Solo projects. They can be contentious beasts. Especially when the artist embarking on said solo project just happens to be a member of one of the past decade’s most revered bands, and also, incidentally, the all time favourite band of this particular writer. My affair with Interpol began on a hazy afternoon at Reading festival almost ten years ago, and it’s one which has endured ever since, over the span of four albums, countless tours and constant late night listens. Paul Banks, the inimitable vocalist of that band is now set to release his second solo record, an exceptional collection of tracks created whilst on a worldwide tour as part of his arena gracing day job, and it’s this record that we’re meeting Banks to discuss today.
A charming, open and tracksuit sporting chatterbox is the man that greets us, a far cry from the aloof, suited and booted character portrayed in his role as lead vocalist and guitarist with Interpol. Harbouring some excellent analogies to aid in the clear and concise transmission of the ideas flowing throughout his latest body of work, Banks appears relaxed and content, if a little tired from a gruelling promo schedule ahead of the album’s release. And what an album it’s turned out to be.
“My leisure time is sort of work for me as well,” Banks explains of the record’s creation, “what I enjoy doing is making music and my laptop allows me to execute any idea I might have. After a show on the tour bus for instance, that for me is a way to wind down, to get in and work on a track. So I think that allowed me to be productive.”
“I’m still waiting for my endorsement with Logic,” he adds, laughing, “because I think i’ve been talking about that the whole time, once I got that program, it was a creative explosion for me. One of the reasons why I left my solo project to one side for nine years when Interpol kicked in, was because I never felt confident with how I had done my stuff, which was just me and a guitar. It wasn’t until I started using that program that I was able to start writing the other music that I heard in my head. I needed something like Logic in order to execute my ideas, because I’m not really a campfire guitar player, I don’t write songs where you can just pick up an acoustic and do it. I’m trying, I just did that on the radio actually [a guest appearance on Lauren Laverne’s 6 Music show] but they don’t always translate that well that way, I need the other instrumentation.”
Banks provides the perfect home for Banks’ journeying, expansive arrangements, startling dynamic shifts and mesmeric, poetically crafted lyrics. But stumbling upon musical inspiration can be a much more organic experience than this complex album may lead the listener to believe, as Banks recently discussed using an archaeology analogy, upon which he expands.
“I’ve heard it said, and I think Anthony Kiedis said it also, that it’s almost like you have to have your antennae up as a musician, and you just tune into it. So the archaeology analogy is that for me, when I have an idea, it’s like walking through the desert and seeing a piece of bone sticking out, because then you realise ‘I don’t need to meander around this desert, this is where I’ll stay put for a minute and examine this thing that’s here’. Then the process of writing the rest of the song after that initial discovery happens, is uncovering it without breaking it or messing it up. And sometimes you find out that that was just a rock, and move onto the next thing. And sometimes you realise that it’s all there – like it’s the tusk of a woolly mammoth, and you go on to uncover the whole skeleton. So the idea there is that if I write a little chord progression, which is generally the verse of whatever song, I think that the DNA of that song is in that first chord progression. There are instinctively places you can go from there, so the chorus is encoded in that. That’s what I mean when I say not messing it up, if the skeleton’s good, the rest of the song will be just under the surface to be uncovered.”
Stepping away from a band that has stood alongside him on stage at every concert for the last nine years and embarking upon a solo effort could have felt intimidating, frightening almost, to a lesser musician. But as the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that Banks’ first solo release under the guise of Julian Plenti was the product of a cathartic exercise, an opportunity to clear the decks as it were, and to air the music that had been guarded under lock and key as Interpol were off conquering the world.
“I didn’t need critical reaction, I didn’t need a huge audience for that first record,” Banks explains. “I literally just needed it to be an actual, viable record that would be released, and once I had that degree of validation for my efforts, then I was off to the races. It’s not so much about confidence as I was waiting for that first one to happen, and then… ‘here I go’. I did feel more confident as I was writing this record, but that was my self evaluation of the quality of the material and that sense of taking what I learned on my first record and applying it to this one.”
