Alternative rock giants Interpol launch their US tour today (August 25) following the release of their first new album in four years. Here's a chance to read our recent interview...
Interpol are poised to return with The Other Side Of Make-Believe, the seventh album of a career that has seen them grow from 2000s indie darlings to a behemoth of modern alternative rock, known for dark, exhilarating records and sharp tailoring. Music Week meets Paul Banks, Daniel Kessler and Sam Fogarino, alongside producer Flood, Matador Records and Red Light Management, to lift the lid on their next phase…
WORDS: NIALL DOHERTY
Paul Banks thinks that the best way to gauge success seven records into a career is to treat it like you’re just starting out. No one has heard of you. You didn’t end your last campaign with your biggest ever live shows and a headline festival slot in Mexico in front of 80,000 screaming fans. You are not one of the most important rock bands of the past two decades, you’re just getting going. Are your songs going to cut through?
“I think it’s an interesting barometer, a way to push yourself,” says the Interpol singer, over the phone from his home in New York City. “Would you get the attention as an unknown quantity that you get as a known quantity releasing music to an established audience?”
When Banks wonders how an Interpol breakthrough might play out in the modern age, he imagines a scenario not dissimilar to their original emergence back at the turn of the millennium, where word would spread about their thrilling live shows.
“A local following in a big city and expand from there, rather than getting at the top of some kind of Spotify playlist,” he ruminates. “That’s probably going to be an age-old thing. Any artist that can bring an audience live is as good a testament to their allure as any.”
So what first attracted you to one of the biggest success stories in modern alternative rock? Perhaps it was those chiming, spidery guitar lines, or the stillness of the vocals, louche and romantic at the same time, or maybe it was the rhythmical muscular swing, or all of it, all at once?
All their hallmarks are present on The Other Side Of Make-Believe, Interpol’s excellent new record. The sound of Interpol – completed by guitarist Daniel Kessler and drummer Sam Fogarino – hasn’t really changed since they emerged with their exhilarating, era-defining debut Turn On The Bright Lights (138,839 sales, according to the Official Charts Company) in 2002. But yet, over six records since (and with the departure of bassist Carlos Dengler in 2010) it hasn’t stayed the same either. Honed and tweaked, their black magic dynamism is growing ever more potent.
“Interpol are a classic band at this point,” praises Matador Records founder and co-president Chris Lombardi.
“They’re doing something that is still them, but also seems fresh and new. Our goal is to show people that they have an incredible catalogue and a record that will hopefully remind people how great they are.”
Lombardi says the long union between Interpol and Matador, broken only by the group’s brief fling with Capitol for 2007’s UK No.2 album Our Love To Admire (94,256 sales), is built on trust and understanding.
“They grew up with us,” he states. “We knew how to get into trouble together back in the day. We understand them artistically, but also personally. We can give them informed ideas about how they might want to be presented. We’re usually mostly on point.”
“It’s a deep friendship,” says Kessler, who is also in New York. “Chris and I can have lunch and not talk about any of this stuff. There’s a real trust when they bring ideas to the table. The record company has evolved in so many different ways since we first signed with them.”
That The Other Side Of Make-Believe has been produced by Flood (real name Mark Ellis), a pivotal presence on alternative classics by The Smashing Pumpkins, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey and more, is a sign of Interpol’s current standing. They broke through as part of a wave of New York bands who reshaped the rock landscape and shook post-millennial guitar music out of its stupor. But while those other groups – be it The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rapture or, erm, Stellastarr – have focused on being a big live draw, lost their creative spark or fallen by the wayside altogether, Interpol remain as artistically sharp as their suits. These days, they belong in a lineage of leftfield big-hitters such as Depeche Mode, The Cure and Nine Inch Nails.
The new album captures them in their ‘give it a bit of time’ prime, encouraging you to wade in and immerse yourself, the melodies buried a little deeper, the grooves a little more swaying, choruses only taking shape with repeated listens. For a group who are all about the artform of the long-player, this is Interpol’s masterpiece.
