Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights at 10: An Oral History

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There was something about that band that right off the bat, they had their shit together. They had that cool name, that cool look, they practiced, practiced, practiced. It all fell together the way a band’s first record is supposed to, but normally does not.— Peter Katis (Engineer, mixer, co-producer, Turn on the Bright Lights, Antics)

The future of popular music couldn’t have looked bleaker at Interpol’s inception. It’s 1998, and the top-selling album in the U.S. is the Titanic soundtrack. Limp Bizkit’s management paid a Portland radio station $5,000 to play their single 50 times, bringing in the arrival of chain-wallet rock on radio airwaves. MTV’s Total Request Live is just starting to test the waters in New York’s Times Square. In that very same city, a very determined Daniel Kessler is finishing up the skeletal beginnings of what would become Interpol’s first songs—and there’s no better time than now to strong-arm everyone’s faith back into a damn good rock album.

Although the ideas were kicking around in the late ‘90s, Kessler and company weren’t the first to arrive with that album. From that same New York scene in 2001, The Strokes delivered Is This It, an album that made it possible to look toward something as simple as a few guitars, bass and drums as a unit that held power on the airwaves. But before The Strokes were even a glimmer in Julian Casablancas’ eye, Kessler was on the lookout to put together his own band. This search lead him slowly but surely to bassist Carlos D., vocalist/guitarist Paul Banks and drummer Greg Drudy. As the story goes, most of Kessler’s connections were through NYU and his own work for a record label within the city. Kessler met Banks in Paris where a friendship started to bloom, but it was New York that would shape the band as it is today.

Daniel Kessler: I was at New York University. At that point I was really on the lookout…I don’t know why it was so difficult to find band members, but it really was. I think because I was really passionate about it. I think I knew this is something I really wanted to do with my life. Not necessarily as far as being in a rock band as a career, but, you know, work on music.

Rob Sacher (co-owner, Luna Lounge, Lower East Side): I felt strongly that Daniel was the driving force, and they all had a shared vision, but I think Daniel was the strongest one in pulling the parts together … I do think his vision helped steer those songs to what they were in rehearsals.

Kessler: [Finding members] was more about sensibility than how fast you can play the guitar or how technically good you are. That stuff never really interested me, and so with that in mind, it was more about the people. Even with Paul, Paul joined the band without anyone ever hearing him sing. It was more because I’d always had a feeling about that guy. And I’d met him when I was 21 and he was 18, and it was just out of high school and I hadn’t even started university yet. He’d always carried himself in a way that seemed like he’s got something a bit different about him. Same thing with Carlos, same thing with Sam.

Sacher: [Before Interpol] I’m pretty sure that Carlos and Daniel played in other bands. I vaguely remember thinking about those guys, “That guy was very, very good, but the rest of the band was not that strong.” But I remember thinking that way about Carlos. Here’s a guy that walks in here like a rock star, and the rest of the guys weren’t as intense. I remember him making an impression, and I felt that way about Daniel too.

Sam Fogarino: (Drums, 2000-Present) The rest of the guys are a bit younger than me, they just had their heads on straight within their own, you know, mania [laughs]. It was such a different thing. I was just far more reckless—not in that living life in abandon, but just in a dumb kinda way, just a very ignorant, really destructive way [laughs]. Paul is 10 years younger than me, but at that time he already had a double BA and he had a respectable job. He worked at Interview magazine where he was assistant to the editor. And Carlos worked at the Psychology department at NYU, and those guys embraced all the rock ’n’ roll trappings before Bright Lights, but still they held those jobs. They still had an odd sense of responsibility. And me at that age, you know, I worked at a record store, and I was leaving the door unlocked when I closed it and showing up an hour late for work.

Soon enough, Kessler had the oddly self-assured, young-yet-put-together pieces to his sonic puzzle called Interpol. A fresh-faced Banks, who hadn’t sang a word yet in practice, took up the part of second guitarist. Carlos Dengler, who didn’t own a bass on his own, held down the low-end, if only based on his ability as a guitarist and his own local status; He made a name as a local favorite in New York’s East Village, where Fogarino called him a “cult celeb.” With Drudy filling out the lineup, the guys holed up in low-rent rehearsal spaces, most notably at Funkadelic studios on West 35th St., to work on what would become their first songs. But to solidify the band as a real thing that demanded commitment, it took some convincing on Kessler’s part to a couple of guys that had no big music dreams, particularly to Banks, who had been working on music under the moniker of Julian Plenti and had no aspirations to collaborate.

