Paul Banks is best known as the charismatic frontman of Interpol, an outfit at the center of the so-called "post-punk revival" of the early 2000s. Banks's rich and resonant voice was the perfect match for the dark atmospheres and urgency of Interpol's music. While on tour with the band, Banks had been working on music of his own on the side, and in 2009 he put out his first solo record under the moniker Julian Plenti. This year, Banks discarded the pseudonym for his latest effort, the aptly and simply titled Banks. We recently spoke with Banks while he was taking some time off the road in Panama and discussed his alternate route into atmospheric music, the creative path for his two solo albums and Leonard Cohen.
Westword: Is it true that you worked at Interview Magazine several years back?
Paul Banks: Yeah, that was my first job out of college.
Did you conduct interviews and write profiles?
I did a couple of times. I was pretty bad at it. [I interviewed] Damon Dash, and I think I interviewed a famous photographer, but I can't remember his name. But they weren't for pieces that I was writing. They would be more for like the mini bio in the front of the magazine where it says something like, "The photographer who shot the cover is this, that and the other." I was mostly a fact checker.
From there, you took other kinds of jobs that allowed you to focus better on your music.
Yeah, magazines are hard. So it was too much work to do and commit fully to the band, and I felt like I was hedging my bets. Then I got sort of mindless minimum wage jobs.
What is it about Leonard Cohen's music made a big impact on you?
Huh. I suppose it's the lyrics mostly, but I don't think you can separate the lyrics from the tone of his voice. And his guitar work is really amazing. I feel like you can actually really say that especially about Leonard Cohen, because my understanding is that he was a writer and poet prior to being a musician, and that his circle of friends kind of looked down on him when he started doing music, because it's like a lower form of writing.
I feel like that sort of almost makes what he does even more special; he's gone rogue from whatever art scene he was a part of simply by being a musician because he was a poet. What compelled him to do that is that musicality. He's not just a lyricist with a guitar; he's a fuckin' bonkers musician. But yeah, I think he just had some of the best lyrics I ever heard. He's on that pedestal, I think, for many. I know for many.
Interpol obviously gets compared to Joy Division a lot. But that music seems to resonate even more with bands like the Chameleons, Comsat Angels and the Sound. Would you say that informed your music as well?
I never heard any of those bands [before starting Interpol]. I've heard the Chameleons since the band put out records. Then someone played the Chameleons, and I said, "Oh yeah, that band sounds really good to me."
You've mentioned at least a few times that earlier in your life that Nirvana was a big inspiration to you. What did you get interested in after that, in terms of music, seeing as Nirvana is more of a straight ahead rock and roll sound. Your own music has more atmosphere, or maybe it just captures a different kind of mood in general.
I don't know where it all comes from. I've listened to a lot of Neil Young, as well. I liked things that weren't so atmosphere driven. But I think it would be the songs by more traditional rock bands that were the most atmospheric that would speak to me. I do think Lou Barlow's work and John Frusciante's work did a lot for me, as far as mystery and mysterious textures and environments of creepiness [go].
But I remember listening to tape bleed in Led Zeppelin songs when I was a little kid, and Pink Floyd, as well. In "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You," there's this moment where there's tape bleed. I thought they had done that on purpose. Before he sings a loud line toward the end of the song you hear the lyric quietly in the mix, five seconds prior, ahead of that actual delivery of the lyric.
As a kid, that just blew my mind. That to me, especially believing it was an intentionally done thing, was automatically looking at the three dimensionality of music mixing and why you would do that and what kind of super ominous effect it creates to hear Robert Plant really distantly shouting a line and then singing it in the foreground.
But I came to understand that that effect may not have been intentional, but simply when information is sitting on a reel of tape for too long, I guess what's on one concentric circle will bleed into another one. That's the last thing I heard as to why that happened on that Zeppelin song.
Also, I got into Sugar, and I loved everything on that record, except for "If I Can't Change Your Mind," which was the single. But everything else on that record was an incredibly atmospheric, ominous fucking masterpiece, every song, including the single, but that was the one song that, as a kid, I would skip over and dig into the rest. So I think I always just had a taste for atmosphere.
When you talk about influences with Interpol, Daniel [Kessler] is the one that introduces the ideas that become our songs, and they were always going through the filter of Carlos [Dengler], who had a very major input into what the band does, and Sam [Fogarino] and myself. So my particular influences as a musician certainly are not the ones defining what Interpol was. I'm one of four people. I think that's why if you're surprised I haven't heard this or that band, Daniel may certainly have heard that band.
It sounds like you've worked on your solo music a lot while you're on the road, using the laptop as a tool. What kind of software did you use for that?
I just used Logic.
Did you write it using guitar? Did you use soft synths or any of that sort of thing?
If I write a guitar line, then I also have an Apogee One, so I can input my guitar into my laptop through that interface. It also has a really good microphone. So I just have a bass guitar and a regular guitar in my hotel room every day, and I would just get Logic-ed up instead of getting liquored up.
Other than the obvious limitations of that method, what were the main challenges of turning what you recorded, sketches and bits of song or full songs, into what they became later on?
