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The Newly Refined Methods of Interpol

Frontman Paul Banks talks about the band’s new record, ‘The Other Side of Make-Believe,’ plus working with legendary producer Flood and why Kendrick Lamar is one of the most important artists ever

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Deep into Meet Me in the Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s definitive oral history of the early-2000s New York indie rock scene, Interpol frontman Paul Banks cites an important literary influence: Henry David Thoreau. It’s not that the Walden author inspired lines like “Subway, she is a porno” or “We have 200 couches.” Rather, he had come to influence the way that Banks interacted with the world. After reading dozens of pages on Interpol’s hard-partyin’, hard-livin’ exploits, Banks’s reflections on Thoreau come across as well-earned and just a touch zen-like:

“When I was in college I loved his notion that your past self is this cadaver that you carry around with you—this sense that you need to stay true to who you were and not veer from your path in a way that will alienate your peers,” he said. “[Thoreau’s] like, ‘You need to let that go.’ You need to at any given moment be open to contradiction or self-contradiction or the changing of paths. I’ve believed in that the whole time. My entire philosophy has been that everything should be fluid.”

Five years after Meet Me in the Bathroom first published, it can seem as though Banks has shed the weight of his past self. Today, he’s sober and his interests include surfing, boxing, painting, and photography. (His Instagram account may include the best amateur collection of architecture portraits you’ve ever seen.) When we connect via Zoom in late May, Banks is in Panama, relaxing near the ocean and prepping for an upcoming tour to support Interpol’s new album, The Other Side of Make-Believe, out this Friday on Matador Records. “I’m at the beach,” he says. “So, I’m in my happy place.”

There’s a serenity to Banks as he speaks. The voice is instantly recognizable—it’s clearly the same one that once howled, “Rosemary”—but it exudes a conversational inquisitiveness as he talks about therapy and growing older alongside his bandmates. He still has the piercing granite eyes that adorned Spin magazine covers more than a decade ago, but at 44, his boyish good looks have been replaced by a striking handsomeness. Two decades after Turn on the Bright Lights helped define an era, the chic suits seem to fit Banks and his bandmates a little better.

That sense of maturity abounds on The Other Side of Make-Believe, the band’s first record since 2018. Its predecessor—the garage-leaningMarauder—turned the volume to blistering levels. (Too blistering, some argued.) By contrast, Make-Believe is more plaintive, sparse, and melodic. It’s led by two haunting, piano-heavy singles (“Something Changed” and “Toni”) and a mid-tempo groover (“Fables,” which Banks says is indebted to classic R&B). That’s not to say Interpol is unrecognizable or has gone soft: Closer “Go Easy (Palermo)” could’ve slotted into Antics, while “Gran Hotel” drives with the same ease as “PDA,” if not the same bite. If you’ve ever loved Interpol—if you’ve been entranced by Daniel Kessler’s guitar licks or Sam Fogarino’s virtuosic drumming or Banks’s cold bellow—there’s a lot for you on Make-Believe. It just cuts a little differently than it did in the past. As Banks sings on “Toni,” “Still in shape, my methods refined.”

Banks is clearly proud of Make-Believe, which may be Interpol’s most accomplished record since their early run of classics. That’s partly the result of the working relationship between him and his bandmates, as Banks, Kessler, and Fogarino have been a trio for more than a decade. (Famed bassist Carlos Dengler—née Carlos D.—departed after Interpol’s 2010 self-titled album. Banks has since held down the low end.) But Banks also gives credit to producers Alan Moulder and Flood, the famed Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode collaborators who assisted on Make-Believe. While Moulder had previously worked with Interpol, this marked Flood’s first time in the studio with the band. And he left a particularly strong impression on Banks. “He just speaks whatever language you speak as an artist,” Banks says. “It’s very reassuring and he’s a genius, man.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Banks expounds on what it was like to work with Flood, plus the push-and-pull between nostalgia and innovation, the effects of the pandemic on Make-Believe, and the importance of letting artists speak freely. He also talks about his relationship with hip-hop, including his mostly instrumental 2013 mixtape Everybody on My Dick Like They Supposed to Be (which featured Talib Kweli and El-P) and his ongoing collaborations with the RZA in Banks & Steelz. Throughout our conversation, he’s open and eager to reflect on his past self, but he’s clearly not carrying around any cadavers.

