"In Vancouver, they're called 'fuck bands'," muses The New Pornographers' self-effacing leader Carl Newman, of his acclaimed seven-piece collective. "Bands for 'what the fuck?' The sort that just play their home town every six months..."
His group, after all, includes members of fully five other outfits, including the alt.country siren Neko Case, whose UK profile dwarfs their own. Yet this wrangling of egos and schedules seems to be the Canadian way, from underground legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Broken Social Scene and, of course, Arcade Fire.
The New Pornographers, like BSS, formed 10 years ago but are only now tasting chart success. Their fourth album, Challengers, is a compacted encyclopedia of pop possibilities, combining mutant hooks and twisted lyrics fuelled by a sense of spirited adventure; of finding "the truth in one free afternoon," as Newman sings in "My Rights Versus Yours".
Sitting in the sun outside the Paris bar the band will play this evening, drinking gin to keep himself upright through a crazed tour schedule which saw them play Vancouver two nights ago, Newman, 39, is thoughtful and easygoing. Only his nationality, an asset in Arcade Fire's wake, provokes him to pride. Canadian rock dominance, he reminds me, is nothing new. "We have Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell. Who are the Americans who could beat those guys? But they all left. It's hard to tell with Arcade Fire, because they exploded like a gasoline tank, all at once but to a certain degree, you still have to leave to make it."
Challengers was the first New Pornographers album to be recorded largely outside Vancouver in Brooklyn, where Newman now lives with his American wife.
Dan Bejar, the band's other main writer, is though, less amenable to the US, declaring in one lyric: "I'm sick of America and its screaming decay". Echoing similar lines by Rufus Wainwright and Arcade Fire, it suggests upfront disgust north of the border.
"That's just a typical Dan-ism," says Newman. "I think you're allowed to throw a line like that in, and no-one's gonna care. Because it's all personal. It's not like the song is called 'Fuck the US War Machine'."
There is, though, a subtle political cast to much of Challengers. "The war's just one of those things you can't avoid," Newman says. "But, you know, [Canadian] Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. So how serious can your message ever be, when you're delivering it with a pop song?"
The New Pornographers have always been more about the emotional liberation of pop, anyway, the sort Newman experienced aged 16, hearing his older brother's David Bowie and Talking Heads records, and feeling the chorus from the Monkees' "Daydream Believer" like a hurricane through his hair. Pop seemed a bottomless treasure-chest.
"It's exciting when you first realise just how much there is," he says. "You're like, 'What? The singer of Joy Division's dead, and there's this other band?' I became totally obsessed with REM's Murmur. There was a kind of nameless possibility that seemed magic to me. But the record that made me think I could do music was Pixies' Doolittle. Because, according to this, I could just play three chords, and scream, and that counts as a song." Newman also references the deeply unsettling Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown, The Ice Storm author Rick Moody, and Brian Eno as we talk. "I love music which has massive hooks, but is really odd," he concludes. "I'm obsessed with melody."
Newman began making music in Vancouver's low-key, loose-knit bohemian enclaves: "Your typical bunch of losers some of whom were artists, in whatever sense, and some of 'em just hanging out with artists, and some of 'em killing time, doing drugs, and drinking."
The New Pornographers formed, in an accidental parallel with Toronto's Broken Social Scene, in a haphazard fashion. Yet these amorphous communes have become the blueprint for Canadian rock. "Maybe that kind of formlessness," Newman ponders, "where people wander in and out and the band's always changing, comes from not caring about the marketability of your music. Because we never honestly thought we were going to amount to anything. When Mint, our Canadian label, asked if we were thinking about a second record, I just shrugged. It was like, 'Who cares? Let's just do whatever we want.' It wasn't so much a band as an art project. So when it becomes your living, and you try to schedule people, it's hard."
This came to a head during the making of the third album, Twin Cinema (2005), when Case, the band's star, gave her burgeoning solo career precedence. After a period of friction, Newman's niece Kathryn Calder joined, letting them do without Case when necessary.
Such reluctance to stamp his own band's importance is typical of Newman. Twin Cinema finally saw them crack the US charts. Challengers has gone Top 40. But the turnaround leaves him nonplussed, even nervous. "You can go along for the longest time, and it's like, 'Loser, Loser, Loser Huge Success Story!' All in one month," he says. "I never want to become one of those deluded musicians who get caught up in their own mythology and stop working. I always want to be very self-critical, self-aware and self-conscious. I don't want to be a songwriter who's self-aggrandising, or says anything that's false. When this became my job, I wanted to go about it with a real work ethic. I was shooting for an album a year. With bands now, you think, 'Really? Four years? And that's what you came up with?'
"When you expected so little," he says, easing up on himself, "then it's all nice. We thought we were huge for the longest time when [the 2000 debut] Mass Romantic started getting attention in America, we sold out this club in New York, 200 people. We couldn't believe how huge we were."
Newman ponders the example of another musician from North America's Northwest, who he used to see in tiny Seattle clubs. "If I can figure out a way to live my life and be happy, and not become a huge star, I'll be a much bigger success than Kurt Cobain. His success was at the expense of himself."
Later that night, the New Pornographers play to a packed, appreciative audience, enlivened by Newman's endearingly hopeless French and a barrage of foot-thumping hooks. Backstage, I catch a glimpse of the rest of the commune, the bear-like producer-bassist John Collins chief among them. They seem almost egoless, a set of striking individuals; dedicated to the cause of New Pornography.
'Challengers' is out on MatadorReuse content