Sep 2, 2014
Unknown Pleasures: Interpol
Paul Banks and I are sitting on the roof deck of his Union Square apartment. This is not an activity he’s had much time for since moving in three years ago. On one of the rare opportunities he had to get up here, he was dive-bombed by a tiny, vengeful bird. He was impressed by its zeal, its determination to protect its nest. “That’d be like me doing drive-bys on a Tyrannosaurus Rex,” he says. “And, I mean, it worked. It scared the shit out of me. I thought I was going to lose an eye.”
Banks has been on the road for weeks, touring festivals worldwide in advance of Interpol’s fifth album, El Pintor. A dozen years removed from their 2002 breakout, Turn on the Bright Lights, they remain a headline draw at a time when constant touring is the primary source of income for almost any successful band. It’s a grind to which they’ve become well accustomed. “We worked really hard on the road in the early days,” says Banks. “I think maybe with the assumption that if the music industry had stayed like it was, we’d have been able to tour selectively in the future. You have a fanbase? Great, they’ll be there the next time you go on tour. But they’re not going to be paying for the albums, because now no one’s paying for the albums.” This spurs a mournful chuckle.
“But what’s the point in wishing for whole paradigm shifts to have not happened? I’m trying to make music, I’m not trying to be a business mastermind.”
The degree to which a wave of rock bands at the turn of this century “brought New York back” has always been mildly overstated, as New York City was, by virtue of being New York City, never really that far gone in the first place. Still, it’s true that bands like The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol blew up in a way that late-90s indie rock bands hadn’t. As an NYU student at the time, Banks took notice of successful but still cult-level bands like Jonathan Fire*Eater, Calla, Skeleton Key, and The Mooney Suzuki. Cat Power, a New York transplant, is maybe the only act from the era really remembered in retrospect as a real touchstone.
With the advent of social media still a ways off, the band essentially had no choice but to hold its cards close in their formative stages, and it wound up working in their favor, the way it had for so many bands before them and almost none since. They were able to present their debut—not to mention their appearance—as a cohesive, fully realized thing. Experienced as a whole, Turn on the Bright Lights bowled you over with monolithically dark and glamorous ambience, perpetually an hour past last call. When they signed to Matador Records in 2002, it was as a thoroughly practiced live band.
Interpol would come to be heavily associated with Brooklyn’s tantalizing cool, but the rooms they really cared about—Mercury Lounge, Brownies—were still in Manhattan. Drummer Sam Fogarino, the band’s most jovial personality, joined in 2000 as the lone Brooklynite among Manhattan-dwelling NYU kids. (He’s since become the furthest flung member, spending most of his time in Athens, GA.) Fogarino sold the others on the lower prices and available space that, at the time, existed in Williamsburg. He was the one who secured them a practice space that wasn’t charging by the hour. “[Brooklyn] didn’t have its own identity yet. You kind of had to put it under the guise of, Oh, c’mon, It should be called Ave. E. That’s how I had to sell it. From First Avenue, I clocked the train: three and a half minutes.”
It wasn’t a hard sell, obviously, at least at first. Aspiring creatives soon started moving to the neighborhood in droves, not because of easy access to the Lower East Side, but specifically to be in Brooklyn. (You’ve heard about this, yes?) The idea of frequenting bars where Turn on the Bright Lights was not only playing, but where the guys who made it might very well be sitting at the next table, became weirdly central to Brooklyn’s rapid transformation. “Sometimes people would put it on, and sometimes it was just on. It was a good time, because we were in bars all the time in that era,” laughs guitarist Daniel Kessler. “All the time. So the odds were pretty good.”
Their second album, Antics, followed relatively quickly, in 2004. It built only slightly on their signature sound, the band maintaining an upward trajectory. Neither 2007’s Our Love to Admire or 2010’s Interpol came with any substantial differences. As time went on, though, such dedication to that core sound left them in a precarious position. They did what they did so well, and with such commitment, that it was unusually difficult for them to deviate in any satisfying way. There was also a real sense that their sonic consistency caused them to lose the attention of the cool kids somewhere along the way. Asked if he saw the firm definition of Interpol’s sound as something of a drawback in a media environment where press coverage is guided by change, conflict, and novelty, Banks answers without rationalization. “I think that if there had been a single on album three or four that had taken off on radio like ‘Slow Hands’ or ‘Evil’ had before it,” he says, “we wouldn’t be talking about consistency as a drawback.”
El Pintor is the first Interpol record made after the departure of bassist Carlos Dengler, aka Carlos D, a character whose fame as a dapper scenester Dracula arguably outshone his formidably slick basslines. Though present for the recording of the band’s self-titled 2010 effort, he left soon after it was completed, and the band toured on without him. The split, it seems, was a long time coming. “The guy that I wanted around was gone a long time ago,” says Fogarino.
