an interview w/ Interpol’s Daniel Kessler (on the new LP, Arctic Monkeys, songwriting, social media, The Jam, more)
Interpol, NYC, June 2014 (more by Dana (distortion) Yavin)
Next month will see the release of El Pintor, the fifth full-length from Interpol. Since their debut with 2002's acclaimed Turn on the Bright Lights, Interpol have continued to explore the depth of their music - a veritable force of sound that varies between the detached misanthropy of bands like Joy Division and those punk compositional textures of bands like Fugazi. While maturation can be a difficult thing to come by in the realm of initial popularity, Interpol have not let the success of their debut be a place of creative satisfaction. Even twelve years after their breakout, Interpol sound as ambitious as ever. BrooklynVegan spoke to Daniel Kessler (guitars/vocals) about the band's upcoming release and what their story has entailed so far.
It's been four years since the self-titled. Was there a different mindset for you guys coming into El Pintor just given that gap in time?
Daniel: We hadn't really discussed, in all honesty, "What are we gonna do" or "How are we gonna do this?" or "What's it gonna be like?" We really didn't. We just kinda got together in August 2012 and borrowed my friends in Battles' space for a few days and basically by day two Paul [Banks] was like "Maybe I should jump on the bass because I tend to sing the bass melodies pretty frequently, and it might help anchor the positions of the songs," and I was like "Cool." It was actually the first time we'd had any discussion about what we were gonna do bass wise for that record, and I had no idea what sort of bass player he really was. I knew he played bass on his record, but right away it was pretty clear. I was more enthused than anything. I'd say by day two or day three we had the formation of what are now a couple of songs on the record. Obviously it's not the songs on the record as far as arrangements, but we had a guitar and bass line and vocals, which we'd never really done that soon off the bat. Sam [Fogarino] flew down from Athens, and by the end of eight days we probably had three songs that were in pretty good shape, and we recorded it, and we really liked the construction, we liked what was happening energy-wise. We didn't really get together again after the last album until 2013 as far as writing goes, so we really wrote the whole record in 2013. It wasn't really, for me, until the very end that I started having a look at what kind of record we had made. During the writing process I knew that the songs had maybe an urgency to them, but I wasn't sort of analyzing anything while we were still in the game. It's like you're looking in from a step back. While we're in the middle of writing and all that, I'm just kind of more focused on what we're doing and logistics and when we're gonna get together again and stuff like that.
Interpol - Ancient Ways (from El Pintor)
That maturity and growth for bands is fascinating to watch, and there's a level of comfort with the new album that certainly evokes that. Do you see Interpol as being more comfortable now with each other and with the music than you were in the beginning? Is that process easier now than when the band first started?
Daniel: It's kind of interesting. I started the band, and I sort of approached everyone separately, and I had it in my brain that I'd always wanted a band. I'd already done my demos where I played every instrument minus the drums, and I didn't want that. I wanted to try to mix things up where even if the songs were originating from me, by the end of the whole thing everyone had their say. They end up somewhere where you can't predict it, and that's what I wanted where there's a collaborative, artistic sort of alchemy going on. It was exciting, and since no one knew each other in the room, you didn't know what each other had in common. You're a young band and things are expensive and rehearsal rooms are a pain in the ass and shitty, everything's broken, and you have like two hours to rehearse. You spend an hour and a half just doing the amp so you can try and do ten minutes of music. There's a lot of reasons to be like "Fuck this shit" and not really stick to it, but we did it and it was pretty clear early on. In the early stages when Paul sang for the very first time I remember [former bassist] Carlos [D] and I just knew, because it was several months after we'd already been playing music. Basically we'd already asked Paul to join the band without ever hearing him sing. I just kind of had a feeling about him. It's the same kind of feeling I've had with everyone I approach like that. I noticed how good they are as musicians and their aesthetics, but I studied more of their sensibility and the way they looked at things. But when he sang for the first time I was like "Whoa!" It was a very special moment because you're still getting to know each other, and it's just a different beast. This time was a very different sort of energy because it was the first time without Carlos. There wasn't any doubts or worries that we'd have a shortage of ideas, because there's never really been a shortage of ideas in the band. We've never hit too many walls. It's almost like puzzles where you can try it this way or that way, but there's no panic in trying to solve which way you wanna go, at least we've never had that. It's an opportunity express yourself and what you wanna say more than something lke "Well, what do you wanna do here." This time I knew we had experience on our side, and I had confidence in what we could do, but I didn't know anything for sure. I wasn't gonna take anything for granted. I was liking the direction of the music I'd been writing, but that's not saying enough about what would work or what might happen. In the early days there's a beauty and a fragility. Now, there's an enthusiasm and a desire to see what's gonna happen, but I wasn't gonna go in and say "Let's make a record because that's what we do." You make a record because you have something to say. I felt pretty good when I was writing songs by myself but apart from that you have to get together and think "Okay, I really like this direction," so I think those first few days gave us a really great indication where we were "Oh man, we have a lot to say, and this feels really good" just within those eight days. And then we really didn't get together again for real until four months later.
