Too Risque for the Coffee Shop: An Interview with The New Pornographers

Web plumber, HMXlame-o, gets a chance to meet and talk with one of his favorite bands, The New Pornographers, while they were on tour to support their new album, Together.  Drummer, Kurt Dahle, and frontman, Carl Newman, discuss the difference between songs that are fun to listen to versus songs that are fun to play in Rock Band.  A pile of bands are listed off as they discuss finding new music and how that music compares with the "primal" age of rock and roll.  Carl shares the story behind the origin of their name and the unforseen friction it's caused.  The interview ends with a thorough analysis of the age-old question, man vs. beast.


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Jim Krehl: So how did you guys get involved in RBN?

Carl Newman: I don't know. They called and asked.

JK: Oh, really?

Kurt Dahle: You called and asked.

CN: It sounded like a good idea. I remember, I hadn't heard anything about it, and just an email about "They're making this video game. It's kinda like [being a] guitar player, except you've got a guitar and you sing and you play drums. And they want to use your song." And I thought, "sounds like something that could be huge."

JK: Was there any particular consideration put into picking "Crash Years" as the first RBN song?

KD: You picked it.

JK: We picked it?

KD: Somebody did.

JK: [laughs] But not you guys. That's cool.

CN: I wouldn't have picked "Electric Version" [as the first Rock Band song].

JK: Really?

CN: Like, if somebody said we want to use one your songs in a video game, "Electric Version" just wouldn't have been the one I chose. But I think it makes sense.

JK: Why's that?

CN: Mainly because of the drums.

KD: I think so too.

CN: The drums and it's got a lot of chord changes.

KD: Well, because they were probably happy they had a drumset on this thing. "Let's look for drum songs."

JK: Yeah.

KD: And it's one of those songs that's just got the big rolling beat on it.

JK: What would you have picked? If it were up to you?

KD: I don't know.

CN: Well, see, it's a strange thing because some songs, while it seems like a cool idea, don't work very well on Rock Band. Like, we bought the entire Pixies Doolittle album on Rock Band, and it doesn't work very well. It's actually way too easy. Whereas "Green Grass and High Tides" or that Aerosmith blues song - "Train Kept A Rollin'" - are awesome Rock Band songs because they're so long and they're so hard.

JK: Right, right, right. Have you played any of the death metal?

CN: "Run To the Hills" is a great Rock Band song. So, it's hard. Having played Rock Band, I listen to us and I think maybe "Electric Version" was one of the best songs to pick, as a game track. It's just not one of my favorite songs of ours. But at the same time, I think "The Bleeding Heart Show" - I don't think that'd be very fun to play. Even though it's a good live song.

JK: Well, yeah. It's a great live song.

CN: "Use It" became a track and I think that's probably a good Rock Band song. "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth" is a downloadable track and that's probably a good Rock Band song.

JK: What would you say to people who are learning about you from Rock Band or the Rock Band Network?

CN: I don't know…Come on in! Buy some records! I always thought it was fascinating that literally millions of people were being forced to play our song, you know?

JK: Yeah.

CN: Like, if you want to get to the next level in Rock Band, you gotta play this song. And I also thought it was funny that there's probably some ten-year-old in Nebraska who can sing my song better than I can. Because he's been working at it so hard, you know. He's probably memorized every nuance of the recorded vocal. Whereas when I sing along with it, I don't do well. Because a lot of the game is just stopping and starting at the exact time. And me, I'll sing along with my own song and go like half a beat longer on a note and the game will go "Wrong, minus 15 percent."

JK: [laughs]

KD: I failed playing the drums. I couldn't do it.

CN: Yeah, drummers can't drum on Rock Band. 'Cause it's not real drumming.

KD: No. I think it is later on, when you get higher up.

CN: Especially drumming along with your own drum parts.

KD: Yeah. I just totally failed on it. But I was saying before, my nephew learned to play drums on Rock Band. 'Cause he got to such a high level [that] he was actually playing drums. And he went and bought a drumset and now he's in a band.

