Q&A with Interpol

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:06


    A year later, there's a feeding frenzy over the "New York scene," Interpol has nailed down a contract with Matador Records and the industry of cool is already bestowing upon them the dubious honorary of "new It band." One thing's for sure: they're busy. It's strange hooking up with a publicist to contact people you've already met. Funny thing is, I can't hold it against them. They're busy, man. Any musician who's ever labored in obscurity knows how important that is.

    I finally catch up with Paul Banks (vocals, guitar) and Carlos Dengler (bass) at the Matador offices. They've just gotten off a phone interview and there are video treatments strewn across the conference room table. I've never really met Paul before, just a brief introduction. He's not at all the introverted Morrissey I'd expected from his stage presence. Maybe it's the sunglasses he wears for the duration; fashionable chrome-framed amber lenses projecting a feisty, disassociated artiste vibe.

    "So are you guys sick of doing press yet?" I venture.

    "One thing we noticed," Paul says, "is that a lot of people are more comfortable being dicks, really making a lot of assumptions...like 'Now that you're signed you must be a cocky asshole.' It seems really misguided that they would have that attitude. People assume we're shooting for a specific sound, y'know, 'How do you explain the 80s influence?'"

    "We're sick of the Elvis Costello comparisons," Carlos interjects.

    "It comes out kind of prosaic to say that we're just writing music, and what becomes a song is just what we all like. They're looking for us to say, 'Yes...we conceptualized...it would be bank if we imitated this time period, so let's write like that.' That's annoying because it's so far off the mark," says Paul.

    How about the signing process?

    "It was really painful...because of the negotiations," Carlos reflects.

    "There were a few people we were talking to, a few things that might have worked out, but we didn't want anything more than Matador," Paul adds.

    They chew over a couple questions about the rigors of doing p.r., then Carlos puts on his own shades?thick, opaque black frames. "Guys," I say donning my own, "I'm feeling a little peer pressure."

    "Bust it out, man," Carlos laughs. "It's not just us. Let's just sit back and not even talk."

    "We are so cool in here, man," Paul quips.

    Despite the barrage of publicity, they don't seem to have bought into their own hype yet. All musicians have egos, but when you're still hauling your own equipment, like I saw them do at their EP-release gig, your feet tend to stay on the ground. Ironically, it seems until recently Interpol has garnered recognition anywhere but at home. The deal and the spotlight on the local scene have finally given them the opportunity to rise above cult status.

    "I think we've got a fan base that's going to be there regardless of whether there's a New York scene or not," Carlos says.

    "If you're good and you're not hyped," Paul speculates, "something will happen. If you're good and you're hyped, even if the hype goes away you're still good. It's kind of irrelevant. There could be a backlash, but we haven't been media darlings so we wouldn't bear the brunt of it. If the 'New York scene' becomes tacky, we're not the poster boys for the New York scene."

    Their music has been described in sanctimonious prose about "bass-driven doom" or "spectacular scenes of lyrical desolation." I've always thought the Joy Division comparisons were pretty far off-base. Yes, Paul's vocal sound is reminiscent of Ian Curtis', (unintentionally, he insists). Let's move on. The violence implicit (and ultimately self-directed by Curtis) in Joy Division's work is absent; Interpol's mood evokes the druggy malaise of first-album Velvet Underground, not as a lazy comparison but because (especially live) they aim for the vibe. But that's not it either?Interpol were never a brash commercial suicide, just an overlooked pop band at a time when somber, melodic white rock had gone out of vogue. Their minimal chord progressions and two-string melodies belie the pop sense of the songs as a whole. Think along the lines of a de-fuzzed Stone Roses with a shot of Smiths, some slow songs by Placebo, and you're getting the idea.

    "We all want to put in our music," remarks Carlos on their minimal sound. "We don't want to clutter it up with all these notes from one instrument; it doesn't leave room for the other guys. We have very strong egos in that sense."

    "It's not appropriate for one person to wank, it's not even an ego thing," says Paul. "We all have that sensibility. Our preference is the minimum that's really good. If the core of the song doesn't have enough character, some little trills in there are not gonna save it. The traditional rock-band structure is also working well for us. There was a time when I was excited about the future of rock 'n' roll as far as adding outside elements... hiphop, techno, whatever. In theory that would be great. Unfortunately a lot of what has come out is shallow, hollow shit. I don't think there's anything essentially missing from the rock formula. People want to rock! I think that there's just been a shift recently in what they're rocking to."

    Paul's lyrics are densely written, enigmatic, sometimes walking a fine line between impressionism and put-on. I ask him to explain some of their significance.

    "I'd like to think there's a surreal element to it, but it isn't at all just to complement the sound. It does in my mind have its own independent relevance. Yeah, there's a lot of love [songs] in there. I think 'Specialist' is the best song... I remember writing most of that, I was really, really hungover, tweaked, sweaty, fucked up, had to go to a bar at like noon to recover... It's not supposed to mean [any one thing] but at the same time be provocative...that song in particular."

    So what does a band into minimalism think about these pretentious, sentence-long band names like ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead?

    "I like that," says Paul.

    "It should just be Trail of Dead," disputes Carlos.

    One of Interpol's early proposed names was the French Letters, the Victorian euphemism for condoms, so I ask how the final decision was made.

    "I suggested Interpol," says Paul. "I was unsatisfied with names we couldn't incorporate in a number of ways. Because we were already taking it kind of seriously that we were going to present ourselves a certain way onstage, and I have a very keen interest in design...so we wanted something that would have a vibe to it...something that could accommodate a visual presentation, which as a band you just have to have. All the connotations of 'Interpol' work for everyone in the band." He pauses, then, "Espionage, that's what we're about."

    I ask what they had in mind with the visual presentation?the sparse graphic design, the lights, the suits.

    "It's simple. Performing for me is a formal affair... Plus, y'know, I wanna get laid," Paul deadpans.

    "I feel lucky to be in a band with guys who like to wear suits. I'd be dressing this way anyway, so I think it's pretty cool," adds Carlos.

    "Yeah, it isn't contrived. No one had to be goaded or coached."