Turn Up the Bright Lights: Interpol Returns to New New York
The band is back with their fifth album 'El Pintor.' They’ve lost a member, but may have just released their best record since their classic debut.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Harris for iHeartRadio
I’m sitting at a picnic table on the rooftop of Electric Lady Studios. Interpol’s lead singer, Paul Banks, is across from me. It’s August. It’s so fucking hot. We both made the mistake of wearing pants. We’re squinting. It’s one of those days where it’s so hard to see because it’s so bright. Those honks and familiar noises of New York City chaos echo from 8th Street below. Paul reaches in his pocket, and pulls out a pack of Camel Blues.
“You got a lighter?” the 36-year-old asks.
I nod and pull one out—by some random miracle there’s a lighter in my pocket, and I ask for a cigarette myself, even though I don’t smoke. I feel like smoking a cigarette will make me seem cooler to Paul Banks. And I definitely want to seem like I’m cool to Paul Banks.
That’s what Interpol is. They’re cool. Or at least, maybe, that’s what they used to be—and what they’re trying to be again. In their heyday, these dudes were the kind of cool that’s effortless, the kind of cool that could wear a suit without looking like an investment banker. With the release of their debut Turn on the Bright Lights, they essentially defined the last decade of rock music—immediately looked at as one of the Last Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Acts Here To Save Us From Ourselves™, alongside those such as The Strokes or The Killers.
With Lights, Interpol gave a generation of kids an image of New York to dream about, one where people wore tight jeans and smoked cigarettes and listened bands like Interpol. The sound was dark and sexy, yet somehow vulnerable. Paul Banks’ harrowing voice shot over Daniel Kessler’s striking guitars, Carlos Dengler’s pulsing bass, and Sam Fogarino’s sharp percussion. It was something similar to what we’d heard before—many people immediately said Joy Division—but there was something fresh to Interpol’s punch, the soundtrack to a sad drug addict sitting on a bench, racking his brain on how to get to the next high, somehow already regretting the mistake before making it, and then making that mistake anyway.
They followed their debut with another strong album, 2004’s Antics, which delivered the hit of their career in “Evil” and launched them from scene leaders to one of the biggest bands in the world. Their fame skyrocketed, and as it did, so did some inner turmoil. The band’s two following releases—2007’s Our Love to Admire (which was their first on a major record label, Capitoll) and 2010’s self-titled (which returned them to Matador)—flopped critically. Carlos left the band in 2010. There were reports they went on a hiatus. Interpol moved from being one of the coolest and most heralded bands of the decade to a music blogger’s punchline (“more like Interlol, am I right?”).
Now, four years later and one band member fewer, they’re back with their fifth record, El Pintor (on Matador), which means “The Painter” in Spanish, and it might be the best record since their classic debut. There’s an element to the music that has been lacking—an urgency of sorts. Reborn as a trio, Interpol have delivered an LP that kicks like an early Police record, sharp and concise, filled with Paul’s vaguely melancholy lyrics. Tracks like “All the Rage Back Home” and “Same Town, New Story” carry the attitude of early Interpol but pop with the maturity of a band with members sure of themselves, who they are, and where they want to go. The record bursts with confidence.
In absence of Carlos, Paul recorded bass for the record, an experience he loved (although live they’ll have a touring bass player and keyboardist.) On the rooftop, I’m asking Paul about the new LP and its sound, what it took for them to get to this place to create something new. “[Carlos] was in the room in a sense that I was kind of aware that we have a tradition of bass being a really important, integral part of our sound,” he says. “At the same time, I’m not Carlos, so it was kind of like we need to do something new anyway, so let’s just make sure it’s cool.”
Dressed in all black, he’s wearing designer T-shirt, slacks, and shiny shoes. Around his neck hangs a gold chain. I can’t tell what brand his watch is, but it looks expensive. He says they never went on an official break, despite some press reports, and that they never had any intention of not making another Interpol record. They just needed some time.