CN: The singing and the drumming are the only parts of it that actually make sense.

KD: Until now. Because now it's gonna be a real guitar. So now you're gonna be ending up playing chords. I think this game is going to spawn more musicians in the next generation than any band ever did. I've seen it over and over.

CN: Also a lot of terrible musicians.

KD: Maybe. A lot of really good bar bands. My nephew's an unbelievable drummer already.

JK: Really?

KD: He didn't know a thing before he started playing Rock Band.

CN: When we got it, I had no interest in playing guitar or singing. But I always wanted to do the drums. I'm not a drummer, and to me that was the fun part of it.

JK: Doing something new?

CN: Yeah.

KD: Yeah, I played the guitar on it.

CN: Playing the guitar is just like playing Simon. [laughs] Green, blue, red. Red, red, red. Blue.

KD: Until now. With the virtual guitar.

JK: How did you guys learn how to play your instruments or sing?

CN: Well singing you just make up. Start singing.

KD: You start singing when you're a little kid.

CN: Yeah. I remember, I was actually eighteen when I picked up a guitar and my friend Marcel showed me how to play E, A, and D. And then I had a Beatles easy guitar songbook and that's how I learned to play all the other chords. Because they had like above, they show you how to finger it.

JK: Right, right.

CN: Pretty much all the chords you need to know [are] in the Beatles easy guitar songbook.

JK: Nice. How do you find out about new music? Like other bands.

KD: Through Rock Band.

JK: Really?

Everyone: [laughs]

KD: I'm just kidding.

CN: I was actually talking about this yesterday. The Dutchess and the Duke I heard were touring and I heard of [them] because of [comedian] Aziz Ansari, I was following him on Twitter, and he said, "I just saw these guys. The Dutchess and the Duke and Sasquatch" and he posted a link to them and I watched it and thought, "These guys are cool." And I bought their album and that's why they're on the tour. And The Dodos I heard in the beer commercial. 'Cause there was like a Coors Lime commercial and I thought, "This music is really cool." Because I just thought the guitar playing was really awesome and it had this really driving rhythm. I looked it up and it was that band The Dodos. And that's how I ended up liking the Dodos.

JK: That's cool.

CN: My wife, actually, is always looking for new music. She used to work at our label, actually, until a couple of years ago. So she's always…every few weeks she's looking for new stuff for the iPod and that's how I hear Surfer Blood or Abbey Buffalo or whoever the new band is. Dum Dum Girls. So she's good that way.

JK: So, I saw you guys perform in Cambridge, I think it was for the Mass Romantic tour. And it was probably one of the best shows I…

CN: Was it downstairs?

JK: Downstairs, yeah. Like half the audience ended up on the stage.

KD: Yeah, that was common in those days for the entire audience to end up on the stage.

JK: Really? That was great.

KD: I think we almost broke the stage in Brooklyn at that Ukranian hall or whatever it was.

CN: Warsaw.

KD: Warsaw.

CN: Yeah. That was a fun show. That was a first. It kind of organically happened. And thirty people ended up on stage. And then after that I remember thinking, like, "That's cool." And after that we did a few shows where people got up on stage and we thought, "We gotta stop doing this."

JK: Do you guys have any favorite shows where you were in the audience?

CN: Like, in my life?

JK: Like anything memorable.

CN: A ton of them. Mainly when I was younger. I think when you're younger is when you're really excited about shows. In the last ten years, I think Arcade Fire. There have been a few shows that really blew me away. Arcade Fire did. I saw Sufjan Stevens at Lincoln Center and I thought that was really progressive.

KD: I saw Jeff Buckley once and that was really good. Before he died obviously.

JK: [laughs] That would make sense, yeah.

CN: I saw so many shows when I was eighteen or nineteen or twenty that seem like the most memorable shows I've ever seen. Because that's when music somehow was the most important to me. Especially when you're underage. I remember seeing Hüsker Dü when I was sixteen or seventeen.

