How Interpol Survived Early Fame To Become The Most Enduring Band Of The Early ’00s NYC Rock Boom

Jamie-James Medina

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If you are a person who goes to a lot of shows, you inevitably have a good “I saw them before they were famous” story. Here’s mine.

It was September 2002. I drove two hours to a small club in Milwaukee to see a band from New York City whose debut album had come out about two weeks prior. To call this club a hole in the wall would be disrespectful to holes and walls — it looked like a disabused basement rec room, with an extremely low stage that was maybe two inches off the ground. The kind of place that meth-head metal bands and terminal drunks gather. Not exactly where you would expect to see a band like Interpol.

But that’s precisely where I did see Interpol for the first time. And let me tell you: They had already achieved full Interpol, way back on the first national tour in support of what would later be considered an iconic record, Turn On The Bright Lights.

I can’t recall ever seeing a band that had such a strong sense of identity so early on. Typically, it takes an album or two — plus dozens of live performances — for a band to find themselves. But Interpol, love them or hate them, knew who they were right as the world outside of Manhattan and Brooklyn discovered them for the first time. All of the essential elements of Interpol-ness were already in place — the Reservoir Dogs suits, the goth-guy crooning, the mile-wide basslines, the cinematic guitar riffs, the propulsive drums that instantly dispelled incessant Joy Division comparisons. In time, Interpol would play theaters, even stadiums. But the essence of who they were and would eventually become was already there, right from the beginning.

Flash forward 16 years, and I find myself conducting a series of phone interviews with the three remaining members of Interpol: singer/bassist Paul Banks, guitarist Daniel Kessler, and drummer Sam Fogarino. (Original bassist Carlos Dengler departed in 2010 and is now pursuing acting and cultivating respectable facial hair.) The ostensible topic of conversation is Marauder, the band’s sixth album due out August 24, which doesn’t reinvent Interpol’s sound so much as demonstrate, once again, how reliable the group is at being themselves. This will sound like backhanded praise but I swear it’s not: Interpol’s brand is making music that sounds exactly like Interpol, and Marauder maintains Interpol’s monopoly on this very specific sonic property.

As an aside during these interviews, I mentioned the time I saw them in Milwaukee about 1,000 years ago. And, to my utter surprise, all three of them remembered this particular show. Not only did they remember it, but this seemingly random concert in the middle of the country is apparently a happy memory for them as well. One of the best shows we ever played, they insisted. They each recalled specific details — what the bar was like, how the crowd behaved, the way the band played “Roland” a little too fast. It’s as if I have unknowingly served Proust a madeleine, in the sharp-dressed ’00s indie-rock sense.

“I loved that everybody was equal with the band and totally up standing right at the stage. I remember that energy was amazing,” Fogarino recalled, wistfully. “We didn’t really experience that too much because we got too popular too quickly. Oh, woe is me, but that’s that young-band experience where it’s totally visceral. Their sweat is spraying you, just as yours is spraying them.”

The past always seems to linger in the rearview mirror for Interpol. During the making of Marauder, the band paused to do a tour celebrating the 15th anniversary of Turn On The Bright Lights, an album that was already commemorated five years prior with a special tenth-anniversary reissue. Like The Strokes, their NYC peers back in the heady Meet Me In The Bathroom era, Interpol will probably always be defined primarily by their first album. But unlike almost every other band that emerged from the fertile scene, Interpol never imploded.

Yes, Carlos D departed in not-so-amicable fashion. (He once, hilariously, likened his experience in Interpol to a plane crash, and called himself “a survivor of PTSD.”) But the core trio has hung together and put out new records every three or four years for the better part of two decades. In the process, Interpol has become a genuine legacy band, cultivating a robust following stateside and abroad that has stayed loyal no matter the changing winds of the outside indie rock world.

Interpol has paid particular attention to their international audience lately. When they announced Marauder, they held a press conference in Mexico City, one of the band’s longtime favorite haunts. (When asked whether Interpol’s popularity in Mexico is related to Morrissey’s huge Mexican following — is post-punk music huge south of the border? — Kessler was flummoxed. “Post-punk music? I don’t really know if that’s what we do or not do.”) When I spoke with them, they had just played a festival in Croatia. In a few days, they would perform at The Cure’s 40th anniversary concert in London. Not only do the men of Interpol dress like international spies, they travel like them, too.

No matter where Interpol fans reside, they will likely be pleased with Marauder, which the band recorded live to tape under the tutelage of veteran producer Dave Fridmann in upstate New York. As is the band’s custom, they entered the studio with the songs extremely well-rehearsed, a practice befitting their impeccably professional presentation. (“We kind of beat stuff to death,” Fogarino admitted.) But the actual recordings were far from pristine. Chucking ProTools made it impossible to piece together the perfect take. What was left was Interpol, unadorned.

“It felt good in this day and age where you can really make everything very smooth, to do something that was raw,” Kessler said. “I don’t know if it sounds raw or not. But it was certainly recorded that way.”

The new songs bear all of the band’s usual trademarks — the guitars ring out like car alarms echoing on a city street in the middle of the night, the rhythms coax the mopey songs improbably toward the dance floor, and the lyrics are charmingly, quotably inscrutable. (My personal favorite, from the slinky, anti-social media diatribe “Party’s Over”: “Rock n’ roll bitch I’m into it / I like to show you my stuff / Baby cheetahs the Himalayas / What’s got you startled umbilical.”) But, above all, Marauder puts the focus on the fiery interplay between the musicians.

