Q&A: The New Pornographers’ Carl Newman

Carl Newman (rocking the flannel) and the rest of New Pornographers.
Photo: Jason Creps

Have you ever played Las Vegas?

It’s the first time we’ve ever played there. Somehow Las Vegas never shows up on tour itineraries. I guess it’s just slightly out of the way. Even on tours it seems like we don’t pass through—we have to make a conscious effort, a detour, and say, “Hey, let’s spend four or five hours in Las Vegas.”

Have you done that?

Yeah, I can’t recall the last time when, though. But I know I’ve done it a few times in my life. It’ll be interesting to stay there for four nights instead of just four hours.

So you’re sticking around for the whole festival?

Yeah, my wife and I are coming on September 30, and we’re gonna be there for all three days. My wife used to work at the label—she worked there for eight or nine years; she was the marketing manager—so she really wanted to do it. She’s a part of their history.

It feels like it’s gonna be cool, but I also think it’s gonna be weird, because the bands and everybody who bought weekend passes are all staying at the same hotel. That’s cool, but I also think: What the hell is that going to be like?

Are there some bands you’re personally excited to see?

There’s a lot of great bands playing. And it’s a festival where you’re connected to so many of them. It’ll be good to see Belle and Sebastian, because we toured with them in 2006, and they’re friends that we don’t see that much. And it’ll be great to see Guided By Voices, because I toured with them in 1997, with an earlier band of mine called Superconductor. We didn’t have very many fans, but Robert Pollard was one of them, so he invited us out on tour once, which was a great time. I remember opening for them and playing to these crowds of, say, 1,000 people and thinking, “This is fun. I’ll never do this in my own band, but it’s fun to pretend, to open for a really popular band and pretend people are coming to see you.” Sometimes when I’m playing certain venues I’ll think of opening for Guided By Voices way back when—it makes me feel grateful.

The New Pornographers got onto Matador after they’d had some pretty big indie bands like Pavement and GBV on the label. How much was that a factor in choosing Matador?

Matador was always the No. 1 label we wanted to be on. There was just a sense from the beginning that it was a really cool label. I remember when they first showed up, when you first starting seeing ads for Matador Records, and it was all these bands you’d never heard of. But I knew it was Gerard [Cosloy], who’d worked at Homestead, and I was really into a lot of stuff on Homestead. I remember going out and buying all the Teenage Fanclub and Railroad Jerk and Superchunk and Thinking Fellers [Union Local 282] albums. So that always stuck with me, that they were a great label. We were very lucky to end up there. Initially, I was just the guy buying their records in 1990. And then they signed us and that became my career, and my wife worked at the label and that’s how I met her, So, yeah, Matador Records has played a pretty huge role in my life, perhaps more so than anybody else has.

How much do you think Matador helped pave the way for the indie successes we’re seeing today, with bands like Arcade Fire going to No. 1 and such?

I think they definitely did. All the indies—Matador, Sub Pop, Merge—they all had to work for a long time, and of course all the bands, to build this kind of subculture, a very influential subculture, which ended up influencing the mass culture.

It’s been interesting to watch. In 1991 Nirvana exploded, and it felt like it was overnight, like grunge was nowhere and all of a sudden Nirvana showed up and it was like, “Have you heard the news? Metal’s over. It’s grunge now.” It felt like this very quick shift. And indie rock has been this slow crawl. Indie rock’s always been fairly popular. In the early ’90s Pavement was super popular, but now you look around you and it’s insane. It used to be if you sold 100,000 or 150,000 records you were one of the huge bands in indie rock, and now that just puts you somewhere in the middle. Because there’s so many bands like Arcade Fire or Vampire Weekend that have gold records, or The Shins or Modest Mouse or Death Cab or Sufjan Stevens. It’s big business. It used to be such a freaky thing for an indie-rock record to land in the top 10, and now it’s not at all unusual. If you’d told me 10 years ago we would have a record that debuted at No. 18 on Billboard I would go, “Holy shit! How did that happen?” but now it’s not unusual. It’s not even worth anybody writing about. It’s like, who cares that the New Pornographers are in the top 10? Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend are No. 1.

