The track record of bands making dramatic shifts after 20 years on the job isn't exactly sterling. In fact, that's an understatement. So there were reasons for concern when Canadian indie rock outfit the New Pornographers revealed it would be taking things in a synth-heavy pop rock direction (without co-frontperson Dan Bejar of Destroyer) for its seventh album, Whiteout Conditions. But the red flags turn out to be unfounded, as the new 11-song collection feels completely invigorating.
With co-frontperson AC Newman vocally steering the proceedings, songs like "High Ticket Attractions" tap into a rich new wave aesthetic without coming off as a knock-off or sacrificing the band's core identity. While the sound might not have worked peppered into an album with more traditional New Pornographers indie rock fare, the group's steadfast commitment to maintaining that singular sonic vibe throughout the record gives everything a wonderfully kinetic feeling. (And, I mean, if you're against Neko Case having that chance to fully revel in synth rock exuberance, there may be something wrong with you.)
After releasing Whiteout Conditions last week, the New Pornographers brings the new tunes (and old favorites) to Seattle this Saturday, April 15 for a show at the Moore Theatre. Always superb indie singer-songwriter Waxahatchee opens the concert, so only a fool would arrive late.
For the latest edition of our Points of Reference series, we chatted with the Newman about the pop culture—from the Motels to building blocks—that influenced the creation of Whiteout Conditions.
There are lots of bands who sort of have that krautrock vibe, and Neu! is the most classic example of it. Like a band finding their simplistic groove and just going for 12 minutes. There was definitely that on Whiteout Conditions. But it was mainly just to get that vibe and then add our style on top of it, and hopefully come up with something that is new. I always feel like it sounds obnoxious to say, “Yeah, we were trying to sound like krautrock,” because I don’t think the record sounds like krautrock.
It’s a relatively easy vibe to get, you just need to make this simple change—switch into this different gear—and it just made all our songs sound different. Because all of a sudden, we didn’t have any of the regular Pornographer beats. We did things on this record that we’ve never done before, like mixing a lot of real drums with drum samples or drum machines. Whatever we felt like, whatever we thought sounded cool.
On the song “Darling Shade,” there’s like a lot of really loud drum machine percussion that runs through the whole thing. It’s sort of like fake shaker and a little Casio blip that are almost as loud as the real drum kit. That sort of stuff was fun. And when we were doing that, that’s when we threw the idea of that sounding vaguely krautrock out the window. Like, we didn’t ask ourselves, “Does this sound like krautrock?” at every moment. We just thought that’s a vague place to start, rather than aping specific examples.
Crazy Rhythms by the Feelies
The most specific reference was the first Feelies record, Crazy Rhythms. I really loved how it’s very fast and jittery but also sort of light, like it’s not angry. And I love the use of percussion. Like all of a sudden percussion will come in and it’ll be the loudest sound in the mix. And I thought that kind of thing was great.
We meant to do more of that on the record than we did. But on the songs where percussion is as loud as the drums—like something like “Play Money,” the first song—we were thinking about the Feelies vibe. Just remembering on an album that you can do whatever you want: a shaker can be as loud as a drum kit on the album. Bongos can be as loud as a drum kit on the album. Don’t worry about it.
On “This Is the World of the Theatre,” for whatever reason we got to a point where we thought, “This sounds like the Motels.” We were thinking of “Suddenly Last Summer” or something like that. There was something about it where the synthesizer sounds we were using. I remember thinking, “Let’s chase that vibe a little bit.” For a while, we just stopped and listened to a few Motel songs, just as a reference point in case we weren’t sure where to go with the song. And now I do an A/B between the Motels and that song and I think, “Oh, it doesn’t sound anything like the Motels,” but it was in our minds.
I mean, there is a lot of arpeggiator use. In some ways, the songs that have a very robotic pulse—that have a base line that’s going buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh—call to mind something like Suicide. Even though I don’t think we sound like Suicide, and we weren’t trying to sound like Suicide. I like that vibe—really robotic 16th notes in a sort of relentless way. But we mixed it way down so that it was more subliminal. It wasn’t this in your face thing, it’s a subtle thing that just moves the music along.
This might seem sort of absurd, but my son just turned 5 and for the last couple of years he’s been super into Legos. I hadn’t played with Legos since I was a little kid. And I was sitting with him playing, and was struck by the similarities between building things out of Lego and building a song. I realized a lot of how I make music feels like I’m just building songs out of Lego blocks.
Just when I’m sitting with him and making random things. You’re just digging through the pieces and there’s a part of you that’s just trying to make symmetry. You’re not just building a monstrosity that doesn’t go anywhere, it has to have symmetry and some form or some purpose, some representation. There’s something in my head that makes Legos and arranging a song seems very, very similar. It seems to me like these things are connected.
The New Pornographers
May 18, Moore Theatre, $31