It is rare when a mainstream Canadian band achieves mainstream success in America;
it is rarer still when an underground Canadian act achieves underground American success.
Nevertheless, this Vancouver supergroup's 2000 debut, the result of four years of
intermittent work between other projects, has been met with great accolades on either
side of the border.
But you may be asking yourself: how can a band possibly follow up a name like that?
The genesis of the New Pornographers begins with the most overworked man in Canadian
music, Carl Newman, pausing between bands to decide that "The New Pornographers" was a
good name for a new project. Between fronting Zumpano, working with Superconductor and
being part of Neko Case's backing band (Boyfriends), it's a wonder he found the time to
Jimmy Swaggart wrote a book called "Music: The New Pornography", but this is only a coincidence.
"I always wanted to be the new somethings," says Newman. The connection, he says, is perfectly
His friends seemed to agree that it was a hell of a name, and soon enough
an entire band of busy and Almost Famous Canadians had been rounded up under the New Pornographers
banner. The band now included spotlight-shunning singer-songwriter Dan Bejar (AKA Destroyer),
country vocalist Neko Case, Limblifter drummer Kurt Dahle, engineer
and studio owner (not to mention Evaporators and Thee Goblins member) John Collins, and filmmaker
and keyboardist Blaine Thurier.
The band had completed four songs by 1998, one ("Letter From An Occupant") of which would be included
on a Mint Records benefit for a charity. Despite the stir this song caused, the band's members were
soon distracted by their multitudes of other projects. After life got out of the way, they found the
time to finish recording what was to become their debut, "Mass Romantic", released on Mint Records in
The period leading up to the album's release had been hectic. Newman quickly began to descend into
serious Brian Wilson (or, for a more modern comparison, Kevin Shields) territory, endlessly fiddling
and toying with the songs. Bejar apparently began to crack under the strain, requesting that the whole
band put their backs to the camera for the cover shoot and threatening to leave when someone joked about
getting a spot on Edgefest. Eventually the record label's deadline hit and the album was released in
The band's opinions about the album have been difficult to decipher. Carl Newman describes it as, variously,
a "shit mix", a "shit storm", and "just a mess". Dan Bejar seemed a bit more positive, saying, "When I listen
to it, I'm fairly wowed. (...) It's kinda gross, how good it is."
Bejar probably also gave the best summary of the band's sound; insanely catchy, visceral, and with a relentlessly upbeat momentum.
As for the future, things seem shaky; Dan Bejar has reportedly left the band, and Neko Case was always termed
a "guest vocalist". What Carl Newman will do in the future with that great band name, only time will tell.
Since there is little point in displaying the discography of a band with one release or retreading the roster,
here instead is the New Pornographers Songwriting Process, as interpreted from several interviews and articles:
Step 1: Somebody writes a song.
If Dan Bejar writes the song, odds are that it is actually a song Carl heard at a Destroyers concert
he thought would make a good New Pornographers track. "A New Pornographers song by Dan is one that
I just steal," he explains.
If Carl Newman writes the song, he will immediately begin driving himself insane by comparing it with every song he has ever loved. Dissatisfied, he moves on to...
Step 2: The song is recorded.
In the case of a Bejar song, Carl immediately begins seeing how far he can push the song through
"the NP meat grinder" before he snaps and starts hitting people. "I tend to mangle them quite a bit,"
If Neko Case is performing the vocals for the song, she sees a copy of the song for the first time
immediately before starting to record her part. Carl will rattle off adjectives for her to shoot for,
trying not to state his real goal: to eliminate the twang she usually uses in her singing. "Robotic"
and "Germanic" are among the instructions.
(Side note: Neko is quite relieved about not having to deal with the songwriting process for this
album. "I go in and do what they say," she glees.)
Step 3: The song is engineered.
Most of the band leaves to do other things. Carl, meanwhile, lurks over John Collins' shoulder in the
studio, telling him to adjust some levels, to add a hurdy gurdy track, to flange the pump organ, etc.
Dan describes his role in the band: "Once in a while I'd look up from the computer solitaire game and
say 'Hey, that sounds good.'"
Step 4: The record company calls.
...and lets them know they're overdue. Carl wrings his hands, knowing his work is not truly complete.
Side note 2: I searched for a "The New Pornographers" node earlier today, while "Findings" was still broken.
Although I know the changes introduced during that period of turmoil were not meant to last, I think it would be
great if "pornographer" and "left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers" were added to the writeup-types
alongside "thing", "place" and other old favorites.