It’s interesting to think of bands like Superchunk. In the 1990s you thought of Superchunk as one of the really big bands, but they really didn’t sell all that much. Or even going back further to bands like Hüsker Dü, who seemed like the hugest indie-punk band in the world, and they probably only sold like 40,000 or 50,000 copies in America at their height.

What are some of your personal favorite Matador albums?

A bunch of them by the Thinking Fellers, the Admonishing the Bishops EP and Mother of All Saints. And of course, some of the GBV albums, like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, things that everybody loves. The first Superchunk record, which was originally released on Matador but is now on Merge. Extra Width by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Belle and Sebastian, everybody loves Belle & Sebastian. And there’s a lot of new stuff I really like—I was really into the Lavender Diamond record (Imagine Our Love).

We’re sort of part of the new old guard. ’Cause there’s bands like Yo La Tengo and Cat Power who have been on the label since the ’90s. We’ve been on for seven or eight years now. It’s very strange to think that we’ve become a sort of mainstay on Matador Records. You’re used to being the new kid and all of a sudden you realize no, we’re seniors.

What do you think of the festival lineup?

There’s a lot of interesting inclusions there, like Spoon, who only put out, like, a record and an EP on the label. Or Superchunk, who left the label in 1993 or something like that. But what’s cool about it is it really illustrates the sense of community in indie rock. You realize that Merge and Matador aren’t competitors. They’re both trying to sell records, but they’re friends and they interact. And same thing with Spoon—used to be on the label but they’re still friends with them they still want to come and play on their 21st anniversary.

They released the schedule last night; have you had a chance to study up on it?

Yeah, I was looking at that and thinking, They’re actually expecting people to spend three entire days at gigs. They’re expecting you to start at noon and go till, like, 4 in the morning And there’s only, like, one hour between the afternoon gig and when the big gig opens up, that I’m sure is gonna see thousands of people rushing on the restaurants. You’re gonna see a lot of people at the buffets.

I know I’m not gonna go to everything, but if I was, like, 21 and going to this thing I would be thinking, this is gonna be the greatest weekend, and I’m sure I would be at every single thing. I’m really glad we got onto the bill we got onto, the third one: GBV, Yo La Tengo, Liz Phair, us, Ted Leo, Shearwater. Not like one of those other weak nights (laughs).

In terms of your lineup, will Neko [Case] and Dan [Bejar] be onstage for this?

Yeah, they’re both going. I’d say Dan is probably there about a third of the time, but he’s coming to this. I finally convinced him. I said, “Dan it’s one fucking day, you get paid to come to Vegas and you also get to see the GBV lineup from 1995,” and he said OK.

And having them there opens up the entire catalog, right?

We do a couple of Dan’s songs when he’s not there, like we’ll do “Testament to Youth in Verse” or “Jackie. Dressed in Cobras,” because those songs are more like everybody-singing numbers. Whereas something like “Myriad Harbour” is built so much around his idiosyncratic singing style that it doesn’t make sense for somebody else to try and do it. And some songs, like “My Shepherd” or “Go Places,” just seem like such Neko songs that we only do them when she’s there. But other ones Kathryn [Calder] sings when Neko’s not there.

How do you build a setlist for something like this?

We only have 45 minutes, so it’s gonna be interesting. When you have five albums it feels like an hour set is short. We’ve been doing this tour of America and playing at least an hour and a half a night, so when we got to Lollapalooza and we had to play for an hour, I thought, How are we gonna cut our set down to an hour? Now I’m thinking, How are we gonna cut it down to 45 minutes? It just means, well, we’re only gonna get to do one song from Mass Romantic and one from Electric Version and maybe two or three from Twin Cinema. Because it really only gives you, like, 10 songs.

You guys were in the news recently when [Michigan’s] Calvin College canceled a scheduled New Pornographers gig over concerns about the band’s name. Anything you want to say about that?

As much as it became a news story—and that’s nice, because it makes people write about us—it’s sort of a non-incident. It’s not like Calvin College is evil. They were actually very nice about it. The fact was, sure, we’re a harmless band and we don’t represent evil and pornography, but we are called The New Pornographers and they are a Christian college. And I think there was probably some outside pressure from somewhere. The letter we got from them about it was actually very nice, essentially saying we know you’re not bad people or offensive. Just that sometimes the irony of our name can be lost on a lot of people.

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