“Wanna go to Hooters?” asks Interpol guitarist Daniel Kessler as we step outside the W Hotel in Dallas onto the sunbaked sidewalk. Kessler is a short, skinny 32-year-old with slightly nervous eyes and thin lips that begin to curl into a wry grin as he delivers this lunch invitation. His band—which also includes singer-guitarist Paul Banks, bassist Carlos D, and drummer Sam Fogarino—is on a nine-date North American tour leading up to the release of their third album (and major-label debut), Our Love to Admire, and the guitarist seems anxious to playfully tweak their resolutely cosmopolitan, sometimes painfully hip image.
The Hooters in downtown Dallas is not just any Hooters. It is, Kessler informs me, the largest Hooters in the world. In his black suit, black sweater-vest, and dark sunglasses, the chatty New York vegetarian strikes an odd figure in a chain restaurant known primarily for large-breasted, skimpily outfitted waitresses and chicken wings. Neon beer signs cover the walls, a rerun of the Coca-Cola 600 from Lowe’s Motor Speedway beams from the TV overhead, and the sound system blares inoffensive radio-rock staples, including Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” the Cranberries’ “Linger,” and Dave Matthews Band’s “The Space Between.”
A brunette, appropriately proportioned waitress approaches the table, and Kessler looks up from his menu. “Can you confirm that ‘cukes’ in fact refers to cucumbers?” he asks slyly, pointing to his menus’ description of the garden salad.
“I can confirm that,” she says smiling.
He orders the salad, and then leans back in his chair and looks around. “Despite a lot of people who’d think we wouldn’t be caught dead here, I like going to places that aren’t so ‘London-Paris-New York.’ I like going to the middle of the country. I’m very comfortable here.”
He better be. The middle of the country is where Interpol need to make their presence felt if they’re going to graduate from their post as New York City’s well-dressed, brooding indie-rock mascots and become, well, a band whose songs might be played over the sound system at the largest Hooters in the world. Not that this is exactly their goal, but by signing with Capitol Records, who fought off several suitors to procure Interpol’s services, they have certainly opened themselves up to the possibility.
“The goal is for us to be on every alternative station in every market,” says Capitol president Lee Trink. “Their music tends to be more about the coasts and urban centers, but they’re capable of being an arena band—a very, very big band for the whole country.”
Of course, with CD sales in steady decline across the board, some might question the wisdom of a successful indie band jumping to a major. In fact, just months after inking Interpol, Capitol merged with Virgin, replacing most of the label’s key staff and thinning its talent roster, and Capitol is now on the verge of being sold outright. “We never panicked,” Kessler says. “These kinds of things happen with record companies all the time. We weren’t this little band trying to make a leap into a big pond. We were already selling quite a number of records, we had our following, so we thought we’d be okay.”
But as Fogarino somewhat awkwardly points out later, Interpol’s former label, indie pacesetter Matador, “maxed out,” and it was time to “push up the headroom.” (Matador declined to comment for this story..) Besides, this was never a band that waved the flag for the respected, independently achieved obscurity. After forming in 1998, they emerged from New York in the post-9/11, post-Strokes “new rock revolution” with a sound that was sleek, taut, and aggressive, and a look that favored tailored suits and wingtips. Their first two albums, Turn on the Bright Lights and Antics, sold nearly a million copies between them, and the Interpol boys—particularly Carlos D—became Manhattan nightlife fixtures, with their love lives, fashion choices, and alleged narcotic appetites dissected on gossipy blogs in a manner that was out of proportion to their relatively modest commercial success. Now they’re faced with the task of publicly transforming themselves into something more substantial. But what exactly?
Although the band members themselves will repeatedly deny it over the four days I spend with them in Dallas and Atlanta, there is something about this moment that feels make-or-break for Interpol. Their first two records sold in almost identical amounts, leading to the not unreasonable conclusion that they were both bought by more or less the same 500,000 people. What if Our Love to Admire fails to find new ears and Capitol grows disenchanted or impatient? What if the critics who’ve swooned over them in the past turn sour? What if they just don’t want to hang around with each other?
In rock’n’roll, there is an enduring romantic ideal of a band as a group of best friends, held together by relationships more intimate than family, charging out to take on the world.
Interpol is not that kind of band.