Well, that was the challenge of my first record -- figuring how to do that. Because I had done performances as Julian Plenti when I was in college, doing songs with a guitar and a mike and not liking how it was going. It wasn't until much later that I discovered Logic that I could then [be happier with the results]. I would work on a four-track and make stuff that way, but I couldn't translate that to the live performance, either.
What held me up with four-track recording is that I could never get into drum machines. I couldn't figure out how to fucking use them, so I could never really make a complete demo back in those days because I couldn't figure out how to interface the drum machine with my four-track and make it all work. So I ended with these sort of acoustic guitar compositions.
It wasn't until I got Logic that I was able to write the drum beats out and do the bass lines and build up all the string arrangements. That was all the process that brought out my first record. So when I went down to this record, it's like, "Oh no, this is my system." Now I know how to make my songs. I educated myself in how to execute the ideas from start to finish to make my first record, and this time, I just used that method.
So it begins with a guitar riff. If I think it's good enough to start to build into something, I'll record the guitar riff in and probably write a structure on guitar first and input all of that, and then go about writing all the bass and guitar. Once I have a song on guitar, it's on. There's no reason to not get it finished. So it wasn't like a struggle to make this record. I kept having lots of ideas.
You've played a number of guitars over the years. Why did you switch over to playing a Jaguar or a Flying V there for a while?
The Flying V because I've always wanted to because it's the coolest looking of all guitars. The Jaguars are, I think, because of Kurt Cobain and John Frusciante as a child. I happened upon my Les Paul, which also suited me because I'm a big Neil Young fan. But that came about from a trade, or I got it for a song, from a good friend of mine in high school. But it wasn't a guitar that I had gone to a store and picked. It's that I saw it and said, "Fuck, will you sell me that please?"
Alongside that has always been an inclination to play a Jaguar, basically, because, as I mentioned, Frusciante and Kurt; whether or not those guys used Mustangs, I don't care. I love the Jaguar. On another side, I've always been sort of a strummy, primarily rhythm guitar player. I'm only a rhythm guitar player. There's a reason why the Rapture uses thin-stringed kind of Fender guitars with that sound, that kind of funk, disco sound. It's made for a Fender, and a beefier, moody sound, I think, is made with a Les Paul.
A lot of the kind of guitar playing I do is rhythm oriented, so I like, once in a while, going over to the Fender side because the neck is thinner, and it's like a less percussive, more rhythmic thing. Also, I feel like the Les Paul suits Interpol. The Jaguar actually came about specifically within Interpol because I had written a part in which I wanted whammy, and I don't like Les Pauls with Bigsbys. I had just got a guitar that had a whammy bar.
These days, with your solo music, do you play more a Strat or a Gibson?
Right now, it's a...that dude from Iron Maiden, Dave Murray maybe? It's his signature edition Stratocaster that I found in a guitar shop, and it's just got humbuckers. So it's got a super distorted, or some kind of really hot humbuckers at the neck and the bridge, so it's just thicker and beefier and warmer than a regular Strat.
What is it about that that appeals to you for what you're doing now?
It's more the playability. I actually fell in love with a Yamaha knock-off Start, like a two hundred dollar Yamaha Pacifica. I fell in love with it, and I liked so much how it played, I tried to use that, and I do use that on stage. That Yamaha happens to have a humbucker at the bridge, so the Fender was an attempt to get a slightly better sound but have the same feel as the Yamaha. The Yamaha I happened upon just because I was somewhere that did sell any good guitars. So I just bought a shitty guitar, and fell in love with it.
You've lived in many places in the world, and on tour and otherwise, you've been to many more. As we're speaking today, you're in Panama. What draws you there?
The ocean. It's remote. Everything is better for me. It's where I'm happiest.
Is it true you've been doing some surfing there as well?
What got you into surfing, and what do you find relaxing and interesting about it?
Since I was a kid, I had body surfed. It's something I got into kind of in high school. On some sort of big wave beaches I was doing it at that point where it's a bit of an extreme sport and it's kind of dangerous. I found a place in Central America with great waves, Panama. The next step for me loving music was picking up the guitar, and the next step for me loving the ocean was in trying out a surf board. The reason surfers act like and are surfers is because it sort of is the best thing ever. It satisfies you on primeval levels, as well as every conscious level a person might understand.
Having lived in different parts of the world across the course of your lifetime, what do you think that experience has engendered in your perspective as an adult?
I think I don't suffer from any provincial mentalities. I sort of think, "Oh, this place is unique and really cool. So is the next place." So I don't ever prioritize one culture, and I don't hold any place up above any other place. I am very open-minded to [the fact that] places that I don't understand can reveal themselves to be wonderful for me. Whereas I think that if you don't travel a lot, you can close yourself off to that possibility.
But at the same time, having traveled a bit, there's totally places that don't speak to me, that I don't want to go to. There are parts of the world that I don't really give a shit if I ever see them. Whereas most other people are like, "At one point, I've really got to go there." I actually traveled there with my family. I'm not the kind of guy that loves the idea of traveling to exotic locations. I would rather find one and stay there.