'Psychologically, it's just bedlam,' says Interpol frontman Paul Banks about the relationship among a group of guys as the quartet becomes a trio after a four-year hiatus
Interpol frontman Paul Banks walks onto the deck of the Frying Pan, an antique ship that’s now a floating bar and grill docked at a Hudson River pier on Manhattan’s West Side. Smooth jazz plays in the background as he makes his way past plastic tables filled with stay-at-home dads nursing lunch-hour pints and tourists -killing buckets of Corona and plates of soggy fries. “Let’s sit in the sun,” says Banks, wearing a backward baseball cap and blue suede Adidas sneakers. He settles into a portside chair and rummages around in a worn black gym bag for a pair of shades.
Among casual fans, there’s an assumption that Interpol is a uniform gang of denizens of the night who never leave the house in anything less than a smartly tailored suit. But those who have followed the group’s career since the release of its acclaimed debut album, "Turn On the Bright Lights," in 2002, know that its band members are far from identical.
Banks, 36, is the reluctant heartthrob and lead singer, a sports- and hip-hop-loving introvert who never wanted to be in a band in the first place. Guitarist and chief songwriter Daniel Kessler, 39, is the music nerd, the guy whose sonic instincts seed all Interpol songs. Drummer Sam Fogarino, 45, is the paternal figure and mediator. And former bassist Carlos Dengler was the flamboyant rock star whose musical taste hewed closest to the British post-punk influences that many hear in Interpol’s sound.
Achieving harmony among such strong, disparate personalities has not been easy, especially over an extended swath of time. “It’s a hard thing to do, keep liking each other,” acknowledges Banks. “A relationship between a group of guys — psychologically, it’s just bedlam.”
But that conflict has long served as creative fuel, propelling Interpol to its current status as a solid, mainstream rock act with a combined 1.4 million U.S. record sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The group will augment those numbers this fall with the release of its fifth album, the dynamic, vibrant El Pintor, on longtime label Matador Records.
“We’re all aware it’s a miracle we found each other in the first place,” says Banks. “There’s an alchemy here. We are more than the sum of our parts — and that’s magic. As long as you don’t lose sight of that, you can get through all the weird dynamics.”
Through the years, Interpol’s magic has been tested. First, by enthusiastic partying in the early 2000s, then by shifting terrain in the music industry and a one-album move to Capitol Records in 2006, and most recently by Dengler’s departure in 2010. He was by far the band’s most visible and outspoken member, gregarious in an Edwardian sort of way and interested in rock’n’roll showmanship on and off the stage. He played on Interpol’s last, self-titled album, but didn’t tour in support of it. “I haven’t spoken to him in five years,” notes Fogarino, without malice.
“Obviously,” says Kessler, “Carlos wasn’t part of the process for the first time, so that was different.” Wearing a dark suit and sitting in a plush armchair in the lobby of New York’s Bowery Hotel late one Monday morning, he admits that there was a time when he wondered if Interpol would ever make another record.
“I mean, I was hopeful and I wanted to be optimistic,” he says, pouring sparkling water into a highball glass. “But I also wanted to be realistic. Carlos is a formidable musician and a key contributor to Interpol up until now. You couldn’t be so naive as to be like, ‘Oh, these are easy shoes to fill.’ They’re not easy shoes to fill.”
Back in 1997, Kessler went about recruiting fellow students at New York University for a band he felt an almost religious need to form. He already had written a bunch of songs and was searching for musicians with big personalities who could help him build a signature sound he couldn’t yet hear but knew intuitively was out there. He was drawn to Banks and Dengler, he says, because they were so eccentric.
Banks was the somewhat disheveled, perpetually tardy Renaissance man (as good an athlete as he was an artist) whom Kessler met when both were exchange students in Paris. Dengler was the only other kid in Kessler’s philosophy class who dressed like Nick Cave. Never mind that Dengler had given up on music to pursue a career in academics and Banks wanted to be a solo artist — Kessler was determined to get them together. By the time Fogarino replaced the band’s original drummer in 2000, the distinctive Interpol sound — urgent but melancholy guitar rock reminiscent of Joy Division— had been born.
They would soon be caught up in the frenzy of a global garage-rock revival spearheaded by their peers in The Strokes. But when Interpol went to work on its first album in the fall of 2001, the band members still didn’t have a firm record deal. The lack of structured support, however, yielded an unexpected perk: There was no outside influence, which allowed the group to forge the writing, rehearsing and recording practices that continue to this day. “I would usually show Carlos songs I’d been working on,” says Kessler of the traditional first step.
“Then,” says Banks, “Carlos would write a bassline and that would inform my vocals and my guitar parts.” Before long, the full band would swing into action, writing and rewriting tracks until the group had a completely finished album.
“We’ve always been self-reliant,” says Kessler. “We’ve always produced ourselves, and we don’t go into the studio until it’s ready.” That approach hasn’t changed, though on the last two albums the band has collaborated in the studio with British producer Alan Moulder (Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, Nine Inch Nails).
“I work with them as a mixer, so it’s pretty much all recorded and the template is there,” says Moulder. “My role is helping them realize their vision.”
