chat room

Paul Banks of Interpol on the Band’s New Album, His Weird Paintings, and Gummy Bear Tea

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It’s tough to talk about the early-aughts indie-rock boom without name-checking Interpol’s 2002 debut album, Turn on the Bright Lights. That keen intersection of punk and dance, coupled with Paul Banks’s baritone vocal growl and obtuse lyrics, hurled them into the spotlight and was a seismic encapsulation of what it was like to live in New York at that time, too. But that’s hardly where Interpol’s story ends. They’ve since toured the world; parted ways with foundational member, bassist Carlos Dengler; and Banks recorded an album with RZA. On their fifth album, Marauder, released on Friday, the band decided to return to their stripped-down sound, this time with the gift of hindsight in tow. Vulture chatted with lead vocalist and bassist Paul Banks at his Manhattan apartment, a cozy space replete with a wall of books and an impressive art collection culled from thrift stores, gifts from fans, and Banks’s own hand.

Can you tell me about these paintings you’ve done?
In most cases, I paint character actors from B movies in the ’80s. I have, like, a lot of them that I was calling the pantheon of my youth … or the pantheon of my subconscious? Something really pretentious. But it was sort of funny, because it would be, like, Booger from Revenge of the Nerds. And like, some secondary character from Roadhouse. I have a Miguel Ferrer from RoboCop. Some minor character from Donnie Brasco made it in there. I have the main dude that Sylvester Stallone arm wrestled in Over the Top. That’s one of my favorite paintings. Some guys from Bloodsport. The evil scientist from Howard the Duck. All these things that were in my youth, these sort of figures.

I was always drawn to character actors because they seemed to be able to do so much with so little. The idea is that character actors are able to exude so much with just an expression. And then you get the cinematic lighting. Another favorite one I have is [that] I took a paparazzi photo of Charlie Sheen from ’89, and he’s like walking down the street with maybe Denise Richards. Behind him is some dude with this, like, epic Highlander haircut. Full mullet, aviators, and he’s Charlie’s bro. And he’s just in the background of this photo, so I zoomed in on his bro and his mullet and painted that guy [laughs].

Who has these paintings?
I have all of them. Do you mind if I smoke?

Not at all. Let’s talk about Marauder — what headspace were you in when you were recording it? Or many headspaces?
Yeah. I think many. That’s a good question. I think that we were in a very good place in terms of our band dynamic. That, to me, seems to have been the focus for the creation of this record. A priority for me was get along, and get some love in the air and in the soul of the music. Which I think should always be the intention, but maybe I haven’t always been the best practitioner of that. So I was kind of trying to enjoy my bandmates and enjoy the process really consciously. And I think it worked. I think that was in the spirit of creating this record: just being positive.

And then other than that, I don’t really go about writing music or participating in Interpol with an agenda. We don’t have meetings ahead of time saying, “Let’s write a record that sounds like this.” Daniel brings in a series of guitar progressions and we just build them. And in his own private space as an artist, he’s probably got his own conscious thoughts about what he’s trying to do, and what he’s trying to expand on as a writer. But those aren’t things we discuss as a committee. I think Sam is maybe the only one of us who can speak on his intention. And I think I’ve heard him talk about Motown on his record, that he wanted to add a little Motown and swing on some of his beats. But for me, I’m really viscerally reacting to the music in the moment and trying to find what I think is cool. And I think as a writer for me, so much of writing is just that great edit of everything that you think isn’t cool.

Has your relationship to your voice changed over time?

How so?
Although I respected singers when I was starting out, it wasn’t what I considered myself to be. I came from a school of thought where like, Bob Dylan’s a writer, not a singer. Leonard Cohen’s a writer. Even Neil Young I’d put into that, or Beck. And those are all people who are my favorites. And then you get your sort of classically singing approach to vocals, and I would say, “Okay, that’s Céline Dion.” And I’m not that, I’m over here. I’m just some guy who yells and has lyrics.

But by the time we got to the third record I wrote a song called “No I in Threesome,” and in [it] are these weird intervals. So we’d be in rehearsal, and when I wrote the melody, I could sing it. I wouldn’t write something that isn’t in my range. But I’d find that by the third time we did the song, I couldn’t sing it anymore. Or the next day I’d get to rehearsal and say, “I can’t sing that song. It’s so weird, what’s happening?” So I spoke to [producer] Rich Costey and he said, “You should go see this voice coach, Ron Anderson in L.A.” And I went to see this dude, and it’s been a very rewarding relationship that I’ve had with him all these years. I’m more of a trained singer; I’ve got five extra notes at the top of my range.