Paul Banks (guitarist, vocalist): I had originally not intended to be in a band, but I was seduced by the quality of the music Daniel wrote. I put my own solo shit on the backburner for about nine years.

Kessler: I’d heard him say that before as well. Carlos had stopped playing music at that point. [Carlos was] an excellent guitar player but he didn’t even own a guitar, he didn’t own any instruments. And the only reason he played bass in Interpol is because I had a bass. He’d just moved to New York, and he was open to the idea of playing music and I think meeting new people, but he was an academic. He wanted to get really serious about school. He’d already had an episode where you see yourself pursuing music, and I think he let that ship sail until we started talking one day in a class.

Although Kessler had been toying with the idea of providing vocals, an unlikely frontman emerged in Banks when he revealed his voice to Kessler and Dengler.

Kessler: We said [to Paul], “Wait a minute, why don’t you—let’s have a rehearsal and you sing or whatever,” and so me and Carlos and Paul went to the absolute smallest closet of a rehearsal space you could think of. I remember it was a very slow song, very chill, very ambient. I remember when he first started singing it, Carlos and I sort of turned around and made eye contact, we were like, “What the fuck?” For me it was definitely one of the great moments of our history. I can still say that that was one of the things that I’ll never forget.

Sacher: Paul’s voice is extraordinary. Paul can sing the phone book and it can sound extraordinary…I worked with about 2,000 different singers over the years, and maybe a dozen made an impression on me. Paul was one of them. Others were Julian Casablancas from The Strokes, Elliott Smith, [Matthew Caws of] Nada Surf. Paul’s voice was just so deep and warm and extraordinary. There’s not much you can say about it other than it is what it is.

Katis: It’s funny the way people perceive bands. They look at the lead singer as the main person, and with Interpol, Paul is the lead singer, but I think he always kind of felt boxed out in a lot of the songwriting. His words and his melodies are, of course, more than a little important [laughs], but I think Daniel and Carlos would write the main parts of the songs. I think that was complicated for him, but I think they had a pretty special batch of songs.

After those countless rehearsals and writing sessions that Katis says prepared the band so well, Interpol played one of their first gigs of many at a place called The Charleston, some strange hybrid of a pizza place and venue. With Drudy playing drums, a curious Fogarino stopped by the gig to check out the band Kessler had been hyping up to him. And it was a disaster.

Kessler: I don’t know if they still do shows or if it’s still owned by the same guy, but it’s called the Charleston and it’s right in the heart of Williamsburg. This was April ’98 or March ’98, and so it didn’t look like what it looks like now. It was like a pizzeria/venue where bands play. The owner would flash a flashlight on you and turn off and on the wall switch, that would be the lighting show. But that was the thing—you didn’t really have a choice, like, “Why don’t you keep the lights steady?” That was his thing, so it was a sort of a weird David Lynch-like thing, “What is going on?” And then we were just god-awful. We were gonna be awful for a little while, ’cause we were getting our bearings, but it was a really messy show. Wow, it was a trainwreck.

Fogarino: It wasn’t, like, pathetic, it just wasn’t honed [laughs]. It was a definitive early show, and I just remember at that time—this was probably around ’98 or so—I glanced at Carlos and I was just like, “What is up with goth boy?” I’m coming fresh out of this Archers of Loaf phase, corduroy pants and Converse sneakers. And I was like, “Oh no. The other guys are cool, but 1989 wants him back.” And it turned me off to be honest with you [laughs].

With early shows under its classy—probably Italian—leather belt, Interpol started getting those bearings Kessler was looking for at places like Brownies and the Lower East Side’s Luna Lounge, which saw sets from Elliott Smith and The Strokes. Co-owner Rob Sacher booked the band after local buzz (and some networking with Kessler and Dengler). And with those gigs and experiences, the band was already getting comparisons that would follow it through its discography.

Sacher: It was a Wednesday night at 9 p.m. They were one of two or three bands on that bill, they drew 38 people. The room held about 75 to 100, so 38 was respectable for a first gig, but there’s no way we’d ever imagine the band would sell so many records and play in front of stadiums. We kept a calendar and we would put notes in the calendar saying what the band sounded like, what their references were like, so if we chose to rebook them, we could align them with a band near the same style. So I remember it said “Joy Division influences” underneath their name.

