The New Pornographers: The Last Picture Show

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Having staged another classic-pop blockbuster with Twin Cinema, the New Pornographers are ready for their close-up. By Jonathan Valania

They are a curious breed, our so-called gentle neighbors to the north. On first glance, they look and talk just like us, barring the occasional “eh?” that punctuates most declarative sentences. But if you look closely, you can tell they aren’t like you and me.

First of all, they are a little too friendly and good-humored, possibly due to their high-octane beer and skunky British Columbia kind bud. They are witty and well-spoken, thanks to an educational system that boasts a 97 percent literacy rate. Due to almost half a century of socialized medicine, they are unnaturally healthy, with a life expectancy of 80.1 years. Lastly, they simply don’t do sarcasm. Not well, anyway. They have no real need for it. They are peace-lovin’, good-time-likin’ people. They might not get your back if you wanted to start a bar fight in, say, Baghdad, but they will help you pound that case of Molson afterward.

Canadians are a mild and temperate people who are as discreet as they are polite, able to keep a lot of secrets under their hats, or “toques.” (Which, in case you never heard of Bob and Doug McKenzie, is pronounced “tewks.” You know, those pom-pom-topped ski caps they pull down over their Geddy Lee hair after Labor Day.) Secrets that you, my fellow Americans, are not supposed to know. But I did your homework for you. I combed through their well-funded libraries, I drank with the locals, I slept with the mooses, I even bribed a few Mounties. I did all of this so that you could learn: The Top 10 Things Americans Are Not Supposed To Know About Canada.

10. Pornography is very illegal in Canada.
Let’s say a middling indie-rock magazine puts you on a plane to Vancouver to interview the New Pornographers for a cover story. Let’s say you get off the plane and stroll up to the customs desk, where an officer asks you about the nature of your visit. You tell him the truth: You are here to interview the New Pornographers. You don’t notice it at first, but a silent alarm is going off over your head.

Pornography is a hot-button issue in the land of the Maple Leaf. Ever since Canada became a prime exporter of dope, nobody really bothers to bring drugs into the country, which is good for Canada but a source of boredom for customs. Barring terrorism, porn is really all they have left to crack down on. And so, for merely speaking the unspeakable, you are cordially invited into a back room where customs agents are busy tearing apart the luggage of your fellow travelers. They tell you to stand in line until it’s your turn to hoist your suitcase up on the examination table. A customs officer starts rifling through your belongings, and he notices a notebook onto which you have scrawled the words “New Porno.” More silent alarms.

He asks you what this notebook is all about. You tell him you are a music journalist here to interview the New Pornographers and these are your notes for the story. The customs officer has never heard of these so-called “new pornographers.” They are pretty popular in the States, you say, adding that they won a Juno (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) a couple years ago. And their new album, Twin Cinema (on Matador/Mint), is super-excellent: It’s like everything you ever loved about ’60s and ’70s AM pop, but in a way you’ve never heard before. He’s not impressed.

The customs officer starts shuffling through your papers, paying special attention to anything that remotely resembles an invoice or a bookkeeping ledger. Suddenly, you are hearing the silent alarm that has been screaming in your wake ever since you announced you have come to Canada to interview the New Pornographers: They think you’re some kind of porn smuggler. And in a way, you are. There is some porno on your laptop, you now remember.

The customs officer takes out your laptop and powers it up. You think he’s going to just make sure it’s a functioning computer and not packed with C-4 or a kilo of smack. But no, he’s now actively searching through your files, opening up folders, clicking on jpegs.

And then he finds it: your porno. He turns to you and gives you a disapproving tsk-tsk look. Pornography is a lot of things, but above all things, it is private. Standing there while someone thumbs through your porn is like standing there while someone pulls down your pants and points out the skidmarks on your underwear to the gathering crowd.

“Some of these girls look pretty young,” says the customs officer. Duh, you think to yourself, they don’t make porno with old people—and that’s the stuff you should be cracking down on, because that is sick. But you don’t say this. You immediately shake off the jet lag as you register the sobering seriousness of his implication. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s just slow down here. Let’s not even start going down that road. You adamantly point out that all those images are watermarked by the Web sites they came from, and all of those sites are completely above board and in compliance with the laws of the United States and explicitly state that all models are consenting and at least 18 years old.