Looking back at Interpol's beginnings and the trajectory of the band's story since Turn on the Bright Lights, what do you see as the most impactful point of growth for you guys during that time?
It's hard to say, really. It took so long to get here. There were a ton of rejections from so many record labels, and it took so long just to get to that point it's almost like a chapter in itself. I was the one trying to poach every single label. I was the one managing the band. Once we got to make that record and then also work with such a great label like my favorite label at that time, Matador, it was sort of like "Wow, I'm pretty satisfied," before the record even came out. I had no expectations or anything, no idea how it was gonna be received or anything like that. I really didn't even think it would be received as it was. You grow. I feel fortunate that we get to still be doing this now, and we still have people coming to our shows, and they wanna hear songs from back then as well as being interested in what we're doing now. That's like a rare place to be in this actual specific area but also in the general world. As musicians, you grow. I can look at Paul and Sam and say "Oh man, they're better now than they were then." I can say that. I've always known Paul was a great artist. I met him when he was barely eighteen, and I can see, case in point, he did a fantastic job bass-wise on this record, and I had no idea he was that good at bass. He's fucking great. Sam's always putting details and finding new ways of putting his melodic drumming into all our music, so I can see those dudes growing as musicians and as people and artists. For me, I still write in a very similar way. I have a sort of humble way to start songs on a shitty classical guitar that I've had since before Interpol, and it just kind of works for me. You'd like to think that with traveling the world and seeing different things, that you're growing as an artist and as a musician. But it's just a different time period. Before when you're writing songs and you have like five years to make that record, you don't know if you're gonna have another opportunity to make that record. Now it's more like I said where we wrote and recorded this entire record in 2013, so it's more of a document of Interpol from writing songs in 2012 by myself and then 2013 writing and recording the record. It's a different beast, like I said. You like to think you're grown and getting better all the time.
In talking about change and growth, things are very different just with regards to how bands and labels operate now as opposed to even a decade or more ago. Interpol was one of those first bands coming into the 21st century just at that point where everything started to shift in the industry. What impact have you personally seen that shift in culture have on the indie music scene since that time?
I guess you could put it into two terms or sides of what you're saying. There's "indie" in terms of aesthetic, and then there's "indie" in terms of a situation you might find yourself in on a label front. I feel like on the label front it's been kind of a really interesting timing situation. You see some bands that probably in the 90s would have sold 20,000 records, and that would have been a great success. Now you see bands like Spoon, Vampire Weekend, and Arctic Monkeys - all these bands that have been on independent labels and have had great success. They've sold hundreds of thousands of records. There's countless others, obviously, like White Stripes, etc., so to me it's actually been a pretty exciting time. I also feel that in the digital age it's been sort of like overall just music and not indie or major. In the 90s a major label could release a really hotshot video with a really catchy song, and then you buy the record and be like "Oh, that's the only good song on the record." You can't really do that anymore. Word will get out that it's not a good record. You can't bullshit how good of a record it is now. Word does travel and, at the same time, the bigger thing here is that it's difficult for the album. I'm pretty much an album person and now people are much more focused on songs that are catchy, and they buy them and ignore the rest of the record. I just don't think in those terms. This is my artistic statement, and I'm hoping people will listen through track ten four times and in that order and get something out of it. [Laughs] I want them to have their own sort of connection to it and have it give a voice to their own personal life. That's a trickier thing now as to whether that matters or not, but you have bands like the Arcade Fire who are clearly an albums band, and I think that's part of why they've had the success that they've had. They have so many great songs on their albums, and people don't fall in love with the one song, they fall in love with the whole album. Those things matter.
Interpol, Chicago, July 2014 (more by James Richards IV)
You were trading Interpol demo tapes and trying to DIY this band in the very beginning, and that's something that's changed because of things like social media and that connectivity. Do you see that digital interaction and opportunity as a kind of continuation of that attitude of self-reliance that's been synonymous with the indie music scene?
Yeah, I think so. Obviously our first record came out pre-social media and then by 2004 when our second record came out, social media was starting to kind of wield its power. Also, it was like the digital age was really on us watching our second record leak ten days after finishing it and three months before the release date, so that was like "Oh yeah, welcome to the new world." But yeah, we started in '97 and didn't make our first record until 2001, and we didn't have social media at our disposal. You didn't email tracks or anything like that even. It was a very different thing. I agree with you 100% that it's very DIY, and also I think it's just fucking good that you don't necessarily need a label. I remember the first Arctic Monkeys record, and even before that record came out, they were sort of like one of the first internet phenomenons where people were like "Where did this band come from with all these fucking great songs," and they were super young. That was the earliest example of a band I can think of as far as that's concerned. There's a purity where you don't have to wait for those days in between where a label says "We'll give you a shot" or where it's arbitrary or they're only looking for a certain aesthetic. You do it yourself and do it your way and have fewer people in between, and you naturally gravitate toward the next step. When we were starting out we had to really put our money together to even record this stuff, and now you don't have to do that. You can make some pretty fantastic fucking recordings at your house. [Laughs] Even if you live in an apartment you can do that. I mean, it makes for a lot of oversaturation where there's a lot of shitty stuff out there. I think there's an equalization with the saturation, though, probably. A band can come out of nowhere and people are like "What the fuck is this and where did it come from?"
Where did all of this start for you personally, Daniel, as far as wanting to create music is concerned? Was there a specific band or song that especially resonated with you in the beginning as that sort of first inspiration?
I was born in England in the late 70s, and my oldest brother was in The Jam fanclub so he had a bunch of Jam things like cutouts and photos all over his wall, and I was maybe four or something but I remember seeing that. He was very, very passionate about it and very much into that era. It was early eighties, and he was really interested in music, and he dressed a certain way and it was a statement. Those things were happening but also we would watch 'Top of the Pops' and I didn't really understand, but I loved the way The Specials looked. I really liked Dexys Midnight Runners a lot. [Laughs] Aesthetically, attire-wise it was the polar opposite of what I'd be into, but I think I liked the songs more. I was always playing music, though, and I started playing guitar when I was fourteen. I never really had lessons. I just tried playing other people's songs, and then from that I kind of found a way of writing songs, and it made me feel a certain way. I didn't really know what I was doing. I was just making up chords and notes on the guitar, so it was just a matter of finding things really. It was probably an adolescent or teenage kind of thing. I didn't really understand anything in terms of being a musician as much as it was the peace of mind, and I loved writing. At the time I lived in Washington, D.C., and where I lived was overlooking a park, and I just loved those super late hours staring out at the park and the darkness and just playing guitar. As far as doing it, I was really an insecure person and didn't have full confidence about doing this for my life. When I was in college I was really realizing that I loved it, and I really loved writing songs. If I didn't try to find people then I'd regret this in my life, and even if I fail it wasn't about that. It was about having this thing that meant something and was worthwhile to me.
