Interpolitics

The singer for an NYC buzz band tries his hand as a spin doctor.

Nearly every article, review or blurb about Interpol, among the ripest acts to emerge from New York City's bumper crop of nu-rock revivalists, dwells on the same theme: the quartet's supposed sonic similarity to Joy Division, a memorably mopey late-'70s collective whose frontman, Ian Curtis, earned a spot in the Music Martyrs' Hall of Fame by hanging himself just before the scheduled start of the outfit's inaugural U.S. tour.

Take that, Kurt Cobain.

If his comments for this interview are any indication, vocalist/guitarist Paul Banks may have grown a bit too eager to rebut this allegation. Even though his interrogator (yours truly) never mentioned Joy Division by name, the twenty-something Banks rolled out a pro forma defense against the charge that 2002's Turn on the Bright Lights, a guilty pleasure of a debut album, is essentially a batch of JD impressions -- as if the argument had been first on the agenda.

There's no joy in this division: Interpol is Carlos 
Dengler (from left), Paul Banks, Daniel Kessler and 
Sam Fogarino.
Robin
There's no joy in this division: Interpol is Carlos Dengler (from left), Paul Banks, Daniel Kessler and Sam Fogarino.

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"I don't give a fuck if people keep saying that forever, because I know they're wrong," he declared. "There was never any thought in that direction, and there are bands that I much prefer. Besides, I would never want to sound like a band I love, because those are exactly the bands you think you can't even approach."

The logic of this response is rather serpentine: If Banks wouldn't imitate a group he truly adores, but he isn't especially passionate about Joy Division, does that mean aping Curtis and company is okay? Still, the fact that Banks felt he had to answer a question that, in this case, wasn't even asked indicates how difficult it is for indie rockers on the fringes of the mainstream to navigate between various factions. Appealing to the masses without eliciting cries of "Sellout!" from fans who were there from the beginning is a balancing act; any misstep can lead to a long, nasty fall. Knowing that, Banks trod lightly around most topics, no matter how apparently innocuous -- like, for instance, what his father does for a living.

"I don't like talking about that stuff too much," Banks said. After a pause, during which he evidently considered how this dodge might look to readers, he noted, "I don't want to be cagey, either." After some minor coaxing, he finally divulged that his dad is in "the automobile industry," a description that could fit jobs ranging from cabdriver to CEO of General Motors. He wasn't quite as vague about his mother, but close: He said she does "an executive-assistant sort of thing."

In respect to Clacton-on-Sea, a village in the Essex section of England where he lived until he was three, Banks is relatively forthcoming. Yet he can't resist refining recollections of his last visit there, when he was in his late teens. "It's got a boardwalk and a pier and a busted-down amusement park, and it's literally right on the water," he said. "It's kind of got this strange fishing/beach-getaway vibe to it, but really an unimpressive one -- although I don't want to talk shit or anything." A hem, a haw, and then: "Maybe it's a little like Coney Island." With more emphasis: "Yeah, Coney Island."

The New York reference is appropriate, given that the Bankses (including Paul's older brother) moved to the metropolitan area in the 1980s. As he came of age, Paul developed an obsession with music, which he traces to his father's LPs. Their covers often impressed him as much, if not more, than the vinyl inside -- a telling admission, because the members of Interpol, with their fondness for spiffy suits and canny presentation, have a well-deserved reputation for mating the visual with the aural. It's no surprise that Banks loved the sleeve on Roxy Music's Country Life; after all, his father had the edition featuring two nearly nude women standing in front of a hedge, not the reissue only showing shrubbery. More unexpected is his warm regard for...

"Asia!" he said. "You ever seen that cover? With the serpents and shit? And he also had Toto, Yes -- he was a huge Steve Howe fan, even in his solo work -- the Cars, Santana. He's got two copies of every Santana record ever released. His mother gave him a set, but he'd already bought everything. And Dire Straits; there was a lot of Dire Straits going on at home." Perhaps realizing that this roster lacked a certain element of cool, Banks subsequently tacked Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin onto the list.

Banks took music lessons early on, but the urge to master an instrument didn't really take until seventh grade, when he picked up a guitar. He was becoming adept at handling the ax when he experienced "a definite this-is-what-I-want-to-do-with-my-life moment." What happened? "Nirvana happened, basically," he said.

Take that, Ian Curtis.

A few years down the road, while participating in a foreign-study program that took him to France, Banks met Daniel Kessler, another singer/guitarist. The duo hooked up again in 1998 at New York University, where Banks was pursuing a double major in English lit and comparative lit; together they formed Interpol, along with a pair of fellow NYU students, bassist Carlos Dengler and drummer Greg Drudy (replaced in time by Sam Fogarino). During the extended period of woodshedding that followed, Banks supported himself with editorial-assistant assignments at magazines such as Interview, where he had regular phone contact with many of pop culture's shiniest luminaries.

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