“This isn’t the United States,” he says.

Aw, fuck.

He takes your laptop and disappears into a back office. You sit down on a bench beneath a two-way mirror, next to a man who, from the look of things, has committed the crime of flying while Arab. You sit there for what feels like an hour before the customs officer finally returns.

“You are free to go,” he says. “But they are sending your laptop down to forensics for a closer look.”

“Why?” you ask.

“They’ll make a determination.”

“Of what?”

“If there’s anything illegal on there.”

“What’s illegal?”

“Child porn.”

Jesus Christ! Your knees buckle. You’re suddenly sweaty. This is insane! You stepped off the plane and fell through a trapdoor, and suddenly you’re in the middle of this Kafka-esque sex farce, staring down the Canadian thought police.

“OK, OK,” you say. “How long will it take to make a ‘determination’?”

“Usually about 30 days,” he says.

“You’ve got to be kidding me! My whole life is on that thing. How am I supposed to work without it? I’m here on business.”

“This is a serious matter. I can’t be sure if you have something illegal on your computer. If I was, you would be arrested, handcuffed and given access to a lawyer.”

“But I haven’t done anything wrong!”

“We’re going to make sure of that.”

9. The name New Pornographers is second only to Barenaked Ladies in the Canadian False Advertising Hall Of Shame.
“Whenever you come back from America, those customs guys always treat you like a criminal,” says Carl Newman, the New Pornographers’ central songwriter, arranger and guiding voice. “I always enjoy asking them, ‘Now why would I bring pot into Canada when everyone knows we grow the finest in the world right here?’”

“Those guys are the worst,” says Blaine Thurier, the Pornographers’ moon-faced keyboardist. “Of course you have porno on your computer. Everyone has porno on their computer. I don’t think you have anything to worry about. The Supreme Court struck down our porno laws as unconstitutional and told Parliament to rewrite them. I don’t think we even have a porno law on the books.”

You are sitting in a Japanese restaurant called Zakkushi, which is situated within walking distance of Thurier and Newman’s respective domiciles on the sunny side of Vancouver. Zakkushi is one of those places where they play ABBA real loud and the staff makes a lot of noise—shouting and banging on pots and pans—whenever a new customer walks in. It’s kind of fun once you’ve had a couple of drinks, but it’s damn startling when you walk in for the first time. Especially when you’re under the impression that customs stormtroopers could smash through the windows at any minute and take you away in handcuffs.

Thurier spent a couple years teaching English in Japan, and his wife, Hiromi, is Japanese. So we let him do the ordering: gyoza, ebi mayo, gomaae. Thurier is drinking vodka and calpis, and Newman is knocking back vodka and lychee juice.

It’s been widely reported that the New Pornographers got their name from a pamphlet put out in the 1950s by televangelist Jimmy Swaggart condemning rock ’n’ roll as “the new pornography.” Actually, the group’s members didn’t find out about this coincidence until well after they had chosen the moniker, itself part homage to The Pornographers, acclaimed director Shohei Imamura’s surrealistic 1966 study of the smut-peddling business.

“I just like bands that use ‘new’ as a prefix,” quips Newman, ever the sweet-natured smartass, sort of a cross between Richie Cunningham and Ralph Malph. Red-haired and fair, the 37-year-old Newman speaks with a slight lisp that peeks out of his singing voice from time to time. He has demonstrated an instinctual grasp of the power-pop vernacular since his days in Zumpano, an enlightened, melodic outfit that helped Sub Pop move away from its grunge-heavy roster in the mid-’90s.

“You know,” you say, “if the New Pornographers were called the Lollipops or the Nice Buncha Kids, I would still have my laptop.”

Newman shrugs.

You tell him his band name makes you feel like Otto from The Simpsons when he walks out of Stoner’s Pot Palace, annoyed to learn it only sells cookware. Last time a band name made you feel like that was the Barenaked Ladies. Newman bristles at the mere mention of the name. “I once had a dream that ‘Letter From An Occupant’ (from the New Pornographers’ 2000 debut, Mass Romantic) was actually written by the Barenaked Ladies,” he says with a theatrical shiver.

