Purposely or not, bands tend to create personas along with their music. The persona is usually based on that of the lead singer or otherwise most conspicuous member, and musicians who find that their needs for self-expression don’t jibe with their group’s persona either quit for solo careers or set up side projects to which they can periodically retreat.
Under rare circumstances, you get bands that are essentially collections of these people. If it’s a collection of people who are already famous, it’s called a “supergroup.” That, though, is a description that the members of The New Pornographers don’t like, because the band is now a full-time gig and none of the groups they came from were famous.
Originally, the purpose was to have fun.
“The idea was to create music that you could put on at a party to get things going,” keyboardist Blaine Thurier tells The Japan Times over the phone from the group’s base in Vancouver. “But at the same time it was something you could sit down and listen to, even on headphones.”
The liner notes of their 2000 debut album “Mass Romantic” mention that most of the details of the recording, such as who played what on which track, are not clear since the songs were recorded over a period of four years during which those involved had other commitments. Thurier is a feature filmmaker. Drummer Kurt Dahle came from the band Limblifter (which also contributed guitarist Todd Fancey, who joined The New Pornographers later), and bassist/engineer John Collins played in The Evaporators and The Smugglers, two of the more popular indie bands in western Canada.
But the reason The New Pornographers were referred to as a supergroup was the other three members. The band is basically the brainchild of Carl “A.C.” Newman, a singer-songwriter from the Lindsey Buckingham/Nick Lowe school of infectiously derivative pop, who previously labored in the power-pop band Zumpano. He also played in The Boyfriends, the backup band for American alt-country chanteuse and indie pinup girl Neko Case, one of the Pornographers’ vocalists.
And then there’s Dan Bejar, a local legend who writes and performs progressive folk-rock under the moniker Destroyer. The New Pornographers gives Bejar a means by which to explore his Bowie fixations. (He recently popped up in yet another indie “supergroup” called Swan Lake.)
“Mass Romantic” was hailed as a masterpiece by critics, and it established The New Pornographers as one of the most important indie bands of the new millennium. But it wasn’t as if the group had just appeared out of nowhere.
“The demos had been sitting in a drawer for a long time,” recalls Thurier. “We were practicing and playing local shows that nobody ever came to, and then one day about two years after recording this stuff we said to ourselves, ‘Why are we just sitting on this? We’ve just been working it to death for two years, so let’s do it.’ But we couldn’t get labels interested at all.”
In hindsight, the record’s catchy guitar pop seems like just the sort of thing that appeals to record people, even major-label record people, and Thurier said it’s a “total mystery” why no one returned their calls.
By the time it finally came out on a tiny Vancouver label, Case’s own solo career was taking off and she had relocated to Chicago. Since Dan Bejar didn’t like playing live even as Destroyer, the band didn’t seem to have much of a future. Still, the other members toured behind the album for two years, expanding their fan base exponentially in the process.
On their subsequent two albums, 2003’s “Electric Version” and 2005’s “Twin Cinema,” which were released worldwide through Matador Records in New York, they were a bona fide working band. Luckily, the irreverence that made the debut so appealing was not neutralized by a more efficient production schedule — the two records are stuffed to the brim with fresh melodic ideas and tight quirky arrangements that do more inventive things with three-part harmonies and keyboard-guitar interplay than anything since Todd Rundgren left his British Invasion-inspired band, The Nazz.
Though Newman and Bejar remain the band’s creative sparks, Thurier says the arrangements are collective efforts. “A lot of that stuff happens in the studio,” he says. “There always ends up being an insane number of tracks for every song, and it’s just a matter of paring it down. It’s surprising to me how the tracks can end up sounding as good as they do. I mean, you can already tell how dense it is.”
Another reason for the band’s substantial following are its live shows, which have become legendary, despite the fact that Bejar hates to tour and Case isn’t always available to cover her parts (Newman’s niece, Kathryn Calder, fills in at such times).
“He toured with us only once, last year,” Thurier says of Bejar. “Destroyer doesn’t tour either. It’s hard to figure out, because he was the only guy who was in a good mood the whole time we were on the road. He seemed to be having a great time.”