MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Interpol’s “Turn On The Bright Lights”

The making of Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights

By Corey duBrowa

It’s the most mesmerizing 3:57 in indie rock and maybe one of the greatest album openers of all time, a monster monogram of a track that announces, with full clarity of purpose and voice, a band you’ve never heard before playing from the very tips of its toes. A new sound, like a dark wave rolling silently ashore, sweeping aside the dross that lingered there before. It’s “Untitled,” the first track on the debut album from New York City’s Interpol, 2002’s Turn On The Bright Lights. And it’s a stone killer.

The song unfurls slowly, like a giant flag in the wind, majestic and assured. It’s nothing but a processed guitar riff, its descending one-chord pattern bouncing two strings off one another using a delay, nearly suspended in mid-air. For 16 bars this continues, tension building; then, a hi-hat punctures the motif and a muscular bass line erupts from under the song’s surface, propelling it forward with a confidently sexy strut as intermittent guitar washes burst in like small explosions.

It isn’t until the 1:23 mark that the singer even enters the scene, in the most Hemingway-esque “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” manner possible, insisting that “Surprise, sometimes, will come around.” He doesn’t bother clarifying that he’ll surprise “you” until dispassionately repeating this verse for the third time, capping it all by tying the surprise to an altogether darker theme: “when you’re down.”

Why is the object of this minor-key classic down? Has the singer disappointed this person, or worse yet, subjected him or her to emotional or physical abuse (which a higher-pitched, whining guitar line, teetering on the verge of feedback way above the slinky motor of the song itself, seems to suggest for the final 1:40 of the track as it spirals down earthward)? We’re left to invent this outcome for ourselves as the track’s drums fade out and the guitars crash and collide into one another, as the song glides to a complete stop. “Untitled” conveys an entire emotional and spiritual world in less than four minutes, a fanfare the band would use to open its early live shows in New York City and that would come to signify its darkly majestic brand of guitar-driven urban psych-warfare for an entire generation of fans. John Richards, associate programming director at KEXP in Seattle, says that the first time he heard it while driving home from the station, he literally stopped the car and pulled over trying to figure out “who the hell that just was. I sat there totally focused, as that moment only happens two or three times a year if you’re lucky … music so good and built on the things you already loved that it literally stops you in your tracks.” That’s how much Interpol stood apart from its peers then; 15 years later—with the band now in the throes of a tour in which it will play the album front-to-back every night in theaters all over Europe and, most likely, the U.S.—it sounds as fresh and as dangerous as it did when Richards first stopped his vehicle.

“I wrote the riff in my apartment,” says Daniel Kessler, the band’s lead guitarist and mastermind. “The idea was to have something that would announce ourselves, set a tone—and it certainly did that. It took awhile for us to call it something other than ‘Intro.’ When you’re playing your local pub in New York City, god knows what came on before you hit the stage. You need a palate cleanser. Something to normalize the night.”

“It started as this minimal riff from Daniel that didn’t have any changes—just a linear, long verse,” adds Paul Banks, Interpol’s singer, lyricist and second guitarist. “Shortly after introducing it to the band, we decided, ‘We’re gonna make this the first one we play at all our shows,’ because it unfolds slowly, there isn’t too much to digest about it. We all just loved that song. It became the way to welcome people into our atmosphere.”

Obstacle 1
That “atmosphere” was the sepia-toned New York City of the late ’90s: unreconstructed and grubby, an urban wrestling cage that remained plagued by drug and crime problems and a Lower East Side that still functioned as a junkie’s playground, long before it was scrubbed up for the developers and upscale condo dwellers who would arrive later. Interpol was a baby band full of young men trying to prove themselves—to the world, to each other—in a town that had a storied history of Important Rock Acts but hadn’t produced one in many years. But as Interpol, the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, Rapture and Walkmen would all prove, this was about to change.