Just then, a new customer comes through Zakkushi‘s door, and the whole place erupts in bedlam.

8. In Vancouver, even the ghetto has a Starbucks.
“OK, now we’re gonna go to the bad side of town,” says Newman, throttling his fire-engine-red Infiniti G-20. It’s not a very rock ’n’ roll ride, but in Newman’s hands, it’s a pretty badass family car, able to run yellow lights with soccer-mom aplomb. You are on your way to JC/DC Studios, where A.C. Newman, Newman’s side project, is rehearsing for its appearance at the Intonation Festival in Chicago.

JC/DC is a walk-up warehouse space/recording studio/New Porno treehouse located in a run-down, drug-scarred neighborhood Newman refers to as Crack-town. (Crackton amongst the locals.) Your trip to Cracktown will make up for all the street cred his car and his neighborhood lacks, he assures you.

“I don’t want you to get a skewed idea of Vancou-ver,” he says. “It’s a pretty tough town.”

Newman pulls into a parking garage.

“Skid row has a parking garage?” you ask.

“OK, so the parking spot isn’t very Mean Streets,” says Newman. “But you just wait, tough guy.”

You notice he’s not only wearing shorts—questionable rockwear choice, though technically OK for summer rehearsal—but he’s got sandals on his feet. How can he possibly make rock music in that get-up?

“You would never wear white socks with those, would you?” you ask, heading down a street that is, as per Newman’s promise, slowly fading into more advanced decrepitude with each passing block.

“Naw, that’s totally unnecessary,” says Newman. “That’s just a big fuck-you to everybody. Look, the sandals thing just happened one hot day when I was walking past a shoe store. All of a sudden, I’m walking down the street without my shoes and socks. And it felt good.”

“Skid row has a Starbucks?” you ask, ducking inside it. You order a frappuccino with a shot of espresso.

“You give me a hard time about my sandals and then you order a frappuccino?” asks Newman.

“It’s not like I got whipped cream on top,” you say.

As the two of you turn the corner, everything seems to go from color to black-and-white.

“Welcome to Cracktown,” says Newman.

Trundling down the sidewalk carrying your big goofy Starbucks cup, you meet some of the locals: hollow-eyed, high or panhandling to get that way. “It’s kind of like Night Of The Living Dead around here,” says Newman, ushering you into the studio’s front door and looking warily over his shoulder. Contrary to what Michael Moore would have you believe, Canadians do in fact lock their doors.

Newman introduces you to John Collins, the eminently likable bear of a man who plays bass in the New Pornographers and records their albums in the next room, where Newman heads to attend the A.C. Newman rehearsal.

Swell as it is, nobody—not even Newman—can give you a good reason why, when he’s the boss of the New Pornographers, an A.C. Newman album even exists. Maybe it’s a good way to clean out the songwriting spouts; it’s also a chance to pick up a little scratch and spread the love.

In Canada, you can apply for a government grant to make a wonderful little indie-rock album called The Slow Wonder, and if you’re Carl Newman, Juno-winning songwriter, you receive $18,000 to record it and $10,000 to tour behind it in the U.S. This must be paid back within two years, at a rate of 50 cents per record sold, or else … Actually, there is no “or else.” If you don’t pay it off after two years, the debt is forgiven.

Canada has instituted a national law that 30 percent of all broadcast content must be Canadian born and bred, even if that means it’s state-fed. To make sure that Much Music, Canada’s MTV, has enough videos by homegrown artists to meet its quotas, there’s also a $25,000 government video grant. The New Pornographers have been awarded a couple of these over the years, and in a few days, Thurier (the band’s resident filmmaker) will direct a video for Twin Cinema’s leadoff single, “Use It,” with a very special co-star. (More on this later.)

You suddenly realize that during the entirety of your interior monologue about A.C. Newman and socialist indie rock, Collins has been extending the hand of friendship; you slap your palm into his and shake vigorously. Collins is a veteran of the Vancouver alt-rock scene—he also plays in punky perennials the Evaporators—but as of late, he’s been making a name for himself as a recording engineer. Collins has sprinkled his sonic fairy dust over all three of the New Pornographers’ uniformly excellent albums—Mass Romantic, 2003’s Electric Version and Twin Cinema—as well as last year’s The Slow Wonder. You ask him how he got Twin Cinema to sound so goddamn glorious.