Sean McCabe (cover designer, Turn on the Bright Lights, Antics): It reminded me of so many things, but I actually thought they sounded more like Echo and the Bunnymen rather than Joy Division.

Katis: I remember, too, they caught a lot of shit with Joy Division comparisons. At first, it was like, yeah, it does sound a little like Joy Division. But now, it does and it doesn’t. Really, it’s ridiculous to harp on that. Not to offend any old-school people or whatever, but I like Interpol more than Joy Division. I think they have better songs. I don’t think they were trying to imitate them at all.

It wasn’t long before the band parted ways with Drudy, but unbeknownst to them, the split would bring them the final piece to their four-part puzzle. With the addition of rock veteran Fogarino, who beat out most band members by about a decade in age, Interpol as we know it was solidified with a brooding Banks leading with guitar and vocals, Kessler tying down the compositions with beautiful, interlaced guitar parts; and Dengler and Fogarino became an unlikely powerful rhythm section, not sharing much more in common than the music that bound them together.

Kessler: Right away it was very clear that—with him being such a good drummer, such an innovative drummer and a reliable drummer—it allowed us to feel like a more comfortable band.

Fogarino: I didn’t see the band again [after their first gig], and then after hearing what became the self-released EP, The Grey EP, it was time to take this seriously. Daniel and I had been saying, “Oh yeah we should get together, I want to hear what the band is doing,” and in typical fashion he’d be like, “Oh yeah,” and then six months would go by and nothing would happen. You see each other again and then finally we really did meet up and then kinda talked about the possibility of me checking this out. Their drummer had parted ways with them already and they wanted to keep it going. And I took the EP home and listened to it and I don’t care if Carlos D. was Count Chocula, I was like, “I am going to play in this. This is fucking good.”

Sacher: [Sam and Carlos didn’t seem like a good fit] style-wise. I thought of Sam as a little more punk, a little edgier, not as dark. Carlos always carried his personality with him, and I didn’t really know Sam joined until I first saw them together. It finally made sense when I saw them together. Although their physical style didn’t match up, their playing styles did, and I have a feeling that Daniel really pulled that all together…I don’t think [Carlos and Sam] had animosity toward each other, but I don’t necessarily think they ended up at each others’ parties, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re in a band…I’m not saying it’s just your job and you go home. I think it’s more like the reality of a real family. Some families, if not connected by blood relations, wouldn’t be in the same room. The blood would be the music, if that makes sense.

Shortly after several releases of the band’s demos, including a release on the U.K.’s Chemikal Underground label, the band got a huge break after grabbing the attention of BBC DJ John Peel, who invited Interpol to record a session. They utilized their time overseas, booking a few gigs on the strength of their Peel Session.

Kessler: The [Chemikal Underground] Fukd ID release is really essentially just our first demo recording and then a song “Precipitate” from our second demo recording. But the Chemikal Underground was always really supportive of the band and they were always interested in the band and when they came up with this series for bands to be a part of this series. It was a big thing for us, it was really exciting, you know. We gave out like 1,000 pieces of vinyl, 1,000 CDs. It was our first sorta thing that was out there and then when we did the Peel Session, it was gigantic. It some ways, you know, when your band doesn’t have a lot going on and you really just wanna make a record, and you really wanna go play some tour dates and you’ll probably make bad choices on both sides of the thing to make them happen, you know? [laughs] You’ll probably lose a shitload of money just to be able to go out in the city and play some dates.

And while it was a risky call to travel overseas for a session, it stirred up buzz that solidified their spot as up-and-comers at what would become their long-term home, Matador Records. It was a relationship that was years in the making, with Kessler already networking—and getting encouragement—from Matador co-owner Gerard Cosloy.

Katis: Sam and I had girlfriends who were best friends and bandmates, so we met that way. And now he had this new band called Interpol and I watched them play at Brownies, it was like the little place where everyone kind of played. But I was kind of shocked that they were playing on a Thursday, and it was packed, and people were excited. I talked to a very young Paul Banks afterward, and they joked at the time. They had no money, and they couldn’t pay me, and they joked “But you know what? We’re going to sign to Matador records, Matador records is going to give us a record deal.” Which is a pretty funny thing for a band to say, it’s like saying you’ve got a girlfriend in Canada, but this turned out to be true.

