Iinterpol have never shied away from darkness. “I’ve always been a bit of a negative Nelson,” frontman Paul Banks admits over the phone. “I’ve always had a sense that our civilisation is slightly more tenuous than a lot of people believe it to be. I think for some people it’s been very jarring to realise that Mother Nature can come and upend everything that we’ve built, but I’ve written about those themes my whole career!”
It’s perhaps surprising, then, that he’d define the band’s new album ‘The Other Side Of Make-Believe’ – written during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic – as their most positive. “It has more of an optimism, airy, hopeful and anthemic quality at times than any of our previous work,” he says.
“I’ll be the hand to pull you up higher,” Banks singing on the album’s dramatic opener and lead single ‘Toni’. “All that we’ve got to be candid and gentle…” he posits on the bracing and wistful ‘Gran Hotel’. “I just couldn’t imagine writing something round talking about how shitty everything is [in the pandemic],” he says. “I think as a writer you gravitate towards subjects and perspectives that feel fresh, so it was an instinct to think about the resilience of the human spirit instead. I think some great qualities of humanity come to the foreground when there’s a crazy struggle.”
For guitarist Daniel Kessler, who speaks over coffee in London in a separate interview, the writing of ‘Make-Believe’ was “a healthy distraction, trying to throw together something beautiful, something I could put a lot of my emotion into.”
While Banks, Kessler and drummer Sam Fogarino were impacted by the pandemic on a personal level as much as anyone, as a band Interpol were relatively unscathed. They had fortunate timing – the last time they saw each other before lockdown was when left the stage in Peru in support of their last album ‘Marauder’ In late November 2019 – and for Kessler the early creative stages for its follow-up were unchanged. Since the beginning, he’s always written on the same classical guitar he’s owned since he was a teenager, occupying his hands while watching a film until something strong enough emerges to steal his attention – and this time around was no different.
The only change was that the three then had to share their ideas via email. At first Kessler, who describes himself as “not a technology kind of person,” was worried. “All these things felt like they would be immediate barriers on top of barriers. Being in person, communicating, eye contact – that’s more my thing.” In the end, however, it turned out to be beneficial. “If anything, it gave each of us a bit of space and time to think about what we wanted to do.”
Banks, writing at home without the noise of the rehearsal room where Interpol would usually hammer out their ideas, was freer to explore subtler melodic ideas: “It allowed me to stretch out a bit, work with different tones in my voice, massage and tailor some of the basslines. Whereas if we were writing in the room together, I might not interrupt the groove to meticulously go and write something really out-there on the bass. Having the freedom to work at my leisure, pause and rewind and keep looping a section back helped me to map out some parts I probably wouldn’t have written otherwise.”
Fogarino too, Banks says, took advantage in order to work out a nuanced and innovative rhythm: “He’s the MVP [Most Valuable Player] of this record; it’s some of his best work.”
It became a source of great joy for Kessler to take his lockdown walks and listen back to what he was being sent by his bandmates. “It felt similar to me to listening back to rehearsal recordings when you know that something happened earlier that day that you’re ecstatic about,” he says. “It reinforces why you’re in a band in the first place. The recordings were great to receive every day. They were showing us that this was actually working, that we were building an Interpol record.”
It was immensely satisfying to prove that a pandemic was no obstacle to the implicit understanding the trio have built up over two decades’ playing together, Kessler adds: “We’re never short for ideas. It’s why we’re still a band. If it wasn’t like that, I think we’d probably take a step back.”
When restrictions eased a little, the band were able to meet up again in person in New York State’s Catskills, where they rented a shared house for two stretches in order to rehearse their lockdown work in person; they like to be “close to stage ready” by the time they enter the studio properly, reveals Kessler.
“There was a lot of anticipation beforehand, a lot of coordinating,” he says, but Interpol slipped back swiftly into their old dynamic. Much of the material required only a few cosmetic changes, but Interpol also wrote some songs almost from scratch, such as the anthemic ‘Toni’, for which they took advantage of the house’s rickety old family piano, and the labyrinthine ‘Into The Night’ .
“It was like all those good moments in our writing history when something just congeals together and energy happens,” Kessler explains. “I was just really happy that those two songs specifically could find their way through us being in the same room together.”
