New York City Blues – Interpol Interview

Full interview with Clash cover stars

Interpol are made of pretty solid stuff. An unwavering constant in the relentless sea of musical change, they are the collective ‘suckle rug’ for a disenchanted generation, so to speak.

Because the music industry can be a fickle machine and with music making now a largely disposable phenomenon, many bands often don’t make it past the first album. But New York City’s gloomiest musical protagonists have built their prolific career on reliable foundations: blood, sweat, tears and impeccably sharp dressing.

The 2002 release of debut album ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ saw the band’s career skyrocket virtually overnight and Interpol swiftly become a byword for cool. Spearheading the post-punk revival, this band of monochromatic anti-heroes became trendsetters in their own right, inspiring the musical zeitgeist of the day and paving the way for a whole host of acts.

But singer Paul Banks doesn’t give a fuck about their legacy; he’s living in the now. The recent departure of bassist Carlos Dengler forced the band to temporarily downsize (guitarist Daniel Kessler and drummer Sam Fogarino complete the original trio), before recruiting two new members in the form of Dave Pajo and Brandon Curtis. Speaking exclusively to Clash, Banks and Kessler lovingly pay heed to Carlos’ vital contribution on this fourth, eponymously titled record, a plucky effort which also shows Banks in a new, self-deprecating light.

And wearing their crisp Prada suits like a second skin, Interpol certainly have a monopoly on suave, sophisticated style. Famed for bringing a sharp sartorial edge to the world of indie, we wanted to find out more about their shameless love of fashion and ask, are they always this miserable?

To quote one of your lyrics in ‘The Undoing’: “style is worthwhile.” How important to you is image and what message are you trying to convey with your visual aesthetic?
Paul: You’ve got wear clothes, so you may as well enjoy what you’re doing and find clothes that suit you. Fashion is a nice way to communicate things in an artful way. Image is important to us simply because I don’t think we would leave a facet of our work unattended, so to not have some sort construct in the visual realm would be strange. If bands are trying to be slouchy or non-fashionable then that in itself a fashion statement. I think if it works for what a band is trying to say for them to wear shorts and fucked up t-shirts like Pavement for example, then that’s just as much as a fashion statement as to wear suits. So there’s always artifice to the public façade of a band and I guess we just like to dress nice for the ladies. It’s more like a uniform for us. It started for me simply by the fact that when the band began I had a job that I hated and I remember going from work to a gig and thinking that this gig is what means something to me so I’m going to make myself presentable.

Have you always taken an interest in fashion or has this interest evolved as the band has evolved?
Paul: No, we’ve all probably been independently interested in fashion. But I don’t read fashion magazines, I’m more interested in how people dress and how they have fun with it. I’m not a label snob or anything and I never care about what a trend is at any given moment, I just see what I like on other people and appreciate style.

You requested Prada suits for the shoot. Is there a relationship there?
Paul: I’ve just always really liked Prada. I like the cut, the lines, the colours. I’m a pretty monochromatic dresser and Prada has a very nice sleek feel to do it. But I also really love Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Agnes B. My favourite item of clothing at the moment currently is my vintage David Lee Roth t-shirt though where he’s painted red with white dots down the front. I get a lot of compliments on that.

You all look very comfortable in suits, but what do you like to wear to kick back in?
Paul: Part of style is that you have to be comfortable with what you’re wearing and so I never do anything that I’m uncomfortable with. I like to explore many avenues in fashion and I also embrace anti-fashion. I’ve been trying to dress like an Eastern European gangster off stage for nearly a year now, and really enjoy wearing sweat pants, wife beaters and jewellery. Often there will be great style things that I see and love. Like two years ago the hipsters were wearing really skinny jeans, big t-shirts, neon sunglasses and huge hi-tops and I think that’s totally fucking rad but I wouldn’t wear it because I don’t feel comfortable in it. But it you asked me to do a graph of what was the coolest thing then two years ago I would have said that. Right now all the hipsters in Williamsburg are wearing cut off jean shorts and loafers and I think it’s really cool and stylish but I would never do it. I’m not a slave to trends.

