“It’s a weird day,” said Carl Newman when I reach him by phone on the morning The New Pornographers’s seventh album, Whiteout Conditions, was being released.
Newman, the group’s leader and chief songwriter, expressed excitement that fans could hear his new music, but was distracted by concern about world affairs, as the U.S. had launched a military strike against a Syrian airbase the previous day.
It’s this same juxtaposition—upbeat sounds paired with lyrics laced with apprehension—that fuels the synth-heavy Whiteout Conditions, which finds The New Pornographers exploring a more new wave-centric style.
Aside from the sonic deviation, the latest album, released on April 7, marks other notable changes for the group.
It’s the band’s first release without longtime drummer Kurt Dahle and on a label other than Matador Records. And Dan Bejar, who wrote and sang several tunes on each of The New Pornographers’ previous records, bowed out of Whiteout Conditions due to recording commitments with his other band, Destroyer.
During our phone chat, Newman discussed his anxiety over a Trump-led America, his songwriting process and how krautrock helped influence the new album.
First of all, congrats on the new record. Do artists typically view record release day like it’s Christmas?
It’s weird in that record releases have changed. Our record started streaming about four or five days ago. When you consider that fewer people are buying records and listening through streaming services, it feels like release day doesn’t have the weight that it once did.
I’ve read comments by you that you intended to make this record more cohesive. What was your thought process in trying to achieve that?
At the beginning, the vaguest idea was do something krautrock. Not krautrock exactly, but a slightly different vibe that was closer to that. The first song that really came together to completion was the leadoff track, “Play Money.” I really liked the vibe of it, and I used that as a reference point. And I thought, going forward, let’s make the rest of the album sound like this. I always thought of that as song one. So, it was good to feel like you had the first chapter of your novel written.
Although it’s good to have a reference point, I didn’t want it to be a genre exercise. When you’re a band, you’re trying to find a new way to sound like yourself. It was good when we stumbled upon the sound of “Play Money,” I was like, let’s run with this. Right until the end, I was rearranging things to make sure that every song sounded like it belonged on the record.
This record does seem more groove- or beat-oriented to me. Do you listen to a lot of krautrock?
I listen to it, but not a huge amount of it. It’s just something I’ve always liked. It’s not like we put records on and studied them. It was just a vague idea. I like the way those types of records move. They’re fast, but there’s a sort of lightness to it. I thought that was good, wanting us to be fast but not very aggressive.
I think that in the past, our songs have had lots of weird turns in them, like they’d go quiet or the key would change, so I liked the idea of a song that begins and goes all the way to the end, and you could have a droning texture through the song. To me, that was new, and was something we’d never really done very much, so I enjoyed that.
It was an experiment then, and as you mentioned earlier, a new way to sound like yourself.
Yeah, and I think that on the last couple of records, as much as we’re trying to do more things, I think we’re also trying to return to a more upbeat sound. I think for a few albums, like Challengers or Together, we were just doing whatever we wanted. For me, I think I was sort of tired of what I thought of as the New Pornographers sound. But on Brill Bruisers and this record, I thought, why don’t we take what people think of us the classic New Pornographers sound, and just try to figure out a new way to arrive at it.
This is the first New Pornographers record that doesn’t feature contributions from Dan Bejar. How did his absence affect the making of the album?
The weird thing about it is—and obviously Dan is missed, I’m a big fan of his, and we’re friends—but from my point of view, it doesn’t affect how I make the record. When Dan would be in the studio with us, I would be there, but Dan wouldn’t be in the studio when we were working on my songs. So, if Dan was on this record, it essentially would have still sounded like this record, plus three Dan songs. I guess my point is, it didn’t really affect what I do, and that’s always been the nature of the band.
