For almost two decades now, the New Pornographers have operated as a shifting collective of musicians adept at crafting music filled with hooks that demand sing-alongs. On 2014’s Brill Bruisers, they started exploring a more synth-oriented direction, one they continue pushing into on their forthcoming album, Whiteout Conditions, a characteristically punchy and catchy LP with more than a few jams set to become worthy contenders in the New Pornos’ canon. Ahead of its release, the band has hit SXSW 2017 with several shows over the course of a few days, including a surprise opening set for their buddies in Spoon during the latter’s Hot Thoughts residency in town, and a set during Stereogum’s second official showcase. Before the group took the stage, we caught up with New Pornos frontman/ringleader Carl Newman to talk about Whiteout Conditions, how America’s political climate influenced some of the band’s new songs, Dan Bejar’s absence this time around, and how Newman keeps coming up with so many effortlessly infectious songs this many years in.
STEREOGUM: Did you play at 9AM this morning?
NEWMAN: Yeah, it was for a radio station. I’m not even exactly sure what it was. You know how things are here. You go into a room and it just sorta feels like a conference center. I went into it thinking we were just playing a couple songs in the studio for this radio station and I realized oh, no, there’s an audience of 300. It went pretty well. Maybe I’m just hardened. I’ve done it enough. “Another one of these, huh?” There aren’t many things you can throw at me.
STEREOGUM: I know you’re running around the festival playing new songs, so let’s talk about the forthcoming album. Where did the name Whiteout Conditions come from?
NEWMAN: [The title track] was essentially a song about depression. Going through a dark time and it takes you over and you’re trying to escape it. I wrote all those lyrics very quickly when I was in this shitty place. I’m sort of amazed now when I listen back to it, how lucid I was. I wrote it pretty quickly, thinking I was going to go back and change it. But I went back and I decided I knew what I wanted to say in that song.
STEREOGUM: So far that’s my favorite track on the album—was there something about it that made you think that should be the title track?
NEWMAN: I really liked it. That helps. It was one of my favorite songs. Something about it seemed right. Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling. It’s like the first record. Somebody said, “Why don’t we call it Mass Romantic?” And I thought, “Hmm…all right.”
STEREOGUM: What were some of the other things you were writing about on the album?
NEWMAN: There’s a song like “High Ticket Attractions,” which was definitely about Trump anxiety. Even unconscious. It was before he won. We’d already finished the record by the time he…because even the threat of Trump…in the chorus, it was like, this thing could go two ways. This is either going to be very good or very bad.
STEREOGUM: You’re originally from Canada but you’ve been living in the States for a while. Mostly in the Obama years.
NEWMAN: Yeah, I remember being in Brooklyn the night he won. The streets exploded in joy, like people high-fiving each other in the streets.
STEREOGUM: With your perspective, being from a neighboring country that we have some cultural connections with, what goes through your head these days looking at how things are here?
NEWMAN: It’s interesting for me. I know how Canada is. I feel like people here, they don’t. They like to form their opinions on the Canadian healthcare system because of something on Fox News. It’s like, no, it’s not broken. Most people who are really sick in Canada watch the news and say, “Thank God I live here. I would be fucked if I lived in America.” That’s what most Canadians think. It’s crazy to come here and pay so much for healthcare and know that it might go up. That might be what forces us out of America. I don’t want to pay four grand a month to have health insurance for my family when I could go to Vancouver and it’d be a $150 Canadian or whatever. It’s things like that…one thing that’s always bugged me is Americans like to talk about how Canada is so white. In this sort of self-congratulatory way. Like, “Oh, Canadians are so white, we’re multi-cultural here.” It’s like, “You have no fucking idea.” Look up Vancouver. Forty-five percent of the population is Asian.
STEREOGUM: So, did you sit down and think, “I’m a person living in this country and I want to write some political music about what’s going on,” or does it just kinda happen the same way “Whiteout Conditions” did?
NEWMAN: That kind of stuff just comes out sometimes. I’m hesitant to get too political. I don’t think the kind of music that I write, or that we play, lends itself super well to being political. I’ve been listening to the new Run The Jewels record and I think hip-hop really works as protest music. The way it’s delivered. That makes so much sense. For me to do it just seems so weird. And there’s also the white privilege thing, which I think I’m always aware of. And to a certain degree, I don’t feel it as hard, because I’ve never had to deal with it. It’s like when you have a kid, the idea of a child being hurt seems far worse. If you don’t have a kid, you’re like, “Oh, that’s horrible, a kid got hurt.” But if you have a child and you see it, it absolutely hits you in the gut. You have that empathy: what if that was my child. And I think, if I’m trying to talk about what’s going on right now and I’m talking about race or racism…obviously I hate it, I can say I despise it, but I’d rather rant about it on Twitter than think it’s going to be an essential part of my art and that I’m going to say something powerful or important.