All three profess admiration for Dengler’s skill, and they’re reluctant to replace him with a permanent recording member who might not be as inspired. But they also hint that he may have been the one most to thank (or blame) for the aforementioned consistency, beholden as he was to their established songwriting methods. “He kind of had that rigid Germanic approach,” says Fogarino. “That was the Dengler in him.” On El Pintor they sound uncharacteristically loose, while also riding a welcome jolt of urgency. “It’s not that we had anything to prove with Carlos leaving, but then isn’t that kind of a lie?” asks Fogarino. “Just a little bit?”
Banks, fresh from his solo work as “Julian Plenti,” took on a bigger role in the writing process, coming up with bass parts along with his usual guitar and vocals. Kessler cites the buoyant album track “Same Town, New Story” as a key example of Banks taking up creative slack. “I came in one morning and Paul laid down the bassline and the vocals on it, and I was just like… He just took a whole different spin through the whole thing. At that point it was one of my favorite pieces of music. It was a great feeling. I’ve had a few of those moments in Interpol history, but that was definitely a top one.”
For anyone looking to poke fun at the band, Banks’ lyrics are the lowest hanging fruit. Earlier this year, Buzzfeed published a representative article spotlighting his most questionable turns of phrase, titled “Proof the Guy From Interpol Only Has a Vague Familiarity With the English Language.” From the band’s beginning, his dour intonation of lines—veering from puzzling surreality to fragmented conversation—has been a key element setting Interpol apart from dozens of Anglophilic record geek bands. Some, like “NYC”’s infamous, “The subway she is a porno,” exist in a zone beyond good or bad, having become absurdly memorable tokens of New York in a certain era. Some, like “You are the only person who’s completely certain there’s nothing here to be into,” are sly truisms that draw real blood, applicable to New York in any era. However you rate their elegance, they’re unusually hard to shake.
Banks has heard the jokes, if not the stray compliments. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten kudos,” he says.
“One thing I’ve noticed is some lyrics I’ve seen being poked fun at are misquoted, which bums me out. That really bums me out. There was a quote with, like, ‘Time is like a broken watch.’ I said, ‘I’m timeless like a broken watch,” which is way, way, way better than ‘Time is like a broken watch.’ When people talk shit about a lyric and get it right, it’s typically a lyric that I’m like, ‘Naw man, that’s a great lyric.’ But no, I don’t read anything online. I don’t read anything in print, either. It doesn’t do a lot for me to read what people say.”
In 2014 though, criticism is persistent in reaching its targets. “I had a really bad moment when I was on Twitter trying to promote my solo record, and someone said, like, ‘Oh, this paper got it wrong again.’ I clicked it and I saw this headline, “What the Fuck Is Wrong With Paul Banks?” I didn’t read it, but my stomach just sank,” he tells me.
“And did you spend the day pondering what the fuck was wrong with Paul Banks?”
“Well, yeah, I did.”
Banks’ aversion to criticism shouldn’t imply any lack of confidence in his band, though. El Pintor works as well as it does because it seems wholly confident that Interpol, doing what Interpol does best, is enough. Both the expensive-sounding strings and the horn section–aided maximalism of Our Love to Admire, and the ponderous atmosphere of Interpol, are ditched. It’s strange maybe, that shaking up their songwriting process should result in a record that hews much closer to the classic sound of the band’s first two records. After years attempting to stretch the band’s identity past its breaking point, Interpol have recommitted to bruised post-punk with an assured pop oomph. In particular, dreamy-then-destructive lead single “All the Rage Back Home” sounds like the elusive radio hit they’ve wanted for years.
According to Banks, there’s never been any sort of conscious calculation in the band’s work. The direct pleasures of El Pintor aren’t a reaction to Interpol’s obliqueness. “If there’s a good song on the table that we’re enjoying working on, we don’t really overthink it. We don’t think, ‘Aw, this is too many guitar songs, let’s only have tablas,’ you know? We just don’t bother with that,” he says.
A band as secure in its identity as Interpol won’t panic into grafting EDM bass drops onto their sound in order to better sway young festival-goers. Rock ‘n’ roll may be as far from mainstream culture as it’s ever been, but they never quit on it. And they’ve already proved they can hold their own against whatever alt-rock act is overpaid to perform at this year’s Coachella.
“We’re better in darkness with a light show, but we are a rock band. So, I’ve always kind of liked the festival scene to assert that fact,” says Banks. “We don’t care if you’ve never heard of us, we don’t care if its broad daylight. This is what rock looks like.” •
Makeup Artist: Lauren Smelley
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