The always suave singer still finds new shades of darkness
Paul Banks has found a lot of room in the shadows. Whether with Interpol, who are celebrating the tenth anniversary of their debut album, Turn on the Bright Lights, with a deluxe reissue due December 4, or on his own (his moody new solo album Banks, out October 22), the stylish singer, 34, is still crafting gripping music out of dark black melodies and a deep-blue worldview. For him, as for few other musicians, there are still areas left to be explored on the map of melancholy.
Speaking on the phone from his Manhattan home, Banks chatted candidly and coolly about what still excites him musically, how come Interpol's breakthrough album isn't anything special, and the reasons why big buildings bring him down.
Okay, your first solo album was credited to Julian Plenti and called Julian Plenti Is… Skyscraper. Then you put out an EP credited to Paul Banks called Julian Plenti Lives…. Now you have this new album Banks by Paul Banks. Did I get that right?
I'd have to double-check, but I think you did.
Are we supposed to assume that the albums are the works of different personas?
That's probably reading too much into it.
So why the name changes?
The Julian Plenti stuff was my first identity as a musician. When I was in college in New York (at NYU), I would play out under that name even before Interpol put out its first record. Julian Plenti is what I was doing before I met [Interpol guitarist] Daniel [Kessler] and joined the band he had formed with [Interpol bassist] Carlos D. But that music sat there for many years while I did Interpol. Then it came to a point where it was unhealthy for me as an artist to have songs from my teenage years playing in my head forever and not externalize them. And since I wrote those songs as Julian Plenti, I thought I'd follow through with the idea and release them as Julian Plenti. The Paul Banks material is all shit I've written after joining Interpol.
Nomenclature aside, is there a difference between a Julian Plenti song and a Paul Banks song?
I would say there are lots of things on the first record —
Meaning the Julian Plenti record?
Yeah, exactly. There are things on that like "Girl on the Sporting News," that I would not write today. I wrote that when I was 18 years old. But it was really important for me to stay true to that vision of when I was 18. As a document to myself, for myself, it was a necessity. It helped me unblock myself as an artist. Moving forward, there's going to be a lot more solo work coming with more frequency because I was able to unload that early stuff. And thematically, the Paul Banks songs are much different because I'm an older person. I've had all these years of experience. I wouldn’t now write the same kind of music I wrote then. But I felt it was important for people to hear that evolution, and selfishly it was important for me to externalize it.
Not to harp on this, but if you were calling yourself Julian Plenti when you joined Interpol, why didn't you just keep calling yourself Julian Plenti?
Simply, my original idea was that I liked the idea of putting a distance between the artist self and the day-to-day self. That's the high-minded explanation. In reality, it was that the other guys in the band all opted to use their real names and weren't comfortable with me using an alias. So I said, "Okay, fuck it. I'll use an alter ego for my solo work." Now, moving forward, I'm saying "Fuck it" with the names again.
When you're working on new music, do you find that you're more excited by the concepts you're trying to get across aesthetically or the nuts and bolts of songwriting?
The thing that gets me the most jazzed-up is when I pick up a guitar and something comes out that I think is the seed of a song. Then building that up into a complete song is a very exciting process. With a song like [Banks'] "The Base," I was very excited about the opening guitar riff. Then I was walking down the street and it hit me: "Oh fuck! What if the vocal was really fucking creepy, saturated in reverb, and it's gonna be like a prison warden in the future making some kind of announcement to the inhabitants in the middle of the night?" A futuristic isolation kind of quality. That was an image I gave to [Banks co-producer] Peter [Katis]. Creating a feeling like that is the challenge of music to me.
You've been making music professionally for more than a decade now. What's something else that, on a fundamental level, keeps songwriting interesting for you?
Repetition. You need a certain amount of repetition to make a song work. But there's the threshold of when repetition becomes boring. Figuring that out is a fascinating challenge for me. There's something universal about music that allows any amateur to say, "That's not interesting," and have it be valid. Everyone has equal insight. Music is a facet of nature, and learning how to manipulate it and play with it never gets old for me.
It's interesting to hear you talk about music as kind of a problem-solving exercise and not, like, a matter of cultivating inspiration.
