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The New Pornographers' Carl Newman seeks catharsis through pop

By Ben Hooper
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The New Pornographers' Carl Newman seeks catharsis through pop
The New Pornographers, from left to right, Joe Seiders, John Collins, Carl Newman, Neko Case, Todd Fancey, Kathryn Calder, Simi Sernaker and Blaine Thurier. Newman said he considers pop music to be "a place where people go to feel better." Photo courtesy of Ebru Yildiz

Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Carl Newman, frontman for indie rock mainstays The New Pornographers, said many of the lyrics on the band's latest album, released Friday, were born out of his frustrations with current events.

Newman, 51, serves as the primary songwriter for the Pornographers' eighth studio outing, leading a lineup that also includes Neko Case, John Collins, Blaine Thurier, Todd Fancey, Kathryn Calder, Joe Seiders and Simi Stone.

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The songwriter told UPI in a recent interview that it was difficult to avoid headline-dominating topics such as the Trump administration's immigration policies when he writing songs for In the Morse Code of Brake Lights.

"A lot of it comes up subconsciously. I'll just start writing and I don't even know what I'm trying to write, and because those kinds of things are always on my mind, they come out," Newman said.

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He said he tries to avoid being "fiercely political" in his songwriting, but "a lot of it is unintentional."

"It's just constantly on my mind. It's hard to go through a day in America, if you know what's going on, and not think about it," he said.

"I'm very aware that I'm a straight, white, middle-aged man in America, and who gives a [expletive] what I think? I want to try to approach it from a slightly different way. Maybe part of that approach is just being very aware of your privilege," he said.

Songs like Higher Beams, the fifth track on the new record, are born of political frustrations, but are written to evoke more universal "feelings of not knowing when you're winning or losing," he said.

Newman said perhaps the "most obvious" political song on the album is Surprise Knock, which was inspired by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids.

"The whole metaphor of the knock is you're thinking everything's going fine, and someone knocks on your door and drags you away," he said.

Colossus of Rhodes, another song on the album, intentionally juxtaposes upbeat pop sensibilities with "very dark" lyrics that wrestle with "worrying about the collapse of America." Newman described the song as "like a bubblegum version of All Things Must Pass by George Harrison."

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The power of pop

Newman said he sees pop music as a means of juxtaposing dark and conflicted lyrics with musical sensibilities that inherently are "filled with hope."

"I think pop music is a place where people go to feel better. It's not necessarily, 'Oh, I'm super happy, so I'm going to listen to something happy.' It's like 'I'm feeling down and I want something that will lift my spirits,'" he said.

"I think pop music has always done that for me. I love the format."

Car metaphors come into play in more than just the title of In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, with automobiles and road travel featuring heavily into the majority of the songs on the record.

"About two-thirds of the way through the record, I started to notice, 'Wow, there's a lot of automotive imagery,'" Newman recalled. "I started asking myself 'Why?' And I started thinking, 'Well, why does anybody ever use the metaphor of the car?'"

Newman said he spent some time considering how songwriters including Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, Gary Newman, Bruce Springsteen and Guided by Voices used "the metaphor of this thing that takes you somewhere."

"It takes you from something, it takes you to something," he said. "Sometimes it's just taking you to a good time, sometimes you're just rolling down the road trying to pick up girls -- I thought it was interesting to continue down that tradition."

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Comfortable together

The New Pornographers formed in 1997 and released their first album, Mass Romantic, in 2000. Aside from occasional changes in lineup, the group's approach to making music hasn't changed much in 20 years.

"We've been together so long, and this is a really good lineup of people, that it feels very, very comfortable," Newman said. "Some bands grow to hate each other as the years go on, and that's not the case with us. I think all our years together has made us so we understand each other more, and makes it easier to work together."

The most notable change to the band's lineup has been the absence of guitarist and vocalist Dan Bejar, who typically wrote about three songs for each Pornographers album before he left in 2017 to focus on other projects.

"Sometimes, when people leave bands, they lie," Newman said. "Like when someone leaves a band in an ugly way, they'll say, 'It was very respectful. We just decided to go different ways.' But the fact is, it was like that with Dan."

Newman said Bejar simply was busy "doing other things" when it came time to record 2017's Whiteout Conditions, and has chosen not to rejoin the band. But the door remains open for a possible return.

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"I still consider him a really good friend. ... If people are wondering what these last two records would sound like if Bejar were still in the band, it would be the same record, but it would have three Bejar songs," Newman said.

He said he has always been prepared for members to come and go as they choose.

"From the beginning, I never knew if anybody was going to stay in the band. All through these years, I never knew, 'Is this the last tour we're doing with Neko? Is this the last tour we're doing with Dan?' There's always been something a little uncertain about our band, so it doesn't shock me to make records when there aren't any Dan songs."

Newman, who occasionally has released solo material under the name A.C. Newman, said that despite what might happen with The New Pornographers' lineup, he plans to continue recording with the band.

"Sometimes I want to get away from it and do other things, but I always come back because I feel like it's the main thing that I do," he said. "It's what I do. I think I'm going to be doing it when nobody cares, or nobody wants to hear it. I feel like that would be a life well spent, if I just do the thing that I love doing until I can't do it anymore."

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In the Morse Code of Brake Lights is out Friday from the band's Collected Work Records imprint in partnership with Concord Records.

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