Vancouver is known for many things: Natural beauty. Ethnic diversity. Simple livability. Pot availability.
All of which helps overshadow the fact the city is also the birthplace for many prominent musicians.
It's a sundry lot too. Everyone from punk band D.O.A. and industrial act Skinny Puppy to crooner Michael Buble and pop artists Bryan Adams and Sarah McLachlan. Add to that list indie rock darlings The New Pornographers, whose buoyant melodies and sunny sing-alongs over five full-length albums have earned them cult status and a place on numerous best-of lists.
New Pornographers lead singer Carl Newman, a Vancouver native, was just another music-obsessed geek in the 1980s, pilfering his older brother's record collection to immerse himself in the works of David Bowie and Talking Heads. By the '90s he was full-fledged into the raging grunge scene of the day, playing what he called really ugly music.
"We were very loud and repetitive and abrasive," Newman said of his work at the time during a recent phone interview. "That was the first time Ithought hey, maybe I'll write songs. At that point I thought I¹ll just makeup a few riffs and string them together and scream over the top of them andthat's a song."
That inspiration lasted less than a year before Newman began pining to write "real" music. By then he was engrossed by songwriters like Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson.
"I really got into the idea of classic pop songwriting," Newman said.
That's when he joined the pop-rock group Zumpano, who worked up two albums for Sub Pop before dissolving. Even before its demise was final, Newman knew he needed to start on a plan B. Slowly, The New Pornographers came into being.
"I just started assembling other people around me," Newman said. "I didn't think of it too seriously. I just started pulling people together."
He began recruiting members based on the instruments he needed. A drummer, who turned out to be Kurt Dahle, was the toughest to find. Neko Case, who now has an acclaimed solo career, was someone Newman knew from the Vancouver music scene. She hadn't issued a record yet, but he was fully aware of her vocal talent. Dan Bejar was another locally undiscovered gem.
"I had never been that overly impressed with anyone in Vancouver," Newman said. "There's good and there's local good, like you might say, 'Pretty good for someone from Indianapolis.' Dan was the first person I'd ever known or played with that I thought this guy has a really world-class sense of songwriting."
Newman is the chief architect of The New Pornographers (whose lineup is rounded out by John Collins, Todd Fancey, Blaine Thurier, and Kathryn Calder, Newman's niece), but they all have a hand in shaping his charismatic sounds. Newman, who didn't start playing guitar until he was 18, acknowledges his compositions often change once he brings them to the rest of the band.
"Songs just take on a life of their own," he said. "Maybe some keyboard line will enter the song and I'll think that's amazing, it should drive the song. That changes the whole dynamic of the song, and it makes me want to change the melody and the words. I'm a big fan of just trying everything. It's good to be prepared, but there's also something to be said for just going into the studio and winging it, and following your instincts, seeing where things take you."
The New Pornographers' blithe sound often belies a serious message. Tracks like "Adventures in Solitude" and "Valkyrie in the Roller Disco" address suicide.They collaborated with Oxfam on the music video for their song "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk" to maintain awareness of the Gulf Coast's continued recovery from last year's BP oil spill. Newman figures that aspect of their music generally gets overlooked. That or people just don't care.
"It's a little incongruous sometimes – having an upbeat song with a downbeat message," he said. "It's not usually what people do. But it's hard to write really happy lyrics. It's amazing when The Turtles are singing, 'I can't see me loving nobody but you.' It's the perfect pop song, but myself, I have a hard time doing that. When I start writing lyrics, they're always a lot darker and melancholy, or oblique. Even when I try to write love songs and more heart on my sleeve, people don't understand them, even though I think I'm being pretty clear."
It's ultimately up to the fans to get what they want out of The New Pornographers' music. Their goal all along has been to make records you'd want to listen to through headphones.
"We wanted to make records for stoned people, but we also wanted to be the band you could just go see and dance to and have fun," Newman said. "So we're making music half for the stoned people and half for the drunk people."