JK: Oh, a Minnesota band.

CN: Yeah. And I couldn't believe there was a show I could go to that was all ages. That was like the landmark event. It was like, "Holy s***, Hüsker Dü's coming to town and I can go see them."

JK: I was reading the article about you guys on Wikipedia, and on there according to you the name New Pornographers comes from an old Japanese movie from the '60s. The Pornographers. Is that the case?

KD: Oh, that's a new one.

CN: No, that actually is kinda where it came from.

JK: Just kinda? Is there more to the story?

CN: Well, it's really a boring story. It's just that I liked that movie, and I just kinda liked the word "pornographers" and I always wanted to call a band The New something. Like The New Seekers. I just always thought that was cheesy. Like there was The Seekers and now we're The New Seekers. It seems kind of obnoxious, so I just thought I wanted to be The New something. So The New Pornographers made sense. But I never really thought that much about it. If I ever thought I was going to be talking about it twelve years later, I never would've called us that. I would have given us a name that would get us into Starbucks, you know? Like, I wasn't thinking of the big picture. Because there was absolutely no anticipation that the name would ever be an issue.

JK: Can you come up with an example of a name that would get you into Starbucks?

CN: Well every other name. [laughs]

JK: [laughs] Every other name.

CN: Band of Horses? Uh, Broken Bells, Spoon. Who else? Sharon Jones and the Dapkins. Who's on the shelves right now? Andrew Bird? Neko Case? No, I know that Starbucks is really into us, but they've said, we can't stock your CD because you're called The New Pornographers.

JK: Just because of the name.

CN: They couldn't even put one of those free cards. You know those free cards that have the single song download? We couldn't even get one of those because we are The New Pornographers.

JK: Really?

KD: It's so lame.

CN: They have to be straight down the middle. And they wanna be cool. I mean, obviously, you look at what they carry at Starbucks, they wanna carry cool records. But, it can't be offensive. Odds are holy f*** at Starbucks.

KD: Our name is so not offensive.

CN: I know.

KD: In Canada there's no way they would do that.

JK: I know, I agree.

KD: It's like the Barenaked Ladies, for God's sake.

Everyone: [laughs]

CN: And people always read into it. Like, when I was at the border and a border guard says, "New Pornographers? It makes me think of child pornography." And you wanna say, "Well that's your f****** problem."

JK: [laughs]

CN: I don't think of child pornography when I think of our name.

KD: Are there any songs you wish you had written or performed?

CN: There's lots of them.

KD: I could think of a list of a hundred songs I wish I wrote.

CN: I can think of a list of ten thousand.

JK: Do you mind sharing three or five?

KD: [laughs] "Rock Around the Clock." "Wichita Linemen."

CN: "Peggy Sue," "Remake Remodel."

KD: And any Hüsker Dü song.

JK: Nice one.

KD: Any Replacements song.

CN: "Hey Ya," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Beach Baby."

KD: Ooh, "Beach Baby." That's a good one.

JK: Nice one.

CN: I do wish I wrote that one. And, it would have been amazing to write a song like "Jailhouse Rock." A song so primal and so early in the stages of music. To be one of the first.

KD: Limitless parameters. You don't have to even think about it. It's not like, "oh s***, that sounds like the Beatles."

CN: Or Dylan. When Dylan started doing his word salads stuff nobody else was doing that. Like, I'm going to be folk singer, but I'm also going to be this poet and I'm just going to throw words together that sound cool. I mean, the guy could do anything he wanted. Almost everything he came up with was something new that hadn't been done before. It must've been awesome.

JK: Do you feel like there's not a whole lot of new territory left?

CN: No, not really.

KD: People find it though, somehow. And then some others don't.

CN: A lot of it's just slight variations, you know. And sometimes somebody just does something old so well, that you don't care that they're doing something old. They have some kind of personality and spark that makes them unique. Or something in their voice that makes people like them. But you know, people always want to ask you, "is the pop song dead?" And I say, "sure, it might be. But who cares?"

