Onwards and upwards for Interpol
“I don’t feel all that compelled to express those parts of my personality that are balanced and content. What you usually manifest in art are therapeutic expulsions of feelings and emotions that aren’t so easy to sublimate, or aren’t so easy to hold in a balance,” muses Paul Banks on his way LAX airport.
In New York 30 minutes earlier, art of another kind has literally got in the way of our phone conversation with Interpol’s lead guitarist and engine Daniel Kessler. “I’ve literally just stumbled across one of those Aphex Twin stencils in the street”, he gasps. “I’ve been a fan for at least 20 years. That’s unreal. I’ll call you back.” Aphex Twin and Interpol? Unlikely bedfellows, but if the above statement by Banks is applied directly to the expulsion of the uncomfortable, albeit with vastly differing methods, it might be the only thing these two vastly different artists have in common – other than, of course, a recent return to the collective consciousness of their respective fans.
A balanced and content Interpol, comprising this duo and drummer Sam Fogarino, has led to unquestionably their strongest record in 10 years. If you’re content in private, maybe it becomes easier to achieve your catharsis through the aforementioned artistic process. The clarity in the band’s output has returned, unmistakably coinciding with the departure of signature bassist Carlos Dengler, the instantly identifiable vampiric member of the band whose prowling of the stage became legendary. This is Interpol’s first long-player as a three-piece. Dengler is universally lauded by all those connected to Interpol, but is also perceived as the primary architect of inter-band tensions. In previous interviews Banks has described Dengler as an “a-hole and a genius” in 2011, and in a recent interview with The Quietus, Banks said: “If Daniel went one degree left-of-centre, Carlos intentionally went another degree-and-a-half left of that.” Banks and Dengler no longer talk. The tension is evident without spilling over. When questioned on the subject, Banks’ responses are earnest and forthright.
“The dynamic is different from being a four piece to a three piece,” he states. “It makes arguments shorter, and I think if interest is split on our ideas a majority can fall on one side. The best analogy I can come up with is the chemical bond analogy, where there’s a tighter bond between three atoms than four. There is less activity with three and a tighter compound. I don’t feel like we are better, we were just very happy to realise it worked as a three piece and I think we have a whole new voice as a band.”
When asked whether Carlos leaving the band has paved the way for a more solidified unit, Banks is less candid. Carlos’s role is never less than firmly acknowledged. “I wouldn’t say that, and I’d be uncomfortable someone else saying that. I just think we’re a different beast now. I’m not gonna say anything … Carlos is a man, Carlos is amazing. I need to acknowledge how much I respect Carlos and his contribution.”
Brad Traux continues to fill in on tour duty, but in terms of filling the four-string gap left in the critical rehearsal and recording space, Carlos’s absence was sorely felt. And so it took a solution much closer to home to continue the quality present in Interpol’s invention room.
Paul explains, “I spent my career in the band feeding off what [Carlos] was doing on the bass to inform what I was doing vocally. I really felt that lack when I met up with Daniel for the first time in the rehearsal space. So I suggested, ‘why don’t I bring the bass in and nail down the chord progressions?’ So as I was playing bass I started getting vocal ideas and we were off and running within two rehearsals. The bass unlocked the sessions.”
If there was a popular misconception floating around Interpol, it was that Carlos’s departure signalled the end of the band. The history books show Interpol’s third and fourth records stand critically at odds with the adulation poured over their first two efforts, of which Turn On The Bright Lights stands as one of the most remarkable debuts in an already vintage era.
If Interpol’s inter-band tensions can be characterised by their musical output, there was perhaps a feeling of tiredness present on those later efforts. Even the intense gloom of the self-titled fourth record felt somewhat forced, with the melodic structure and interplay that characterised the best post-punk moments of the first two lost to grandiose guitar gestures and what felt like a reliance on Banks’ ever sincere vocal delivery. New record El Pintor, the direct translation of which is The Painter and is also conveniently an anagram of Interpol, returns to the hallmarks that made Turn On The Bright Lights and Antics such compelling song-after-song listens. Daniel Kessler’s guitar lines are particularly propulsive even when restrained, relying more on his innate ability to nail a line in repetition as opposed to wandering too far off piste. “I think the fourth record veered much more to the atmospheric, conceptual side with lots of textures”, Kessler explains. “If I see things going in one direction on one record then there’s a good chance it’ll go in another on the next. I felt on this record we were creating more songs, and the guitaring went in that direction.”
From a vocal perspective Banks is in no doubt where the album sits. “I like writing direct, punchy rock songs with the band and I feel we have a lot of that on this album. I think with a song like Twice As Hard we did that monolithic, monumental, ballady, grandiose, moody piece and then on a song like Same Town, New Story we experimented. That was written in a very unconventional way and we came out with something very sincere. That song was a product of feeling fresh and reinvigorated as a trio.”