They'll play new songs for the first time even sooner for a KCRW webcast on August 26th.
They also just announced they'll also play an extra Austin show while in TX for two weekends of ACL Fest. They did the same in Chicago during Lollapalooza. Check out our pictures, and our pictures from their last NYC show, at Governors Ball.
Tonight (8/21) Interpol play a show in Las Vegas before FYF Fest in LA. Here are all their dates:
INTERPOL -- 2014 & 2015 TOUR DATES
08.21 - THE POOL - THE COSMOPOLITAN • LAS VEGAS, NV
08.23 - FYF FEST - LA STATE HISTORIC PARK • LOS ANGELES, CA
09.2 - THE TEMPLE OF DENDUR • NEW YORK, NY
09.15 - COMMODORE BALLROOM • VANCOUVER, BC, CANADA
09.16 - PARAMOUNT THEATRE • SEATTLE, WA
09.17 - CRYSTAL BALLROOM • PORTLAND, OR
09.19 - ACE OF SPADES • SACRAMENTO, CA
09.20 - FOX THEATER • OAKLAND, CA
09.22 - FOX THEATER • POMONA, CA
09.24 - HOUSE OF BLUES • SAN DIEGO, CA
09.26 - THE DEPOT • SALT LAKE CITY, UT
09.27 - OGDEN THEATRE • DENVER, CO
09.29 - GRANADA THEATER • LAWRENCE, KS
09.30 - CAIN'S BALLROOM • TULSA, OK
10.2 - SOUTH SIDE BALLROOM • DALLAS, TX
10.3 - HOUSE OF BLUES • HOUSTON, TX
10.4 - AUSTIN CITY LIMITS FESTIVAL • AUSTIN, TX
10.5 - STUBB'S * AUSTIN, TX
10.7 - HOUSE OF BLUES • NEW ORLEANS, LA
10.9 - MINGLEWOOD HALL • MEMPHIS, TN
10.11 - AUSTIN CITY LIMITS FESTIVAL • AUSTIN, TX
11.6 - JANNUS LIVE • ST. PETERSBURG, FL
11.7 - HOUSE OF BLUES • ORLANDO, FL
11.8 - FILLMORE MIAMI BEACH • MIAMI BEACH, FL
11.10 - TABERNACLE • ATLANTA, GA
11.11 - MARATHON MUSIC WORKS • NASHVILLE, TN
11.12 - RIVIERA THEATRE • CHICAGO, IL
11.14 - FIRST AVENUE • MINNEAPOLIS, MN
11.15 - PABST THEATER • MILWAUKEE, WI
11.17 - NEWPORT MUSIC HALL • COLUMBUS, OH
11.18 - KOOL HAUS • TORONTO, ON, CANADA
11.20 - METROPOLIS • MONTREAL, QC, CANADA
11.21 - HOUSE OF BLUES • BOSTON, MA
11.22 - UNION TRANSFER • PHILADELPHIA, PA
11.24 - TERMINAL 5 • NEW YORK, NY
11.26 - TERMINAL 5 • NEW YORK, NY
11.29 - 9:30 CLUB • WASHINGTON, DC
11.30 - 9:30 CLUB • WASHINGTON, DC
01.23 - HEINEKEN MUSIC HALL • AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS
01.24 - FOREST NATIONAL • BRUSSELS, BELGIUM
01.25 - PALLADIUM • COLOGNE, GERMANY
01.27 - OLYMPIA • PARIS, FRANCE
01.30 - FABRIQUE • MILAN, ITALY
02.2 - VEGA MAIN HALL • COPENHAGEN, DENMARK
02.4 - COLUMBIAHALLE • BERLIN, GERMANY
02.6 - THE ROUNDHOUSE • LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
02.7 - THE ROUNDHOUSE • LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
02.8 - ALBERT HALL • MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM
02.10 - OLYMPIA THEATRE • DUBLIN, IRELAND
02.11 - OLYMPIA THEATRE • DUBLIN, IRELAND
02.12 - OLYMPIA THEATRE • DUBLIN, IRELAND