Nine Songs: Interpol
“I’m sorry, man. I could always do another list for you.”
Paul Banks can’t fit everything he wants to into one Nine Songs discussion. “I’m always happy to talk about music, it’s just that there’s so many nines, you know?” It might well be this propensity for sweating the small stuff that explains why Marauder is the first Interpol record in four years. Banks, their frontman, doesn’t do off-the-cuff. He agonised over which arc would be most insightful when asked to draw up his choice of songs and eventually he settled on one that promised to take us back - less to his formative years than his formative moments.
“I could’ve gone through my whole life to this point with a different nine for each period,” he says on a long-distance call from Panama. “We start here with Michael Jackson and end up with Aerosmith, but I could give you another nine from then forwards and then another nine after that would take us through the last ten years.”
What we’ve got is a vivid photo album of Banks’ earliest musical memories. He was born in Essex in 1978 and moved to Michigan at the age of three; the Midwest therefore, is where he served the first of his musical apprenticeships. The songs Banks has chosen run us through that period, starting when he was practically a toddler and taking us into his early teens.
Banks’ picks are a mixed bag, as well they should be. For any other indie rocker the inclusion of a stone-cold hip-hop classic might feel incongruous, but for Banks it seems frankly stingy, after all, he’s recorded and toured with RZA as one half of the duo Banks and Steelz and that was only after he dropped the memorably-named rap mixtape Everybody on My Dick Like They Supposed to Be in 2013 (Talib Kweli, High Prizm, Mike G and El-P all appeared as guests, in case you were wondering about his pedigree.)
There’s classic rock too. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd opened Banks’ fledgling eyes to the fact that there was a musical world beyond pop and it was Aerosmith who lit the proverbial blue touch-paper in terms of his own career. That isn’t to say he doesn’t retain powerful connections to the very earliest of his radio-driven childhood experiences, or that he was immune to the ubiquity of grunge and psych-rock once he reached the early-to-mid ‘90s.
Now seems like a thoroughly fitting time for him to be revealing the eclecticism of his own musical roots; after all, Marauder is the most ambitious Interpol record to date, with pop melodies, R&B grooves and freeform percussion all being allowed to bleed into their well-established atmospherics to glorious effect.
“These songs are the boundary setters for me,” Banks explains. “They all serve as moments of inspiration or intrigue in my young brain. They’re all blueprints. I could give you plenty more examples for the years since, but what we’ve got here is a collection of the earliest templates for my musical enthusiasm.”
“This song dates back to 1982 I think, and it’s basically about as far back as passion for music goes for me. I mean, it does hold up, but it’s not a song that I would necessarily go back to today for any other reason than nostalgia.
“It’s more that it was a radio song and it just seemed to be everywhere when I first arrived in the States from England. I think it was a Midwestern America thing, where it was a hit in my town because they were playing the shit out of it and I remember being fixated on this song as a very young kid, as I was driving around with my Mum.
“The lyrics were mystery to me; it’s obscure. What the fuck was this guy talking about, “The bullet hits the bone?” When I think about my own biography in music I often reflect on this song; I mean, it didn’t just come to me for the sake of this conversation. It hit me very early on. It was my jam when I was five years old. Steady groove, too!”
“This was another one of the first songs ever to catch my attention. Thriller was happening, and again, I was probably five years old. I was way into Michael Jackson, he did the whole ‘Thriller’ video, but even the one for ‘Billie Jean’ was amazing at the time, with the light-up walkway.
“If you think about videos and special effects, that really would’ve been the height of it at that point. The lyrics are intriguing, too; a lot of the time there was something really fascinating about what he’d write - he left you with something to decipher. ‘Billie Jean’ always felt totally intimate to me. That bass line is incredible, also. It’s a benchmark, what a classic.”
“This is another song that goes back to growing up in the Midwest. There’d be these commercials on TV to advertise compilation records and you’d see the song titles scrolling up the screen, along with footage of the artist. There was something about his voice, that advertisement was on the TV constantly and I would always wait for that little snippet of ‘The Tears of a Clown’, because there’s something in Smokey’s vocals that is just honey. It might be the most beautiful, mellow tone I’ve ever heard.
“This track kind of feels like a counterpart to ‘Billie Jean’ in some ways. You know that whistled melody? It’s the same thing that Jackson was going for with the synths on ‘Billie Jean’, just that little tune that would go on to be iconic. I love that about ‘The Tears of a Clown’; this simple, sunny, dancing arpeggio, over the top of a sick fucking groove.
