This story ends at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2018. I’m standing alongside the rest of the sold-out arena, punching the dry ice, roaring along to Lights during Interpol’s sold-out show, as my youngest brother, Daniel, strides across the stage slashing at his guitar, singer Paul Banks leading the throng. “That’s why I hold you,” we all sing, “that is why I hold you dear.”
But that’s not how this story begins. It starts in 1985 in Paris, where I’ve just told my mother that I will not be joining her when she emigrates to Washington DC with my two brothers, Mark, 13, and Daniel, 10. I am 16, soon to be 17 . We moved from London four years ago for my father’s work, but my parents are divorcing. I’m going back to London where, I tell Mum, I will become someone who listens to music professionally. Eventually I do, working as staff on NME throughout the 90s.
For much of our upbringing together, my brothers and I shared a bedroom in a small apartment in London, sleeping in bunk beds. Our relationship was necessarily close, but combustible. I exercises with Mark often. Gentle, sweet-natured Daniel was the peace-maker. His desire was for all of us to just get along, a need that became more acute as he became aware of our parents splitting.
The three of us had common ground beyond parental drama, though. Above all we shared one true religion: pop music. Music was my obsession for as long as I can recall and that devotion sunk down from my top bunk, bewitching my brothers, too. The youth culture of the early 1980s – the haircuts, the clothes – impacted heavily upon all three of us. When in my teens we finally got our own rooms, the house reverberated to three stereos.
After I left home, physical distance meant we’d only see each other once a year, but music maintained our bond, the short-cut we’d take to sibling intimacy. We’d swap mix tapes, go record shop browsing together. On one visit, I noticed that teenage Daniel carried a guitar around his neck at all times in my mother’s apartment, repeatedly playing the same riffs. I’d never had the attention-span to learn an instrument, but Daniel’s focus was constant.
One day in 2001 a package arrived from New York, where Daniel lived. The envelope contained a stack of demo CDs stamped with a band’s name: Interpol. My brother played guitar in this group, apparently, and he wanted me to hear them.
I knew that for the last few years, after studying French and literature at NYU, he’d been in a band, but didn’t envisage it traveling across the ocean to me. I thought it a hobby, that his career working for indie record labels was his main focus, but this package undercut that assumption.
Our evangelism for music had continued separately into adulthood. While I became a music journalist, he interned at labels before landing full-time roles. He proved himself a shrewd operator. Recently, he’d opened the US arm of British label Domino from his apartment, so I was surprised by this demo. Wasn’t he a young mogul rather than a musician?
I realised in that moment I didn’t actually know him well. I was too self-involved, too focused on my own work and life to wonder about his. He was just my kid brother who’d landed a cool job in the music business. I didn’t know about this creative dream of his.
Interaction, these CDs seemed to be incursion on my music journalism turf. What would people in my business think of my brother’s band? I hoped out of family loyalty that it would be brilliant, that Interpol would be a success, but I feared they might not be. What if it went down badly with critics? What if people hated Interpol? Shamefully, I wondered if I’d be judged by whatever anyone thought of my brother’s music.
His note with the package wondered if I’d listen to this demo, perhaps pass it to anyone who may be interested. Too nervous to give it much more than a cursory listen (sounds all right, I suppose), I filed the demos away for another day. That time arrived when, in the summer of 2002, I found myself in the NME office. One afternoon the reviews editor marched across the room holding a CD in his hand.
“I’ve got that Interpol EP,” he declared proudly to the gallery. The ambient NME office noise was extinguished as the room paused to listen in anticipation. This was the first official release by the latest hip name from New York and judgmental expectation was raised.
He pressed play. I immediately recognised my brother’s guitar line. PDA, the first song on the demo Daniel had sent me, a jagged cascade of melody that quickly unfurls into verse. Heartfelt, modern new wave, just right for this room.
As the volume went up, I involuntarily found myself rising from my desk. With an audible groan, I pushed through the swing doors towards the lifts before the chorus even arrived. I groaned with fear as I walked out, not loathing nor embarrassment. I was scared. I was too afraid to hear anybody in NME say they didn’t like Interpol, that they thought the music was bad. I didn’t want to witness mockery the like of which I’d heard so often in NME, that I’d dispensed routinely myself with great performative gusto. I wasn’t even sure at that stage if anyone knew my brother was in this band. I just couldn’t bear to hear anyone say they might not like his music. I was too protective, of both my brother and (laughably) my own reputation. I was afraid Interpol would reflect badly on me.
That was quite a miscalculation.
Interpol sold 1m copies of their first two albums. Their third album hit top five in both the US and UK. Shortly before I left NME to join the staff of Q magazine in 2003, Interpol appeared on the weekly’s cover. This time, I was not fearful of how it reflected upon me. I was proud.
By then, something had shifted positively in my relationship with Daniel, for which Interpol must take credit. They were often playing in London and I went to each show, which meant we spent more time together after gigs, interacting as like-minds with our own stories rather than siblings separated by six years.
After one performance, Daniel and I sat on the floor among the debris of their east London dressing room, sucking on beers, talking in depth about our lives, our memories of each other, family, family. In that hour, our relationship was remade. I realised then that though I was 32 and he was 26, we’d never really spoken properly. I realised, too, that I really liked his empathy, his deep emotional intelligence, his calmness. We became close friends in that moment and we’ve never looked back. Nowadays, we’re always in touch.
Now when I listen to his music, I hear what other fans hear: intensely romantic guitar music allied to philosophical poetry. I no longer go through the mental gymnastics of wondering what this new music by Interpol will mean for me. I grew out of that stage soon after the first album was released to universally good reviews in 2002, an acknowledged classic of its era. Now, I hear my favorite band. It just took me a little while to get over myself.
I’m not the biggest Interpol fan in my family, however. That’s my mother. Picking me up from the airport, she’d drive to her home in Maryland, US, with the band’s latest LP blasting from the windows. Once, after throwing a dinner with her friends in honor of my visit, she invited all the guests to join her in the candle-lit living room for drinks. As we settled into the sofas, Mum wordlessly pressed play on the stereo’s remote. Then she closed her eyes and didn’t open them again until the last note of Interpol’s second album had rung out at full volume. I marvelled at her, my proud mother, oblivious to her bemused elderly guests.
We laughed about this memory in the dressing room of the Royal Albert Hall, my brother and I. Mum died unexpectedly of a brain tumour in 2013, so we always take a moment to toast her now. That night felt particularly poignant, however, as we’d grown up nearby in Paddington and had regularly played in Hyde Park, right across the road from where Interpol had just performed.
“I was thinking of her in Lights,” admitted Daniel. “Your mind wanders during shows. I often think of family up there during particular songs, of Mark, Dad, Mum. Even you!”
Chuckling, we chinked our glasses together. That’s why I hold you, that’s why I hold you dear.
Paper Cuts: How I Destroyed the British Music Press and Other Misadventures by Ted Kessler is published by White Rabbit at £18.99. Buy it for £16.52 at guardianbookshop.com