Crocodile Cafe, 441-5611, $10 adv. / $12 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 22
NOBODY KNOWS MORE about Vancouver's music history than Nardwuar. He's interviewed just about every rock musician of note who has passed through his country, and his reputation as a punk-rock Barbara Walters stretches from Saskatchewan to San Diego and beyond.
My companion and I have come to Vancouver in search of the New Pornographers, and if Nardwuar can't prepare us for that meeting, no one can. We spend our first night on Canadian soil with the Andy Kaufman-like frontman of Thee Goblins and the Evaporators and occasional journalist, meandering through downtown Vancouver as he points out the restaurant where Quiet Riot once ate, the cathedral where the Pope slept, and the hotel where the Stones stayed. We stop at London Drugs to buy a Coffee Crisp, and he tells us about a draconian musicians' tariff placed on cassette tapes. He goes 1,000 miles (or 1,609 kilometers) an hour but somehow we keep up. Later that night, at a drag bar-gone-hipster hangout, we watch three bands: one that covers a Joy Division song, one that sounds a bit like Joy Division but covers an obscure CCR song, and one named for a Dostoevsky novel. Everyone knows Nardwuar, and Nardwuar knows everyone—everyone including the New Pornographers.
The next night, in an upstairs bar once used as a club for off-work railway men, we find Carl Newman, Blaine Thurier, and John Collins. In 1997, these three men—along with co-songwriter/guitarist Dan Bejar, drummer Kurt Dahle, and the sweet-voiced former Vancouver resident Neko Case—began recording songs for a record called Mass Romantic. Despite plenty of mailed-out demo tapes addressed to labels like Sealed Fate and Sub Pop, the recordings would not be heard until the close of the last millennium, when Canadian indie Mint Records scooped up the songs and sent them out to the unsuspecting public and the unscrupulous press. The New Pornographers are, by definition and reputation, a supergroup. But boiled down, they're really just a talented group of friends, each with his or her own extracurricular projects. What began as something fun to do while Neko was in town spiraled into a sound so steeped in Cheap Trick-era rock stomp, Flaming Lips-like fantasy, and '60s psychedelic pop pump that you would think someone had stolen the corpse of Devo-esque new wave and resurrected it as the new rock. No one was expecting it, but everyone— including Spin, Rolling Stone, the Kinks' Ray Davies (who would appear onstage with the New Pornographers at SXSW), and the record-buying public—loved it.
"We also heard we were number 100 on VH1's list of the best rock albums of the century," says bassist and producer/ engineer John Collins.
"I still don't buy that," says former Superconductor/Zumpano figurehead Carl Newman, who writes and sings about half the songs and is acknowledged as the man who conceptualized the Pornographers' sound. Whether or not it earned VH1's approval, it did win a Juno Award—Canada's answer to the Grammy—for best alternative album. None of the Pornographers attended the gala event.
John quips that Kurt keeps his Juno in the bathroom and remarks that someone needs to send Bejar's to his mother. The recent exodus of Dan Bejar to Montreal (where he will rebuild his band, Destroyer) leaves quite a pair of shoes to fill. Although Case moved to Seattle and then to Chicago before Mass Romantic was even finished, her participation in the band has never been questioned. She has said, in fact, that she enjoys just being a "puppet" in this band. Newman says that, with Bejar gone, he'll step up to the songwriting plate, and because they're all so musically adept, a little rearranging and reconfiguring will even out the lineup. And they'll continue playing the game.
That'd be both the American indie game and the "stupid Canadian rock game," as Newman calls it. The part-time frontman points out that, while their singles are steadily played on the big, boring commercial stations in Canada, in the States they're "technically a hip band."
"You get this weird validation from whoever comes to your shows. You think, 'Wow, man, that guy who bought that amazing jacket at some cool thrift sale came to see me,'" says Collins.
That the New Pornographers joke about being cool by association is itself an indicator of just how cool they are. As we'd all do well to recall from high school, it's always the self-proclaimed trendsetters who end up as insufferable fools. You'll find no such fools among those who belong to Blue Curtain, a loosely formed organization reminiscent of the Athens, Ga., collective Elephant 6. Blue Curtain's innovative experimenters include members of the New Pornographers and the similarly rooted pop band the Battles—and many appear in Thurier's funny-yet-creepy indie flick, Low Self Esteem Girl. The film, a hit at SXSW in March, screens at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. (One of the movie's leads, Cindy Wolfe of the band Tennessee Twin, is Alison from Bratmobile's twin sister.) Like any good band that's finally done well and wants to see their fellow countrymen succeed, the Pornographers rattle off recommendations of other worthy Vancouver bands: Young and Sexy, Unitard Rising, the Radio, Dorothy, Canned Hamm, Capozzi Park, and Vancouver Nights. But their aim is true.
"We just want hipsters: clunky shoes, thick glasses. But not the snooty Tortoise, God Speed You Black Emperor hipsters— the other ones," Newman jests.
"The drunk ones," adds Thurier.