Paul Banks Rates Interpol's Five Albums
Ahead of their new record, "Marauder,' Banks reflects on the creation process of the band's catalog.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Ever since Interpol released their 2002 debut record, Turn On The Bright Lights, the New York band has been seen as purveyors of gloomy indie rock. To some extent that’s true. Their brooding, atmospheric songs can indeed be full of dark shadows and existential nihilism—something that earned them comparisons to Joy Division early on. But 16 years since that album came out, Interpol—now comprised of vocalist/guitarist/bassist Paul Banks, guitarist Daniel Kessler and drummer Sam Fogarino—has been constantly evolving and enhancing its sound.
According to Banks, Interpol’s new record Marauder finds the band as excited and energized about making music as they’ve ever been. It’s their sixth full-length, and their second record since former bassist Carlos Dengler left during the recording of the band’s self-titled fourth album in 2010. It was, Banks says, the easiest record the band has made in its career, and that’s the criteria on which Banks ranked these records, as he said he was unable to “conceptualize this list in terms of best and worst.”
“I think you want to suffer for your art,” he says, “but at the same time, there’s productive suffering and there’s unnecessary excess energy wasting, and that’s where we’ve managed to cut the fat. There’s less tension creatively amongst us, there’s better communication, there’s a general sense of good will. None of us are out of our heads on drugs, or fucked up on this, that, or the other. We’re keeping ourselves as healthy and happy as possible, and that allows you to take whatever things you learn along the road to make a good record.”
Noisey: The first thing that struck me about this record was its cover, because, for whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem very much like an Interpol album cover.
Paul Banks: And that’s the kind of stuff that I like. I remember being particularly proud of the artwork to this record at the time, and to this day, still. I mean, those are lions taking down a gazelle—it’s not just a happy nature shot. And as an artist, I definitely like to defy expectation. I always feel like expectation is a very itchy sweater on me. The moment someone thinks they know what our aesthetic is, I want to be like, “No, you’re wrong. You can’t put us into this box.” So I feel like the idea of having wildlife and nature on the cover of the album—albeit taxidermy nature, which I think adds a layer to it—felt very comfortable to me. There wasn’t any question that we should move away from what we were known for, aesthetically. I thought we should absolutely do that. But I agree—it definitely broke the mold for what we were known for, visually.
It was also your first and only major label record. Did that have any impact on how you approached making it, and did it increase any pressure you were feeling?
Yeah, and I think that’s why it ranks at the lowest number. It’s not to do with the music on that record, but to do with the process of making that record. And it was stressful. It was unpleasant for me. But it wasn’t so much the pressure of being on a major label. I think the big pressure’s always on your sophomore record—and we’ll get to that, but we had a nice way of circumventing that stress. But with Our Love To Admire, I had just gotten off the sauce, so it was the first record I wrote not shit-faced and I think that was a learning curve for me—to learn how to write and find my inspiration in a new landscape mentally. And the reason it was hard for me—and I think this a factor of being on a major label—is that we spent months in the studio. I at one point worked 88 out of 90 days in the studio for that record. Which is just fucking stupid. And that was just for vocals. And I think what it took me 88 days to do then I could do in five days now. And that’s why this ranks where it ranks. I’m very proud of the music, but it was way too much work and I think that was my own self, putting up obstacles and making it all more difficult, but it was indispensable as a way of learning as a writer. Whatever stress red flags get raised now, I know how to act. Let’s say I was ten miles down the road of stress to make that, now if I get to where I’m approaching the exit to that road, I’m like, “Fuck this. I know that exit. I’m not going down that road.”
This was the last record Carlos made with us. Sometimes I think about the Louis C.K. line about divorce, where he says people come up to him and tell him they’re sorry about his divorce and he’s like, “Man, you should be happy for the divorce and sorry for the two years before the divorce—that fucking sucked.” And Carlos didn’t leave on a dime. It was a rough, rough road leading up to that. So we were a pretty dysfunctional band making that record. There was some bad juju going on. And I think on the one hand, part of the reason we were a great band with Carlos was because tensions and disagreements can really lead to magic within collaboration. But there’s also a lot of unnecessary suffering that goes on when people really aren’t happy with the set-up and I think we suffered for this record a lot. I was little confused with some of the music we were making, though I think what ultimately wound up on that record is some of our best stuff. The same with Our Love To Admire—some of my favorite songs we ever wrote are on these two records, so it’s not like the situation was bad and the record is bad. I really love this record. There’s a song called “The Undoing” and one called “Lights” and I think those are among our best compositions, and that was definitely a product of stress and tension and disagreements amongst us. So it was very hard and unpleasant to make Interpol, but I think there’s some great music on this record.