When fame happened for Interpol, it happened on a large scale and happened fast. The initial success of Turn On the Bright Lights, generally considered one of the most important records of the early 2000s, coincided with the rise of bands like The White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, Kings of Leon and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Each had a vastly different sound but was committed to resurrecting real rock’n’roll for the masses. As a member of that pack, Interpol was soon propelled onto the world-tour circuit.
“They had everything I love about a band,” remembers Moulder. “An identifiable sound — with a dark mood and a great lead singer — that took you somewhere. Plus, they looked incredibly cool. What more could you want?”
Many of the songs for the group’s second album (2004’s Antics) were written before Interpol’s first tour, so the band was able to record and release it without taking much of a break from the road. It was after that whirlwind, in the mid-2000s, that Banks stopped drinking. “Um, for me, less booze,” he chuckles when asked to name the primary difference between life in Interpol now versus then.
It was also around this time that the members started changing things up in the studio, introducing keyboards into the early stages of the songwriting process. They even altered the Interpol business plan, signing with Capitol Records for the 2007 release of their third album, Our Love to Admire.
The general consensus is that Our Love to Admire and 2010’s Interpol are the weakest in the band’s repertoire. And while it’s true that both records, especially the eponymous fourth album, feel more intricate and less cleanly propelled by the band’s signature symphonic guitars, they earned positive reviews and sold well. Still, something was different. Fogarino says the problem was clutter.
“I’m kind of at fault for bringing technology into the fold, because I’ve always been into synths, samples and electronics,” he says over dry martinis one evening at Cafe Mogador, a Moroccan restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “On our earlier records there wasn’t this thick layer — whether they be synthesizers or a fake orchestra — taking up a lot of sonic space and pushing everything aside.”
It’s not that Fogarino, or anyone else in the band for that matter, was unhappy with the end result. “We were all quite into what was going on,” the drummer says. “It was exciting.” But now the focus is on reconnecting with what Banks calls “Interpol concentrate.”
Losing Dengler was a blow, but it also came with “a huge sense of relief,” says Fogarino. “It’s not fun to make a record with someone who doesn’t want to be there and it’s not fun to dislike someone you care for.”
Every note on El Pintor was played by a musician who really wanted to be there. “This is Interpol. It’s the same core, minus an ingredient,” says Banks. “But it’s almost like with a chemical compound, how certain bonds can get stronger or become more radioactive when you take out one element.”
Moulder concurs. “They know who they are and they’ve stayed pure to that.”
This new, pared-down incarnation of Interpol began, Kessler says in a mock melodramatic voice, “one hot August night” in 2012 when he and Banks got together to play around with some new ideas. For the first time in Interpol history, the songwriting process began with guitar and vocals instead of guitar and bass. It was exciting, but a little nerve-wracking. “It was like the first day of school,” recalls Kessler. “We had no idea if we were going to be able to pull this off, but it was like, ‘OK, we have to start somewhere.’ ”
Almost immediately, there was a problem. “What I found within the first half-hour of Daniel playing was that I couldn’t come up with any guitar melodies or any top melodies vocally until there was a bassline,” says Banks. “Part of the reason Carlos was so integral is that he anchored the song from a specific, weird angle.”
But the issue was soon resolved. “It was as simple as, ‘I’ll bring a bass tomorrow and we’ll see if that makes more sense,’ ” says Banks. “And it instantly made more sense.” The frontman says he first thought of his bass parts as placeholders at first, but they stuck. “Now all the reviews can be about how the singer f—ed up the bass,” he jokes.
The benefit of surviving long enough to start over is that you have the perspective required to appreciate your success. “We were really spoiled as a band, even before we had a record deal — every show, there were five more people than the previous show,” says Banks. “Even when we were starting out, our first record was really hyped and people were super excited to see us play live. The whole first tour was sellout after sellout and more sellouts. Now you have an awareness, like, ‘Shit, man, maybe this won’t last forever.’ You don’t really know if people are going to come with you.”
So when they do show up, it’s even more meaningful. The recent Governors Ball lineup read like a who’s who of the most important New York bands of the last 15 years, from Interpol to The Strokes to Vampire Weekend. And though Interpol had just started playing live again, the group’s performance was widely cited as one of the weekend’s highlights. “I was really, really excited about the reaction,” says Banks. “When we hit [2004 single] ‘Slow Hands,’ it was f—ing crazy.”
The crowd ranged from aging hipsters who could’ve been in the audience at one of Interpol’s legendary early shows at Brownies in the East Village to groups of gothed-up teenagers who abandoned their sullenness for the joy of joining Banks on “Slow Hands.” “Can’t you see what you’ve done to my heart and soul,” everyone sang. “This is a wasteland now.”
The show reminded Kessler of what felt like a particularly prescient gig last March in Bristol, England. “The room was really electric,” he recalls. “I remember looking out to my right and there were these kids. They must have been 16 — they had braces on and stuff — and I was thinking, ‘It’s been close to four years since our last record.’ These kids had probably never even heard of us at that point.”
Kessler pauses, takes a sip of his drink and smiles. “They were singing every single lyric.”