The New Pornographers - Biography
The Canadian conglomerate of pop culture personalities known as The New Pornographers officially formed in 1997 in Vancouver, British Columbia as a pet project of singer and guitarist Carl (A.C.) Newman of the indie pop bands Zumpano and Superconductor. Although the band’s name appears to be a reference to an infamous Jimmy Swaggart quote that defamed rock and roll as “the new pornography,” Newman claims to have named the band after the classic Japanese film The Pornographers (1966).
The band’s original lineup included bassist and guitarist John Collins (The Evaporators), keyboardist Blain Thurier (cartoonist and filmmaker), guitarist Dan Bejar (Destroyer, Swan Lake), alt-country/indie pop singer Neko Case (Cub, Maow, and solo work), and drummer Fisher Rose. They recorded four songs before Rose decided to leave the band in 1999.
The following year, Kurt Dahle of Limblifter and Age of Electric replaced Rose, and brought with him Limblifter’s guitarist Todd Fancey. The updated lineup began recording new songs full-time and soon their debut album Mass Romantic (2000 Mint), a glittery over-the-top tribute to power pop, was released. The collection of tricked-out, hook-filled songs was written primarily by Bejar and Newman with several tips of the sequined hat to Roxy Music, ELO, Cheap Trick, David Bowie, and even The Beatles. The quirky mix of hi-octane, attitudinal rock with the melancholy poetry of Newman’s lyrics creates an amusingly dichotomous and vertiginous state, often teetering on the treacherous boarder of irony. Fortunately, the honesty of both the lyrics and the pure rawk n’ roll keeps the balance.
Bejar, Newman, and Case each take turns leading the band on vocals, but the album’s standout performance is delivered by a surprisingly genre-flexible Case on “Letter from an Occupant,” in which she absolutely belts in the true spirit of glam rock. The catchy song scored a place on the soundtrack for the film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) and the title song appeared in the hit cable television show Queer as Folk in 2000. Mass Romantic earned The New Pornographers a Juno Award (Canada’s equivalent to a Grammy) for Best Alternative Album in 2001. Their memorable debut has remained relevant to critics throughout the years; in 2007, Blender magazine ranked it as the 24th best indie album of all time.
In 2001, The New Pornographers toured in support of Mass Romantic. At SXSW (the independent music festival in Austin, Texas) they surprised the audience by performing the Kink’s classic “Starstruck” with none other than Kinks’ frontman Ray Davies. By 2002 most of the band members had returned to their own projects. Case went on tour with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in support of her album Blacklisted (2002 Bloodshot), which earned her new fans and boosted her cult following considerably.
The New Pornographers’ much-anticipated follow-up album appeared in 2003, after the Canadian label Mint Records, who released their debut, worked out a licensing agreement with the American Matador Records. Electric Version (2003 Mint/Matador) delivered more of the searing energy and power pop swagger that grabbed fans and critics alike on Mass Romantic, but it also boasts a brighter, louder, slicker sound. Perhaps most importantly, Electric Version proved that the New Pornographers were actually a dedicated band and not just a one-off side project of a supergroup. Electric Version landed at number nine on the Billboard Heatseekers and number 12 on the Top Independent Albums chart.
In 2004, Newman released his solo debut The Slow Wonder (2004 Matador), which stands as a testament to how much of Newman is behind the songs of The New Pornographers. The roller coaster melodies and multi-dimensional poetry of the lyrics heard on The Slow Wonder could be nestled quite comfortably within the first two Pornographers’ albums. Newman’s solo album garnered critical acclaim and the up beat "On the Table" appeared on the popular television show The O.C.
Following the release of Newman’s solo album, The New Pornographers’ unleashed their third album Twin Cinema (2005 Matador), which hit number 44 on the Billboard 200 and number five on the Top Independent Albums chart. Like their previous two albums, Twin Cinema runs wild with The New Pornographer’s signature sound, celebrating hyper-melodic twists and turns and laying down infectious hook after hook. Instead of breaking new ground, their third album stakes its claim on their sound and refines it here and there. The persistently catchy “Use It” appeared on the American television show The Office and also as the theme song of the Canadian talk show The Hour. This is also the firs album to include Newman’s niece, keyboardist and singer Kathryn Calder. Kathryn continues to tour with The New Pornographers, filling in on vocals for Case when needed.
In 2007, the collective released their fourth album Challengers (2007 Matador). Their most immediately popular album to date, Challengers sold about 20,000 copies within its first week out, placing at number four on the Billboard Top Independent Albums chart and 34 on the Billboard 200. In an unorthodox and highly inventive move, The New Pornographers and Matador offered an additional “Executive Edition” in addition to the basic album for their hard-core fans. The Executive Edition boxed set contained the original Challenger album plus three blank CDs on which the buyer could download exclusive material directly from the Matador website. The first blank CD was reserved for B-sides and alternate versions of songs related to the album, the second CD for live recordings (cleverly titled Live from the Future), and the third for photos and videos.
Despite its radical marketing campaign and creative use of the cyber marketplace, Challengers is a more sober and subtle attempt that the Pornographers’ first three releases. As The Onion put it in their August 21, 2007 issue, “If previous New Pornographers albums are the musical equivalent of Jolt Cola, Challengers is the caffeine-free diet version: less sugary, more mature, initially not as invigorating, but ultimately just as addictive.” In 2010 the band released Together, followed by the highly anticipated Brill Bruisers in 2014.
Trading in synths for harp, strings, and flute gives the songs on Challengers a more grounded sound that weaves in with the lyrics in a surprisingly cohesively way. Although a markedly different approach for the band, their style and identity is still clear…they are and always will be a co-op of strong musicians, a many-headed hydra of rock and roll.