“But that’s not why I went back to using my real name, because I was more confident or because I felt like it was really me,” he continues, referring to having moved on from his previous solo moniker of Julian Plenti. “Once I’d paid homage to Julian Plenti, and I’d done it as per my original vision, I no longer really needed to do that. That was a retrospective of the early work plus a bunch of new material that I put on that first record, but then once it was done, it was like an itch that I had to scratch so I scratched. Moving forward, I was thinking ‘should I go for a band name, should I go with some other thing?’, but then I started to feel that it would be too convoluted at this point to go from an alter ego to another name, so I thought i’d go with the absolute most stripped down route I possibly can, and that’ll be the ground from which I’ll build out in the future.”
One of the elements that has led Paul Banks to be recognised as such a unique performer is his special way with words. His lyricism is consistently remarkable, with his descriptive wordplay and sensibility often hinting to a literary, spoken word influence. A well documented love and admiration of hip hop certainly plays an important role in this, as does the fact that Banks is bilingual, speaking two dialects of Spanish as well as English. After a brief discussion as to the untranslatability of certain concepts between languages (“It’s like in French – they don’t have a word for ‘home,’” he comments. “They have ‘chez-moi’, they have ‘la maison’, but there’s no word that captures that sense of ‘home’”) Paul discusses the extent to which he thinks his linguistic background has influenced his lyrical style.
“I lived in two different Spanish speaking countries, so you see one language used differently, especially in the department of slang. In Spain, there’s a certain style of slang and a certain speech pattern, and in Mexico, there’s a very different one. I think that, in addition to the Spanish versus English thing, gave me some insight into how language is so malleable. But I think if you only spoke English, but looked into a bit of Latin or the romance languages and saw the way that words are derived, I think you could gain some insight but I think it lends to my sense of play with language. It’s not that you can do things if you speak multiple languages, it’s that idea of the mechanics of language, that it can evolve and be fluid. It also speaks to my passion for hip-hop, because there’s a genre of music that invents words which then become part of the vernacular. That’s interesting. I think it’s also in my blood because my Pops also studied linguistics. He can speak like, six languages. He’s badass.”
Steering conversation back to the album, Banks reveals some of the secrets of his songwriting style. One of his tried and tested methods is to work on the track demos until the song has fully blossomed, at which point he re-records the track to capture it in its best light. Some sentiments can’t always be exactly replicated however, as Banks goes on to explain.
“I had quite a magic demo for ‘Young Again’,” he says, “the mood was exactly executed and we chased that. We improved on what I did, hands down, but there’s always something, a lot of demos have that magic quality to them.”
A highlight of the album, ‘Young Again’ is a tender ode to the passing of adolescence, a track that showcases the roving dynamics of this record as well as the emotive themes that place this album among Banks’ most personal work to date.
“It was an instrumental that i’ve had kicking around for years, it was going to be an instrumental on this record but I was working on the track, I was re-demoing it for the fifteenth time and suddenly, in five minutes, all the lyrics and vocals came. The spirit of the song is me revisiting an adolescent mindset, but the poetic idea that i’ve come to about what that is, is that you formulate your adult personality between about 18 and 20. At least I did, I established what my dreams were and I established mental patterns and templates and ever since then, those moments have been resonating through my life, trying to fulfil the dreams that I had at that age. I had this funny feeling of having done that now, so this was an odd moment of saying farewell to that earlier adolescent self, but very very fondly. In a ‘I think i’ve paid you enough tribute, and now i’m at a point in my life where i’m going to have to go and find new patterns, and a new paradigm to base my dreams on.’ So there’s a bittersweet melancholy to that song which I think is that spirit of ‘shit, maybe this is done’, my time following that particular vision, but at the same time, what a vision it was.”
20 – Dublin, Academy
21 – Glasgow, King Tuts
22 – Manchester, Sound Control
24 – London, Koko