“In the beginning, we all had the attitude ‘We’re not out to make friends. Let’s make music,’” Fogarino tells me as we sit on the patio of the W’s bar. “It was all really focused on the art of Interpol, the output. We had to learn how to be friends along the way. To be honest, we’re just starting to get the hang of it.”
Fogarino is wearing a gray suit, black shirt, and black fedora, but his earthy manner, compact frame, and discolored tooth on the right side of his mouth give him the look of a Capone-era gangster. At 39, he’s the self-described “old man” of the group and a rock’n’roll lifer, having played in a handful of bands before becoming the last piece of the Interpol puzzle when he joined in 2000.
“I’m ten years older than Paul,” he says. “And when I joined, I was really worried about the age difference. I thought, ‘Great band, guys, but fuck this—I’m not going to be your babysitter.”
It turned out that he was the one who needed a babysitter. As he told Spin in 2005, when Interpol first went on the road, he “went nuts” and “indulged full force.” His misbehavior led to a divorce from his first wife, Cindy Wheeler, singer for the mid-’90s alt poppers Pee Shy. Fogarino got married again in early 2006 to photographer Christy Bush, whom he met backstage at an Interpol show, and now says the band’s age gap is “irrelevant.”
Although they seemed to arrive fully formed when they released Bright Lights in 2002, it took Interpol a long time to become a band in any conventional sense. Kessler was a student at NYU in 1998 when he approached two relative strangers, Carlos D and Banks, about joining his nascent group. Neither was enthusiastic, and the force of their two dominant personalities frequently clashed. When I ask Banks later on about Interpol’s early days, his assessment is blunt: “Carlos and I really did not get along. At all. It took me figuring him out to be able to accept working with them. Also, me and Daniel weren’t fast friends at all. We almost didn’t make it, because we didn’t gel like bros from the get-go.”
Kessler found himself playing the roles of the diplomat and the den mother within the fledgling band. “I’m the only one who really wanted this,” he says. “They were all interested enough to keep a foot in and see what happened. It took about a year to play our first show. But even when it wasn’t quite functioning, I saw the potential.”
From day one, Interpol functioned as a democracy, with everything split equally among all four members and everyone granted an equal say in band decisions. Songs are written by committee: Kessler brings in chord progressions and song sketches, and the others react to his work with their own ideas—rhythms, countermelodies, different instrumentation—before Banks adds vocal melodies and lyrics as the final step. It’s a predictably messy process, but “when it’s going well,” Kessler explains, “that’s exciting. When I think of Interpol, I think of that moment when we’re writing.
For Our Love to Admire, the band spent the first ten months of 2006 writing in a Manhattan rehearsal space, and then headed into the studio last October with producer Rich Costey. For the first time, Carlos D had a keyboard setup in the room, which meant lush sounds could be worked organically into the tunes at their inception, rather than tacked on later as adornment, as they had been in the past. The atmospheric soundscapes that fill out “Wrecking Ball” and “The Lighthouse” are direct results of this new approach. There is also less adhesion to the dark, jagged post-punk template that helped earn Interpol all those dreaded Joy Division comparisons.
“There were moments in some of their older songs that weren’t quite as dynamic as they could be,” says Costey, who has also produced albums by Franz Ferdinand and Muse. “They were interested in finding a way to have a bit more expansive sound.” Carlos D, in particular, had been composing film music as a hobby and had visions of a bigger, more cinematic Interpol.
“Carlos has always been coming from the synth direction,” Banks says. But Banks, who cites Nirvana and Jane’s Addiction as influences, was turned off by the electroclash movement that was trendy in New York when Interpol were working on their first album. “My musical roots were “Let’s make the drums loud as piss and fuckin’ play electric guitars.’ Now I don’t care how synthy the shit gets.”
For Carlos D, the band’s assimilation of these ideas was a watershed moment: “That’s when I realized this album was going to be something special. Now that we’ve gotten this record out of the way, I’m thinking about the fourth record. We can really do our Kid A or Amnesiac.”
Costey says he found himself cautiously impressed by the way the band incorporated their four opposing parts into a seamless whole.
“They are absolutely fixated on being a complete democracy,” he says. “My experience has been that that’s a nice dream, but over the long term, it rarely holds up. I mean, they’re not all there an equal amount of time. Daniel really will put in the hours, more so than any of them. But it doesn’t mean his vote is bigger than Carlos’. That’s a very unusual situation.”
