The Band Who Wasn't There

Interpol take a cipher of meaning and fill it up with sound

Sometimes I wonder where rock groups come from. I know the stories about like-minded art school kids who wanted to disguise themselves as Muddy Waters, or the svengali-assembled pretty boys that Creemy purists love to tsk-tsk-tut-tut over, or the 4-track loners who call their friends along for some weird postmodern indie ride. And while I know that, in theory, Interpol were formed by a few NYU students and guitarist/vocalist Paul Banks (from whom their name allegedly originated--Inter-Paul, get it?), you'll forgive me if there are days when I believe they were actually created by 3M--an accident sprung from an attempt to combine goth and mod into a new space-age clarity-resistant polymer. Their gloomy drones and spring-loaded beats coalesced into a thoroughly varnished, gleaming corridor of black mirrors, where you could only see shadows of the band, their oblique lyrics and chain-link-fence-of-sound production sounding less like a rock group and more like some uncatchable entity of music.

Even the album cover iconography on their debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, and subsequent singles was formless: utilitarian Helvetica typeface, the faceless, empty spaces of looming greenroom mirrors or sterile escalators, an unevocative logo that looked like it was snatched directly out of a German graphic design annual circa 1978--possibly from some obscure Düsseldorf pharmaceutical research foundation. Interpol became, in possibly the purest form, a rock band that existed solely in aesthetic terms; their style was the closest thing they had to an actual personality. New listeners and the music media referenced other groups like Joy Division in the hopes that naming Interpol's influences would give the group form--as though nothing distinguished them so much as the echo of a long-disintegrated band. But two years after Bright Lights and for the better part of 2004, they existed primarily as a name to drop when you needed an example of someone who was superior to Franz Ferdinand. As a rock band, they were pretty good. But as ciphers, they were instant legends.

Jacket provided by Prada, air of coolness provided by Philip Morris: Interpol
Pieter van Hattem
Jacket provided by Prada, air of coolness provided by Philip Morris: Interpol

Interpol have always been a riddle wrapped up in an enigma wrapped up in a nice suit, and the band's newest album still makes less sense logically than it does stylistically. All compelling confusion and silhouettes of meaning, Antics (Matador) is not only bafflingly named (are they cartoon rodents now?), but exciting in its disorientation--a mild mescaline high ensconced in the head of an autistic romantic. "Next Exit" opens the album with a Vicodin-soul organ riff and a woozy, beautiful hijack of U2's "One." Its tweaked Factory-as-Motown blueprint is almost as startling as the higher register Banks sings with here: Suddenly, he's escaping Manchester and making a beeline for Athens. (Picture Michael Stipe singing through his chest instead of his nasal cavity.) And the rhythm section is tighter, more prominent, more insistent. Under a torrent of punk dub scrape-chords and a whirring bass tremor, "Not Even Jail" rains down its first 20 seconds with a thrumming urgency more reminiscent of the Chemical Brothers than any of Interpol's nu-New York peers.

The most prominent departure from Bright Lights, though, is lyrical. Leaving the 200-couch confines of NYC behind, Interpol escape on a transoceanic voyage to nowhere in specific--anywhere but where they are. The album abounds with themes of aquatic travel to distant shores in some nerve-wracked Love Boat. "Take You on a Cruise" begins with the memorably Bowie-dense non sequitur "Time is a like broken watch/And make money like Fred Astaire" before a grandiosely wistful verse hints at a Titanic outcome: "We sail today/Tears are drowning in the wake of your life/There's nothing like this built today/You'll never see a finer ship in your life." "Evil" oozes come-ons from a desperate, jet-setting interloper ("I can take you places/Do you need a new man?"), and "Public Pervert" utters a trite sentiment--"If time is a vessel, then learning to love/Might be my way back to sea"--that, surrounded by such pensive uncertainty, becomes surprisingly gripping.

Feelings of withdrawal and internal conflict are probably the only things that remain clear in Banks's lyrics, which usually find the singer waxing abstract about subjects like "the pole dances of the stars" (on "Slow Hands"). Above the drama-disco beat and TSOP string section of "Length of Love," Banks actually utters the phrase "complex salacious removal." As part of the chorus. But, as on Interpol's previous album, Banks's intonation--the way he isolates specific phrases and makes them ring with sustained resonance--leaves you less apt to think he's not making sense and more likely to feel like you're just missing the real meaning. Interpol's identity has always been strongest when the words Banks sings are taken for their sounds rather than their definitions--a fitting trait for a band that trades on being unidentifiable. Instead of preferring style over substance, they let style be their substance, radiating unknowable cool.

 
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