Hard-Earned Inspiration

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The beetle was huge, nearly three inches long and almost as wide, a gorgeous lime-green specimen so iridescent it could’ve passed for a scarab.

And it boldly buzzed around its domain—the gardens of a Glendale television studio—like a miniature wartime chopper, hovering in the faces of interlopers and even landing on their lapels or pant legs for further reconnaissance. Burly security men in the guard shack duck in fear when the insect drones past, although it’s a harmless offshoot of the June bug variety. But the beetle is so loud, it startles just about every person who crosses its path.

All except one. “Did you see that amazing green beetle?” Daniel Kessler excitedly inquires, as he emerges from the spacious soundstage where his art-pop outfit, Interpol, is filming its latest video. Ever since the band members arrived on the set that morning, the guitarist relates, they’d been repeatedly dive-bombed by the winged wonder, until it finally came to rest on Kessler’s pinstriped black dinner jacket. And it’s hard to tell who was more fascinated with the other—insect or axeman. “It looks like it’s some rare Japanese type—it just glistens,” he sighs. “And I don’t understand why it’s been hanging around with us all day. I assume that it just really likes people.”

Most folks would scamper shrieking to indoor safety (one of the guards, in fact, attempted to squash it with his shoe, but the beetle was just too fast for him). But the amateur Interpol entomologists recognized the innate beauty of the creature, and the wonder of those rare moments when art and nature overlap. Is there a future song hidden somewhere in this interaction? Who knows? shrugs Kessler. He’s taking a breather from the taping of “Slow Hands,” the first video/single from his band’s sophomore stunner Antics on Matador Records.

But one thing is certain: We’ve just experienced what—for lack of a better term—can be described as an “Interpol Moment”: a time when normal laws of the universe don’t apply, when strict social/artistic barriers break down and a receptive mind can glimpse inspirational visions from the other side. While many composers are content with the miasmic haze that permeates this existence, Kessler and his chief co-writer, singer/guitarist Paul Banks, work hard to make these Interpol Moments occur, machete-chopping through the fog to the magical green-beetle ephemera hidden within. Sound hokey? It’s not. Interpol is deadly serious about its craft, and if the rhythmic wing-flutter of some exotic species ends up providing a track’s missing musical link, so be it. As Banks and Kessler both assert in separate interviews, art is exactly where you find it.

Which is probably why Interpol caught the public’s ear—and imagination—with its elegiac 2002 debut, Turn On the Bright Lights. The record meshed Kessler’s staccato, Tom Verlaine-school fretwork with the melodic Joy Division-ish rhythm section of drummer Sam Fogarino and bassist Carlos Dengler. Banks—who swore he never followed any famed Factory Records groups—nevertheless vocally echoed the melancholy murmur of the late Ian Curtis, with some tinny Bernard Sumner tones around the edges. From its genesis in 1998, the band had a slick sartorial style; a la Bill Nelson’s brainy Be Bop Deluxe, Interpol members dressed in ’60s-chic shirts, suits and skinny ties—most of which, Banks boasted at the time, were purchased at a Big Apple thrift store where every item was $10 or less.

The boys were already quite business savvy. Kessler had worked for hip indie imprints like Jetset and Domino, and the latter’s U.S. office was run from his tiny apartment. Banks (who met Kessler while studying abroad in Paris) had worked for fashionable magazines like Interview, and even conducted a few high-profile Q&A’s in his journalistic heyday. And by straddling strains of ’80s New Wave, jagged mid-’70s punk, and a little Sisters-of-Mercy-dark Goth, Interpol was quickly catapulted to Next Big Thing status. But would it last?

Antics answers this quite clearly: Interpol is no flimsy passing fad. The quartet has grit, substance and—more importantly—unwavering creative ambition. The set opens and closes with two Lights-era oldies, “Next Exit” and “A Time To Be So Small” (which Banks penned from the viewpoint of a sea urchin—seriously). They’re spooky, straightforward processionals—the band’s stock in trade. But the rest of the album feels like one long nightmarish ride through the seamy, after-dark underworld of New York; It’s fraught with nocturnal characters (“Narc,” “Public Pervert” and the jarring centerpiece “Not Even Jail”) and threatening Banks/Kessler overtones (“Evil,” “Take You On a Cruise,” the skull-clobbering “Slow Hands”). Rhythms stop-start, jerk to and fro; choruses lurk within verses and vice-versa; Kessler’s notes are less frequent, more filigreed; and Banks has developed a unique singing voice that drones assertively as his little beetle buddy. Decadence drips from every note of Antics, the vicarious kind you sense if you’re out after midnight, as a city creeps stealthily to life all around you. “I am the scavenger,” Banks proclaims at one point. And it’s not far from the truth.

To scrawl the surreal poetry for Antics, Banks, 26, put himself through a grim urban gauntlet. Some of it was written in bars, he says during a break in the shooting. And he likes bars, enjoys quietly scrutinizing patrons from back booths. But most of it was born in the “horribly depressing apartment I took in Brooklyn for the specific purpose of writing this album. A friend of mine from college rented it to me for $700, and I would go there to write because I just couldn’t write anywhere else.” Residing with his girlfriend and her roommate, Banks couldn’t concentrate at home. Nor could he fully focus at pubs. “How can you write melodies or lyrics if there’s music in the background? And you can’t write outdoors, when God’s trying to kill you with the catastrophic, morbidly cold winters we have in New York. All that intense cold upsets my soul very deeply.”

The solution: “I had to have my own room, with my own desk,” declares Banks, who always kept an iced bottle of vodka on the premises. “I had to get a place where it was very private, and this was. So I kinda switched over into a mindset and came up with a method and concepts that I wanted to write about. I had an empty notebook with me at all times, and a little dictaphone for any melodies that I came up with at any given moment. That was my method for getting it all out, and it really worked. I got three albums’ worth of lyrics from that period, and everything lyrically is very pure. There was so much shit that came straight up from the unconscious, from wherever dreams come from, and I just committed it to paper immediately.”

Banks often staggered to his stakeout after a full night of drinking, and he still recalls fleeting impressions of the seedy neighborhood, like a sign in the window of a fortune teller that read, “Ring psychic bell.” “That made it into my book, but not into a song yet,” he laughs. But he kept to himself in Brooklyn, making no new friends, because “social interaction is a little taxing for me. I worked it all out in a ratio when I was a kid—30% of my time I wanted for social interaction, and 70% to process the social interaction that I’d had. By myself. I don’t need to be talking to people all the time.”

For a frontman, Banks keeps a remarkably low profile. Sure, his blond hair has grown rock-star long, and he—like Kessler—is sporting a spiffy black dress suit. But you’d spot him on a barstool, take one look at his odd duct-taped white loafers and probably keep your distance. “Which is my preference,” the singer smirks.

Kessler, meanwhile, was on his own Antics vision-quest. It all started, he relates, with an elusive sensation he first felt as a child. He still can’t quite put his finger on it, “but it was catharsis, music that made me feel a certain way when I listened to it, when emotions took over and I got in a mood. And it could’ve been anything, electronic music, hardcore, rock, pop, classical. But there’d be this feeling that took over your body, and now I’m addicted to that feeling. I can’t always get it, but that’s what I always strive for.”

Hence, to write his elaborate musical parts, Kessler would rise early each morning, grab some coffee and his classical guitar, then plop down in front of his television set to watch landmark, often black-and-white, films. No joke, he grins—that’s how Antics came to him. It took a long time to tune out the strident cacophony rattling outside his city window, and still longer to understand that his sonic inspiration would be visual, not aural. Some favorite flicks? Wings of Desire, Truffaut’s Day For Night, Melville’s Le Samouraï and Touches Pas Au Grisbe, a French gangster masterpiece starring the memorably rugged Jean Gabin. “And watching a film usually makes me either write or not write,” explains Kessler. “I never just sit down and pick up the guitar and start to play. And this moment I’m talking about, where I come up with something at home, is kind of a spiritual moment for me,” he continues. “And when I write with a film on, nothing really catches my attention from the movie unless it has a mood that’s really pulling me one way, and I start feeling a deep sense of emotional sentimentality toward what’s happening. Then I stop caring about the film, and that’s when my concentration is so deep into what I came up with. And it’s not foolproof—it won’t happen every time, and you sorta have to accept that. But to me, it’s a holy moment when it does happen. As is the moment when we’re working on something and we really don’t know where the song’s going, and then somehow it just takes a left turn in the greatest way. … And that’s always a moment of euphoria.”

A true Interpol Moment. And Banks likes the way his and Kessler’s work comes together at these times. He also loves that Antics “does feel very New York, very much like the subways from Manhattan to Brooklyn, very much like that depressing little apartment I had.”

Kessler sees a much bigger picture. “There’s an intensity to our music,” he claims as his bright-green chum circles overhead, then thuds noisily into a nearby shrub. “Our music is evocative, and music should be that way—it should actually evoke a feeling. It shouldn’t be something pleasant to put on, like ‘Should I watch TV or should I put on music?’ It should be like, ‘No, I’ve gotta listen to this piece of art right now! I’ve gotta listen to it!’“

Just like the drone of a passing insect. You can either open your ears to its curious arc, or stroll right past such everyday beauty, oblivious. It’s your choice.