We Speak to Daniel Kessler, of Interpol, ahead of the release of the deluxe 10 year anniversary edition of “Turn On The Bright Lights”. Often classed as post-punk revivalists, we discover why this particular revival is a re-incarnation rather than a resurrection.
Sharp suits, staccato bass and guitars worn high. Bone-dry delivery, theatrical atmospherics and the taste of New York City. Unbelievably, it’s now ten years since Interpol released the seminal “Turn On The Bright Lights”. Over the last decade, the band have weathered gruelling touring schedules and line-up changes (albeit consistently buoyed by Daniel Kessler and Paul Banks as core members); a resilient and influential legacy of the thriving early 00s NY scene.
However, although the band are often classed as post-punk revivalists, constantly compared to bands like Joy Division, over the course of this interview we discover some unexpected points of reference. Kessler, for example, acknowledges Fugazi’s major impact, stating: “Fugazi are one of my favourite bands ever … they had this gigantic influence for me personally”. It is also interesting to note how often he refers to moving forward, progress and trying something different. Revivalists or otherwise, for Interpol the focus is on reincarnation rather than resurrection.
Accordingly, the deluxe anniversary edition of their debut album – released this month via Matador – offers far more than your standard resurrection. Demos, a DVD and a fully re-mastered version of the original, all delivered in a hardbound book of previously unreleased photos. We spoke to Kessler ahead of its release, on all things Interpol.
I understand Interpol have been on hiatus for a little while and that you’ve all been pursuing separate projects, what have you personally been up to?
It’s not really only that we have been doing separate projects; it’s essentially to have a bit of a break after the last album. We played around 200 shows, it’s more just what happens when you do that kind of a cycle, you take a bit of a break, lead a bit more of a normal life for a while. I’ve been working on new songs for Interpol. Lots of little things. I have been working on some stuff with a friend that’s more soundtracky. More of a collaboration in the sense of visual elements and so-forth; but more of an artistic project, less for film.
"I personally am a big reader. The arts generally –literature, film- I read all the time"
You say you’ve been working on new songs. In the past Interpol always seemed to have had quite an egalitarian approach to the song-writing process. Did that change when the line-ups shifted or was it always a collaborative process?
No we still have that, it’s still that way. But for the most part, most of the Interpol songs have always originated with me. I’ll take something to the band - the original foundation is usually from the guitar once in a while from the piano - and then we build the momentum into something that will be an Interpol piece of music. But first of all, not every song, but most, has started with me. That’s basically our process.
And the lyrics?
Oh I don’t touch the lyrics, let me be clear. I was just talking about the genesis of the musical composition. Lyrics are 100% Paul. He’ll do that right at the beginning and then he’ll explore other possibilities. Sometimes he’ll keep what he wrote at the very first rehearsal, and sometimes it will be something from the 11th hour at the studio, but it’s always meant to be, whatever he comes up with.
There is quite a literary quality to some of your lyrics. Is literature something you look to for inspiration?
I can’t speak on behalf of the lyrics but I can say that I personally am a big reader. The arts generally – literature, film - I read all the time. But other than fuel for brain I don’t personally take outside influences and apply them directly, that’s not something I want to do. It’s more about keeping your brain sharp, keeping it fuelled. I love literature, I love reading in general.
You talked earlier about soundtracks. Is that something that interests you? Something you could see yourself delving into in the future?
Well it’s not really working on soundtracks – I don’t mean to say that – it’s working with a friend who is a sound designer and together we are doing something a bit different. It’s a new approach for me but we’ve done a few things here and there. I’m an avid film buff, so I’d love to do some music for film, as would our band. We’d love to do more stuff for film. But in general, I like the idea of just doing something different with my friend. Rather than writing songs, trying to cultivate a piece of music in response to what you are seeing, something a bit more atmospheric. There’s no time limitation, there’s no path to follow, it’s just all brand new territory.
Talking of paths: as your career has progressed, do you feel like your success has given you more freedom - you have proven yourself in a sense - or are do you feel the pressure to follow a certain path?
No, we’ve never really felt like we’ve had to wait for anything to be able to follow a separate path. I feel like that is just what we do and what we are. It’s not like we have earned what we do now, that has just always been part of our DNA. You could say that on the first records we were conscious that we wanted to put two records out fairly close together. For various reasons, not just because we were a new band, but it was a new territory for us to be receiving attention and putting out albums and we didn’t want to over-think the process. We just wanted to keep doing what we were doing so we just kept writing songs and recording them. That felt very natural and it kept our feet on the ground. But then as you move forward you tour a lot, you travel a lot, that takes its course and you want to do other things - but they basically feed everything you do with the band one way or another. It’s a healthy element to have. So it’s just – not to use a clichéd word like organic - it’s just like an organic thing. Paul and I have been in the band for 15 years, you want to go to new territories you want to cross new boundaries, but you keep everything very open. It’s not necessarily planned what you want to do and when you want to do it, it just sort of happens. I’m pretty excited about what we’ll do next. We got together in August, just for a few days and it felt really good. It was a really good beginning, so it will be what it will be. One thing I will say about Interpol is that when we do write music together we often don’t know what will happen or what we want to do. It just sort of comes together; it’s what is actually happening in that room.
"We’ve actually gone out of our way to try never cite influences, because individually we don’t have the same ones. It wouldn’t be right to say this is what our band is influenced by, because we really have no idea"
Can you tell us a bit about the upcoming tenth anniversary edition?