JK: How about when you're on the road. What do you do when you don't have to perform or give interviews?

KD: Read a book. Watch movies on the bus. It's a really, really, really boring life the rest of the time. You're searching for a place to go to the bathroom or take a shower all the time.

CN: I find there's not even really that much time. Because you're forced on this weird schedule, a lot of my spare time I find is after the show in that period where I can't get to sleep because I woke up at two in the afternoon. So we end up drinking. Or we end up living a very unhealthy lifestyle. Hanging out on the bus for like three hours until it's 5 AM and you're having an incomprehensible conversation with your bass player. Then you just go to bed. It's a terrible, terrible life. Nah, it's alright.

JK: What would you trade it for? Nothing?

CN: Well, it's…

KD: Farmer.

CN: I like…if there was some…

KD: Entrepreneur.

CN: If we could teleport to gigs…

KD: That would be hot.

JK: Really? So just get rid of the bus? Like is somehow that wasn't part of it.

KD: Yeah, 'cause then you could go home at night, right? You could go do your banking during the day. Go do something with your kid or walk your f****** dog, you know.

CN: After the show, you wouldn't be trapped there. It'd be like, "Oh, I'm gonna go home."

KD: Yeah, the old lady's waiting for me, so. [makes buzzing noise]

JK: [laughs]

CN: Because that's the worst part of it. Whenever people ask me these questions, and I don't want to say, "Tour f****** sucks." because you don't want people to think that you're up there on stage hating it. 'Cause you like playing gigs. But it's like everything surrounding the gig is just maddening.

KD: It's the other stuff.

JK: Right.

KD: It's like camping without the wilderness, kinda.

CN: And what other business do you have to carry everything you need to make a show with you? Like, we have to travel around with everything. I mean, sometimes we fly in and ask for backline, but on a regular tour you have to.

KD: We're song and dance men. Nothing's changed, really. It's all about the song and dance man. It's all we do, really.

CN: I mean, I just bought a house out in Woodstock and the idea of taking up woodworking and just living a simple life out there is very appealing to me.

JK: Oh, really? What kind of woodworking? Like furniture?

CN: Oh, yeah. Furniture. Cabinetry. Just being able to make something, you know. It's never been my way.

JK: Other than music?

CN: Yeah. But of course it's like a grass is greener scenario.

JK: Yeah, I suppose.

CN: A lot of people look at us and think we must have the greatest lives because we go around and play music. And it is cool.

JK: Is this what you wanted to be when you were a kid?

CN: Yeah, yeah, definitely.

KD: Yeah. Since about 1977.

CN: I never had any delusions about being a rock star. But I liked the idea of playing music. I think I never really thought about it until I started playing in bands and even then my idea of success was so small. My idea of success was less than what we have. And I looked at bands like Yo La Tengo and thought that that's being a popular band. I remember seeing bands in Vancouver, bands that you look back on and you thought they were super popular, but they came to Vancouver and there'd only be two hundred people there. Like the Lemonheads would come play the town pump.  

KD: Jellyfish.

CN: Yeah. And I thought, "These bands are f****** successful." But then I think back and I think, at this point now, if we pulled into a town and there was only two hundred people at a club, we'd be going [whispers] "Oh, let's never come back to this place again. This sucks."

JK: Oh, really?

CN: And it's all kind of relative. Because you get to a level of popularity.

KD: Although Cheap Trick did it. I always wonder about them because they were so big, and then they just kept making records on the downside too. Like they were touring around in a van again. Until they had another hit in…whatever it was.

CN: '88.

KD: '88. That's ten years.

CN: You gotta admire that.

KD: They really stuck it out.

CN: The bands that do it for the love.

JK: This is kind of a completely off the cuff type question, but one of my favorite questions to ask any group of people. What is the largest animal you could take in hand-to-hand combat?