I recently saw you guys headline the Just Like Heaven festival at the Rose Bowl. Other acts on the bill included bands that got big during the 2000s indie boom: Modest Mouse, Bloc Party, the Shins, Wolf Parade, etc. From a philosophical perspective, is it strange for you to be playing something that’s ostensibly a nostalgia festival while you are still putting out new music?

I don’t know, man. I see the bill, and like fucking Modest Mouse rules, fucking Bloc Party is incredible band—just all these incredible bands were on the bill. It doesn’t even immediately register as a retro thing. But you’re right, it is a bunch of bands that have been around for a long time. Sometimes I wonder, should one be more careful to not associate with nostalgia. But again, it didn’t really occur to me and I’m super pumped that we did it. I feel like if the bill is dope, the bill is dope. And I also feel like, time is what it is and there’s no fucking hiding it. It just is what it is, man. So, I feel like if you were exciting to new audiences, it’s fine. You play, put out new music, play retro festivals, do it all.

If Radiohead puts out a record right now, I don’t think people would look at it like, “They’ve been here since the ’90s, this is a retro artist.” I feel like they’re just a relevant artist. So, if you are staying new, then I don’t think it really matters what context you’re framed in because you can’t take away the vitality of an artist that’s still making fresh work.

Turn on the Bright Lights turns 20 later this year. Do you still enjoy playing those songs?

I do. From an artist standpoint, it’s just part of the gig. In a unique way, I feel like comedians are not obligated to do their old jokes, and painters are not obligated to show their old work and/or promote. Filmmakers aren’t required to promote old films. So, there’s something enviable in that. You can just exist with the new and those other forms of art. But I mean, as musicians, you have a catalog and you play the old and you play the new.

There’s just no option to ignore your early work. Your fan base is going to be really annoyed by that. And then, as a musician, the pieces of music don’t get so old because you’re in a rock band, and you’re reacting to the other musicians on stage with you. There’s an excitement to playing live music in collaboration with other individuals that helps to make things feel fresh. And I still have this sense of: “I would like to play those old songs better than I’ve ever played them live.”

What is the dynamic like between you, Sam, and Daniel these days?

I no longer drink and abuse substances, and I do therapy regularly. I think if you’re in therapy, everybody else around you could even not be in therapy. If you are in therapy, you have some new ability to not repeat the same problematic dynamics.

For me, the relationships survived because it’s my prerogative to try to make them survive. I try to be a better person and a better collaborator. And also, time to get over myself. A lot of the issues that would fuck up a band dynamic have to do with ego and just like resentments. Those are things that you can tackle within yourself. If there’s something unhealthy in the dynamic that isn’t fixed, at least you can address how you deal with that.

Let’s talk about the new record. What’s the meaning behind the title, The Other Side of Make-Believe?

We’re storytellers as a species because it’s part of how we entertain each other and how we make moral stories, and how we teach, and how we exercise our imaginations. But sometimes the story is more comfortable than the reality. There’s a tendency to bury our heads in the sand or to glob onto a story that suits our biases at the expense of reality. There’s been this real tension that I find to be fascinating, and with so much access to information, you have half the population that believes one group of facts and half the population believes another story. It’s not even having a real political lean as much as I’m very interested in this dissonance in two opposing worldviews about one set of events.

There’s this one side, which is essential to human existence, in making believe. And then, there’s the dark side of make-believe. The other side of make-believe is like that knife in the mirror on the cover art.

I understand the process was different for this record because of COVID.

We started working on it pretty early in the summer of 2020, or even late spring of 2020. And, I mean, historically, Daniel will present the songs that he’s written at a rehearsal. This time around, he just had to email them to us. The writing process begins with him with a structured piece of music on guitar or piano. And then, he’ll just play that over and over at rehearsal. And we’ll just write around that, which means that in recent years, the bass line will be developed by me in conjunction with Sam, writing his beat in real time. And I’ll be working on vocals as well. But Daniel is just playing the song he wrote over and over while we figure out what we’re going to do.

The way we did it during the pandemic, now I just have access to Daniel’s song in my laptop. And I can just play it on loop as I write my parts on the base or vocal, and then pass that to Sam. So, on the one hand, what we lose is creating our ideas, at least for Sam and I, developing them together. So, it would require many, many takes: “So, let’s hit that same section of the song, like 15 times so I can noodle my way through this fucked-up idea I have.”

So what’s the result of that shift?

