After post-punk revivalists Interpol formed in 1997, bands like The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio and Liars started popping up in New York City bars. Like some of their peers, Interpol experienced a swift rise to fame followed by a plateau. But the band remain critical to the narrative of New York rock music, even after the departure of longtime bassist and cult-like figure Carlos Dengler in 2010.
The group’s newest studio album, El Pintor, marks a much-needed return to form, with frontman Paul Banks, guitarist Daniel Kessler and drummer Sam Fogarino almost (but not completely) erasing the memory of the that disappointing self-titled album they released four years ago.
Speaking to Music Feeds from a hotel room in Lawrence, Kansas, Kessler discussed Interpol’s 2014 Splendour In The Grass experience, the creative processes which drove El Pintor, a new and experimental side project, and why Interpol may never actually need to replace Carlos D.
Watch: Interpol – All The Rage Back Home
Music Feeds: First of all, Happy Birthday for the other day!
Daniel Kessler: [laughs] That’s very kind of you, Tom.
MF: How did you celebrate the big 4-0?
DK: I had a very nice time with friends in Los Angeles, and took it pretty easy. Not too much planning, but it was very nice, I had a really good time.
MF: How’s the Interpol camp feeling at the moment as it tours the US?
DK: Great, man. We’re a little over two weeks into the tour right now, and it’s been really good. The whole touring this year’s been a lot of fun. I have to say it’s been very busy, but great, and it’s nice to be back on the road. This is a nice time of year to be touring.
MF: Does touring feel any different to you now, after so many albums and so many shows?
DK: Well, the first time you go touring it’s like you’re finally doing it so, yeah, for sure, because you’ve been waiting so long to do this. From the first record it’s one thing, from thereon out I think you set into your rhythm. So right now I think I know my comforts on the road, I know how I like to do things. Everyone’s a bit different, you know?
I try to usually explore the town a little bit, get a little bit of a sense of the place before we play, and try to not just go from hotel to venue to bus. So it takes a little bit of work to make that happen, but it’s important to me. What’s the point of touring if you can’t get a little bit of a taste of the place that you’re visiting?
MF: You were in Australia in July for Splendour In The Grass. Did you have much time to have a taste of the place?
DK: [laughs] No, we were there for 72 hours. It took like 30 hours to fly there and we played two shows. I think maybe less than 72 hours, and then we flew back another 30 hours. Pretty crazy. But it was great, there are worse places to be than Byron Bay, and it’s so beautiful there. I think we all really had a terrific time just being in that setting around that time of year too.
I love that festival, it’s a great festival. I know they’ve moved grounds, but there’s a good vibe there. Everyone I met who worked there was really cool. And I’m really happy that we got to go and visit Australia in advance of the album [release], you know? It was right after we’d finished a four-week run of Europe, and then a few days later we had to go to Chicago, and 30 hours each way is no joke. I literally went around the world because I came from Europe, so it was terrific. I was really happy we made it happen.
MF: Interpol didn’t play any sideshows during Splendour In The Grass. Will you be coming back for a headline tour of Australia?
DK: You can’t really do [sideshows] all the time when you’re doing festivals, but yeah I think so, I just don’t know the dealio yet, but I would think so. I would really like to.
Watch: Interpol – Twice As Hard
MF: I’d like to ask you a bit about the genesis of El Pintor and why you started writing new material in 2012. How did that start? Why did you start writing new music again?
DK: We toured pretty extensively after the last album, through to the end of 2011. We took most of 2012 off just to rest and get back to life, and Paul and Sam worked and released their own albums. I started working on these songs that would be on El Pintor, and then we scheduled a bit of time to get together in [New York]. We didn’t have any plans in place for how we were going to do things, just to get together and see if we were ready to commence work.
It was pretty clear by the first few days that we had plenty already ready to say and there was a lot of energy in the room. So we really only touched on it that one week in 2012, and then we didn’t really get back to it until 2013. And then we wrote and recorded the entire record in 2013.
I think that’s probably an indication of a band working well together and good ideas being expressed back and forth, because at the end of the day that’s a pretty fast pace for us to write and record a record. That’s definitely as fast as I think we’ve ever done anything.
MF: There are tracks on El Pintor like Blue Supreme and Everything Is Wrong which sound almost soulful at times, with Paul going into falsetto. Where do you think those soulful tones came from?
DK: First and foremost we’re less like a “professional rock band” or whatever — we’re people who are musicians and artists. So every time you have the opportunity to write something new or do something new it should be something maybe a little bit different to what you’ve done before. I feel like that’s something that’s usually inherent, especially if you don’t put out records every two years. You do the other side of things with touring, and when you come back it’s sort of like a fresh moment to see where you’re at.
I can say for sure that Sam and Paul definitely came back with new things that they wanted to explore. We didn’t talk about these things, but it just became pretty apparent, and it was pretty cool. The experience makes you better at executing little ideas and pushing yourself, and I think it just came very naturally to Paul.
On Blue Supreme I was just playing the guitar riff and I was still really mapping it out, I wasn’t ready to present the song to the guys. But he heard me playing it and asked me to play it again, and then by the end of our rehearsal I’m pretty sure he had started playing the bass line and the vocal line more or less as they are on the album.
