EXCLUSIVE Interpol Interview: Paul Banks on Rebooting the Interpol Franchise, Life After Carlos, and Clarifying His Feelings about Women and Drugs
Interpol headlines the Greek Theatre this Saturday, October 23rd, with openers White Rabbits.
After cycling through his Manhattan neighborhood, Interpol singer and guitarist Paul Banks arrives at his destination to make final preparations before boarding a plane later in the day that will carry him West. Touring in support of his band's self-titled fourth album, Banks will stop first in Mexico, and then crawl up the continent's Pacific coastline, arriving here in Los Angeles for a headlining set at the Greek Theatre.
For the first time, Interpol is playing live without the slick-haired and crow-like Carlos Dengler perched stage left, swinging his four-string and playing in low-end lockstep with drummer Sam Fogarino.
Rather unceremoniously, Dengler departed Interpol (after finishing recording the new album) with little explanation other than the pursuit of long-dormant "other interests." Dengler has remained silent since his exile and the rest of the band has revealed little besides insisting the split was amicable (and not entirely surprising). So, along with Banks, Fogarino, and guitarist Daniel Kessler, Interpol is now a touring quintet, rounded out by bassist David Pajo, formerly of Slint, and keyboardist Brandon Curtis of Secret Machines.
Whilst juggling a bike lock and a cell phone, Banks spoke with the LA Weekly--shortly after opening for U2 in Spain and Portugal--about returning "home" to indie Matador (after a one-album go with major label Capitol), his recent decision to forgo intoxicating libations, why a song that says "I" isn't always about "me," and a fickle public who'd be perfectly happy to have the band keep remaking their debut Turn on the Bright Lights over and over and over again and how his band has no intention of doing so.
Could you hang on a second? I'm locking up my bike. [Dickensian sounds of chains and clicking locks begin then cease.] I'm back. Hi.
Have you always cycled your way around New York City? Isn't that David Byrne's turf?
For some time now, I have, yeah. And I think my bike is cooler than David Byrne's. But, I know he's quite the [cycling] activist, so I'm a supporter.
You just returned from your first opening dates for U2. It was famously reported that it was precisely being the opening act for U2 that broke up the Pixies. How have you found the experience so far? Would you ever want your own band to be that big and headline such a spectacle?
[Pauses] I don't know. That's a tricky question to answer. I like the experience because I like playing in front of that many people. It's just jaw dropping. It's such a huge amount of people. I find it exhilarating and almost especially because it's not our audience. I like doing that. It's like being the DJ at a party: "This is what's on right now, everybody." And I like that feeling. Then you look at a band like U2... What they do is exactly what they set out to do and what they want to do. I think they're a very unique band, so that includes their aspirations. It's not like you just go that route; they've created their own route as a band and it's pretty impressive.
Did you have to play beneath that giant claw, or were you delegated to some smaller guest platform?
They're pretty generous about it. The Claw is just the configuration whereby they can seat people all the way around, in 360 degrees. They've got the big JumboTrons up there and they're pretty generous about what kind of stuff we can use. It's like being on a nice, spacious stage with a bunch of gadgets on it. It's not so bad, actually [laughs].
For whatever reason, this new album was characterized early on as being a "comeback." Sam [Fogarino, drummer] had promised in the press before the album came out, that it was a "return" to the band's earlier sound. Or maybe the comeback notion had more to do with the departure of Carlos [Dengler, bassist]. That said, would you characterize this album as a comeback or a return?
It was not supposed to be a return, no. It's always supposed to be an expansion, an evolution within our sound and what we do. That's what we're always aspiring for--to not at all repeat ourselves. Also, it should be pointed out that the configuration change happened post-facto. The record was written and recorded before any major configuration change. I think for us, it's just a record that we're proud of. I think it just makes a good story if you have those comments that were repeated often, of Sam's. You couple that with going back to Matador, then it's a pretty easy story that it's a kind of comeback or a return. In some sense, it is. We're back with familiar and friendly faces at our original record label, so that's nice. But in terms of sonically--we're much more inspired to do new things rather than repeating ourselves.
When you made the move to Capitol Records for Our Love to Admire, it seemed a bit odd, like everyone else was making the exact opposite move: from major back to indie.
Yeah, I think maybe we were on the tail end of something.
What was the band's reason? Did they promise to buy you a helicopter?
The gravy train was leaving the station [laughs]. No, I'm kidding. At that point, I had more of the impression that many more artists of our ilk were on majors. They had sort of used the system and started someplace and gone somewhere else because they thought they'd be better... you know, to have more options of exposure and getting a larger fan base. There were a lot of bands in that situation. For us, I don't think we thought it was that out of sync. It was pretty good common sense to try and expand. But that doesn't change the fact that it's nice to be back on Matador.
So, no helicopter.
I guess I should speak on behalf of the band. I think they'd be aghast at the notion of it being any kind of a money thing. It was really just the right thing for us to do at that time.
You're happy to be back on Matador, so not to box you into saying anything bad about your major-label stint, but--
I thought the major label system worked well for us. So, I have no problem. It wasn't a bad experience for me. Whoever figures out a good way to be viable in the current marketplace, that's interesting and I champion anyone who pulls it off where everyone is benefiting and the industry is functioning, whether that be a major or independent model. Whoever gets a good, sustainable version is good by me.
In the current climate, bands seem to arrive and disappear in the same blink. I think Sleigh Bells were supposed to be the best band ever eight weeks ago and now it's someone else already.
Interpol had that kind of emphatic welcoming when you began. With four albums over the past decade, do you think people still fetishize your debut [Turn on the Bright Lights] too much?