After spending nearly 36 hours around Interpol, the first time I actually see all four guys in the same room is when they walk onstage at the Palladium Ballroom in Dallas. The scene is an eye-opener. It’s not that the 2,800-capacity venue is packed; it’s who’s there. Or better put, who’s not. There is a dearth of smartly dressed hipsters who many assume to be the group’s core audience. Instead, the crowd is a broad, if young, cross section of music fans, with a noticeably heavy concentration of Latinos. T-shirts and shorts far outnumber suits and ties, and when the band appears from the smoky darkness, almost no one looks unmoved.
Onstage, Interpol are tight, if somewhat icy. Kessler opens the show picking out the hypnotic guitar figure that slithers through the murky “Pioneer to the Falls” before the rest of the band dive in, with touring keyboard player Dave Scher offering up a gloriously wheezy countermelody and Banks sounding like a more supple and versatile vocalist than he ever did on the first two albums. When the tune dissolves and then rolls straight into the angular riffs that open Bright Lights’ “Obstacle 1,” it’s clear this is an altogether bolder Interpol.
But the band members themselves hardly interact with one another. Banks seems to focus his energy inward, spending most of the set static behind the mic, hiding beneath his stringy blond hair. Carlos D looks haughty and subdued as he paces the stage unsmiling. Kessler sashays around with his guitar, and Fogarino bangs away behind his kit, but neither has the natural charisma of their bandmates. The show feels more efficient than inspired, though the lanky girl who dashes onstage from the crowd after the encore would probably disagree.
Backstage later, the four way the merits of hitting the upstairs bar, where Fogarino is scheduled to DJ the after-party. Banks sits on a couch, hunched over his Blackberry, while Carlos D entertains his dog, a slender, brown and white Italian greyhound named Gaius that serves as his near-constant companion on tour.
Banks skips the party to meet a friend; the rest of the band head upstairs. While Fogarino sets up his DJ equipment, Kessler is mobbed by dozens of fans seeking photos and autographs. Carlos D darts into the crowded bar area, dog under his arm, emerges less than five minutes with four women, then disappears. Kessler soon exits too, leaving Fogarino spinning to a thinning crowd. At the end of the evening, Fogarino is stopped near the tour bus by some fans who want a picture. After he obliges, one steps forward and introduces himself as Manny. He’s tall, with dark hair, wearing a red T-shirt and shorts. He mumbles something in Spanish, which another person in the group translates as “He says he drove here from Nebraska. And it was totally worth it.”
Fogarino nods and smiles. The day before, he had told me how important it was to him that Interpol reach a broad, multicultural audience and not just “uberhip, good-looking, well-dressed kids.”
“I mean, we have no audience in mind,” he said. “It’s not this Nirvana thing, where it turns into this issue of hitting the wrong people. It’s not a membership. There’s no uniform required.”
I meet Carlos D the following afternoon at the band’s Atlanta hotel. The 33-year-old is dressed own, in a black suit and white slip-on sneakers. Carlos is tall and thin, and last year traded his severe, Teutonic-looking coif for a lighter, fluffier model with a mustache and soul patch. When he dons his stage garb—long black overcoat, black boots, and bolo tie—he looks like a 19th-century European count on holiday in the Old West. Today, his greyhound needs some exercise, so I’ve offered to drive them to a local dog park.
No member of Interpol is more responsible for the band’s public image than Carlos D. For three years following Bright Lights’ release, he was Interpol’s very public, very libertine face, inspiring magazine stories about “the cult of Carlos D” and blogs such as “Carlos D Has Herpes,” which chronicled his alleged infectiousness. He ingested, caroused and made no effort to hide it. Then, after getting off tour in 2005, he crashed.
“After a certain time, your body can’t take it,” he tells me at the park. The damage wasn’t just physical. “I think a lot of people didn’t take me seriously. They didn’t assume I had feelings or wants or needs, because they thought the hedonist attitude took up everything inside me. For a while, I even believed that about myself, but I came to realize I’m so much more than that.”
Which isn’t to say Carlos D has gone Amish on us, but he has toned things down. “I’m not that much of a hedonist anymore,” he says. “Once I sobered up and regrouped, I was like, ‘let me find out what’s really important to me.’”
