Basic Rights speaks to Paul Banks, singer of NYC based band Interpol. Paul wears pieces from the AW19 collection.
Words by London-based screenwriter Konrad Kay.
Photos by Christaan Felber.
Paul Banks likes to surf a heavy spot. He says you’d have to be “a bit off your rocker” to learn there, but that’s what he did ten years ago when he exchanged a surfboard for lessons from a local. The waves there are “burly” (Surf slang: large, dangerous, hard to ride). He almost died a bunch of times. He throws this off casually, downplaying the risk with an understatement typical of the surf community. But he doesn’t want to seem like a “kook” (Surf slang: A surfer who has an exaggerated perception of his/her skills and therefore ruins everyone’s time in the water). He’s not being inauthentic, because what could be worse than that? It’s just a heavy spot, and he lives near it when he’s not in New York, so he surfs it. He took it up at thirty, sucked at it, sucked at it some more until he didn’t, and now aged forty being alone on the water is “pretty close” to his perfect day on earth. You maybe want to read something into the fact that someone who has spent twenty-two years in the crucible of a band like Interpol prizes their solitude above all else. It’s simpler than that. Paul Banks likes to surf alone because he “ain’t waiting for nobody.”
Hey Kurt, have a Fortuna. In the crush at the front of a repurposed bullring in Madrid, a barely teenage Paul put his note and a cigarette in a paper airplane and threw it at the stage.
As he watched Nirvana he shared a thought not uncommon in the crowd - “I wanna do what these fucking guys are doing.” He listened to “Dream On” by Aerosmith many, many times, but looping it only allowed a certain level of intimacy. He wanted to know it from the inside out. He picked up his dad’s guitar. Aged fifteen he told his guidance counsellor that he wanted to be a rockstar. Soon after, on an NYU program during a Parisian summer filled with the strains of busking and the smell of weed, Paul met Daniel Kessler. Daniel was mild-mannered, one eye on the future, kept great company but also had the front to walk out of one of his exams. Paul was interested. Paul was also intrigued by another guy he’d seen around whose outré fashion choices included, but were not limited to - crucifixes, velvet T-shirts, monk’s habits, women’s dresses - a strange fish, maybe. Or maybe a rockstar in search of a band. When Daniel invited Paul over to watch him and some other guys play, Carlos Dengler loomed, his bass in tow. The force of the bass-line of “PDA” made him undeniable. I’ll be in this band, thought Paul.
Photo by Christaan Felber
When you think of Interpol you think of New York. You think of the slightly studied look of wearing suits on stage. You think of Paul’s distinctive baritone, earthing the grand atmospherics of the band like a lightning rod. You probably don’t think of Paul’s voice as something of an accident, pushing it to be heard over the drums in the rehearsal space. Or needing the constant balm of scotch to see him through recording their debut album as hearing himself on a five thousand dollar mic made him insecure. You don’t think of Paul working data entry jobs in a suit, and deciding that a suit was appropriate stage attire “because I didn’t take my day job seriously, but I took this really seriously. This is really my work.” Or the near half decade trying to get signed, the rejections, Paul wanting to tell Matador Records where to get off while Daniel cannily continued to work them after many “Nos.” You don’t think of the odds against it happening, just the causal links that make it seem like an inevitability -the self-released EPs, opening for Arab Strap at the Bowery Ballroom, recording a Peel Session in April 2001, morphing into Matador’s Chris Lombardi’s definition of a rock band: “They either have to be someone you want to be or someone you want to fuck.” You think of the polished product (a word that features in many of Interpol’s early reviews). You don’t think of all the time and work and anxiety beneath the waterline.
Turn on The Bright Lights now sits comfortably alongside The Strokes Is This It as era-defining, but in the days following 9/11, the song-writing all but done, the band thought seriously about whether to record it at all. Paul stood on the West Side Highway, topless and powerless, having given up his T-shirt to be used as a tourniquet. He watched firefighters go into the smoke clean and saw a few of the same faces come out hours later, ashen and dejected. There’s a great chapter in “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” Lizzy Goodman’s lovingly assembled oral history of the New York rock scene, which captures the effect of the event on the city's musicians and how art felt futile in the days that followed. But then inertia sublimated into action, with all the explosive potential of a chemical reaction. Making music was a rebuke and a resolution. TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe put it like this: “We basically decided there’s no reason for being here besides to make the things we like to make and share them or not share them, because who’s keeping score now?”
