Interpol: We are “weirdo musicians”
Ahead of the release of EL Pintor Interpol’s Daniel Kessler talks to DOUG WALLEN about life after Carlos D and what has kept the band going for over 10 years
After the downbeat subtlety of their self-titled fourth album in 2010, Interpol wake right up on the new El Pintor. It’s reinvigorating and steadily anthemic, led by the opener and first single ‘All the Rage Back Home’. After the chatter around the last record revolved around founding bassist Carlos D exiting and singer Paul Banks testing a solo career as Julian Plenti, the talk this time is likely to be devoted to just how active and forward-moving these songs are. They’re more fun than usual too, with Banks repeating “Fuck the ancient ways” on the playfully noisy ‘Ancient Ways’ and shiny keyboards zinging across ‘Tidal Wave’.
Banks wound up taking over bass duties on the album, playing that instrument as well as guitar alongside guitarist Daniel Kessler and drummer Samuel Fogarino. Self-produced like all their records, the anagram-titled El Pintor sounds further away than ever from the post-punk tag that’s dogged Interpol from their start in the late ‘90s, and more like a moody modern rock act along the lines of The National. On the eve of the album’s release Kessler talks about the new album and the various shake-ups in the band’s alchemy in recent years.
First I want to ask about the break you guys took, and how that benefited you as a band.
The break for us never feels quite like a break, as it might seem to others. It was four years [between albums], but we did 200 shows after the release of the last record. I mean, we didn’t finish touring until the end of 2011. Then we took 2012 [for me to start] writing songs that would end up on El Pintor. Paul and Sam both released their own records [as Paul Banks and EmptyMansions, respectively], and then we got together in 2013 and really wrote and recorded the whole record then. That’s not a long time to write and record a record. When you do commit and dedicate yourself to touring, I feel like time actually goes by quicker.
So the songs usually start with you, and then you bring them to the band?
Yeah, usually the songs begin with me.
Is it just guitar stuff, or do you bring more than that?
It’s mostly just guitar stuff. There’s one song I wrote on the piano – the last song on the record, ‘Twice as Hard’. That was the only one that had lead guitar and piano. And then ‘Everything is Wrong’, the bass line originated with me too. But everything else is really just guitar stuff. Usually I just play it in the room [for the band]. This is first time I actually recorded things, almost like a really, really basic demo, for a few songs for the guys before we got together, just to give them a sense of what direction I was working in.
Why did Carlos leave the band?
He left the band because he wanted to do other things in his life. He went back to school. He was in the band for 13 years. It’s a pretty big dedication in your life. You can’t really do it part-time. We were about to get very, very busy and do things, and I think he wanted to do other things.
And the rest of you guys didn’t have any discussions about that maybe being a good time to cap off the band?
Well, certainly after we recorded the last record, no, because we recorded it [and] we still had to mix it when he made his decision, and at that point in time it was like, “No, we’re gonna finish this record and then we’re gonna go support this record. That’s what we do.” I will say we didn’t have much of a discussion afterwards about “Well, we have to make another record.” I think we were keeping everything open about making a record, but we weren’t saying this was something that has to get done. I never took that for granted. We toured, we worked hard, we played with the same band we’re playing with now live, and we really gelled as a band. That was good.
When it came time to get together [again], Paul and I got together for five days in August 2012, just to see. Just to jam, if you will. At that point in time, I don’t think we had any set notions that this has to happen. But Paul brought a guitar and a bass with him, and he said, “Hey, maybe I should play bass, because I tend to sing with the bass lines.” Then we just started working right there like that, and a couple of the songs we played on that very first day – we established the foundation for ‘My Desire’ and ‘Anywhere’, two songs that are more or less in the same form that they appear in on the album. I think once we started seeing there was good energy and ideas on the table, we just kept to that focus instead of thinking of anything else exterior, if that makes sense.
When I saw you guys in Melbourne last, you had Dave Pajo [of Slint and Zwan] playing bass.
So how does it work live now?
Pajo is no longer playing with us, because he had other things he had to do after that. But we’ve always played as a five-piece line-up live. After Dave Pajo left, my friend Brad [Truax] joined the fold and he’s still playing with us now. He’s great. And Brandon Curtis from The Secret Machines plays keyboards and sings. So Paul plays keyboards and sings.
I was struck by how snappy and poppy this record is. It’s a really upbeat record. Do you think there’s a reason for that?
No. I mean, the last record was pretty atmospheric and textural. There was a lot of orchestrations and keyboard sounds. So if there’s stuff that’s gonna happen a bit more left-field for one album, there’s a good chance we’ll just go the opposite way for the next album. I think I’ve always been that way a little way. It wasn’t intentional – I never really sit down and say, “This is what I want to do,” but at the same time it’s not that much of a surprise.