When you were going out with Helena Christensen you must have moved in New York’s fashion circles. What did you make of the fashion world and its relationship with music?
Paul: I’d prefer not to talk about it. I did meet Marc Jacobs through her which was pretty cool but I didn’t go on any shoots or anything like that and I always did my own thing. But I’d definitely agree that there is a great relationship between the fashion world and the music world, especially in a city like New York. Lady Gaga and Karen O are two examples of where music and design are obviously inspiring each other in a really cool way and that’s awesome. I don’t think that I personally put enough attention into that side of things to ever go that route. I really just like to dress the way I like to dress but I think it’s a healthy union of two industries in many instances. It’s the same way if you compare a painter with a fashion designer, I’m sure they would identify with each other and respect each other as artists, but whether there’s a co-existence, I’m not sure. There have been moments when I’ve stopped people in the streets to ask what’s going on because I really like it.

Let’s go back to the beginning. You could say you owe a lot to John Peel…
Paul: Yeah, well it wasn’t until we did a Peel session, as John Peel liked us early on and heard our first demo, which is what got Matador’s attention and then we got a record deal. But by the time we were signed to Matador we already had a fanbase and were doing pretty good shows in Boston and New York. We were just doing our thing and waiting for people to get with it rather than changing our thing to get with the people so we were just doing our shows and trying to get a record deal. I think there have only been three songs in the history of Interpol that have been scrapped. Pretty much anything we ever wrote is here. We weren’t tinkering with our sound to accommodate people.

After the success of your debut album ‘Turn On the Bright Lights’, did you feel the pressure to live up to critics’ high expectations?
Paul: No not really, because we had already built good foundations after four years of playing shows around Europe without any real hope of even putting out an album. It’s hard to make it in NY and when we were starting out there were only a few pubs that you really wanted to play to make a difference and you play them hundreds of times without any luck. There are lots of bands that don’t make it but we just really liked writing together and making it together. You need to do it because you want to do it and not because you want to be in a rock band.
Daniel: I don’t think we ever felt pressured because all of the years before we put out our first record kind of built the foundations, so nothing happened too fast. I think that the focus is so strong and firm when you finally make your debut so it’s not really shaken by people paying attention to your band. I think it’s probably different nowadays as a band pay get interest within the first 6 months and people are suddenly dying for them and that may make it more difficult to make their second record.

How do you feel about being credited with spearheading the post-punk revival?
Paul: I don’t care.
Daniel: Other peoples’ tag for our band is not necessarily our tag. That’s fine for people to have their own interpretation and impression of our band but it’s not where we’re always coming from. I don’t think we made a post-punk record. On this record alone there is lots of instrumentation that wasn’t on our last record and nowhere near as much as on our first and second records. There are lots of sounds and melodies from new sources.
There are strings that we put together on our own that are really unique to themselves.

Wire, Gang Of Four, Joy Division, people are always comparing your sound to British post-punk. Would you say British music has had more of an influence on your work than American?
Daniel: I don’t think our band were directly inspired by any of the British post-punk bands although I’ve always loved Wire and Gang Of Four. I lived in England until I was six and I lived in Europe until I was eleven but I spent my formative years in Washington DC where there was a pretty healthy underground punk scene there and so I actually got a lot of my guitar sound from that and influenced by all of that. So what people confuse British post-punk has actually been to me Washington punk.
Paul: It’s funny because I’ve always talked about Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as big influences as well as Pink Floyd and Jane’s Addiction. When something hit me as a kid I would listen to it a million times. So there are certain records that I’ve listened to a million times like Beck’s Mellow Gold. And recently someone had this on the car The Violent Femmes ‘Blister in the sun’, and I realised that I totally forgot about them, but I listened the shit out of the Violent Femmes when I was younger: they’re one of my main influences. I can hear that influence all over and it’s amazing that I’ve never mentioned it or no one’s ever mentioned it to me. I think there are certain influences that are mine that people pick up on and there are certain influences that people think are there but I can’t necessarily agree. I’ve never really related to any criticism I’ve ever read about the band because it’s never related to my perception of the band and appears to be totally different to the way everybody else sees us. I’m not blaming anyone but there’s not really any point of me talking about what our music is because it’s generally out of sync with what’s getting printed about us. I’ve been talking about my influences for ten years but I guess it never really made the page.

