Interpol: The great escape

With their second album, Interpol have outgrown the New York scene. Kevin Harley finds them ready to take on the world
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The Independent Culture

Rock bands: what are they like? Well, half of New York's Interpol are having drink problems when we meet. The singer and guitarist, Paul Banks, is hiding an Empire State Building-sized hangover behind huge sunglasses, thanks to a hard night out in Camden watching the band Death from Above. Meanwhile, on bass, Carlos D has ordered a White Russian from the hotel bar, the non-arrival of which is causing consternation. Even when it arrives, it isn't all the band's resident neo-expressionist had in mind. "I can't decide if they gave me whipped cream or rotten milk in my White Russian," D says, poking it with a straw from a safe distance, like it might wake up and bite him. Still, there's a bright side: "Hey, you got an angle!" he quips. "A unique angle that no other journalist can lay claim to!"

Putting aside errant cocktails - as D does, with a look of disgust as severe as his fringe - Interpol couldn't be more composed today. And it's not just because they arrive for interview typically suited and booted, like they fell out of bed looking like they fell off a catwalk. Here to plug their second album, Antics, Interpol have reason to be assured. The past couple of years have seen rising sales of their smartly sculpted debut album of 2002, Turn on the Bright Lights; REM covering one of their songs (the swooningly sad, stately "NYC") at Madison Square Garden; and The Cure's Robert Smith inviting them to play on the Curiosa festival tour in America. In addition, all three initial London shows to support Antics, at the ICA, Scala and Forum, sold out quickly and with almost no publicity.

Antics substantiates that rise. As sophomore albums go, it's a test case in how to react to a successful debut album. Simply put: don't. Neither an overt reaction to Bright Lights nor a mere replication of it, it's a genuinely organic step forward, building on and within the strengths of its predecessor's ambitiously intricate, widescreen twists on propulsive post-punk in order to improve on it considerably.

Doing the interviews in nicely efficient duos (Banks and the drummer, Sam Fogarino, first, before D and the guitarist, Daniel Kessler, emerge from their hotel room, talking rapidly and sparking off each other like a comedy double act), they agree that it came together smoothly. "I don't think there was any concern about how we were gonna top ourselves," says Banks, who sings with a doomy quaver but isn't talking about suicide. "In terms of how we perceived outside pressure, we just tended to shut it out. Any pressure was brought on by ourselves: not to outshine ourselves, but to do something that shows the growth we felt writing the record. There was a lot of focus on the task at hand, rather than the peripheral stuff that goes with making your sophomore effort. But we're very hard on ourselves anyway, in terms of what we'll let be put down for posterity."

"The songs actually came out easily," says Fogarino. "Once we got off tour, it felt like a release rather than a labour to write them."

Much is made of this notion of "tension release" in Interpol's songs, and it's as relevant to the taut dynamics of Antics as it was to the songs on Bright Lights. Coming off a 16-month tour had a lot to do with the sense of something pent up letting off steam, but it's also due to the way the band write, with four very distinct personalities pushing and pulling.

In the flesh as in their press, you're immediately struck by the contrasts within the band: from Kessler's matinee-idol cool to D's cheek and Weimar chic, and from Fogarino's sturdy, besuited affability to Banks's bleary but unmistakable intensity. It's an alchemical kind of chemistry that creates their tense sound, and it makes them the epitome of a self-contained band. "Very much so," says Fogarino. "We have enough input from the four of us. That's how we write: it's four perspectives of people that care. It's not objectivity, but I think if the four of us like a song, it's a good gauge."

Kessler agrees. "In some ways, it's miraculous there's not four different things happening that aren't happening together," he says. "There's a strong unity because it's all about the song. I think we all realise that."

Kessler and D formed Interpol at New York University in 1998, when, famously, the guitarist couldn't help but admire the bass player's boots. It became a common complaint. Both band and boots drew wider attention in 2001, as The Strokes prompted the music press to hail New York as a resurgent epicentre of rock "cool". Interpol sound nothing like Julian Casablancas and co, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But they were often mentioned in the same breath, like smarter, serious older brothers to the scene-leaders in the Big Apple's fresh slew of new-wavers and no-wavers.

While The Strokes' second album, Room on Fire, didn't perform the unit-shifting business hoped for, Antics puts Interpol in a good position to become the city's all-new most famous offspring. It's not a connection the band snub, but they know they've transcended scenester status. "It's funny," says Banks. "People would say to me, 'Does it bother you, being part of the New York scene?' And we would say, 'No, New York's cool and there's a bunch of cool bands there.' I'm happy to be talked about in the same sentence as them."

"I don't know if we can attach ourselves to it now, though, because we're never there," Fogarino adds. "A New York scene to me is something that happens before a band blows up and tours the world. I feel like there's a sense of graduation. We ain't local any more."

