A.C. Newman, the New Pornographers' driving force and principal songwriter, has a bone to pick with music critics who lump the band into the "power-pop" genre. "I'm not really sure what power-pop is," says Newman on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "It's just laziness. That's the best you can come up with?" As I start to wonder if asking about this platitudinous label was a bad idea, he chuckles. "I'm making it sound like I'm against writers, but I'm not. Only the stupid ones."
Fair enough. So let's smarten up and dispose of the notion of "power-pop" right now. Yes, the New Pornographers maintain their penchant for performing compact nuggets of unadulterated sugar-rock on their latest release, Challengers. But Newman's songwriting has developed on this new set. Song arrangements are intricate and dynamic, strings come into the mix, and the tone is somewhat less frenetic than in past efforts. In fact, their trademark chugging pop doesn't really start until five songs in, on the peppy "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth."
Three-minute bursts of melodic energy have been part of Newman's songwriting equation from the get-go. "It's like the appeal of a chocolate bar. It's very concise, and goes straight for the pleasure centers," he says. "When this band was forming and it was very conceptual, I had an idea that all you needed was a good drumbeat and female vocalist and you'd be popular." This theory seems to hold true, as record sales increase with each successive Pornographers release. In a year in which Arcade Fire, the Shins, and Modest Mouse have all placed high on the Billboard charts, Challengers should have no trouble connecting with an audience. Recent song placements in a University of Phoenix ad and several films and TV shows may help the cause.
Newman doesn't see much of a problem with this. "I wouldn't license my music to Wal-Mart or NAMBLA ... They're both very evil," he says. "[But] when music becomes your job, you have to transcend whether some blogger somewhere thinks you sold out."
Originally based in Vancouver, the Pornographers are now spread out across different cities, convening when it's time to record and tour. It may seem disjointed, but this is how the band functions. "It's always been people all over the place," says Newman. "It's a little tricky, but [that's] just our fate." Pornographers Dan Bejar and Neko Case, both busy solo artists (Bejar with his Destroyer outfit, Case with a successful alt-country career), continue to contribute their talents on Challengers. "Dan is more auxiliary than Neko," says Newman. "[She] gets annoyed when anybody talks about her being auxiliary. But she is busy doing other things." Thankfully, the redheaded chanteuse found time for lead vocal duties on the pretty and pensive title track, among others, while Bejar's nasal tones fuel his three quirky song contributions.
"If you look at our albums and the direction they've been heading in, I feel like they've all been moving in the same direction," considers Newman. "We're lucky to be doing what we're doing at this moment. It's too easy to get caught up in trying to get bigger ... I'm doing pretty well for myself, wherever I sit in the rock-and-roll pantheon, the rock-and-roll middle class. Maybe I've moved to the upper middle class." Whether or not it's a conscious effort, the New Pornographers are entering a new musical stratum, though it still seems a little weird to Newman. "We're just a strange band. That we've gotten this far is like the one-legged guy winning the marathon."