How Interpol Took the Dirtiest Word in Rock 'n' Roll and Turned It on Its Head
Time, distance, personnel changes and individual projects may have kept them apart, but the members of Interpol are adamant and unflinching when it comes to one hard fact about their band: This is not a comeback. This record, these shows, this dynamic — it isn't the stuff of a reunion, the offspring of an unexpected reconciliation. Despite the fact that they made a deliberate choice when they invoked the scariest word in rock 'n' roll — "hiatus" — in 2011, Interpol can't make a comeback. Because Interpol never really left.
Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel
"People can think what they want to think, as long as it's not sympathy: 'Awwww, you guys did it!' " laughs drummer Sam Fogarino from a couch in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel. Guitarist/backing vocalist Daniel Kessler points out that "hiatus" doesn't typically mean "tons of touring and an opening spot on U2's tour" for most bands. "We put out the [last] record four years ago, it's true, but then we toured it until the end of 2011," he says. "We did 200 shows. We didn't do anything in 2012 besides get together to break ground." And Paul Banks, Interpol's lead singer and now bass player, is always working, be it on new Interpol material or his own solo records, with his last disc, Banks, dropping shortly before things picked up again with Kessler and Fogarino.
"I look at it a bit like running a marathon," says Banks, referring to his constant workload and musical balancing act. It's the perfect time to bring it up, too: He's taking a breather at Electric Lady Studios, where Interpol cut their newest record, El Pintor, and where he's working on the follow-up to Banks. "I guess the first part is really hard and then you get into a zone where you feel like there's less strain to do the same thing. Ultimately, your legs give out and you barf, but along the way, you're in a good kind of cruising speed. There's a good analogy there for creativity."
It works for his bandmates as well. Since the late '90s, Interpol has been a fixture in New York rock, a deafening force that shaped the sounds and sensibilities of a music scene in flux. They've all got an immense amount of respect for the Strokes, their closest contemporaries in regard to geography and career scope, with whom they shared a lineup as recently as this past June, when both bands played to eager, adoring crowds at Governors Ball. Alongside TV on the Radio, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the National and other bands that cut their teeth in the modest, ever-shuttering clubs and rock bars of the Village and the Lower East Side, Interpol had always embraced a sound much bigger than the recesses these venues would allow.
The discordantly plucky tracks of their early years ("Evil" and "Slow Hands" off 2004's Antics; the opalescent meditation of Turn On the Bright Lights, their full-length debut with Matador) perfectly soundtracked designer runway shows and stadium-tailored encores alike. The surgical precision of Banks and Kessler's chords were met by Fogarino's propensity to weld Interpol's heartbeat to the metallic echo of a cymbal and the mad science of Carlos Dengler's basslines. Interpol's music played like a lecture in the mathematics of reflex, an ability to listen and react with a chord, crash or cry, and this lesson in intuition brought them to a fever pitch with sold-out Madison Square Garden sets and the gigs with U2 a decade into their career.
But by 2011, creative differences reared their heads, though not in the dramatic, relationship-ending way fans might expect when they hear "hiatus." Dengler departed, and a step away from Interpol allowed Banks, Kessler, and Fogarino to regroup independently. Banks made Banks; Kessler started writing again for Big Noble, his project with Joseph Fraioli that he describes as music with an "instrumental, atmospheric, music-for-film kind of vibe"; Fogarino made a record as EmptyMansions, tapping the Secret Machines' Brandon Curtis and Duane Denison of The Jesus Lizard for help. It's a break all three describe as "healthy," and one that enabled them to approach a casual meeting with ease when Kessler said he had some new songs to try out about a year after they opted for some time off.