Gerard Cosloy (co-owner, Matador Records): Daniel was trying to get us to see the band, sending early recordings, etc … [Matador’s relationship before signing the band was] non-existent. We had some mutual friends—other bands, folks in the rock biz—but did not travel in the same circles. At the time I wasn’t traveling in any circles so it’s kind of a lucky break—for me, anyway—that he got in touch.

Fogarino: Even just going to meet with Gerard and Chris from Matador, and sit in their conference room, you know, coming from where I did, that was a victory too, before anything happened.

Cosloy: Repeated plays of “PDA” certainly made me think there was something substantial going on.  Sooner or later you get sick of playing the same song for your friends and you say to yourself, “Maybe it would be more efficient just to make a proper record.”

And so, they did. Matador signed the band on for a deal, which lead to marathon recording sessions in Katis’ residential studio in Connecticut, a workspace that allowed the band to hone on completing the album away from New York’s distracting night life—including those “rock ’n’ roll trappings” Fogarino said the band embraced but didn’t allow to dictate their process.

Kessler: We’d always attacked the studio not as an experimental place, but more a place where we’re bringing plans and we want to build this thing proper. We know exactly what we want to happen. That’s why we’re probably not the easiest band to produce. And that’s why we never really said we’ve been produced by other people.

Katis: Sam recorded a lot of demos, and you’ll see they’re pretty worked out. He sent me all of those demos and I said “These sound great.” There was not a lot of preproduction on my end. The band wrote the arrangements and songs and rehearsed them to death. They came in super prepared.

Kessler: Being somewhere that wouldn’t been too distracting for us so we could get down to brass tacks and not make bad choices as far as sacrificing—doing the right thing in the studio, or going out—you know, more concentrated I guess you could say. We were putting New York City distractions at a distance.

Fogarino: On a personal side, there were still drugs and shady behavior, questionable behavior, but they were tactful. They didn’t wear it on their sleeve. Like, you knew it was happening, but it wasn’t happening in front of you … And still, nobody knew why. I mean, people knew why, but it was still never sensationalized and capitalized upon. There was never gonna be, you know, the backstage film camera documenting the wild activity. I never saw it [laughs], you know, I mean, any of that stuff that happened we all kind of broke off and did our own things. Occasionally there’d be some meeting in the middle [laughs], partaking in some bad activity, but it had some class. There was no, like, group sex or anything like that. Nothing utterly sleazy… We were still clinging to a thread in some respects but we knew why we were there. And if it was just for the party aspect, well, why travel around in a van to do that? We could’ve just stayed in the East Village and—Carlos was already kinda a cult celeb, you know, in that neighborhood anyway so all you had to do was stand next to him and you could have anything you want [laughs]. So why would we get a van and play 50 shows? It was always that we’d keep the band and the music first and foremost.

Kessler: We lived in the house where we recorded, so we’d barely leave the house and just go to the liquor store too and stock up, but besides that we’d never leave the house. We had a very, very small recording budget, we had no time to get it all done. It’s an interesting process. You want to get it right, it’s like the most important thing in your life, but you don’t always get it right the first time when you’re making a record. It’s a difficult process, but you waited so long that you’re not gonna put something out that you don’t feel represents what you’re trying to say and express yourself. We were really sitting in the house and kinda going crazy. It was a fun time. It was really the first time in the studio, it’s exciting and it’s nerve-racking at the same time. But I have all good memories.

Fogarino: The house, actually it didn’t have a bad energy. It used to be a school for autistic children so you may be kind of, “Ooh this is a little creepy,” walking down this dark hallway, but when you got to the other end you’re like, “Oh, this is not a creepy place.” But I think I disturbed everybody because I would hang out in the basement all the time. I love really rustic, kind of, concrete spaces, like old brick and stuff and I would smoke weed in the basement [laughs]. Peter would let you smoke way down in the basement so that’s where I stayed all the time and they were just like, “You’re a fucking weird guy. You’re in the basement. In this beautiful house—three-story house and Sam’s in the basement.” It had a good energy to it. If it was stated otherwise I think somebody was trying to spin some good fiction.

Katis: Basic tracks, relatively speaking, went extremely fast. I’m trying to think if there are any click tracks on that record, but I don’t think there are. It was recorded all to 2” tape—there were no computers involved in recording. By today’s standards, it was amazing what was captured to those basic tracks. On many of the songs, the bass is the live take, even more exceptionally, a lot of the guitars that were played live were kept. On a lot of those songs there are at least one or two live guitar tracks. Nowadays that’s pretty unusual.