The will to continually seek out new ground rather than digging their heels in on a cushty comfort zone is what keeps them fresh, says Daniel Kessler. When the guitarist sees furrowed brows in the studio, he knows that his bandmates are as intensely dedicated to this as he is. No one is a passenger.
“It’s the same sort of teenage feeling where it’s life and death,” he says. “No one is like, ‘Ah, it’s fine,’ no one has chilled out on that front. No one is passive about this process, and Flood is included in that too. Everyone was really invested.”
Overseeing the Interpol operation is James Sandom, managing partner at Red Light Management. He says the approach taken on The Other Side Of Make-Believe was born out of the success of 2018’s Marauder (19,084 sales), which entered the UK charts at No.6.
“As an entity and a live proposition, Interpol are the biggest they’ve ever been,” says Sandom. “What they needed to do was make a record that can bring forward all the extremities, all of the drama and emotion: the most powerful record, the saddest record, the most upbeat record... Do all of it. Flood was the perfect collaborator to do that because he thrives on emotion and drama.”
Usually, Interpol albums begin with Kessler sending round sketches of instrumentals before the trio get in a room for six months or so to knock the songs into shape. But, with the world in various states of lockdown and the three members scattered across the globe (Kessler in Barcelona, Banks in Edinburgh and Fogarino in Athens, Georgia), many of the new songs came together remotely.
“It didn’t feel that different to how we normally do things,” says Kessler. “I would wake up in the morning and Paul had sent something late that night and I would go for a walk and listen to it. It felt similar to those great rehearsals where a song is starting to get its legs and you leave a little bit euphoric.”
Since the early days of Interpol, he says, it’s been a big buzz when one member takes a song in a direction he doesn’t expect.
“It confirms why you’re in the band in the first place,” he beams. “Because someone has different ingredients to add to the pot than you would ever have thought of. It keeps the whole thing very exotic.”
Paul Banks was sitting in a comfy chair by a sun-drenched window with a blossoming tree outside as he took in the music Kessler was sending him, formulating vocal and bass ideas as he listened. Writing that way has resulted in a softening of his vocals, he says.
“I do think it’s like a bedroom record in terms of how I dressed a lot of the songs,” explains the singer. “I feel there’s a more melodic approach. I also settled into making my guitar parts a little bit more minor, not making them so busy.”
Working separately meant they were able to express themselves to the fullest degree before sharing it with each other, reckons drummer Fogarino.
“Watching someone fumble around with a melody or a drum pattern is fucking boring, it doesn’t matter how great the song is,” he laughs. “I use my Catholic and Italian guilt against me and go, ‘Oh, this must suck for them, I gotta get to the thing!’ With that being out the window, we were able to just hone in individually.”
After a year-and-a-half without playing in the same room together, they eventually joined up in March 2021, hiring two houses/rehearsal spaces in upstate New York. There, they ironed out the creases before heading across the Atlantic to Flood’s studio in London to get the tracks down properly, the aim to try and recreate the sense of space and fragile expanse they had concocted on the demos.
“The deal was, ‘Can we recreate it?’” recalls Fogarino. “But working with Flood was a fucking dead-on highlight of my life. What a gift to music that man is.”
“It was quite inspiring to see how his mind works and how he works in the studio, the things he hears,” adds Banks. “Bands often feel like they’re very unique with their complex dynamics, and then you work with someone like Flood who can slot himself frictionlessly into our set-up. He knows how to speak to musicians and knows how to speak their individual language.”
The producer himself says the experience was life-affirming.
“It was brilliant,” he marvels. “It was making a record with grown-ups who aren’t grown-ups, youthful experience or experienced youth, I don’t know which way round to put it. It was hard work but really enjoyable, really passionate and really creative. The longer it went on, the more everybody felt free to do things they hadn’t done before that they wanted to try.”
