From all appearances, the Interpol that rose to prominence in the early ’00s was an airtight, lockstep operation: perfectly-coiffed hair, matching razor-edged suits, stern demeanors and songs filled with clean lines and acute angles. But beneath the polished surface, the band was dealing with a problem child.
“No one wanted to admit it, but Carlos [Dengler] weighed us down for a time,” says drummer Sam Fogarino. We’re seated in New York’s Bowery Hotel, where he and guitarist Daniel Kessler have gathered to give interviews in advance of the band’s fifth record, and the first to recapture the dark, severe beauty of their 2002 debut. For a while, the band fought through the friction. But by the time of their third record (and sole outing for major label Capitol, Our Love to Admire), the problems had been brought to the fore. “I got to the point where I said, ‘If you don’t want to be here, I don’t want you here.’ He had a fear of leaving, understandably so. But it was uncomfortable, and it’s a disservice to the music.”
Bands often create their most compelling music when they have something to prove. Whether it’s a long-gestating debut or a follow-up to a poorly-received album, sometimes it takes a firm push to give an act the gut punch they need to regain their vitality and relevance. The loss of Dengler provided just such an impetus for Interpol.
“It got to the point where I wasn’t mad. It was, ‘Rectify this or go,’ and he left,” says Forgarino. “I felt like, ‘I want to do this, and this is a livelihood to me. How can I look at you and respect you?’ I didn’t want to deal with that.”
Those dark years exhibited glimmers of the great band of yore, but the edginess of the guitars were replaced by silvery, gossamer strings and keyboards. They found their audience dwindling, and were unceremoniously dropped by Capitol after Our Love to Admire. Their self-titled fourth album, for which they returned to Matador Records, is largely considered the nadir of their discography, a commercial and critical failure.
Now, seven years removed from Dengler, the band sounds revitalized — galvanized even, on their propulsive new album El Pintor. It’s a record of unfettered power, the sound of a band reinventing themselves by rediscovering the innate chemistry that endeared themselves to fans and critics in the first place.
Singer Paul Banks, calling from Copenhagen, where he’s spending time with his girlfriend, Helena Christensen, largely agrees. “You’d never get Daniel to own up to it, but my take is that he wrote a very experimental group of songs on the fourth album, and Carlos was in a mode of taking that left field music and pushing it two degrees further. I think that no matter what Daniel turned in, Carlos wanted to take whatever it was further. So you sort of had two different musicians independent of each other moving shit to the left.”
Banks is easily the most taciturn member of the band, and can be difficult to crack on a personal level. “My idea of being an artist was to be a private person and a public artist,” he says. “So I don’t really get the idea of the Twitters and the Instagrams. I like the idea of putting [out] a sophisticated and polished piece of work. There’s no real way to navigate a career in the entertainment business, but if it doesn’t work out, at least you’ve stayed true to your own notions.”
He can be especially tight-lipped when it comes to talking about his lyrics, so it’s a surprise to hear him so willing to open up about his process. “I think I was trying to carve a niche on the first and second records, especially on Antics,” he says. “Now I kind of feel like I own the thing I do. How do I want to improve within that vein that I come from and how do I explore new things? Album three was the one where I second-guessed myself the most, album four was just tricky to get my head around the music I was being presented. On El Pintor, I felt more plugged into what we were doing.”
While Dengler’s departure was freeing for the band, it also left them without a bass player. For a time, they filled the gap with sidemen, including David Pajo (Slint, Stereolab) and Brad Truax (Spiritualized, Oneida), but that band-aid still left them without a long-term solution. Fortunately, Banks had honed his bass playing skills during the making of his solo albums Julian Plenti is…Skyscraper and cBanks, and was able to make up for the loss.
— Daniel Kessler, guitarist’
“I didn’t know he’d be such a great bassist,” says Kessler. “We needed to fill up the space somehow after Carlos left, but it was without words. It just happened.” The decision had an added benefit, since Banks nearly always structures his vocals around the bass lines. “There was a good energy out of those sessions,” continues the guitarist. “We had a lot more to say, but when things are working, you don’t try to patch up the walls. You just keep going with it.”
The band that convened intermittently throughout 2013 at Electric Lady Studios in NYC was looser, as if a backpack full of anvils had been lifted from their shoulders. The energy is immediately evident in El Pintor‘s first single “All the Rage Back Home,” which jettisons many of the superfluous accoutrements that colored their last two efforts — the swells of electronic textures on LP No. 4′s “Try it On,” and the sepulchral organ that dominates Our Love to Admire‘s “Mammoth” — swapping them for playful, guitar-driven swagger on tracks like “Anywhere” and “My Blue Supreme.”
“I thought it might be time to be a rock band again,” says Fogarino. “I had a desire. I had a different perspective. With my position in the band, [I'm] not writing any melodies, so I’m closer to the periphery. I had a lot of rides from Atlanta to [my home in] Athens, when I’d fly back from New York thinking about how good we could be.” His drive increased after serendipitously discovering an early demo version of “NYC” on a CD-R, and being blown away by the young group’s guitar interplay. The other members weren’t as sure.
“I didn’t know if another record would get made,” Kessler admits. “I knew we’d give it a shot, I just didn’t know if it would get done. It’s a vulnerable thing for me to play songs for the guys. Showing the songs to those dudes is the most vulnerable I feel during the whole [process].”
For El Pintor, Banks loosened up, subscribing to a first thought/best thought edict. “On this record there’s more of a punk kind of inspiration for me, just belting vocals and saying ‘Everything is Wrong,’ not necessarily aggro, but almost off-the-cuff. Just feeling that freedom is a sign that I’m not second-guessing myself now.”
It’s a certain push-pull tension that makes Interpol such a fascinating act, even when they aren’t at an artistic peak. And having faced so much strife early on, it feels as though the three remaining members, after enduring some lean years when everything seemed to be going wrong, were inspired by the memories of their nascent days while making El Pintor. Not surprisingly, each is steadfast that being in this band is exactly what they most want to be doing.
“Since I was 8 years old, this is what I’ve wanted to do,” says Fogarino. “It doesn’t feel as weird as I thought it would.”
Kessler agrees. “If no one ever hears a note of this, it’s always been the thing I wanted to have in my life,” he says. “As long as it keeps happening, I believe in what we’re doing.”
“I do feel like we’re a band with something to prove,” says Banks. “There’s a similarity between the first album and this one because [on our debut] we had to prove to people who we were. With this one, we had to prove to each other that we could write as a three-piece.” He pauses briefly, then adds. “In the early days I think there was a belief that we’d be around for awhile. We envisioned it to be a long running thing. So why bother stopping? I just enjoy making music, and I enjoy making it with Sam and Daniel.”