The New Pornographers Look to the Past While Basking in the Warm Glow of Brake Lights

Carl Newman is sitting on a chic couch in a vacant corner of Toronto’s Chelsea Hotel, basking in confident tranquility. He’s calm, cool, collected, and sipping on a latte as he meets with the press. The musician is mentally preparing to lead his band, The New Pornographers, on yet another tour — this time in support of their eighth studio album, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights.

Since their inception in 2000, the Canadian indie rockers have amassed fandom all around the world due to their penchant for catchy power pop tunes and relatable songwriting. Their last album, Whiteout Conditions (2017), received favourable reviews and was followed by a successful tour.

“I’m a middle-aged straight white guy. Not that we don’t have anything to say, but nobody needs us to step in and say, ‘Hey guys, I’ve figured this out!’”

Now, two years later, armed with a new collection of songs, Newman is ready to ramp things up again. You might wonder where his head is at, but his head is where it’s always been – in the music.

“I feel like I never really get away from the music. I get away from playing gigs, but I’m always at home trying to write,” says Newman. “Like even right now, this record hasn’t even come out yet and I’m already looking at what I’ve been working on most recently and saying, ‘I’ve got the guts of another record here.’”

Home for Newman is in the small upstate New York town of Woodstock, where he lives with his wife and seven-year-old son. There are only about 6000 residents in the offseason, with it doubling during the summer months. He enjoys the peace and quiet of the place but is very aware of the larger national community and political atmosphere he is now a part of, and it seeps into his writing. “I just can’t avoid it,” says Newman. At the same time, he doubts his own perspective.

“Well, for me it’s ultimately just personal. Like, I’m not trying to write any statement about what it means to be here right now, but I can try to communicate what I feel like and maybe somebody else feels the same way,”  Newman continues. “In a lot of ways, I don’t think it’s my place to be the person who tries to make a political statement about what’s going on because I’m the privileged one. I’m a middle-aged straight white guy. Not that we don’t have anything to say, but nobody needs us to step in and say, ‘Hey guys, I’ve figured this out!’”

While Brake Lights’ political themes are a more latent effect of Newman’s surroundings, the album’s throwback sound is much more purposeful. He notes that, as he’s gotten older, he’s become less self-conscious about repeating himself.

“Halfway through the record — I think I was in Vancouver — I said, ‘Let’s do it differently. Let’s speed it up by 10 or 15 BPM and give it more of a DOO DOO DOO DOO, that driving four-on-the-floor thing we used to do more of.’”

The result is a sound that new and long-time fans can easily enjoy, throwing things back to simpler times, when things were less chaotic and everyone was more or less on the same driving beat.

The New Pornographers’ In the Morse Code of Brake Lights is available Sept. 27 on Collected Work Records.

*Originally published in the September 2019 issue of BeatRoute.

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