STEREOGUM: Aesthetically speaking, Whiteout Conditions seems to take some of the elements of Brill Bruisers and pushed them further.
NEWMAN: That’s definitely it. There are songs like “Champions Of Red Wine” or maybe “You Tell Me Where,” and I felt like, let’s go further in that direction. I like the idea of speeding up but not in an aggro way. Having a song be fast but laid back. I was really into the idea of a song being 170BPM but it’s on an acoustic guitar. When we were making the album, we were listening to the first Feelies record. Not that we were trying to sound like that, but it was a reference point—it’s really fast, but it has a light vibe. That’s something we would listen to occasionally.
STEREOGUM: Before that reference point, though, when you came out of Brill Bruisers, was it a feeling that there was more to explore there or—
NEWMAN: I think so. It was fun to mess around with arpeggiators. It was a cool way to find new sounds. You get sick of playing guitar. I basically use the guitar as a bass guitar now. If it’s not acoustic, and I’m playing open chords on electric, I feel like it makes too much noise. I’m usually playing muted power chords just to push it along, like a bass would, and let the space be taken up by other things. There’s always a bunch of ideas we want to fit in there. That’s part of becoming more studio-savvy. It’s fun to just sit in the studio and manipulate sounds. Sometimes you’re just messing around and finally you go, “That’s it.” Sometimes it feels like you’re cheating, like you’re not even doing the work. “What if I make this sound and put it through this arpeggiator and put it over this drum track and ah, there it is.”
STEREOGUM: Dan Bejar wasn’t involved in this record. Was he just busy with Destroyer?
NEWMAN: I was talking to him about what I wanted to do [with this record], and I think I told him, “I see it as being a bubblegum krautrock record.” Talking about the songs being 160BPM. He was talking to me and saying that all the songs he was writing were weird, quiet songs, and he was right in the middle of doing a Destroyer record. Which was something we’d narrowly skirted for our whole career. I’m always amazed that we managed to. Sometimes we avoided Destroyer, sometimes Destroyer avoided us, but eventually we hit at the same time. It wasn’t anything weird. We were just in Vancouver rehearsing and I’d go up and hang out with Dan. It’s not like anything’s really changed between us. It’s always the way it’s been. When we made Mass Romantic, we really didn’t know we were going to make another record. If nobody had paid attention, it’s possible we wouldn’t have, because it was hard to get that one done. When nobody’s asking for it…it’s hard to do something when you’re just doing it for yourself as a labor of love. The economics kicked in. If people wanna hear it, we’ll make it.
STEREOGUM: It’s a cool way to run a band, with everyone coming and going with their solo concerns and that can shape this or that record a certain way. Like Dan’s song “War On The East Coast” really helped define Brill Bruisers in my mind.
NEWMAN: The reason that became the second single was essentially…it was maybe gonna be another song, and then I was talking to Dan—and I don’t even know if it was my idea or somebody else’s—but for some reason I got it in my head that it’d be funny if it was a video in the style of the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” video, but with Dan doing one of those. I threw that out there and I said, “OK, I knew you wouldn’t do that, but what if I’m lip-syncing and you’re just standing next to me.” Somehow he said yes. It was just a funny idea, I don’t think I thought anything about it, and then I brought it up with the label and said “For what it’s worth, I think Dan actually agreed to be in a video.” I think that was enough for them. “OK, that’s the video, that’s going to be the second single. If there’s a window where we can get him to agree to something like that, let’s do it.” I felt very happy about it.
STEREOGUM: The thing people always talk about with the New Pornographers is how endlessly catchy so much of the music is. So much of it can get stuck in your head very easily. All these years in, where does that stuff still come from for you? Does it just pop into your head as you’re walking around?
NEWMAN: Some of it’s daydreaming. When I’m in the car or something. If an idea pops into my head I’ll sing it into my phone and I’ll have a tone of voice notes, and then you put it down, and you try to figure out what to do with it. I used to be really concerned about not showing it to anybody until it was finished. Now I think…even when I think I’ve finished a song, it always changes. They always take a new form when I start working on them. So I just go in and start. It’s such a long process that if someone asked me how I wrote a song, I think…I don’t remember. Like, it was a voice note I sang last year and then eight months ago I started demoing it. I had a melody and then I completely ditched that. I made the verse the chorus, the chorus the verse. Messing around until it works.
Whiteout Conditions is out 4/7 via Collected Works Records.