Kessler first met Banks at a Paris summer study-abroad program, and again later, along with bassist Carlos Dengler (“Carlos D.”), while the three were students at NYU in the late ’90s. At first, it wasn’t entirely clear that they would end up forming any kind of creative or collaborative project. “I was on the hunt for people I could play with; I was looking more for sensibilities or who had a certain way of looking at things (than ability),” says Kessler. “I met Carlos in a history lecture class; he was the only one asking questions in a huge classroom, so he stood out, dressed in a manner not too dissimilar from how he does now. We started talking and playing some music together. Paul was just out of high school and had a way of carrying himself that was wise beyond his years. I ran into him on the street and wrote his info down. We talked at the end of the school year about the band; he was like, ‘Cool idea,’ and then went away for the summer. So, I found a singing guitarist. I have no idea what he sings like or what he plays, and I sure hope he calls in four months when he’s back in New York. And he did. Then we really got to talking.”

Banks reckons that the chemistry the trio felt had its roots in the fact that all three founding Interpol members shared an “otherness” emanating from their non-American provenance: Banks lived in the U.K., then Spain and Mexico, before graduating from high school in the U.S., while Kessler moved from France to D.C. at age 10. Dengler, an American whose parents were originally born in Colombia and Germany, moved to New Jersey when he was in high school. “When you have a phase in your early years of being an outsider—I’m in a foreign environment and I don’t understand it—it does something to you,” says Banks. “I remember going back to England and the British kids would break my balls for being a Yankee, then coming home and my parents talking about Americans like they’re some other group. ‘Hey, wait a minute—I’m American!’ It was a wonderful experience, but you’re not quite fitting in, and that filters down to the choices you make and how you express yourself. We had to work our way into finding a sense of home.”

How the three, along with original drummer Greg Drudy, chose to express themselves early on—at least musically—was in short fits and starts, a byproduct of their status as poor college students in an expensive town with very few cheap spaces in which to practice. “We were working in this place above a deli on Avenue A before graduating to a rehearsal space in Midtown called Funkadelic,” says Banks. “We rented rooms by the hour. Daniel had songs and was already writing with Carlos before I joined the band. I remember that at our first rehearsal, he and Carlos ran down ‘PDA’ as an instrumental.”

“This is 1997-98: We basically had a small walk-in closet where you’d rehearse two hours, then another below a chicken fast-food joint on Seventh and 29th—we were just vibing,” says Kessler. “It’s a hard way to work, not the best environment in which to create something extraordinary. It was inexpensive, but challenging, and we acclimated to that—fixing your amp, getting your gear set up. You’d make the most of your time, gain a bit of traction, then bookmark something until the next time you got together.”

This hit-and-run creative philosophy ruled until Drudy left the band and veteran indie drummer Sam Fogarino was recruited to take his place. Fogarino had emanated from the same South Florida scene that produced Marilyn Manson (in fact, he had turned down an opportunity to be in Manson’s band) and was working at that time at Beacon’s Closet, a downtown clothing reseller that also featured “this little record shop, a concession to make it more unique,” says Fogarino. “Daniel and I met through a mutual friend at a Firewater show at the old Brownies. Then I’d run into him or talk on the phone every few months about his label job (at Jetset Records), but then the conversation would always turn toward how things were developing with his band. I’d never had conversations as detailed as I did with Daniel with any other musician. He had this earnestness, a seriousness. And the music matched the shtick. He just had his shit way together, and I was always impressed with that.”

Fogarino joined the fold in 2000, but the band’s prior creative methods proved too haphazard for his tastes and he took matters into his own hands. “Half of what became Bright Lights was already written by the time I joined the band,” he says. “And I was like, ‘How do you guys write music by the hour, at a $20 rate? I can’t do this! It gives me performance anxiety, being on the clock like that.’ So I put up an ad at Beacon’s Closet for a rehearsal space, and someone showed me a place that hadn’t even been built yet, then they freaked out and bailed. I told the (landlord), ‘I’ll take it by myself,’ borrowing money from Beacon’s Closet to put the down payment on the space. We used to go to this bar before practice and have a drink; I walked in and put down the receipts from the deposit on the bar, and Daniel was like, ‘Thank you. I’ll get the money back to you immediately. You’re such a dude.’ Moving into that space, I knew that we could concentrate better without the clock ticking—we would create more demo material and be able to document the progress of the band rather than (guess at) whatever we thought we’d remembered from our last rehearsal. That was the moment I didn’t feel like the ‘new guy’ anymore.”