“I enjoy inhabiting that gloomy space. That’s the genesis of the Interpol sound” – Paul Banks
Certainly El Pintor’s first single and opening track All The Rage Back Home is forthright in proudly presenting all the component parts that are so undeniably Interpol. The rest of the record is more varied, but as a selection of songs that utilise their strengths, it’s as compact an album as they’ve ever penned. The aforementioned Same Town, New Story finds the band at their heart-wrenching best, with the simplicity of the rising chord progression a resonant exercise in restraint. Ancient Ways is heavy and hair-raising, and as Banks expels “Be my desire / I’m a frustrated man” on My Desire, you’d struggle not to be convinced.
Paul Banks’ tone when interviewed is a direct mirror of his vocal delivery. Sincerity comes with consummate ease; nothing feels forced, there are no emotional facsimiles. There is a clear tension to most things he does, but always firmly rooted in a staunch belief in his work. This could be born out of lack of critical validation for not just his solo releases, but also the mixed response to the last two Interpol LPs. The counter argument here is that the bar was set so high by the first two Interpol albums that any drop in quality was always going to be from a greater height.
“I do think we’ve been victims of our own success and it may have worked against us in some ways”, says Banks. “But I don’t get tired of hearing things like “return to form” and “now they’re back” as that’s a positive message and I like that. I also like the fact that people are very attached to our first two albums, though I do think there are people that didn’t give albums three and four enough time because they were of a mindset attached to the first two. If you do spend time with the third and fourth records they are very substantial and worthy successors to our first two. They were the product of a band trying new things rather than a band that were repeating themselves. I completely stand by those albums.”
Rewind to July of this year and we’re in Lisbon at NOS Alive festival, getting reacquainted with Interpol – and their suits. Daniel Kessler marauds up and down the stage and live members Brandon Curtis and Brad Traux fill in on keys and bass respectively as we are collectively reintroduced to the band by the way of a set that draws heavily on classic material interspersed with the more immediate moments from El Pintor. On a solid 30 date festival jaunt you felt genuine merit in the band reminding themselves of their validation as much as the fans. As a live precursor to unleashing new material, it was time well spent. “Touring is something I enjoy,” states Banks. “Though too long on the road kind of annihilates any kind of personal life you may aspire to have. It’s an unconventional lifestyle for an adult. It’s OK in your early twenties but as an adult still living out of a suitcase and on a bus with a bunch of dudes you’ve got to ask yourself ,‘What am I doing here?’ But the shows are what makes it all worth it. The reality of this busi- ness is you can’t just do studio records and bank on selling actual physical copies, which may have been the case at one point. So touring is more of a necessity than it’s ever been.”
If there is a marked difference between Daniel and Paul, it’s showcased by their attitude to touring. Paul has never shied away from voicing his frustration with life on the road, but Daniel’s fire seems firmly intact. “I remember being a teenager and a kid and being so passionate about seeing a band play and walking down the street in my own little world. I still look back and remember that feeling. That blows my mind, and it’s not something to be taken for granted – it’s special. OK, there is a lot of travelling yadda yadda yadda, but at the end of the day it’s a pretty fucking incredible way to live your life.”
Herein lies the crux to Interpol, played out in their conflicting personalities: the interplay between the brooding potency of Banks’ vocal delivery and Kessler’s roving, curious guitar lines. Is that the intrinsic nature to the synthesis within Interpol?
“Perhaps”, Banks ponders. “I think I enjoy our aesthetic so inhabiting that gloomy space that we occupy boils down to the fact Daniel has a certain spirit as a song- writer. What he introduces to the band has a melancholy and a yearning to the chord progressions and that speaks to me and draws out certain aspects of my personality and the same with Sam. That’s the genesis of the Interpol sound.”
The monochrome of Interpol speaks volumes. The suits, the gloom, the resonance with the mature indie lover, the Joy Division comparisons, the seriousness, El Pintor’s front cover of red hands against a black backdrop – it all suggests art with a ferocity, emotion on a knife edge. With a band that operates on these terms, burrowing beneath the dense surface can often be the frustration for the fan, but with Interpol this mysticism is perhaps what keeps the crowd loyal. When the subject matter and association is hazed in noir, a true revealing would ultimately be dissatisfying. But Daniel is quick to acknowledge a side to the band that is not too often seen.
“There’s a pretty healthy sense of humour in all sides of Interpol, and I think Paul is a very funny person. I think his lyrics have humour too, but people choose not to pick up on that. It’s there though. As a dude he’s extremely quick-witted and not overly serious and heavy. If it was heavy and serious all the time, it would make being Interpol very tiresome. What makes time go by and makes the bumps you hit along on the road easier is joking around and getting loose. It’s understandable why people think these things as you people aren’t privy.”
Interpol seem set to continue residing in that liminal space-between, the one that doesn’t sit comfortably, but leaves itself open. El Pintor is the sound of a band as exposed as they’ve ever been in the face of fans and the critics. It’s the expulsion of their innermost. Facing the period of trial, reclaiming their identity when shorn to three and emerging triumphant, Paul Banks is all too acutely aware of this process.
“You get those kind of darker or desperate sentiments coming across because that’s why you make art – to get rid of things in a process. Disillusionment finds its way into the lyrics because that’s the kind of shit I don’t have any other outlet for.”
El Pintor is out now via Soft Limit