Despite talking to Carl Newman, the frontman for indie rock supergroup The New Pornographers, over the phone, I can’t help but sense that his eyes roll when I open our conversation with a question he has likely received a thousand times before: What is up with that name?
“It’s hard to remember now, but I’m sure it came from a Japanese film that I really liked called ‘The Pornographers,’ ” he says. “I liked the film, and I remember thinking, ‘What a strange word.’ I didn’t even really think about what the word meant, or embrace it due to a love of pornography; I just thought it sounded cool. I had also always liked band names with ‘The New’ in their titles, like The New Seekers or The New Christy Minstrels; at the time, I just thought it would be funny to take on the name The New Pornographers.
“If I had known we were going to become popular, I may not have chosen that name,” he admits with a laugh. “It has worked for and against us. On the one hand, they’re never going to sell our albums in Starbucks; on the other, due to people deeming our name offensive, it makes other people pay attention to us.”
Attention is something the band will receive plenty of when they perform Sunday at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw.
Since the group of musician friends first formed in Vancouver, Canada, in 1999, each member has gone on to significant critical success with other bands and solo projects. With so many artistic obstacles in the way, one has to wonder, is there a tipping point where some members begin to place their membership in the Pornographers further down their list of priorities?
“I honestly don’t know,” Newman says. “We often play without Neko (Case, vocalist and solo star), and we often play without Dan (Bejar, vocalist and guitars), but I don’t know what would happen if people just started showing up and saying, ‘I really don’t want to appear on the new album.’ I think I would be more weirded out by the loss of Dan than the loss of Neko, because Dan writes so many songs for the band, and I think that would really change the dynamic. I’m actually really curious myself to see what the band turns into over time. I think even if we stopped touring, I would still want us to make records, even if it just became a vanity project.”
The band doesn’t exude vanity on its new album, “Brill Bruisers.” The 2014 release was its highest charting Billboard success to date, peaking at No. 13 on the album charts during its first week. The record has a light, festive sound that many fans were happy to hear after the preceding solo albums released by Newman and Case. Those separate solo works were each recorded after personal losses, resulting in works that were more contemplative and personal.
An evolving show
“I definitely wanted to get back to a joyous feeling in the music,” Newman says. “I’ve always thought, even way back in the beginning of the band, that our music should always have a defiantly happy sound to it. I don’t mean happy as in ‘Walking on Sunshine,’ but by stating, ‘I am going to be happy, no matter the cost.’ I think that’s a theme that connects all of our music.”
The band also continues to evolve. Each new tour brings with it a sharper, more concise group that is a little more polished than in previous stops. Newman says that is a goal he has had for the band since the beginning.
“I don’t know if we’re more energetic, but our shows are definitely tighter,’ he says. “They’re a lot less drunken and ramshackled.
“I think throughout the years we just decided, ‘We need to become a professional band.’ I feel that we practiced so hard for our current tour that, for the first time, I’m really proud of what a good live band we are. We finally put our nose to the grindstone and said, ‘Let’s be as good as we can possibly be.’ ”
Despite the band’s critical success and significant fan following, there is still one thing eluding the Pornographers: that one hit song that would push them over the edge into financial success.
“For us to have a huge hit at this point, it would just be a crazy fluke,” Newman says. “It would be the equivalent of making the shot from half court in basketball. We’ve never really strived for that; that’s what other people really strive for, like the record label and management.
“We are very lucky to have the careers we have, and are happy just to maintain it. If we can just keep the audience that shows up each night just to hear us play, we’re doing pretty good.”