Despite all their efforts to the contrary, the New Pornographers can't help but write summery sing-along anthems that make you want to blast the car stereo at full volume with the windows down.
"We tried to make it stranger," lead Pornographer Carl Newman said of their third and latest record, Twin Cinema, released in late August. "We thought if we put weird time signatures it would make it less summery. But I guess some people just got the summer in their heart."
They have worse problems, though, than not being able to shake their gift for infectious power pop. The Vancouver-based collective's biggest predicament has always been paradoxical: The larger and more successful the group gets, the more difficult it becomes to keep the band together.
While most of the band has settled into the role of permanent Pornographer, their booming female lead vocal, alt-country chanteuse Neko Case, has a successful solo career to contend with, and aloof songwriter Dan Bejar has commitment issues and a laissez faire attitude.
Forcing Bejar to contribute to the project has been a struggle since the band's second record, Electric Version, in 2000, but the Pornographers cajoled him into touring by inviting his eccentric solo project, Destroyer, to open up their recent fall tour.
"That's how we tricked him," Newman said with a grin. "Dan hasn't really been a solid part of the group for about five years, but [when we can], we basically just drag him onstage when he has to sing his own songs, and the rest of the time he just gets to hang around backstage and be a drunk. ... Did I just call him a drunk?"
Recently, it was serendipity, not the promise of an opening gig, that helped fill other gaps in the Pornographers' lineup.
Eight years ago, Newman discovered he had an older, long-lost sister. When Newman met her daughter, his then-15-year-old niece, Kathryn Calder, he never dreamed she would be a potential bandmate. Fast forward several years and Pornos bassist John Collins was gushing about Calder's band, Immaculate Machine, unaware of the familial connections.
"When [Collins] started raving about how amazing she was, I would go see her band and think, 'She is really, really good,' " he said. Calder was soon added as a touring member of the Pornographers — an especially imperative role given Case's unpredictable availability.
But after years of critical praise, the commercial and monetary aspects have slowly started to catch up with the group. Twin Cinema debuted at the not-at-all-shabby #44 spot on the Billboard albums chart, and this tour has seen the band graduate to a swanky tour bus with two TV sets. They've even witnessed their fans rushing to the front of the stage just to get the best seat in the house.
"I used to do that when I was 18. Have we become one of those bands where the kids hang out on the barricades for three hours?" Newman asked with a mix of incredulousness and caution.
Endlessly prolific, the ginger-haired singer released his first solo record in 2004 under the moniker A.C. Newman, but said he'd like to put his individual efforts on hold and turn around another New Pornographers album as soon as possible. Plus he possesses a wealth of songs waiting in the wings — or at least half-songs.
"I'm actually trying to write [the next New Pornographers record] now. We're talking about recording it in the first half of 2006," he said. "I have this backlog of half-written songs, so when I start a new record, it's not like starting from scratch. Whenever I'm going through a mental block, I'll just sort through old demos I've recorded and go, 'Yeah, this is good.' "
Having recently relocated to New York, Newman joked that the move to the Big Apple would inspire "Billy Joel-esque, tense, urban songs like 'Summer in the City.'
"With each record I get more and more confident, but who knows? I wonder when I'm going to be one of those artists that becomes totally deluded and thinks it's their best album when it's actually their worst."