It is the curse of every band with a highly acclaimed and much loved debut album that each subsequent release will be compared to that first artistic statement. Critics will await new material with a certain morbid fascination, eager to remark on how close to total extinguishment the band’s early creative fire has become while fans will nervously check their calendars in the breathless hope that when the next album drops, their lives will change again. And so it is with Interpol as they prepare to release their fifth album, El Pintor, in September with the glare from 2002’s Turn On The Bright Lights still blinding supporters and detractors alike.
“We’re fiercely proud of the first record and realise that it has a very special place for a lot of our fans in our catalogue but we never judge our other material against that,” says Paul Banks, the band’s frontman. “It’s great that we have a record that’s special to people and it’s understandable that some people don’t come along with us on our journey when they’re so beholden to that. I mean that’s cool, if that’s what you love about the band then keep listening to the first record but we need to get out there and make new stuff.”
Forming in New York City in 1997 with singer Banks sharing guitar duties with founding member Daniel Kessler, augmented on bass by Carlos Dengler and Greg Dundy on drums, Interpol quickly built a reputation as a band that worked hard and played hard, combining a dedication to touring with an equally committed devotion to the Big Apple’s nightlife. By the time debut album Turn On The Bright Lights was primed and ready, the band – now with Sam Fogarino on drums – were already on first name terms with many of post-9/11 New York’s cocaine and couture set and were being heralded as one of the most pivotal outfits to emerge from the city’s vibrant underground music scene along with bands such as The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The release of Turn On The Bright Lights saw Interpol’s career go into warp drive. Originally seen as a less conventional band than The Strokes or The White Stripes which had effortlessly stepped out of the indie clique into the mainstream spotlight, Interpol now had a calling card with such a zeitgeist-defining appeal that it would become acknowledged as one of the most highly regarded and influential albums of the post-millennium rock scene. With its staccato bass, urgent, jittery guitars and unsettling lyrics often delivered in a bone-dry monotone, Interpol’s debut quickly had them labelled as post-punk revivalists, constantly compared to bands like Joy Division.
Now, some 12 years since their break-through, Interpol are ready to deliver El Pintor, an album that, unsurprisingly, has been held up to the high watermark of their debut and has not been found wanting. Many of those who have already heard it have compared it favourably to Turn On The Bright Lights, not only in quality but also in delivery and energy.
“People who have heard the record are saying this is the best music we’ve made since the first album,” says Banks. “I’m not going to agree or disagree with that because it’s all opinion. We always set out to make the best record we can and hope that people respond to that. El Pintor is definitely a more immediate rock record than the previous one and has a lot more in common with Turn on the Bright Lights than say, Our Love to Admire or Interpol.”
“That’s not to say the new album is a simplification of our sound,” he adds. “It’s just more of a fucking rock onslaught, man. Songs like ‘Ancient Ways’ and ‘All the Rage Back Home,’ they’re still born of Daniel’s experimentalism but with a massive pair strapped on. Just listen to ‘Same Town New Story’ – now that’s a rare bird.”
Fans will be encouraged by the early indications of a more direct and electrified sound. Many feared that energy and drive was a thing of the dim and distant past.
After 2004’s slightly more pop oriented Antics, the second album which avoided the dreaded sophomore slump and gave the fans hope of the band’s ability to potentially deliver another future masterpiece, Interpol finally succumbed to the lure of the majors and left indie label Matador for Capitol Records in late 2006.
The third album, Our Love to Admire, was pitched by Capitol as the record that would turn Interpol into arena headliners. To that end, Our Love to Admire was a far more polished affair but one which, shorn of the rough edges, exposed the band’s limitations for the first time. Despite it becoming the band’s highest-charting and biggest-selling effort, it was given the cold shoulder by many. In response, as if waiting for the chance to knock down what they had helped to build up, the critics instigated the first waves of a backlash.
“I was always really disappointed about what people said about the band at that time, I think they really missed the mark,” says Banks. “I stopped reading all press after I read something bad about the third record so I never read anything about the fourth. I think artists are more thin-skinned than most people think and probably more thin-skinned than most other people full stop. I used to be a lot more sensitive about the criticism than I am now. For me, the press became something we just had to tune out. Because the negative stuff was a little harsh, in my opinion. The ultimate barometer for us is the reaction of the crowd. When the crowds at our shows are bigger and they’re all singing the songs, that’s the critique that matters.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “I think music criticism has worth and it has a place but it won’t change what I do as an artist. As long as the fans are satisfied and I’ve expressed myself the way I wanted to through that music then little else matters. It’s all opinion and it’s very unlikely that you’ll see eye-to-eye with everyone. I rarely ever read any reviews because, for the most part, a critic is given the record and expected to churn out an article to a strict deadline – which means they maybe listen to the record once. I said a couple of years ago that our music requires repeated listens for people to really understand it and I stand by that to a certain extent because there’s a lot going on in there that most people won’t get from hearing it once and to dismiss it so quickly is a little insulting.”
