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A Quietus Interview

No Hidden Agenda: The Return Of Interpol
Matthew Foster , July 15th, 2014 04:08

This September, Interpol release their new album El Pintor. It's both their first in four years and their first without founding bassist Carlos Dengler. In an exclusive interview, Matt Foster meets Paul Banks, Daniel Kessler and Sam Fogarino to find out how they dealt with losing a band member and to talk about a record that fully encases both sides of their personality

Sixty seconds into Interpol's new record, a fog lifts. The burst of light as 'All The Rage Back Home' gets going is the sound of the brooding confusion of their 2010 self-titled album giving way to something decidedly more widescreen. But El Pintor yields surprises with repeated listen; frontman Paul Banks, taking up bass duties for the first time in the absence of Carlos Dengler, goes and makes 'My Desire' - a rolling swooner of a track reminiscent of Antics' classic 'Take You On A Cruise' - all his own.

Daniel Kessler hurls shimmering, reverb-soaked chimes all over the luxurious 'My Blue Supreme', and opens the bracing 'Breaker 1' with a burned-out, downright dirty Neil Young thing. Everywhere, drums man Sam Fogarino gets overtly physical, whether it's turning heartbreaker 'Same Town, New Story' on its head, or driving 'Ancient Ways' forward through sheer force of will. If you were expecting the forced adjustment to life as a three-piece to have left Interpol a little dazed, think again.

Ahead of its September 8 release, the Quietus is granted time with the band in an intimidatingly grand central London hotel, arriving a pathetic twenty minutes late to a look of much-needed pity from the concierge. Each member is characteristically well turned-out, an impressive feat following a super-sweaty fan club show at the Electric Ballroom the night before. The band's sharp attire may only add to our general air of dishevelment but, in a wide-ranging chat, we somehow manage to cover El Pintor, the death of the album and the physical impossibility of ever having enough socks.

Sam Fogarino

So Sam. El Pintor seems to marry the big-sounding ambition that you went for with the third and fourth record with something really tight, and direct. It strikes me as a real mix, without giving a premature review, of the two sides of Interpol that we've seen so far.

Sam Fogarino: Yeah, I think it's way more on the mark in terms of that duality, in voicing that Interpol can be this simple rock band at times, and [make] that kind of shift to more harmonically texturised songs. When we started working on these songs - without trying to idealise the direction that I would like - I had to figure out a way to steer it in this direction without getting in anybody else's way. Especially since I'm playing something of indeterminate pitch, so I can't really tell Daniel and Paul what to do because I want it!

So it's just trying to remain open to the process and trying to make sure that we pick up from where we left off in terms of the strength of Daniel and Paul as guitar players. I felt that that was put on pause with the third and fourth records because it got more harmonically complex. And then we could take it from there, to make that the focal point. You kind of had your bed made. It's still about the beautiful texture, but your parameters were set.

Has the lack of Carlos changed the way you have had to operate?

SF: Yeah. With no comment on his personality, it's one less person. So it becomes a lot easier, especially between Daniel and Paul where Paul doesn't have to vet two different sources when he may be making considerations for what he wants to do vocally. Nothing will be in the way. That plane will be reserved for Paul.

And working on the self-titled record, that happened a lot. Paul would get frustrated and say, "You're filling up the space that I would take up with vocals". It's a part, it's not just an ornament. That didn't happen this time because he had more control. And would just go right to Daniel and say, "Let's leave this space." Or: "I will take this space". There's a lot of respect coming from Daniel. So that trumped everything.

If there's a vocal idea, or if there's a drum fill that happens, and it gets in the way it'll be removed or reformed to support rather than to hinder. And the same thing with the music harmonically and or melodically. So there was a path of zero resistance getting to what we all feel is 50% of what Interpol is. And that's Paul's vocals.

So that made the process really easy and then Paul sort of said, "Well, I'll do some placeholder bass until we figure out what we're going to do." And a few months into it, both Daniel and I said, "It's not a placeholder. That's done. You nailed it. I don't want to get anybody else."

I was a little surprised at how prominent the bass still is. Obviously it's hugely vital to the whole Interpol sound. But you didn't use the opportunity to say, "Let's throw that all out". It sounds like an Interpol record, but it seems maybe like there's more room for Daniel, particularly on 'My Blue Supreme', which has got this beautiful kind of jaded swagger to it?

SF: Yeah, jaded, still a little hopeless. Defeated.

