Image isn’t everything. If it was, then the New York four-piece known as Interpol would have already become one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. While their tailored suits and runway-ready haircuts have brought them plenty of press, the band is actually earning recognition the old-fashioned way, by releasing imaginative, yet solid albums and touring relentlessly.
Formed by New York University students in 1998, the band didn’t acquire international stardom until four years later with their debut LP, “Turn on the Bright Lights,” a nocturnal epic emanating from the dark, lonely heart of Gotham. Comparisons to groups like Television, Bauhaus and (most frequently) Joy Division are apt, but often misleading. Postpunk’s rusty clang is palpable, but so submerged in glistening washes of reverb that the scabby angst melts away to reveal a glass-smooth complexion beneath.
Last year’s follow-up, “Antics,” refines the Interpol sound, unfurling more spacious arrangements and warmer chord progressions, while allowing the glint of silver lining to shimmer through the clouds. The track “Slow Hands” scrubs heartache away with brisk dance-punk riffs while the slow-burner, “Not Even Jail,” stacks layers of organ atop chiming guitars while the rhythm section marches tautly to the top of the world.
The view must be nice up there. “Bright Lights” sold over 350,000 copies in the United States alone, and “Antics” is closing in on that figure only five months after its release. Interpol has since joined a growing number of indie bands (Modest Mouse, The Shins, My Morning Jacket, to name a few) who are licensing their music to commercials and television — something unheard of just five years ago. Interpol have appeared in a televised concert/commercial sponsored by Pepsi, and allowed their song, “Untitled,” to be used in an episode of the popular U.S. sitcom “Friends.”
The band’s success presents a conundrum: How does money-strapped independent music thrive in the commercial arena without losing its identity or integrity?
Speaking from his home in Manhattan, bassist Carlos Dengler says the band chooses its media appearances carefully: “We’ve turned down some things . . . not because we were afraid of a fan backlash but more because it didn’t feel right to us and didn’t reflect who we are as artists.”
Appearances on shows like “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live” are welcomed, he says, but offers to perform within a scripted TV show’s storyline are given a pass. “Those sorts of things don’t feel natural to us because they would almost make us look out of place, or like actors, which we’re not,” he explains. “I think after a certain point in your career you can do that and get away with it, but we’re still climbing, and we’re still forging our identity.”
Dengler is perplexed about how a band can balance an indie image with mainstream success, and seems weary of explaining Interpol’s actions to fans who accuse them of selling out. “The ‘Friends’ thing is an interesting example of how tricky this whole thing can be. That could have been disastrous since it’s such a mainstream show. But it wasn’t. There was a piece of our music used at a very crucial moment in the show’s developing history and storyline, and it was used very effectively for emotional purposes, and that’s what we do, that’s the kind of band that we are,” he says. “So anybody who complains that we licensed our music to ‘Friends’ can go . . . you know, well, I’d rather not use expletives.”
A rock musician who avoids expletives? Dengler is friendly, talkative and, because the tape recorder is running, cautious. He says he even reads Interpol’s press. “I think no one should be ashamed of that. You shouldn’t be an avid reader, but you should definitely keep up with it to a certain degree.” His voice becomes more deliberate: “Journalists,” he says, searching for the words, “don’t . . . often . . . portray you in the way you thought you came out in an interview.” His restraint, he says, is a result of what he considers unfair treatment in the media and the decision “not to give journalists extra ammo.”
Especially not before their first solo dates in Japan. Interpol participated in 2003’s Summer Sonic music festival, but this week’s shows will be the first — and possibly last — time to see the quartet up close, considering their growing audience.
Touring, Dengler admits, does have its drawbacks. “One of the most regrettable aspects of this career is that it becomes like other careers,” he says, referring to the monotony of their peripatetic itinerary. Each band member enjoys it to varying degrees, with drummer Samuel Fogarino at one end (“He really sinks his teeth into it.”) and Dengler at the other. “I don’t hate touring,” he says. “What’s a more fanciful way of putting it? Hmm . . . It behooves me to appear excited about living on a bus for months and months on end, basically traveling night after night.”
A consistent, truncated schedule, he says, might make it more enjoyable. “I would like to leave every city at 6 in the morning.” That way, he explains, he could gauge his time more efficiently at the after-parties, which he considers a vital component of the tour experience. “It’s where I actually let off the steam that I accumulate during the course of the day: the pressure of playing the show and the exhaustion and all that — that all gets released after the show.”
Playing in front of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people is a tremendous emotional experience, says Dengler. Now that crowds have digested both albums and know the songs and scream them back, he says, the energy is overwhelming.
“And then, the prospect of going right back to the bus and just sitting there? It seems so anticlimactic. We want to bathe in the juices and the sweat that we accumulate over the gig and utilize that to blow off steam later on in the night.”
Now how’s that for an image?
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