Flood picks his projects carefully and hadn’t made a record in two years, but something told him that this was meant to be.
“Interpol are one of those bands that have stared at me and I’ve stared at them across the crater that is alternative rock,” he states. “There’s been a couple of near misses over the years.”
When Red Light took Flood on as a client, their union moved one step closer.
“It didn’t take a brain surgeon to go, ‘Oh, Flood, any interest in Interpol?’” says Sandom.
And with that, the path towards fully realising The Other Side Of Make-Believe was set.
Chris Lombardi says that Matador is hands-off when it comes to A&R, but they do like to get a good grip on a record’s themes early on to fire up ideas for the accompanying creative.
“It helps inform us in how we’re going to present not only to our staff, but also to the rest of the world,” he says. “We dig in hard on trying to grasp, ‘What are the nuggets that separate this record from the rest of their albums?’”
For the campaign to introduce The Other Side Of Make-Believe, the label came up with the idea of “a one-two punch”, whereby the first single Toni (1.3 million Spotify streams) was quickly followed by another titled Something Changed (601,254). Both came with high-concept videos.
“These days, when things come out so quickly, if you miss something for a day or two, you’re backlogged with stuff hitting you non-stop,” says Lombardi. “To have the one-two punch within a very short period of time, it was a bigger window to expose more Interpol music. You get two bites from the apple, there are posts everywhere, you get playlisted twice.”
Another difference this time round is that the group’s big tour, taking in US dates and then a quick jaunt around Europe that includes two shows at London’s Roundhouse in June, is happening ahead of release.
“We’ll have social posts, the band will be in the UK getting reviews, there’ll be this critical mass that we’ll achieve when release day comes,” adds Lombardi.
Alex Keague-Davies, Matador’s UK general manager, says that London itself is a focal point of the campaign.
“We’ve got a lot of big looks going into the release and we’re really building momentum,” she says. “With the fact that the album was recorded here, there’s definitely a sense of focus on the UK. A lot of the photos we’re using were shot in London. There will be big marketing looks, whether that’s outdoor, on the London Underground or with how the digital marketing is shaping up.”
Keague-Davies says that the Marauder campaign did a great job in displaying Interpol’s relevance, and now the job is to build on that.
“It’s about showing the scale that Interpol have, not just in this market, but globally,” she explains. “Press remains a key focus, as does radio and the more alternative side like 6 Music and Radio X. Retail also plays a huge role, they have big supporters across all the indies and with HMV and so forth.”
The key to that relevance, adds the GM, is that their music stands up against not only their own catalogue, but what else is out there at the moment, too.
“They have delivered a record that truly does that,” she says. “So now it’s about us making sure that enough people hear it, making sure that the visuals are striking and that there’s footage to share.”
Success for the label would be another high chart-placing, but Matador are looking far beyond week one.
“We want to be working this through the year and into next,” Keague-Davies says. “If we’re still rolling with music and content, and if the touring goes well throughout next year, then we’re in a good spot. I wouldn’t say we’re putting hard numbers on it.”
James Sandom says that the biggest challenge facing Interpol is living in an era that is largely tracks-based.
“Some of the metrics and catalysts for success are in a different place now,” he says. “In a landscape where dance, R&B, pop and hip-hop are so dominant, an artist like Interpol turns up and they’re the rogues in the room. It was really pleasing that, in week one [with Toni], they were highly placed across DSPs. Part of it is making sure that we’re galvanising our own fans and maximising our own community.”
Sandom says that Interpol, who have close to 2.5 million monthly Spotify listeners, are comfortably embedded in the streaming ecosystem.
“You only need to look at a Spotify or Apple playlist of a certain mood and genre to see where Interpol sit,” he says. “You can see them blend in amongst artists as far-reaching as Tame Impala through to The 1975.”
The manager also says you can guarantee that the front rows of an Interpol gig will be filled with an audience too young to have been alive when Turn On The Bright Lights came out.
