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The New Pornographers have a small problem that most bands would love to face: The band has been around so long (two decades), and been so consistent in putting out one pop-perfect rock album after another (seven since 2000, including the recent "Whiteout Conditions") that it's possible for even some of their fans to take them for granted.
Which means that A.C. Newman, the band's founder, primary songwriter and co-producer, can never feel fully confident that even a record as accomplished as "Whiteout Conditions" (Collected Works/Concord) will be a success.
"I don't fret as much as I once did, but it's my job," he says. "If it sells zero copies, I can't go, 'Whatever will be will be.' I can get over my hurt feelings, but I can't afford to lose my job. I need to support my family. I realize there is only so long you can be a 'new band,' then you're the old guard."
Newman has no illusions about where the Pornographers fit in the rock pantheon. "There's a bar you have to reach, and then you're just called a legend permanently, but few bands get there," he says. "Somebody like Radiohead, it doesn't matter what they do, they'll get attention because they're Radiohead. Arcade Fire is there -- no one will take them for granted. (Bob) Dylan still gets massive attention -- he's the only artist from the '60s like that. I see myself as a fan, but I take bands for granted. I was obsessed with Sonic Youth for years, I would always say Sonic Youth is an all-time great band. But I stopped buying their records after a certain point. I'm just amazed we're still here and there's still an audience out there for us."
Instead of obsessing over what he can't control, Newman burrows into each New Pornographers album with fresh enthusiasm by challenging himself and his bandmates to keep moving musically. The septet, which formed in Vancouver in the late '90s, was initially framed as something of a revolving-door collective around Newman's songwriting. Soon it had four distinct vocalists -- Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar and Kathryn Calder -- and Bejar became a bigger part of his songwriting. Case and Bejar spun off successful solo careers while continuing to contribute to the Pornographers over the years. Though Case remains a vocalist on "Whiteout Conditions," Bejar took the album off because it conflicted with a solo album he was making at the same time.
"I called Bejar and told him I wanted to make this 'bubblegum Krautrock' album -- hyper but in a weird, laid-back way," Newman says. "He said he was writing nothing but weird quiet songs and couldn't think of anything that would fit with this kind of record. He said, 'If I had a 'Myriad Harbor' (from the 2007 'Challengers' album) or 'War on the East Coast' (from the 2014 'Brill Bruisers') I'd give them to you.'"
Newman says he valued Bejar's contributions but was always prepared for the possibility that he would eventually move on. "It was a strength but also a weakness" having so many vocalists in the band, he says. "Some liked us for that, but it also was more difficult to get a handle on us. When the band was just a concept, that's what I wanted, that the Pornographers would be like a computer program, not some weird cult of personality band -- like Coldplay with one guy in front and three guys you don't know in back. I wanted it be a group. I didn't anticipate that some members of the group would emerge as stars -- that's good, and you can't do anything about it. I wanted it to be cohesive but couldn't avoid that people would be picked out."
For a time, New Pornographers albums became like collections of catchy songs often defined by whoever sang lead vocals -- the powerhouse Case, the more laid-back Bejar, the pop songsmith Newman. With "Whiteout Conditions," Newman wanted to focus on a couple of areas -- more electronic rhythms and a greater emphasis on harmony vocals.
The band's previous album, "Brill Bruisers," was "the first time I wanted to make something more focused, and I knew this record would be even more focused. Does it sound like it's all the same record? Looking at so many of the bands I've loved through the years, they had a very specific style. Why don't we do that? When you've been a band for a long time, what else can we do? Why don't we do what most bands do?"
"Whiteout Conditions" at times makes the previous New Pornographers albums, as exuberant as they are, sound like they're moving in slow motion because of its sequencer-driven arrangements. "It's a new way to write for me," Newman says. "I found myself really bored with the idea of playing a song with guitar, bass and drums -- we've already done that. But the way arpeggiators push a song along, make it move in an odd way, that was exciting and fun."
He also found himself writing one of New Pornographers' more overtly political songs in "High Ticket Attractions," a cautionary tale about climate change.
"I don't think my songs lend themselves that well to being political -- they still sound like pop songs," he says. "We're listening a lot to 'Run the Jewels 3,' and that's a much more powerful medium to say something political. I feel like if I write political songs, at best, they would sound like Nick Lowe -- he has a great way of writing pointedly funny, acerbic songs, but that's about as hard as I could get. I couldn't go full Dylan. It's obnoxious when people do it, because I feel like they're all just imitating him. You need to go with your strengths. When you're younger, you try to do everything. But at some point, you realize, why not just try to do what I'm good at?"