Model behavior

Interpol’s Daniel Kessler and Sam Fogarino look a little overdressed. For a midmorning poolside chat at San Francisco’s Phoenix Hotel, a charming but chintzy dive with aquatic decor and kooky “69”s painted on the bottom of the pool, their swanky black suits and blazers don’t exactly seem like the typical wardrobe. Passersby would probably peg the pair as waiters rather than half of the Big Apple’s buzz band du jour.

“We just dress like this,” Kessler says defensively when asked about the clothes, gesturing casually at himself as if every rock musician slips into such swanky black suits each morning. “We dress up how we are as individuals and we play the shows like that. Dressing up is just something we have in common and, considering we’re so different as individuals, common points are pretty big for us. There are bands that sit down and think about what their image will be, but we don’t do that.”

“[The band’s style] wasn’t created at all,” adds Fogarino, pooh-poohing accusations that Interpol’s infamous impeccable fashion sense is merely a publicity stunt. His gravelly voice is a dead ringer for Jack Nicholson. “I just like nice ties, that’s all.”

It’s not surprising that Interpol is wary of being written off as simply another contrived, trendy band with a gimmick to grab headlines. With a wave of press that’d give the Strokes a run for their parents’ money, Interpol has a lot of hype to live up to on its first, largely sold-out North American tour. And with only a single album under their belts, there’s pressure to instantly make good on that media attention or suffer the backlash.

Bright lights, big city

Formed in 1998, Interpol — Kessler on guitar, singer-guitarist Paul Banks, bassist-keyboardist Carlos and then-drummer Greg (no last names for them, thanks) — began playing and recorded demos that landed at Fierce Panda and Chemikal Underground, which released the songs as a pair of EPs. In April 2000, Fogarino took over drum duties, things clicked creatively for the band and Interpol underwent what Kessler calls a “rebirth.” Not that it meant everything automatically fell into place.

“It was not so cool to be a band from New York City then,” says Kessler, briefly adjusting as Fogarino leans over and brushes his collar off for him. “It was a joke from other cities, like, ‘What good band is from New York?’ Countless bands that I’ve run into have said things like that. We played countless empty rooms and had to fight hard to find good shows.”

That quickly changed last year, however, when the music press declared New York City a musical hot spot again, and Interpol was lumped into the city’s underground renaissance with acts such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, Rapture and Radio 4. Wary of oversaturation before they even released a record and not wanting to be perceived as exploiting the attention given a scene they didn’t really feel a part of anyway, the band distanced itself from the press. Word spread anyway, shows sold out and labels offered to sign the band.

Unlike so many of today’s unpracticed upstarts who insist on recording just months after forming, Interpol opted not to rush into a deal.

“We’ve all been very patient with the aspect of releasing anything with anyone,” claims Kessler. “We wanted to wait to put it out with a company that we really loved and [that] had artists we really loved, but also to give our songs a chance and let ourselves mature as a band.”

The result of that four-year incubation period, which concluded earlier this year when Matador took interest, is the excellent Turn On the Bright Lights. With 11 atmospheric songs of wrist-slitting, late-night listening, the band’s first full-length bears more than a passing resemblance to the doom ’n’ gloom of early ’80s Manchester (the Smiths, Joy Division). “I’m tired of spending these lonely nights training myself not to care,” Banks emotes with an uncanny Ian Curtis inflection on the heartbreaking rock hymn “NYC.”

Elsewhere, “Roland” and “Say Hello to the Angels” jitterbug like a decaffeinated Clinic, while others evoke Echo and the Bunnymen, the Cure and even the glum grandeur of early Radiohead.

Recorded last fall in Bridgeport, Conn., Bright Lights is the first time the band entered the studio with the intention of releasing the results. This makes the recording, according to Kessler, Interpol’s “first proper release. I’m not discounting or bringing down the worth of the other releases, but going to the studio and knowing you’re recording for a reason is a real difference.”

For the first time, the band also hired outsiders to help. Before enlisting Gareth Jones (Clinic, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave) to mix, Fogarino asked his friend Peter Katis (Mercury Rev, Clem Snide) to record the songs at his home studio. “He was very empathetic to what we were doing,” explains Fogarino. “He was gonna engineer the album and add some creative input at the same time, but he wasn’t gonna produce the album. Nobody was really gonna produce the album. The songs are the way they are — we just wanted it to sound live.”

The emperor’s new clothes

Later that night at San Francisco’s shoebox-size and severely oversold Bottom of the Hill, dozens of ticketless latecomers line up outside as Interpol coolly takes the stage and launches into “Untitled.” Kessler and Fogarino are wearing the same getups from that morning, Banks is appropriately dapper and Carlos sports a skintight, all-black ensemble that’s as extreme as his asymmetrical hairdo. Despite the band’s claims otherwise, the sharp wardrobe looks self-consciously contrived. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: In a genre plagued by Converse Allstars and flat ass-accentuating blue jeans, Interpol is a refreshing change of pace.

If presentation means a lot to the band, however, it means more to the audience: Skinny ties, white belts, blazers and blue-black hair dye appear to have been prerequisites to purchasing tickets — a style my gal pal, upon entering the venue, ably dubs “a mix between intelligentsia and gothdom.”

Even more oppressive than the fashion, though, is the hype in the air. The pretension may be palpable, but the buzz is downright suffocating. This is, after all, the show to attend this month.

Which would be far too much surface-only artifice and post-punk posturing to bear if Interpol’s live performance didn’t more than justify spending an hour, sardine-style, with 300 members of the city’s fashion police. With a touring keyboardist filling out the sound, the hour-long set has an urgency not fully captured on the recordings. Banks sings, eyes closed, and waves his arms to the spotlights at times. The few instances he speaks to the audience, people hang on his every word like he’s Thom Yorke whispering sweet nothings at a poetry recital.

It’s a show that — for all the sleek ’n’ stylee clothes and folks taking themselves way too seriously, both onstage and off — should’ve probably come off as irritatingly forced, yet ultimately sounded nothing but earnest and honest.

“We don’t have a live shtick. We’re not trying to be anything we’re not,” insisted Kessler that morning, though I didn’t fully believe him till midway through that night’s set. “We’re playing our songs and that’s what we should be doing.”

Fogarino agreed. “We’re just some guys in ties playing songs.”

Interpol will perform Fri., Sept. 27, at Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Midwest Product is also on the bill. For information call 313-833-9700.

Jimmy Draper writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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