How Interpol Took the Dirtiest Word in Rock 'n' Roll and Turned It on Its Head
Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel
Time, distance, personnel changes and individual projects may have kept them apart, but the members of Interpol are adamant and unflinching when it comes to one hard fact about their band: This is not a comeback. This record, these shows, this dynamic — it isn't the stuff of a reunion, the offspring of an unexpected reconciliation. Despite the fact that they made a deliberate choice when they invoked the scariest word in rock 'n' roll — "hiatus" — in 2011, Interpol can't make a comeback. Because Interpol never really left.
"People can think what they want to think, as long as it's not sympathy: 'Awwww, you guys did it!' " laughs drummer Sam Fogarino from a couch in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel. Guitarist/backing vocalist Daniel Kessler points out that "hiatus" doesn't typically mean "tons of touring and an opening spot on U2's tour" for most bands. "We put out the [last] record four years ago, it's true, but then we toured it until the end of 2011," he says. "We did 200 shows. We didn't do anything in 2012 besides get together to break ground." And Paul Banks, Interpol's lead singer and now bass player, is always working, be it on new Interpol material or his own solo records, with his last disc, Banks, dropping shortly before things picked up again with Kessler and Fogarino.
"I look at it a bit like running a marathon," says Banks, referring to his constant workload and musical balancing act. It's the perfect time to bring it up, too: He's taking a breather at Electric Lady Studios, where Interpol cut their newest record, El Pintor, and where he's working on the follow-up to Banks. "I guess the first part is really hard and then you get into a zone where you feel like there's less strain to do the same thing. Ultimately, your legs give out and you barf, but along the way, you're in a good kind of cruising speed. There's a good analogy there for creativity."
It works for his bandmates as well. Since the late '90s, Interpol has been a fixture in New York rock, a deafening force that shaped the sounds and sensibilities of a music scene in flux. They've all got an immense amount of respect for the Strokes, their closest contemporaries in regard to geography and career scope, with whom they shared a lineup as recently as this past June, when both bands played to eager, adoring crowds at Governors Ball. Alongside TV on the Radio, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the National and other bands that cut their teeth in the modest, ever-shuttering clubs and rock bars of the Village and the Lower East Side, Interpol had always embraced a sound much bigger than the recesses these venues would allow.
The discordantly plucky tracks of their early years ("Evil" and "Slow Hands" off 2004's Antics; the opalescent meditation of Turn On the Bright Lights, their full-length debut with Matador) perfectly soundtracked designer runway shows and stadium-tailored encores alike. The surgical precision of Banks and Kessler's chords were met by Fogarino's propensity to weld Interpol's heartbeat to the metallic echo of a cymbal and the mad science of Carlos Dengler's basslines. Interpol's music played like a lecture in the mathematics of reflex, an ability to listen and react with a chord, crash or cry, and this lesson in intuition brought them to a fever pitch with sold-out Madison Square Garden sets and the gigs with U2 a decade into their career.
But by 2011, creative differences reared their heads, though not in the dramatic, relationship-ending way fans might expect when they hear "hiatus." Dengler departed, and a step away from Interpol allowed Banks, Kessler, and Fogarino to regroup independently. Banks made Banks; Kessler started writing again for Big Noble, his project with Joseph Fraioli that he describes as music with an "instrumental, atmospheric, music-for-film kind of vibe"; Fogarino made a record as EmptyMansions, tapping the Secret Machines' Brandon Curtis and Duane Denison of The Jesus Lizard for help. It's a break all three describe as "healthy," and one that enabled them to approach a casual meeting with ease when Kessler said he had some new songs to try out about a year after they opted for some time off.
"Daniel had been working on some ideas, and there it was — it was revealed," says Fogarino, recalling the "A-ha!" moment that jump-started Interpol's activity. "Nobody was expecting us to do anything. We did it covertly. We went and borrowed Battles' rehearsal space. I recorded the rehearsals and went back and listened to them, like, 'That's a band.' We could've gone and played a show."
Just one practice with the three of them all together, during which Banks picked up the bass in an official capacity, and they were excited to get back at it. That urgency and rejuvenating enthusiasm coalesced on the tracks they recorded less than a year later. El Pintor, out of the gate, makes for a pleasant, full listen on multiple levels, with "All the Rage Back Home" and "Anywhere" recalling the arena-ready grandeur of the kinetic rock they've previously crafted while easing up on the less approachable aspects of their more experimental work. Banks, especially, is down with this shift.
"I think our fourth record [2010's Interpol], in particular, was pretty left-field," says Banks. "Daniel wrote really left-field songs; Carlos at that point was inclined to go really far with some serious music theory on the compositions. I don't know shit about music theory. [With El Pintor] Daniel wrote songs that were immediate and direct, and I wanted to keep them that way. I didn't feel like pulling them off into very experimental directions, per se. It's very to-the-point, musically. I feel like it's refreshing, like we said, 'Let's write some fuckin' direct rock songs.' "
The greatest hits are treated with the same intensity as they prepare for El Pintor's release week: They're playing special, uncharacteristically small shows at the Bowery Ballroom and the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and "Anywhere" could shoulder up to "Obstacle 1" and "Lights."
"I never wanted to be that band begrudgingly playing old stuff and going through the motions," says Kessler. "We're going to play Turn On the Bright Lights or whatever, but I want to play those songs with an urgency like I wrote them yesterday. There's no material that's taboo. I'm happy to play any song I've ever written."
After El Pintor drops, it's business as usual for Interpol. They'll tour relentlessly, returning to Terminal 5 for a sold-out two-night run in November. Banks will finish up his next solo album, and they'll continue to write and record with their respective outlets. The future framed by El Pintor is less of a triumphant return and more the wink of a "to be continued," and its closing track, "Twice As Hard," is a perfect send-off that gallops into the distance with the echo of its chords leaving the door open instead of locking these songs up with a conclusion.
"We're not in the wrong line of work, you know," says Banks. "We're meant for this. This lasts. Sam's a drummer for life. Daniel's an artist and a writer for life. I feel like we just keep going, and we count our lucky stars that we can keep going and have people come out and see us. If this is what you're meant to do, you wind up doing it 10 years later."
And you don't need a comeback to prove that.
El Pintor is out September 9 on Matador.
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