So Interpol repaired to Connecticut, to a building that used to be a psychiatric hospital for kids, supposedly away from temptation, and made a Great Record. It’s impossible not to hear the resonance in the glow of the single NYC as Paul half-begs, half-promises: “But New York cares.” For the album’s fifteenth anniversary, Interpol toured it in its entirety. Paul played it front to back and he told me he was grateful to have brought tracks like Obstacle 2 back into rotation, grateful that there’s always new ways to play old melodies or sing old lyrics, grateful that the fans never left. The album has now sold more than half a million times in the US, certified Gold. In Ohio, back during the first tour, Robert Pollard from Guided By Voices told Interpol’s drummer Sam Fogarino: "Don't sell more than 50,000 records or you're in trouble.”
Photo by Christaan Felber
On NYC Paul sings: "It's up to me now, turn on the bright lights.” Seventeen years on, it reads like a statement of intent, of taking personal responsibility for fulfilling your ambition. In the context of the song it also sounds alluring and dangerous. It’s the demand a young man makes of himself with no eye on the future cost, a promise to be nocturnal, rolling brightly along, attracting all possibilities. Hot off eighteen months of touring, the second record was sequenced in a Matador-billed limousine in the hope of making the label’s deadline. It contained a monster single, Slow Hands, that moved with the dance-to-me insistence of electronic music, produced like a band ready to be minted by Madison Square Garden. The album was Antics. Here are some antics: you wake up around two in the afternoon, or when you're really on one, four or five. Bloody Marys, then coffee, then cold beer which tunes you back up sip by sip. Then Max Fish for pool, then Dark Room on Ludlow until close. You sing that you are “the scavenger between the sheets of union.” You sing about the “pole dance of the stars.” You sing: “I pretend like no-one else, to try and control myself.” You’re prone to self-abuse, you like the sleazy hours, the uninhibited, raunchy hours. But there’s a voice inside your head: “I’m an adventurer. This is safari. I’m just making notes.” The voice is a sober voice, a voice for just after you’ve woken up. Maybe it’s the same voice that says: “Everything you do or make is not very good.” But that can wait, because after Dark Room closes, it’s someone else’s place. It’s now the liminal time where you’re out of sync with the world. Then the coke kick-drips down your throat, its tangy alkaline bloom, and the world is out of sync with you. Then maybe it's on to your girlfriend’s. Or maybe not, maybe it’s the full eleven am. Make it full, because now everything you do, have done or could do is gold. You feel worthy, you feel unworthy, you feel worthy…
Paul sometimes misses those candy store nights, but he had to stop. Sometimes he thinks he could go back to them as a tourist on a one-night visa but that would be repeating himself. On Rest My Chemistry off Our Love to Admire, album number three, Paul sings: "I haven't slept for two days/I've bathed in nothing but sweat/ I've made hallways scenes for things to regret.” He remembers Jaleel Bunton looking at him in yet another hallway and Jaleel's face said “dude, you’re slipping” and it cut through. So he stopped drinking, or doing anything that isn’t green and grows and now at forty this is way more of a look than being strung out. But record three, jeez. A splashy move to Capitol Records and the people who signed you all but gone when you finish recording. The band rending themselves to live up to the world’s expectations, the expectations they had of each other. The critics sharpening their knives, coming for the band’s stadium-friendly sound and production. Coming for Paul’s lyrics: the chronicler of dive bar romance accused of being an increasingly opaque parody of himself. What do those nights give you? More of yourself? An escape from yourself? Maybe they leave you with less of yourself - a sense of going to the well and not finding all that much to haul out anymore, personally or artistically.
Photo by Christaan Felber
Paul likes an idea from Thoreau (no, not a pose, he’s read some Thoreau, relax) that your past self is a corpse you carry around with you, a prison of expectation that tells you how you should behave or what you should create. You have to let it go. His last ten years look like an exercise in putting that into practice. He’s released an album under his alias Julian Plenti - a mix of his middle-name and what he calls his “porno alter ego.” He’s released an album plainly called “Banks.” In what feels like a troll-y fuck-you to the “Paul must have really dug New Order and only New Order,” critics, he mined his love for classic and modern hip hop, releasing a mixtape called “Everyone On My Dick Like They Supposed to Be.” A lot of criticism of Paul’s work seems to miss the tongue often firmly lodged in his cheek. He's bonded with RZA over games of chess, and collaborated with him on a pop-rap record featuring Florence (& The Machine) Welch. It’s the output of someone who’s waking hours aren’t compromised by hangovers and who believes that “the act of simply creating is self-fulfilling in the purest way possible.” Paul would still do the work even in a vacuum “though it maybe hurts my feelings sometimes that I’m not getting the response that I want, at the end of the day I still have to do this. Like, this is what I do.” His first impulse is creative, not performative.
