Six summers ago, the rigorously stylish New York rock-band revival—skinny guys in skinny pants slinging vintage guitars and vintage attitudes—was exploding through the global music scene like a timed demolition. Today the idea seems almost ready for VH1. The Strokes have retreated into occasional mentions in real-estate columns (plus the guitarist’s solo project), while once-hot acts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Walkmen float in a seemingly terminal spiral of diminished expectations. Meanwhile, the New Yorkiest musicians of the moment aren’t rock bands at all but post-punk pasteup artists (LCD Soundsystem), remixers (Girl Talk), folk revisionists (Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Sufjan Stevens), and the kind of arch downtown trash (Scissor Sisters, Dangerous Muse) that the Great Rock Revival thought it knocked back behind the makeup counter. Products of the iPod/YouTube/ProTools generation, they’re more futuristic and oblique, music made mostly in bedrooms.
In this environment, Interpol returns with their third album, Our Love to Admire, at risk of seeming beside the point. Never the most original member of a fundamentally derivative scene—their first album, Turn on the Bright Lights, was knocked early and often for adhering a little too closely to the Joy Division playbook—they’re a surprising candidate for the last band left standing. “In 2001, we weren’t mentioned that much, in terms of New York City bands,” says guitarist Daniel Kessler, who assembled the group (which includes singer Paul Banks, drummer Sam Fogarino, and guitarist Carlos D) from fellow NYU students in 1997. “When the Strokes were becoming a worldwide phenomenon, people weren’t writing about us, and we’d been around for four years.”
It was, relatively, an extended slog in those tight pants. “Most New York bands don’t necessarily stay together that long—especially for four guys who weren’t friends, who didn’t meet at a concert or a record store, who are kind of together for unspecific reasons other than there’s something that happens when they work together,” says Kessler. “We didn’t have much in common. We got to know each other through the band. We weren’t rewarded for our efforts at first. We did three demos in four years before we even started recording.”
But while the Strokes were getting the magazine covers, the Saturday Night Live guest spots, and the celebrity courtesans, Interpol got their suit jackets stained with sweat touring incessantly in markets large and small—according to Kessler, 200 shows worldwide in twelve months before they started recording Our Love to Admire. But they understand what counts: It’s the music, not the haberdashery. “I’ve never heard a bad song by the Strokes,” says Banks. “I think they paved the way to get radio to play cool rock music.”
Not that the bands were, you know, friends. “We never felt there was a scene,” says Kessler. The New York band moment “was great, because there were a lot of great bands here and people hadn’t been looking at the city musically in a while,” he adds. “But it’s not like we carried each other’s gear and hung out after gigs.”
And they weren’t fated to be marooned in some post-Strokes tide pool. Even with songs such as “Public Pervert” and “Narc,” their second album, 2004’s Antics, ventured into the upbeat, which pleased critics. It went into the charts at No. 15, and did better than expected, outselling the follow-up by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, while the Strokes couldn’t match the glory of Is This It with their sophomore effort. For a band that never minded the mainstream, Interpol found success by toning down the alienating poses and focusing on the theme of alienation.
One hour before flying to Europe to kick off a summer of touring, Banks hunches into a patterned wing chair on the top floor of the Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street, smoking of course. His cigarettes are ever-present, and rarely fresh; they seem to jump from the pack into his hand three-quarters spent. In all-black, of course, wearing two large gold rings and an understated gold chain, he looks like a sort of Presbyterian Michael Corleone. And he’s just as realistic about the business.
Our Love to Admire is the band’s first album for Capitol Records; they’ve moved on from hometown label Matador. Banks says the move went without drama or sales pressure. “We had done everything we could do with Matador,” he says. “We fulfilled the contract, and they did an amazing job. We’re friends with everybody there. I think a label likes when a band knows what they want.”