For their fourth, self-titled album, main composers Kessler and Dengler (right) made the decision to push Interpol away from the radio-friendly accessibility of Our Love to Admire and take the band into what the flamboyant and charismatic bassist termed “sturm und drang” – a stormy symphony more akin to a grand Teutonic opera than a 21st century rock record. Pushing the orchestration to its limits and reducing the guitars in favour of layers of keyboards, the band hoped that the challenges they had set themselves on 2010’s Interpol and the return to Matador prior to the album’s release would push them out of their mid-phase comfort zone and into a return to form.
“For the last album, Daniel came in with some really experimental stuff, a lot of electronics and leftfield orchestration and then Carlos took Daniels stuff and pushed it another five degrees,” says Banks. “Carlos always took the experimentalism that little bit further, going into really sophisticated orchestration. That last album was like fucking math! But that’s not a criticism of Carlos or that approach.”
“I’m really proud of that record but it’s quite out there, it’s not a lightweight album and I think people are still taking their time to get their heads around it,” he adds. “In a way, I feel that the self-titled album is the definitive Interpol record as it’s the most complete and cohesive album that we’ve made. Not because it is a summation of what we’d done before that but because it’s a good representation of where we were at that point and because it was the most evolved.”
Others didn’t see it that way. While the band’s supporters lauded Interpol’s bravery in releasing an art-rock opus at a time when albums needed to contain at least two killer singles to be deemed a success, sections of the press savaged the fourth album, calling it bloated and self-indulgent. The overall feeling of implosion was compounded by Dengler’s decision to quit the band in the wake of the album’s release.
Banks is reluctant to open up too much about Dengler’s departure, citing previous betrayals by the media after confiding in them in the past, but he makes it clear that it was an amicable parting of the ways. “I’m his biggest fan and I think Carlos is a genius but I made a decision very early on in this band that I was willing to put up with a whole lot of crap from people if they were what I considered to be a genius,” he says. “The benefits that come from that level of creativity far outweigh any annoyance which can arise from someone being an asshole. So I will say that I miss Carlos, I miss the energy that he’s taken with him but it was a departure that was more like the ending of a marriage where one person says, ‘it’s not working – I have to leave’ rather than a brother betraying you.”
Banks rejects the idea that the return to an edgier, more stripped-down sound on El Pintor was due to the absence of Dengler’s experimental influence. “The fact that El Pintor is more direct is not a reaction to Carlos leaving the band in the way that we thought, ‘okay we’re free of the complicated shit, let’s get back to basics’ because we never go back, we never try to replicate. If Carlos’ departure has influenced anything on this album, it’s the fact that we had to work out what we were going to be like as a band without him and we discovered an exhilaration in that, an excitement from working out how to be a three-piece. So of course we’re a different band now but whereas before we were a molecule with four atoms attached to it, we’re still that molecule but with three atoms now and as a result we’re creating a different energy. There is a different dynamic in the studio, of course, because of that. Three is a good number for debates because unless someone perennially sits on the fence, two are going to have to come down on the same side of the argument at some point and shit gets sorted easier that way.”
Interpol as a trio have worked in much the same way as Interpol the quartet would have done in approaching the writing and recording of El Pintor, according to Banks. “Daniel comes in with what he’s been working on, just as before, and we work on that as a band, feeding into that and seeing where we can all take it. Usually what develops is just based on feel. It organically develops from Daniel’s vision. It’s really hard to try and set a specific target in terms of a sound when you’re in such a collaborative band. We start with the raw material of Daniel’s ideas and then listen to each other as it starts to grow. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and our music so we trust in that spark of creation and let it develop, let it build. It always finds its own way.”
“The writing is already done before we even step into the recording studio so our process is to develop the material and get sharp with it in the rehearsal rooms,” he adds. “We never write in the studio because writing an album when you’re in the studio is fucking expensive. No-one except those bands which have millions behind them can do that because endless studio time requires a massive budget, and when you’re writing on that particular clock, you’re burning through the dollars. A rehearsal room is like a hundredth of the price of a studio so we’ve got all the songs ready before we start running the tapes.”
What is different, of course, is that there are now three members – which meant either someone from within the band had to take over bass duties for the album or a new recruit had to be found and bedded in. The band decided it would be easier to keep responsibility for the four-string in-house. “When Carlos left we had this initial thought of ‘shit, you know, we’re going to have to start auditioning for bass players if we’re going to make this new record,'” says Banks. “It was only because I’d played bass on both my solo records that I felt capable to step up when Daniel suggested it. I don’t think I’d have been keen to do it had I not had the experience before but I really enjoyed it and I play bass on all the album tracks.”
Banks agrees with the notion that El Pintor marks the beginning of the next phase of Interpol but is reluctant to speculate as to where the band may go from here. What he hopes is that Interpol can continue to evolve and confound expectations.
“No-one was wrong when they said that we were post-punk revivalists but it was a simplistic label, a reduction of what we are as artists,” he says. “I’m honoured in a way that people took the time to try and define us but definitions change. What we are now is a rock band. That’s what we are and what we do. We’re happy with that. As we grow, perhaps we can become something undefinable.”
A Q&A based on this interview with Paul Banks appeared in CLASH Magazine
This full-length feature also appeared on PULUCHE.COM