How Interpol Transcended Indie-Rock Nostalgia and Made Its Best Album in Years, ‘Marauder’
By Zach Schonfeld
Interpol’s debut album, Turn On the Bright Lights, is one of those mysteriously great albums that landed in precisely the right place at the right time: early-2000s New York City.Rock was on the ascent. The band had been gigging and amassing hype since 1997. CBGB was still a club and not yet a branding exercise appropriated by Target. The city was affordable for bands: Hypergentrification had not yet rendered Manhattan a playground for bankers and real estate vultures.And then the towers fell. Recorded just two months after the World Trade Center attacks—and released in 2002—Bright Lights’ moody urgency immediately caught the ear of critics eager for a new rock authenticity in the age of turgid nü-metal. “I felt a magic when we were writing the record,” frontman Paul Banks says. “Whatever that thing is, I think we had it.”That magic resided somewhere between Banks’s melancholy baritone and the band’s knack for swooning post-punk hooks, and it helped make Interpol into dapper-dressed icons of the city’s post-9/11 rock rebirth. Turn On the Bright Lights became a critical touchstone, and Interpol an influence on bands like the Killers and the xx.
A decade and a half later, the band has been reduced to a trio (bassist Carlos D. departed in 2010 to pursue acting), yet it remains one of the few remaining standard-bearers of a scene that once included the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Walkmen. The group’s first album in four years, Marauder, is both very good and very reassuring to anyone who feared the band might slip into a nostalgic coma.Interpol has walked a careful tightrope with such things lately. The band dove into the retrospective deep end with a 2017 tour honoring the 15th anniversary of Turn On the Bright Lights—a fan-friendly indulgence—but vowed to work on new material as soon as it wrapped. “We were deep into writing this record when we did that tour,” Banks says. “It felt like we had one leg in two worlds: revisiting our first album, which still feels exciting to me, balanced by the fact that the other leg was in the future.”For a newly minted 21st-century legacy act, the tour audiences were heartening. “I saw teenagers who were probably not even born, or barely born, when [Bright Lights] came out,” says guitarist Daniel Kessler. “I saw people who were there in 2002. And I’ve heard those stories: ‘My girlfriend and I started dating around the time you released that record, and now we have kids who are 10 years old.’”
A few years ago, Interpol got stuck. Literally stuck. In November 2014, the band’s tour bus became trapped on I-90 somewhere outside of Buffalo, New York, during a formidable snowstorm. For more than 50 hours, the three musicians (plus tour mates) subsisted on dry goods and vodka.“It was serious,” says Kessler. “People died in the vicinity. Every night, we’d go to bed, and there’d be some optimism. Then there’d be more snow that would bury us further. Mentally, that sort of does something to you. We were trapped.”“We were lucky because we had a bus, man,” adds Banks. “We had a fucking TV and power. It was within walking distance of a gas station. It was crazy. We would be walking down a highway with 4 feet of snow, with cars stranded everywhere.” Eventually, after being forced to cancel two Canadian shows, Interpol escaped to safety and resumed its tour promoting 2014’s El Pintor.
So it was with some terror that the band returned to upstate New York during the bleakest months of winter to record Marauder. “Every time it would start to snow, which was nearly daily, the band would be like, Is it going to stop? Are we going to be OK? Are we gonna be able to get out of here?’” says producer Dave Fridmann, who recorded the album at his studio in Cassadaga, New York.Perhaps that accounts for Marauder’s bristling intensity—the most commanding and forceful music Interpol has released in well over a decade. Or maybe that’s because Fridmann insisted on recording the music directly to 2-inch tape. “It’s a very different mentality as a musician,” he says, when you need to nail the take instead of asking the producer to fix it later. “We liked that we weren’t being overly precious with making the perfect guitar take,” adds Kessler. “It was a raw record-making experience.”But analog fetishism can’t replace inspired songwriting, as anyone who has listened to Neil Young’s last half-dozen records can tell you. And Marauder has some excellent songs: the pummeling first single, “The Rover”; “Number 10,” a dark take on office romance; and “Stay in Touch,” a hypnotic rocker that appears to chronicle a ghostly rendezvous with a forbidden lover. The songs took shape in a Bowery rehearsal space, where the band wound up getting reprimanded by the police because of a cranky, noise-averse neighbor. (“He wouldn’t compromise at all,” drummer Sam Fogarino says. “He called the cops, like, three times.”)