That falsetto bit – those are good moments when they’re not forced and they come out right out of the gate. I have to say, a lot of the vocal contributions from Paul, certainly from a melodic standpoint, he sang nine out of 10 tracks in the rehearsal room and a lot of those melodies were really early on, which is just a great way to be. That’s usually an indication that there’s good energy in the room and there’s a lot of ideas being traded back and forth.
MF: Right, and not too much overthinking and just going with the flow.
DK: You overthink when you’re hitting walls and you’ve got a lot of questions, or things aren’t going right or maybe you hit some forks in the road. They’re all part of writing music and collaborations because you’re not all going to want to go down the same road, but I have to say we had very few conversations. Things just felt good.
I left a lot of rehearsals with a bit of a buzz going on. I’ve always left rehearsals since the early days of the band with a buzz. I can’t say every rehearsal, but when I do it’s a great indication that a song’s taken a good turn. Maybe a new song was exposed that day, but I really left a lot of rehearsals with that same buzzing feeling.
MF: How do you react to people saying that El Pintor sounds like all other Interpol records? Or claiming that the Interpol sound has remained quite stagnant?
DK: [laughs] It’s funny, because then there’s the other side of it with people saying it’s a “return to form”. So I wish people would take their choices of expression first. I don’t know, to me there’s so much about press and so forth that are opinions. It’s fine if it’s out of my hands.
Even I stopped reading press and doing things, not out of “I couldn’t take it” – I can take it – it’s more of like, “Oh wait a minute, it was around [Turn On The] Bright Lights I stopped.” I was reading 99-percent positive stuff, but I was like, “Good or bad it shouldn’t matter to me.” These pieces are written for others to read, not for me.
For me that’s totally cool, everyone else is totally entitled to their opinion, and good or bad it shouldn’t affect me. It’s not for me, it’s for someone else to read. So that’s just part of music and having conversations. You know when you leave a film and maybe you liked it but then your companion didn’t like it? You have a conversation. That’s just a part of art I think.
Watch: Interpol – Anywhere (Live In Brixton)
MF: Paul said in an interview earlier this year that he’d love not to tour and instead make three records a year. Do you think Interpol are capable of making three records a year?
DK: [laughs] I don’t know, it’s a really hard thing to say. I like the touring and I also like the break it gives you in periods of writing. It sort of ensures that you’ll do things a little bit differently because you’ll grow in the next few years, you’ll have new experiences, you’ll see new things.
So when you have the opportunity to write something new it’s usually coming from a different point of view. To me I kind of like that break, personally, they’re like little chapters. Whether we’re capable of doing three records in one year, I think three records in one year is pretty ambitious for a lot of people.
MF: Paul seems to crave those intense periods of creativity.
DK: I mean he likes touring, he likes playing shows. No one’s being dragged out here doing it. I’m in a hotel room right now, versus my house or a rehearsal space. It’s hard to keep being creative on the road and set up every single day.
MF: Brad Truax is your bassist in a live capacity at the moment, with Interpol officially remaining a three-piece. Do you think you’ll ever look for a permanent replacement for Carlos [Dengler]?
DK: We’ve never really looked. Paul playing bass on El Pintor was really a pure moment without any premeditated conversation. Paul mentioned it one day, “Hey maybe I should bring a bass tomorrow,” after I think the very first rehearsal. “Bass lines will put some foundation to these songs that we’re working on.” And I was like “Oh cool, that’s a good idea.”
The next day we had a really fruitful rehearsal between just the two of us, [where] we established some of the songs that are on El Pintor. At that point, as we proceeded with Paul exploring bass work on all the other songs, it felt like, “Oh man, this is great.” There was so much energy in the room, and when we’re playing together it felt like we could almost play a show as a three-piece.
We were keeping our options entirely open until that point, but Paul handled the duty so incredibly well and came up with great bass lines. He was a great fit, I don’t see why we’d mix it up unless we felt like we really wanted to mix it up. It certainly wasn’t a lack of good bass-writing parts. We’ve never discussed [replacing Carlos] and by virtue of what happened on El Pintor, I don’t know if there’s any real reason to do that.
MF: I’m really intrigued by your side project Big Noble. It’s been a pretty enigmatic project so far, could you tell us a bit more about it?
DK: It’s a collaboration with a friend of mine who’s a sound designer. We’re going to be releasing our first album early next year. Every single track is instrumental, very atmospheric, maybe a bit on the ambient side. It’s not overly processed but it’s a lot of guitar tones and guitar parts and songs that I wrote that I felt would be a better collaboration with my friend Joseph [Fraioli, aka Datach’i].
Some of it was improvised, some of it was completely written just for Big Noble. And him being a very skilled sound designer, he can make anything sound like anything, but he didn’t really do that, he just processed what I was doing and shaped it a little bit and we kept it very warm and analogue sounding. It’s a good record to probably hear with headphones and walking around and letting the sounds of the city or nature or wherever you’re at kind of seep into the background.
‘El Pintor’ is in stores now.
Photos: Interpol – Splendour In The Grass 2014, Byron Bay 25/07/14
Photographed by Ashley Mar