It's gorgeous.

SF: I agree! There's beauty in defeat and hopelessness. You're at the lowest so you can always see upwards.

It seems a lot less resigned than the self-titled, I thought. I always think of the title of 'Always Malaise' as summing up the feel of that record, a kind of burnt-out look at a life going somewhat off the rails?

SF: It's kind of the way that record came together. The process was very inorganic. The way we recorded it individually. It was the first time I started the process of recording drums alone. I didn't have anybody in the studio. And it got built that way because the band as it existed was falling apart. The year that we took to write that record, the further time went on, the more it became undone. So that's definitely going to show. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not. And now it's in complete contrast in terms of where we're at compared to that record.

Did this record bring bring you together in a room? Was it very much more collaborative?

SF: Yeah. Because there was no hidden agenda for anybody on an artistic level or an egotistical level. We were kind of finally paying respect to the thing that is bigger than us, and that's the band. Forget the components, it's the sum. And I am fine at maintaining that sense of responsibility to this thing that a lot of people love. And I felt it was kind of time to, not cater to that, but just to acknowledge it.

And through that we could write a great fucking record! In spite of us, and what we've been through.

And I think finally a lot of those personality differences, and all that stuff that happened in the band, was put aside and we really focused on the material. The further along we got, the more excited we got.

Daniel Kessler

Was there a plan with this record? Did you go into it with something you wanted to achieve?

Daniel Kessler: No. I don't think so. Personally if I've written songs that tend to be going in one direction for one record then there's a good chance I'll write in a different sort of push for next time. But I didn't really have that in my brain. I didn't really say that this is what I wanted to do.

The self-titled seemed to have more of a languid quality to it, like it was more a product of the studio than this latest record?

DK: It really wasn't. That whole record was really put together similarly to all the Interpol records. Which is we go into the studio and have what we want to capture. But it was a bit more of a conceptual record. It was a great record for us to make at that time. It's something I'm glad we did. You can't keep doing the same thing, it's good to push yourself and go in new directions…

But you are right, we were pretty much in a room. We don't write in a studio, we write in a rehearsal space. When I think of Interpol writing I think of a rehearsal space. Usually a kind of shitty rehearsal space. And I mean shitty in a good way, a basement in Brooklyn, a really divey place, sharing the room with three other bands and some rats in the hallways.

But it sounded good in there and the energy was always good in there. And it was a bit of a different record as far as normally in the process of writing we'd have a schedule of five days a week. This time, because Sam doesn't live in New York and Paul and I aren't always near, it's been a really coordinated schedule. Rather than be this five-days-a-week thing we'd be like, "Okay, so let's get together during these ten days" and during those ten days we'd rehearse every single day.

And I didn't know if that was going to work or not. But it was the way it had to work. Every time we met we left with progress and then you'd have a bit of distance, listen to it out of context, and say, "This one could use something else here." The next time we'd get together it'd be good to take it from there, to push and try and advance it. Given the choice, I would have said I don't want to do it that way. I would have wanted five days. But I think it really aided us.

I get the sense the album is still really important to Interpol as a statement of intent?

DK: I think so. I wouldn't want one song to be representative. Regardless of whether it's archaic or not, I wouldn't want one song. I realise you need a single, and there's always going to be a song that's going to be the first cut from the record that you put out there. But I like the album, creating almost a book, a start, a middle, a finish.

I take a long time to sequence a record. I have great memories too of this record, travelling about. I'm not a great sleeper so I get up crazy early, and I like walking about, seeing the sunrise in the countryside and listening to it as a little puzzle. So I might be in denial about the fact that people of different generations are listening to things off the computer. But it's not what works in the music industry as much as much as the experience it gives, ten tracks. It's like a story being told.

I know someone who just moves to the choruses of songs on Spotify, listens to those, and then moves on.

DK: People really do?


DK: That's really grinding to me. I feel like they're losing out. But that speaks to a greater thing about the ADD society we live in. I'm sure I don't listen to music as much as I used to, or if I do, I'll think "Oh, I'm going to do a 45-minute walk, I'll put on this record I'm religious about now." But I probably don't listen to records as much as I used to at home. And that's a shame. And even the patience to buy a record, at first, you don't really like it, or you're not sure about it. And four or five listens later, you're like, "This is my favourite record right now. Record of the year."

