The New Pornographers: The "Unsung Supergroup" Returns

Music Features The New Pornographers
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By long-established rock ’n’ roll precedent, supergroups are supposed to be side-project bands formed by musicians who have already found success with other projects: Cream, for example, or the Firm. The New Pornographers did things the other way around.

Although the band has been called a supergroup since it first arrived 15 years ago, the description was more aspirational than it was accurate when the group debuted with Mass Romantic in 2000. That album, packed with catchy melodic hooks, brash synthesizers and dizzying vocal interplay between frontman A.C. Newman and singer Neko Case, brought the group more attention than any of the members except Case had received on their own outside Vancouver, the New Pornographers’ home base at the time. Given the other musicians’ various projects—most of them were active in several other bands on the Vancouver scene—bassist John Collins figured it was only a matter of time until they caught up to the hype.

“That was my take on it: we’re a band made up of all these people doing all these cool things,” says Collins, who also plays with fellow New Pornographer Dan Bejar in Destroyer. Collins describes his attitude back then as, “I think we’re a supergroup, and I’m going to insist that everybody knows it, because we’ve got all the trappings, just none of the success yet.”

The success certainly came. As the New Pornographers release their sixth studio album, Brill Bruisers, Case is at the height of her career and Destroyer has found an increasingly large audience, with a 2011 LP, Kaputt, that landed on several high-profile best-of lists. Though the New Pornographers quickly became Newman’s primary focus, he’s also released three well-regarded solo albums. Now the New Pornographers are a supergroup indeed, and it shows: each successive album has built on the ones before it, in ways creative and commercial.

“It helps us, obviously,” Newman says. “More people being into Destroyer and Neko Case makes more people pay attention to us.”

There’s never been a better time to pay attention to the New Pornographers. Brill Bruisers is the latest, and perhaps most confident, addition to a catalog full of stick-in-your-head power-pop songs that have become more sophisticated as the band’s sound has grown subtler. The group over time has moderated what Newman calls the “jarring” keyboard sound of their early albums by tilting toward acoustic instruments and gentler arrangements on their more recent releases.

The 13 songs on Brill Bruisers—10 by Newman, three by Bejar—strike a new balance, surrounding vocals from Newman, Case, Bejar and Kathryn Calder (plus guest singer Amber Webber, of Black Mountain) with layers of guitars and prismatic arpeggiated synthesizers, inspired by such disparate sources as Xanadu-era ELO and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, the ’80s new wave band led by former Generation X bassist Tony James.

“There were a few touchstones on the record, but it’s hard to believe that we were serious about them,” Newman says.

In fact, the musicians weren’t fully serious about them, at least at the start. When Newman joked to Bejar early on that he wanted the new album to sound like Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Bejar responded with “War on the East Coast,” a swift, punchy tune that Collins says “sounded hilariously that way.”

“I think that carried through the whole record,” says Collins. The bassist produced Brill Bruisers with Newman, who says Bejar’s songs prompted him to speed up his own tunes, giving the album a brisker pace than the past few New Pornographers releases.

“This was the first record where I really wanted the record to have a cohesive vibe. I wanted it to play for 40 minutes and be smooth,” Newman says.

The vibe carries over to the lyrics, too. Newman says he’s in a brighter frame of mind than he was when he was writing songs for the New Pornographers’ more reflective albums Challengers in 2007 and Together in 2010, and his solo release Shut Down the Streets in 2012. He declines to offer specifics, but says, “there were sad things happening” during that period.

“I’ve always said I work better when I’m in a better state of mind. I can’t work when I’m depressed, and I think that’s because when I’m depressed, I’m fucking depressed, you know?” he says. “This album reflects being in a better place, though there’s always shit happening. I hate to say this is a really celebratory record, but yes and no: it’s more defiant. I think the message is, ‘I will not be dragged down.’”

The band recorded most of Brill Bruisers in Collins’ studio in Vancouver and in upstate New York near Woodstock, where Newman lives with his wife and their child. There were also trips to record with Case at her house in Vermont, and in Austin and Brooklyn while she was on tour. Collins says, “All of our traveling was really just a mission to corner Neko,” who was on the road in support of her 2013 album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.

In a sense, the supergroup status afforded the New Pornographers by the musicians’ outside success hasn’t helped with logistics. “It’s just a hassle to schedule and get everybody together and record a record and get it finished and figure out how we’re going to go on tour,” Newman says.

In another sense, though, the outside success has helped make Bejar and Case more available.

“Dan’s doing a lot of the touring with us on this record. I feel like he’s playing more shows with us than he has before, and I think, why is he doing it? And part of it must be that we’re adults now,” Newman says. “He has a wife and he has a daughter. And you know, Neko’s still very much into doing things with us as much as she’s ever been. It’s conceivable, the argument could be made, that it’s easier to play with Neko now because she’s more popular, which means she has to tour less.”

As for being recognized as the supergroup the New Pornographers have become, Collins says it’s not really something he thinks about.

“Now I don’t really care so much,” he says. “Not that I cared then, either, but I thought that it was funny. When we were unsung, we were an unsung supergroup. Now that we have all the help that you get, like management and labels and all that stuff, I think now we’re like a somewhat successful rock band, and that’s good enough.”