The Sun remembers when the New Pornographers were itty bitty baby Pornographers, wearing footie pajamas with trapdoors while singing songs from Mass Romantic, barely known outside of Vancouver. Now the New Pornos are Old Pornos — Dirty Old Men (and Women) Pornos — already four albums deep. The Sun caught up with John Collins, one of the first members of the ever-expanding group, and talked about the new album Challengers and death brawls. Here is an excerpt of that conversation, and please note J.C. stands for John Collins, not that other J.C.
The Sun: So Challengers to me seems like an album that’s more deliberate and slower-paced than others of yours, like on the title track , “Unguided,” “Entering White Cecilia” etc. Are the live shows different in any way, maybe more subdued now?
John Collins: I don’t know. These days the shows are pretty rollicking.
Sun: Which songs have been the ones to get the fans the most amped from the new album?
J.C.: We’ve been starting off with “All of the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth.” That’s kind of a rocker, and we’ve got a big flashing light these days that says our name, so it’s kind of like a big rock show beginning. It’s quite amusing. Yeah, I mean there are a few that are a bit more laid-back. People like “Myriad Harbor,” though. Even though that’s not like a total punker, it seems to work for people.
Sun: When you were working on the songs in the studio, was the process any different with the more downtempo songs in production, especially with instilling the pop sensibility that the New Pornographers songs are known for, or was it all the same as usual?
J.C.: The process wasn’t that much different really. We always just tend to pick away at songs, especially the ones that had lots of stuff on them. We kinda knew the tempo in advance and I would say the process was pretty much exactly the same because we just cross our fingers and try a bunch of different things. Hopefully, enough of it will sound good that we have something to make a song out of.
Sun: You and Carl [Newman, frontman, a.k.a. A.C. Newman] probably play the most instruments of anyone in the band. Does that make the live experience more fun or more stressful to have all those instrumental responsibilities?
J.C.: Mostly I just play the bass when we play live. On the new songs especially, we just divied up the parts so that people don’t have to change their instruments very often. I one song, there’s a guitar part that I played that Todd [Fancey] plays, and on another song, I played a guitar part that Carl plays. Other songs, Dan [Bejar] plays melodica or xylophone parts that I played, or glockenspiel. Kathryn [Calder] plays a couple things that Carl played on the keyboards. We just make it work. We share all the parts. I think Blaine [Thurier] is playing a bass part on his keyboard that I played on my bass in a certain part. So we are just mixing and matching so we can cover all the bases.
Sun: You’ve been in the band since the very beginning when it was just a couple of people, right?
J.C.: At the beginning, it was about six people, but we had a different drummer by the name of Fisher [Rose], and we didn’t have Todd yet because Todd came in after Dan kinda bailed after a couple of years. He moved to Spain for a little while after we put out our first record [Mass Romantic]. So that was when Todd came. Kathryn’s come more recently. But yes, I’ve always been there.
Sun: Was the decision to include so many people in the band about the type of music you were playing, or was it you guys were just all there jamming one day and it just sounded good?
J.C.: The band was essentially put together by Carl. As I remember, he’d been trying to do a solo project and it was just basically him in my studio. It sorta didn’t come together. Then a little while later, he was given like $1000 from Jonathan Palmer at Sub Pop to do some demoing, so he decided to put together this band. I think he and Dan had been talking about it. It was probably Carl’s idea to try to work with Dan too, that they would both write songs for the band. I guess I was around from before that because he had been working in my studio. It was just sort of thrown together. Carl wanted Neko [Case] to sing some songs because she was singing in her other band [Neko Case & Her Boyfriends] and she was about to start working on her solo stuff. It was actually kind of planned out by Carl. He wanted Blaine to be the keyboard player, so Blaine turned up and there was a keyboard. Yeah, it was just more or less designed by Carl actually.
Sun: It seems like a lot of people in the band have other musical endeavors going on, so when did New Pornographers become the main project versus the side-project?
J.C.: Probably starting after our first record came out, about a year or two after our first record came out. I’ve always been, since like 1990, I’d been in a band called The Evaporators. That’s always been my main band. When we first started, the Pornographers was my second band. I even didn’t play at a Pornographers show once because the Evaporators had a show, so we got someone else to stand in for me with the Pornographers. Carl was just getting out of his other band [Zumpano] kind of as this band started, so he had never really been doing too much double duty. Dan has always had Destroyer, and I think for Dan Destroyer is still job number one. Neko was just starting in on her solo career about the same time as we started the Pornographers, so she just found her way. Fisher, the original drummer, was in four other bands when we started, and I think that was eventually why he decided to quit the New Pornographers. He just decided to quit all five of his bands all at once, because he was just utterly burned out.
Sun: How do the songwriters in the band each know what’s a New Pornographers song and what is a song for their other projects? Like Carl has put out a solo record and Dan does Destroyer, so how do they know what’s a New Pornographers song?
J.C.: Dan told me a little while ago that now it seems like before he writes a Destroyer record, he has to come up with maybe three or four Pornographers songs. As soon as he starts writing, he seems to write Pornographers songs first, and then once he’s kinda got his mojo going, then he can move on and write his own band’s songs. So he just basically decides what he wants to give to the Pornographers. I’m not exactly sure what his criteria is, but he usually has a bit of a theme for his own records, and there’s a certain kind of something that is a Pornographers song in Dan’s songs.
Another thing we’ve always done with Dan’s tunes is kind of plundered his back catalog. There used to be a cassette floating around for a long time that was just a bunch of tunes that Dan had recorded in his basement in the mid-90s, and we used to go back to that and find songs. Like “To Wild Homes,” which was on the first record, it was already about a six-year-old song when we started to work on it. It had never been put out. “Streets of Fire,” which we put on Twin Cinema, was actually on the first Destroyer record, which came out about ten years ago. I always just really liked it, so we went back and grabbed that one and kind of breathed some life into it or whatever, tried to. Then on this record, there’s a song, a Destroyer b-side, on what wound up being the last Sub Pop Single of the Month Club single, which basically didn’t really get released. It was printed up and then never got distributed about maybe four years ago. So for Dan, it’s always been he’s got this extra wealth of tunes we can go back and pluck the ones that sort of sound nice and have ever been heard by too many people.
As far as Carl goes, I don’t know what makes him tick. He just works and he probably always has a stack of tunes. I remember a couple years ago, he was saying that he pretty much had this record written. I’m pretty confident that he basically wrote a whole other record instead of going through with his old tunes. Things happened in his life and he’d gone on a whole other tangent and wanted to make this record about something else.
Sun: Besides the obvious differences in singing voices and things like that, is it easy to spot characteristics of one songwriter versus another within the New Pornographers catalog? Or is the over-arching New Pornographers sound what Dan and Carl aspire to when they write for the band, besides what is taken from Dan’s old catalog?
J.C.: I think part of the way they molded together was early on, working on the first record. We pretty much rehearsed all those songs and we played them live essentially. I think it started before and I think that Carl actually was consciously listening to Dan’s songs and decided to kind of mirror them at times. I don’t think Carl wrote too many tunes that had a coda at the end of them before the New Pornographers. When we were working with Dan’s tunes in New Pornographers, they had the song, and then the end part is the coda where a new whole part comes out of nowhere and it’s a big refrain. For instance, there’s a part at the end of one of the songs on the first record that ends with “This boy’s life under the electric lights” or something like that — “Mass Romantic” has a big coda at the end of it, which was essentially tacked on almost when we were mixing it because the song kinda ended when we recorded it. Just as we were putting it down, Carl realized that he wanted to make a coda at the end of it. I think that it was maybe in a way a subconscious going-together of the way those guys write. And then of course there’s the big mashing up of a whole bunch of different instruments in every song that’s a bit of a melding influence. It’s not so much a compositional thing as an arranging thing, but it has the overall effect of making everything sound like the New Pornographers.
Sun: With so many singers in the band, who arranges the vocals and decides who sings lead on which songs?
J.C.: I think Carl usually earmarks certain songs for Neko. When he wants Neko to sing songs, that’s what happens for his tunes. Then Kathryn’s pretty much singing lead on one song on the new record, and that was a lot of people saying what we’ve often done since the very beginning is have some people sing the lead vocal and make a bit of a blend. Like “To Wild Homes” on the first record, it’s pretty much 50/50 Dan and Neko on lead vocals. So it’s kind of an unusual dual lead vocal thing, and that was something we were trying to do from the beginning. If you have enough good singers in the band, you could actually not necessarily push one person out front but make it more of a chorus effect on a lead vocal. Dan typically sings his own songs, and Carl decides what songs he feels like maybe he can’t sing because it’s too high or it’s more of a poppy kind of girl number and that kind of thing.
Sun: Is there one specific era of pop that you guys try to hearken back to with some of your music or do you think that the pop structures that you study for the New Pornographers have really remained constant throughout the history of pop music?