“The barriers-down environment of streaming culture has a real role to play,” he says. “If you’re a 16-year-old and you discovered Beabadoobee yesterday, you’re only half an hour away on your Spotify playlist from hearing Evil for the first time.”
At Matador HQ, the team racked their brains for a big idea that would elevate the new campaign, something Interpol hadn’t done before.
“We had an idea of pulling the curtain back a little bit,” says Lombardi. “They’ve always been presented in their crisp suits and we thought we could show them being themselves a bit more, hanging out, writing and recording.”
The label enlisted US photographer Atiba Jefferson to get fly-on-the-wall snaps during writing sessions in New York and recording in London. Furthermore, the band have partnered with Jefferson and the streetwear brand Brain Dead for a series of pop-up gallery events that will showcase a selection of the pictures Jefferson captured.
With limited merchandise in the works too, Sandom highlights the strength of the collaboration between Red Light, Matador and Beggars to bring the ideas to fruition. All that remains is to find out just how far their work can propel Interpol this time around...
For Sam Fogarino, being in a band in 2022 is surreal. Ten years ago, it still felt similar to the thing he cherished as a teenager, but no longer.
“It’s not just how music is consumed and released, everything is changing,” he declares. “It doesn’t look the same, we don’t take it in, we don’t buy it in the same way, but people need it and still love it. It’s still rewarding. I don’t recognise what’s around me but I’m still doing the same thing.”
Daniel Kessler is similarly unfazed by the constant shape-shifting of the music industry.
“I’m just like, ‘OK, so what is it now?’ and I roll with it,” he says. “I try to navigate those waters within a position that feels comfortable to us.”
He’s always been like that, going all the way back to when a mono version of the group’s second album Antics (167,577 sales) was leaked ahead of release in 2004.
“It was 10 days after we’d finished it and we were about to go on tour with The Cure,” he says. “Every city you’d go to, someone would be talking about your new record and you’re like, ‘Yeah… it’s not coming out for another three months!’ But I never got upset about it, I was pretty accepting. It’s cool that some kid who lives on the far reaches [of a city] and has good taste but no record store near them isn’t punished for that.”
He feels thankful that the band got to experience an old-school breakthrough with their debut, too: “That was a record industry that had more in common with The Beatles than it does now, as far as the cycle of how people discover things goes.”
Sometimes, Paul Banks looks at Top 10 lists on streaming platforms, or peruses festival bills, and thinks to himself, ‘I don’t know any of these people’.
“I think it’s fascinating the way music culture has changed,” he posits. “It’s interesting because, as you get older, you don’t feel that you’re getting older, it’s just that there’s all these younger people around on planet Earth.”
His motivation, he says, is to keep making good work. He believes one of the key things that makes music tick is the way old guard artists can co-exist with their newer counterparts.
“Whoever might be at a Deafheaven or Turnstile show, or Future Islands, or Idles, they might also rush to a Pearl Jam gig,” he opines. “Quality is quality. I like to think that we’re still around because we’re good, and so we’re still relevant and fit into the landscape.”
When he looks back over the making of their new album, Sam Fogarino says it taught him that Interpol aren’t just “a bunch of stubborn assholes that hate and love each other. We had to dig a little deeper this time, not rest on our laurels.”
He sees The Other Side Of Make-Believe as a companion piece to Marauder, part one and part two of the next phase of Interpol. The experiences have proven to him that even when they work with big personalities such as Flood and Marauder producer Dave Fridmann, they still emerge sounding very much like themselves.
“My take is that, no matter what you do, you can’t extract Interpol from Interpol, you can’t take it away,” he says. “We could do whatever we want and there’s still going to be that intrinsic thing.”
Paul Banks, Daniel Kessler and Sam Fogarino keep rolling with the times, revitalising and renewing, a reassuring constant in an environment that is ever-changing. As long as Interpol keep digging, they can do whatever they want.