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A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man
Since the release of their sophomore album Antics late last year, New York goth-rock quartet Interpol have risen to the pantheon of great contemporary bands. In a rare in-depth interview, the group’s erudite frontman Paul Banks here discusses the making of Antics, their upcoming support slot with U2, the band’s peers in the NYC indie scene, The Strokes, Nirvana and David Lynch - and where one of the most acclaimed groups of recent years go to from here. Interview by Paul Nolan.
Paul Nolan, 22 Apr 2005
These are highly intriguing times for New York rockers Interpol. Having gained a loyal cult following for their extraordinary 2002 debut Turn On The Bright Lights, the quartet have seen their stock soar with last year’s follow-up effort Antics, a masterpiece of supremely atmospheric mood music which has elevated them to the pantheon of great contemporary rock bands.
Having shot straight into the US top 20 upon its release last autumn, the album has gone on to sell over half a million copies worldwide, launch the band on a sell-out tour of America and Europe, and spawned a huge alternative hit in the single ‘Evil’, an unspeakably brilliant slice of nakedly emotional, searing angst-rock which it wouldn’t be unfair to describe as a ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ for the 21st century.
Almost uniquely among the plethora of great pretenders to have emerged since the Strokes/White Stripes blues explosion in 2001, Interpol have followed through in a major way with their sophomore record, expanding and improving upon the artistic palette so masterfully utilised on their debut, whilst simultaneously making further inroads into the mainstream arena. All in all, it’s a state of affairs the band must be mightily pleased with.
“Absolutely, but y’know, I was never actually that worried about how Antics would be received,” says Paul Banks, Interpol’s laid-back and immensely likeable lead singer, backstage in a quiet corner of the Olympia before the band’s recent triumphant Dublin performance. “None of us really had any time to suffer any anxiety about the second record, because we toured so long with Bright Lights that when we finally got home to start work on Antics, there was a real outpouring of ideas. A lot of new material arrived very quickly, and I think that’s all anyone needs as far as reassurance goes when you embark on a new album. Having finally got the chance to concentrate on writing new songs, I was really confident about the stuff we were coming up with, so I was very relaxed about how people would react.
“In fact, I didn’t even mind whether or not anyone else would say it was good, because what we were doing just felt 100% right to us, and that’s all you can ever really ask for. I got a little tense in the studio when we recording, mainly about those little details you always tend to fuss over, but I was very happy with the material we were writing, because there was a lot of energy and we were all being really creative.”
Banks’ confidence was well founded – such has been Antics’ success that the group have recently accepted offers of support slots from Coldplay and U2, with whom they play a date in Glasgow in June. Have Bono and the boys been an influence on Interpol from the beginning?
“Everyone in the band has always been a fan of U2,” says Paul. “I always listened to their records and they’ve always had songs that I really liked, but the most intensely I got into them was on Achtung Baby. I guess I was at that kind of age when you’re really getting into music and certain records just seem to hit you pretty hard. That song ‘The Fly’ for instance, just blew my mind. But it’s only really those songs of theirs that totally floored me that I would say had an influence on me musically, do you know what I mean? So with something like ‘The Fly’, you just listen to The Edge’s guitar playing, those lyrics, the production, and you think, “Fuck, this is seriously good shit.” So in that way, I could call U2 an actual musical influence, but besides all that, I’ve just always thought that they’re a great band, and I really admire the way they’ve continued to grow over the years.
“I actually saw a show on the Zooropa tour and it was amazing. I was living in Madrid at the time and I went to see them play. That was the time he was making these phone calls during the shows to order a thousand pizzas for the first few rows and all kinds of crazy shit. It was a total blast, so much fun.”
These days, when U2 have the pick of the world’s finest rock ‘n’ roll bands queuing up outside their door for support slots, it’s easy to forget that things weren’t always thus. In 1992, Nirvana famously turned down an offer to open for the group on the first leg of the Zoo TV tour. During the Britpop era, meanwhile, there was a tendency among bands – with the notable exception of Oasis – to shun the stadium circuit in favour of the NME-endorsed world of indie clubs, small-scale theatre dates, and – if the group were feeling particularly adventurous – the occasional, guiltily-embarked-upon arena tour. (Damon Albarn, growing increasingly concerned at Blur’s perceived loss of indie cred during The Great Escape period, was once moved enough to pronounce that, “Wembley Stadium is for wankers!”)
Although Interpol can only speak for themselves, does Paul feel that there has been a sea change in the attitudes of today’s bands, in that large-scale success is no longer seen as a crime?
“Well, this is an interesting question,” he responds. “First of all, I have to say that with regard to the Nirvana example you’ve cited, it is something I would pay attention to, because I started making music because of Nirvana; I was a huge, huge fan and I remain so to this day. But I think Kurt Cobain had an almost political kind of attitude towards everything in the music business. But in our case, we’re more like a consortium, we tend to take a committee-style approach to everything to do with the band. Whereas with Nirvana, maybe Kurt Cobain was calling the shots to a certain extent. I mean, I know Krist Novoselic is a very bright guy, but I think as a unit they tended to row in behind whatever Kurt Cobain felt was right. With us, our decisions are made on a very democratic basis.