Eponymous records, if they’re not a band’s debut, often indicate self-reinvention. Did you feel the need to do this because you knew Carlos was leaving and you needed a new mindset?
I think we decided to name the record Interpol before he left the band, although he left the band before the record was done. He had done his parts and then he left the band. I like the idea that there’s something laid bare about it, like, “This is us and this is who we are.” I was never aware that there was a precedent that debut records we supposed to be self-titled. I was just like, “It feels good to make this one self-titled.” And then I think there’s cool artwork for this record. I really like the cover a lot.
The year before, you’d released the Julian Plenti record, which was your first solo album. How did that inform this record, if at all?
I don’t think the Julian Plenti record had an impact on Interpol. I think it had an impact on El Pintor. I definitely feel like all my outside-of-Interpol ventures have helped me sharpen the blade or get to that place of having wisdom and making my process a little bit easier, so I think, lyrically, it maybe helped in some way. Like, one more record’s worth of writing lyrics strengthened me, so I was probably improved in some way going into writing Interpol, but I think the solo stuff really started to pay off when I played bass moving forward more than on this particular record.
So how was it picking up and playing bass for this record?
By this record, I had made two solo records, which meant I’d now played bass on two whole records. And, you know, a bass is just a guitar with four strings. Carlos was always a guitarist and not a bassist, he just became a bassist when he joined Interpol. And so in that way I think we kept the tradition, because there are ways guitar players play bass and there are ways bass players play bass. I don’t play bass like Carlos, but I do play bass like a guitarist, so there is that sort of continuity.
Now that Carlos had gone, was there less tension making this record?
There was still tension. We’re still weird dudes and we have strange dynamics and after all these years. Ego stuff is always there, but I think it was really just daunting to find out if we could be a good band without Carlos, because he was a really integral member of our band. So there was that kind of challenge, and then a wave of good vibes when we realized, even before Sam came to the first writing sessions, Daniel was presenting tracks to me and I had a bass and we wrote “Anywhere” on bass in the first rehearsal. I wrote the bassline and maybe the topline vocal melody within one rehearsal with Daniel, and I think at that point we didn’t know who was going to play bass, whether it would be me or somebody else. But we realized we needed to start the writing process in the same way we’d always done, which was Daniel writing on guitar and Carlos on bass, and then I’d weigh in on guitar and vocal. But bass was always really the first ingredient along with drums. So we maintained that tradition on this record and we realized after one rehearsal like, “This sounds pretty fucking cool to me, so maybe this does work!” So, going into El Pintor, we were a little worried whether we could do this, but very quickly realized that we could. I think everyone was of common mind and purpose when we made this record. We’d gone pretty far left on Interpol, so I think there was a spirit of “Let’s just try to rock.” It was a good reset for us.
I’m not one to put too much emphasis on album titles, but this one is an anagram of Interpol, and it also means The Painter. Did you have this idea in your head beforehand and did it help shape these songs in any way?
It came after. But I think it works on a number of levels. I like the way it suggests a reconfiguration, by having an anagram in the title, which is what the band had done. I think it also worked very well with the graphic that we had. There was a symmetry with the hands and when we found the anagram it just felt very in keeping with the hands. And maybe there’s some kind of figure who’s in between the lines of all those songs, like a painter.
This was your first record and not only did it establish you straight off the bat, it established you as a gloomy band. Yet there are subtle glimpses of humor on this record. Do you feel people overlook them?
I mean, I think that we are a dark and gloomy band, but there’s humor on this record, for sure. There’s absurdism, there’s lots of things. The way I’ve always seen it is that people who are casual fans probably think we’re very self-serious and gloomy, and then our real fans who listen to the lyrics and will have had to have that moment where it’s like, “Did he fucking just say ‘Let’s see about this ham’? What the fuck?” And so I always felt like the people who really care about the band get it, but there are worse things to be known as than austere, gloomy, or moody. I’m OK with that. But I put this record in one of the top spots because, as far as ease of making it, we had years to write these songs. The longest writing period of any of your records is your debut. We formed in 1997, so it’s five years, and three-and-a-half/four of playing shows and trying out that material. So it went down smoothly in the studio, and then you have all the excitement of it being your first album. It was a good time in our lives.
