Interpol’s Paul Banks On New EP, Touring With The Cure And U2, Learning From RZA
Interpol’s Paul Banks remembers the album that changed his life. “When Nirvana broke and I was watching the video for ‘Lithium,’ that’s when I decided my life path will try and be a professional musician like those guys,” he recalls. “I also had an epiphany at that point in my life, the cliché of, ‘Dare to dream.’ I kind of felt like there’s a real truth to that, which is, ‘How the f**k are you gonna get there if you don’t dare to put it out in the universe that’s what you want?'”
That is where our conversation kicks off as I meet with Banks, while he is in L.A. for a few days promoting the band’s excellent, rocking new EP, Fine Mess, at the Sunset Marquis’ Nightbird Studios.
Fine Mess is a companion piece to the band’s Marauder album, released last August. As Banks explains the idea was always to release the EP a few months after the album to hit the audience with some new material in the midst of touring Marauder.
I spoke with Banks about the EP, touring with legends like the Cure, U2 and Pearl Jam, resurrecting old songs and why he learned so much working with RZA.
Steve Baltin: Was it just the combination of the age and the music hitting at the same time?
Paul Banks: Yeah, well it was the age and the music. And it wasn’t so much that I can do that, it was that I want that. And just daring to say that even to yourself, “That’s what I want out of my life.” Before that I was being transported by music. I had started guitar because of the song “Dream On,” by Aerosmith.
Baltin: It’s interesting to think of how Steven Tyler and Kurt Cobain come into Interpol and your music.
Banks: Much like a lot of Nirvana songs “Dream On” is sort of a two-string track, like sort of minimalistic on guitar parts. And he’s putting his heart out in “Dream On,” so I actually think the song “Dream On” and the work of Nirvana are not totally foreign from each other. The persona of Steven Tyler over the ages and the persona of Kurt are for sure very different. I never really thought about this actually, but I often get asked about performers and performance and I always really say I never really felt like a performer. It’s not a snobbery thing that I made a conscious choice I don’t want to be demonstrative like the rock god. It’s just that ain’t me. But I always admire your Mick Jagger’s and your Steven Tyler’s because you can clearly say that is them. It’s very natural to them to be all that stuff they do on stage, that persona. David Lee Roth couldn’t be anything but that guy. Whereas Kurt Cobain I always did identify with a little bit more. I watched them onstage and dude didn’t do anything onstage. So I guess something about that maybe I identified with without even realizing that would be my natural comfort also as a performer, to be a little bit more subdued in terms of the performance of it, then actual energy that’s coming out of you in your music being intense.
Baltin: Has it evolved over time and you’ve been onstage more and gotten more comfortable onstage?
Banks: That’s interesting. As a performer nothing has really changed.
Baltin: Has it changed then musically and especially in your songwriting?
Banks: Yeah, I think so. And I think as a singer I’ve gotten more comfortable and evolved. I also think it’s really healthy to not really sweat what you used to do or what you used to be. There’s a great writer, Theroux I think, said, your past is like this cadaver you’re dragging around behind you. F**k it, stop dragging it around. You shouldn’t really sweat at all what you used to be or what people think you are. I always liked that idea too.
Baltin: That’s interesting because you did a ten-year anniversary for Bright Lights. Did doing the anniversary sort of let go of the past and make it easier to move on in new music?
Banks: I feel like it’s always been easy for me to say this is who I am now. The ceremony of putting it to bed in a way, and I get what you’re saying about the anniversary, it’s sort of a bookend in a way. But that didn’t give me any particular sense of liberation creatively after having done that. It was just fun to do that for me and I saw Trans Am do Futureworld and I liked it. So I get it from a fan standpoint. I think I would have been wary were we not making a new record when we did the anniversary thing. I think it would have been a look like what, you got nothing going on if you’re just doing ten-year-old records. But because we were half into the new one I felt like, “No, let’s go do that, that’ll be fun.” And it was.
