Artist Spotlight: Interpol

Hello, everybody, and welcome to my second ever Artist Spotlight. Today, I’m going to be talking about Interpol. No, not the International Criminal Police Organization, the rock band!

Interpol formed in 1997 in New York City. The band was started by Daniel Kessler, a student at NYU who was looking to form a band with Greg Drudy, a drummer who would soon be replaced by Sam Fogarino. Kessler approached Carlos Dengler, a flamboyantly dressed classmate of his, and asked if he was a musician based on the clothes that he was wearing. Dengler, who later went by the name Carlos D, joined, and from there the last person to join the band was Paul Banks, a songwriter/poet who also attended NYU. The four men quickly became rising stars of the NYC indie scene that was burgeoning at this time, though the band admits in interviews that they were barely participants of this fabled scene. Nevertheless, the band made a name for themselves by releasing by releasing several EP’s, including a self-titled one that received critical acclaim and led to a growing fanbase.

The band signed to Matador Records in early 2002, and recorded and released their debut album, which is still regarded as their masterpiece: the iconic Turn On The Bright Lights. Although I enjoy everything that the band has released, the majority of this Artist Spotlight will focus on this album, along with their follow-up, Antics, as well as their most recent release, 2014’s El Pintor.

What makes Turn On The Bright Lights so special? I argue that along with another classic debut from a NY indie band, Is This ItTurn On The Bright Lightshad a seismic impact on American rock music in the 21st century. What The Strokes did with bands like The Velvet Underground (namely, modernize their sound while bringing their own unique style, and introducing them to younger audiences) Interpol did with post-punk acts like Joy Division. The band has been blessed (or cursed) with constant comparisons to the Manchester legends throughout their career, especially in their early days. The comparison isn’t too far off. Both bands make moody post-punk with melancholy lyrics over sometimes danceable instrumentals, both bands feature metallic guitar interacting with melodic, stylish bass and tight drumming. And the band has Paul Banks as frontman, whose monotone, sometimes off-key baritone (Pitchfork once said that he sang like his lyrics were “…WRITTEN OUT IN ALL CAPS WITH NO PUNCTUATION”) can be a dead ringer for Ian Curtis. The band even replicated the formal suits and almost goth-like accessories of Joy Division and other bands of the time. But to dismiss Interpol as a Joy Division ripoff would rob yourself of listening to one of the best (and most influential) bands of the century.

To be honest, it took me a while to fully get into Interpol. Their songs can often take sharp turns into unexpected territories, and Paul Banks lyrics can seem like nonsense to new listeners. But after a few listens, my love for this band was cemented. Turn On The Bright Lights begins with the mostly instrumental “Untitled”, a fantastic introduction to the band. That track is followed by “Obstacle 1”, which can be heard above, and kicks off one of the best five track runs in rock music history. Listening to “Obstacle 1” was a defining experience for a younger Thin White Duke: hearing that ringing guitar, followed by a loud snare shot, and that high Peter Hook-esque bassline gave me chills, and still does. After that comes the haunting “NYC”, perhaps the best song about alienation in post 9/11 New York:

Then comes “PDA”, which in my opinion is their best song:

Followed by “Say Hello To Angels”, which is reminiscent of a Smiths song, only much more jittery. Both songs contain fantastic outros, with bass solos from Carlos D elevating the mix.

If i wanted to, I could go through Turn On The Bright Lights track by track. But that would be a disservice to their excellent sophomore album, Antics. In addition to being both a critical and commercial success, this album features the biggest chart hits of Interpol’s career, songs like “Evil”, “Slow Hands”, “Narc”, “C’Mere”, and “Take You On A Cruise”.

The band released their third album, and first major label release, Our Love To Admire, in 2007. This was their most expansive album, and featured string sections and more keyboards. It’s not a bad album, far from it. It just pales a little in comparison to the two masterpieces that preceded it. But it still contains great songs, like “Mammoth”, “Pioneer To The Falls”, “No I In Threesome”, “Rest My Chemistry”, and “The Heinrich Manuever”. The latter track was the first Interpol song I ever heard, and it hooked me from the get-go. I’m not ashamed to admit that I first heard it in a commercial, and it boasts a great video:

By the time the band started to record their fourth, self-titled record, tensions within the band had reached a boiling point. Arguments about songwriting and what direction the band should take were frequent in the studio. Carlos D was fed up with touring, and would start squabbles with his other bandmates, especially Sam Fogarino and Paul Banks. After recording for the album was complete, Carlos D announced he was leaving the band before the records release in 2010. I love this band, but this record is… not very good. The songs all sound the same, and the pointless electronic flourishes make the band seem like they’re trying way too hard to be something it’s not, and even the band itself has disowned it, rarely playing anything from it live. The lead single from the album, “Barricade” has grown on me, though.

After Carlos D left the band, and with a widely disliked album fresh in everyone’s mind, Interpol went on hiatus. After a long break, the band returned in 2014 with the stunning comeback El Pintor. As a bassist myself, I will admit that I was skeptical of an Interpol record without Carlos D. He was more than just the bass player, he was the stylish, outspoken, hedonistic (and often conceited and obnoxious) rock star of the band. While the other members shied away from interviews, Carlos gladly stepped into the spotlight, making him the de facto face of the band. And frankly, he was perhaps the main reason that the early Interpol records were so great. His tight, driving basslines often took the songs to completely new levels, and he often contributed keyboards and helped write some of their best songs. But El Pintor completely assuaged my doubts. While Carlos is sorely missed by me and other fans, the songs on this record rank with Interpol’s best. Paul’s voice has really improved, and his lyrics and knack fro writing a catchy vocal melody remain sharp. Standout tracks include “Blue Supreme”, “My Desire”, “Everything Is Wrong”, and lead single “All The Rage Back Home”, one of their catchiest tracks:

Why do I love Interpol so much? To be honest, I’m not quite sure, which is part of the reason why I love them. They had an aura of mysteriousness around them that most other bands didn’t have at the time. Here were four guys in suits with songs that sounded sometimes harsh, other times beautiful. And what made the band so special in the early days was the combined strengths and weaknesses of the four members playing off of each other. Paul Banks could barely sing, and wrote lyrics that seemed incomprehensible on paper, but refused to leave your head. Daniel Kessler may not have been the best live guitarist, but made up for it with his interesting tone and snazzy appearance and dance moves. Carlos D was a weird looking guy who acted like an asshole, but he was born to be onstage. And Sam Fogarino was a decade older than the rest of the band, and barely played their kind of music, yet he elevated them to new heights. Interpol is a band of moments that stick with you. Moments that made your hair stand on end, or feel like you’ve gotten punched in the gut. Brief moments like the falsetto in both Obstacle 1 and Obstacle 2. The bass solos in PDA and Say Hello To The Angels. The muted anguish of “Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down”, or the tremolo guitar and cymbal crashes of “NYC”. When Daniel Kessler’s reverb heavy lead vocals kick in at the end of “PDA”. And no matter how many times I hear those moments, I still get filled up inside with that feeling that there’s a special kind of band out there, and even though millions of people love them, I feel like I can still call them mine. Interpol thrives and carries on, and they help me do the same.