“Well,” he says, “I compressed the hell out of everything … Say, if I got some beer, would you drink it?”

“Shit, yeah.”

Collins runs to the bar across the street and returns with a six-pack of Carling in less than five minutes, hands you a beer, pops the tab on his and picks up exactly where he left off.

“… Flattened out the levels. That way, all the stuff that you don’t normally hear—all the shimmer and resonance—is magnified and brought to the fore, and it adds a lot of rich detail and atmosphere.”

Collins proceeds to render a fairly exhaustive oral history of Vancouver punk, new wave and garage and various revivals and counter-revivals, although you can only hear bits and pieces of it. Collins is a soft talker, and even though you are both well aware that A.C. Newman is blaring in the next room—and despite the fact that you keep cupping your ear and asking him to repeat himself—he simply refuses to compete in volume.

“I talk quietly. I suppose I could talk like this,” he says, raising his voice to an audible level for a moment before dropping back down. “Oh, that feels so unnatural.”

7. Prime Minister John Macdonald, the George Washington of Canada, married his cousin in 1843. He was also known to be an inveterate drunk.
Setting aside the Jerry Lee Lewis-like choice of bridal partner, this mildly embarrassing footnote is proof that even thriving semi-socialist paradises like Canada are not immune to the blighted social fabric and human wreckage addiction leaves in its wake. Further proof is panhandling right in front of you on the sidewalk outside of JC/DC. Negotiating the bum slalom out on the street, you make your way around the corner to Pub 340, a shitty rock dive that books ska and metal a couple nights a week. Tonight, Judas Priest blares over the PA. If the irony of the setting isn’t lost on Newman and Collins—two power-pop aesthetes discussing the harmonic nuances of the Hollies over the metallic din of “Breaking The Law”—they never let on.

“What, you don’t like Judas Priest?” says Newman.

“No,” you say. “And you can’t smoke in here.”

“You can’t smoke in public anywhere in B.C., not for going on 10 years,” says Collins before bumming a cigarette and escorting you over to the phone-booth-sized smoking chamber in the corner. At various times during the night, the smoking chamber will lure in the majority of the people sitting at the bar to puff away in a nicotine fog. Despite this incontrovertible fact, Collins insists that smoking is doing a slow fade in British Columbia.

“I don’t really know anyone anymore that smokes,” he says.

“You’re smoking right now,” you say.

“No, I’m not.”

Back at the table, Newman is recalling his misspent rock ’n’ roll youth, when Superconductor—his Vancouver supergroup-cum-guitar army that included Collins, Dan Bejar (the Pornos’ pinch-hitting songwriter) and “at least three guitarists, sometimes upwards of six or seven,” according to Newman—went on tour with Guided By Voices in 1997.

“Bob Pollard was like the high-school basketball coach who slips you a beer on the weekend,” says Newman with a dreamy grin. “Bob later told me ‘The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism’ (from Mass Romantic) was the story of his life. I was touched. I always felt as if he was my mentor. He got behind me as a songwriter before anyone else.”

6. Pot isn’t legal in British Columbia, but it isn’t really illegal, either.
Anybody worth his weight in bongwater knows that British Columbia grows some of the finest marijuana in the world. And they grow it everywhere: in remote patches of the wilderness, along the shores of Canada’s mighty rivers and in the basements and attics of Vancouver.

“They advertise hydroponics on the side of buses and on billboards here,” says Newman.

The Mounties occasionally crack down on growing pot, but law enforcement turns a blind eye to simple possession, although technically it’s still illegal. There are even Amsterdam-style coffee shops where you can light up a fatty with relative impunity.

“There’s one right across the street,” says Newman. “Blaine’s cousin owns it. It’s called New Amsterdam. I think he used to have another one called Blunt Brothers, but it burned down mysteriously.”

Collins tells you that there used to be a pot store up the street from his place. “They had it under glass like a cigar store, like you were buying coffee beans,” he says. “Up until last fall, there was a year-long window when there was no federal marijuana law on the books. They lasted about six months before the cops finally shut them down. Supposedly, they were selling $50,000 worth of pot a day.”