Although the band came in over-prepared and tight as ever, that’s not to say that the studio didn’t bring its own complications.

Katis: You don’t want to say too much sometimes, but on that record, the guys got along pretty well. A band, as you know, is complicated, but I think they get more complicated as time goes by. I think at that time, they got along pretty well, they were very driven and they were very driven to make a good record. That’s what held them together. They were democratic in the process. Sure, there were power trips in the process, but bands always play with each other. The interpersonal stuff is always linked to the creative part of it. As intense as these sessions got, everyone was very civil.

Fogarino: We were experiencing something brand new all together and that really changed the inner dynamic of the band for the better.

Katis: On the first record, Paul really hated singing in the studio. As much as anyone I’ve ever known. He basically said, “Everyone, get out of here.” He didn’t want any bandmates around. It was just he and I with the lights out. He hated the sound of nice microphones, and it made him crazy. This was all to tape, so there were no plugins, so the way he sang on the most record is just a handheld mic—a Sennheiser 421—through this old Ampex preamp. We’d overdrive the crap out of it. When you listen, you don’t think the vocals are that distorted, but they are. It’s the only way he could get the strength to perform. The studio can be this antiseptic environment. I told him, “It’s going to be overdriven, I can’t undo that.” And he said, “Fuck it, I don’t care.” I think it makes it a little more badass—but it’s not apparent.

Banks: He knows how I work…I think he does bring a lot to the table especially, and he’s able to bring that to the table because we know each other and we have a good working relationship.

Katis: There was this funny moment when Carlos was looking behind me for the final tweaks for the record, and he’s sitting there and he goes, and I hope this doesn’t come out wrong, but he said “Man, I hope this record is a hit, because I’m tired of being poor.” I wheeled around in my chair and laughed, and I said, “Are you fucking kidding me? You think you’re going to get rich making indie rock? Man, you are crazy,” but dammit, he was right. This record made careers, and that doesn’t happen very often. I could not tell it would have that much success, and I was expecting to be disappointed.

After weeks of work with Katis was up, the members of Interpol got a mixed version back from Gareth Jones, who has worked with the likes of Depeche Mode, Erasure, Wire and more recently, Grizzly Bear.

Kessler: We had to make a decision because we mixed the whole record right before Christmas. And then Peter’s studio booked up after that. We took it home and I think we all had the feeling that some of the record—like half the just wasn’t quite the way we’d intended it, and it kind of hurt a little bit.

Fogarino: It was awful. Case in point, a rather good mix engineer by the name of Gareth Jones, who still ended up mixing four of the 10 songs, but he just misinterpreted what was supposed to happen in terms of how we wanted to present this record. And his credits are amazing, he’s worked with such good bands over the years but sometimes it just falls short. And it’s such a subjective thing too, you never really do know. But Daniel said “No, this is not it.”

Kessler: We had to make a very difficult decision on whether we just go ahead with these mixes—which might’ve been just fine. Or we would have to wait until spring of 2002 until Peter has a bit more time after this other band recorded, or we go back in there in the fall of 2002—which doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but when you’re a band that’s just been itching and it feels like forever, it’s hard. Essentially we made the right call and we waited. Whenever Peter had a few days we would sneak up there and it felt completely right. We’ll sacrifice a lot to make sure we can leave at peace with these songs representing their intention.

Fogarino: And the whole intention was to not go too far with the production. Make it interesting. Make it sound like a record but let’s keep this true to what we know, and that’s playing live. You know, let’s not go too far to where—and it wasn’t even about not being able to reproduce it live, it was about being able to capture the band as it was. And I think with some of Gareth’s mixes, just a little overstepped that just a little too much, you know, kind of overproduced them a little bit. I mean, recollection serves me—they were still raw [laughs] you know, but they were, I don’t know, a little too spacious, kind of a little too reverberated, a little too delayed and really kind of taking what he may have heard in the guitar sound a little too far, you know, cause it’s already there so, you know, we don’t need to add more. Peter kind of knew what to do, so Peter just stood on the sidelines the whole time. He knew that we weren’t going to keep these mixes and he’s such a stand-up guy he just let it happen. He didn’t want to step on anybody’s feet, and then he just jumped in and saved the album.

