And Then There Were Three

From left, Daniel Kessler, Paul Banks, and Sam Fogarino. Photo: Angela Boatwright; Grooming by Masha Gvozdov

It’s hot enough to brown a crêpe on the sidewalk outside the Brooklyn café Ted & Honey, where Interpol’s guitarist, Daniel Kessler, has arrived, pristine and natty and seemingly impervious to the swelter. Not content just to be overdressed, Kessler, in a black three-piece suit, chooses to sit directly in the sun. “I like the heat,” he says. “I say, bring it.”

Intensity, atmospheric and otherwise, might as well be another member of Interpol. This week, the band releases their self-titled fourth album, the long-time-coming follow-up to 2007’s critically drubbed Our Love to Admire. The reaction to the single, the plaintive “Lights,” has been very positive; most fans consider it a return to form after the messy, self-indulgent Our Love. But that good news was quickly followed by two losses: an opening slot on U2’s upcoming 360° tour in the U.S., to Bono’s injured back; and Carlos Dengler, Interpol’s mustachioed goth-girl-heartbreaking bassist, to other projects. (Dengler did not respond to requests for an interview.) The band’s collective response to all this? Bring it. “We’re not going to let anyone wallow,” says drummer Sam Fogarino. “It’s just like, buck up.” To Dengler mourners, front man Paul Banks suggests, “Make a Carlos T-shirt.”

Though they package their music in moody atmospherics, the brainy, drily humorous, and aggressively sophisticated members of Interpol are notably dispassionate. With their artful scowls and bespoke suits, they can come off like characters in a Whit Stillman film. But it would be a mistake to say they are unmoved by Dengler’s departure. All three speak of him with sincere reverence. “His persona is so big that I worry people aren’t aware the guy is insanely gifted as a bass player and composer,” says Banks. “He’s a rare genius.”

Carlos D, the band’s de facto mascot, was a key architect of Interpol’s tense formality—an approach that worked spectacularly well when the band released their 2002 debut, Turn On the Bright Lights, on venerated indie label Matador. Interpol, along with the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, were credited with launching a New York–centric sound—artsy, smart, urgent—that kicked then-dominant nu-metal to the curb. (The negative buzz: They were maudlin Joy Division clones, with Banks trying too hard to sound British.) The second album, 2004’s critically acclaimed Antics, extended Interpol’s fan base nationally; they sold out Radio City and toured with the Cure. The band’s response to fame didn’t break any new ground, though. They partied like degenerate rock stars. “I was a pretty sleazy person,” says Banks. “I liked a raunchy, uninhibited nightlife.” And they wanted more. In 2006, the band left Matador, pissing off core fans, and signed with Capitol Records. “We went with a major label just to do it, to be a little fearless,” says Kessler. It all seems rather quaint, given how little labels matter anymore; Interpol may have been the last ambitious, indie-forsaking band to bear the Judas tag. But the move was a mistake, as evidenced by Our Love; then Banks released his solo album, and a once-thrilling band seemed to be dissolving.

Fans were heartened to learn otherwise last year, when Interpol announced they were not only going back into the studio but also re-signing with Matador. And “Lights” confirmed that the band were producing their best material since Bright Lights. Which made Dengler’s defection shocking. For many, Interpol without him seems impossible—Guns N’ Roses without Slash. “It’s hard to think about [Carlos being gone] now, because his efforts will be represented onstage—we’re playing everything that he’s done,” says Fogarino. For the band’s upcoming tour (beginning October 18), Dengler has been replaced by David Pajo of Slint on bass and Brandon Curtis of Secret Machines on keyboards. “We can hold our own, there is no weak link, and if there were, it wouldn’t work,” says Banks. “That’s what defines us.”

When Kessler formed Interpol in 1997, while a student at NYU’s Gallatin School, he envisioned more a creative collective than a conventional band. “It wasn’t about how well someone could play; it was about sensibilities that would inform their approach to music,” says Kessler, who was born in London and moved to Washington, D.C., as a teenager. “Growing up in England in the early eighties, you wear your colors, you know? Skinheads are like this, punks are like that, rude boys are like this. That really influenced me, the idea that music is what separates you from the other guy on the bus going to school. It’s your savior.” Such loftiness didn’t extend to fellow NYU student Banks, at least when he first started writing songs in high school. “It came out of seeing a really beautiful girl and feeling unbelievable longing and sadness about her lack of awareness of my existence,” he says. “If I got everything I wanted from girls, I wouldn’t write shit.” (His situation has improved: Model Helena Christensen is among his exes.)

Kessler’s utopian vision of collaboration worked a lot of the time, but could also degenerate into four seething egos in a dark East Village rehearsal space. “There was a lot of tension, especially in the age of Carlos,” says Banks. “He’s a complicated, inflexible guy. And Daniel is mild-mannered but controlling, though not in a bad way. He’s got a game plan, he’s got goals, but he’s tight-lipped about them. And then I’m more sloppy and loose, which is repulsive to anyone who is more rigid.”

The members of Interpol put in five years of hard labor before getting signed—tedious day jobs followed by hustling for gigs, pasting up flyers, and mailing demos to “every single record label you can think of,” says Kessler. “Matador said no twice before they said yes. But even when nobody cared, we liked it and thought we were doing something good. You can have all this crazy shit happen,” he adds of success, “but that stuff—a guy counting how many people you bring in at the door—stays in you.”

The next challenge, of course, will be after the band’s worldwide tour—a year or so from now—when they are back in the studio for the first time without Carlos. “That will be curious,” says Fogarino. He takes a long drag off his American Spirit. “Sometimes it feels like journalists want me to say I’m scared because the band’s changed. But the thing is, I’m not.”

Sept. 7

And Then There Were Three