But I feel like I went to it in a very organic way, and I stand by it: which is I wrote something that I couldn’t sing, and so voice training helped me to learn to get over these obstacles and free me up to write more adventurous melodies. Which is something I’m inclined to do, or I would have never had that problem. If I was comfortable staying in the limited range I had, I never would have written “No I in Threesome.” Obviously I was trying to go places.

Anyway, then I maybe went in directions where I was in love or discovering sort of a higher register, and now I’m in a place where I remember that I like the baritone aspect of my voice. And now I feel I have a broader spectrum of things I can choose from as a singer, and I’m kind of enjoying exploring the breadth of that. In a nutshell, yeah, I think I’ve changed a lot as a singer. Even in the sense that I take myself more seriously or try and approach it as a singer. Which I literally didn’t even do before.

So you’re drinking more tea these days?
Mmm … sometimes I drink like … no. No. Sometimes if you get a little phlegmy there’s remedies. Gummy bear tea is good.

What is gummy bear tea?
Apparently glycerin is good to lubricate your vocal chords, but there’s no glycerin you can buy in the United States. But Haribo gummy bears have glycerin. So if you boil some of them down, you have glycerin for your vocal chords. But I think all that shit becomes psychosomatic, or a placebo effect. I don’t really think if I’m struggling that taking a sip of gummy bears is going to fix what’s going on [laughs]. But sometimes you need those little crutches.

On Marauder, your lyrics are a bit more forward-facing, or more direct, than in the past. Was this a conscious thing, were you trying to go through something while you were writing it?
Maybe wanting to go through something is a good way to put it. I want to say that I’ve always felt like an honest lyricist, and I’ve been trying to draw from myself and the world in my own mind a transparent way. And if the language is a little esoteric, that, to me is not to obscure meaning. It was a way to convey something that required that sort of language. And then something within the act of combining words in a strange fashion is a gesture unto itself, that’s outside of the meaning in the words. The fact that you would do that is also like another layer of meaning you can get away with in song.

I think that just where I’m at in my life has allowed me to channel certain poetry through a filter that was more using direct language. I felt like in some instances, my own experiences were just speaking in a sort of first person [voice], less exotic than my own. I guess my own personal saga started to feel like it had a poetic weight that I could convey with simplicity, [and] that it would still have the same resonance that I’ve always looked for. So it’s not like now I want to show myself at all. Some of the stuff that probably sounds autobiographical I would say, “No, that’s one of the fictional songs.” Then, there are other moments on the record that are for myself. I still certainly get a kick writing for characters. Like, “The Rover” is not a personal song. That’s a character that I’m envisioning, and “Mountain Child” is a version of me via a character. But I just think it’s where I am right now as a writer.

What I hear as the tension of this album is romanticizing a part of yourself while reckoning with some heavier things. I’m wondering what that interplay is like to you.
Hm. Yeah. Maybe that’s why the language is different this time, there’s more of a Zen there. There’s, like, a sense of accountability and responsibility, but you can’t just self-flagellate. I think there’s also a sense of distance: Yeah, I’ve made these missteps and errors. But such is life. And such life will continue to be, insofar that I am not yet the ideal version of myself. I’ve learned from some of these mistakes, but I probably haven’t learned everything I’m supposed to learn yet.

I think there’s a tension between a sense of  where maturity and youth are kind of blending. And luckily, you’re still tapped into the youth part. So it doesn’t just feel like a memoir that’s totally retrospective and introspective. It has that little bit of inner joy. Maybe that’s the tension: When your sense of remorse or guilt or reflection or analysis isn’t crushing, but you’re looking at it a little harder than you used to be able to. But it’s still not actually taking all the joy and the risk and the uncertainty of where you’re going.

How did you get to that point?
I don’t know. But I do think that creativity is something that is just in you, and there’s lots of bad roads that we can go down, that can sort of dim us or chip away at our fire a little bit — if you make consistently the wrong choices, or drink yourself to death. So I feel like there are things outside of artwork that I do that seem to really support me as an artist, like physical activities. Which is like, the greatest antidepressant that I’ve ever encountered. To just sort of … get out there [makes running motion with arms].

