“One guy was talking to me about the song ‘Challengers,’ ” Carl Newman says of the title track to the new New Pornographers disc, “saying, ‘My wife thinks it’s so sad; two people are never going to get together even though they’re in love.’ ” Newman shakes his hands back and forth in mock alarm. “ ‘No, no, tell your wife the two people in the song get together eventually.’ ”
MASS ROMANTICS: ‘You shouldn’t have to be afraid to slow things down. . . . You can’t be a party band forever.’
And they did: Newman tells this story a few days before he’s to be married. It’s a love that’s all over Challengers (Matador), in ways both conspicuous — “Go Places” is his most overt love song — and subtle, as in the relocation of some of the band’s operations from Vancouver to his bride’s leafy Brooklyn neighborhood. What’s funny about Newman’s story — and he’s in on the joke — is that you can’t blame that guy’s wife for her interpretation of the song. As celebrations of love go, “Challengers” sounds like an awfully sad one. Which is probably why it rings so true.
“Songs that have a sad note are always my favorite, like ‘The Devil’s Eyes’ by the Go-Betweens,” he explains. “It’s sad, but there’s hope, like no matter what shit goes down, we’re going to be all right.”
The same could be said for the New Pornographers: they’re bound less by shared rock ambition than by a certain kind of love, and so they’re less affected than most bands would be by the fact that their main songwriter and frontman has moved across the continent. As bassist John Collins said around the release of their 2003 second album, Electric Version (also Matador), “Carl just doesn’t write a bad song.”
Sometimes touted as a Canadian supergroup, or, more ambiguously, a “collective,” they all have side interests. Bassist John Collins is a producer and keyboardist; Blaine Thurrier is a filmmaker; Newman released a well-received solo record, The Slow Wonder (Matador), in 2004; Dan Bejar, the group’s other songwriter, has his own band, indie fave Destroyer, and has never toured with this one; Neko Case has found her vocal cords and her voice as a solo artist and in some circles has eclipsed the New Pornographers. And yet the band thrive. “It’s just the nature of the band,” Newman says. “Even though it’s our jobs, it’s really low-key.”
This confounding of rock orthodoxy simply happened. “In the beginning, it took two and a half years to make [their 2000 debut] Mass Romantic, just because we didn’t have any money or a label. I was asking John if he could produce it for free, on spec. Not even real spec, because no one had specced it for anything — it was speculation that he’d be doing it for free. So this had to wait whenever he had a paying gig, which is a much bigger hassle than that everybody’s very busy now, because now at least it’s a priority — for most of the people, it’s their primary source of income.