It’s not something I usually like to do, I don’t usually go back to listen to old albums or old things. Once I’ve finished any album I have finished – unless I come across it out and about in a store or in a bar – once we finish a record and release it, it is time to think about the next one. So when we decided we were going to do this special anniversary edition, we decided we were going to do something worthwhile for our fans, not just add one or two songs. We found some old photographs and things like that, early demos that we have of tracks like “Stella Was A Diver” from the first record, that we had recorded in our rehearsal space in Brooklyn in 2001, before we signed with Matador. I don’t really actually remember doing it truthfully, but I listened to it now and I found it really quite good. It was a very challenging rehearsal space because they were very thin walls so you really had to wait for the moment when you could actually press record, without hearing another band recording. But these tracks sounded great, so I started really getting into wanting to add something. We wanted to make it worthwhile for people who like our band and this record, so we added all the Peel sessions and other things. It was a trip to go back and actually listen to all the stuff from a somewhat objective standpoint. When you are recording or writing songs, you are not quite objective in some ways.
It shocked me to hear it was the ten year anniversary of “Turn On The Bright Lights”. I remember seeing you tour it, in a small venue in Brighton in 2002.
I remember that venue! What a beautiful venue. It had like a domed ceiling and you could see through it.
That was the one! I had been to see Fugazi the night before with a load of friends and we all moved up the road to see you the day after. So you had a lot of the same audience.
Really? Man, that’s like probably the most flattering thing I could think about. Fugazi are one of my favourite bands ever. Certainly at that time they were one of my favourites for sure, I was listening to them pretty avidly then and for the years before. I saw them countless times in the 90s. They had this gigantic influence for me personally, I can’t say for the rest of our band, but for me I can say that Fugazi were a big influence. I lived in Washington DC as a teenager so being from there, seeing that music scene, was a big influence. So it’s actually really cool to hear we had a similar audience and that we were back to back.
A lot of people talk about Joy Division or Echo And The Bunnymen, British post-punk, in reference to you. Would you say that Fugazi and the whole DC Dischord scene was a bigger influence?
I can’t say for the rest of the band but for me personally. I was very young - I moved to Washington DC from Europe when I was just around 11 years old - and I just became really fascinated with the scene that was happening. It was quite vital in that time period, Fugazi were coming together. Not just Fugazi but a lot of the music from there had this sense of progress and moving forward, reincarnation, trying to do something different. That progression from pretty standard hardcore to something that had more of a melodic feel, the injection of reggae – that was a gigantic thing for me to feel those rhythms. For me those were my influences, those were the reasons why I actually played guitar. I played guitar before, but guitar in a non-traditional way. In the sense of not taking guitar riffs but doing it all by feel; when you watch a band like Fugazi play live they really feel that way, their music is really forming a path of their chemistry together and I think that had a gigantic influence. I can’t say those other bands you mentioned were influences on our band. We never said that, people said it to us. Great bands, but they were not bands we cited as influences. We’ve actually gone out of our way to try never cite influences, because individually we don’t have the same ones. It wouldn’t be right to say this is what our band is influenced by, because we really have no idea. All we know is that when we get together in a room we just work on the music that is on hand. Usually the songs start with me and then we can go anywhere. That is what’s always made our process very exciting and I think that’s what’s always kept our band together: that possibility, that we just never know what we are going to do next.
It’s interesting you talk about chemistry. How do you think your chemistry has shifted with your different line-ups?
The line-up we had live on this last touring cycle, these were live band members, for touring. They weren’t necessarily part of the band, or members of the writing process. It was pretty phenomenal to be playing with David Pajo for a while. He’s obviously an incredible musician, from some tremendous bands that we are all big admirers and fans of. That was just great and what a great musician to play live with. Same thing with Brad Truax. He’s an old friend of mine and what a great guy and what a great musician to play live with. So I can’t say that has an influence on our song writing, it’s more what a pleasure to be playing with such solid musicians.
Finally, talking of playing live, you guys have gone from playing small places like the one we talked about in Brighton, to massive stadiums. Has that influenced your song writing process?
No. I mean, it has always been gradual, moving upwards. I try to never overthink things too much in those capacities. It was never over-night for us and I think that is also key. We were never sure it was ever going to happen in the first place. You know, I met most of these guys in 1997, we played our first show in 1998 and we didn’t release our first record until August 2002. That’s a long time. It’s very difficult, New York City is expensive and you are quite young, you don’t have very much money and it’s a real hassle to try and find rehearsal spaces and all that kind of stuff. Everyone is pulled in every direction from work and from other activities, it’s hard. I think we built our foundation over those years, if we stayed together then. By the time we put out our first record we kind of had an idea of who we were and what was important to us and we just didn’t over-think that kind of stuff. We had a foundation, and then we went quicker than we really had time to think about, these things were all happening. This was pre-social media kind of stuff. Now we probably would have been able to get our music out there a lot quicker and maybe things would have happened faster. Maybe within a year we would have been making our first record that people were listening to. But I think that that faster pace gets in the way of development. I think this way gave us a lot of time to develop as a band and we didn’t have to overthink those things. We still don’t. When you’re on stage it’s really about what’s happening on the stage and your audience - and hopefully the room is very atmospheric and the sound’s great - and then you just keep things simple. I really try to keep things that are tangible.