You just toured on its 15th anniversary last year. What do you think about this album now? Do you recognize yourself in these songs? Do you remember who you were?
I certainly remember who I was. I remember moments that I wrote various lyrics. I can put myself in the chair I was sitting at in the café when I wrote lyrics to “Stella [was a diver and she was always down]” or I was in Tokyo when I wrote lyrics to “Obstacle 1” visiting my dad. I can definitely remember and put myself in those places and I definitely identify with who I was as a writer then, for sure. I think sonically, my vocal style has changed from those days and I feel like I hear moments of the singer I went on to become and other moments that are before I really knew how to sing. I didn’t even look at the voice as an instrument back then. I was just the guy with the words and that was it. As we moved on to album three [Our Love To Admire], I had to get some voice lessons because I wrote “No I In Threesome” and I couldn’t sing it repeatedly, and it was like, “How the fuck did I write something that I’m not able to sing the next day?” So when I look at this album, I see a raw example of how I sang before I thought of it as singing. And that part of me feels different.
Did you have any inkling this record would have such a big impact?
I think everybody who does this kind of thing, there’s a part of them that dares to dream. And so I think I dreamed it would be a big record and have a big impact, and I think I believed that the ingredients—barring myself—were all there to be a really tremendous band, and I had the drive to try to just be the best artist I could be as well. So I believed the guys I was working with had what it takes for us to make an important record that would stand, and I just hoped that I would do my job to carry that weight as well.
So as I hinted at when we were talking about Our Love To Admire, we were super-duper mindful of the sophomore slump. And the reason this is my favorite in a sense is I feel like we had the perfect antidote to that sophomore slump, because by the time we had finished album one, we’d written for so long that we had songs. By the time Bright Lights came out, we probably had half of Antics written, from the same batch of songwriting as before anybody heard Bright Lights, so it felt like whatever pure formula we had tapped into on that first record, there are songs that got even better towards the end of that first record that we were working on that are now just waiting for us to finish and put onto Antics.
And then also, within my first process as an artist, I went deep on Antics. I made it my beeswax to not slump and I really put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears onto this record. It felt like a very righteous pursuit, like the only thing that I could do. I felt like people expected us to fail and not follow up the first record, but I had confidence that it would be good. And we had some discussions—Carlos had a hard time touring the first record and we had some meetings about whether to take a long break after the first record or just fucking dive straight back in. And I think we made the right call to dive straight back in and ride the momentum that was there in the public, but also ride the internal momentum of like, “We are tuned up right now and everything is running on all cylinders. Let’s capitalize and finish this.” And it almost lumped the second record into the first record. That’s how I visualized it—that it was side B, so we couldn’t wait. And also, if we followed through with a strong record it would solidify our reputation in a way that we can’t get back if we don’t do the right thing on the second record. So it was a high pressure situation, but it felt like everything was in place going into that situation.
It’s interesting to hear how it came about. Because it sounds and feels very different to that first record, but at the same time it really does come off like a kind of flipside to it, like it’s related to it. But it’s also softer. There’s an aesthetic on Bright Lights that’s not present on this one. Were you consciously trying to make Interpol not sound like Interpol?
Maybe. I can’t say for myself I aspire to that, but that sounds like a philosophy Carlos might have had for the second record. I think his compositions got a little more sophisticated on keyboards and bass, but I don’t personally remember saying I wanted to steer us in a different direction. I wanted to go deeper in the same vein.
“Next Exit” starts it off so differently, though. You wouldn’t expect that to be the first track of the next album if you’d just played the first record.
That’s a good point. That was definitely something where the whole band was like, “I don’t think people know we have this in us as well, where it’s a bit light-hearted and Americana-esque.” But it felt very true and authentic to us. And also we just kind of believed, especially in the early days, that the intro track was important and we wanted to make a statement with the intro of the second record that wasn’t like the intro of the first, to maybe indicate to people that we weren’t going to exist in a tight box. We didn’t want to do that, because I feel you really have be true to yourself as an artist.