Which is what? “I understand what kind of music gets on the radio; I don’t know as a band if we can write that song,” says Banks. “We just write our music. If everybody responds to that, great. But we’re not going to change that due to any outside force whatsoever. I would welcome any degree of success at all, but we’re not going to change what we do.”
Our Love to Admire is not short on spectacle—it’s the band’s most narratively dramatic album yet, crawling with tales of breakups, betrayals, challenging-to-impossible women, physical destruction, and mental corruption. There are more than a few lyrical references to drug use and burnout. The track “All Fired Up” is pretty obviously all about heroin, with mentions of sweating, shaking, and “dealers on the take”; “Rest My Chemistry” finds its exhausted narrator sleepless and “bathed in nothing but sweat,” while his “friends they come and the lines they go by.” He’s contemplating a night off.
“I think every rock band has its phases of indulgence,” says Banks, who writes the lyrics but is discreet in interviews. “As a band you go out on tour, and it’s kids in a candy store. Every band lives out that cliché. But we’re past our, um, starlet phase. We’ve never partied so hard we fucked up any gigs. We’ve always been very professional, and at this point we’re more professional than we’ve ever been.”
Back to the starlet phase: What to make of the relationship advice provided in “No I in Threesome”? “I’m autobiographical, but I’m not that autobiographical,” he says. “I would have more sensitivity than to suggest that”—a three-way—“for a failing relationship.”
The leadoff single, “The Heinrich Maneuver,” returns to one of the band’s primary concerns: its New York identity, with Banks snarling at a lover who decamped to L.A. “No one over there can tolerate getting as dirty as a New York band,” he explains. “You see a guy in a New York band versus someone over there who wants to look like that, and the guy in L.A. will have his jeans pressed.”
There’s meaning in that for Banks; Interpol is nearly puritanical in the policing of its style and tone. But Banks doesn’t think that severity makes them gothy throwbacks to some pre-Wellbutrin sensibility. “We’re not miserablists,” says Banks. “Our interaction as a band is more humorous than anything. There’s nothing about fetishizing sadness or doing it as a concept. We’re just making the sort of music that speaks to us. I’ve heard people say it’s uplifting. But it’s not easy music, because this is not an easy city to live in.”
And, in fact, he doesn’t even live in the city anymore. Seeking a “fortress of solitude,” Banks moved from the East Village to Jersey City a year ago. (Drummer Fogarino lives there also.) “But I’m coming back,” he says. “I hate it when I’m on the road and people say, ‘Are you from New York?’ and fuck, I’m from Jersey. And the path train sucks on a Friday night. It’s like amateur hour for alcoholics.”
When they’re in town, you can often see Carlos D tromping around the East Village, squeezed into outfits that defy even the most joyous of summer weather. Kessler lives in the Lower East Side apartment he’s had for fourteen years and has the rhetoric of the city’s decline from raffishness to bourgeoisification down pat. “They used to put on concerts in a vacant lot in South Williamsburg,” he remembers. “The deli next door owned it and they would rent it out; I’m pretty sure there would be chickens running around. There was this ‘Let’s have an impromptu concert’ feeling during the summer that’s rapidly disappearing.”
Earlier this month, during a break in their touring schedule, Interpol decided to put on a “secret show” at the Bowery Ballroom. A dozen lightbulbs hung over the stage, glowing a sickly purple. The crowd was surprisingly heavy on the ungothy and the unhipster: Baseball caps floated throughout the crowd; three guys in cargo shorts pumped their fists and demanded “PDA,” a track from the first album. The usual contingent of rock-critic tastemakers from Rolling Stone and the Times were in attendance bobbing their heads in approval, like attendees at an adult-contemporary rave.
It sounded like a funeral, but no one’s dead yet. “I do think about trends changing,” says Banks laconically. “And I’m aware of how scenes change and how things develop into a trend. There seems to be a wiseass thing that’s sort of new—two dudes who make really crazy shit from home. That seems to be that niche. But bands will never go away. You’ll never beat the spectacle of seeing someone beat the shit out of a drum kit.”