Interpol guitarist Daniel Kessler is convinced his band could have separated in its nascent stage. If Interpol met an early demise, he reasons, it wouldn’t have been an implosion born of clashing personalities and difference is musical taste, but a situation where band members were ripped apart by factors outside of their control. Like basically any aspiring band seeking some semblance of purpose and direction, Interpol played gigs to disinterested beer-swillers whose mild appreciation resonated in the form of dull claps or deadpan silence. Interpol heard crickets for much of their beginnings, but today, seventeen years after they released their first demo, the band is synonymous with the New York indie-rock scene that sparked something of a niche revolution that characterized music in the early aughts. Interpol is around today because they want to be, not because they feel like they had something to prove.
Although the band has been a workhorse for touring throughout much of its existence, the last few years, especially 2014, have been pretty notable. For one, founding bass player Carlos Denger left the group in 2010, reportedly because he just didn’t like playing bass. The group went on to write and record 2014’s El Pintor, and support that record with a string of gigs characteristic of their grinding penchant for the road. On the El Pintor tour last year, the band found itself caught in a heavy blizzard and was essentially marooned in their tour bus for up to fifty hours in Buffalo, New York. The Internet loved it.
We talked to Kessler on the eve of Interpol’s gig at Prospect Park as part of Celebrate Brooklyn.
Could you describe what New York’s scene was like in Interpol’s early stages and how that scene has changed over the years?
I mean it’s hard for me to say exactly how it’s changed because the times are just very different in general and the world has also changed a bunch. When we started out there wasn’t much of a New York City rock scene and people weren’t really paying that much attention to New York. You know at that point in the mid to late nineties, [labels like] Thrill Jockey were killing it and obviously Matador was doing really well. [Matador] had some New York acts as well but they were kind of a just a great independent record label. Chicago had a really big scene going on that people were really excited about and electronic music and some other stuff was more kind of happening at the time, so there wasn’t a whole lot happening for us.
We were a band for a few years and we were friends with some other bands but it wasn’t like it was this gigantic community [in New York]. It wasn’t until shortly before we released our first record that people started paying attention to bands from New York City, with the Strokes kind of leading the way. I mean it wasn’t that there wasn’t always good music coming from New York, but that people just weren’t really paying attention to it at the time. It was prior to the social media age and with that now, it doesn’t really matter where you’re from–you can be from anywhere in the world and if you’re a really great band and making great songs people should find out about you.
You guys have toured pretty relentlessly throughout some pretty massive stints. Does the need to tour and write music ever feel like a chore or a job for you or anyone in the band?
It doesn’t. I honestly feel like it really doesn’t. We would never make a record just to make a record. I wouldn’t ever assume that we need to make another record. I have too much respect for what we’ve done and for our fans in general. I don’t want to treat this like a job. I have faith and confidence and belief that we could do something really good if we keep doing things. But letting things happen organically is better to have dictate the course of another record, rather than saying ‘well there’s gotta be another one’, and I think we’re a different kind of band than that. It matters on an artistic side, like what do you want to say? Do you have anything to say? It just happens that every time we start working together after taking a little break, new ideas start bubbling about pretty quickly, as it did with the last record, but you don’t just say ‘there’s gotta be a new one,’ I really don’t treat this like that.
Has your band’s success come as a surprise to anyone in the group? Was there ever a point where you were like how is this happening? How are we touring with The Cure right now?
We played our first show in 1998 and made our first demo in March of 1998. We didn’t put our our first record until August 2002. Between that time there were lots of reasons for us to stop being a band you know? If you’re gonna go by the fact of people not really coming to your shows at all and no one really wanting to give you an opportunity to make an album, and we didn’t have a whole lot of money and New York City’s is expensive. Plus, you’re talking about young men who have different things that they might want to do with their lives, so there were things that could have stopped us from moving forward. It can’t be a huge hassle. But it was the only thing I ever wanted to do, and I was doing a lot of the management stuff back then, and I just wanted the opportunity to make a record and to make a record with a company that we like a lot, and when Matador offered us a deal, I couldn’t really believe it. It felt like a big monkey getting of your back.
But for me, that was as far as I got when it came to envisioning anything. And to me, that was accomplishing everything I ever wanted just by putting out a record. And everything that happened after that was sort of all bonus and never something I would have ever envisioned.
Why have you guys gone on hiatus so many times?
We never went on hiatus, that’s where I think people get confused. We tour pretty hard, you know? I’ve been on the road pretty much since March of 2014. Now I’m at home, but the longest break I’ve had at home was easily this year, in maybe over a year. Going back to your last question of things ever feeling like a chore, it’s not like, when we get off tour, ‘we have to rush to the studio and start working on a thing right away, because it’s better for our career’ and stuff like that. That’s not how we do things. We did two-hundred shows for the last record, leading us to the end of 2011. I started writing much of the songs that formed the basis of El Pintor in 2012. And then 2013 we wrote and recorded that entire record [El Pintor], which isn’t that long of a time to write and record an entire record, especially since Sam [Fogarino] doesn’t even live in New York, so we’d only write ten days at a time and then take two-weeks off.
The longer you do this, the more you need a little space to do other things in life, whether it’s artistic-related or just living. It’s definitely takes a lot to be traveling so much and you need to leave a little time for new ideas to come to fruition.
El Pintor was your first record without Carlos Dengler, one of your founding members. What was it like recording your first record without someone who had been there all along?
I think because Carlos left after he recorded his parts on the fourth record, before we mixed it, and we started touring [after his departure] with friends who played bass and keyboards, and then we did the two-hundred shows, and that helped us become comfortable operating within this new entity. Then we took a little bit of a break. I feel like we already had the comfort of playing and operating as a three-piece with two close friends playing with us on stage, so when it came time to get together and look at stuff, it wasn’t like ‘Carlos left yesterday,’ or whatever. It had been a few years when we actually started making the record. I had been writing all these songs and then got together with Paul [Banks] and played him some songs. By the end of the first rehearsal Paul just said ‘maybe I should bring my bass tomorrow,’ and I was like ‘ok cool.’ And by the end of the second day we already had the tentative sort of arrangement of the bass parts and even the vocal melodies that are on the record now. So I feel like, we had never had a rehearsal quite like that and I left that day feeling kind of floored and super excited. And we didn’t have any plans as far as like Paul playing bass, but it was kind of just like one song at a time, and then it started feeling really good and then we didn’t know whether Paul would record the bass parts or if we’d bring in someone else, but at the end of the day, Paul just recorded the bass parts that he wrote, and he did a pretty amazing job with that. So I feel like we just kept with the moment. We were dealing with what was happening in the room but we were thinking about the bigger picture, you know?
What do you like most about playing hometown gigs like the one you have scheduled at Prospect Park for Celebrate Brooklyn?
To me, I love playing hometown shows and the commuting. And what I mean by that is, that I took the subway to Madison Square Garden when we played there and that was like pretty awesome. I also live in Brooklyn, so it’s pretty exciting playing somewhere where I live. It’s a really great outdoor space for New York City and New York City shows are always very, very, very special for us. And the three shows we did at Terminal 5 last year were some of the best shows we played on this entire run [of shows]. I felt like it was really important to us and really meaningful to us. So yeah, I’m just really thankful for the opportunity to play outdoors and to play our hometown. Then I get to sleep in my own damn bed which is always pretty fantastic.
Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster