Among Interpol fans, a general consensus exists regarding the band’s oeuvre: Their 2001 debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, is their most beloved. It vaulted the quartet of dark-suit-clad, post-punk revivalists to fame alongside the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, and other New York acts hailed at the time as rock music saviors.
Their 2004 sophomore LP, Antics, cemented Interpol’s moody, exhilarating guitar rock as the apotheosis of cool. “Slow Hands” and “Evil,” with Paul Banks’s seductive vocals, Sam Fogarino’s laser-sharp drumming, Daniel Kessler’s guitar, and Carlos Dengler’s urgent basslines, were what every teenager imagined late nights in New York City must sound like: all grit, mystery, and romance.
Since then, the group has been cursed with outsized expectations. Is it like TOTBL? is asked of each new Interpol record the way Is it at least as good as Room on Fire? is asked of the Strokes’. And since Interpol’s third album, the grandiose Our Love to Admire and its fourth, eponymous record were departures from the sound of the first two albums (keyboards, samplers, and what Fogarino calls “overwrought faux orchestral movements” entered the mix), they often rank last in fans’ hearts.
The band is well aware of this, and of how changing dynamics affected the music. “We started to believe our own myth, that we could do no wrong. I don’t think we ever verbalized that, but I think there was an arrogance, especially [with] the third record,” Fogarino says, sitting on a velvety couch at the Bowery Hotel, wearing—what else?—a smartly tailored black suit. “We did it for Capitol [Records], there was more money. We spent a lot of time in the studio, which is kind of unnecessary.”
Interpol burned through “a grand a day” at Electric Lady Studios and members began working separately. “It was our own version of what happens when a band becomes over-bloated with its own confidence,” Fogarino, 45, continues. “I don’t think anybody was really happy. But nobody wanted to concede to being a part of the problem. Everyone was kind of defensive of what was going on and I think secretly we were all taking responsibility for the success of the first two records.”
But if seams in the fabric of the band began to show while making a third record, the experience of making a fourth tore them to shreds. Bassist Carlos, the group’s biggest personality, was growing increasingly discontent, both with playing bass and with being in a band. As soon as Interpol was released in 2010, he left the group altogether. Banks, Fogarino, and Kessler haven’t spoken to him since. They forged ahead and toured in support of the new record for a year—then went on hiatus.
Until El Pintor. Interpol’s fifth studio album, a colorful, vibrant version of the group’s signature broody rock, is out today. Banks says the experience was “almost like being a new band again.”
“It was buoyed by excitement in a way that our previous couple records maybe hadn’t been because those were just like, ‘Yeah, we know we can make records, let’s make a record,” the frontman, 36, says. “But [El Pintor] was sort of like, ‘Can we make a record? Yeah? Fucking awesome, let’s do it.’”
But first came the tricky matter of rejiggering a songwriting formula set in place over 17 years ago, when Kessler, then a New York University student, first recruited Dengler and Banks into his still nonexistent band. (Fogarino joined three years later, in 2000, after the group’s original drummer, Greg Drudy, quit.) Dengler’s bass lines and Kessler’s guitar traditionally formed the foundation for Banks’s vocals. Without Dengler, at first, the band was stuck.
“The first day I only had a guitar and I did find myself in the curious position of not having any ideas, which never happens,” Banks says. “And it was because I was used to hearing Daniel’s chord progressions with Carlos there. He could come up with a bass line in real-time as Daniel played. By the end of the song, he could have the bass worked out, he’s that fast.”
Dengler’s were big shoes to fill but, after briefly entertaining the idea of hiring a new bassist, Banks decided to suck it up and take on the task himself. He brought a bass into the studio the next day (“my own little young Sting, circa 1980,” Fogarino chuckles) and vocal ideas came flooding in. Within two days, “My Desire,” the album’s first song, was complete.
“I think there’s a pretty big difference, especially between this record and our last record,” Banks says, explaining Kessler’s “pretty left field” chord progressions on Interpol and Dengler’s predilection at the time for modern classical music. On this round of songs. “I wasn’t particularly interested in making it more exotic or more left-field…I was just like, Yeah, let’s write some rock songs,” Banks says.
With the “elephant in the room” (one miserable band member) exorcised for good, songwriting became fun again—though, as Fogarino is careful to clarify, “It has nothing to do with Carlos as a person. It has a lot to do with someone being there who didn’t want to be there.”
Of course, times have changed since 2002, when rock was on top of the world and Interpol was its hottest breakout band. Among the members, life has evolved—Banks, for one, has quit drinking. “I party less than I did in the early days,” he says. “I think I’m more of a professional than I was back then.” Fogarino confirms: “When you’re young and you’re on fire, you want to go to every party you’re invited to—metaphorically and literally.” And “there’s been divorces and stuff—actually, me, mainly just me,” he laments.
And there’s no pretending that Interpol is a hot new breakout band anymore. “It’s weird because I couldn’t go up to some young band and try to be like, I identify with you, man. Because it’s bullshit,” Fogarino says. “I worked too hard and we’re not parallel…I’m very happy with being way more established than we were back then.”
As for rock, Banks is optimistic that what he calls the “essentially interchangeable” nature of hip-hop and pop today will bring rock raging back again—preferably with an emphasis on guitar solos. “Someday soon, someone’s gonna come along and shred and people are gonna love it again,” he says, professing a childhood love of Slash. Not that Banks has shed his renowned hip-hop nerdiness: On his 2013 self-released, critic-confounding mixtape Everybody on My Dick Like They Supposed to Be, the ominous, nasally voice of Interpol actually raps.
The band’s bright lights have not dimmed. “I think time has kind of proven that we all made the right life choices and career choices because 15 years later, I don’t see signs of any of us stopping anytime soon,” Banks says. “I just think this is what we do, I think we’re very lucky to have found each other as collaborators, and we’re even more lucky to have a fan base and [make] records that somebody’s gonna listen to.” Not that it would ever go to his head: “I’ve never walked around thinking my shit don’t stink.”