What came out of it was some interesting adventurous music that maybe we wouldn’t have done together. And from a vocal standpoint, not having the volume being in the room with Sam playing his drums while I’m writing a vocal part allowed me to explore more quiet, intimate vocal deliveries because I’m just on headphones in my bedroom. There’s a real quiet intimacy, and that informed melodic choices that I made, which makes some of the melodies be a little bit unique on this record, as well as the vocal tone. We got lemons and made lemonade. Basically, we made the best of the shitty circumstances of the lockdown.

The difference in approach really shows up, especially when contrasted with Marauder, which was very—well, aggressive is not the word, but it was a very lively, very driving record.

Marauder is definitely like a garage-rock record. It’s an aesthetic that we were looking for. But also, one thing about Marauder that maybe people don’t realize is that it was recorded to tape. And so, records recorded to tape also have a real saturation and a real density to the audio. Whereas this record has a little bit more space in how it’s produced. And it’s not full of fast, driving songs, even the singles are a little bit more midtempo on this one. Those are factors that aren’t unrelated to the lockdown.

I thought it was interesting you led the new record with two piano-heavy singles. Was there any fear fans might hear those songs and think, “Oh, this is Interpol’s piano record, or this is going to be a lot different than what we were expecting.”

We have a really long-standing partnership with Matador, our record company, and we trust them and really believe in them. It was their idea to come out with those two songs first. And to me, I felt that it was daring and very interesting. And I noticed online the chatter of people saying like, “What the fuck is this piano record? Is this the slow record? Where’s the guitar?” It was an exciting thing to show an evolution and something new in what we’re doing.

The production, the vocal performances, all the instruments—everything just sounds like they’re well-executed, fully realized pieces of music. They’re mature. It was a good foot to start with in terms of feeling really purposeful and confident in what we’re doing. There’s a bit of a misdirect, which is to almost make it seem as though we’re going to deliver a piano record. It’s a good conversation to have going out there to build anticipation with the record.

Is there a push and pull between expectations that fans may have versus the ways that you want to grow as an artist or a songwriter?

I’m just part of a group. Daniel has his own journey as a songwriter in the band. I have my own journey as a vocalist and guitarist and bassist. Sam also. We’ve never really consciously discussed or cared about what expectations are on the band. We can only write the music that we like. If you add the dimension to the process, which is being worried about what we think someone else will like, then that would be this huge variable that I don’t know how I would navigate around. Like a focus-group mentality—I don’t even know how I would incorporate that into what I do as an artist. We just like, we write what we believe in and we hope that the fans follow us, and so far, so good. Out of respect for the fans, at least you know what you’re delivering to them is authentic.

What did Flood bring to the process as a producer?

Flood is a really, really talented and amazing guy. He basically became the fourth member and I think inserted himself seamlessly into all the conversations around the songs. We sent him the demos that we had before we got there. And I think what he did was totally internalize them completely. You wonder like, “Is he going to hear all the subtleties? Is he going to process what we’re doing?” And it’s like, “Oh, yeah, he fucking hears everything.” You just always get a sense from his response or his feedback that he knows exactly what you mean. He just speaks whatever language you speak as an artist. He can hear when he thinks the computer needs to be rebooted.

What do you mean he can hear when a computer needs to be rebooted?

He can hear that the memory is processing the audio data differently. He’s definitely an old-school analog guy. So, he won’t let you use certain functions and Pro Tools because he can hear the latency that it’s creating. I can’t perceive what he’s talking about, but he’ll say like, “OK, this song that we’re listening to that 40 minutes ago, I liked how it sounded. And now, I don’t like how it sounds.” And that’s because the computer needs to be rebooted because if you look at memory and data, it’s like Tetris blocks. It needs to settle those Tetris blocks. And then, it’s going to play back correctly. I would’ve spent my entire life saying like, “It might sound different 40 minutes ago from right now because I’m in a different mood right now. That’s why I think it sounds different.” But he would say, “No, no, no. There was a magic in the music that is now gone because the computer wants to be restarted.”

He once said that he used to be able to know when the electricity would change in the equipment when people would come home from work and make tea. He could hear that the sounds would change because the electricity was being overly strained or less electricity was coming through the studio or whatever. Normally, I would say, “OK, that’s bullshit because I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But once you work with someone and you realize that they are perceiving every subtlety that you are perceiving, how could you not then believe that they’re hearing more than what you’re hearing?