Those moments, I don't think people give that much of an opportunity without albums. If they don't like it, they flip through. And I feel like that's a shame. You can watch a film on a first viewing and say you didn't love it. But if you didn't get it at first doesn't mean you might not love it later. I can't tell you how many people said that about Turn On The Bright Lights when it came out. And I feel like if it came out five years or even three years later during the social media age, it would have been a different story. I know a lot of people who say, "I quite liked that record, But I didn't quite get it at first. And then later on I really, really liked it." But I don't think people would give it that opportunity now.

This is the first record that you've written without Carlos. Has that changed the composition process?

DK: It'd be foolish to say no because obviously Carlos was a founding member of the band. He contributed greatly to all our albums. We toured a lot with the last record, then we took a little bit of a break. Paul and Sam put out their own records. I wrote in the meantime. And I started another record too, a side-project record.

But then we got together, and Paul was like, "Maybe I'll do some bass." I hadn't really thought about what we were going to do about bass parts on this record. It was still like, "Let's just see if we have anything going on." To me, it was never that there had to be another Interpol record. I wanted to do it because I liked the songs, and was excited to work on these songs and show the dudes, and I was hoping they would be interested too. But I wasn't taking anything for granted.

And Paul actually wrote those bass lines and those vocal lines only as foundation parts for what would be on the album in the first few days. But right there and then it was exciting. It was like, "Man, there's something to these tunes." So I think we just kept concentrating on the energy in the room rather than the stuff that was missing.

Paul Banks

How's London? Been out and about today?

PB: I've been out and about trying to find socks. Tour is awesome. It's tough keeping a shred of humanity on the road it really is. This is day three with these socks I'm wearing.

I can't smell them from here, so you're doing okay.

PB: Thanks!

There's always been this characterisation of Interpol as being dark, dour, but El Pintor just seems to knock that away completely as soon as 'All the Rage Back Home' kicks in. Did you consciously choose to make a really strident record?

PB: That is a question probably more appropriate to Daniel as the guy that introduces the material. Speaking for him I would say that, yeah, on the fourth record he tried to go very experimental. And then Carlos went, you know - if Daniel went one degree left-of-centre, Carlos intentionally went another degree-and-a-half left of that. Independently of Daniel's interest in trying to be left-of-centre, Carlos on his own initiative wanted to go even further.

And then I was sort of left trying to find some way to make that music palatable via the vocal, which was my contribution. And I think it's a great record but had we left it at Daniel's degree of left-of-centre it would have been a left-at-centre record. But it was a really left-of-centre record because of how far Carlos had taken it. On this record, I think Daniel wanted to intentionally be more direct. And I didn't have any interest in trying to move it to the left either.

So has working as a trio changed the way songs come together?

PB: I would say not. I think we really stayed with the same system. I mean, we're a different band without Carlos, yes. But I think the first day we got together, Daniel and I, maybe there was an idea about trying some new process. But I came with a guitar, he played me his songs that he'd written, and I had no ideas. I couldn't think of anything to play on a guitar to his parts. I couldn't think of anything to sing to his parts either. And I realised in thirty minutes what it was we needed.

In terms of composition, I think Daniel's songs, his chord patterns, can be interpreted a few different days. And so if you're writing the top melody or lead guitar part, you've got to know which way we're interpreting those chords he's playing. And it's the bass that decides. When Interpol would write with Carlos, I would wait to see where he was going on bass and then start writing my guitar part and my vocal, simultaneously, feeding off what he was doing. With that not being there, it was like, "Well, I don't know which way we're going to look at your chords". So I'm jumping a step if I try my guitar parts. So I brought a bass to the next rehearsal and then we were just like, "Yep, that makes sense. Now we can proceed".

So we kept the same process, which was Daniel, to Carlos or bass, to Sam and I. The second step was Carlos and everything else at the same time, but you couldn't take the bass out of that second step or it didn't happen. The process stayed the same where bass was the second element. We kept that system of writing our songs.

Is it really you singing on the verses of 'My Blue Supreme'? You sound so different, that really smooth use of falsetto?

PB: Yeah, of course. I've sung in falsetto more in my solo work. So it's not new to me, but I think it might be more new to the Interpol catalogue. But my falsetto doesn't sound like that when it's good. My voice was fucked by the time I was singing that song. And so I was kind of thinking at the time, "Oh, if I got three nights' sleep I would sing this in a different tone of voice." But it's utterly wrecked at the point that I did that take.

And you wanted to keep it that way?

