The New Pornographers released their sixth studio album, Brill Bruisers, in August and it was packed with the kind of infectious, uplifting indie-power pop that made their debut album Mass Romantic an instant classic. While many of The New Pornographers have released acclaimed solo albums, when they come together the Vancouver-based band seems capable of accommodating and amplifying the widest of talents. Hours before their gig at Shepherds Bush Empire, while most of the band dozed nearby, I caught up with leader AC Newman backstage to find out what it’s like being in one of the world’s best-known ‘super groups’ and how they were coping with the recent departure of drummer Kurt Dahle.
You all look shattered, are you jetlagged?
We’ve only been here for a couple of days so we’re still fighting jetlag a bit. We’re in the worst part of jetlag right now. You think you’ve beaten it – you’re about a day or two in and you’re like ‘I think I’ve got this’, but you don’t.
Does that make you sick of touring and being away from home?
Yeh, it sucks to be away. I mean, I’m not away as much as other people, but it can be tough. I’m home in six days and then we have a fly-in show in Vancouver.
A homecoming show?
Sort of. It’s a weird private money gig. Google is paying for it. It’s a little club show, but you get paid like it’s a festival.
That makes a difference, rather than helping people steal music, Google is paying money directly to a band. Maybe they should do that for every band on the internet?
Yeh, and considering almost every person in the band lives around there it was so easy to tack on to the end of the tour. I have to fly in. I don’t get back there that much. [AC Newman lives in Woodstock]
Kurt Dahle recently left the band. How does that affect The New Pornographers and the tour?
I don’t know, I guess he was just tired of it. Tired of touring. It’s not really that interesting of a story. We just sort of switched gears. We were lucky as our sound man said: ‘Hey, my brother is an amazing drummer’, so we said: ‘Bring him in, we have a show in five days – it will be his audition’.
And he did it? He must have played some of your songs before?No, no. It was a shorter set at a festival where he only had to play for 45-50 minutes, so we sent him 12 songs and said: ‘We’re going to do these 12 songs. You’ve only got five days to do it.’ And you know, it was great and we kept him. It’s working out awesome
Was it a big difference playing with a new drummer for the first time after all these years playing with Kurt?
No, not really, it’s pretty subtle. It’s like any change, there are some things you’ve lost and some things you’ve gained as well.
So you’re not sending Kurt texts saying, ‘Hey, miss you, :-(‘
No, no, we’re definitely not sending those.
John Collins, the bassist, produced the album alongside you, is there something about bassists that make them good producers?
I don’t know, I think John was just thrust into the role as bassist, I think he was more of a guitar player.
So he’s a frustrated lead guitar player?
I don’t know if he was frustrated, I guess the guitar spots were already taken up. We didn’t need another guitar player … I’m like, ‘If you’re a good guitar player, you can play bass.’ And I think he sort of plays bass like a guitar player.
You keep being called a super group. Do you see yourself as a super group?
I do now, I didn’t use to. When we first started out, nobody was very popular; all that ‘super group’ meant was that we were in other bands. And I thought, ‘Isn’t every band?’ Most bands are made out of people who used to be in other bands – unless they started when they were 15 – unless it’s U2. But now, sometimes I look at us and I think, ‘Yeh, we’re sort of a super group’. Not many bands are made out of so many different people accomplished in their own ways.
The individual albums of everyone in the band are very different from the sound you get with The New Pornographers. Do you think that’s why you keep coming back to this, because the music you produce is such a fun, uplifting sound, yet a lot of the solo stuff is often a little more introspective and personal. Is that why you guys come together, because it’s just the kind of fun you can’t have without being around each other?
There’s something unique about The New Pornographers, it’s almost like in the New Pornographers we take on a fictional persona that’s not really us, we just become this band called The New Pornographers and that’s fun to do. But that fictional persona has become my main thing; being myself is my side project. I’m the guy in The New Pornographers, that’s what I do for a living.
Do you get competitive? You have various different people in the band going off and doing albums, it must be hard not to keep an eye on what Dan Bejar’s selling or what Neko Case’s doing – whoever is selling a lot of albums and getting a lot of press.
I try not to pay any attention to that. If you feel it you sort of push it out. Mainly, I think it’s just musical competitiveness, like, ‘That’s really good, we should try to do that’. It’s like keeping up with the Joneses. We’re not overly concerned with who is selling the most or who is getting the most critical acclaim.
You must joke among yourselves about that though?
About that? No, no, I never tease anyone about popularity … I might tease Dan about how much Pitchfork loves him, but I don’t do that all the time. It might slip out.
Who’s here on the tour? Is it the full complement of New Pornographers?
It’s everybody except Neko. Dan’s here. He’s only ever played in the UK with us once – he’s only ever played in Europe with us once. We did ATP a few years ago and he was with us because I think Destroyer happened to be playing at the same time, but this is the first time he’s done a tour with us so that’s cool. It’s cool to be playing some of our most-popular songs because we’ve never really played them here because Dan’s not been here to sing them. Songs like Myriad Harbour – it’s really nice to be able to do that.
There are a lot of people in the band, but you’re always referred to as the de facto leader – is that just because you’re good at admin and getting everyone together?
I’m not particularly good at admin. I guess I write something like 80% of the songs … so I think I’m the guy with the fiercest opinion on how the record should sound. I don’t really want to be the leader that much, it’s just what I am. At some point you realise you just have to … you try not to be a jerk, but at some point I have to say what I think. If I don’t think something is working, I’ll say. Not like an asshole, but I think for a band to work well there needs to be somebody guiding it. When everything is a complete democracy, I don’t think anything good can really get done.
With so many creative people in the band, how do you handle it if someone comes up with something and you don’t feel it, or everyone doesn’t feel it. Do they all start giving you sideways glances as in, ‘say something, this is bad’?
I have thought about that sometimes; sometimes I listen to our old records and I think there are things I should have done differently and I think, ‘Maybe people were telling me and I didn’t listen; or maybe people were thinking that but didn’t tell me’. You try to listen to people as much as possible. I love it when the good ideas aren’t mine, it makes my job easier.
Mass Romantic was voted 24th best indie album of all time by Blender magazine – were you aware of that? You must be pretty disappointed you weren’t number 23?
Yeh, that is sort of fun, it’s flattering, but it’s very … ‘We’re 24! We’re 24!’ … How about 25? Can we have 25? That’s more of a rounder number … It’s sort of a weird arbitrary list by a magazine that I think is out of business now, but it’s nice when people make lists and put you on it.
It’s been good to chat to you. Anything you want to say, any big political statements to get off your chest?
I can’t think of anything, I’m just trying to stay awake. I won’t say anything bad about Scotland.
Interview by Craig Scott and portraits By Rachel Lipsitz. London. December 2012.