While I have you, this is my first opportunity to ever speak to you, so I wanted to ask you about something very important: When was the last time you listened to Everybody on My Dick Like They Supposed to Be?

Of all my work, it’s something that I’m most comfortable listening back to. I think it’s possibly the thing I’m most proud of. I listened to a few of them four months ago, and I’ve not listened to any Interpol or solo record other than that one ever.

Why is that?

I think there’s just something to that where it’s like really me. I say that I don’t work with an expectation, but I suppose when I’m working with Interpol, I’ve got to work with an expectation of whether I know Daniel and Sam are going to like what I’m doing. The songs on Everybody on My Dick Like They Supposed to Be was me, just doing a project, learning how to use Logic when I was trying to prepare to make my first solo record. It’s my first attempt at electronic music that gears toward hip-hop. And I feel like it’s absolute, pure expression of my mind to your ears without any studio engineer, making something in a way that I don’t even know why they’re doing that. It’s not to say that it’s good. It’s that it’s 100 percent pure. I really am happy that it’s out in the world.

While we’re on the subject of hip-hop, would there ever be a new Banks & Steelz record?

If not a full length, I think that we will just put out music. I hit RZA up the other day. I said, “Send me some beats.” And he said, “I will.” So, we’ll see.

What’s it like to work with RZA as a producer?

If you’re a Wu-Tang fan, he has a certain mystique. I’m very happy to report that in person, he lives up to any kind of mystique you may have attributed to him. He is someone who genuinely comes across as being very spiritually enlightened and not just graced with a good chill, demeanor, but rather someone who’s actually worked toward having a higher level of spirituality. And then it’s incredible to watch him work or just incredible to hear him put a lot of beat that is in some drum machine around the studio. It’s like, he’s the real fucking deal, man.

I grew up mostly a hip-hop fan when I was younger, and I got into rock with the indie scene really blew up in the early 2000. Interpol may have been among the first rock acts that I ever got really into. So, it was always wild to me that you ended up linking with the RZA.

Cool. You listen to the Kendrick record?

I did. What did you think of it?

I’m loving it. To me, DAMN is the masterpiece and anyone saying it’s better than DAMN, I disagree. But the six songs that I love on the new record, I love them so much. I think Kendrick is one of the most important artists ever. I think he’s absolutely as relevant as any artist has ever been. He’s a huge fucking deal.

And one thing that I get a real kick out of is: I’m a big Kodak Black fan. I’ve reacted to that guy, like on [Gucci Mane’s] “Big Boy Diamonds.” Anyway, I’m just pumped that Kendrick Lamar vibes with Kodak Black so much, and Kodak Black is like the main feature on this record. And I just never would’ve predicted it, but I felt like anything stronger kinship to Kendrick. There’s something about Kodak’s flow that’s just fucking sick, dude. He’s got swag for days and I love his performances on this record.

I find Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers interesting to discuss because Kendrick’s being honest in a way that he hasn’t been before. Not that he’s ever been full of artifice or telling lies, but he reveals parts of himself that he maybe hadn’t felt comfortable doing before, and there are difficult conversations he tackles.

I feel like in today’s climate, it’s just like, that’s what great artists do, man, is they don’t dull the blade. They come hard and say heavy shit. That’s going to promote conversation.

I worry about this sometimes and the way people interpret things. Even like with movies, there’s always a thing about Scorsese where Goodfellas is mostly a glorification of the mob life for two hours. But then, the end is very clearly not. A lot of people focus on the first two hours, not the last.

Art is art and horror films exist. That’s entertainment because on some profound level, we need these reassurances about mortality and we need to explore our deepest fears. And we need to say the most confrontational things. Fuck hate speech and fuck anything that undermines someone’s right to exist and be respected. But anything that’s edgy or addressing the darker sides of our society—I think from a standpoint of trying to bring light to them, is fucking fair game. Even to bring some humor to difficult subjects. I think it’s really, really important that we protect musicians’ and comedians’ abilities to say anything and everything. Again, barring hate speech or something that takes away someone’s right to be or tries to.

It’s not good to pretend to be perfect. It’s maybe better to embrace our imperfections and just because you say something imperfect doesn’t mean you’re not. Embracing your shortcomings or your prejudices, or your form of prejudices and addressing how you become a better person or more tolerant is good thematics.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.