PB: We didn't really have a choice. I mean, I could have postponed the mixing of the record because I wanted to get some sleep. But I felt like, fuck it. Firstly, it's rock and roll. Secondly, nobody's going to pay for this shit anyway, so what am I sweating it for? And thirdly, it'll be more like it is live.

You can presumably do it to death, too?

PB: That's what I mean. I've been very precious on records in the past. I don't want to sound jaded, but at the same time, in an era when no one buys the shit anymore, why spend forever in the studio because that's a lot of money to record what is then going to get stolen.

So do you see a record more as fuel for a tour now?

PB: I think they are, right? Not because I want it to be that way. I would love to not fucking tour, man. I would love to put out three records a year if I didn't have to tour. I mean, I would tour, but all artists now have to spend less time in the studio and more time on the road because there's no money any more in records. And so I feel like records are going to change. And maybe you adapt.

Does that give you a sense of freedom?

PB: Yeah, you can look at it that way. I'm trying not to sound so bitter and trying to convey that I do look at a studio it a little differently now because it's not a commodity that's valued the way it used to be.

Do you not think some people are reacting against that though? Vinyl, for example, just saying, "I'm going to spend money and then spend 50 minutes of my day actually listening to an album", not treating it as throwaway?

PB: Are they? I think it's probably a niche thing. We are the kind of band that have never relied on singles. We're an album band and I don't think there's ever filler on our records. So hopefully you will listen. And I think there's pros and cons to the new paradigm in music. In order to get into that I think certain things change, and one of them is bands who rely on costly things like studios.

At first I thought it was a real bummer with the downfall of cash transactions for music that you're going to lose the Abbey Roads and the Electric Ladies of the world. No one can fucking afford those things. A lot of artists aren't going to make records that are going to sound amazing. But they'll make records that are pretty well done on their laptops. And you'll get a lot of laptop-sounding music. The downside is you're not going to get a culture that keeps studios like Abbey Road around, and keeps those engineers around.

But you're going to develop a new culture. But music will survive and everyone is still going to get it sometime. And I didn't get into the business for money, so it's fine that we don't make lots of money that we would have, sincerely it is. So there's things that will be lost in the new paradigm, and then there's shit you can't anticipate.

'Everything Is Wrong' seems to come from a kind of older, wiser person telling someone they can pull through, looking at despair with a bit of distance.

PB: I was aware when I had that lyric, I was like, "Am I really going to do this? Am I really going to have a song called 'Everything Is Wrong'?" But, and I think this has been the case in our whole catalogue, where I honestly believe that as an artist, in order to highlight the positive, you can sort of focus on the negative. Because it automatically implies the inverse…

So I feel like there's a very positive gesture or impulse behind doing things that are a little bit dark or negative. Not to try and make anybody feel down, but to try and come up against what you're saying and rebound. I mean, I don't agree that everything is wrong. I can think of a bunch of shit that isn't wrong. I'm not with you on that. That's sort of the idea.

And then it's also just the way everybody feels sometimes. You face the world, it's fucked up. It really is, it's falling apart. I feel like you can have moments, especially in the States, with all the NSA shit, Germany saying: "You guys are monitoring our parliament?" It's really dystopian. You get crazy storms. Russia's going crazy, maybe there's going to be a war, maybe all the bees will all die, or the dolphins. It's a bit much. So it's not so much a message of, "Everything is wrong so let's fucking quit it", it's almost, in a very weird way, quite empowering.

One last one, what one record would you recommend I go away and listen to right this minute?

PB: There's a guy that I discovered recently, but you know, it's not news. The Weeknd. Trilogy is a compilation of his mixtapes. So I discovered that guy, in particular my favourite song is 'Wicked Games'. That fucking dude has just got some soul. And I really love his singing and his harmony work, the moods that he's creating. It's good man. It's really good. Funnily enough, the first person to turn me onto him was the head of Matador, years ago he was like, "Yeah, it's sort of like R. Kelly kind of soul but talking about taking drugs and being kind of a dirtbag". It's croonery in a dark way, and it's cool man. Real cool. And I like that guy!

El Pintor is out on September 8 via Matador. The band are touring the US and Canada from August, before heading to Europe early next year, playing The Roundhouse in London on February 6, the Albert Hall in Manchester on February 8 2015 and the Olympia Theatre in Dublin on February 10; head to the band's website to pre-order the record and for full tour listings