A guy walks into an empty bar on Fifteenth Street in Manhattan at 5:30 on a Monday evening. A song from Interpol’s debut album, Turn on the Bright Lights, is blasting from the stereo while the bartender cleans up and readies for happy-hour rush. The place smells like stale beer, but that’s not what’s eating the lone patron — dressed all in black, except for his blood-red tie. Grimacing, he asks, “Are you playing this whole CD?” The bartender nods. “Can you please turn it off?” says the customer. “I’m in this band.”
What’s remarkable is that the bartender didn’t recognize bassist Carlos Dengler — or Carlos D., as he prefers to be known. He dresses like a goth Nazi, perpetually clad in tall lace-up boots, black high-water pants and a thin — but not skinny — tie of either white, black or red. His jet-black asymmetrical hairdo flops over his forehead, and for the past few months his trademark accessory has been a leather holster that he wears every night onstage.
On top of that, Dengler, 30, and his bandmates — singer Paul Banks, 26, guitarist Daniel Kessler, 29, and drummer Sam Fogarino, 36 — are among an elite group (including the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) that kicked off a modern-rock renaissance here in New York and went on to become international sensations. Worldwide, Interpol have sold more than half a million copies of their debut album. Brad Pitt is a fan of their dark, doomy sound. So is David Bowie. They were the first band picked by the Cure for this summer’s Curiosa Festival tour. And with “Slow Hands,” the first single from their new album, Antics, getting serious radio play, Interpol are poised for the kind of mainstream success bands this artsy and cool rarely ever achieve.
“They’re very good at writing melodies,” says the Cure’s Robert Smith. “Lyrically, their songs are very heartfelt, and that makes for a good contrast with the starkness and icy veneer of their sound. They look really good onstage, yet they don’t try too hard. It seems almost contrived at first, but they have such a fantastically defined sense of self.”
I’ve been warned in advance that Dengler maintains a series of “policies” that guide him through life. For instance, he is so insistent in his refusal to gamble that, during the Curiosa tour, he turned down a request from Smith — his hero — to join in on a few hands of poker. “I was like, ‘You’re killing me, Robert. Please don’t make me do this,'” says Dengler. “I firmly believe in the cliché of money being the root of all evil. That being said, constructing games around the acquisition of these slips of paper is like indulging in the very evil essence that it is.”
He has this other principle, he says, that “the utter and total satiation of your immediate senses is the fruits by which you shall live.” By which he means, if you wanna fuck, fuck; if you wanna get high, get high. “You should be discriminating in your tastes,” he continues. “But you should try to fulfill them as immediately as possible without question.”
He also refuses to own a cell phone. “I don’t feel like ever being in a position where I feel the vibration in my pocket,” he says, “and being like, ‘Someone that isn’t here is trying to contact me right now'” Sometimes Dengler is more straight-forward. When I ask him what the principle was behind wearing a holster, he says simply, “Because it’s fucking badass.”
“I didn’t get along with Carlos at first,” Banks had told me two nights earlier, when we met at Beauty Bar — a down-town haunt styled to look like a hair salon. “He’s extremely argumentative, and we interact with the world in fundamentally opposing ways. His attitude is that everything can be articulated and reduced to something logical. Then I realized that he’s not being difficult — that’s just how he functions. Carlos’ approach to the world is like a work of architecture. It’s very rigid, but it’s very creatively designed.”
Banks and Dengler met in 1998, when Kessler approached them separately about joining his band. All three were students at New York University and barely knew each other when they started jamming together. “I wasn’t playing music when Daniel came up to me,” says Dengler. “I was studying philosophy, and I wanted to pursue a career as an academic. Daniel convinced me to play with him, which I consider a landmark achievement, because nothing else could have been farther from what I wanted to do.”
Kessler had been on the hunt for possible bandmates for a long time and had already written the basic riff for “PDA,” the angular post-punk tune that wound up being Bright Lights‘ hit single last year. “I knew if I didn’t make a go at being in a band, I was going to be miserable,” he says, picking over his faux duck at a downtown New York vegetarian restaurant while Fogarino steps outside to roll a cigarette.
Dengler, Kessler and a drummer who has since left the group began working up songs for several months before recruiting Banks, whom Kessler had met at a summer program in Paris a year earlier. “For an eighteen-year-old,” Kessler says, “he had an air that he belonged in a world all his own. He wasn’t intimidated by anything, and he had a strong curiosity for life.”
