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.
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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.
"A lot of them really surprised me with how personable and friendly they were," Banks maintained. A request to name names drew a typically cautious reply: "I don't know. I think that's probably kind of tacky, right?" But he reconsidered, saying, "I guess because it's not a bad thing, and because he contributes to the magazine almost every issue, I could tell you that Elton John is an extremely friendly guy."
Happy chats with the mega-famous would probably have a demystifying affect on most folks, but not Banks, who said he's never bought into the mythology of stardom. Maybe that's why, despite the intelligence of the Interview staffers with whom he worked, he quickly concluded that he wasn't cut out for that brand of journalism.
"It was the wrong field for me," he said. "I wouldn't want to write at a lifestyle or celebrity magazine, because of the fundamental limitations of how you can present your information, which I thought was really boring. On the one hand, I was sympathetic, but on the other hand, I kind of felt like, why would you want to do this if you're forced to have these stupid angles and compartmentalize everything so that it fits the readership of the periodical? It would kill the creative joy for me to do shit like 'Colin Farrell is so hot! On the set of Tigerland with the new, hot actor!'"
Of course, it wouldn't be long before Banks himself was subjected to similar coverage, albeit with an alterna-rock twist. Interpol began gigging heavily in 2000, and its Euro-centric stylings, captured on a couple of independently issued EPs, promptly hit the sweet spot with listeners on both sides of the Atlantic. By early 2001, the foursome had already come to the attention of British DJ/hipster-institution John Peel, who honored them with a BBC Radio session. After Mogwai, the Arab Strap and other trendies offered Interpol plum show-opening slots, the press hopped aboard, granting the group semi-official membership in the Strokes-led resuscitation of the NYC rock underground. Viewed from this perspective, it was nearly inevitable that the band would sign with Matador, one of the States' most venerable cult imprints.
The hype that came with this attention made Banks worry "that there would be jaded people coming to our shows. Like, 'I want to see what the big fucking deal is about.' But I didn't get much of a sense of it happening. You never know how many people walk away saying, ŒThat sucked.' But I never really sensed that there was that kind of contingent in the audience."
However, plenty of people fitting this description have taken on Bright Lights, which divided tastemakers from the beginning. Sure, the disc is striking, dramatic, hook-filled, assured -- but doesn't it also seem a touch familiar? Frankly, yes: The echoey, moody guitar patterns, the eerily danceable rhythms, the wailed, distorted and/or crooned vocals, and the elliptical lyrics all hark back to the first post-punk era, when moderately depressed lads first discovered the empowering aspects of pancake makeup and eyeliner. But the Interpolers pull these elements together with tremendous aplomb on numbers like "PDA," whose video was nominated for a 2003 MTV Video Music Award in the MTV2 category; it lost to "Girl's Not Grey," by another Return to Maybelline group, AFI.
The players offer occasional hints that they're fully aware of the game being played. For instance, both "Untitled" and "Obstacle 1," the CD's willfully evocative opening tracks, sport the declarations "We can cap the old times'/We can top the old lines," which can be interpreted as a sort of retro statement of purpose. Even so, those who feel that lack of originality is a sin punishable by death will be sharpening their guillotines by the end of "Say Hello to the Angels," which bears more than a passing melodic resemblance to the Smiths' "This Charming Man." Others may prefer to lie back and enjoy it.
In the meantime, Banks and his Interpol mates are busy shaping material for a new disc they hope to release in 2004. At present, they're playing two songs in concert that were penned for the project -- "Length of Love" and a thus-far unmonikered ditty -- and Banks has been trying to gauge reaction to them at each show. "Sometimes you feel people are, like, 'Wow, that's awesome,' and other times you get the feeling, especially at festivals where they're not as familiar with you, that they just want to hear the record." In his view, the compositions tackle material that's fresh, but not so foreign as to be unrecognizable. He imagines telling fans, "I know you'll like the song if you like us, because this is a huge leap forward."
Not that he expects to be spared the sort of Joy Division-type knocks to which he's grown accustomed. "As an artist, I want to go in a completely new direction," he said. "But there'll probably be some stupid comparisons with the second one, too."
Take that, Paul Banks.
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