Katis: [Gareth Jones] was a big-shot to us, and I don’t mean that sarcastically, I say that with all respect, he was an accomplished guy. They flew him over and he mixed the record here. I try to be fair to everyone when I tell this story, but he would spend all day on a mix, and he’d do a great job, but then the band would pick apart the mix. Coming off analog tape with no automation, it was difficult. The amount of control they wanted with anyone’s ability, there was no way to accommodate the level of control the band wanted with the mixes. So, they would kind of ruin mixes. I hope they don’t think that’s obnoxious, because I think they know what I mean. I just feel like it got out of control. There were a few mixes they didn’t think were good enough. There were a few songs, and I said I could help them, and I mixed it. Gareth mixed it old-school, but I mixed it with ProTools stems, and I could do little edits and tweaks when I wanted to. I did that with “Say Hello to the Angels,” and they said “Holy shit, why didn’t we do the whole record that way?” So, I didn’t have time to do the whole record then, and I think we left a few songs—”Leif Erikson,” “Stella” and “NYC.” In mastering, they made it all work together. In a way, I think it just worked. It worked on “NYC” because there’s a great amount of space. I have to be really clear that I would never want it to come off as a slight to Gareth. He was put in a really difficult situation of these guys wanting total control when my studio just didn’t have the technology to provide that.

With the mix of the album finally coming together, there was another task at hand to focus on, one that was equally important for the band to nail down: The visual aspect of the album. The band met up with designer Sean McCabe, a graphic designer for MTV who had not yet done an album cover. He would go on to do the cover art for the band’s follow-up, Antics, photography for Spoon and design and artwork direction for Mates of State.

McCabe: They didn’t want anything that looked hand-done or “indie” for a lack of a better term. They knew their sound and look had a presence to it, and they wanted it to have a sense of awe and wonder. You can hear it in the music in that album. It was one of these weird things where I had to sit there and listen to them talk a lot, and I had to filter that. They loved minimal graphic stuff, like the Bauhaus design movement, bold, sparse graphics, limited color palettes, that sort of thing.

And after meetings and different trials, McCabe approached the band with an image that made for a perfect fit in their debut.

McCabe: I was taking a lot of photos at the time on my own, and I started using many of them in abstract ways to mock up ideas for album covers. There’s a whole series of the photos that were used for covers. I had all of these bleak landscape shots I was doing, cinematic vignettes that created a weird, bleak effect. When I listened to their music, I thought of landscapes. The interesting thing was, the final cover in my own mind is a landscape in its own way. It’s an interior landscape. A lot of people misinterpret what it was. It was a personal photo I had taken about a year before I had met them, I went to a movie theater in London, and I went to see a film. I was sitting in the front row of the theater because the movie was all sold out, and the whole theater was red, and I just took my camera out and took a photo of it. For some reason they had these red lights on the screen waiting for the film to start.

When I came home and developed it, I just loved the way it looked. When I got to a point of three or four rounds and we weren’t getting anywhere, I started going deeper into my files of photos to start me somewhere. I was putting together another round of comps, and I placed that photo on a black square without any type, and I just wanted to get them a visual because we had a deadline and the clock was ticking. I took it, and immediately everyone liked it. There’s something wonderful, abstract and powerful. I liked the idea of the shape floating in this void. By the time I got to the meeting, I was subconsciously trying to talk them into using this. But I didn’t have to—immediately they liked it.

Their music seemed very cinematic, so I thought of a lot of images as I listened to their album. I spent weeks listening to an unmastered version of the album with a different track order. With the different versions, I’d get a new copy, and I’d be listening to the subway listening to this album thinking of these images. The concept, which was how I sold it to them, was that their music made me think of all of these images. This is a great idea for a cover, because it’s a blank movie screen—you can project whatever image you want onto it, and I think that’s powerful. And with the album being called Turn on the Bright Lights, and there’s this image with these weird light things on the top. If I tried too hard to come up with that idea, it wouldn’t have worked.

With all of the pieces into place, Interpol released Turn on the Bright Lights into the world on Aug. 20, 2002, to rave reviews. But aside from critical response, the album had undeniable staying power. From the cover to the final mix, from opening track “Untitled” to the building closer “Lief Erickson,” the band had released a fully realized effort—if only to please their own ears. But the sales couldn’t hurt, either.

Sacher: That first album, I remember someone dropped it off. It might have been Paul, and we put it in the jukebox at Luna. I was really amazed at how beautiful that record was, it’s still one of my all-time favorite records.