“It’s a new feeling and sound because there was a new excitement in the room for us,” says Paul, who’s calculated and careful when and in how he speaks, which makes sense considering he’s spent his entire career doing interview after interview after interview (in this certain instance, I’m second in a series of three interviews that will take place today). “The only album that reflected that kind of psychological record of this dimension was the first one because we were unknown back then. Now we’re unknown as a three-piece, and we were unknown to ourselves. There was a process of discovery, excitement, and adrenaline—like just first finding out you can write songs and then realizing you can and then it’s like, wow, this is a new toy to play with. We have a new DNA as a band.”
Then I ask Paul if he has any sort of relationship at all with Carlos, and his curated demeanor drops. Flatly, he replies.
/ / / / /
“I think we just want to play music, at the end of it; we just silently realized we want to do this band,” Sam tells me over coffee, a few days prior. “Like, don’t worry about anything else.”
We’re in the courtyard of the Bowery Hotel a month before the release of El Pintor, and the drummer is recounting what it was like to enter the studio again for the first time in four years under the name Interpol, minus a member who helped establish the band as what they were. At 46 years old Sam is the eldest member of the band, but the most brilliantly blunt with his emotions. Today, he’s dressed in an unsurprisingly slick outfit—blue jacket, a tucked in polo shirt, and dark slacks. Red socks peek out from under the cuffs of his pants, and a yellow pack of American Spirits stick out from his front pocket. He sports clear eyeglasses. “We haven’t spoken in five years or so. It’s a break up,” he says. “There was a period of time where I fucking couldn’t stand him.”
There’s no clear reasoning for the departure of Carlos—at least none that the members of the band are willing to share (Carlos was unable to be reached for this story). Paul says how the early days of Interpol were so vibrant musically because there was so much creativity happening in one spot. Each band member has a dynamic personality, but Carlos, in particular, was the peacock. Arguably the most famous face of the band, he was the guy who always pushed them to the next level—the kind of dude who had the audacity to wear a gun holster with his suit. It’s also not hard to see how his abrasiveness might have led to fallout within the band.
Sam claims to now be over Carlos leaving and if he saw him on the street, he’d “hopefully” say hi. But at the same time, he’s candid with his feeling of betrayal, perhaps because he played alongside Carlos in the rhythm section, the quite literal beating heart of any great rock band.
“I was like ‘man, you’re just leaving me out in the cold,’ you know?” He leans back, doing a thing where he crosses his legs back and forth with each point he makes. “I was like, ‘well, how am I supposed to feel with something that I still love that defines me, you abandoned?’ That hurt. It really did, but then you get over it. You’re sad, you’re angry, and then you’re done.”
Photo Credit: Jeremy Harris for iHeartRadio
Sam tells me how the past few months have been a whirlwind, as Interpol spent the summer playing various festivals across the world on almost a weekly basis, and the fact that he’s sitting down with me in person in New York City feels like an accomplishment. After a near two-decade career, the group is such business that their press run is an event in and of itself—their publicist wrangling to get all three members together to talk in the same place at the time is nearly impossible. Before our interview, Sam recounts a story of how during the previous weekend he found himself collapsed on a bed in his hotel room in Chicago, after playing a set a Lollapalooza, wondering if he could even watch Netflix. He couldn’t remember what country he was in.
I ask Sam if—after being in this band for almost 15 years—there’s anything about which he feels misunderstood. He brings up the Joy Division comparison, how even though he’s used to it by now, to this day people just assume Interpol was trying to impersonate some post-punk Unknown Pleasures.
“I listened to Joy Division because of Interpol,” I tell him. He laughs.
“Well, if some kid from Iowa buys an Interpol record and says, ‘what’s this Joy Divison thing?’ and goes out and buys Unknown Pleasures because of Interpol, that’s a good thing.”
Our time is up, and he stands up to head inside, but then pauses. He has one last thought. “I don’t think everyone’s going to understand everything, and I don’t know if I want them to,” he knowingly smirks, and heads inside. Daniel, the group’s guitarist, walks out, wearing an all black suit with his longish hair smoothed back. He sits down, crosses his legs, and we start to chat. The 39 year old has pretty much the same message: “I can’t control if someone’s going to give this record a fair shake. All I can control is what I want to say and how we want to go about presenting it and what we want to do in between.”