Both Collins and Newman insist that quasi-legalization has no real impact on consumption. Neither of them smoke, at least not anymore.

“I’m just too lazy to get around to it,” says Newman with his patented grin.

5. Health care is universal, but it’s merely adequate.
Since 1968, every Canadian has had access to health care. Citizens are issued a Care Card, which entitles them to immediate access to a doctor, any necessary surgery and 12 body massages per year. “I’ve only had one this year,” says Newman. “I really needed it.”

All Canadians pay into the fund—at a cost of $50 a month—although Newman once let his Care Card account go into arrears. Magnanimously, he eventually settled his $1,300 debt. “Turns out I didn’t have to: They can’t turn you away,” he says. “I just did it as a kind gesture to the government.”

Collins also got behind in his Care Card payments, to the tune of $1,500. A few months back, he fell down in the middle of the night and gashed open his chin. “I had to go to the emergency room,” he says. “Even though I owed them money, I was pretty sure they weren’t going to turn me away.” He was in and out in 20 minutes. “The funny thing was, the light bulb over the surgical table where they were working on me was burned out,” he says. “The doctor had to use one of those lights attached to his head. With the aging baby-boomer bubble, the health-care system is a little overstressed. It’s kind of Soviet that way.”

All Canadians have immediate access to emergency care, but there’s a waiting list for elective surgery. Collins’ mother spent 18 months on the list before her hip-replacement surgery. “Everybody gets the same care, which admittedly is a little spotty,” he says. “But nobody is left to die.”

“It’s one of the things that makes us Canadian,” says Newman.

4. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in Canada.
In 1874, during a return home to his family estate in rural Ontario, the Scottish-born Bell had his great revelation. Sitting atop a bluff overlooking the countryside, a favored spot from childhood he referred to as his “dreaming place,” Bell reckoned that human speech could be conducted over wires. It took him a year of trial and error in his Boston laboratory before he had his eureka moment. So, even though the actual discovery happened in America, the idea was hatched in Canada. This remains a huge source of Canuck pride.

The point of all this is that Canadians are a proud people, and justifiably so. Right now, you’re sitting in Cloud 9, the revolving restaurant/bar located on the 42nd floor of the Empire Landmark Hotel. There’s a mesmerizingly panoramic view of Vancouver, surrounded on three sides by water and skirted on the fourth by steep, green mountains. Your tour guides on this sunny afternoon are Thurier and New Pornographers drummer Kurt Dahle.

Vancouver is very modern and antiseptic thanks to an almost non-existent historic-preservation movement, its skyline a jagged lattice of clean-yet-unremarkable high rises. Not that there were many old buildings to preserve; 1886’s Great Fire reduced Vancouver to ash in less than 45 minutes. Until recently, city planners seem to have stuck to an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new approach.

“I remember when the Manic Street Preachers came to town, somebody asked them what they thought of Vancouver,” says Dahle. “They said, ‘It looks like it was built five years ago.’”

“See that building over there?” says Thurier, pointing to the Westin, a ’60s-era, 20-story hotel standing due east. “Supposedly, Howard Hughes used to own the penthouse, one of many he had all over the world. He used to cover the windows with tinfoil.”

Thurier isn’t really a musician; he just plays one in the New Pornographers. Newman convinced him to a pick up an instrument back in the early ’90s when the two formed Thee Crusaders, a jokey Christian-rock cover band, or “fuck band” (i.e. a goofy side project, in the parlance of the Vancouver scene). By day, Thurier drives the bookmobile for the Vancouver Public Library, schlepping some five tons of tomes to the city’s various branches. By night, he’s a filmmaker, having recently completed a full-length feature called Male Fantasy.

Dahle, a native of Saskatchewan, came to Vancouver in the early ’90s with his brother when the two of them had a big-in-Canada band called Limblifter. Having grown tired of jumping through the flaming hoops of the music biz, Dahle quit Limblifter and started playing with the New Pornographers when they were still unsigned.

“I joined the band just thinking we would drink beer and hang out and play in the basement,” says Dahle. “Boy, was I wrong. I remember when we recorded Mass Romantic, people were saying, ‘You should put this out.’ Carl was like, ‘Who would even be interested in something like this?’”

