This story is featured in CityBeat's May 3 print edition.
A.C. Newman is as surprised as anyone that The New Pornographers are still kicking. It’s been more than a quarter of a century since Newman — the band’s longtime lead singer, guitarist and chief songwriter — first gathered some friends in Vancouver, Canada, to unite on an outfit that would create some of the best power pop albums of the era (including but not limited to their classic debut, 2000’s Mass Romantic, and the equally stellar follow-up, 2003’s Electric Version).
The sextet — which still includes singer Neko Case, herself a distinctive fixture as a solo artist over the last two decades — recently released its ninth studio album, Continue as a Guest, this time through indie staple Merge Records. Sure enough, it’s another catchy, hook-infested effort marked by buzzing guitars and ear-pleasing male/female vocal interplay. But it’s also somewhat of a departure, a more atmospheric, sometimes pensive set heavy on keyboards and featuring a curious injection of saxophone.
CityBeat recently connected with Newman, who spoke via a fuzzy cell phone line from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he’s lived for the last 15 years and where he and the band wrote and recorded Continue as a Guest.
CityBeat: What was it like being able to work at home during the tumult of recent years?
A.C. Newman: One of the great things about moving (to Woodstock) is that I built myself a little studio space, so I have a little separate building where I can go to and always work, which was my dream for a long time. It’s nice to be able to do that. When the pandemic came around, I was kind of ready. It didn’t stop me from doing what I could do. There were a lot of things I felt lucky about — having a house and some space and a couple of acres to live on — but having a place to work and continue making music felt like a great thing.
CB: How did the shutdown and the pandemic impact the writing of the new songs?
ACN: I’m sure it affected the way it sounds but I don’t know, because I can’t look at the alternate history, the sliding doors where we make this record under a different scenario. Although it was made during crazy circumstances in the world, we’ve always made records long distance. From the beginning, it’s always been hard to get everybody together. We’ve always been fighting to get Neko for a couple days. Then I moved to New York. We’ve always been long-distance, so I think it was easier for us to make a record during this time than for other bands because it was par for the course. We know how to do this. We know how to be a long-distance band.
CB: You’ve also talked about some of the songs being a reaction to social media and the current political climate. Why did you want to investigate that angle?
ACN: The last few years made me question where we all are in life — what our place is in society. The last few years make you ask yourself, “What am I a part of? Do I want to be separate? How much do I want to be connected? How much do I want to be separate from this country that I live in?” There are a lot of those ideas in the record, and it’s also about just getting older or being a musician and playing music for a long time and trying to figure out your place.
CB: My favorite song on the new album is “Pontius Pilate’s Home Movies.” It’s more atmospheric than most of your previous stuff. It has that insistent bass line and that saxophone, but then there’s the interplay between your and Neko’s vocals, which is a signature Pornographers move. Do you think of that vocal interplay when you’re writing?
ACN: No. In that case, I just needed somebody there. I could have kept singing, but it was out of my range, so I thought, “Why don’t I bring Neko in?” And it was like, “OK, this works.” That’s kind of how it’s always been. That comes out in the arrangement when we play it. We’re trying to figure out, “OK, what’s the best way to do that.” That was never really planned. I think it’s just our style. I think a lot of people just have their unintentional style that comes out when they make music, and that was one of our things.
CB: There are a few songs on the new record that seem to be a departure in terms of your approach to the lyrics, as if they’re coming from a different perspective. How did that come about?
ACN: Yeah, I think the way I’m writing lyrics is changing a bit. I used to be a little bit more impressionistic. In the past, I was trying to say something but I didn’t care if anybody understood. Sometimes I would throw a line in just because I like the way it sounded. It didn’t matter if it didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the song or if it didn’t have any meaning. I was more into pop music as non-representational art. Now I feel a little differently.
One of my all-time favorite songwriters is Leonard Cohen. I’m obviously no Leonard Cohen, but I’m trying to write more like him in that he writes in a kind of direct way but it’s also very surreal. I feel like I’m a painter trying to paint in a different way.
CB: You had a long, successful run working with Matador Records. Now you’re with Merge Records for the first time, another iconic indie label. What was it like working with them this time?
ACN: I like them and respect them as people. I really like the music they’ve put out. This is our first record with them, but I trust them. I feel like (label owners and Superchunk band members) Mac (McCaughan) and Laura (Ballance) are essentially the same age as me. I feel like they’re peers. I feel like they get it. They come from being in a band. I’m pretty psyched to work with them.
The New Pornographers play Memorial Hall at 8 p.m. May 8. Info: memorialhallotr.com.
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