Interpol’s Paul Banks on the Music That Made Him
The 40-year-old frontman talks about the songs and albums that have meant the most to him throughout his globe-trotting life—from Nirvana to 50 Cent to Frank Ocean—five years at a time.
By Larry Fitzmaurice
As the leader of Interpol, Paul Banks has been associated with some of the most brooding post-punk anthems of the 21st century. He’s built his reputation on a stylish brand of disaffected cool—which makes his excitable demeanor in person as endearing as it is surprising. Cooling off from a sweltering Manhattan day in his label’s labyrinthine office, Banks is loaded with energy as he scrolls through a hastily cobbled-together list of the music that’s marked his life, reminiscing about listening to Pixies and Jimi Hendrix while smoking weed for the first time in eighth grade, and then pulling up old wrestling-themed music videos on his iPhone. When he hits on a topic he’s especially passionate about, he can’t help but say “dude” in a marveled tone, often repeating the word once more for emphasis. It’s an affably casual exclamation for someone who’s come across so gravely serious on record.
Along the way, he takes time to reflect on his own career in Interpol—where it’s taken him, and how his perspective has changed as the band preps their sixth full-length, Marauder. “I definitely had a phase where I got a little jaded and dark about the whole game,” he explains, talking about his position in the ever-splintering indie stratosphere. “Now I’m at an age where I’m happy that anyone wants to talk about what we’re doing. At this point, getting any attention is lucky.”
WWF Wrestlers: “Land of a Thousand Dances”
My dad worked in the automotive industry, and we moved from Essex, England to Michigan when I was 3. I actually have memories from that time. I remember nursery school. I had a favorite shirt that I used to like to wear, with a big collar that I’d put up—I was popping my collar in nursery school.
I had insomnia when I was young. If I heard music in the afternoon, it would get stuck in my head, and I couldn’t sleep. So I developed a mnemonic technique to help me fall asleep. My brother and I were really into the WWF, and they had their own version of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” where wrestlers like Captain Lou Albano sang lines like, “I’ll wrap you with my cane, you pencil-necked geek.” I memorized every lyric, and it became my safe song. That’s how I cured myself of insomnia, and I’ve never had a problem since. It was my lullaby.
Living Colour: “Cult of Personality”
Living Colour’s Vivid was the first CD I ever bought. I had to have it. I’ll listen to that record today and get into that shit. “Cult of Personality” had a great video—I can picture the Spandex, and the bass player had pretty cool dreads, too. The riffs were sick, and the vocal harmonies are dope as fuck. And when the song ends with that J.F.K. sample, I felt like it elevated things and gave it this weird dimension of grandeur. Reappropriating things in a new context is interesting to me—like in Lost Highway, when David Lynch cut back and forth between VHS. There’s something about watching a degraded format within a format that becomes this meta thing that resonates with me. If Interpol ever goes edgy, I’ll be the guy cheering on that sound.
We moved from Plainsboro, New Jersey to Madrid when I was 11. I was being brutally bullied in Jersey, so I was like, “Cool, let’s get the fuck out of here.” Spain was a marvelous place to live. I initially had some culture shock when I saw guys wearing orange pants, like, “What the fuck is that, man?” They dress amazing, but I didn’t get it back then. Within a year, I started to settle in and realized that if you go anywhere in the world and give it enough time, every place can be home.
I had one really good friend in Madrid that I started a hip-hop project with in seventh grade. That was when I was listening to a lot of N.W.A. and Too $hort. We had hip-hop names that I won’t even tell you, but they focused on sex and gross stuff. My buddy would rap, and I was making different hip-hop tracks on a cassette tape, isolating the scratches and cutting in stand-up material from Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay, who I was obsessed with. My mom found our lyric book and she was very traumatized.
I also had a teacher in Spain that helped me and my friends get into Bob Dylan. My dad tried to teach me guitar when I was 7, but it was way too big of an instrument for me. In my classic rock phase around eighth grade, I discovered “Dream On” by Aerosmith, and I could not love anything as much as I loved that song. I wouldn’t get off the school bus until it was finished. I had to learn how to play it so I could get even closer to that music. By the time I learned it, I got a little book of chords, picked up guitar, and made shit up. I never went through that phase of learning full songs, which I regret—it would’ve helped me as a songwriter.
We moved back to New Jersey for my junior year of high school. I was coming off my sophomore year in Spain—drinking in bars, smokin’ doobs, hanging out in a major European city, and living a pretty dope fuckin’ life. So moving back to the same school district where I’d been bullied after all of that, I was like [puts up two middle fingers], “This is for all of y’all. Suck my balls.”
Lunch was a defining time in high school. Sometimes I’d eat with a jock who was a cool bro. Sometimes I’d eat with the Asian raver girls. Sometimes I’d eat alone. I was an outcast, but not quite. There was this girl I met who was on some shit—she had her own zine and introduced me to some really cool shit. She took me to see a band play in a garage in a New Jersey subdivision, and I was like, “This is cool.”