So you’re jogging?
Sweating. Jogging’s great. I do boxing, I surf. Intense activities really do a thing for me, and also have given me another thing to be really passionate about. And then a separate thing, where as an artist it’s always so abstract how good what you’re doing is. And when you go into something like an athletic pursuit, or if you took up salsa dancing. I think that process of being really shitty at something at this phase of my life, I think there’s something extremely rejuvenating about just toughing it out and sucking again. Like, you haven’t sucked at anything since you were like 15. Adulthood is often characterized by staying in comfort zones and having shit under control. So I think later in life going wholeheartedly into something you suck at … and in the case of surfing, suck at it for a long time. Same with boxing. And then toughing that out? It’s youthful for your brain.

The rewards of being an artist, who the fuck knows what they actually are? You’re not usually going to get the amount of acclaim that you’d like or … there’s no real arbiter of what is good out there. But in things in dance or sport, it’s “I’m officially better at this this week than I was last week.” There’s no disputing that I’m getting better and I can see those results, so I think that satisfies some urge for some validation of effort. Which, in a long-term way, allows me to stay not jaded as an artist.

Can you tell me about the album artwork and the circumstances under which that was taken?
Yeah. Do you know about the photographer [Garry] Winogrand and [Attorney General Elliot] Richardson?

I don’t know much about Winogrand, but was wondering if that was taken around when Richardson stood up to Nixon.
I think that’s the press conference where he announced his resignation. Yeah, that’s a historic moment. So the way the way that magical universal thing came to play is: I had this idea to make the cover art similar to Studio 54 black-and-white photography. Paparazzi photos, I wanted that on the cover. In discussing with this design team, he starts researching then I’m talking to [Matador label founder Chris] Lombardi and he says, “Oh, like El Morocco.” Which is another place that movie stars went but more in the Bogart era. And there’s black-and-white paparazzi photos of these people in a fine restaurant, with zebra-print banquettes and shit.

So then they start looking at those images, and they find this guy Winogrand who used to shoot sort of documentary-style photography, including at the El Morocco. He just happens to find this photo of Elliot Richardson resigning … by the same photographer we were looking at. And it was like, cool. We didn’t set out to have a politically charged image of a guy resigning under Nixon. We were just going down paths of creativity with a few people that I think are really good, and have good ideas. And we settle on that image. It was way more organic, but I feel like the outcome, I’ve almost demystified it, which I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But I do think there is something kind of precious about the fact that some really magical, cool shit can happen when a group of people are just open to good ideas and you have the right people around. And Interpol has the right people around us for cool unexpected shit like that to happen.

This is the second time you’ve brought up paparazzi photos since we’ve started talking. Why do you think you’re drawn to them?
What was the first time?

When you were telling me about your paintings.
Oh yeah, Charlie Sheen. I mean, that’s a great question. It’s very specific, it’s nothing like paparazzi today. I’m talking black-and-white, interesting people with that flashbulb photography. Sequins and … I don’t know, there’s something exotic and classy and beautiful about it. I’m not talking about schlubby telephoto photography of people leaving the gym with a smoothie.

The 15-year anniversary of Turn on the Bright Lights was in 2017, along with you guys having a pretty central role in Lizzy Goodman’s book out that same year, Meet Me in the Bathroom. What was it like revisiting that?
The Bright Lights tour would have been something very different for me if we were not 75 to 80 percent done writing a new record. I think I would have felt like, hold on, I don’t want to do this look of looking back right now. But because we were going out, we were playing one of the new songs for this record, every night on that tour sort of using it to convey to our fans that we’re almost in the studio, we’re deep into writing, there’s a new record coming, it had been a long time since we’d been in front our audience. So it felt like, well, the record’s not till next year, this feels like a really good opportunity to kind of get on the stage, get the motors running, interact with our fan base.

The part of focusing on our early music to me is kind of like … we’ve played a lot of those songs in our shows anyway, it’s more playing the album top to bottom. It’s an album that I love and I think it enhanced the recording of this record, because it anchored me in the sense of, “This is where the songs end up.” And sort of like bridging that distance between studio and live, which kind of came through at the end. We made this record that doesn’t feel overdub heavy, it feels stripped-down and live in the room sort of feeling. And I wonder whether or not we would have been in tune enough to do that if we hadn’t sort of just come back from that Bright Lights tour. I will say that were it not for the fact that we were deep into a new record, I would have felt like, “What are we doing?”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Paul Banks Talks Interpol’s New Album, Gummy Bear Tea, More