The New Pornographers | Crowd Pleasers

“And the sea was all lighters, it was all lighters,” sings The New Pornographers frontman and primary songwriter Carl Newman in “Brill Bruisers,” the opening track from his band’s brand-new record of the same name. From the first downbeat of “Brill Bruisers,” the chorus of which paints the scene of a massive crowd swaying in unison, the band’s sixth studio album is a high-energy, melodically complex affair. And according to Newman, that dynamism is very much by design. 

“When we went into Brill Bruisers, I didn’t want it to be low-key at all,” says Newman, who last toured in support of 2012’s Shut Down the Streets, his third solo effort under the moniker A.C. Newman. Streets, he says, was “more of a personal record and more of a sort of vintage singer-songwriter record.” But he sought to do something very different for his return to The New Pornographers. “I wanted it to be fairly shiny and bombastic, and have a good tempo to it. I wanted it to really move.”

With its various moving parts, from Newman’s characteristically voluble lead vocal, to a multi-voiced counter-melody, and huge drum sounds, the power-pop of “Brill Bruisers” explodes out of the gate, setting the pace and tone for the record’s following 11 tracks. 

“It’s a celebratory record, but it’s very defiantly celebratory,” says Newman, who’s become a father since the release of the Pornographers’ last album, 2010’s Together. “It's about dealing with the negative things in your life in a very basically defiant way. Like, ‘I will not be dragged down by them.’. . . I think albums like [2007’s] Challengers, or my solo albums, reflect these things that go on in life, like falling in love, or going through the sorrow of people dying. And not that this record is about, ‘I don’t care that people are dying anymore,’ or, ‘I don’t care about love.’ It's just coming out the other side. Trying to figure out how to be happy with all the other things.”

The New Pornographers are commonly—exhaustingly, in fact—referred to as a “super-group” thanks to the success of other projects from prolific members Dan Bejar, Neko Case, and the rest. Much of Brill Bruisers meditates on coming to terms with that success, from the title track to the swift-moving, New Wave-y “Backstairs,” which was written not long after Newman caught a performance from Modern Lovers founder and noted godfather of punk Jonathan Richman. Newman connected with Richman’s song “Bohemia,” which is about discovering a realm—what Newman calls an “underground community”—of kindred artistic spirits. Not only that, says Newman, who’s careful not to toot his own horn in what seems to be a genuinely earnest display of modesty, but the song also expresses his own befuddlement at being able to do this for a living.

“‘Backstairs’ was about basically being bemused at actually having success,” he explains. “When you’ve struggled for years and years and nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Wow. Not that we’ve made it, but we’re getting some success. We’ve actually got a career now.’”

Vancouver native Newman now lives in Woodstock, New York, where he tracked much of Brill Bruisers along with The New Pornographers bassist and frequent producer/engineer John Collins. Collins would fly out to Newman’s home studio for weeks at a time, the two of them building a core of demos from which the album would grow, and then he’d fly back home to Vancouver. They were concurrently working on the score to the recently released Daniel Radcliffe-starring film What If—Newman writing and performing, Collins producing and engineering—which they both characterize as a good creative exercise outside The New Pornos modus operandi.

As far as achieving the shiny, high-energy, bombastic tone Newman was in search of for Brill Bruisers, Collins says that sometimes took workmanlike effort, and he’d play the role of impartial engineer. “We were scientific about it in a way, you know?,” Collins says in regard to the outset of tracking Brill Bruisers, pointing out that—before he and Newman were able to track with each member of the Pornos’ famously well-stocked lineup—they had to create scaled-back, skeleton versions of the songs. “We knew we wanted it to be rocking, but we were pretty un-rocking, more like Depeche Mode/1981 style, where we were just there with a computer and a couple of gadgets. It was matching what it would be like when we actually got everybody playing on it.”

Not all of Brill Bruisers’ songs had the immediate un-deniability of the titular track. “Champions of Red Wine” is a shimmering mid-tempo pop tune that makes good use of Neko Case’s powerful, pliant voice, but it wasn’t among Newman’s favorites at the start of the process. “A song like ‘Champions of Red Wine,’  when we started recording it was a power trio or four-piece, I wasn’t that into it,” Newman says. “Maybe that’s why I really like it, because I felt like we took a song that I wasn’t that into and we turned it into something that I really loved. It felt like a triumph.”

Brill Bruisers certainly doesn’t sound like it was an easy record to make. It is smartly crafted ensemble indie rock at its most intricate, with vocal harmonies, keys, and guitars all weaving organically in and out of one another. It’s pop music that needed time to find its way out of Newman’s head and germinate in the studio. It is rewarding music for patient fans.

At the time of interview, Collins and Newman—and the rest of their current seven-piece live lineup—had just played Pemberton Music Festival, their first gig as The New Pornographers in nearly a year. “I was incredibly happy with the way the new songs came across live,” says Newman. “It’s always weird playing new songs. But they sounded really great. It’s nice to feel very confident when you’re playing a song and feel like, ‘Yes, this is as good as anything we’ve ever played.’” 

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