The different ways that songs for ‘…Make-Believe’ came together reflects a larger balance that Interpol try to strike on the record. They used the pandemic as a chance to innovate, whether with instrumentals that could evolve with more complexity or Banks’ shift in lyrical focus, but at the same time they were also keen not to depart too far from the reliable methods they’ve established over their last six albums. It’s reflected in their choice of producers, too: Alan Molder, who already worked with the band as mixer on 2010’s ‘Interpol’ and 2014’s ‘El Pintor’, and British alt-rock producer Flood, a completely new collaborator.
“We already had a bond with Alan – he’s a wonderful guy; a friend,” says Kessler. “Then Flood was us trying to be open to new circumstances. It became pretty clear just from conversations with him that he’d spent a lot of time with the rehearsal recordings we’d sent him from the Catskills, and he’d got to know all those little details that meant a lot to us. That kind of thing makes you much more comfortable to be like, ‘Fuck it. We know what works, but let’s see what happens when we go down this road.’”
Flood’s approach, caring more for energy and atmosphere than focussing on “dressing things up with technology,” Kessler says, “was a language I could really understand.”
Despite that sense of ease permeating through ‘…Make-Believe’, and Banks’ decision not to lean into bleakness, Interpol have still not entirely abandoned their trademark gloom. As Banks explains, the album’s title refers to his fascination with human fantasy, and its role during a time of hardship. On the one hand, “a beautiful aspect to our species is the love of story and the ability to create it,” but on the other, there’s a tendency to “rely on fiction and narrative because it’s more comfortable than truth.”
Just as we often see faces in inanimate objects, he says, “we prefer the idea that there’s a story, that there’s a reason behind jarring events, even if that takes the form of some secret society pulling all the strings… The idea that there ‘re some evil people who could be held accountable is a more comforting thing than an anonymous force from the universe that could kill us all and not even notice, so we rely in some instances on narratives to make life more comfortable or purposeful.”
With that in mind, all of the positive narratives that he himself creates on the album feel like a decoy, a thin barrier in front of the deep emptiness that’s been exposed by the pandemic. It might contain some of Interpol’s lightest moments, but in a sense it’s their darkest record too. Says Banks: “What I’m interested in exploring is not so much ‘what is the meaning as ‘what is meaning, and how is it formed?’ I think meaning doesn’t exist: it’s just the by-product of the language we use to describe.”
“Political corruption is such a dark notion that right there is fodder for literature and song lyrics” – Paul Banks
What’s really unsettling, he continues, is the way people have started seeing this as an area for exploitation. “They’ve figured out that if you tell the right people the right story, they’ll go along with it, and they’re willing to exploit people’s fears for political gain. It’s super-disingenuous and frightening. Historically speaking, we’ve hoped people at this level of power would have some kind of moral righteousness, and some selflessness, but the possibility of, ‘Wait… some of the most powerful people on the earth are manipulating information for political gain…’ – it’s such a dark notion that right there is fodder for literature and song lyrics.”
For all the political implications of ‘…Make-Believe’s lyrical focus, however, Kessler is keen not to over-explain his song’s themes. Nor does he tend to indulge in direct politicising outside of his writing. “I’ve put it out there where I stand politically – I’m very socially left-leaning – but I don’t feel compelled to chime in on everything,” he says. “I don’t presume to be the person to tell people how they should feel, nor do I feel like every conversation needs every voice all the time. I put my message out in my songs, rather than social media.”
Over seven records, Interpol have become adept at blocking out external pressure of all kinds, Kessler says. “We’ve always done better as a band when we’ve just played music. We’ve never operated well with too much conversation.”
They have a hardiness when they get together, he explains, which stems from their early years grafting to get signed, receiving “rejection after rejection from every record label, including the label we’re still signed to now. If you’re still a band after that point, you know that there’s no guarantee that anyone’s going to give a shit about anything you’re doing, so you’re not really thinking so much about what others are expecting. I like people liking our music but if you start guessing what’s gonna work, you’re diluting it.”
The guitarist adds that “self-preservation is important,” a sentiment that is ultimately the definitive one when it comes to ‘The Other Side Of Make-Believe’. It is the sound of a band so totally at ease with one another, so safe in the knowledge that even a global catastrophe can’t break the bonds they’ve forged over 25 years.
As Banks puts it: “If the meteor was coming and there’s nothing to be done, I’d be one of the people trying to have a really good time.”
– Interpol’s ‘The Other Side of Make-Believe’ is due for release on July 15 via Matador Records