3. Los Angeles is the fourth-largest city in Canada.
There are more Canadians living in Los Angeles than in Ottawa or Calgary or Edmonton or Winnipeg or Quebec City. Hollywood has long since discovered that Vancouver and Toronto serve as ideal cinematic stand-ins for American cities: cheap, clean and friendly. (You pretty much stole the last couple lines verbatim from Douglas Coupland’s Souvenir Of Canada, an arty book of monologues and photographs that explores the weird, kitschy little things that make Canadians innately Canadian. You only mention all of this because, besides the book being hugely popular in Canada, it has been turned into a movie that Carl Newman scored.)

Canadians love Hollywood and Hollywood loves them back; this partially explains why you’re sitting across from comedian David Cross. He’s in town filming She’s The Man, a modern-day take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Cross also happens to be a big New Pornographers fan and a friend of the band. As such, he has agreed to appear in the video for “Use It,” which Thurier plans to shoot this weekend with one of those $25,000 government grants.

Cross is keeping it real in a baggy tracksuit and ball cap. For his She’s The Man role as a high-school principal, he’s sporting a thick, inky black beard that makes him look like an American Taliban. It’s midnight when he finally shows up at the Marine Club, an unintentionally retro longshoreman’s bar turned hipster hangout.

“Sorry I’m late, guys,” says Cross, sauntering in, grinning warmly, shaking hands and clapping backs. “What’s everybody drinking?” Though he spends a lot of time being an angry smartass in his stand-up work, in real life, Cross has a very sweet smile.

Newman, Thurier, Dahle and Collins are present. Bejar has a cold, and Todd Fancey (a.k.a. “Fancey Man,” the New Pornographers’ reclusive guitarist/keyboardist) doesn’t care much for good times in group situations. Also missing in action is Neko Case, the alt-country siren who’s lent her brassy pipes to all three New Pornographers albums. Her absence is not especially unusual, given that she long ago moved from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago. At the moment, she’s locked in a Toronto studio working on her upcoming solo album, but if there’s any truth to old wives’ tales, her ears are currently burning.

“Dude, that was ridiculous!” says Cross, when the topic turns to Case. “There is no reason to behave like that. None!”

Cross is referring to Case’s allegedly diva-esque demands when the New Pornographers performed at a Seattle staging of Tinkle, a weekly comedy night Cross hosts in New York City. This was back in May, and while it wasn’t quite separating the green M&M’s from the yellow, it was close enough that Cross has got a wild hare up his ass about it. (Case declined to comment on the incident, though her manager said, “Neko had the flu at Seattle Tinkle; she barely made the trip out for the show. I don’t think she knows anything about ruffling David’s feathers. She thinks he is the nicest and very, very funny.”)

Case has become increasingly difficult to pin down for New Pornographers tours and recording sessions as her solo career has taken off. This has become a source of friction, frustration and the occasional shouting match.

“For a long time,” says Newman, “it was just low self-esteem on our part, like, ‘Do people only like us because Neko is in the band?’”

“You don’t need her!” counters Cross, locking on Newman as if he’s holding an intervention. ”You know what you need to do.”

Newman looks away.

“Dude, it’s time,” says Cross, unblinking.

2. Mr. Scott from “Star Trek” was not Scottish, he was Canadian. Contrary to popular belief, Neko Case is American.
Case was born in Virginia and raised in Washington state, migrating to Canada in the early ’90s to attend art school. In Vancouver, she played drums and donned a catsuit in chick-punk outfit Meow, which later had to change its moniker to Maow because another band had already claimed that name. Eventually, she discovered the remarkable power and clarity of her voice and began fronting the alt-country Neko Case & Her Boyfriends. With Zumpano history and Superconductor winding down, Newman asked Case to sit in with his new basement-pop collective and drink a few beers.

Although it would remain in Newman’s sock drawer for almost three years before it was finally issued by the Vancouver-based Mint Records (Sub Pop, Zumpano’s label, politely passed), Mass Romantic was a bona fide indie hit when Mint licensed it to Matador in November 2000 for a wider U.S. release. Mass Romantic won a Juno for best alternative album, but because nobody in the band thought it had a chance, there were no Pornographers on hand at the ceremony.

