Light Fantastic Tripping
Neko Case is hosting her fellow New Pornographers with care. Maybe it's because five of them have flown in from Canada for a photo shoot, instead of her making the less costly trip to meet them, but I sense that she wants the evening to go well.
Moving away from the Pacific Northwest can't have made it any easier for the alternative country chanteuse to feel connected to her power-pop bandmates in remote Vancouver. Spin's request is a useful pretext, then, an excuse to become reacquainted on Matador Records' dime. When I join them at a crowded nightspot (Case asks that I not disclose her home for security reasons, and I respect her request), delays in the shoot itself seem to come as a relief. Case, an increasingly successful solo artist and songwriter, is conversing intently with the band's multi-instrumental impresario Carl Newman, while the rest of the touring New Pornographers -- bassist John Collins, drummer Kurt Dahle, keyboardist Blaine Thurier, and guitarist/keyboardist Todd Fancey (singer Dan Bejar doesn't travel with the band) -- comment wryly on their surroundings.
As I follow along, my ears are still ringing from listening to the band's new album Electric Version on the drive downtown. The memory of it makes a nice counterpoint to the Clash songs coming over the club's tiny loudspeakers. The New Pornographers are more pop than punk, but they share with the recent inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame talent for making music strong enough to transcend an imperfect sound system. The songs are almost too detailed to appreciate in high fidelity, where they separate into a collection of thoughtful fragments that the brain strains to connect. "I think they're kind of meant to be played on AM radio," notes Newman later in the evening, "I think I hear songs that way." Some contemporary pop masterminds, like the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne or the Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider, welcome the logic of the headphone. But despite Newman's notoriously compulsive behavior in the studio -- the band's own press clippings are liberally sprinkled with the word "tyrant" -- the New Pornographers have a different goal in mind for their "more is more" aesthetic. Picking up on Newman's comment, drummer Dahle conjures an ideal metaphor. "We stack it high. It's kind of like going to Arby's." The New Pornographers make dance-friendly music that sounds a little different with each listening, a Rorschach test for people who aren't too proud to get sweaty. Equations are arguably the toughest part of music writing, but it's easy to hear musical generations at war in each song: the Beatles with Elvis Costello, the Beach Boys with Squeeze, the Zombies with Blondie, the Kinks with the Cars.
Their sublime fusion is already clear three tracks into Electric Version, when the pulsing combination of New Wave chords, clipped beats and sci-fi organ notes of "The Laws Have Changed" pries you away from your hipster complacency long before Case's transcendent voice introduces "for the first time, Pharaoh on the microphone." It's hard to tell what the song is about, but when the falsetto chorus enjoins listeners to "form a line," you can't help but think that it's an invitation to worship at the New Pornographers' altar.
But devotion depends on mystery. Nobody seems to want to talk about the record, and yet there's no shortage of talk. The band is happy to analyze anything but the music. The mood is wrong. It's the Monday before the war in Iraq is set to begin. We've all missed President Bush's speech earlier in the evening, but the Canadians make their reservations known as they periodically glance up at the bar's television. Case sports the anti-war buttons. Discussing the "threat" that France poses to the U.S., Newman tries to soothe American anxiety. "Don't worry, the U.S. still has enough warheads to destroy the world many times over."
Later, when I ask the New Pornographers what their goals were for Electric Version, Newman starts with "to sell a moderate amount" and then stops. "No, wait, we already achieved our goals for this album!" Newman then refuses to go along with the music business's version of planned obsolescence, in which each new record is said to mark a dramatic departure from its predecessor. "People liked the first one, so we gave them exactly what they wanted. If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he says. But he does proceed to detail, grudgingly, some minor differences between Electric Version and 2000's Mass Romantic. "I think it's got a little less of the la-la-la choirboy harmony stuff." He takes pride in the dueling guitar solos at the end of "It's Only Divine Right" and other rock moments on the record, which provide a pleasingly sour counterpoint to the sugary vocals and keyboards that have become their signature sound. Overall, he agrees with Dahle and Collins that Electric Version goes a little lighter on the excess. "I think that was kind of on purpose, trying to give the whole thing a few more valleys." He pauses. "And peaks."