Banks grew up in four different countries: England (where he was born), the U.S., Spain and Mexico. His father worked in the automobile industry and took every opportunity he could to travel. Banks carries himself like someone who’s good at adapting to new people and new surroundings. He has a calm, gentle demeanor that can put you at ease even when you’ve just puked up your vodka tonic at his feet. (Hypothetically speaking, of course.) But he is also wickedly sarcastic and just self-deprecating enough to make you think maybe he’s not as cocky as he seems.
Yet during Banks’ first few rehearsals with Dengler and Kessler, he didn’t even open his mouth to sing. “Eventually we went into a tiny rehearsal space in New York called Funkadelic,” says Kessler. “Paul started singing, and Carlos and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised. It really was a moment I won’t forget.”
Interpol spent the next couple of years gigging at local clubs, fine-tuning a moody, stylish sound that owed plenty to British bands such as Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen. “We weren’t looking for the hard road, but the hard road was what we took,” Kessler says. “We put up posters all the time, sent a new e-mail every day. We called all the clubs. I sat folding envelopes and sending off demos to every label in the world. So few even offered anything.” One of the labels he reached out to — the one he prayed would bite — was Matador Records, home to groundbreaking indie bands such as Pavement, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo and Cat Power. After rejecting Interpol twice, Matador head Gerard Cosloy e-mailed Kessler, saying he and his partner, Chris Lombardi, wanted to meet the band.
“Word is,” Fogarino offers, “Lombardi was listening [to the songs] while driving through the Alps in his BMW, going really, really fast. And he went, ‘Yeah, this will work.'” Interpol signed to Matador in spring 2002 and released Bright Lights — which they had recorded before they had a deal — that August. “It took four years from our first show to our first record,” says Kessler. “When it came out, it was the end of a chapter: the end of nobody giving a fuck, nobody answering, nobody taking a chance.”
“If someone who likes our music picks up Joy Division,” says Carlos D., “that’s not a bad thing.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing: After they were signed, Interpol were dogged by frequent comparisons to Joy Division. It’s a subject they’re still touchy enough about that they hardly ever mention Joy Division by name. “There’s a similarity in our voices,” Banks says, referring obliquely to Ian Curtis. Gesturing toward the front of Beauty Bar, he adds, “I wrote a song for Interpol in that room over there, and I wanted to sing it utterly monotonously. Have you ever been so depressed that you can hardly walk? I wanted to sing a song with cliché love lyrics but have it communicate a sense of despair so intense that melody is out of the question. Monotonous shouting was expressive of something I wanted to express. And [Ian Curtis and I] both have baritone voices. Anyway, I don’t give a fuck what people think.”
Not surprisingly, Dengler has a different, more reasonable approach to the topic. “If someone who likes our music picks up some Joy Division and they never would have before, that’s not a bad thing,” he says. “It’s just inconvenient for the band that gets compared to that, because you want to leave a footprint that’s yours. At least now we get to talk more about comparing our first record to our second record than comparing ourselves to Joy Division.”
Work on Antics began last November, after Interpol wrapped up nearly two years of nonstop touring. It was the first time in their lives they didn’t have to hold down day jobs and squeeze in recording during their spare time. Banks says he was constantly jotting down ideas for lyrics and ultimately built up “four albums’ worth of lyrics in this little book.”
Though Dengler says there was plenty of stress and head-butting while they worked on Antics, the dynamic is actually less taut and more relaxed. Songs such as “Not Even Jail” and “Take You on a Cruise” push beyond the confines of twitchy, depressive post-punk and land in mellower pastures where R.E.M. might have dwelled in their early years. The sound is still manicured and pointy, but there is a greater breadth of mood to the songwriting and also greater-warmth and confidence in Banks’ voice.
“I drove myself to the point of illness with how intensely I focused on this record,” says Banks, now on his third Grey Goose martini. “I worked so hard on it that I cried the first time I heard it. Whether or not it’s hailed as a masterpiece of the twenty-first century, there will then be another record and then other things I try to do in my life. I’m not doing this to make a living necessarily or to have a comfort zone. I’m doing it because I want to do something crazy all the time.”