For a man who supposedly hates hearing his band referred to as a "supergroup," Carl Newman certainly has a super-caliber flair for the dramatic. Last fall, the New Pornographers' frontman made an aesthetic decision worthy of Audioslave, equipping the backdrop of his band's live sets with a giant, flashing sign bearing the group's not-so-PC moniker. It wasn't exactly the sort of eye-popping prop one typically expects to see at an indie-rock concert.
"There's definitely no way that a somewhat with-it band, in this day and age, can have a huge, flashing neon-light sign behind them and not have a bit of a gag going," laughs bassist John Collins. "But I think it might have actually helped us play with a bit more energy. It's like pyro, you know? Nickelback has its fancy explosions, and we have our big sign."
As the Pornographers again head out on the road in support of their fourth album, Challengers, Collins isn't sure whether the neon will be making the trip this time around. Then again, nothing with this Canadian group is a given.
Like the Wu-Tang Clan — but with less pot smoke and more pop hooks — the New Pornographers are a conglomerate of artists who aren't always easy to gather in one place at one time. Newman, a former member of the pop band Zumpano, started the group in the late '90s as a collaborative experiment of sorts. He eventually roped in Collins from the Evaporators, Dan Bejar from Destroyer, Todd Fancey and Kurt Dahle from Limblifter, keyboardist-filmmaker Blaine Thurier, and a relatively unknown country crooner, Neko Case, an American transplant attending art school in Vancouver.
Dubbed the New Pornographers, the band went to work on a bunch of up-tempo, high-energy power-pop songs that would eventually become its acclaimed 2000 debut, Mass Romantic. It was around this time that fans began referring to them as a supergroup.
"I've always thought it was hilarious to call ourselves a supergroup," says Collins. "I think it was mostly just pure hype when we were starting out. I might have mentioned to one or two people that we were a supergroup in jest, and it took off from there. This was when Dan had, like, two records out and Neko had maybe one solo record, and we weren't even on a label yet. But over time, it's kind of manifested itself a bit, where it actually seems true now — even though it still feels like kind of a joke to me. Carl hates the concept, but I think it's funny that it keeps coming around."
As Collins suggests, the New Pornographers' status as a rock supergroup — whether or not Newman agrees — has become somewhat legitimate in recent years. As any purist knows, a true supergroup consists of members who have generated equal or greater standing from their work in other projects — see Blind Faith, Traveling Wilburys, or, if you must, Asia. This certainly applies in the case of the New Pornographers, a band that's found its own success rivaled only by that of some of its individual components.
Over the past seven years, the Pornographers have steadily grown into one of indie-rock's most popular and critically lauded acts, earning practically unanimous praise for their combination of '70s power pop, '80s new wave, and Brian Wilson-like, mad-genius studio wizardry. During this time, band members Bejar and Case have seen their own profiles rise exponentially, becoming beloved hipster darlings in their own right.
Trouble is, as success spreads, a loss of focus often follows. In the past month, Bejar's band Destroyer released a new album, and Case has been hard at work prepping songs for the follow-up to her 2006 hit, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. As a result, getting the full Pornographers lineup together for a tour, as they did last year when Challengers was released, isn't getting any easier.
According to Collins, Case will most likely play most of the band's shows during this current leg. Bejar, however, is busy with Destroyer and won't be on the tour. But the group is prepared to make up for absences. (Singer and keyboardist Kathryn Calder joined a couple of years ago and has been a huge asset.) "We've kind of got it down now," says Collins. "We cross our fingers and hope that Neko will come. We don't even bother crossing our fingers for Dan most of the time, but occasionally he comes.
"I think Carl has mentioned on at least one occasion that he's the only Pornographer that's played every show. So every one of us has either not been in the band at one time or another, or been sick or away on tour. So we just kind of make do."
Unfortunately, due to the complex, multilayered nature of many of the band's songs, "making do" often means having to get very creative onstage, reassigning various parts to replicate the CDs. "We always kind of worry about that stuff a little bit when we're recording," admits Collins, who co-produced Challengers. "Sometimes it's like, oh shit, how are we going to do this? But we always pull it off. There are songs we play where I'll play Carl's acoustic part or Blaine will play my bass part on his keyboard. We cover all the bases."
Collins occasionally sounds like he's tiptoeing less than gingerly around some simmering animosity — particularly when it comes to Bejar. Not surprisingly, some folks have been digging for more inner-band dissension. After all, clashing egos generate juicy gossip for bored indie fans to ponder, right?
Collins doesn't exactly laugh this off. "We've had our moments," he says. "It happens, you know? The band hasn't always been a bunch of levelheaded adults. But for the most part, it's been pretty smooth sailing and not a lot of drama." At least for the time being.