/ / / / /
There’s something about the way New York City feels in early September. The streets no longer smell like a pressure cooker full of trash. New waves of wide-eyed kids have moved to the city to spend too much money on college. There’s a weird blend of summer and fall—no one knows how to dress but that’s OK because we’re just happy the heat of August is gone. Outside the Bowery Ballroom five days before the release of El Pintor, a spattered collection of scenesters stand around waiting for the right moment to go inside, most of them smoking cigarettes—although I don’t know if these cigarettes are Camel Blues or American Spirits. People range in age, from early 20s to late 40s. There are a lot of hats. There are a lot of jackets. No one is wearing shorts. Everyone is wearing black. In the downtown distance, over the skyline, two lights shoot to the sky honoring the fallen World Trade Centers. That’s something else about the way New York City feels in early September.
Two days earlier, Interpol played a tiny show uptown at the Temple of Dendur at the Met, a classy, wine-soaked affair where everyone dressed nice and talked quietly while they watched the band perform a collection of songs from their discography. But here at the Bowery, it’s different. People paid $40 to see their beloved band take the stage of the tiny legendary venue, a spot they called home when first making the rounds in the early aughts as staples of the Lower East Side scene. Perhaps these guys decided to return to the Bowery out of nostalgia, or perhaps it’s because they wanted to test out the band’s “new DNA.” Tonight is the first time they’ll play the Bowery Ballroom in seven years, and it feels like a particularly New York night, the kind that’s charged with that only-here, only-now energy. Perhaps it's a return to the days when Interpol—a band so intertwined with the atmosphere of its home city—was channeling the uneasy cool of a post-9/11 downtown scene rather than the awkward pre-recession commodification of cool or the downtown’s post-recession fumbling for an identity. Interpol is back, more polished and more grown-up, surrounded by a neighborhood that’s weathered its own growth and found a way to feel New York again. We all feel New York; every person here is using Interpol to define what that feeling is for them.
“Rosemary,” Paul Banks’ familiar croon echoes over the crowd. The band kicks off their 16-song set with “Evil.” “Heaven restores you in life.”
Lights shift between each song, noticeably adjusting for each record. Red for Turn on the Bright Lights. Blue for Antics. Red and blue for El Pintor. Green for Interpol. Live, the band is just as tight as ever, playing songs from throughout their discography. We get “PDA” and “Take You on a Cruise” and “Stella Was a Driver and She Was Always Down” and “Slow Hands” and “NYC.” Those in attendance, the majority of them in their 30s, sing along lovingly, their behavior a combination of remembering what it was like to hear these songs for the first time and being thankful that they’re seeing the band they love in this setting. The new songs—they perform “All the Rage Back Home,” “Same Town, New Story,” “Anywhere,” and “My Desire” from El Pintor—fit nicely in their discography, a weird collection of music that during the set I come to realize kind of all sounds the same. Yet despite that fact, there’s a certain comforting beauty in what that repetitive feeling does to you.
I stand with my arm around a girl. We sway, gently, not really saying much, but that’s because no one is saying anything. We’re all there, together, in the same bizarre trance. After the show, she and I head up the road to a basement dive bar in the East Village. We share drinks and talk about her life and mine, what it means to grow up and get older and get wiser and realize that the older we get the less we know. At one point, in some weird and cosmic poetic stroke, Interpol’s “NYC” starts playing over the speakers. She tells me about her family. I tell her about mine. We leave. It’s after 2 AM. We’re a little drunk and lightly stumble over one another as we exit the stairs out the bar. On the side of the road, I kiss her. And I kiss her again. Then she gets in a cab and drives away and I get in a cab and go back to Brooklyn. As I’m riding over the Williamsburg Bridge, I watch the city’s skyline fade into dark, put on my headphones, and flip on Turn on the Bright Lights.
Eric Sundermann is the Managing Editor of Noisey. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy