15 Years On: Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights

By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)

At the turn of the 21st century, New York City boasted one of the most prolific indie rock scenes in the world. Venues such as the Mercury Lounge and Brownies played host to numerous up-and-coming artists and continued to do so until the mid-2000s when they started to become the last bastion of underground music amidst widespread onset of gentrification in neighbourhoods throughout the city. Leading the garage rock and post-punk revival, bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes erupted into mainstream consciousness with straightforward, danceable rock which was at odds with the grunge movement that dominated America in the 90s, prompting some to declare that rock ‘n’ roll is, in fact, alive and kicking. Jeans and t-shirts were order of the day; however, one band unexpectedly turned up suited and booted surrounded by an air of mystery – Interpol.

Around the campus of NYU, guitarist Daniel Kessler encouraged classmates Paul Banks and enigmatic Carlos Dengler to form a band alongside him and then-drummer Greg Drudy. In the lead up to their debut LP Turn On The Bright Lights the band, now featuring Sam Fogarino on percussion duties, set about making a name for themselves in the same circles as contemporaries The Strokes and The National, playing material from self-released demos and hoping to garner enough momentum to get signed by a label. Timing played a crucial role in the slow burn success of Bright Lights: the internet was on the brink of becoming a major player in the music industry but much of Interpol’s exposure came the old fashioned way. Although the band don’t necessarily consider themselves ‘of’ the New York music scene, excellent promotion work by Daniel as well as being in the right place at the right time contributed to their eventual popularity. An invitation by the legendary DJ John Peel to play a session further established their significance and a record deal with Matador ensued.

Songwriting and aesthetics marry seamlessly in Turn On The Bright Lights to make their debut album the one which definitively established their image, an unmistakably important aspect of the band. Everything from the ethereal red-lit screen on the album cover to the layered, reverb-soaked instrumentation works in tandem and the end result is a complete package. Critics at the time were quick to highlight the similarities between the baritone of frontman Paul Banks and the late Ian Curtis; however, suggesting Bright Lights is a knock-off Joy Division record is disingenuous. Part of the charm is his unique poetic touch: many of his lyrics are deeply cryptic in nature, hiding subject matter ranging from serial killers to fellatio behind layers of wit and double entendre. In Obstacle 1, so named because the band were suffering a writing drought at the time (interestingly the band overcame Obstacle 2 first), the lyric “her stories are boring and stuff” sounds like a throwaway filler line but the nuance lies in the deadpan delivery and the context of the song – generally accepted to be infatuation with a young model who committed suicide. He realises she isn’t perfect but this bears no influence on his feelings towards her.

One of the most prominent features of Bright Lights is its ability to conjure up imagery to match the music. The opening track, Untitled, is one of the most electrifying and atmospheric songs on the album – piece by piece the songs builds on the echoing guitar riff with interplay between Banks and Kessler, drums which build to a crescendo then give way to tense guitar and bass, eventually fading to silence. Reflecting its status as an opener, it certainly feels like a new beginning of sorts – it’s easy to imagine this as the soundtrack to a long distance journey. NYC has a similar vibe, evoking images of travelling on the subway or the bus late at night, feeling isolated but taking solace in the fact that “New York cares“. In light of the September 11 attacks this song, although written before the attacks took place, takes on a special poignancy and becomes a kind of mournful love song to the city.

On songs such as PDA, the tightness of the band shines through as Banks’ steely vocals shout over pounding drums and duel guitars. By virtue of the dynamic between the band members, expansive-sounding verses can easily transform into nervous, claustrophobic choruses and vice versa, eventually culminating in the ending which is, arguably, one of the high points of the album. Guitar and bass parts slowly build in intensity, threatening to boil over until Sam Fogarino’s drums explode back into action and carry the song through to its conclusion. It would be remiss not to mention Carlos D’s masterful basslines and The New sees his bass take a front seat, where the stop-go nature of the song gives him the perfect opportunity to create tension with highly-strung bass hooks in the buildup to each new section. The work of the notorious bassist, who became famed for his eclectic dress sense and occasional controversial remarks, permeates the record and his Peter Hook inspired melodies play a huge role in the overall sound of Interpol.

In the years following Turn On The Bright Lights’ release, its impact has been remarkable. Many artists, old and new, have expressed their admiration for the album and its influence has reached across genres with acts such as Editors, The xx and The Killers taking cues from it, Brandon Flowers notably stating that the record “was on constant rotation while we were making ‘Hot Fuss’.” As for the band themselves, many consider Bright Lights to be their high watermark. Given the daunting task of following up an album of such calibre, the subsequent Antics thankfully avoided falling into the trap of the so-called ‘sophomore slump’. While a solid output by any measure, containing several of the band’s greatest hits, the overall package lacked the emotional depth of their debut effort. Subsequent releases, such as the decent Our Love to Admire and the questionable self-titled Interpol, sadly seemed to confirm that the dizzying heights of their debut might never be reached again; that it was a product of its time. Despite Carlos D’s departure in 2010, the band are still churning out music and their latest release, 2014’s El Pintor, does show signs of promise. Their best could yet lie ahead.

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