J.C.: There’s always been a bit of a an attempt to tip a hat to the way 70s glam took a 50s sort of sound and made it sound strangely postmodern. Like T. Rex and Roxy Music and even Gary Glitter and David Bowie, also Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, they had that sort of glam sound, which is almost like an English young man in 1969-70 almost ironically grabbing the 50s Billy Haley or Buddy Holly kind of rock ‘n roll sound, but doing it with a weird twist. Then there’s obviously some big 80s attitude in there, and even some late 70s kind of punk rock stuff. And the way Devo would grab the same sort of things with 60s surf-type guitar. I think a lot of our influences are bands that were already looking back 20 years before, so we’ve got some influences that are second or thirdhand and maybe 40 or 50 years old at the beginning.
Sun: What’s the secret to emulating successful methods without quoting music that you study? How do you balance close study of pop structures with avoiding the outright quoting that bands like Oasis or something like that get called out on?
J.C.: In terms of writing or in terms of recording?
J.C.: I’m not really much of a writer in this band, but as far as recording goes, you definitely have to keep your ears up for anything that sounds too familiar. One of the keys to our success in a way is to make sure that we’re jamming so many influences together all at the same time that it’s too dense a salad of to be something that you could put your finger on or pick apart. We might get a drum beat that’s mildly surfy, but then we’ll put some guitars on it that sound like maybe the Wipers, say, then we’ll put some piano on it that’s sounds like Clash Sandanista, then do some singing that sounds like Sparks or like ABBA, or a bit of both, and just keep moving through the ideas. It really helps that we’re not too fixated on one particular band or one particular sound. We all have different things that we like, and we’re always trying to take the Blondie drumbeat and mix it with the Flipper baseline or something like that.
Sun: Is it refreshing to be able to switch from the New Pornographers to other projects and go back and forth? What are the advantages and what are the drawbacks?
J.C.: I think the advantages for us, although most of us are doing it less and less really, but I guess the advantage is like Dan keeps working on Destroyer and he’s been making most of his records in my studio. So it’s not necessarily exclusive to the New Pornographers thing, but it keeps the whole scope a bit broader than in the sound of one particular band. At the same time, I think maybe allows you to pinpoint certain ideas that belong to one band or the other at a certain time. As opposed to if you’re just always working with the same band, you might wind up kind of losing perspective because you’re too close to it. I think that’s why people do solo records too when they’re in bands, because they just wanna take a bit of a break and have a slightly different point of view for a minute.
Sun: If you had to participate in an all-out fight to the death with Broken Social Scene and the Arcade Fire, who would come out valiant and why?
J.C.: Are they both together coming at us?
Sun: No, all three of you guys are trying to be the winner singularly.
J.C.: So this is three bands in a free-for-fall kind of brawl sort of thing?
J.C.: No holds barred?
J.C.: Who would win? Oh, well, we’d probably win. I mean, I think Arcade Fire would go down immediately, and then it would be pretty ugly between us and Broken Social Scene. They’ve got the numbers, but you know, I don’t think they have the real grit that it takes to actually kill someone with your bare hands. We do.
Sun: [Laughs] Is the difference between Vancouver and the eastern cities like Toronto and Montreal similar to the differences between the west and east coast of the United States? Especially music-wise, if there are historical differences in the music scenes like there are in the States between the east and west coasts?
J.C.: I think that those differences are more and more blurred. Like when you compare the L.A. scene in the 60s, say, to the New York jazz scene. They were quite different, and people didn’t go back and forth too much. There was a whole different sound and everything because people didn’t really travel as much. Economics kept people in the same place, and radio was very regional. There was hardly any mass media, but now the way things are going, you get most of the communication between bands in terms of listening and developing their opinions, I think that’s breaking down the east west thing a bit more. I think there’s a lot of when New York decides that it’s time to go No Wave again like they did a few years ago, it takes about 15 seconds before somebody in Vancouver thinks it’s a good idea too. Montreal has a pretty distinctive culture, and they’ve always had like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and they’ve really cornered the market on that sort of thing. You could look at Arcade Fire as sort of a classic descendent of that band and that sort of ethos, but at the same time, we were all aware of that band.
Sun: Which of your songs in the entire New Pornographers catalog would make the best background score for a porn movie?
J.C.: Hmm, maybe the beginning of “The Bleeding Heart Show.” That’s quite a tender sort of beginning. That could be good for the really sensitive pornographic video. Something that’s not too over the top. And then it gets kinda wild. I suppose that could work too.
The New Pornographers will be playing gigs in North Tonawanda, N.Y., on Saturday, October 20th, Toronto on Oct. 21st, New York on the 24th and 25th, and Philadelphia on October 26th. Their latest album, Challengers, can be purchased at Borders, Amazon, iTunes, and many other music outlets.