of “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” to the jagged, off-kilter rock of “The Jessica Numbers” and the baroque acoustic style of “These Are the Fables.” The group would later release Challengers, which dialed back the energy in favor of a more melancholy approach. Then came 2010’s Together, which included liberal use of strings and horns.

Even so, Whiteout Conditions comes across as the band’s most dramatic shift, with songs like “Second Sleep,” “Avalanche Alley” and “Play Money” wrapping hooky pop melodies within computer-generated instrumentation and electronically programmed beats.

“I wanted it to be driving, but not really aggressive,” explains Newman. “I wanted to use a lot of drones as textures and just keep the song structures fairly simple.”

But while Newman did succeed in creating a more uptempo album (none of the songs qualify as ballads), the simplicity factor proved more elusive. “Even when I think we’re writing a really simple three-chord song, it isn’t really that simple,” he admits. “Like ‘Play Money’ is built around three chords, but it’s also built around a progression that’s six bars long.”

Where exactly the New Pornographers sound will go next is anyone’s guess, but don’t expect guitars to take control anytime soon. “You get sick of playing guitar,” says Newman. “Like some people, I want to hear them play guitar and sing their songs. But for me, I don’t want to do that anymore.”

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