Baltin: Who are those artists you admire for the way they have continually grown and evolved and stayed reflective of who they are in the present versus the past?
Banks: Bob Dylan, for me, was it Time Out Of Mind being a very critically acclaimed and solid record? Nick Cave is someone I really admire and look up to. You just feel like he’s more creative than ever. It’s beyond any concept of age or how long he’s been doing it. He’s just the s**t. So he’s a big one. Radiohead, I really like how they’ve spanned their career. Leonard Cohen, I felt like I was still interested in what he was doing. Kool Keith is an artist I feel like has this amazing ability to never lose his creativity. He’s always fresh to me.
Baltin: Talk about the idea behind the EP and why you decided to go that route versus making a whole album.
Banks: I think we liked the idea and I think being mindful of the way music is received these days, where it’s just there’s so much content for people. And I think it was this idea of if we’re going to be out there promoting Marauder for a long time let’s give the fans some more while we’re still out there. And we had this idea when we were recording Marauder. The EP was recorded at the same time, with the exception of “Fine Mess,” which we went back and revisited. I still stand by albums because that’s how I process music. However I might encounter a song I always want to go find more songs like that from the same time period as that song. So I look to records and listen to them all the way through. But, at the same time, artists are dropping songs here, songs there, collaborations here, collaborations there, and that’s what people are used to.
Baltin: What are the older songs you’re excited to resurrect live?
Banks: The Bright Lights tour was fun cause there were definitely songs off that record we hadn’t played in many, many years. Right now we’re playing a song called “Public Pervert” live, which was always one of my favorites. I’m so happy to be playing it. For me, they’re all kind of fun. Let’s say, you want to play the singles, prioritize the songs people are gonna know. And then you want to sort of choose wisely which deep cuts you’re gonna play for your own joy and also for those fans who just happen to be, “Oh, ‘Leif Erikson’ was my favorite song off of that record.” It’s a deeper cut, for instance. I really just see it as fun. It’s not rocket science. We argue a lot about it though as well amongst ourselves. Then there’ll be a song that I’m really jonesing to play but Sam [Fogarino] is like, “No, no, I can’t play that s**t every night.” And there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t win an argument with a musician who doesn’t want to play a song. You just gotta go with the flow.
Baltin: As a writer what was your last musical sweet spot?
Banks: In “Fine Mess” when I wrote the bass line and Sam was working on the beat and we get to the chorus. The verse is kind of standard for us, but the chorus is just stone cold groove. And it was something where Sam and I, we’ve had moments when I joined the rhythm section the last two records. It’s always fun with him and then we’ve had a couple of magic moments. And I felt like the chorus of “Fine Mess” was like a magic moment.
Baltin: Talk about the Morrissey tour.
Banks: We’ve been very fortunate to play with a lot of legends. We’ve opened for Pearl Jam, U2, the Cure. I guess in a lot of ways I look at it from the audience’s point of view. I feel like that’s just gonna be a good show for the audience. And I think there’s an overlap of aesthetic between what we do and what they do. I’ve always admired Morrissey as a lyricist.
Baltin: Are there things you learned that stand out to you having watched so many legends?
Banks: I’ve spent time with U2 and I spent time with the Cure. I don’t know if I got too much insight into being in a band other than that every band has a lot of the same problems that you have to get through. And it’s really a matter of probably love that solves it. I think in U2’s case they have a lot of faith and a lot of love and I think that really protects them throughout their career. But I learned so much working with RZA for instance as a collaborator. Other people I’ve actually worked with creatively I learn a lot from. In his case I learned a lot about letting go of my ego cause if there was every anything I was not sure about that he wanted to do we never fought. He’d just be like, “Okay, cool.” He’s so evolved as a person that his ego is not being brought into any of these situations. He’s just here to make art. He’s one of the first people I worked with where I was like, “Man, this guy really has his s**t together as an artist.” And I took a lot away from that.