Hear Interpol’s Paul Banks on Their New Album, Sobriety and Carlos D
In their 2000s heyday, Interpol came off as opaque and uncrackable, from their image (hip, handsome, glowering dudes in black suits, plus whatever Carlos D was doing) to the icy gloss of their music to their indifferent vibe in interviews. But Carlos D is long gone, and in persevering, Interpol seems to have become an entirely new band, as evidenced by the energy, songcraft and unexpected warmth of their new album, Marauder (produced, somewhat incongruously, by Dave Fridmann of Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev fame). On a recent episode of the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, frontman Paul Banks stopped by our SiriusXM studio to talk about the new album and much more. To hear the episode, press play below or download and subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.
When you first started, you were part of a rock movement; the context you were working in was clear. Now it’s less so. How does that affect the way you approach a new album?
I feel like the context we look at is probably our own catalog. I feel like also we all individually draw so much inspiration from so many places, and it’s not really all about music so much as any other thing that we might expose ourselves to, be it books, or films, or just life – like sports, even. I think everything that you’re doing is like fuel to whatever art, creative process that you have.
That’s what we go through individually, and then you match it up to each other as the three of us in the band, and then bounce off those individual energies and then that generates this new chemistry. I think that process is just somewhat still self-sustaining, where life is happening to us individually, and then we’re bringing those influences to each other as collaborative artists. That’s s fuel that gets us doing what we’re doing, and I think that transcends any idea of context. It’s really just fun to make music with these individuals.
On this album, where were you coming from lyrically? There’s this idea of the Marauder that you’ve said runs through it.
I think it hangs together with that title as concept-y, but it’s not all that intentionally concept-y. The Marauder is a character that emerges in a few of the songs. I feel like he emerges by name in one song, and then if I look at it in totality I realize, he is also the sort of narrator of others. It’s really just a kind of unmitigated id, just that portion of your personality that isn’t really concerned with consequences or accountability. There was a period of my life where I just did whatever the id wanted, and that’s what the Marauder character is.
This may get thrown at you all the time, but you once said that it couldn’t be Interpol if a member left.
Yeah. No, actually that hasn’t been thrown at me that much, but that’s fair. The implication is that we should have disbanded the band when Carlos left, and I kind of just feel like, well, fuck that.
I think you actually went on to say you could be a band, but you wouldn’t be Interpol. And the truth is, you’re a different band – literally. In the studio, you play bass now.
It is definitely a new sound. It is definitely a new band. I would agree. I’m not the same musician as Carlos. And I think I have a different way of interacting with Daniel [Kessler’s] chord progressions, and I have different instincts rhythmically, but at the same time there’s this tradition within our band of what our sound is that I always try [to stick to]. I like how our band sounds, so I wasn’t ever consciously saying I want to to do something different. It is really simply that a different musician is going to have a different take on things and a different sound, and fortunately I think we all like what that sound is.
Your 2007 song “Rest My Chemistry” once landed on a list of the best cocaine songs of all time. Is it fair to assume it was relatively autobiographical?
Yeah. That was the third record. That was a heavy period for me. And that was the record where we went major label, and a lot of expectations, a lot of pressures, and a lot of life changes for me. I was sort of reaching a precipice, that I had to change some things. I like that song. I think that song is a good product of that little phase.
Are you sober now?
I don’t drink, and I don’t do anything that isn’t sort of green and grows.
Did your lifestyle back then serve the music at all?
It worked. It worked then. But I think if there’s a question of like, should one hold on to that as they continue as an artist I feel like, I think I’d rather be alive than dead.
Well, the trick is knowing when that particular path has exhausted itself, whether personally and/or artistically.
Well, and I remember clearly feeling like what was starting to happen, where it was clearly to me starting to impact what I believed my potential to be. Whereas in the early days I felt like either the lifestyle hadn’t caught up to me, or I was just so young and full of it that I could handle it all. And then it got to a point where I don’t even think it was that I got older. I think it was that the lifestyle was now, and it’ll just keep growing as far as how much of your life is dedicated to just the partying.A nd that kept growing. And I realized that it was just going to choke everything out, and then there’d be nothing left. I also kind of feel like it’s a cooler look to be my age and sober than my age and fucked up.
You guys went on tour last year and played your debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, in its entirety many, many times. What did you take away from that?
A feeling of great pride and elation most nights. Yeah, it was just really, really fun, and a total honor to be able to have people want to come out and see that piece of music, and see that it’s still cherished by people. . I think it was also good while writing a new record to go back and visit work that you did a long time ago. I think it was almost like a palate cleanse, or like a brain cleanse, and also weirdly motivating thing to get stuck in what we were writing.
There’s some bands who take, like, four albums to make a good one, and then there’s other bands that make a classic debut, and then are haunted by it, or overly defined by it. You guys came in so strong at the beginning. Do you have any thoughts of why? Was it partly because you had been around for a while before you actually made the album?
I think ’cause we had six years to write that one. I think you also have so much to prove your first foray into art. It’s really all guns blazing. But I think most importantly, as far as being overly defined by a debut, I think the language didn’t exist, and then you come in with this new sort of DNA that never existed in the public before, and so everything you do after that is now, there’s no fundamental new thing that you’re going to bring forward. You already put your little fingerprint into the culture.
I think it’s okay if things don’t match up to that first one because it’s sort of natural. If it was a DNA that was already out there then maybe it wouldn’t have been such a big deal the first time, but everything you do after that … Same thing with a director. It’s like, if they have a particular style, like a Quentin Tarantino. I don’t know. But then again, we do celebrate all of his films, don’t we? But I don’t feel bad if the first one gets a lot of attention ’cause I kind of feel like, yeah. Once there was nothing, and then there was the first one.
Was “PDA” the first song the band had?