KD: I've taken a horse.

JK: You…

CN: You've punched out a horse?

KD: I didn't punch him. But I hit him pretty hard.

JK: [laughs] What did the horse do?

KD: He was just f****** with me.

JK: No, but after you punched him.

KD: I'm not a mean animal handler, but if they piss me off… 'Cause horses are randy, right?

CN: Yeah, but define "take a horse."

KD: A wild one, no. Another one would kill me.

CN: I mean, we had a pony growing up. I remember my parents were away and my dad needed me to lance a boil in our pony's ear, and I remember I had to grab our pony by the neck and tie him to a pole. And all the time I was thinking, "how the f*** can I do this?" I don't know if that was taking a pony down. If it'd come down to blows, I don't know.

JK: [laughs]

CN: He might've hoof-stomped me pretty good.

KD: No, this was a big pain. He was a big f*****.

JK: So after you punched him, what?

KD: I didn't really punch him, I just kinda [makes shoving motion] gave him one of those. He backed off. Because they know. They're smart, right?

CN: You gotta define, "take in a fight."

KD: Like beat them into submission?

CN: I don't know if either of us could take a horse down.

JK: My answer is squirrel, to put it in some perspective.

KD: Yeah, that might be it. I've play-fought with my dog a couple of times and you know, if she would've gotten pissed off, she would've killed me, I think.

CN: I thought about that, like if a pit bull attacked our dogs, what would I do? Would I be able to stop that pit bull?

KD: No. It's pretty tough.

CN: But what if you [bleeped]? Is that supposed to work?

KD: Some say that, but I've never ever seen it used.

CN: What if you take their eyes out?

KD: [makes noise of disgust]

CN: I'm just saying, if it came down to it, you know.

KD: Yeah, you would. I'd hit 'em with something.

CN: I think I'd go for the eyes. One hand, taking their eyes out. The other hand [bleeped].  

KD: [laughs] It's a two in one.

JK: [laughs]

KD: My pig - I had a pig, and he was a nasty customer. I had a hundred and twenty pound dog and he flipped her over like nothing and walked right over top of her. 'Cause she f***** with him.

JK: Wow.

KD: Pigs are strong.

CN: I wouldn't want to. I'm unnerved if a duck scares me. There's something unnerving if a duck starts getting angry at you and starts chasing you. Even though you know you could beat a duck in a fight, just the idea of it is unnerving.

KD: This dude's pissed off, I'm out of here. Apparently the swans and the Canada geese can break your arm with their wings. Their wings are so strong.

JK: Really?

CN: What's the animal that has some kind of hook in their wing that's really hard?

KD: That's a swan, I think, isn't it?

CN: They could really, really f*** you up. It's like a shiv built into their wing. It's dangerous. So yeah, I wouldn't mess with a swan.

KD: Turkeys are supposed to be nasty too. I've never had turkeys but I remember my mom saying she got chased and beat up by one.

CN: Owls. I wouldn't want to mess with an owl.

KD: And you know what else is supposed to be really [nasty]? I had a neighbor that had goats. 'Cause I wanted to get goats. And he was like, "Don't get goats. They stand on top of your truck." And he's like, "I got into a fight with one. It charged me over and over and I punched him as hard as I could. And he kept charging." He said the goat won. "I went inside the house, finally, because the old lady was yelling out the door, 'get in here Dan, he's gonna kill you.'" So he gave up on the goat. And f****** went inside.

CN: Giving up the goat.

KD: Goats are tough. How'd we get here?

JK: [laughs]

CN: That's a question that's far out. Had an answer far longer than you needed.

JK: I don't know. That's actually why I like that question so much. It always ends that way.

KD: You might be right about squirrel, though. They're all meaner than us.

Fish: It's a good pick.

JK: That's about all I have.

KD: Woo.

CN: It was nice meeting you guys.

JK: Yeah, it was a real pleasure meeting you guys.