In terms of locating the band, too, critics have tended to fix them in a time period: specifically, as a throwback to the kind of nervy, early 1980s post-punk bands that seemed to emerge as a reaction to the frothing anxieties of the times (Thatcher, Reagan and so on) and against more throwaway-rock types. "It's possibly down to our ability to tap a nerve," says Fogarino. "Our interest in creating a sense of atmosphere maybe appeals to people who need that at a given point in time. Personally, I remember being frustrated with superficial rock'n'roll, party music, which is popular in New York. I'm not knocking it, but I needed more and that's why I ended up in Interpol, who I felt could take that 1-2-3-4 velocity and go deeper with it."

As to whether Interpol capture some of the tenor of our troubled times, the band are equivocal. "I don't know, because a lot of Bright Lights was written in the peachy days of Clinton," says Banks. "We're not writing in response to the fact that everything's going to hell in a handbasket. Maybe it's a funny coincidence! Maybe artists have an odd prescience."

"In the 1980s," says Fogarino, "you had it not only with brooding English bands but with Cali punk rock, which was an answer to the Reagan years. It goes hand in hand: what's going on socially feeds what's happening artistically."

"We're not a political band, though," Banks qualifies. "We have opinions on the political climate but Interpol is not a vehicle for that. For me, it's more about escape from that. Escape from the inescapable."

What has proved inescapable for Interpol, so far, is a battery of concomitant comparisons with the post-punk figureheads, Joy Division, resting on the sonorous, Ian Curtis-ish tones of Banks' voice. The multi-shaded Antics should put paid to this as surely as it lifts them out of New York. "Being compared to anything relentlessly is bothersome when you're trying to carve out an identity," says Fogarino. "My standpoint is that you being - or, rather, one being - short-sighted is not my fault. I could supply a pair of Q-Tips, some hydrogen peroxide and we could work on it, but beyond that... well. The main source of influence is within, because we all bring so much to the table. What's going on in your life, with the band and everything, is where it comes from. Not Joy Division." A big sigh: "And if they only got it right, they would realise that it's Queen, really. We're ripping off Queen. I don't know why more people can't hear it!"

"It's a lot more fun to talk about the fact that it happened than to go through the fact that it happened," says D, recoiling at the recollection of all those Joy Division jibes. "We're in an OK position now when people ask, 'Did it bother you?' It is relieving to have that distance and to be able to look back and go, yeah, that was chapter one. "Now," he says, sighing emphatically, "we've just got to talk about how optimistic the album sounds."

Indeed. Where Bright Lights saw Interpol embraced for their darkness and stealth, Antics has been seen as a brighter album. It's a perception that rankles with the band, though, because it suggests a volte-face. "I don't think it is more optimistic," says Kessler. "I look at it more in terms of an Interpol intensity, not in terms of whether it's more upbeat or optimistic or melancholy or whatever. It's just supposed to make you feel something. And to me, it just sounds like Interpol."

For D, it boils down to the band's growth in the studio. It's a persuasive argument: after all, the lush textures on Antics document a band rising to its studio potential, away from its early need to write songs with the demands of live reproduction as the primary consideration. "There are plenty of so-called 'optimistic' moments on Bright Lights," says D, "but people didn't focus on that because of how the album was produced. Antics is so much more crisp and alive and breathing, and I think that's where that angle comes from. People are registering the tonalities of the record more because they're actually hearing more of it. I think the production has everything to do with that."

And lyrically? "I do think there's more colours in the palette of shit that I put in, melodically and thematically," says Banks. "But that's because I hopefully have a bit more of a sophisticated worldview, just from being a little older. It's not that the album is necessarily warmer, just that there is more there."

D is probably more comfortable with what the description "austere" implies than crude optimism. "I would prefer to be called austere," says D, "than, say, ornate. I wouldn't like to say we are austere or that austerity is our vibe, but it can lend itself to subtlety and nuance and understatement, which I think are important for one's art. You don't want to be over-bearing or overindulgent or overly ornate. Simplicity always works well, I find."

"It's very composed," Banks says. "It is that." The band are that, too. The clear-cut sense of purpose and perfectionism in Interpol stretches all the way from their clothes to their music and interview-speak. They don't take themselves overly seriously - in fact, they're very witty, engaging company - but they do scream "focus". It's the task at hand that matters, no matter how many London shows sell out.

"We just found out about those today," Fogarino says. "Y'know, it's nice. It's not something you want to keep tabs on, but you can't deny your own show selling out. It brings a little reassurance that you can put your blinders on and do what needs to be done. Let's just play the songs." Never mind the cocktails: Interpol are very much on track.

'Antics' is out now on Matador; Interpol play the Forum, London NW5, on 20 Nov (sold out), then tour to Bristol (15 Dec), Birmingham (16 Dec), Glasgow (17 Dec), Manchester (18 Dec) and Nottingham (19 Dec)

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