I discovered and became obsessed with them. I remember listening to Nevermind with my brother and my mom, and she was as into it as we were. Nirvana helped me understand that music was what I wanted to do with my life. When guidance counselors called me in and asked what my plans were, I’d say, “I want to be a rock star.”
I finished high school after we moved to Mexico. I did musical theater there too. Like a lot of things, I didn’t feel like I was any good at it, but senior year, I was the co-lead in South Pacific. I was shit at it, but my mom pushed me because she thought it would be good for public speaking; I was veering towards introversion and depression, so she thought it would be good for me. It was the first time where I realized that I liked singing, but I felt pretty fuckin’ self-conscious onstage.
John Frusciante: Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt
This John Frusciante album broke all notions of what a record was supposed to be. There’s songs that sound like the audio played backwards at a pool party, and lyrics like, “Your pussy’s glued to a building on fire” and “My smile is a rifle, and I’m pointing it at you.” There’s one song in particular, “Running Away Into You,” where he sings, “Live where you’re poor/Between snores.” Like, come on—that’s epic. On the Interpol song “Leif Erikson,” I do this delay thing where I blended the pitch and locked in on the right tone. That’s John Frusciante’s influence.
We were starting Interpol in New York around this time, and our practice space was right next to where Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, and Animal Collective rehearsed. Down the hall was TV on the Radio. It was an interesting and challenging time. I had a thing in me that I needed to express artistically—this urge to write and sing—but I didn’t need to do it in a band. I was very impressed with what Daniel [Kessler] was writing and Carlos [Dengler] was playing, though—and when Sam [Fogarino] joined, it felt like we were the band then. I wish I could say there was more of a master plan, but I just wanted to be as good as my bandmates. I’ve always been tuned into people with talent, so it was like, “Cool, these guys are the party I want to be with.” Also, I wanted to drink a bunch, get fucked up, be in New York City and be young.
A 24-year-old Banks with Interpol circa 2002’s Turn on the Bright Lights. Photo courtesy of Matador Records.
50 Cent: Get Rich or Die Tryin
50 Cent came out during Interpol’s first van tour. Daniel checked in with me like, “There’s a lot of hype around this, huh?” And I was like, “Dude. It’s so worth it. It’s really strong.” 50 really had a thing, man. His first two records really satisfied me. “P.I.M.P.” was a surprisingly good song. It’s been ages since I went back and listened to Fiddy, but the whole record was deep. The hype machine kind of worked, too. I was like, “Man, this guy got shot nine times!” It intrigued me.
In Interpol, we were burnt out after our second album, Antics. Some of us weren’t even all that pumped to keep at the band. Carlos wanted a break, but we didn’t take it. By the next one, Our Love to Admire, vibes in the band were a little bit weird. I had some lifestyle changes—I got off the sauce, which was a rough transition for me. We were all a fuckin’ mess, and I had a tough time doing the vocals too.
On Our Love to Admire, Carlos and I started to diverge in terms of where we wanted to go, like, “I don’t really give a fuck about what you think I’m trying to do, this is what I’m trying to do.” As a band, we still work like that to this day, but we push ourselves individually, and the group thing is going to be what it is. Back then, I was kind of hoping we could do it as a group, and Carlos was like, “No, this is what I want to do. I don’t give a shit where you want me to go with this song, don’t fuckin’ touch my keyboard.” I respect that, and it was partially the growing pains of us not knowing how to interact with each other. It’s tough to have a full-band vision when it’s better just to respect each individual’s vision, and maybe I wasn’t great at doing that.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Around this time, I wanted to know, “Why is everyone on Tupac Shakur’s dick?” Same with Biggie. I was a big hip-hop fan but had never gone deep, and with Tupac, I was like, “Really?” I made it my beeswax to know what was going on, and I finally realized that those guys were absolutely phenomenal, for different reasons. Tupac had lofty aspirations, and Biggie was such a huge talent. Both deserve their legend status, but I’m probably more of a Biggie guy. But watching the films about 2Pac, I really respect where he was going—he was shooting high.
Drake: “Crew Love” [ft. the Weeknd]
I was getting into Drake, but he also made me think of Lil Wayne because of Young Money’s “BedRock”—an awkward moment in hip-hop. I liked Take Care the most, especially “Crew Love.” The production is really interesting, it has a great snare pattern. Then you hear the Weeknd’s golden voice: “Take your nose off my keyboard/What you followin’ me for?” Dude! That’s the most baller lyric ever. After that, I got the Weeknd’s Trilogy, and I’d go to Interpol’s soundchecks and try to play “Wicked Games.” The Weeknd is awesome.
Frank Ocean: Blonde
As far as the last few years, Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was a masterpiece, and I really like the first RiFF RAFF record, 21 Savage’s Issa Album, as well as the new A$AP Rocky record. But I’m the most awestruck by Frank Ocean. I’m actually working on a cover of “Self Control” from Blonde. He has a vulnerability to his romance: “Leave a place for me/I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing.” There’s something about the production on Blonde where it can’t come from anyone’s brain—it’s just an environment of great vibes and collaborators. I can’t fathom how anyone would orchestrate songs running down the way some of them do. It’s transcendently inspiring.