Meanwhile, the band’s development as a live act was quickly advancing. Once the group had settled on a name—going from early versions such as Las Armas and French Letters, a process Kessler describes as “ridiculous, like, we’re not doing ourselves any favors by playing different shows under different names”—it didn’t take long for Interpol’s collective killer instinct to kick in and for a scene to emerge around them. “We played our first shows at Baby Jupiter, which like a lot of places in New York, isn’t there anymore,” says Kessler. “It was right across the street from Arlene’s Grocery, on Stanton and Orchard. What New York City does is that it’s an equalizer: It invites people from all over the world to pursue their art. Whether you’re into music, or painting, whatever—the common denominator is that you want to be there and that you have to want it. As far as American rock music goes at that point, people were more excited about stuff from Chicago—Thrill Jockey, Touch And Go—which made us want to make it out of New York even more. I love underdogs; with sports, I always gravitate toward that. So people would say, ‘I love New York’ but there wasn’t necessarily any great music coming from there at that moment. And all these bands—Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Strokes, Liars—we didn’t have any real relationships with those guys. Or camaraderie, either. This was before Facebook and MySpace and all that, and it’s amazing to me that these bands could all be playing in the same circle, unbeknownst to each other. I don’t know that you’ll ever have that kind of moment in New York City again.”

At the same time, there was a certain unspoken chemistry forming within the collective, from its music to its look to its visual presentation and stage show. “When I joined Interpol, it was like joining a gang—ties were donned,” says Fogarino. “The first show I played with the band, there was no email or discussion about what I should wear. I was just like, ‘I hope this works, this is what I’m feeling when I listen to the music.’ Then I show up backstage at the Mercury Lounge, and even though everyone looked different, we all had ties on. And we didn’t say anything; we just smiled. It perpetuated this ‘us against the world’ kind of vibe we had. We’re all very different, on paper it probably doesn’t work. We don’t always like each other or even get along. We’re young, cocky, not well known, not always communicating with each other—but there was a vocabulary we shared.”
“There wasn’t anyone in the band who ever said, ‘I think I want to wear a sleeveless tank onstage,’” says Banks. “We had similar aesthetics both within the music and outside the music. If there had been a member of the band who wasn’t on that page, it would’ve been problematic. Because it wasn’t something we just settled into. It was meaningful to us—our presentation needs to be as considered as the music we compose and play. There’s no looseness here. There was one show where I tried to suggest that Sam change to a different-colored shirt, and he gave me this look like, ‘Don’t you ever try to tell me what to wear, young man.’ There’s things that didn’t even need to be said.”

A body of home-recorded work that was advancing at a rapid clip. A burgeoning live reputation and an organically developing downtown scene at the center of which, Interpol featured. A wolfpack mentality that bonded its members together even as egos and youthful indiscretions formed the typical battle lines and competitive terrain that marks all team endeavors. Enter: Matador Records.

“We were aware of Interpol—Gerard (Cosloy) had shared demos with me and I’d seen ’em live a few times,” says Matador Records founder Chris Lombardi. “I remember seeing them open for Arab Strap at the Bowery Ballroom. They weren’t exactly on our radar yet, but Carlos came onstage wearing some kind of shirt with a red armband that had fascist overtones about it, and I walked away thinking, ‘Whatever it is they’re doing, they’re doing it right.’ We got in touch with them and set up a meeting—they were really unusual. Very confident and ready to tend to some business. They were all wearing suits and were considerably better dressed than we were. Their shoes were shined. It was like meeting with a bunch of young lawyers. They were fans of the label, had great taste and a very clear idea of what they wanted to do after recording. We quickly became comfortable with the idea of signing them.”

On the strength of the demos that Interpol was now able to record in its Brooklyn rehearsal space—you can hear the embryonic versions of “Untitled,” “NYC” and “Specialist” they were sending to labels on the extended 10th anniversary edition of Turn On The Bright Lights, evidence that the building blocks were already in place—Matador signed them and sent the boys off to producer Peter Katis’ Tarquin home studio in suburban Connecticut to commit their songs to tape.
And then the next set of barriers emerged.