While many of their contemporaries and imitators have fallen away, Interpol keep making music. They came home to Matador and weathered the departure of Carlos, the engine-room of so much of their trademark rhythm, with Paul frequently picking up bass. In 2014’s El Pintor and 2018’s Marauder they released two strong post-Carlos outings. The video for “If You Really Love Nothing,” says a lot. They can still get someone like Kristen Stewart to come out for them. Their milieu is still a bar at night. Paul’s still the troubadour of an invigorating but existentially empty person to person exchange. But when he sings the opening lyric, his voice has a newer texture that shows off tuition overtime. Rather than a Xerox of past Interpol, the ink slightly fainter, it’s as stirring and plaintive as some of their old work. The fact that new Interpol and old Interpol is even a thing represents a triumph for Paul: “the longevity of the band, man. I feel very lucky to work with collaborators who continue to inspire me. It’s a creative home, as long as we’re satisfying each other, it doesn’t really matter what’s happening out there in the world.”
Photo by Christaan Felber
Asked a final question about what he liked to read while studying English and Comparative Lit at NYU, Paul gives a long answer that becomes revelatory as it unspools itself. There’s the unshakable fear that his words are going to be misrepresented: “I felt lectures were a little silly in the sense that….I’m gonna say this all wrong….” There’s disdain for the idea that anyone should judge what is canon and what makes a book relevant. It’s hard not to see the link to his music: the anxiety of influence, the spectre of unoriginality, the words written that try and categorise Interpol simply as post-something or pre-something else. The question really engages Paul as he gives an uninterrupted and articulate monologue on the relationship one should have with art; one that is in flux, deeply personal and enriching all on it’s own: “How else is one gonna talk about art if not in comparison to other art? At a young age everything felt like an insult and I’m of a sensitive nature. I didn’t take well to criticism and I didn’t like doing press and doing interviews. There’s a vulnerability to talking to strangers and having it broadcast. I like putting myself into my art and putting it out there and then came this whole other side of it: of talking about myself and having people critique what we’re doing. Now I see it as “Yeah, man, that’s the gig.” But at the time I was like, I dunno If I want this other part of this. I don’t want the negative feedback and I don’t want to be put in a box.” (He liked Henry James, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.)
The Saturday I was supposed to talk to Paul he text me before our conversation: “Shit, sorry mate. Got my day wrong, is tomorrow an option?” I have no reason to doubt that he got the days mixed up, but I prefer to think that something was calling out to him then: whatever vantage he had at that point of the sky. Next to it - his own small tile of God-it-looks-good-out-there: the sea. It’s an invitation that could make pretty much anything else wait, and so he text me and I said: “of course, of course, tomorrow will do.”
Photo by Christaan Felber
He’s out there alone on his board, eyes bleached lighter by sun, briney hair boyishly long with a hairline that hasn’t flinched at forty, and you think - yeah, as an image, this makes sense. Maybe even more sense than the sunglasses, the suit, the guitar. He always looked like a surf kid. A wave comes, he’s not quite in position, it’s gone. Maybe he’s thinking about what more he could possibly say to a stranger tomorrow on the phone when all he really wants to say is - go to the music.
Another wave comes and it’s a few feet too gnarly, so he duck dives as it begins to crest. It’s fine to be violently humbled by the water, but actual physical death can wait a bit longer.
As he waits a new top line melody comes to him, lyric fragments beginning to evaporate just as they take shape. He wants to be near a recording device, but he’s at sea. He hopes they’re good enough to be remembered. But the fragments that threatened to form are getting clearer. They’ve burrowed in, with hooks. They’ve changed into something else, not new, but old. Something nearer to when it was all beginning. They’ve been remembered: "If time is my vessel, then learning to love/ Might be my way back to sea/ The flying, the metal, the turning above/ These are just ways to be seen.” Maybe he lets his lyrics from 2004 take on new resonance right there and then in the water, where now nobody can see him and he has no compulsion to make them look.