For all of the attention that’s been lavished on the band’s wardrobe and aloof élan, Interpol has endured because they are a powerful live unit, and hearing the obvious joy with which Banks, Kessler, and Fogarino still play off of each other is an unexpected delight. They haven’t discarded their neckties, exactly, but they have loosened them a bit.

In June, Interpol released “The Rover,” their best single in years. Over a snaky, syncopated guitar riff made up by Kessler on the same classical guitar he’s used for writing songs since he was 14 — oddly, nothing remotely resembling classical guitar has ever appeared on an Interpol record — Banks relates a vague story about “a cult leader walking through the desert.” But, really, like all Interpol songs, “The Rover” is actually about the tension between the sinister/sexy mood evoked by Kessler’s guitar, Banks’ vocal, and the graceful force of the rhythm section.

Fogarino, the band’s oldest member (at 50, he’s 10 years older than Banks and seven years older than Kessler) and the last to join (he replaced original drummer Greg Drudy in 2000), trenchantly seized upon this tension as the key to Interpol’s sound. “Let the rhythm hate the melody,” he said. “Or let it f*ck the melody.” The result is an anthem about the end of the world that feels like a stylishly debauched reverie.

The best compliment that can be paid Interpol is that you can instantly spot one of their songs in about five seconds. Anybody that starts a band aspires to one day create a signature sound that’s as unmistakable as a fingerprint. And yet, once a band or an artist puts out several records, critics predictably will complain about diminishing returns and the dead-end of “repeating yourself.” In a review of “The Rover”, Pitchfork dinged Interpol for being derivative fashion-plates, a criticism that has been levied constantly against Interpol since 2002. (Even the criticisms of Interpol are derivative.) Only now the implication, seemingly, is that Interpol’s act has grown especially tired.

“It’s really a very hard catch-22,” Fogarino said. “Especially in the beginning when you’re building your hardcore audience. If you remain the same they’re going to abandon you after a few albums, like, ‘I’ve heard that record already.’ But if you do something a little bit different they’re like, ‘Oh, f*ck them, they’ve lost it.'”

Interpol opts for the former route on Marauder, adding a little extra muscle to their requisitely moody, still invigorating numbers. It’s a familiar but necessary path trod by other bands that chose to go the distance rather than pack it in. Eventually, every great legacy band must accept who they are, and make an album that sounds like a group of people playing together in a room, without artifice. U2 made All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The Stones made Tattoo You. And Marauder feels like that record for Interpol.

As the band’s most open and talkative member — Banks and Kessler are much more guarded — Fogarino responded most enthusiastically when I compared Interpol to The Ramones and AC/DC in one very narrow respect: Interpol emphasizes fidelity to an established identity over the constant questing for novelty. Imagine the Ramones without leather jackets, or AC/DC without double-entendres, and it’s like trying to comprehend Interpol without suits and dark-hued, mid-tempo songs with nonsensical lyrics. What even would be the point of that?

“The trick is to retain your identity while not stagnating or just remaining inert in this one mode,” Fogarino said. “After a while, you realize how lucky you are, because it can’t be thrown out. It’s just there. If me, Paul and Daniel are in a room, it’s going to sound a certain way and no matter how we color it or flavor it, and I think that’s a blessing.”

In the early days, Interpol benefitted from an extended woodshedding period that seems inconceivable now, when bands essentially grow up in public, on Bandcamp. While Interpol seemed to have arrived fully formed right as Turn On The Bright Lights achieved critical mass, moving one million units worldwide and becoming the best-selling release in the history of Matador Records, the band actually spent years in obscurity while getting their act together.

Formed in 1997, a few years after Banks and Kessler had originally connected while studying aboard in France as students at New York University, the band took their time figuring out how best to accommodate each others’ strengths.

“We had a chemistry, so I felt like everyone could simultaneously be themselves and also be very complimentary to the next guy,” Banks said. “I think that really contributed to our identity because nobody was really having to stretch. We all just worked really well together, I think, as far as sharing a vision.”

When Fogarino was asked to join, he was “relieved, because I’d been in plenty of overly modest indie rock bands over the years,” he said. “It was like, ‘Finally, these guys are not shy,’ you know?”

During the heyday of Turn On The Bright Lights, Interpol became synonymous in their hometown with post-9/11 hedonism, a reputation that proved hard to live down as the band members matured. (Banks admits that certain, unspecified “lifestyle changes” made it difficult for him to write Interpol’s third album, 2007’s Our Love To Admire.) But now Interpol has aged with surprising gracefulness, to the point where the band now has a similar stature among 21st-century babies that the Cure and Joy Division once had for the generation before them. And Interpol has embraced this classic-rock-ification in stride.

“The root of this band has been playing live,” Fogarino maintained. “When we write music at this point, it’s thoroughly opposite of what’s going on today in terms of popular music all across the board. We’re closer to operating like a band like Yes as opposed to Migos.”

Even Banks, who has ventured furthest from the Interpol bubble — including a 2016 collaboration with RZA from Wu-Tang Clan — appreciates what makes Interpol unique in 2018, even if it might sound like more of the same to detractors.

“If you go someplace you didn’t even really feel like going because you thought it was a good idea and then people don’t go there with you, then you’re a dumb ass,” he said bluntly. “Whereas, if you just go wherever your artistic muse really sincerely takes you, then, hey man, whether or not people come, at least you got somewhere honest and that still has integrity.”

Marauder is out on 8/24 on Matador Records. Buy it here.