“It’s a little bit easier to write more experimental music”
And also, I should just add that it’s not that easy … if I sat down and said, “OK, I want to write more of a song-oriented album,” it’s easier said than done for me, because it’s a little bit easier to write more experimental music. Things that are more free-range, that don’t have to abide by returns to other sections and so forth with conviction. So this is just what came about. I think I was probably in the mood to do this. But it’s easier for me to look back [in retrospect] like that than to actually sit down and try to do that [at the time]. That’s just for me, because I’m a weirdo musician.
Was there any change in your approach to playing guitar this time?
[Long pause]Probably. I feel like this is where I need a therapist, to tell me rather than have me work it out. I’m sure there is. I’d like to think that I’m progressing or fine-tuning, but at the same time I never really think of myself as an accomplished guitarist like that. I think of myself more as a songwriter, so I use the guitar more as my vehicle to write songs. I’m not like a shredder. I’m not continuously getting better at the instrument as much as hopefully finding new ways to approach it or explore or create new pieces of music.
It sounds like ‘My Blue Supreme’ is about a car. Is that right?
Y’know, what? I usually let Paul [discuss his lyrics]. I don’t touch the lyrics. Personally, we’ll talk about the lyrics and they’ll come up, but at the same time I like just having my own impressions and letting things exist. I have great memories of that as a kid, hearing songs and just making them your own.
That song struck me as well for the production. It’s got a kind of dub thing to it.
That was one of the ones where we were still in the process of exploring the chord progression. I was just playing one day in the rehearsal space and Paul was like, “Hey man, play that again.” He just had the bass line right away and I think he just started singing in the manner that he sings on it, kind of high up. I wasn’t ready almost. [I thought] I needed more time to figure out where I wanted to go. But Sam jumped on the thing.
Those moments are great Interpol moments, where the song just has an energy of its own. It’s pretty awesome. It’s when those moments are happening that they’ll become pretty exotic pieces of music. I think that song is kind of exotic like that. That’s because you have no idea where it’s really going – you’re just trusting your instincts and the energy of what’s happening, but you arrive at something a bit more unique. And I agree about the dubby thing too. I’m a big dub music fan myself.
Having just played Splendour – are you making plans to come back for a proper tour soon?
I hope so. We have great memories of playing Splendour [in 2005] so it’s definitely important for us to come back this time..But I hope we come back next year and do something for sure.
I wanted to talk about ‘All the Rage Back Home’. It’s got this loping, propulsive thing. It’s good as a lead single and as an opener. Did that just present itself in those roles right away, as a calling card to start the album with?
Sequencing an album is always a very important thing for me for sure. It’s something that I’ve always taken very seriously. And I still think in the age of the album, even though we’re not really in the age of the album [anymore]. I think a record needs a start, a middle, and an end. You have to have it in a certain order.
I had to think, “Well, what’s the best sequencing?” I didn’t know ‘All the Rage Back Home’ was going to be the first track until we finished it, for sure. I remember walking around trying different sequences. I’ve always liked the idea – we’ve had them on a few of our records – of having songs be an introduction to the album. With ‘Untitled’ from our first record [2002’s Turn on the Bright Lights to ‘Next Exit’ on [2004’s] Antics and certainly ‘Pioneer to the Falls’ on [2007’s] Our Love to Admire.
I was looking at ‘All the Rage Back Home’: it has a built-in intro because it’s got this lullaby sort of beginning that goes on for like a minute and a half before the song proper kicks in. So I was thinking, “Well, this song does provide the purpose.” And once the drums and bass kick in – I think it’s a pretty relentless record. It keeps going until you get to the last song , which is a slow song.
Yeah, the last song [‘Twice as Hard’] is the only ballad or dirge type song.
Exactly. So that’s what we decided to write in 2012, 2013. I like looking at things that way. That’s what we wanted to say now. I feel like there’s a good flow to the record. ‘All the Rage Back Home’, it occupies the top of the record just because of what I said: an intro and then it just goes on [from there]. Then ‘Twice as Hard’, I didn’t know it was going to be the last song until I was sequencing it. I was like, “Whoa, this is definitely a comedown song.”
You mentioned the others guys working on outside stuff. Do you have anything that you’re working on outside Interpol?
I do, actually. I have another album that’s gonna come out next year under the project name Big Noble (http://www.bignoble.com). It’s a collaboration with a sound-designer friend of mine [Joseph Fraioli], so it’s all instrumental, very atmospheric, kind of textural music. Really almost like music for a film. It’s something I worked on almost simultaneously [with El Pintor and I’m really into it. It’ll definitely come out in the first half of next year, probably in the first few months. But it’s pretty much the polar opposite of Interpol. Laughs
El Pintor is out tomorrow (September 5) through [PIAS] Australia.