One thing he came up with was film. He bought a new home studio and composed demo tracks for background music to The Devil Wears Prada, Ice Age 2, and an episode of HBO’s Deadwood, which he then posted on his website. “There’s a different part of my brain that gets tickled by it,” he says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his penchant for the theatrical, he also began taking acting classes. “I fell in love with it. I found out I’m a talented actor.”
Which brings us back to his new look.
“I went in disguise,” he explains, running his thumb and forefinger over his mustache. “NO one had seen the facial hair yet. It was a way for me to push everybody away so that I could have more space to realize what my life is about. Everyone stopped recognizing me on the street. I forgot what it’s like to just be a normal person. It felt so good.”
I mention that signing to a major label doesn’t seem like a particularly smart move for someone in the thrall of newfound anonymity.
“No,” he says, laughing. “But this is a bath I chose. I made an investment in these three guys. I have to always keep focused on that.”
He dismisses the suggestion that film scoring might be more creatively satisfying than the part he plays in Interpol. “Interpol is where I want to be part of something really tremendous, a collective spirit,” he says. “I don’t really have a need to be my own artist. I can’t write songs. I always need some kind of external force to collaborate with. With film scoring, I think about the visuals. In Interpol, it’s three other guys.”
Carlos D watches Gaius, who is nose-to-nose with a Doberman four times his size. The Doberman snaps playfully, and Gaius snaps back. “Impressive that he’s holding his ground,” Carlos D says, nodding in approval. He bought the dog when he returned to New York after the Antics tour. He travels with both Gaius and his studio these days. “They’re the only two stable things in my life.
“And the band, obviously,” he adds, after a pause. “But when you’re in a band, you don’t even realize you’re in it. Like when you’re married.” Carlos D continues talking, hoping, perhaps, that I didn’t notice that Interpol just finished a distant third to a dog and a computer. “You know how when you date someone for a long time, and then one day you’re looking in their face trying to be attracted to them? She could lose an eye and you’d still love her. That sort of arbitrariness of her beauty can be troubling. That’s how it is with the band. They’ve become kind of an arbitrary to me. But that’s because we’re so close.”
When Paul Banks hops into my car on this humid Friday night in early June, he’s wearing a black shirt, jeans, and a blue baseball cap—a truck-stop souvenir that says DEVOTED across the front and JESUS LOVES ME on the bill. Banks is not the warmest guy in the world, and with his hat pulled over his eyes and his thumbs punching away at his Blackberry, he definitely gives off a vibe that shouts—or actually just mumbles—”Leave me alone.”
As we drive to a cheerfully grimy neighborhood bar in Decatur, Georgia, he confesses to a crush on Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), and then begins to talk about the Cure-helmed Curiosa tour Interpol played three summers ago. He felt a real connection with Cure frontman Robert Smith and was particularly impress that, behind the pained lyrics and pancake makeup, Smith was kind of a guy’s guy. The same could be said about Banks (minus the pancake makeup). He grew up playing tennis competitively and still counts himself as “pretty fucking good” with a racquet. He also played varsity basketball as a high school freshman, though he admits the achievement is somewhat diminished when you consider he was living in Spain at the time.
We arrive at the bar and settle into a wooden booth. I slide a tape recorder onto the table and Banks offers a warning. “This is not really my bag,” he says, motioning to the device.“Doing press. I don’t like the scrutiny. I take it for the team.” He clearly feels chafed by past portrayals of him and the band. “My nature is not to be a dick to somebody, but I learned it’s okay to be a dick to somebody with a recorder.”
But he’s not really a dick at all. We play darts and he refrains from talking shit when he ekes out a come-from-behind victory. He chats amiably and only grows visibly uneasy when I ask why he moved out of Manhattan last year, across the river to Jersey City (where incidentally, Fogarino would also later take up residence).
Banks: I really wanted to be out of the city. I had to regroup.
Banks: I don’t know. [Pauses] Some shit had happened in my life at that point that necessitated me making a change.
Spin: Can you tell me what kind of shit?
This change, whatever its genesis, seems to be reflected in the new album’s lyrics. “Babe, it’s time we give something new a try,” he sings on “No I in Threesome,” a pulsing, majestic tune that feels either like a declaration of independence from a relationship in a rut or an attempt to bring new blood into the bedroom, or both. Later, on “Rest My Chemistry,” he sounds positively weary of the wild life the band’s early success afforded him.
