It’s been four years since the last New Pornographers record, but as I found out from Carl Newman and Kathryn Calder, it's been a busy four years. After touring in support of Together, both musicians released solo records that dealt with a personal loss (both Newman's and Calder’s mothers passed away), Calder was involved in the making of a documentary, A Matter of Time, which focused on her life while caring for her mother who had ALS, and Newman and his wife welcomed their first child. According to Newman, it wasn’t until last year that the thought of making another New Pornographers record even came up.
That record, Brill Bruisers, which hits stores on August 25 but is streaming in full here in the meantime, is a bold departure for the band. While bright pop hooks still illuminate each song, Newman & co. have turned them neon, relying on swaths of synths to fill in the spaces where strings or brass might’ve gone previously. Such a change might seem drastic or even strange for a band that’s been so consistent over the past 17 years, but as it turns out the Pornos have been itching to make an exciting left turn like this for some time.
I talked to Newman and Calder about how the studio shaped their new record, the increased difficulty of wrangling all the band members, caffeine highs and navigating the prickliness of Destroyer's Dan Bejar. It's a fascinating glimpse into the process of some of Canada's best pop artisans.
Were these songs all written for Brill Bruisers? Had any been hanging around from before you sat down to write this record?
Carl Newman: These were very much all new. My solo record was made up of a lot of songs that I had wanted to do something with that had been written for awhile. I thought that would be a good place for them. I think for the first time I wanted the Pornographers and A.C. Newman to have very specifically different sounds, whereas before that I had never been concerned with the difference.
What made you want to have them be so distinct?
Newman: I thought it would be a good idea to have a bit more focus.
You've spoken about your reverence for the disciplined style of the Brill Building songwriters. Is the title of the record a reference to that more focused style?
It used to be hard to get someone across town to come to practice, and now it’s hard to get them to get on a plane to cross the continent.
You've talked about wanting this record to be a celebratory one. Did you make the stylistic jump to a much more synth-heavy sound to signify this happier time in your life?
Newman: Yeah, I think that was definitely it. We’ve been wanting to do that for years, but never got it together. To get that kind of sound, it just has to happen. It has to feel right. You can’t force it. I feel like for the first time, with the kinds of songs I was writing, I felt like “yes, this is very complimentary to what we want to do.” I always qualify it as “a defiant celebration.” We will not be sad, no matter what you throw at us. And it’s not because we’re brain damaged.
Is the most challenging thing about The New Pornographers trying to wrangle everyone together to make a record?
Newman: The story has changed slightly, but it’s always been that way. The details change. It used to be hard to get someone across town to come to practice, and now it’s hard to get them to get on a plane to cross the continent. Now we have the luxury of a budget, so we can afford to have people flown in.
Kathryn Calder: I think that’s the case with most bands that it’s hard to get people together because everybody’s priorities are different. It’s hard to find a group of people that are all on the same page. I think in our band there’s just so many of us that it makes it harder.
Newman: I think we’re all in agreement that we’re not all on the same page. [Laughs]
So Carl, this record's process started with you and John Collins in your home studio. Kathryn, at what point did you become involved?
Calder: Actually, I’m pretty sure I was one of the later elements. I came in in November, and I had about a week. I just improvised a bunch of keyboard parts. Carl and John were the ones with the major opinions on most things. I just played. I did some singing, but the songs were mostly already there. But even though I came in at the end, the songs still changed after I added my parts, so it was kind of cool to see that happen. Some songs didn’t make it. The record was changing throughout the process.
So even though the songs were more or less “together” when you started recording, it sounds like there was still a lot of finessing that happened in the studio.
Calder: Yeah, a massive amount. Some songs more than others. The song “Brill Bruisers” had just a few key elements that we had to nail. We had to make sure it sounded big. Other songs, after hearing the bed tracks, the skeletal arrangements, I thought “no, this song’s not there.” Some I was ready to dump, but we just kept working on them because you never know when a song is going to have a sudden 180 and go from being a B-side to your favourite song on the record. That’s what happened with “Champions of Red Wine.” I just couldn’t figure out where it was going. I wanted every song to have a very specific personality, and some songs you just can’t find it.
When did that song have its 180 moment for you?
Newman: There were a couple of things. I was initially the lead vocalist, and Neko [Case]’s part was initially a harmony vocal. So I ditched my vocal and made her harmony the lead. At the opening of the song there’s this sparkly arpeggiator, and so when that came in I thought: “Yes! That’s awesome.” There’s also a very chopped up section of a men’s choir, so when I heard those things together I thought: “This is it.”
I always qualify it as “a defiant celebration.” We will not be sad, no matter what you throw at us.
When you find a few key elements that you really love, you have confidence in the song and you know what the focus should be. The rest of the parts in the mix are buttressing that up. When I wrote the song there was this additional little melody line that I thought would be the focus, but it ended up getting cut. I like when that happens, when you start working on things and you realize sometimes your first idea is your best idea. And sometimes it’s absolutely not the best idea. That’s the fun part about making music. It’s maddening when you can’t find it, but sometimes it turns into something you didn’t expect.
You mentioned Spoon earlier. They’re very much a band that likes to use the studio as its own instrument. There's a lot of "studio" in Brill Bruisers, like the snippets of in-studio banter, or how you chose to keep Neko’s flub during “Spidyr.” What inspired you to do that?
Newman: That was mostly Dan [Bejar] and John’s judgement call. I didn’t even notice it. Dan said to me “what do you think about us keeping Neko saying ‘fuck’ when she makes a mistake?” And I thought, “oh I don’t know, let me listen to it again.” It works. It’s pretty subtle.
She picks right back up into the melody.
Newman: I like that kind of stuff. The other one was right at the beginning of “Born With a Sound,” a non-sequitur conversation that was cut out of context. You can’t even tell what me and Dan are talking about. I think we say: “I heard a sound in my head. Yo, that makes sense. What?” [Laughs] I like it when that stuff makes the cut. I loved that on the Pixies records. I think it’s on Surfer Rosa: “There were rumors that he was into field hockey players” or “You fucking die!”
While you were still in the studio Dan was quoted as saying that his songs on this record don’t sound like him. Do you agree?
Newman: No. [Laughs]
I thought that might be what inspired the concept for the “War On The East Coast” video, that you’re singing his song for him because he doesn’t feel like it’s his.
Newman: I don’t know. That video came from wanting to do a “Bitter Sweet Symphony”-style video. I asked Dan if he wanted to do it, knowing he never would. The B plan was “okay, how about you just stand next to me?” Amazingly he agreed to it. It was fun. I can’t believe he did it.
You've announced that you've collaborated on a coffee blend with Intelligentsia Coffee that will come with a Brill Bruisers download code? Will it be available in Canada? Why coffee?
Newman: I’m not sure if it’ll be available in Canada. They approached us to do it, and I thought it would be totally absurd so I agreed. I’m a coffee drinker, and I think it’s a cool idea, so it made me happy.
If you had no limit on budget, what would the Brill Bruisers live show look like?
Newman: A lot of 3D. Self-serve coffee fountains in the lobby. People bouncing off the walls.
Newman: Rooms for people who are coming down off of the coffee fountain.
Newman: Gotta take care of our fans.