Given the opportunity to name two great Canadian bands formed in the early aughts, most would respond with The New Pornographers and Broken Social Scene. If they said, Nickelback, you’d know not to befriend them.
Fronted by Carl Newman, The New Pornographers is composed of Dan Bejar, Neko Case, Kathryn Calder, John Collins, Todd Fancey, and Blaine Thurrier. Having risen to massive fame off the back of 2000’s Mass Romantic, the indie supergroup hasn’t stopped churning out quality records and released another good one in Brill Bruisers last year.
Coming off the end of a busy tour in support of Brill Bruisers with The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Kathryn Calder (keyboard) took the time to talk to me on the phone from Vancouver where most of the band lives. Calder spoke with a pep that was nice to hear from a musician enjoying her last respite before heading back out on a run of shows that will see the band stop in Hamilton on Feb 8.
To remain a band for so long and still be making good music takes some doing, and Calder credits the longstanding positive reception the band’s work has gotten for their longevity.
“I guess people want to buy the records and come to the shows, so that’s one thing,” quipped Calder. “When you constantly try to make quality work and quality art, then I guess people respond […] There’s a little bit of luck involved in having your music be in the right place and right time initially and you just try to keep it going.”
Although their success can be attributed to the drive they share in the studio, the band’s enduring legacy is as much due to what they get up to apart as together. Most of the band have done solo work or joined other bands and that loose affiliation has buoyed their creative spirits. Dan Bejar’s other project, Destroyer, has always been massive amongst the industry set and his latest album, Kaputt, saw him translate that critical acclaim into some large shows. Neko Case has more than held her own as a solo artist and been on the road with huge bands like The National that saw her fill seats with as many of her fans as theirs. Calder herself has enjoyed a good reception for her solo albums and says that the time away has benefitted her and everyone else.
“My solo writing only helped the band because it gave me a totally different perspective, not even just on the music, but also on the whole band. When you’re trying to do your own thing, it really makes you appreciate how hard it is to be successful in music. I really felt that I got swept up with the band in 2005 and got taken on this whirlwind, so it was nice in 2010 when I released my first record to go ‘it’s really hard to get your music out there to people and I’m so lucky to be in this band that has that opportunity.’ That’s how I felt coming in to this record after four years of a break.”
Having garnered success on their own, the band are predictable with how they record together, preferring to work on their own and come together to record in small groups when they have an idea. This improvisational approach can be a bit fragmented, said Calder, but makes the writing process all the more gratifying.
“It’s really cool to watch it evolve. The songs change entirely from when you first hear it to when you hear it for the last time, and it can be totally different. That’s the way that Carl likes to record.”
In terms of influences, The New Pornographers are still drawing upon the same ones that inspired them to become a band in the first place instead of culling ideas from existing bands.
“Most of the influences weren’t modern because a lot of modern music is referencing something earlier, so it doesn’t make sense to reference the reference. You might as well reference the original and then modify it to make it modern,” said Calder.
Apart from a recent shift in tempo toward the slower end of the scale to mix things up a bit, The New Pornographers’ sound has remained pretty consistent for the past 15 years and that can be considered a result of the strong backing they’ve received from both their label, Matador, and the Canadian public.
“It’s really cool to be part of a record label that’s been going on for so long. They’ve had so many great releases over their entire lifespan so we love those guys,” said Calder.
“Life in Canada is pretty good as an artist, but you see things changing though. I don’t know what it’s going to be like in a few years because of the cuts to CBC, which is a big deal for artists because they play a ton of Canadian music and they’re incredibly supportive of the Canadian music scene here. To be losing them is a little bit scary just because you lose the audience that’s into music that’s not commercial pop music and so I’m a little bit freaked out. As far as the government, the grant system is really great for Canadian artists if you can get into it…The reason those things are there are because it’s incredibly difficult. The country is so big and it’s incredibly expensive to get from one end to the other. It’s mostly expenses that are the barrier, not the desire.”
Calder’s musings were cut short by an incoming call for another interview, but tickets are still available to see her and the rest of the band take over Hamilton Place’s Molson Canadian Studio.