The lyrics, says Banks, are more direct than in the past, though still maddeningly obtuse by radio standards; discernible themes include lust, remorse and what the singer describes as “a tension” between personal failings and spiritual advancement. Abstraction and noir imagery have been central to Interpol’s appeal since the beginning. (“The subway, she is a porno,” Banks memorably once crooned, in “NYC.”) The band formed two decades ago in and around New York University, where Kessler and Carlos D. (né Carlos Dengler) met in a World War I history class. Kessler knew Banks from a summer program in Paris. Banks was several years younger—a pot-smoking hip-hop fan who had spent his childhood bouncing between England, America and Spain.“He was just out of high school,” Kessler says. “When you’re that age and you’re around people who are 21 or 22, you can be kind of intimidated. Paul was not. There was something about him—he’s got a lot to express.”
The three started a band with a drummer named Greg Drudy. After graduation, Banks worked for Gotham and Interview magazines, where he was briefly an assistant to the late writer and editor Ingrid Sischy. “The problem was, I was trying to be in a rock band,” Banks says. “I was, like, I can’t be here closing issues fucking six days a week.” So he took the plunge: He quit his day job. “I remember having that thought: I’m gonna put all my eggs in the basket of being in a rock band. I literally have to take that risk of fucking up my future.”Drudy quit in 2000, to be replaced by Fogarino, who was years older and had 10 years’ experience playing in punk bands. “I met with Daniel at a bar, and he gave me this EP,” Fogarino says. “I listened to it and thought: I have to be in this band. This is the music I’ve been wanting to play for I don’t know how long.”The drummer was thrilled by the music, if confused by his new bandmates. “Paul, with his double B.A. at the age of 21, was cocky. I didn’t get the sense we were gonna bro down anytime soon. And Carlos was so pretentious.” Kessler, he adds, was “the earnest one,” the de facto peacemaker.
In those early days, “the music scene in New York had a giddy feel to it,” Lizzy Goodman writes in her juicy-as-hell oral history, Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011. “It felt both expansive and intimate—forgotten by everyone else, it seemed to belong only to us, to the drugs, to the music.”Interpol was part of the new wave restoring the city’s rock vitality post-9/11. Artier than the Strokes and gloomier than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the four dressed in Dolce & Gabbana suits (a sartorial rebellion against grunge) and played melancholic art-rock that never let the “art” side sabotage the rock, even with erudite references to Norse explorers and suicidal models. Bright Lights arrived late in the summer of 2002 and contained “NYC,” one of the decade’s two great rock tributes to the city (the other being the LCD Soundsystem sing-along “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down”). Banks’s morose, Ian Curtis-esque voice and the jagged guitars meant endless comparisons to Joy Division. (“They bitch because everybody compares them to Joy Division,” snarked critic Robert Christgau, “and they’re right. It’s way too kind.”)
In reality, the members of Interpol don’t like Joy Division nearly as much as critics seem to think they do. “I was a New Order fan,” says Fogarino. “It was news to me that they were this band called Joy Division.” Banks, meanwhile, took up the guitar in eighth grade when he decided to learn the riff for Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” “I had to get closer to that song,” he says. “Then Nirvana came around, and I just said, ‘That’s what I wanna do.’ I got to see them in Madrid when they toured In Utero.”Interpol’s acclaim (Christgau notwithstanding) extended to 2004’s Antics, a great and seductive LP recorded quickly after Bright Lights “just to not overthink it,” Kessler says. The album contained three charting singles—including the murder-inspired classic “Evil”—and got the band a gig opening for the Cure (career highlight: hanging with Robert Smith at an after-party). After Antics, the gaps between albums stretched longer, and the band’s early peers faded into indefinite-hiatus land.Interpol’s era-defining first album is now as old as the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead was when Bright Lights was released. Which is not to suggest that Paul Banks is the new Morrissey—thank God, no—but to say that Interpol has aged gracefully from being accused of imitating influential post-punk icons to being influential post-punk icons.
It was serendipitous that Meet Me in the Bathroom arrived to iconicize New York City’s rock rebirth just in time for last year’s anniversary tour. “It’s funny reading that book,” says Fogarino. “I had to be reminded of certain things that went down. I feel like I was always in an airport waiting to get to another city in the early 2000s. It’s so much bigger than it really was after the fact.” But if what happened 15 years ago stills matters, he adds, “I’m proud to have been a part of it, whether there were too many drugs or not.” Were there? “Probably.”If people are over-fetishizing that era, he adds, it’s “no more than they did with the mid-’70s music scene in New York.” A part of him, “the little fanboy,” still can’t believe it even happened. “I never thought I was going to have a career playing music, no matter how much I could taste it. Like, I still want to call my mom and go: ‘Guess what? I play in a band! They make money! And people like us!’”