Obstacle 2
“I went to see them at Brownies, and they said, ‘We don’t have the money to pay you now’—and handed me $900 cash, which was the cost of the two-inch tape—‘but we’re gonna get signed to Matador Records,’” says Katis. “That’s like someone telling you they have a girlfriend in Canada, you know? A complete joke. But then nine months later, they finally paid me for it.”

Katis’ objective in recording Interpol was to take the energy and confidence he had seen first-hand in the band’s fierce live sets and translate that to its first record, to let that overwhelming whoosh he’d observed win the day. But it proved easier said than done.

“It’s an old story: ‘We’re a really good live band, we just want to capture that feel in the studio.’ It’s a lot harder than it sounds,” says Katis. “It’s the last record I recorded entirely to tape, before Pro Tools. And what you hear on nearly every song is much more of a live record than you do these days; on all the songs, bass, drums and two guitars are playing live together.”

Despite the lack of familiarity with a formal studio environment—drummer Fogarino being the only one in the band who had prior experience navigating the recording of a full album—Interpol went about its task in a businesslike, efficient manner. “Mostly what I remember is that Tarquin was big-time and expensive,” says Banks. “We were just trying to play our parts right, like we’d rehearsed them, and not fuck up. Not go broke trying to make this thing. So we’d hit every song instrumentally, not wanting to compromise any of the precision. The vocals came later, after we’d run the basic tracks down.”

“My girlfriend at the time was in a band that rehearsed right next door to them (at the Music Building in Brooklyn’s then-emerging Williamsburg neighborhood), and she would say, ‘They fucking practice all the time,’” says Katis. “They came in to make that record really rehearsed and ready. There wasn’t much choosing of takes or any of that—they’re recorded almost entirely the way you hear them. That’s how you get a live sound: You play live! But Paul really hated the way his voice sounded in the studio—like, couldn’t stand it. We found creative ways not to make it sound so clinical. One thing we did was overdrive his vocals—they’re super distorted, even though if you aren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t notice. Another is that no one else was allowed in the studio when we were tracking vocals—it would be pitch dark in the live room, we’d have a bunch of drinks lined up and ready and just go for it.”

Banks—as the band’s lyricist and vocalist—was as sensitive as a young 20-something artist can be about his role as the band’s frontman and principal voice. Sometimes that meant taking Kessler’s existing songs—“Obstacle 1” and “Obstacle 2”—and leaving well enough alone. “He wrote those songs in succession, and those were his working titles, and although I typically write the lyrics and titles, if you already have a dope title for a song I’m smart enough not to fuck with it,” he says. But his writing process was rapidly changing to suit the band’s creative process. “Early on, I was like, ‘I’m gonna shoehorn these journals and poetry I’ve already written into our music,’” says Banks of his time as an inveterate journal-scribe. “But I quickly learned that I hated the results (of that approach). I much preferred tailoring new lyrics to songs. I remember exactly where I was when I wrote the lyrics to ‘Stella (Was A Diver And She Was Always Down).’ I was sitting at an Astor Place café, looking at the St. Marks Hotel. So the urge to write, outside of writing for an Interpol song, kind of evaporated.”

As it happens, what Banks was writing were the sort of gritty urban hymns that reflected the polarity of his New York City experience—at the one end, a cocksure dude looking for a louche sort of love on the streets of an older, grimier NYC, but also allowing for a vulnerability of heart and an eye for disintegration and disillusionment that belied his years. It’s this sweet and sour, this light and dark, that shoots the album through with a wistfulness that carries it beyond a particular time and place—the same emotional weight that makes Wilco’s “Ashes Of American Flags” one of rock’s great tributes to a post-9/11 America is exactly the same shade that colors Banks’ songs with a fatalistic happy/sad that perfectly captures that time in our country, despite the fact that Turn On The Bright Lights was written (if not yet fully recorded) in its entirety before the Twin Towers ever came down. Banks’ abstract sense of wordplay opens entire emotional vistas within the band’s work—stretching from the spare tone poetry of “Untitled” to the Things Fall Apart-ness of “NYC,” with its line, “It’s up to me now, turn on the bright lights,” both echoing and skewering Sinatra’s classic “New York, New York” rejoinder with a twisted sense of the absurd while also striking a particularly forlorn note of desperation. By the time the band wanders its way to the album’s twin twilight closers—“The New” and “Leif Erickson”—what remains is a dizzying calculus of certainty plus doubt, lust minus adoration, divided by ennui. It’s the typical backstory of any great debut record: a document that took a mere couple of weeks to record, but required a lifetime (or several of them) to conceive.

