When Carl Newman of powerpop outfit The New Pornographers answered my pre-show phone call he responded, “Hey, (Blown Speakers) I’ve got a song by that name.” So if he didn’t already know we were fans from our past shenanigans, our name was probably a good indication.
The band’s most recent album, Whiteout Conditions, is the first album with new drummer Joe Seiders, after longtime member Kurt Dhale left in 2014. It also marks the first album without a single song by Dan Bejar, who was busy making a new Destroyer album.
“Ultimately our schedules just didn’t fit. I’m amazed it was the first time that happened,” said Newman.
While Bejar’s absence on Whiteout Conditions was noticeable, it made for a more cohesive album of only Carl Newman songs. But with seven core members in the band, all spread out over great distances, everyone else managed to put their signature stamp on this album and the recording process remained status quo.
“Working on my songs is a similar process every time. I maybe get it in my head that I want to make a different kind of song, but it’s still just going in there and trying to figure it out. It always feels like a puzzle to me. It’s just a process of trying a lot of things and seeing what works. To a certain degree, a lot of it comes back to being a music fan. I record something and then try to listen to it as if I were the person buying the record. If I think, ‘yeah, I would like this,’ it stays.”
Newman once tweeted out a message that songwriting isn’t easy. During our chat, he elaborated. “There are some parts I find easier than others, like the chord structures and melody and rhythm, and that’s what I start with almost always. And then I have to figure out how to fit the lyrics around this. That’s where songwriting becomes work.”
A few songs on the album, like title track Whiteout Conditions, and Second Sleep deal with common topics in music and art: anxiety, depression and insomnia, but still keep that upbeat New Pornographers pop sound.
“I try to write about things in a hopeful way. It’s about trying to get out of it. It’s about fighting it,” says Newman.
“Then you have songs like High Ticket Attractions that’s less about internal struggle and more about the external struggle of what’s going on in the world. It was 2016 when we were making this record, and the election, and there was that fear that if he won it would be as bad as it is right now. It’s terrifying to me for a number of reasons. It’s policy, but also you realize, ‘Holy shit, he reflects a massive chunk of America.’ I’m sure there was the Russian election hacking, and I’m sure there were nefarious things going on. But even with all of that, there are still tens of millions of people who thought, ‘I’d rather vote for him over her.’ That part is scary.
I think millions of people woke up the next day and thought, “Wait, this isn’t the country I thought it was. We have to readjust. The country we thought was America, it was a myth. This is America now. ”
After tours for Together and Brill Brusiers hit Cleveland’s House of Blues, it was nice to see The New Pornographers return to the Beachland Ballroom. If Neko Case had been there, she would have been happy, after being vocal about her fondness for the venue from the stage and her Twitter feed. In her absence, Kathryn Calder and touring singer/violinist Simi Stone filled in on songs like Colosseums, Champions of Red Wine and Mass Romantic.
The band hit songs from all seven albums with a 21-song set list and minimal between-song banter. All Carl asked of the audience was one simple request:
Don’t call him Hot Carl.