Before the band goes upstairs for the last session of the photo shoot, Case makes an offer. "I know this is hard. We're going to dinner afterwards. Why don't you just come along and do the interview there?" Fast-forward 90 minutes: I'm seated at a long table in a loud Mexican restaurant. It's difficult to hear, but Newman is sitting on my right. Once again, the conversation turns to serious thoughts about war and the merits of American policy. "Somebody in Vancouver made a tee shirt that says I'm not an American' in 10 different languages superimposed over a Canadian flag," notes Newman. He does make a momentary detour off-topic to reminisce about a recent trip to Norway, one of those all-expenses-paid deals that only seem to happen in Europe. "We were only there two days, but I left missing the people." He and Collins praise their hosts, particularly "the Norwegian woman with the raven hair." Collins finishes the thought. "And the hot appearance." At the end of the table, Case hears "hot pants"; that leads to considerable merriment.
Although Case has remarked in interviews that it can be a little strange being the only female on a New Pornographers tour, she seems comfortable with her band members' understated male energy. She follows the "hot pants" conversation with a commentary on Dolly Parton's autobiography, as read by Dolly herself. Case captures Dolly's Tennessee accent perfectly, as she recounts her favorite part: "All I could think about was sex, sex, sex." Then she suggests bringing the audiotape on the tour bus. It's a moment of high spirits that doubles as a feminist intervention. For the most part, though, Case and her bandmates are clearly on the same wavelength. When Collins mentions the possibility that a person might be embarrassed at being Canadian, Case is confused. "Being Canadian is as good as it gets," she offers. You can learn a lot about people by watching how they pay for things. The New Pornographers are generally short of American dollars, but, with Case's help, they rapidly arrange to cover each other's expenses. I'm optimistic about their prospects for a low-stress tour. I'm less optimistic about the prospect of finishing the interview. Case turns to me again. "Look, we're going over to my place. Why don't you just finish the interview there?"
When I show up at Case's house, fortified by a timely coffee, I'm reluctant to ring the doorbell. But she welcomes me warmly. The boundary between "interview" and socializing has broken down completely at this point, so I record everything. I join the other New Pornographers in absorbing her decor, which fuses Latin minimalism with what can best be described as the same "Twin Peaks kitsch" that graces her CD inserts: beavers, deer, brocade. Her place is immaculate. From the bills lined up on the writing table to the perfectly spaced cans and jars on the shelves of her open pantry, her home demonstrates minute attention to detail. Fans of hers often wonder why she continues to participate in the New Pornographers, given the demands of her burgeoning solo career. But, looking at her things, the connection between her and Carl Newman is readily apparent. They are both convinced that, to borrow one of Newman's terms, "squiggles" matter, whether they be keyboard fills, falsetto trills, or the frills of interior design.
Case has a guitar for everyone, so the New Pornographers take turns strumming classic tunes and discussing the merits of their creators, with newest member Todd Fancey taking the lead: Kansas' "Dust in the Wind"; the Eagles' "Lyin' Eyes," "Life in the Fast Lane" and "Take It Easy"; the Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son"; and various others. Later on, the J. Geils Band's "Love Stinks" tunes blare from Case's boom box as the band members relax. The eclectic mix inspires me to inquire about their musical influences. It's the first question Newman seems truly comfortable answering.
"It's not diminishing to say that we sound like some other band," he says. "It always bugs me when bands do that. If Interpol says they don't think they sound anything like Joy Division, they just look like fools. Or all those singers these days who sing like Robert Smith and go, I don't think I sound anything like Robert Smith.' That's why I was always impressed by that band the Poohsticks, because they wore their influences on their sleeves to the extent that they'd write in their liner notes, Guitar solo was stolen line for line from Neil Young's "Powderfinger."'" But he's too clever to recite the New Pornographers influences so nakedly. He lets it be known that he'd be honored to be compared to Queen, Roxy Music, or the Pixies, admits that he may have borrowed from Ray Davies' falsetto vocal styling, then delivers the clincher: "We've been lifting a lot from Adam and the Ants recently."
As I head out the door after midnight, I realize that the New Pornographers' music feels a lot like this evening did. They try to be a good host. You don't mind spending more time with them than you thought you would. And, although you make note of interesting moments, it's the whole that counts. In the era of audio DVDs and surround-sound amplifiers that try to place you in the middle of the pristine space of a concert hall, it's nice to remember the fun of singing along to tunes on the car stereo with your friends, the volume turned up high enough to transform the maps, coins and pens inside the door pockets into a second rhythm section. That's the pleasure of the New Pornographers. That's why you're in no hurry to get where you're going.
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