At the conclusion of the band’s sessions with Katis, British producer Gareth Jones (Wire, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Depeche Mode) was recommended to the group as a mixer, with uneven results. Luckily, Katis remained in touch with Interpol and was roped back in to finish the process. “I recorded it all with them, beginning to end,” he says. “And they tell me, ‘We’ve got this famous English guy coming in to mix it.’ OK, that’s cool. So Gareth comes in and tells me he’s got this new system of mixing the tracks into stems in Pro Tools, rather than the old-fashioned way, with everything up on the console. But every time he’d get a good mix up, the band would come in and want to make their changes. And you’d see Gareth with all four guys with their hands on faders and mute buttons simultaneously, trying to change the mix. They wanted so much control that it kind of trashed all his mixes and they didn’t get what they wanted. Then Gareth asked me to remix a song or two, starting with ‘Say Hello To The Angels.’ I remember getting all the sounds on the analog board—with compression and EQ—and just riding the hell out of the levels and cleaning it up. The band was like, ‘Holy shit, can we do this to all the songs?’ I did as many as I could, but we ran out of time. And Interpol wasn’t Interpol yet, so I had to move on. I think I mixed seven of the 11 tracks on that album. Not because Gareth’s weren’t good enough. They just wanted more control over their environment.”

Control—a concept with which Interpol was well familiar—would represent a point of tension within the band as they developed. “A lot of bands claim to be a democracy, but they really were,” says Katis. “Everyone had an equal opinion. A lot of times that would line up pretty well, but sometimes it wouldn’t. It got even trickier on the second record. They are definitely control freaks.”

“We all respected one another and what each of us brought to the table, but we could also challenge each other intellectually, and more,” says Fogarino. “Ultimately you’d get pissed off enough and then record ‘Obstacle 1’ or something—I’m sure Carlos and I got in a full-blown fight that day.”

“We had no money at all, so the key was to go as far as we could with as little as we had,” says Kessler. “You’re making a record and living (in the studio); it’s either right or it’s wrong. And it’s your first album. The stakes are so high. We finally got to make a record for a label, and you’ve been waiting so long for it to happen. It can feel a bit like life or death.”

By the time Matador released Turn On The Bright Lights in August 2002, the Strokes’ celebrated debut, Is This It, had been out for nearly a year and the downtown post-punk revival was in full swing, with debut albums from the Rapture, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and Walkmen either already out or shortly to follow. Critically speaking, this was New York City’s long-awaited spotlight dance—after years of serving as hip hop’s ground zero with only vestigial reminders of the glory days of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City to help fans remember that rock had once reigned o’er the Apple, suddenly there was a conga line of bands whose sharp guitars, LES wardrobes and finely tuned sense of post-ironic ennui were front and center of the national pop consciousness. And if the Strokes were the 2000s’ answer to a shotgun marriage of the Velvets and Ramones, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs had Patti Smith emblazoned across their hearts, it’s hardly shocking that Interpol came across like Television on a weekend-long cough-syrup jag. (Check the nervous, fidgety guitar motifs of “Obstacle 1” and “Obstacle 2” for abundant evidence of Tom Verlaine’s “Marquee Moon” influence.) But interestingly, it wasn’t a New York band to which Interpol was reflexively compared in its early years—it was Joy Division, the legendary Mancunian existentialist pop quartet with whom Interpol shared a certain vocal similarity, brittle guitar sound and emotional jaggedness.

“On ‘Obstacle 1,’ their best song, Interpol can’t even decide which Joy Division they’re trying to bite, beginning with ‘She’s Lost Control’ segueing into ‘Disorder’ before accidentally coming up with a brilliant new tune of their own,” Rolling Stone wrote by way of backhanded compliment.

