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Interpol interview: "There’s something about New York. It’s still pure."

Nearly two decades into their career, NYC postpunk phenom Interpol returns with a bang

Interpol
Photograph: Jeff Riedel
By Tim Lowery |
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It makes us feel really old to say this, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to tag the term veteran rockers onto Interpol. Wait, when did Turn on the Bright Lights drop again? 2002. Yep, more than 12 friggin’ years ago. That debut LP was a head-turner, moody and dark and filled with a certain partying-too-much twentysomething angst—and, yes, a pretty similar sound to Joy Division—but also undeniably fresh and catchy. Released while the buzz on fellow downtowners the Strokes was at a fever pitch, the band made the whole New York rock-revival thing feel legit. Flash forward to today and the group has lost its powerhouse of a bass player, Carlos D, and been signed and subsequently dropped by a major label. And yet, despite those bumps in the road, the guys (lead singer and bassist-guitarist Paul Banks, lead guitarist Daniel Kessler and drummer Sam Fogarino) released their best album in years, El Pintor, this fall, recapturing the hooky vitality we loved about Interpol in the first place. We sat down with them just a stone’s throw from NYU, where Banks and Kessler started swapping songs in the late ’90s.

You guys recently played the Met, in the Temple of Dendur. Pretty swanky.
Sam Fogarino: It was surreal. There was a song that we played, “The Lighthouse,” which has long passes with just guitar, keyboards and vocals, and I just sat down off the stage and went, Wow. Fuck. We’re playing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in that temple—the Temple of Doom, I call it.
Paul Banks: An honor. Rubbing shoulders with high art was a trip.
Daniel Kessler: Definitely one of the highlights of my 20-plus years as a musician.

I assume touring with U2 was the highlight then.
Banks: That was awesome. Yeah, I love playing to gobsmackingly big audiences that don’t necessarily know our music. It’s like in Apocalypto, when all of those people are gathered around a pyramid. It just, like, zaps your brain to see this mass of people. I mean, I can’t do a toast in front of seven people at a dinner. So you’re walking out to 50,000 people that don’t know your band, and like, what if they don’t like you? What’s gonna happen? They could just squash us like a bug if they got really angry at what we’re doing. I get a real kick out of it, ’cause it’s like taking the term “sink or swim” to the next fucking level.

What’s the, let’s say, least swanky gig you’ve played?
Banks: We played all the shitholes in New York. And we played lots of shitholes in England. I remember on our European tour, we were booked at a death-metal festival at like two in the afternoon, in this weird compound of little bars and stages. It was just us with our brand of rock music and all these death-metal bands, and our tour manager just said, “Fuck it, let’s go; let’s not even do this. We’re just gonna get shit thrown at us. This is the wrong place to be.”
Kessler: We played our second show in Williamsburg. It was a disaster. Terrible. Just, like, a horrible performance by yours truly and the band. And the owner kept flashing a flashlight. That was the light show! We were like, Cool, dude, great. I guess you own this place, so we gotta do this.

That sort of environment doesn’t really jibe with the suits. Were they always part of the equation?
Fogarino: God, oh, yeah. Carlos had his pants pinned with the seams together. It all looked good in the photographs, but when you got up close to it, it just, like, whew. Everybody thought, Oh, they’re in their Prada suits. No, it’s just this vintage-store stuff, pieced together—J.C. Penney jacket, Sears pants. It was all crap.

Paul, since Carlos left the band, you took over bass duties for El Pintor. Was that difficult?
Banks: I mean, I’ve done bass on both solo records. But I think it was an especially interesting thing in this band, because our bass player was a beast. Daniel might be playing a chord that could be interpreted as a C or an F, for instance. It needs the bass to go, “That was an F, motherfucker, and this is where your chord direction is going.” [When he left], we could have said, “Let’s go talk to some other musicians and see if we can develop a new creative rapport with another person.” We could have done that, but it’s like, Yeah, here we are, and it’s working. Why not just keep going?

Speaking of Carlos, could you talk about him leaving the band?
Fogarino: It was amicable, because we were dealing with someone who was just profusely unhappy. You know, on one hand, you want to try to appease someone. Then it’s like, Just fucking quit then, ’cause I am still in love with what I do. And you’re kind of crushing my feelings, and you’re stepping on everything that I love and what I do. I’m trying to be a big person and trying to help you, and you don’t care. No ill will after that, but it was a sigh of relief. It’s like, Adjust these cans on the shelf, rebalance the shelf. Oh, look, it stays up just perfectly. Nothing missed.
Banks: Rather than like, What a bummer we lost the guy, I actually honestly look at it like, What a miracle that we made four records together, ’cause it’s hard to keep a band together.
Kessler: Yeah, you know, Carlos was in the band for a long time. He was in the band from 1997 to 2010. Anyone who’s been in a touring band knows that it’s a lot. It’s a big life change. It demands a lot on your life in general, so you have to basically be all in.