No, not at all. I think we take great pride in that. The music, if you're lucky, it takes on a life of its own. We happily leave it up to people to hold what we do in any esteem they choose. It doesn't bother us if that's the first one off their tongue. We're proud of every one of our records. But how can you have a problem with people getting behind one in particular? It's a nice thing.
But you're the kind of band that makes music counterintuitive to this kind of immediate acceptance or dismissal. It takes numerous listens before aspects of Interpol begin to emerge. But with the speed of information, it's like the reviews are out before people understand it or--
Get it yet?
Yes, exactly. The cycle of news is so fast now that albums that take time to hear properly might be getting dismissed or tepidly received just because the review needs to get out and get out now.
I don't read reviews anymore. I think that's partly because I was pretty disappointed by what I read. I do think it's in the nature of our music that it requires repeat listens. I would obviously prefer it if people gave it that time, but that's the price you pay if you're trying to write music that can't really be processed in a short period of time. You just have to hope there's those people who identify with it enough to spend the time. I think our experience as music listeners is we all really enjoy those records that reveal themselves over time, that have those gifts--those sonic little gifts in there that take a lot of time to expose. I remember [the Mars Volta's] De-Loused in the Comatorium, for instance, there's a couple songs on there that you just keep listening and it's like, "Oy!" you know? [Laughs] But anyway, that's the kind of thing that takes a little time, but I guess you can't.... whatever, if you've got to rush the review, you've got to rush the review. I think it's the fan that's spending the time and that's good.
Every song on Interpol is written in the first person. Was that deliberate?
It doesn't always mean me. But I was aware of that too. That was just what was going on. I don't think I reflected on it as much while I was working, but this one was smooth sailing for me because I just did what came to mind. There's nothing I can put my finger on as to why, or what that indicates. It's not always autobiographical. It's more often, actually, a character. But, yeah, there's a lot of I. It's true. What else is there at the end of the day? [Laughs] I'm just kidding.
Not to overanalyze your lyrics, but it's not just first person, it's that the songs collectively seem to be about being imperfect but no longer trying to fix those imperfections. They seem to be saying, "I might be a bad person, but you're going to just have to accept that as who I am."
That's the idea of the song 'Always Malaise,' certainly. That is the esprit of the song. As far as reading into it as much as you did, I can't say that you're wrong. It's a little bit particular; it works for me, though. It's all good, but it's a little too personal and it's hard for me to really speak of what you're saying. But I don't think it's totally off base of an observation.
Well, on the very first track "Success" you declare, "I'm a good guy."
[Laughs] You know, someone pointed out to me that statistically it's not someone you'd expect to be a good guy that would feel compelled to voice that. So, go figure.
There's some weird Belgian interview from a few years ago that you can find online. It has you contemplating the seven deadly sins. You say some pretty interesting things in it. At one point, you say, "We're only here for a short while and our existence has no meaning." Do you still feel that way?
That is taken out of context. I don't actually believe... Hmm. It's more complicated than "existence has no meaning." That sounds like something that I would have just said hypothetically. I believe that with true creation [pauses]... We can satisfy the existential needs that we have. It's not that bleak. At the end of the day, what I believe is... Anyway, what's the next question? [Laughs]
From that same interview, you say, "I must admit that I hold a certain grudge towards women--all women."
[Laughs] That's more owning up to the childish resentment of having more crushes than seem to be reciprocated. I'm just being open about that. I'm certainly not, you know, [moans, groans, pauses]. I think I've answered that one.
Since the last tour, it's been reported that you've decided to limit some of your own vices and quit drinking. It's something a lot of people have trouble with, especially musicians with all of the touring and downtime. Any advice on how to succeed at it?
If you go sober, it's not a bad idea to kind of visualize the person you want to be. I think there's viable archetypes you could pursue and get behind. There's a self-reinvention that should take place if you're going to be successful at it. And that can be a pretty positive thing. It shouldn't just be this notion of, "Oh, I'm losing this big part of my identity." You just sort of change shape. Sobriety isn't that hard if that's where you're at.
So it's working out for you.
Well, at the same time, who's to say what's working for me? I don't know how much is working for me, but I do know it's not that hard to quit drinking.
When I interviewed the band years ago, during a stop in New York City for the Curiosa Festival [in 2004], Carlos had mentioned to me that he didn't plan to be in a rock band for the rest of his life, that he had other interests he wanted to pursue. If he shared that with a stranger that long ago, his ultimate decision to leave after recording the new album must not have been a complete surprise to the band. Did you know going into this album that it would be his last?
Um [pauses], I don't know... No. I don't think we knew going in [to this album], but as you did correctly say, there were signs and we're very communicative people. He was more forthcoming with us behind closed doors than he was even with you in that interview a while ago. There were no surprises there, but I don't think any one of us banked on what was going to happen when we set about making the record. But, as I said, it wasn't a surprise.
What it is like now to look to your left and not see Carlos there?
Man, I was listening to Slint when I was in high school. That was a big influence for me musically, so it's fucking crazy to have [Dave] Pajo on stage. He's a really cool person; it's a lot of fun having him around. Also, Secret Machines, I saw them in 2000 and bought their demo. I've been a big fan for a long time. It's definitely a thrill to be on stage with those two guys. I think the five of us together--it's been excellent. It's been really special live.
Will this be the Interpol lineup moving forward, or will there be a cattle call for a new bass player once things wind down and you're ready to make a new record?
Well, everybody has their own things going on, so I don't know what the future will hold.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.