What Went Wrong For… Interpol

[What Went Wrong? is a regular Monday segment in which we examine an artist — an actor, director, musician, etc. — and try to pinpoint the exact moment in which their once-promising career went off the rails.]


I don’t, and probably never will, subscribe to the notion that rock and roll is dead. I will, however, buy that it’s in a Tiger Woods-sized slump right now (perhaps The Suburbs winning that Grammy a few years back was rock’s Elin-charging-with-a-club moment?) I’m in no way saying that the Foo Fighters and the Black Keys are bad bands, but when that’s not only the best we’ve got, but all we’ve got… come on, guys, we’re in trouble. It’s the kind of period that can make you nostalgic for a time not that far gone.

If Interpol’s debut LP, Turn On The Bright Lights, came out today, it would be a stunner for completely different reasons. But when it came out ten years ago, it was just another page in the then-heralded “rock revival” period of 2002. In hindsight, it was less a revival than glorious, self-contained moment in time, a moment where rock music thrived because it had room to breathe— because it didn’t need any saving. Sure, the five or so years before it were filled with vapid, post-grunge shlock, but it wasn’t as dire as, say, now. The best bands were merely on the fringes of the radio, the Dismemberment Plans, Flaming Lips, and Modest Mice of the world still destroying our expectations for what rock music could accomplish on a regular basis.

But that span of (roughly) 2002-2005 felt different, as if the best musical minds in New York City had started a Facebook group at a time before Facebook, replying to Julian Casablancas’s first post of “so guys, you wanna change the scene?” To borrow from a recent interview with comedian Aziz Ansari, “I went to school at NYU in the fucking heyday: Strokes, White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Are all these bands really that good?’ And now you look back and say, ‘They definitely were that good.'” Tom Haverford nailed it. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs made rock music simply look easy again. The White Stripes gave Rolling Stone justification for carrying on as a publication (at least until this). And if The Strokes were the embodiment of New York’s booze-soaked nightlife, Interpol was the ensuing hangover combined with the melancholy night-after, the sober recognition that we’re all fucked living in this city (or any city for that matter), but also the welcome reminder that getting fucked doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Bright Lights succeeds in large part because of its sequencing. It opens a song called “Untitled,” a three-minute rhythmic exercise interrupted with thunderous guitars courtesy of band mastermind Daniel Kessler. It contains only one lyric, with singer Paul Banks crooning “I will surprise you sometime. I’ll come around, when you’re down.” Released just months after 9/11 (and sounding at times scarily, though unintentionally, prescient), the line made the record’s mission statement astoundingly clear: even though this city is fucked right now, we can still surprise one another and have each other’s backs. The record then charges into the unstoppable “Obstacle 1,” where Interpol’s main strengths, the one-two punch of drummer Sam Fogarino and bassist Carlos D, are on full display. Then comes “NYC,”  which is perhaps the only Interpol song where the chorus completely soars.

The whole album is comprised of great individual songs, but it’s unquestionably stronger as a sum of its parts. The band’s follow-up effort, Antics, is weaker in part because it feels focused on the songs moreso than the album as a whole. The band made a good decision by going  for a lighter tone on their second LP, and largely succeeded, but by opening up their songwriting scope, they sacrificed a bit of the atmosphere Bright Lights generated. It resulted in some of Interpol’s all-time best tracks—“Evil,” “Take You on a Cruise,” and especially “C’mere”—and it’s still defended by some, who are wrong, as the band’s best album. But mostly, it came as a “phew” moment to fans dreading a sophomore slump, keeping them hungry for another potential masterpiece.

Our Love To Admire was not that. Like Antics, it’s not a bad album—of all Interpol’s discography, it probably deserves a second chance from fans who dismissed it the first time around, as it’s aged pretty solidly—but the problem was that it was an album no one wanted. It was Interpol’s first and only effort on major label Capitol, and the music feels conflicted as a result. Some songs try for Bright Lights’ melancholy tone but sound dreary. Some try at Antics’ lighter approach but spin into goofy territory (“No I In Threesome” is the best song completely defeated by its premise before it even had a chance to start, possibly of all time. I’m exaggerating, but only a little.) One sounds a lot like a Pixies song. In trying to keep everyone happy, Interpol made their first less-than-stellar album. How much label interference played into that is tough to say, but it was now 2007, and Interpol had signs of a band that had showed us all of their tricks at first glance and was straining for ideas.

Admire also committed the worst sin a band can make three albums into a career: it highlighted previous weaknesses in their discography that had been glossed over by the mastery of their earlier song-craft. Banks had always been more of a curiosity than a wonder when it came to lyrics, but some of the lines on Admire were so bizarre that they forced you to go back to lines on the previous two albums that may have initially sounded mysterious and cool, when really they were just kind of, no other way to say it, dumb. In 2002, “we’ve got 200 couches where you can sleep tight” might have made a curious listener say “wait, what!” In 2007, it forces the same listener to return to the lyric, re-evaluate it amidst what came after, and say, “wait, what?” That’s the risk a band catching lightning in a bottle takes when they decide to keep going forward, and without the song-writing to back it up, lines like “You look so young like a daisy in my lazy eyes” sadly suggested that Interpol had already run out of things to say.

