The New Pornographers
The New Pornographers’ sixth album, Brill Bruisers, has a name that brings multiple connotations to mind, all of them apt, since band founder A.C. Newman acknowledges liking “titles that, in my mind, could have five different meanings.” But you wouldn’t steer yourself wrong if you gathered from the name that what you are about to hear will be both brainy and pugilistic. If you could put a face on an album title, this one might be represented by a boxer’s mug with a monocle.
A reference to “brilliant bruisers” occurs in what became the title track, “and it was shortening it to ‘brill’ which made me think of the whole Brill Building connotation,” Newman says. “Even though I hesitate to give it any exact meaning, I like the idea that it’s bruising songs in the style of the Brill Building,” the legendary office tower where the greatest pop songwriters of the 1960s pumped out their classics. “Or, it makes sense as just short for brilliant. The whole idea of being a brilliant bruiser—isn’t that what everybody ultimately strives for, or what a person needs to succeed in this world? To be really intelligent and really strong at the same time? It just seemed to match this group of songs somehow.”
This is a set of bruisers four years in the making, as several of the collective’s more prominent members have been otherwise occupied by their day jobs, or moonlighting.
Newman issued a solo album last year, while Dan Bejar found acclaim with another record with his other band, Destroyer; Neko Case was doing her usual under-her-own-name world conquering. Yet the promise of New Pornography continues to bring these disparate talents together just as it has since the first album they made back in 2000, Mass Romantic—a then-lark that now shows up on so many lists of the best albums of the 20th century, it borders on counting as classic rock.
Newman has learned to not resist the terms that writers have always applied to the Pornographers to reflect the unusual nature of the lineup. “The irony is that as the years go on, these things become less true and more true,” he laughs. “We weren’t a ‘supergroup’ at the beginning, but now we arguably are. The band means different things for different people. For Dan and Neko, it’s a side project. For me, ironically, it’s a career, and my solo career is just something I dabble in. But who else has all these people in the band? Look at us. When you consider that Neko’s as popular as she’s ever been and Dan’s coming off Kaputt, the biggest Destroyer record yet, it’s like: Yeah, we’re a fucking supergroup!”
On Brill Bruisers, bassist/producer John Collins returns to the co-pilot’s chair that he inhabited on the Pornographers’ first three albums. The band’s last couple of recordings, made without Collins as primary producer, had slowed down a bit from their original indie-power-pop ethos, and Newman’s latest solo album went for “a Glen Campbell vibe.” Having gotten the singer/songwriter stuff somewhat out of his system, Newman decreed early in the going that this Pornographers album needed to be “shinier and faster.” To that end, a couple of very specific touchstones were invoked.
“Before we started the record, I was talking to Dan and I remember saying, ‘Yeah, I want to go with a slight Sigue Sigue Sputnik vibe.’ I think he took me very literally on that,” Newman chuckles. “So he sped up all of his songs quite a bit. And I had to speed up my songs as well, because I thought ‘My songs can’t be slow when his are so fast!’ So that Sigue Sigue Sputnik comment really served its purpose.”
That covers the “faster” part, but what about the “shinier”? “We were going for ‘Xanadu’,” Newman says. Just in case there’s any doubt, he is not alluding to Citizen Kane but directly referencing, yes, the roller-disco movie to which ELO contributed much of the soundtrack. Brill Bruisers doesn’t just draw inspiration from Jeff Lynne’s genius in general but from the synth sounds of a very specific two- or three-year period in that group’s career. “It’s basically Discovery, Xanadu, Electric Dreams ELO pretty much,” he allows. “There are a lot of influences that I try and avoid when they come up, but that’s not one of them. If something sounds like ELO, I think, yes, let’s do this! It feels like everybody’s influenced by the same bands nowadays, but if you’re going to be influenced by early Depeche Mode, why not just move over and be influenced by early ‘80s ELO?”
But maybe think Secret Messages meets Surfer Rosa, because there’s a deep and propulsive core almost constantly thundering away under those celestial flourishes. “On this record, I think what we wanted to do was bridge the gap between a sort of late ‘70s/early ‘80s ELO synth-pop and just being a rock band. I thought, why can’t we have these arpeggiators swirling but at the same time be a driving rock band with loud guitars? That was one spot where I felt: this is a space that we can currently inhabit in rock music, because there’s nobody else doing this.”
It wasn’t just a matter of picking up vintage keyboard sounds, but also using all the modern technology and apps at their disposal. “Not that we’re trying to make EDM, but we’ve never been afraid to use as much modern technology as possible. So there are a lot of loud sections in songs like “Champions of Red Wine” and “Dance Hall Domine” that have very chopped-up sounds. I think of taking a sample of a men’s choir and chopping it up with a square-wave tremolo... and really embracing the artificiality of those sounds. But at the heart of it, there’s nothing artificial about the band that’s playing it. It’s real bass, real drums, real guitars.”
And real sentiments. Newman didn’t necessarily want to get as introspective on Brill Bruisers as he was on his last solo album, 2012’s Shut Down the Streets, where he dealt with the death of his mother and birth of his son. But personal concerns inevitably snuck in anyhow. “Wide Eyes” is “definitely a song about my son. Though it’s not sung in a very, very literal way, that song is about how he changed my life.”
“Fantasy Fools” also deals with the transition from young man to family man. “Not that I feel like an old man, but you can’t help, when you get in your 40s and all of a sudden you have a family, to start thinking about whether there are ways of growing older correctly.”
Newman was able to keep a work/family balance by making most of the album over a period of two years at his home studio in Woodstock, with Collins frequently flying in for long stays to work on the production as a duo, much as they did when they made the first thee albums in the band’s original home base of Vancouver. A certain amount of travel still figured in, “chasing Neko around” to Texas and Vermont, and heading back to Canada for much of the work involving the three songs written and sung by Bejar as well as contributions from drummer Kurt Dahle.
The result, arrived at with some sense of leisure to get it right, “is stylistically as close as we can get to what I think I’ve always imagined us being,” says Newman. I feel like what we did on this has always been in the back of my mind, even from the first record, but we just never did it, like using all the arpeggiators and adding that spacy synth element. It just never seemed right before, and with this record, it completely did. I feel more confident about this record than I’ve ever felt about anything before. My reaction to somebody not liking this record is ‘Well, I don’t know what else to do!’”