Interpol writes a new chapter

Jamie James Medina

Don’t ask Paul Banks to explain his opaque lyrics if you want to get him talking. Ask him about Henry Miller.

“Yeah, he’s the big one,” the Interpol singer says between blasts of ambulance sirens, over the phone in New York.

He pauses. “I love Dostoyevsky. I love Knut Hamsun. I love Herman Melville. I love Bukowski and I love Hemingway. I tried Proust and was as moved as I was supposed to be, but I didn’t go, like, in on Proust.”

Banks groups the authors into audible matrices, detailing how they influence his tonal sensibilities.

Miller and Bukowski, the genre-bending libertines? Banks is inspired by the “grit and daring” it takes to write about one’s own life, even if it’s veiled in semi-autobiography.


But Mann, Dostoyevsky, and Melville?

“The endeavor of it I can’t even fathom,” Banks says of the novelists’ task. The 40-year-old studied English at NYU, and he worked at Interview magazine before Interpol became among the most lauded and divisive rock bands of the early aughts. If not for Interpol’s success, Banks says, he likely would have pursued journalism or painting.

One wonders, naturally, where “Marauder” squares on the fiction/nonfiction spectrum.

On Interpol’s just-released sixth album, which the band will support with a show at the Orpheum Tuesday, the character “marauder” (maybe) sleeps with a friend’s girlfriend, is (perhaps) unfaithful to a partner, and is (probably) found passed out by neighbors after a party that’s gone “off the rails.” He is “chained of no real code” and “breaks bonds” in “Stay in Touch,” and he’s due for a reckoning: “Party’s Over” goes one song title.

Banks has suggested the character is himself, and he’s said that accountability is a theme throughout “Marauder.” Ascending in New York’s turn-of-the-century rock boom, alongside the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol’s Dionysian ways have been well-documented, and Banks has shared how he struggled with substance abuse early in the band’s career. But the “Marauder” press cycle is the first time he’s explicitly linked a new set of lyrics to his past.


“Somehow those two things intersected — life experience and the poetic urge,” Banks says. “Maybe something in my experience came together and I felt like it’s now sufficiently romantic to be straightforward about.”

Is he worried, then, that listeners will decode the marauder’s transgressions?

“No,” he responds. “With art you’ve got plausible deniability — I can say your interpretation is wrong.” Banks laughs, sympathetically. “That’s poetic license, man. It isn’t autobiography — it’s a record.”

It’s understandable that fans might pine for the data of Interpol’s private lives. Banks’s lyrics are rife with hints of excess, and, in their heyday, the band’s four model-esque members palled around with actual models and movie stars — Brad Pitt was a fan, among others, and Banks dated the supermodel Helena Christensen for a decade. Interpol’s partying was notorious enough that the writer Chuck Klosterman more or less deemed them brand ambassadors for cocaine in “Killing Yourself to Live.”

But the point was to develop a cult of personality, not to be relatable, and to be a fan implied tacit agreement with Interpol’s distance. From the band’s founding in 1997 through present, Interpol’s posture has been glossy yet enigmatic. The colors red, black, and white have been adhered to manically. They’ve conveyed, with militant precision, an aesthetic that matches their sound: muscular, wry, occasionally sinister, and dotted with just enough melancholy to invite real human feeling.


So autobiography sounds different in Banks’s hands than it does in say, Ed Sheeran’s. But there’s a shift on “Marauder” nonetheless. “When did you ever hesitate to be mine?,” his baritone groans in “It Probably Matters.” It’s impossible to know, but Banks’s struggle is palpable.

Interpol’s taut melodies and swinging rhythms sound vital on “Marauder,” thanks to the producer Dave Fridmann (Sleater-Kinney, Flaming Lips), who had the band track to 2-inch tape using a “destructive” technique — Banks, guitarist Daniel Kessler, and drummer Sam Fogarino recorded together live, and they could only replace a section of tape by eliminating another. Mistakes, like pinched notes, were largely kept, and one can feel the band just barely speeding at points, smearing their sound in a way that a Pro Tools grid would never allow.

“I absolutely still get a great feeling from playing loud rock ’n’ roll guitar,” Banks says, when asked if the genre’s appeal remains as strong as it did at Interpol’s birth, two decades ago. In the years since, Banks has used his extracurricular time to collaborate with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, among other less rock-oriented solo work. But his earliest loves — Nirvana, the Pixies, Metallica — remain inspiring totems, and he’s effusive when discussing the joy of composing with Kessler and Fogarino.

These days, Banks also gets his kicks from boxing and surfing — he splits his time between Panama and New York City — and painting character actors from ’80s B movies in his East Village apartment, located one block from the dorm that housed him at NYU.


Though the area has gentrified in the last two decades, Banks says the East Village, Lower East Side, and Alphabet City still feel rock ’n’ roll to him.

“They maintain a quality that I loved back then,” he continues. One thinks of Tompkins Square Park, St. Mark’s Place, and more nearby haunts where Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Alan Vega, Debbie Harry, Paul Banks, and myriad others cultivated artistic selves amid endless concrete and possibility.

“There’s something . . . ” He pauses again. “There’s a feeling of fascinating private lives.”

Spoken like a writer’s writer.


At Orpheum Theatre, Boston, Sept. 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets $35-$59.50, 617-482-0106, www.ticketmaster.com

Ryan Burleson can be reached at ryanscottburleson@gmail