The band’s most dismal statement was a self-titled 2011 release that saw them trying to recapture what made them special at their start without remembering any of what that constituted. It goes for Bright Lights’ taxi-ride-amidst-a-downpour vibe but forgets to write great songs. It’s technically assured, thanks to that rhythm section (though this would be Carlos D’s last contribution to the group), but lacks big moments.  And in the span of just one song, single “Barricade” captures everything that’s frustrating about Interpol ten years later: it’s filled with the group’s hookiest verses since Antics, with Kessler and Carlos playfully bouncing off one another and Banks delivering actual, earworm memories—but then the whole thing comes to a grinding halt at a baffling, genuinely unpleasant chorus. Interpol giveth, Interpol taketh away.

Bright Lights and Antics were some of the first records that really got me into that haze of rock and roll back in high school, and against all odds, the band is still together, planning a fifth album for release in 2013. Though it’s now clear they’ll never top those first two albums, I’m still pulling for the new trio to find some of that early spark, produce a surprise success, and if nothing else, leave us with some closure after a run that started so high, then just kind of continued until it became a perpetual slate of nothingness. There’s really no reason to stay optimistic, but I’ll always pull for this band. After all, Banks once promised us that he’d surprise us sometime, and come around when we’re down. Wouldn’t that be nice?


So, Where Did It Go Wrong?: Inking the papers with Capitol. This is a band that never should have signed to a major label. It compromised their sound and made it more difficult for them to find a coherent direction, in a time when they really needed that. Sadly, they never quite recovered.


10 responses to “What Went Wrong For… Interpol

  1. I always find it interesting when people want to write about art and music. This writer attempts to put art in the context of what the mass should interpret. More so, he wants us to buy into his interpretation of art, in this case the music of Interpol. Unfortunately, the writer fails to see that every individual has his of her interpretation of the same. If everyone were to listen to critics they wouldn’t do anything for fear of being criticized! I for one enjoy the music and whether they got it right or wrong…I think people can decide for themselves, right?

    • My interpretation comes free of charge. We’d never ask you to buy into anything, and thus present you an ad-free experience during your time on A Horizontal Myth, guaranteed.

      • Yes Terry, but criticism is nothing more than an extension of opinion. Of course I recognize that everyone has their own distinct interpretation of art. I’m not asking you to subscribe to any line of thought, just offering my own take on the band and nothing else. I’d love to hear your take as well.

  2. SiriusXMU just did an ‘Old School’ show with Interpol. i listened to it because, hell, i cannot escape the radio and i love it. they discussed “Turn On The Bright Lights.” apparently it’s the record’s 10th anniversary. i’m not sure i get it, but people love this band. i tried to link you to it, but a creeping-around-bootleg-from-work might have to do the trick.

  3. I think the greatest problem with the last 2 albums is over-complexity instead of simplicity. I put the blame on carlos because he swifted more to playing piano. nearly every track has standard interpol arrangement of 2 guitars, vocals, drums and bass, but then it has about 3 layers of keys, violins, and in particular on the S/T a weird echoing effect on the vocals. Its becomes to much and ruins a lot the songs (For Example Summer Well). but your right the lyrics are a bit of a problem

    • I think you need to attribute at least some of it to a general decline in songwriting as well- again, for example, even a stripped-down “Summer Well” would have no place on the first two albums- but I completely agree with what you’re saying. Hell, the entirety of bright lights can be played effectively on three instruments. Good points.

  4. Totally disagree. S/T is totally and completely superior to TOTBL in virtually every way: Production, Arrangement, Concept, Performance.

    TOTBL was a great debut record, but it is buried under a haze of nostalgia that has people thinking the songs were better than they actually were. And don’t get me wrong- I can recall with absolute clarity the moment I was standing in a record store in Portland, despondently looking at a bunch of records I had no real interest in, and hearing “Untitled” come out of nowhere on the store’s system. I walked around for the length of the next 4 tunes before finally walking up to the register and asking who this was, semi-incredulously. I bought the record immediately and listened to almost nothing else for the next 6 months.

    But if TOTBL is perhaps a more cohesive record than the next two offerings, that is only because the highs aren’t as high (and the lows, admittedly, aren’t as low— “Slow Hands” and “Who Do You Think” are simply terrible).

    Maybe this is a symptom of the fact that the segment of the fanbase that adores TOTBL and has been clamoring for the band to copy it ad infinitum also loves The White Stripes, The Strokes and the very aptly named Yeah Yeah Yeahs…bands that I find boring beyond belief. Credit to Jack White for being able to actually play his guitar, but other than that, blech. Sub-Kinks level crap.

    The best thing about Interpol from the start was never their “indie cool”, their lo-fi production, their fashion sense, or the wall of reverb on their guitars– it was their precision and better-than-competent cohesion as a unit, combined with Banks’ vocal delivery and very unique lyrical sensibilities. Those things have only grown- Banks’ range on the 4th record vastly exceeds anything he did on the first two and the textures and layers are bottomless. As a whole record this one has a very traceable trajectory and it sounds huge and epic compared to TOTBL which sounds like what it is: a promising debut from a young and very green band. You are right that “Summer Well” wouldn’t have a place on the first two records—that’s because it’s a better song than the majority of those songs (You want to talk about tunes that start promising and then derail with terrible choruses: “Evil”.That opening line is the best thing about the whole tune). I am skeptical of listeners who dismiss this record out of hand and then talk about crappy indie rock bands who’ve never, ever made records half as interesting as this one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s