Nobody makes sullenness seem so stylish as New York's brooding post-punk band Interpol. As part of the so-called post-punk revival in the early- to mid-2000s, the quartet (now a threesome) helped re-popularize a genre largely forgotten by the huddled masses. Alongside the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the White Stripes, Interpol showed that rock 'n' roll music suddenly could chart again. But when it came to guileful shadow play, no one captured it quite like these specialists. (Author's note: "Specialist" is one of their songs.)
The band's debut on Matador Records, Turn on the Bright Lights, was a dimly lit, velvety portrait of littered subway tunnels and the neon-speckled underground sex clubs where you'd imagine a youthful, impressionable Lou Reed might loiter. Interpol was indebted to the gothic freckles evident in Joy Division or the shifty yet evenhandedness of Mission of Burma -- maybe mix in a little Television or the guarded introspection of The Smiths.
But Paul Banks (vocals, guitar), Daniel Kessler (guitar, vocals), Sam Fogarino (drums), and Carlos Dengler (formerly bass, before pursuing an acting career) do it all with contemporary flair, dressing more sharply than their peers, performing with a Kraftwerk-like precision. Their constrained minimalism echoes in their album artwork, springing from their condensed riffs.
A nearly 20-year career has seen a lot of changes for the band, many of them subtle, but all of them direct. On Antics, Banks devolved his euphemisms into love affairs with serial killers ("Evil") and prostitutes ("Narc"). The detached longing on "C'mere" and the level of purposeful misdirection layered on "Not Even Jail" remain unrivaled.
Despite a few hits, Our Love to Admire is generally seen as a low point in the band's career and was a highlight of the group's brief tenure at Capitol Records before it returned to Matador for its self-titled fourth record. It was Interpol's last album to feature Carlos D., and with the infamous tension in that relationship, the band seemed to be restructuring itself.
But it's evident Interpol still is reinventing itself and has found its footing again, having just released its fifth album, El Pintor, last fall. The name, Spanish for "the Painter," also cleverly anagrams into Interpol.
"I think I just found that out yesterday," says Fogarino with a laugh. "I think we might have been a little wary at first that it might be a little hokey, but the image and the term in Spanish were too good to deny. I like the image with the term, the painter, with the demure, lovely hands . . . That kind of thing worked really well."
El Pintor is a return to roots for the band, which means more direct song structure while still offering the rewards that earned Interpol's fan base. Written on a balcony in Buenos Aires, "All the Rage Back Home" seems fixated on the hesitancy to trust someone, especially when one's occupation is often on the road. Maybe it's the numbers, but "Breaker 1" evokes "Obstacle 1" with its stoic lyrics delivered in a Morse code cadence.
Another standout track, "Everything Is Wrong," coincidentally shares a title with an early Moby album. But while electronica's vegan grandmaster used his music as a political diatribe, Fogarino says, Interpol's concept deals more with self-reflection and futility.
"I don't know if it was that kind of global view of the human condition at this point in time," he says. "It's way more personal, I think."
The black-and-white video for "Everything Is Wrong" (directed by the band's frontman, Banks, and Carlos Puga) features Kessler nibbling an ice cream cone and helping old ladies across the street while Fogarino charmingly flirts with models. Banks himself is almost unrecognizable as a hustling creep in a generic "NY" hoodie.
"The whole intention was to be a little more playful," Fogarino says. "That whole depiction of an egotistical kind of star, walking around with his bodyguard, just being annoying, not really paying attention to anything that's around you -- it's all about just yourself. I think we had a blast doing it."
The recent series of videos is unique because rarely do Interpol's music videos feature the band playing, a trope Fogarino wants to avoid because "they're kind of a drag to make." That's why, in the past, "The Heinrich Maneuver" featured actors running in slow motion. But perhaps most iconic is the band's work with Charlie White, who directed "Evil" and is responsible for the retro-futuristic 2001: A Space Odyssey-meets-The Holy Mountain feel on "Lights."
Charlie White's work is seminal and off-putting, often combining the melodramatic staging of photographer Gregory Crewdson with John Carpenter-style Hollywood monsters, such as through his photographic series "Understanding Joshua." But it is also deeply sarcastic, as is Music for Sleeping Children, his musical project with Boom Bip. White's attitude and otherworldly philosophies were a perfect match for Interpol.
"At first glance, you [notice] there's something off-kilter and there's an element of dark humor to it," Fogarino says. "You have to really decipher what's going on within the three and half minutes for this music video because it'll appear to be one thing when it goes below the surface. He's the kind of guy that [says], 'Here's the treatment,' and you kind of just roll with it. It's not going to be too collaborative. Which, in making videos, is kind of fun . . . with Charlie's videos, the band's not going to be in the video, which automatically adds a layer of ambiguity."
Speaking of ambiguity, maybe it's time to mention why Carlos D. left. It's not a topic that's brought up in my interview with Fogarino because it's far in the past and far too focused on lately. Recently, the band has been open about the rockiness toward the end of that relationship and how the members moved on from it, but c'mon, it happened five years ago. To any fans who say the band isn't the same, choke on this:
"[Carlos is] a very self-centered person, very narcissistic," Fogarino told Hot Press. "When you're around someone who just doesn't seem like they care about anything but themselves and their own well-being, it creates a really stagnated situation. It doesn't feel inspired."
But the future seems bright for Interpol. Banks took over bass duties, and the band added two touring members, Brandon Curtis (keyboards, vocals) and Brad Truax (bass, vocals). Plus, the remaining members have plenty of side projects to keep them busy: Banks put out two solo efforts (one under the moniker Julian Plenti) between albums, while Fogarino has joined former Swervedriver frontman Adam Franklin to form Magnetic Morning, plus formed Empty Mansions with Brandon Curtis (Secret Machines) and Duane Denison. Finally, with sound designer Joseph Fraioli, Kessler formed Big Noble, which is set to release its debut album this year. So regardless of the past, it seems Interpol's residual members are not only thriving, they'll have plenty more to offer us in the times ahead.
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