You’ve got a very recognisable sound. Was that always the goal or any plans to broaden your sound in the future?
Paul: I think it’s hard to have a concrete goal in a band that is so collaborative. You just have to make the music that interests all the members; it would be limiting to say on the next record that we need to diversify or try this or whatever because that would get in the way of our music growing organically and I think our music is better served if we just do what feels right in the moment and don’t anticipate things.

I read that in the early days you and Carlos used to bicker a fair bit. Is this true?
Paul: Yeah we used to argue over most things but in a very healthy way and we played devil’s advocate with each other. We would always argue because we had very different personality types. We’re very different and very similar. We all have our own individual relationships with each other within the band and mine and Carlos’ was very special but also very volatile.

How has Carlos’ departure affected the overall dynamics of the band and what’s his legacy?
Paul: It’s important to know that Carlos wrote this record with us, so it’s all of his compositions on the record. The only thing that’s different is we now play live with Dave Pajo who’s on bass and Brandon Curtis on keys and vocals. With regards to Carlos’ legacy, in my opinion he’s a musical genius and will probably be a rock icon well into the future. But I think at the moment it’s only other musicians who appreciate how good a musician he is. He’s a fucking exceptionally gifted individual and his legacy will be long and rich.
Daniel: Any sort of change is obviously going to be a bit tumultuous but Carlos let us know eight months ago he was leaving and a lot of things have happened since then. So in a way, I feel like it’s less tumultuous now maybe, as we had been having ongoing conversations about it for months. We knew that Carlos was conflicted as far as loving being in Interpol but also wanting to pursue things outside of Interpol and being in a rock band in general. But it’s something we all understood with him and with other people in general who want to do that. I can’t really speak on behalf of him but we know that it was a very difficult decision for him and he made the decision it was after he had finished his recording contributions to the record and after we mixed the record. It became clear to him that he needed a change and couldn’t do a year and a half on the road.

How did you go about choosing your two new band members and how have your fans reacted to the change?
Daniel: There’s been tons of enthusiasm from day one. Obviously you never know what it’s going to be like when you go out in general ever. We haven’t played a show in the States for nearly three years, so it’s been a long time. But everywhere we’ve been we’ve had a really warm reception, even when we go away for a while our fans really stand by us which is pretty wonderful in this day and age. Right now our focus is the live form. In the history of Interpol we never look that far down the line. We’ve just finished one record and we’re working on making these songs come alive at shows and concerts and on our catalogue of songs. But we certainly get on great with those guys and it’s been a lot of fun, lots of chemistry all round. We’re just taking it us it comes. We were always great admirers of Dave Pajo’s work, not just in Slint, but the Tortoise record he played on was a massive influence on me. And all of his solo stuff too; Papa M and Ariel PinK. And he toured with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Our sound guy suggested him to us, and he seemed really enthusiastic about it. We’ve done like 14 shows together now. We’ve known Brandon from the Secret Machines for about ten years
Paul: I listened to Slint loads when I was at school, so if we’re talking about influences then Slint are way up there, close to my heart. I often play with musicians that are better than me and it’s very inspirational and motivational playing with Dave Pajo.

This is your fourth release and you’ve always said that your creative process is a collaborative effort. How did it work on this latest album?
Daniel: The songs begin with me and then we all have our say about where they should go and Paul finishes off the vocals and the lyrics. Conversations about aspirations and goals have never really worked for us. I think it’s just better to play a song and have a reaction to it and that’s what makes the whole process so interesting. I can come in with these ideas of guitar progressions and songs that I’m pretty into in my own ideas but as soon as you play it to a band it can go any way.

