New Pornographers cast themselves as challengers, not champions

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

2 November 2007


When the word “challengers” first popped into his head several months ago, A.C. Newman was not thinking about vintage Dodge automobiles or space shuttles.

“Right away, I thought it was a great album title,” says the New Pornographers frontman over the phone from Boston. “It has a heroic kind of overtone. You know, being the opponent in some kind of struggle. You’re not the champion, you’re the challenger.”

Turns out, “Challengers” was a perfect fit for the new New Pornographers disc on a couple of levels. The late August release is more muted musically than the Canadian indie-rock group’s three widely acclaimed earlier discs, a change-up for fans expecting more of the same. (Not to worry. Reviews of the new disc have been very positive, and the New Pornographers have been filling the large clubs and small concert halls on their latest tour.)

“Challengers’” songs also are more personal. Newman wrote nine of the 12 (singer-guitarist-pianist Dan Bejar penned the others), and several chronicle the roadblocks and doubts the 39-year-old Newman faced in his courtship of Christy Simpson, 34, the woman whom he married on Aug. 4. (Until recently she was marketing manager at Matador Records, the band’s longtime label.)

Newman, who relocated from Vancouver to New York to be with Simpson, specifically mentions the album’s gentle, hopeful title track; the baroque, flute-embroidered Unguided” and the inviting leap of faith “Go Places.”

The title track, he explains, “is essentially about when we met. We were with other people. We liked each other and had to leave it alone and not do anything about it until we were single. That was a few months down the road.”

“Unguided,” he notes, is about “a time when I was feeling like you do at the beginning of any relationship when you’re not sure what’s going to happen. Basically I was in limbo, visiting and subletting an apartment in New York.”

Newman describes “Go Places” as “an after-the-fact love song. I got the girl. I was thinking about `I Want You’ by Bob Dylan when I was writing it. ... Half the time you say, `I don’t know what he’s talking about’ but then you get to `I want you,’ and you know it’s a love song.”

Given the personal nature of the title song and “Go Places” Newman is asked why the women in the band, Kathryn Calder and Neko Case, handle the bulk of the singing. “I decided it worked better that way,” replies Newman, who calls most of the shots in the octet, which includes guitarist-mandolinist Todd Fancey, bassist John Collins, drummer-vocalist Kurt Dahle and keyboardist Blaine Thurier. “That’s how we work. Whoever can do it best, does it.”

“Challengers” also represents another benchmark for The New Pornographers. “The last two records” - 2003’s “Electric Version” and 2005’s “Twin Cinema” - “we haven’t been able to play every song. Usually we just make the records, then we learn how to play them (live) later. This one, we know how to play everything on it.”

Given the band’s taste for karaoke - Spin magazine devoted two pages of its September issue to such a night on the town - are the New Pornographers performing any cover versions on this tour?

“No,” says Newman. “But we’re planning on doing `I Held Her in My Arms’ by the Violent Femmes on one of the nights in New York City because (Femmes frontman) Gordon Gano will be on stage singing it with us.”

Asked why that track from the Femmes’ 1986 album, “The Blind Leading the Naked,” was chosen, Newman says, “I love that song. It reminds me of a girl I dated when I was 18. ... When you get to do crazy things in your life, like sing a song you always loved with the person who wrote it, life has some poetic justice.”

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