STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK
@dutchgodshalk on Twitter
When it comes to Interpol, everything is not as it seems.
At first glance, the New York-based band seems a dour collective, intense, even a bit humorless. Their sound dependably exists within distant, just nearly melancholic ambience, and their recent lyrics seem to speak from a bleak, stormy place. But maybe all this seriousness is just something of a poetic smokescreen.
Consider the song “Everything is Wrong.”
Taken at face value, this particularly broody track at the dead-center of the band’s fifth studio album, El Pintor, hints at some inner difficulties, with lyrics like “Everything is wrong /All we have is time, but my heart is going numb” evoking dire imagery.
One might assume the song was conceived under pensive circumstances, within a shuttered room after midnight, stale smoke hanging in the air, some overturned bottles and rumpled clothing strewn about nearby tables and chairs — a real bottomed-out type scene.
But that couldn’t be farther from the truth, according to guitarist Daniel Kessler, during a sleepy phone call on a recent Friday morning.
“I was with my family in Paris, riding my bicycle around on a beautiful, sunny day, and all of a sudden, the melody [for ‘Everything is Wrong’] popped in my brain,” he says. “When I went back to the apartment that I was renting, I figured it out. It was nice that it came to me like that. It’s romantic, right?”
It seems many tracks off of El Pintor got their start in unexpected, even serene milieus. During the band’s recent Spotify Session, singer Paul Banks described coming up with the lyrics to “All the Rage Back Home” while riding the crest of a wave in some sunny — and probably pretty romantic — locale.
There is a “don’t judge a book by its cover” lesson in here, as it might be tempting to think of Interpol as just some halfway gloomy four-piece — now down a three-piece following bassist Carlos Dengler’s departure in 2010 — hailing from New York City during the gritty, post-punk revival days of the early 2000s.
But wading in the trenchant, synth-soaked horizons of their riff-heavy rock remains a band edging on 20 years, young souls grown older, softer around the edges, raising families and going on the occasional scenic French bike ride. In light of this, it’s easier to see some of Interpol’s darker songs as works of fiction, making El Pintor’s closing track, “Twice as Hard,” more character study than dreary diary entry.
Maybe it helps to understand that Interpol sees itself as more of an albums band, less interested in creating standalone songs than assembling a fully formed record to be heard in its entirety.
“I love albums. Still do,” Kessler says. “I’m totally old school. All my life I’ve had a very strong addiction to putting a record on and every song has its role, supporting a greater structure. It’s all about telling a story. I’ve always loved that. I don’t know. It was a great thing to walk around as a kid, listening, on headphones.”
Kessler admits it’s slightly unrealistic to expect most listeners to experience an album from beginning to end nowadays, a time when songs are taken in individually on YouTube or cherry-picked via streaming services.
“I started hating when everything was like, ‘Aw man, have you heard these two songs?’ That never appealed to me much as a listener. Get the record,” he says. “The whole record is giving you this feeling for like 40 minutes.”
The idea Kessler touches on here — that he and his bandmates aim to maintain some kind of tonal unity throughout an album — may hint at their choice to name the new record El Pintor, an anagram for Interpol that translates to “the painter” in Spanish. It seems, for Kessler, that each song on an album is but a small part of a larger whole — a brush stroke in a grander mural.
The guitarist even occasionally speaks of music in terms of painting, like when he describes the transformation a song can undergo as it’s brought toward completion and other songs begin to take shape around it.
“It’s a really great feeling, you know, when you think of [a song] one way and then all of a sudden all new colors get thrown on and it just changes everything,” he says.
So, the conversation started with the thought of Interpol as somewhat dour, intense and humorless, the aural equivalent to a black-and-white photograph, but then came musing bike rides, sunny French afternoons, surfing, painting and some color — at one point, unprovoked, Kessler even assures, “I love playing in Interpol and writing songs for Interpol and being a part of it.”
Maybe everything isn’t wrong after all.
IF YOU GO
Where: Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing, 601 N. Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia.
When: Concert is at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 25,
Info: FestivalPierPhilly.com. For more on the band, check interpolnyc.com.