The band sounds reenergized on El Pintor.
Banks: There’s this overlap. So Daniel might have respect for aggressive, edgy kind of shit. But it’s not his cup of tea; it’s Sam’s and my cup of tea. So if Sam starts kicking a beat that has that kind of quality, then I will tap into that.
Kessler: One constant feeling I had from this writing period is that I’d leave rehearsal buzzed and super excited. I kept expecting some walls. That’s only natural when you’re dealing in creativity and collaboration. We felt like within the first two months we could go out and play a live show, almost as a three-piece, which to me is always a good tell that things are on the right course. When songs have enough to them, they don’t need much dressing up. So little was done through discussion and so much was done through music. It was an exciting process.

Are there fewer walls because there are just three of you making creative decisions?
Banks: Yes, there’s less cooks in the kitchen. It makes arguments shorter, and I just think that maybe you get to the point a little more quickly, simply because you have one less person kind of casting a vote on a given topic.

You were signed and dropped by Capitol Records. What happened?
Fogarino: Nothing horrible. Keep in mind the whole company got sold. The staff coming in didn’t know who we were, didn’t care who we were, and the new president was like, To hell with the internet, we’ll sell a million. He’s one of those fucking dinosaurs. But thankfully, we made it through that time and kept the record. It could have been shelved and in court for five years. [Our first label] Matador agreed to release it and we went back home. And that was that.

There seems to be some nostalgia right now for the early-aughts New York music scene.
Kessler: That’s got nostalgia now? That’s insane. Nostalgia’s always in, I guess.
Banks: If I were 21 now, the city would be just as exciting as the city was when I was 21. That’s where I think people go wrong: “When I was younger, it was way cooler.” It’s like: “Nah, you were in a different place; it’s still a cool fucking city.”

Was it actually a scene back then, the way it was presented in the press?
Kessler: I think back then New York bands weren’t really the cool thing, you know? We started in like ’97, played our first show in ’98. At that point in time, it was also a little…not dog-eat-dog but kind of like you just did your own thing and concentrated on bringing people to shows. There wasn’t the volume of clubs that there is now. Brooklyn really wasn’t in play. Obviously, things happened in 2001, and everyone got super excited about, for good reason, all the really great bands coming from New York City. But a lot of it was kind of unbeknownst to me.

Do you think it’s tougher to make it as a band now?
Fogarino: It almost seems impossible to me. Like, how does a band get known? How does a band just starting, you know, play some warehouse party? How does that happen? I dunno, man.
Kessler: I don’t have that answer, because when we started, it was pre–social media. I feel like people found out about Turn on the Bright Lights because of word of mouth and record stores and college radio stations.
Fogarino: Yeah, I remember when we were doing press for the first record, getting an interview with a website was like being asked to do some high-school newspaper.

How have you guys seen the city change?
Kessler: How many features are we doing here? [Laughs]

I’m expecting a book from this. We’re here for eight more hours.
Kessler: [Laughs] It’s changed so much. That’s also the nature of the city. I mean, I’ve lived here for 21 years. Now I live in Brooklyn, but I lived in Manhattan for a long time. There was a time around 2008, and I was walking around and was like [Makes vomiting sounds]. Just the tearing down of buildings and putting up of, like, glassy condominiums and cookie-cutter this and cookie-cutter that.
Fogarino: I kind of agree. But there’s still something about New York. As soon you step on the sidewalk, you’re fucking in New York. It’s still pure. Everywhere you look, everywhere you walk. At this point in my life, I’m not leaning on a scene. It’s the last thing I want, so I can find tons of inspiration here. It’s still the best fucking city in the world, no matter what phase it’s going through.
Banks: The East Village still looks pretty good and legit to me, but the Lower East Side changed a lot. But it’s still hipsters getting wasted. You know, that’s what it was when I was coming up. I think it’s really that I don’t go to those same bars anymore. But I assume there’s a lot of interesting young people getting really fucked up, coming up with the great new art that’s gonna be out in a couple years, just like me and my peers 15 years ago.

Interpol plays Terminal 5 Nov 24–26.

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