"I'm a student of songwriting," the New Pornographers' Carl Newman says. "I wasn't born a person who could write songs." More specifically, he's a student of power-pop songwriting. His contributions to the band's two albums sound like he's unscrewed the back assembly of ELO, Cheap Trick, and Todd Rundgren records, figured out the principles and mechanisms that made them affect him so much as a listener, and then used those to build his own hooks. You can't hear any obvious Raspberries moments, say, in his songs, just a general lineage, but there are bits that will sound like obvious New Pornographers moments when other bands start ripping them off in a few years—the piano obbligato at the beginning of "It's Only Divine Right" that anticipates and inverts the synthesizer riff at the end of its chorus, for instance, or the way every verse of "Miss Teen Wordpower" gradually cedes its melody from Newman to Neko Case.
Case is Newman's onstage foil and the group's other lead singer. She's got a pretty active career on her own as an alt-country singer, and she was as surprised as anyone when the New Pornographers, a casual project former Zumpano singer/guitarist Newman put together with some friends in Vancouver, B.C., became a full-on band and their album Mass Romantic blew up in indie circles. (Case hadn't actually heard the album before it came out: "It was like falling asleep, and when you wake up, your entire house has been redecorated in a style you really enjoy," she told Toronto's Eye Weekly.) Since then, the group's toured extensively and recorded another album, last year's Electric Version. Right now, though, Case is focusing on her own music, so the NPs' appearance at this weekend's Sasquatch Festival is one of only two shows they've planned for this year.
But they're used to spending time apart: "There's never all of us working together and planning," Newman says. "That never happens." There are nominally seven people in the band, although they've hardly ever all been in the same room at the same time. Their "secret member," singer/guitarist Dan Bejar, doesn't play live with the NPs, or appear in photographs of the band, although he's written and sung a few excellent, eccentric songs on each of their albums. Onstage, his songs are sung by Newman, Case, and drummer Kurt Dahle. Newman reports that Bejar will probably contribute songs to their next album, too. (Bejar's main band, Destroyer, recently released the very odd album Your Blues; see Laura Cassidy's feature, p. 74.)
In the meantime, Newman's been keeping busy. Matador releases his first solo album, The Slow Wonder, on June 8; the disc is credited to A.C. Newman. It's a departure from the NPs' frantic drive and density—brisk and tuneful, but not crammed with details and hooks. ("I wanted to leave a little more space in the songs," he says.) As with the Pornographers, though, the new record's lyrics are constructed with sound first and sense second; he calls a lot of them "word salad . . . I know the first song has some meaning, but sometimes I don't even want to remember." (Even so, his words seem to hover around particular ideas and sounds. "Introducing for the first time/Pharoah on the microphone," goes Electric Version's "The Laws Have Changed," and later "Form a line/Form a line to the throne." Maybe it's about the presidency becoming hereditary; maybe it's about letting Case's pipes declaim those I, O, and F sounds.)
Newman is also working on rough tracks for the next New Pornographers album with Dahle and bassist John Collins. He generally works out most of the arrangements long before anybody actually plays them. "There was one guitar line in 'From Blown Speakers'—because there was rarely a second guitar player around. When I finally overdubbed it in the studio, Kurt was, like, 'Man, that's a great guitar part.' I'd heard it in my head for months, but he hadn't heard it. The one thing that comes easy to me in the recording process is making up harmonies—that's the most fun part, and it takes the least amount of time."
For an obsessive studio project, the New Pornographers are a fabulous live band, juiced up, loose, and funny, with Case and Newman bickering like old marrieds when they're not harmonizing like sibling angels. At a show in New York City last year, they invited everyone who felt like it to come up onstage and dance along with them—"just no guys who are assholes." (When the stage didn't fill up fast enough, Case announced that it was OK for the asshole guys to come up and dance, too.)
"That's happened a few times," Newman says. "We did one variation in San Francisco, where we had a member of the audience that corresponded with each member of the band, and they'd be playing the air instruments. There was a guy standing next to me playing air guitar, a girl playing air drums next to Kurt." They like to fill out their set lists with not-quite-obvious covers, too (the only one they've recorded so far is their amazing country-waltz version of "When I Was a Baby," by Quasi keyboardist-singer Sam Coomes' prior band, the Donner Party). Newman's especially fond of a couple of songs by Sparks and Sweet, respectively: "'Throw Her Away and Get a New One' is so un–PC, and 'Action' is just so incredibly cocky. It's like for most of the show we're a bunch of normal people, but for that song we're pretending we're total dick rock stars."
The New Pornographers play the Sasquatch Festival Mainstage at 4:15 p.m; doors open at 11 a.m. Sat., May 29. $49.95. See listings, p. 85.