“You’d think they would call you up and say, ‘Um, you really oughta think about coming,’” says Newman. “There was an amazing shift in our parents’ attitude about the band after we won.” Newman’s Juno holds a place of honor on his mom’s mantle. The other Pornographers’ statues have met a less exalted fate: Thurier accidentally broke the head off his, and Dahle uses his as a toilet-paper holder.

Newman wanted to call Mass Romantic’s follow-up Pardon Us While Our Brother Goes Electric, but because nobody else in the band liked it, he settled on Electric Version. Upon its release in 2003, it, too, became a small sensation and, not quite suddenly, the New Pornographers were in demand for tours, photo shoots and videos, leading to inevitable conflicts of interest with Case’s solo career. These days, her participation in the New Pornographers is reduced to recording sessions and a limited touring schedule.

“We weren’t even sure we were going to have her on Twin Cinema,” says Newman. “We were like, ‘We’re recording from this date to that date. Can you make it? No? OK, but we are still recording from this date to that date with or without you.’ And the next thing you know, she’s here recording her vocals.”

Case further stoked the “Where’s Neko?” questions when she opted not to appear with Newman on the cover of MAGNET for this story, citing a scheduling conflict and displeasure over the fact that the entire band wouldn’t be on the cover. Case also declined to participate in the New Pornographers’ brief summer tour of the East Coast, including a show in front of a crowd of 12,000 in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

In her stead, Newman brought along his 23-year-old niece, Kathryn Calder, who’s able to nail all of Case’s vocal parts. Ten years ago, Newman didn’t even know he had a niece named Kathryn. His mother gave birth to a daughter when she was 19 and put her up for adoption. In the mid-’90s, Carl’s mom and her long-lost daughter, Lynn Calder, were reunited. By this time, Calder was a fiftysomething mother of two, including one Kathryn Calder, a classically trained piano player with perfect pitch. Kathryn was invited to add vocals to Twin Cinema and, when Case begged off the summer tour, sing co-lead with her uncle. “Everyone in the band was a little nervous about it,” says Calder. “They said I might get heckled, but it never happened.”

Case will be joining the New Pornographers on tour this fall, with Calder handling backing vocals and additional keyboards. Calder’s band, Immaculate Machine, is opening the shows along with Dan Bejar’s group, Destroyer. This represents a new covenant in the New Pornographers: They are happy to have Case on board whenever she’s willing and able, but her scheduling difficulties will no longer scuttle tours or recording schedules.

“We want to get Neko for as long as possible,” says Newman. “But if it means we can’t tour with her, then we will tour without her.”

1. “Chimo” is the Canadian equivalent of Hawaii’s “aloha,” an all-in-one greeting and farewell.
“Chimo” (pronounced chee-mo) is an old Inuit greeting. Supposedly, when you met someone on the tundra, you would rub your tummy in a circular motion and say, “Chimo,” which meant, “Are you friendly?” Anyway, in the 1970s, there was a campaign to adopt chimo as Canada’s aloha. Just like you can’t give yourself a nickname, you can’t make a nation of Canucks adopt a cutesy slogan just because the tourists will love it.

Well, that’s just about all the time we have. You really opened up a can of whoop-ass with that “Where’s Neko?” stuff. Can you believe Cross was talking all that smack about her? Man, he’s gonna be pissed when he reads this. Case is gonna be pissed, too. So is Newman. And Thurier, because you called him moon-faced. Fancey will be glad you didn’t mention he’s a major stoner, but he’ll be bummed you didn’t mention his faux-’70s soft-rock band called, uh, Fancey.

Damn, they’re all such nice people. You hope they know it’s nothing personal. Do they think you enjoyed writing about having your porn confiscated at the border? In the end, we all have to bare ourselves for the greater good. It’s not always pretty, but it’s real. That’s what makes it life and not art, and that, in the end, is what you came to write about. Aw, who are you kidding? Nobody’s buying that. That’s not why you stirred up all that shit. An eye for an eye, that’s how we do things in America these days. You fuck with us at the border and we fuck with one of the best bands your country has ever produced.

Chimo.

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