Interpol’s debut album still sounds ‘Bright’ at 20
Interpol never really sounded that much like Joy Division. Gloomy post-punk, for sure, there's no denying that. And, ok, Paul Banks' strained, occasionally strangled vocal style was reminiscent of Ian Curtis, but if all you hear when listening to their debut album is Unknown Pleasures, you really need to listen to some more albums. At the time, Banks and Daniel Kessler's guitar interplay owed more to another Manchester band, The Chameleons, and there's more than a little of three of the biggest '80s college radio juggernauts -- R.E.M., The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen -- in their DNA. But listening now, Interpol had figured out their own style, by the time Turn on the Bright Lights was released on August 20, 2002.
The mid-'90s was not the most fertile period for NYC rock music. The city was always a destination for touring bands but local groups struggled to to make a dent the way they did in the '70s and '80s, and moody groups with angular guitars were not exactly in demand in the era of grunge, nu-metal, and slacker indie. That started to change by the end of the decade when Kessler, Banks and bassist Carlos Dengler (aka Carlos D) met at NYU. It's a familiar story these days, the subject of oral histories and documentaries, but new millenium became an exciting time for music in NYC, and Interpol's mix of '80s influences, and snazzy fashion sense in an era when indie rock bands didn't care what they looked like, felt like a breath of fresh air.
Having tested out the songs in NYC clubs like Brownies, Luna Lounge and Mercury Lounge, Interpol were a tight unit when they traveled to producer Peter Katis' home studio in Bridgeport, CT in the fall of 2001 to record what would be Turn on the Bright Lights. While most of the songs were written well before entering the studio, Paul Panks' often obtuse lyrics, and the the dark mood of the record, fit perfectly in a post-9/11 New York. This was most obvious on the spectral "NYC" whose lyrics give the album its title and also contains these memorable, curious lines: "The subway is a porno / The pavements they are a mess / I know you've supported me for a long time / Somehow I'm not impressed."
"If you put some of Paul's odder lyrics in a different context, it would be like, 'oh god,' drummer Sam Fogarino told Pitchfork in a 2012 oral history of the album. "You just don't know if he's taking the piss. I still don't know. But I like that aspect of it." Banks added, "I was always very misunderstood and taken as very pretentious and serious all the time. I would think, 'Do you not see there's a lot of tongue-in-cheek and humor here?'"
Sam had joined Interpol the year before, was six to 10 years older than the rest of the band, and was the only one who'd really been in a recording studio before. But that inexperience, including a lot of butting heads, coupled with the thrill of making their debut album, is what gives Turn on the Bright Lights its energy.
"There's something grand about the record, Peter Katis told Pitchfork in that oral history. "It's an odd mixture: kind of crappy-sounding and lo-fi and sludgy in ways, but it also sounds great. People talked about the luscious sound of the reverb, but it's fucking literally almost the cheapest reverb sound. Those guys came in with their little Alesis MicroVerbs-- cheaper reverbs have a sound that is darker and messier and cooler. And that's part of what gives the drums such a spank. Without that little $50 piece of gear, the record would've sounded totally different."
Turn on the Bright Lights is an extremely solid record, start to finish, and it went off like a bomb when it was released. In NYC at least, it was rare to go in a bar in the East Village, Lower East Side or Williamsburg and not hear "PDA," "Obstacle 1," "NYC" or "Say Hello to the Angels." With their considered but roughed-up production, those still sound great. You may still not have any idea what Banks means when he sings "Sleep tight, grim rite, we have two hundred couches," but it sounds right. and with his and Kessler's dueling guitar lines, Carlos D's driving bass and Sam's hard-hitting beat, "PDA" still thrills. The back half of the record might be less loaded with Lower East Side bangers, but the widescreen grandeur of "Hands Away" and closer "Leif Erickson" hold their own and tie the record together. Turn on the Bright Lights is a time and place, but one that's rewarding to revisit.
Interpol albums since have had their ups and downs: 2004's Antics entirely avoided the sophomore slump, but the records that followed, while good, have suffered from diminishing returns. (The band were never quite the same after Dengler left in 2010.) Their debut, though, remains one of the bright points of the early-'00s NYC scene. "Attention spans are shrinking on a daily basis, and it's getting harder to make an impression that lasts," Fogarino told Pitchfork in 2012. "So the fact that we were able to make a mark in a way that led to the continued relevance of the record is kind of crazy. I'm in awe of that."