“Say hypothetically, there was one person in our band who felt it wasn’t appropriate for us to do something on such a commercial scale. If everyone else felt it was right for us to do it, they would be voted down. The other thing is that I think they were maybe more sensitive to the possibility of some kind of credibility lapse. We have a certain confidence in our music which means that no matter what the circumstances that surround one of our performances, no legitimacy will ever be lost as long we don’t compromise the music we’re actually making. Our attitude is that if our music isn’t pandering to the mainstream at all, and yet we can still get exposure in that kind of area, it becomes an opportunity for us to do something that’s almost subversive.
“And you know, I don’t really know why Nirvana wouldn’t have had that same kind of attitude. I suppose the climate at the time was probably different as well, plus he probably had the confidence that they were really going to break the mainstream anyway. And if you’ve just made a record like Nevermind, you’re probably justified in having that level of self-belief! But we would never write anything with any intention other than just making a good song, so I’m totally fine with it. The Velvet Underground opened for U2 on the tour I saw them play, so if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for us!”
Speaking of quintessential NYC bands, the city would appear to be a very interesting place to be living and recording music these past few years. Aside from the most obvious examples of The Strokes and Interpol themselves, The Rapture, Radio 4 and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have all made great strides in recent times, whilst the creative hotbed of the LCD Soundsystem/DFA scene has almost become a contemporary equivalent of Warhol’s Factory.
In an interview with this writer last year, The Rapture’s Mattie Safer made the analogy that the current crop of NYC bands’ relationships with each other are almost akin to those between final year high school students – everybody is aware of everyone else, but the only time everyone gets to socialise with each other is on the foreign trips (The Rapture first crossed paths with Interpol at a Japanese festival, for example).
Does Paul feel part of a scene whilst at home in New York, or does he feel somewhat removed from it?
“I think there is in a way, but I think everyone involved was kind of reluctant to be associated with it, because there was such a media angle to it from the very beginning,” he replies. “I think everyone felt a little loath to play along with it, so for example, I met Julian Casablancas for the first time ever three weeks ago. We’ve known Nick from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for a long time, but again, I only met Karen O for the first time a few months ago, the last time we were in England. Radio 4 we’ve had contact with for a longer time; they were playing Brownie’s when we were playing Brownie’s and Gerrard was working at the bar there at the time. But no, it didn’t feel like a hub or a group of people who were really interacting with each other on a regular basis.
“But you know, it is like we all are in the same year in high school, so it would be great in my mind if people were all frequenting the same places and having relationships, but it's not really the truth of it. Having said that, everyone we’ve met from those bands that you’ve mentioned are all good people, it seems to me.”
Banks himself is a highly interesting character. He arrives for the interview carrying a copy of Henry Miller’s Sexus, and later excitedly declares his intention to read the author’s entire canon of work. He says that, in general, his reading habits for the past couple of years have tended to favour semi-autobiographical works of fiction, citing Hemingway, Celine and Bukowski as particular favourites. During one part of the interview that runs perilously close to turning into a Literature 101 discussion group, we also talk about Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky and Hubert Selby Jr., whom it transpires is Interpol drummer Samuel Fogarino’s favourite writer.
I put it to Banks that his lyrics would appear to aspire to the quality of a David Lynch movie, in that they seem to be about evoking a certain mood or atmosphere, rather than relating a specific narrative.
“Yeah, I think that’s a fair analogy,” agrees Paul. “I admire Lynch’s work a lot. The feelings that his movies inspire in me resonate a lot more strongly than the typical form of narrative communication in films, where you a straightforward A-B-C progression and the moral of the story is wrapped up very neatly. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for cheap entertainment, I’ll enjoy a crap movie, but while you’re watching it you essentially just have the predictable ups and downs and then it’s done. And you walk out and forget about it, and some other clichéd moral has been reaffirmed to you, which you probably didn't even really believe in the first place.
“Whereas in a Lynch movie, you almost feel like something uncanny is happening; that something from the subconscious is being expressed really powerfully. It feels larger and more truthful than the typical clichéd ideas. It sticks in your head a lot more and it just feels more like life. That’s something I have always aspired to lyrically; somehow I feel that there’s more meaning to things that are a lot harder to put your finger on. And it’s amazing, a Lynch movie is such a personal vision, and yet thousands and thousands of people will watch it and they’ll get something really extraordinary from it. If we can inspire those kinds of moods and feelings in people, we’ll have done a good day’s work, for sure.”
Antics and the band’s latest single, ‘C’mere’, are out now on Matador. Interpol play with Coldplay in Marlay Park on June 22 & 23.