“They bitch because everyone compares them to Joy Division, and they’re right. It’s way too kind,” snarked the “Dean Of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau.

The album was a triumph in every respect—critically, commercially (it would eventually go gold) and as a vehicle behind which the band would embark upon its first sold-out U.S. tour—and yet, the Joy Division comparisons simply wouldn’t abate. It rankled, although with 15 years’ worth of distance, the band now has an entirely different view of the comparisons to Ian Curtis and crew.

“There’s no point in saying, ‘No, we don’t sound like those bands’” says Banks. “That’s opinion—I don’t think if it’s a new artist, it’s even lazy to say, ‘They sound like this or remind me of that.’ How else are you going to convey how they sound? You have to at least narrow the field a little bit. I mean, when they were dismissive, it irked me. I don’t think they were off base, but at the time it alienated me because we were just trying to be original. I was just trying to do me.”

“If people were gonna hit us with the Joy Division tag, if anything, I always felt it was a positive thing,” says Fogarino. “Some of the bandmates didn’t really know how to react or were a little more defensive. Fair enough—they wrote the melodies, and I didn’t. But mostly those (critics) were just thinking that we’re perpetuating a good thing.”

Having overcome its financial limitations, its fear of getting its debut recording wrong and the intra-band tensions that are par for the course with any young act, Interpol hit the road on its first real national tour. To say it was successful is to understate matters by a fair bit. The tour was sold out; everywhere Interpol turned up, its fan base materialized. For a group without much in the way of radio support or video airplay (remember, this was long enough ago that MTV was still A Thing, if less influential than it had been a decade prior), it was head-spinning for them to fully take in.

“It was a fairy tale, touring that first record,” says Banks. “We knew early after the release that sales were going better than expected and we were all in a little van driving across the country with a box full of T-shirts, our sound guy and us. Arriving at all these venues that were sold out, with people going ape, I don’t think it can get any better than that. You’re in your early 20s, you just put out a rock record, you’re touring the country and there’s people waiting for you at every city, ecstatic.”

The critics took note, as well—it wasn’t just that Bright Lights was an album for the ages, it’s that the band that had created this work represented something bigger than itself: Interpol’s music was sweeping and cinematic, angular and brooding. Four guys in ties show up to play a gig in the flyover states, and they sound like a wave of emotion crashing down on your cerebral cortex? Sign me up. “On ‘Specialist,’ Banks falls head first into the manic, quivering abyss from whence his vocals on the disc come—the place where your knees shake and your stomach churns and you wonder if he’s going to keep singing or run off stage and be ill,” wrote Devon Powers in PopMatters of one of the band’s hometown gigs in 2002. “The precision their music demands is within their grasp, and the crowd responds by plodding in time, ticking like a bomb about to explode.” That tour made them Interpol—and cemented their status as more than just a one-trick pony. It’s the shock wave that passed over the next generation of guitar-wielding indie bands like a windblown radiation cloud—Franz Ferdinand, Art Brut, Editors, Horrors, Foals and Maccabees (ironically, all U.K.-based guitar bands) owe more than just a little to Interpol’s heady mix of high-lonesome guitars, low-go lyrical excursions and the airy spaces that floated in between it all.

“For any flaws Bright Lights might have sonically, it’s something we’re all still really proud of,” says Katis.

“Everybody wanted to do something really great—and Daniel enforced that,” says Fogarino. “He always had this goal in mind, and he was crucial to that process. Any anxiety he had—pulling his own hair out, surviving the complete and utter chaos of operating the production—if he wasn’t so neurotic about it, it would’ve gotten lost and wouldn’t have been the amazing record we ended up with. He saved the band. And the music turned out to be so great that we couldn’t fuck it up with our own big egos or weird aesthetic choices.”

“We’re touring the album now because it sounds like fun,” says Banks of the group’s decision to take Bright Lights on the road in its entirety for the first time since it was recorded 15 years ago. “The key for me is, it sounds like a good time. And the fans think it’s a good idea, too. We’re working and writing again right now; we’re gonna put something out in 2018. It might be different if we had nothing in the chamber. But we’re way deep into all this new music and, in the meantime, it’s been a minute. So sure, let’s go out there and play some Bright Lights.”