There’s a bigger emphasis on keys in Our Love to Admire and ‘All of the Way’ and ‘Try It On’ are speckled with electronics. In what ways have you continued to develop your instrumentation and do you see the band maybe heading down the more electronic route in the future?
Daniel: The rhythms are more sophisticated and there’s more of a sense of atmosphere. The only rocky one is single ‘Barricades’ but the other ones are upbeat in different ways. Take ‘Summer Well’, we have a new way of making it upbeat via the instrumentation and orchestration. We’ve always been an album band not a singles band so the songs probably take a bit of time to get into. There are strings that we put together on our own that are really unique to themselves. But if we wanted to make a record with no guitars, no drums, just electronic music and it felt right and that was the next Interpol record then that’s what we’d do. We don’t really have boundaries we just do whatever speaks to us. Our sound has evolved from record to record. It sounds like a band playing live at the beginning with songs that we’ve written anywhere between 1998-2002, before we released our first album. There’s a bit more expansion on the second album so that you can still hear the band playing live and so forth but it also sounds like a band who have had more experience in the studio. With this record we were wide open to anything , the guitar is a minimal approach and Dave’s contribution to the songs is really just about whatever the song needs.
Paul: That was Carlos’ department. But he was trying to move our rock music more towards classical, and I think he had advanced in his compositional skill and musicality (along with Daniel) in to make something a lot more experimental. The orchestration and the arrangement is more advanced and made with a new assurance.

‘Always Malaise’ is a particularly maudlin song, even more so than the others. Can you explain to our readers where it came from?
Paul: I don’t usually like to explain my lyrics because that’s like a painter writing an essay about his painting. But this song is more autobiographical than the others as it stemmed from an actual emotional experience. It just so happened that I walked from an event to the studio and wrote the lyrics to the song. So it’s the one time I can say that the thing that happened to me before I got to the studio that day really impacted on my writing.

Do you find it easier or more difficult to write from emotional experience?
Paul: I take interest in human emotion so I often write about what I think other people are experiencing but I’ll say it’s me. Or I’ll write about a certain human experience I’ve never had but because it interests me.

The album maintains a typically dark and brooding tone. Does art imitate life and would you say that there’s a recurrent theme on this record?
Paul: That’s definitely where our aesthetic as individuals overlap, but comedians aren’t necessarily funny people when they’re off stage so you can’t assume that our personalities are reflected in our music. I generally try and express what I’m trying to say within the context of relationships. So this time around I explored the concept of being a loser in love rather than the whole arrogant, chip on the shoulder thing. I felt like I had gone a bit chauvinistic with my tone at times in order to get girls to pay attention to me.
Daniel: I don’t know if I would say that it’s downbeat. The rhythms are more sophisticated and there’s more of a sense of atmosphere. The only rocky one is single ‘Barricades’ but the other ones are upbeat in different ways. Take ‘Summer Well’, we have a new way of making it upbeat via the instrumentation and orchestration. I think it’s an inviting record, like most of our records, we’ve always been an album band not a singles band so the songs probably take a bit of time to get into. The lyrics are Paul’s domain, they are open to interpretation.

Any luck?
Paul: Nope. I’m still trying to work out what the magic thing to say is in a song to get the ladies to put me on speed dial….
You’ve been on hiatus for two years, what have you been up to?
Daniel: We did tour for a long time and we did writing for quite some time too. I was writing individually before I was in the band. I did travelling back and forth to Europe and the states and also learnt the piano. Obviously being in a band is a privilege but you also need some give and take. It’s difficult to have stability when you do get downtime it really is your time and you can do what you want. I like touring, it’s great. Obviously it’s hard because you don’t have a place to call home but it’s a privilege that you can go out and play shows and people actually want to be there, knowing the words to your lyrics. That will never be lost on me. I think because we so many years in New York without any interest, and it was four years before we put out our first record that it kind of fuels you with that kind of chemistry.

Do you feel nervous about getting back in the saddle?
Paul: Well I’ve recently made a solo album and we rehearse so much and always get really road-ready before a show, so not really. Obviously we have new line-up on stage so I was curious to see how people would respond and they’ve been going apeshit so it’s really exciting.
Daniel: I didn’t feel nervous at all, I think I was fuelled by the new band and a sense of confidence and eagerness. So when I went out there I kind of forgot it. There’s always that nervousness playing new songs live but we were playing well together, there was good chemistry.

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