While he’s resistant to analyzing his lyrics, he admits his indulgences. “In the touring lifestyle, things are at you all the time,” he says. “You can lose track of why you’re there. It’s sort of the inevitable journey most bands go through in the beginning, balancing all the opportunities and the natural tendency toward getting fucked up with what you’re really doing there that’s providing the opportunity for you to get all fucked up all the time.”
I mention that Carlos D also told me earlier that he was easing off and trying to retreat from the public spotlight, a statement Banks greets with a minor snort.
“At this phase, he is. I mean, he’s to blame,” Banks says. “He sought it out. OR maybe he didn’t seek it out, but he enjoyed it for a time.”
Banks admits it’s still a challenge to integrate his personality with that of his three bandmates, but he insists they’ve found a workable dynamic.
“We’ve got it at a point where everything should be handled with respect. We’re only staying in it because we’re being sufficiently expressed as individuals. We’re able to subvert our egos because there’s something we admire in each other. We know we can do other things individually, but we can’t do this without each other.”
Could Interpol endure if one of its members left?
“A band could exist, but Interpol, no,” he says, raising his eyebrows. “That’s why we’re good.”
It’s early evening on Saturday when Interpol pile onto their tour bus outside the hotel to ride the night’s gig. They’re second to last on the bill at an all-day festival sponsored by an Atlanta radio station. These kinds of shows are generally the bane of a band’s existence: Sets are shortened, sound is terrible, backstage riders go unfulfilled, and usually the only form of compensation is the vague hope that the sponsoring station will add the band’s single to rotation.
As Carlos D puts it, “I hate festivals. They’re obnoxious. I want to ask people, “Why are you spending money on this? It’s not that cool.’”
Perhaps more practical about the realities that the Capitol deal entails, Banks is diplomatic. “These radio things never really bug me,” he says. “I’ve always been tolerant of a lot of the unpleasant things you have to do to make it big in this industry. We’ll jump through some of the hoops required of a band coming up. They don’t feel good, but it’s not going to kill me to play somebody’s show. The bigger the audience, the better. I want this to be as big a success as possible.”
We pull into the parking lot of the sprawling HiFi Buys Ampitheatre (capacity: 19,000). Interpol have a tough time slot sandwiched between Cake and Chris Cornell, two acts with whom they have little in common. When they hit the stage shortly before nightfall, the crowd is patchy and the applause scattered. To their credit, the band seem energized by the relative apathy.
The set is even tighter than in Dallas, and the musicians themselves are more animated, more in tune with one another. As they kick into the jittery, pulsing “PDA,” Carlos D begins swinging his bass around, Banks cracks a rare smile, and slowly the crowd livens up, pressing toward the stage. A roaring version of “Slow Hands” gets a group of fans stretched out on the lawn onto their feet. When a balding guy in a tattered blue oxford and khaki shorts standing next to me leans over and asks, “Who the fuck are these guys, again?” he means it as an endearment, not an indictment.
After the performance, Carlos D heads back to the hotel with a female companion, while the rest of the band unwind in their dressing room, watching the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.
“This was my favorite show yet this tour,” Banks says. “I love audiences that are ambivalent.” For a second, I think he’s laying on the sarcasm, until he continues, “I really like the chance to win people over. There’s nothing better than seeing people going from crossing their arms to throwing devil horns.”
Kessler nods in agreement. They’re clearly enjoying the postshow high, but in a band that’s trying hard to quash their superficial image without quashing themselves in the process, maintaining it will be the real trick.
“I realized early on, as long as we kept it together, it was boundless how good we could get,” Banks told me the night before. “I think we’re going to hit our stride. It’s no longer that sort of adolescent glee, like, ‘Let’s all get fucked up!’ We feel very passionate about it and have a lot more focus. That sort of eliminates fucking naked groupies on the bus and rampant drug addiction from the story. The band is very much at the beginning of its postadolescence.”
When Fogarino entertains his wife’s extended family in the dressing room, Banks and Kessler wander around halfheartedly, looking for some sort of postshow social activity. There’s none to speak of. Most of the other bands have packed up and moved on, and soon Interpol will do the same. It’s just as well: They have a 14-hour bus ride ahead of them and the promise of more arms to uncross at the other end. They’ll need their rest.