It’s no secret that mainstream Pop has shifted away from organic, guitar-oriented sounds to music that features synthesizers, electronic tones and programmed rhythms.
With their latest album, Whiteout Conditions, The New Pornographers have fully embraced this sonic setting for their otherwise rather traditionally rooted style of Pop music. But singer/guitarist A.C. Newman says the new sound of the album isn’t an attempt to capitalize on recent trends in that direction.
“I’ve never thought it was a good idea to start chasing any style,” Newman says. “I thought if we start chasing what’s popular, we’re never going to catch up. Like by the time we get there, something else will be popular and we’ll be chasing that.”
Instead, Newman says the more synthetic character of Whiteout Conditions is simply the product of his affection for sounds he’s been hearing that can be created on computers and keyboards.
“A lot of music that I think is incredibly cool, like Animal Collective or Tame Impala or MGMT, a lot of it is moving toward electronics,” Newman says. “It’s arguably Psychedelic Pop, but it’s also very electronic. So when I hear these bands that I love, some part of me just thinks, ‘Let’s do something like that,’ not that we’re actively trying to chase them.”
In fact, Newman says, he’s long been attracted to keyboards and unique synthetic tones.
“I’ve always loved music with very cool keyboards,” he explains. “Even from the beginning, when I started making music, I always loved odd sounds — like where you take an odd sound and you just start looping it and then it stops being dissonant. It becomes part of the song.”
“I think it helps that the technology has gotten to the point where it’s very user-friendly. Like it’s very easy for me just to go in my home studio and just start playing some chords and just start manipulating them. To me, that’s new because you get sick of playing guitar. Like some people, I want to hear them play guitar and sing their songs. But for me, I don’t want to do that anymore. So I’m trying to figure out new ways to do it. It makes it more interesting for me, in the same way that you hear about people who write on guitar, then they (decide to) write on piano just because changing instruments gives them a new perspective.”
For most of The New Pornographers’ history, however, Newman’s interest in synthetic sonics hasn’t been overly obvious. The Canadian-bred band has often been touted as a pop supergroup, thanks to the notoriety several of the band members have through solo projects or other bands — Newman, singer Neko Case and keyboardist/singer Kathryn Calder are established solo artists, while guitarist/singer Dan Bejar leads the group Destroyer. When first emerging, the Pornographers sounded like a fairly straight-forward — albeit uncommonly talented — Pop Rock band.
The 2000 debut album Mass Romantic immediately established the band as a force on the indie music scene. Power Pop has remained at the center of The New Pornographers’ sound ever since, but Newman has brought shades of difference to each of the group’s subsequent albums. But it was on the 2014 album Brill Bruisers that Newman and his bandmates took a step in a synthetic direction, introducing more synthesizers and electronic elements. Whiteout Conditions pushes those sounds further into the forefront. Songs like “Second Sleep,” “Avalanche Alley” and “Play Money” especially take on an Electronica feel, as their hooky Pop melodies come wrapped within keyboard/computer-generated instrumentation and programmed beats.
Newman went into Whiteout Conditions with some other objectives, too.
“I wanted it to be up-tempo, but also wanted it to be sort of laidback in its way. I wanted it to be driving, but not really aggressive,” he says. “I wanted to use a lot of drones as textures and just keep the song structures fairly simple and keep the songs to maybe three or four chords, which was relatively new to me because our songs have always… a lot of them just move in weird directions.”
Newman achieved his goal of an up-tempo album (none of the songs qualifies as a ballad), but he wasn’t entirely successful with creating simple songs.
“Sometimes I’ll just do things like count bars on songs and realize that even when I think we’re writing a really simple three-chord song, it isn’t really that simple,” he says. “Like ‘Play Money’ is built around three chords, but it’s built around a progression that’s six bars long. I thought ‘OK, well that’s not your standard (Pop song structure).’ ”
Whiteout Conditions is also missing a component that has often brought a bit of a quirky dimension to The New Pornographers’ albums — Bejar. In contributing several songs to each previous album, Bejar’s songs have given the New Pornographers an idiosyncratic element. Newman said Bejar’s absence doesn’t mean he won’t be part of the band in the future, but a couple of issues prompted Newman to complete the new album without his songwriting cohort.
“He was right in the middle of a Destroyer album,” Newman says of Bejar. “And another part of it was I told him the kind of record I wanted to make, which was the record that we made. And then he said he was writing weird quiet songs. He didn’t think he had anything that fit into the vibe.”
Bejar also will be absent as The New Pornographers tour behind Whiteout Conditions. But the rest of the band — Newman, Case, Calder, bassist John Collins, keyboardist Blaine Thurier, guitarist Todd Fancey, drummer Joe Seiders and violinist/singer Simi Stone — has generally been on board for the shows. The song selection figures to vary a bit from night to night.
“Now that we’re on album seven, I realize there’s just not enough room in the set for all of the songs,” Newman says. “There are always songs we want to play, but there isn’t the room for them. There are always (a couple) of songs that we’ll trade out. Like one show we’ll play ‘Use It’ from ‘Twin Cinema’ and the next show we’ll think, ‘Why don’t we do (the song) ‘Twin Cinema’ instead of ‘Use It’?’ Or why don’t we do ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno’ instead of ‘Use It.’… I feel like we have a lot of songs that feel like very competent live songs to interchange.”
THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS play the MidPoint Music Festival’s Masonic cathedral Stage at 9 p.m. Saturday.