People are obviously asking me about Dan, and it made me go back through the years, and I realized that he essentially left the band at the end of 2000, because he moved to Spain. One month after Mass Romantic came out, I thought, “Well, there goes Dan.” And he came back about a year and half later, and even then I wasn’t sure he was going to be on the second record. And he was up for it, but then he didn’t tour with us. He didn’t start playing any shows with us until 2005, and even then I thought that was just a one-off. So, through the years, there’s always been this thing where I never knew exactly what his status was in the band, and he’s never been in photos with us.
It was bound to happen that he’d be doing a Destroyer record at the same time and it just wouldn’t work out. Basically, for 16 years I’ve seen it approaching, so it really wasn’t that weird to me. On the other side of it, I find myself shocked that we’ve held the band together for so long. I’m like, “Wow, we’re still here.”
With The New Pornographers, you get to write songs for two distinctly different vocalists, yourself and Neko Case. How does that affect the way you create your songs? Do you always write with a particular vocalist in mind?
Sometimes I don’t, but on this [record], it seemed pretty clear to me. On this one, I was writing and thought “Play Money” and “This is the World of the Theater,” would be good Neko songs. I never really write for anybody. I just write, and then try to figure out, who does this work for?
For me, the process of writing songs is so ongoing and fluid, it’s not like I sit down and say, “Here’s my finished song.” It’s always something we’re sort of winging as we go along. Then, basically, whatever works, we do it.
The song “High Ticket Attractions” has some definite political themes, although it would have been written well before Trump’s election victory. I don’t think of your band as political, but were you motivated by what was going on in this country, and intentionally delved into a more politically-minded song?
I wasn’t really trying to—that was just what came out. I was writing the lyrics, and it started moving in that way. When I start writing, a lot of it is stream of consciousness and you can’t avoid what’s on your mind. I didn’t even know it was a political-leaning song until I’d finished it, and then I realized, this was all about the anxiety of living in America right now. Even if [Trump] didn’t win, it felt like all of these racists were coming out of the woodwork. It felt like he emboldened a lot of people. That would have been a problem even if he’d lost, but now it’s far worse.
I know you’ve lived in the U.S. for a while now, but does being from Canada originally give you an interesting perspective on what’s going on here? I feel like people often say that the U.S. should be more like Canada when it comes to health care or immigration.
The crazy thing about it, is that Canada and the U.S. are completely parallel societies. When I left Vancouver and went to New York City, I just felt like I was in a different city in North America. It didn’t seem like a different country. But then you start talking to Americans about health care, and it gets really weird. You encounter these people who are seemingly normal people, but all of a sudden they say they don’t think that health care is something everyone should have. Like they think the country would fall apart if everyone had health care, or their taxes would go up by like 20 percent. That’s not the case, but I feel like there’s this weird mass brainwashing that not having health care is completely acceptable.
And that part always strikes me as strange, coming from a place where taxes are only slightly more. But in Canada, you actually get something for your taxes, and I think that’s the difference. I can see why people here get so mad, and why a Tea Party movement began, because people pay taxes and then they look around and say, what do I get for it?
I know you’ve composed some soundtrack music in the past. Are you currently involved with any side projects like that, or do you plan on making another solo record?
I don’t know. I’m not doing any soundtracks right now. I’m always writing other music, but I don’t know what to do with it. I’m not planning on making another solo album, but there’s always this music sitting there that I think, “What should I do with this?” But considering the record just came out, I’m going to concentrate on the band for a while.
You’re about to launch a lengthy tour, and you’ll get to play shows with some really cool artists like Spoon and Waxahatchee. What are some of the things you like best about touring?
It’s hanging out with other musicians. You go on tour, and it’s like a weird little summer camp. You’re away from your regular life, and all of a sudden, these different new people become the people that you see every day. There are obvious things that are fun about going on tour. Your job is to travel around and hang out and play music. There’s a negative side, in that I’m married and have a five-year-old son, so you miss your family. But the other side of it is, it’s a pretty easy and fun job.
The New Pornographers will perform at Terminal 5 in New York City on April 26 and at Union Transfer in Philadelphia on April 27. Whiteout Conditions is available now on Concord Records. For more information, go to thenewpornographers.com.