Fogarino: I remember checking the record sales and they were above 50,000 and that’s—50,000. I can’t even count that, you know? It was such a foreign number and I was like, “Those numbers are only for bands like Yo La Tengo and Guided By Voices.” It’s still in the grand scheme, back then especially, was still very—you sold 50,000 records, chances are half a person out of 20 knows who you are. Of course, it’s a lot different now. If you sell 50,000 you’re doing something right cause nobody’s buying anything. But back then it was just like, “Wow, we kind of arrived.”

Katis: When it was finished, I thought, “Wow, this is really good. I love this.” I met my wife, Ann, right before it came out, quite a while after we recorded it. We just started dating, and I said “Want to see a concert? It’s a band that I recorded,” and she said “Sure.” And I think she wondered if it would be any good, and she came out and said “You know, I actually like this. This is really good.” I still had no idea we’d have a big record. But it’s a lot of things. It’s lightning striking, it’s all of those things at once.

Fogarino: We went to Europe first and that was just a blowout, I mean, it was amazing. And I think due to the Chemikal Underground thing, there was already kind of a head start there. And, you know, I mean, the countries are so close together—if you have something that’s worthy it’s gonna catch on. The culture’s so much different as it is here in terms of, like, an underground rock band. So we’re all kind of on cloud nine over this first real European tour and I’m trying to bring everybody down to earth saying, “Don’t expect this back in the States. We’re gonna get in a van and we’re gonna have these long ass drives only to end up playing in front of 10 people,” you know? And, man, it’s so good to be wrong sometimes [laughs]. You know, there was only one show not sold out on that first U.S. tour and you wouldn’t know it wasn’t sold out, I mean, technically it was like five short of a sellout or something ridiculous and I just couldn’t believe it and I was waiting for the bomb to drop, “Okay, we’re gonna get to somewhere in Nebraska and that’s where reality’s gonna kick in…Nope, not there. Okay, well, [laughs] maybe in Tucson…Oh, wrong again.” And I think L.A., I remember, vividly because, first of all, I really didn’t have a clue that L.A. was gonna receive us. I just had this very ignorant take on the culture there. Just being Hollywood, and kinda fake and phony—and still to this day it has such amazing, like, left-of-center output. I was very impressed with that place and I still love it. But I mean, two sold out nights at the Troubadour, and Drew Barrymore apparently got turned away, rumors like that, you know what I mean? That was just, “What?! This is crazy.”

Fogarino: Later it started hitting numbers that once upon a time would’ve been certified Silver, you know, back in the ‘80s [laughs]—250,000 you had a certified record. And it was like 300,000—it was incredible. Nobody dreamed or expected or even desired it, only maybe personally [laughs]. It was like, “Oh, it’d be cool if,” but we had our feet firmly planted in reality, we weren’t thinking of Gold Records. We were thinking of how do we keep this moving. And lo and behold, and here we are taking about this record that people still really like.

Cosloy: Obviously there was a combination of relief, gratitude and excitement, though keep in mind this was on the heels of things taking off in the U.K. shortly prior, so it wasn’t as big a surprise as you might think. By the time the band were able to play outside of the East Coast, their commercial prospects had changed radically from the time we signed them. 

Kessler: I don’t remember once wanting to feel validated and I don’t—it never took some sort of accolade from the press to make me feel like, “That’s it.” And I’m not being dismissive of the press, and I know we’ve received some really nice press, but it seems it’s more about some fan coming up to you and saying, “Hey, you’re really nice” [laughs] or something like that—that felt more, like, direct and real.

Fogarino: We did it for ourselves. We forced ourselves to make something that we would want to listen to. We were really honest about it and I think that really showed. That’s one thing that’s transparent, people know when they’re being catered to. There was, like, a Ministry quote that was like, “People expect us to give ’em what they want, and we don’t and that’s why they come back,” you know? It was pretty interesting. So we knew we liked it. And that was it, and the rest was just up to chance. And when you kind of take that approach and you’re still talking about it 10 years later…wow. I mean, that’s an amazing thing. And when you get something you just never expected, or wanted too hard, that’s what’s gonna keep us pure, I guess [laughs] for lack of a better term. I don’t know, I guess, simply put, it’s just something that I’ll remain proud of and very happy to have been a part of.

Cosloy: It’s a fully realized statement—musically, lyrically, in terms of packaging—in a way not so many debut albums have managed. Not in the last 10 years, anyway. But I wouldn’t say my appreciation has grown—I thought it was a fantastic album when they delivered it. Had we sold 2,000 copies in a decade, I don’t think I’d feel any different.