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Carl Newman of New Pornographers on chart success and set list dilemmas

carl newmanCarl Newman comes to D.C. for two shows with the New Pornographers. (Caleb Beyer)

By David Malitz

The New Pornographers are in town for a pair of sold-out shows at 9:30 club Tuesday and Wednesday, so why not a two-part interview with main Pornographer Carl Newman? Yesterday we talked about being a tourist, "Lost," "Avatar" - basically anything that wasn't music. This time we talked about getting the band together, putting together a set list and finally liking his own band.

So ["Together"] is the band's fifth record. Has it become any harder or easier to round everyone up?

People think, "Oh, it must be difficult now that people are getting successful in their own careers." Using Neko as an example -- because she is successful -- she conceivably doesn't have to work as hard as she once did. Whereas 10 years ago she had to be touring constantly to make a living, now she can make a comfortable living touring only a few months out of the year. So I think that helps us. People look at Neko and think Neko's saying, "Screw this. I'm famous on my own. I'm gonna ditch these guys." But that's not the case.

And with somebody like Dan (Bejar, of Destroyer), I think it's easier to get Dan now that Dan has a family. (Laughs.) He has a family and a mortgage. Whereas when you're just single and younger you could go, "I don't want to tour that much. I've got everything I need here." But now he's got bills to pay so he's like, "OK, I'll go on tour with the New Pornographers." Guy's got to have a day job, right? That's my theory, at least. It works well for us.

"Together" debuted in the top 20 on the Billboard charts. Is that something you care about?

It really does matter. The morning that Soundscan numbers came out it was a little bit like Christmas morning. A really bizarre take on Christmas morning. You're like, "Did we do terrible? Did we do good?" It was cool to go to No. 18. I look at it, I have a hard time believing those are the same charts. Is that the same U.S. chart I looked at when I was a teenager? They have changed. You want to discount it and say it's easy to get on the charts these days because records are selling so little. But at the same time everybody is on the same playing field.

Indie bands - or more generally bands with dedicated fanbases - are doing pretty well, though.

That's very true. People always want to ask you, "What's it like being a musician when the music industry is floundering?" And I keep saying, "The indie rock industry isn't floundering." So many indie rock bands have broken out.

The New Pornographers have been around for about a decade, so your career has basically paralleled this latest indie boom. Has it been interesting to see it happen?

It really has. The strange thing is, going to No. 18 on the charts, if you told me 10 years ago that our record was going to debut at 18 I wouldn't have believed you. But now it's not that big of a deal. It's not something that even draws attention to itself because so many other bands do better than that. I remember in 2005 when "Twin Cinema" debuted at No. 44 on the charts and we thought, "Holy [expletive]. We hit the top 50." And it sold 19,000 in its first week. And I remember getting congratulations.

Now that you have five albums, is the live show more of a greatest hits or do you like to concentrate on the new stuff?

It's actually kind of tricky. I don't really want to be the band that just does the greatest hits. That's the good thing about doing two nights. I'm glad we're doing two nights in D.C. so we can change it up. But then, even when you're writing two nights of set lists, you ask yourself, "What are the songs that we have to play?" You make a list of songs we have to play and it's 15 or 16 songs. And then it only leaves us five or so variables. So on the two-night shows there are going to be - if you're a really big fan and you want to hear your favorite song you might have to go to both shows. There's one show where we probably won't play "Bleeding Heart Show."

Really? I'd think that one would top the "have to play" list.

Actually. OK. We'll do that both shows. The thing is, you go through so many songs and it's the same thing. You start going "Oh, 'Use It' - we've got to play 'Use It.' How about 'Spanish Techno?' Oh, we've got to play that." They keep adding up. Well, those are the only three songs we need to play. (Laughs.) I'm really looking forward to it. When we were rehearsing I consciously wanted us to learn a lot more songs than we've ever known. And we started digging out songs that we haven't played in years. Like "It's Only Divine Right," "July Jones" and "The Body Says No." Songs that I remember being big crowd favorites but we just dropped them because we thought, "Oh, times goes on. We've got new songs to play."

But it's amazing to go back, especially when you haven't played it in a long time. We've been playing "It's Only Divine Right" and as we're playing I'm thinking, "Man, I really like this song." It's a strange thing when you haven't heard your own song in a few years because you listen to it and have the objectivity to be a fan of your own music. Whereas I usually just hate everything we do. But when we were rehearsing I really was shocked that I was listening to our records and thinking, "If I wasn't in this band, I think I would like us!" And that makes sense.

And how many years did it take?

Only 10.

By David Malitz  |  June 22, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Be specific  | Tags: Carl Newman, New Pornographers  
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Twin Cinema is a fantastic album. I'm looking forward to hearing the new one.

Posted by: tomtildrum | June 22, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Carl, I'm a new fan, I don't know the older material, and I didn't make it to last night's show. But I'm going tonight. You GOTTA play "Crash Years". Really. Please.

Posted by: MyPostID27 | June 23, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

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