Yeah. PDA was being played before I even joined the band, with the original drummer, and Carlos and Daniel had that song as a three piece before I even joined, with no vocals and no second guitar.
I think hearing it kind of drew you into the band?
It was when I saw Carlos was in the band also, ’cause I had seen him around college, and I just liked him. I thought he was a genuine item of something crazy, and so when I walked into the rehearsal and heard how good it was and that it was, yeah, that it was …
And you never liked him again!
No, I love Carlos. I love Carlos. I really do. He’s great.
There was a personality clash by most accounts. Cliché would suggest that the personality clash that helped make the band great. Any truth to that?
I think yes. I think there is. I think there was constant tension, but it wasn’t like angry. It’s just not the same thing where you’d leave and say, “That guy’s an asshole.” It wasn’t that kind of tension. I always had a fondness that sort of made it okay, but you wouldn’t agree on things a lot of the time, and there’d be very obstinate moments in rehearsals and while trying to figure out and map out songs there would just be a lot of disagreements, but it wasn’t the kind of thing where I would say, “I hate that guy.”
It was more, this is a difficult but rewarding process to work with these dudes. But I think that tension among artists it’s absolutely part of great collaborations.
Where does that “PDA” image of “we have 200 couches…” come from?
I don’t know, man. I guess, some sort of vision of a big Brooklyn warehouse rave scene, maybe.
What do you remember about that show?
It was In Utero, which upon recent revisiting I think is really fine, fine record, like such a badass album to have made at that point in their career. They doubled down on being grimy, and dark, and fucking heavy. My favorite Nirvana songs are on that record. But yeah, at a bull rink in Madrid, Spain, front row. I was a young teenager, just started smoking, so I was like, trying to give Kurt Cobain a cigarette that I put in a little paper airplane. It was this cool brand of cigarettes called Fortuna. I put a cigarette in the airplane and I threw it on stage with a little note like, “Hey, Kurt. Have a Fortuna.” And then stayed after the gig, I guess, and saw a roadie pick it up. I was like, “Ah, I don’t think he took it back there. Fuck.” And that was it. That was my Nirvana story. I didn’t wait around to meet the band or anything.
Did you learn to play their songs?
You know, I’m weird like that. I learned how to play like one song, which is “Dream On” by Aerosmith, and then as soon as I learned how to play that, just the intro,and some of the solo … I think I could have been a better guitar player if I had just stuck with learning other people’s songs, but then I got a book of chords. And I think once I’d learned like three chords I just wanted to write my own stuff. It was way less interesting to me to learn someone else’ song. I just would get bored and want to just write something of my own, so that became what I did. But I think in terms of songcraft, for anybody out there learning how to do this, I would recommend learning other people’s songs in their entirety ’cause it’s really great for songcraft.
When people kept hitting the Ian Curtis and Joy Division comparison, did you ever go back and listen to that stuff just to sort of exorcise it?
No. I’m really sensitive, and we were really young, and it’s just not what you want to hear as a big ego, young musician. But it’s not something that I would fight today as far as, what our music evokes to other people is whatever it evokes to other people. That’s fine.
You’ve moved out of that vocal area that you were in in the beginning. I don’t know how conscious that’s been.
Hopefully not entirely out of that area, but I think entirely out of the hollering side of it. But I’m trying to be mindful to keep it all, and not get sucked into one particular zone. But I am. With our third record I started. I wrote a progression, a vocal part that I couldn’t sing some days, and I didn’t understand why. If I wrote this, why can’t I sing it? Or like, we’d be rehearsing. I’d get it two takes, and then the third take I wouldn’t be able to hit the notes. The producer we worked with on that record suggested I get a voice coach. From then, once you start learning a little bit of vocal technique I sort of opened up my range, and kind of fell in love with the idea of singing from a more technical standpoint. I think that plus just age, and finding your own way. I think I’ve definitely changed as a singer over the years.
Now I kind of look at all of it, all of my range and all the registers, and all the tonalities that I can create. But I definitely don’t feel married to, or beholden to what I might have been known for in the very early days, ’cause I just kind of look at that as shouting.
You took a break between albums when Carlos left. Was there ever a moment in all of this when there was any doubt whether you guys would continue?
Yeah, I think after Carlos left, yeah. But it probably took one rehearsal with [just] Daniel, because I think we got the song “Anywhere” in the first rehearsal. That quickly appeased any doubts, because I think once I had a bassline and a vocal idea we kind of knew, “All right. We still got Sam, and so if this song is functioning like this with just a guitar, bass, and a vocal, then I guess we still have something.”
Can you envision rock returning to the center of the culture?
I definitely think rock could sort of come back and take over again. And I’m waiting for the guitar solo to come back, because my whole career it’s sort of been taboo, but I’m ready for somebody to just start shredding. And I also feel like, I think hip-hop is now changing into something new… People that have written their own parts that are collectively playing live instruments together is always real exciting, and I think it’s more exciting than concerts where it’s just a guy on the mic, and/or backing tracks for instance. I think there’s just always something special and magical about that, so rock always has that going for it. And I think rap is just changing so much. This guy who just died, XXXTentacion, I was learning about him a little bit and his influences are rock, and that’s really cool to me… I think it could either stop being the thing, and rock comes back, or it becomes some new thing with this rock influence
And how about pop? Do you have any interest? The guys in Vampire Weekend go out and collaborate with people, and try to write pop songs. Any part of you want to try that?
Yeah. I mean, it’s fun for the craft of it, and I did to some degree… I would be game to do that. I don’t know if it’s really my forte, but I think it’s fun. I think the Vampire Weekend guys are a little different, where they come from songwriting wise, but sure. I would give it a whirl. I feel like lyrically I could help out on a Katy Perry song or something.
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