I think you have to train yourself to put your work out or you'll work forever on the same shit. That's what happens to a lot of people. I don't believe anymore that every song I write has to be the greatest thing I've ever done. It helps with my creative flow to do things to the best of my ability, put them out, and move on. I'll evolve more quickly that way than if I chisel away at the same batch of songs forever. Maybe I need to get certain songs out in order to get to the place where I can write a masterpiece. That's a difficult realization — when you know you have a better song in you. But I've learned to say that maybe I have to get this song out before I can get to that one.
Was there anything that influenced Banks that hadn't influenced any of your previous music?
Not really. I just play my guitar and see what comes out. Maybe one in every five things has something worth pursuing in it. I was listening a lot to Drake when I was recording, but that was once all the songs were written. I took hip-hop songs to Peter to said, "Check this out." But he's not into hip-hop. A lot of times he'd be looking at me like, "Why the fuck are you playing me this?"
On the new album's "Arise Awake," there's a really strange vocal sample about halfway through. Where does that come from?
That's a cab driver that I recorded and felt like I wanted to put him on a song. Speech can be incredibly musical. It can be equally as compelling as a lead vocal.
Do you normally record cab drivers?
I just hailed him on my way home. He knew I was recording. I just did it with my iPhone. He was the happiest man alive. I believe he was like an angel. He radiated positivity like no one else I'd ever encountered. That guy talking, to me, is compelling music.
Your own vocals on the album have a much more relaxed, settled quality than they've had in the past with Interpol.
I heard that from the label, too. I was like, "Huh." I certainly did not think in particular that I did anything different. When there's an urgent monotony to some of my other vocal performances, that's because I was trying to communicate urgent monotony. Maybe in this new music with where I'm going in age, the insistence is not the key ingredient anymore.
It's been ten years since Interpol's first album came out. Looking back, how do you feel about it as your introduction to the public?
I don't really listen to Turn on the Bright Lights, but I'm super proud of it. The major facet about Interpol always is that these other guys in the band are amazing. I love what we do as a band. I'm really only critical of my vocals.
I was a totally untrained singer and I didn't know what I was doing. It's dumb to wish I could go back and change things because I can't. People liked it. It just is what it is.
Did you learn anything working on Bright Lights that you still draw on?
No. It's not like that was our golden record. I mean, that was a great one because we spent five years on it. We wrote songs after that album that were more fun to write. The creative energy in the band has never waned. I've learned from all of our records.
But the experience of getting such a big early jump on your career must have been exciting? It seems to me that that would be the most fun time for a band.
But there was no certainty when we were making the album that it was going to be successful. I know that I felt like it was cool. I had the moment of excitement when [drummer] Sam [Fogarini] joined the band, which was a couple years before Bright Lights. That was when I said, "Okay we got only heavy hitters now." Our first drummer was a cool guy but there was something that happened when Sam joined that made me believe we could now do some serious fucking shit. So that was a really cool moment as far as thinking that "I don't know if other people are going to agree but as far as my understanding of having the goods, we got the goods." We were never a band that was catering our music to lean towards some popularity. All I can say is that I had a sense in terms of my evaluation of things that we were good. I had no idea that other people were going to agree.
So was there a sense of surprise when the album took off?
No. It was more fulfilling than surprising. It was just sort of like "this is going well." Daniel used to have this very cool, calm confidence in the early days. Carlos and I were just fucking drunk and goofing around and trying to do our best. I don't have any big romantic notions about the early days of Interpol. Every moment of the band's existence has been engaging to me.
Do you have any big romantic notions about skyscrapers? You named one of your albums after them, and the cover of Banks shows skyscrapers, too.
I've always been fascinated by them. When I was really young, the perfect geometry of them seemed so anathema — is that the word? — to nature. I was mystified that it was possible to have these right angles and structures. On a fundamental level as a child it struck me as crazy that there were straight lines. Since then I've really appreciated architecture. I've always had a reaction to total eyesores and industrial monoliths. They creep me out and make me feel existentially lonely. In an inspiring way.
Some people probably feel the same about your music.
I can't speak for other people. But I can say that if something causes a reaction, it's probably worth exploring. That much I know.