“Motown has stuck with me right up until the present, those grooves and those peppy bass parts. As it relates to Interpol, it’s like a happy overlap between myself, Sam and Daniel; whatever our individual influences are, we all have a place in our hearts for a little Motown feel. It’s still actively in our music, it’s a solid place to visit when you’re trying to construct a vibe.”
“This is a song that was hitting me a little bit later on, when I was maybe ten or eleven. I was going backwards in time and getting into classic rock. It had always been there; my folks had Led Zeppelin records at home, but it was on the radio too.
“I wasn’t necessarily a massive Zeppelin fan, it was more just certain songs like this one that I would pop in and get acquainted with. That was the era of mixtapes and I wasn’t the kind of fan who needed to buy every record and learn them inside out, you know? I’d pick and choose - ‘Kashmir’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Misty Mountain Hop’, ‘No Quarter.’ I was exposed to everything else, but I was never a diehard.
“There’s something about the acoustic guitar on this song that I love; I probably should have included some Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen here too in that respect. There’s just an incredible timbre and remote folky energy to this track. That’s also why I love Pink Floyd - there’s something very psychedelic and other-dimensional to the whole poise of the song. Plus, it’s just a sick jam; it starts out slowly and really builds and then rocks out. It peaks beautifully; I love the melody, and the way that they express that chord progression on the acoustic guitar just kills me.
“The first time I listened to it through headphones there was one particular moment that blew my mind. It’s about a minute and forty seconds in. Plant is about to kick up a gear as he goes into the next verse, moving into a higher register and there’s a tape bleed that foreshadows it happening. I loved the idea that they’d gone to the effort to drop this subtle little hint and it was only later that I realised it was probably accidental - like magnetic tape bleed or something. At the time I thought “That’s so crazy, to have this guy shouting super quietly in the background of the mix the lyric that he sings in the foreground fifteen seconds later.” That was a big influence on me in terms of production and environment creation.”
“I mentioned Floyd a few minutes ago and I think there’s something similarly appealing about ‘Breathe’ as there was with ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’. There’s a whimsical, airy, gentle quality to it. With this track especially, I love how it becomes dreamier and dreamier. There’s something about that psych quality to it that was so modern back then; now, with everything that’s come since we’re totally used to it. At the time though they were breaking ground and being so indulgent with the aesthetic portraits that they were painting.
“I loved the way they could shift from that softness to suddenly being really epic; those bands aspired to a real grandiosity and they accomplished it too. I love that warm, beating heart in the quieter moments, and again, I remember being a kid in the back of the car and just being transported by the atmosphere of songs like this one.
“They were there from childhood. I came to truly appreciate them as I got a little bit older but I didn’t discover them through mixtapes or anything like that. Those bands that arrived later for me were more the likes of Suicidal Tendencies and Pixies. Floyd came in on the radio.”
“Jane’s Addiction were another one of those bands that came later, that I really discovered for myself as I moved towards my teenage years. That said, songs like this one in particular really appealed to me for much the same reason that tracks like ‘Breathe’ did; there’s the same kind of controlled grandeur to them.
“‘Three Days’ is nearly eleven minutes long and it involves this ascent into a more abstract, psychedelic sonic environment. I think it’s probably interchangeable with the song that follows it on Ritual de lo habitual ‘Then She Did…’ They both have that quality where they start out somewhere very beautiful and then move into this inter-dimensional travel vibe.
“It’s a great thing to aspire to, something that’s so ambitious, but not many artists pull it off with such natural ease and grace. I always felt like that was Jane’s Addiction in their element - when they chased that and just let it all go.”
“If I wanted to be a cool Nirvana fan, I could cite examples that are deeper cuts; there were songs that were major influences to me off of Bleach. There’s something I just have to cop to here though, which is the video for ‘Lithium’, I don’t know if you remember it, but it was kind of constructed out of footage of them playing it live at some festivals and you see Kurt jumping into the drum kit. I mean, that was me being exposed to this monster of a band, so I have to bundle that eye-opening experience into my appreciation of this one.
“It’s not a formulaic pop song, but it’s catchy as fuck and it’s a brilliant example of that great brand that Nirvana created. There was nothing poppy or pandering in the way that it was written - it’s just fucking rock that spoke to everybody.
“I never really aspired to be in a band per se, but I did want to be a musician and Nirvana were the group who solidified that ambition. Jane’s Addiction set it rolling and then Nirvana had me saying, “This is what I want from my life.” It wasn’t contextual; I never had an encyclopedic knowledge of those bands, it was a visceral reaction to the music. There’s a few artists that come along in your lifetime where the first time you hear them, your ear just says, “Whoa! What’s that?” Nirvana were one of them. They really stoked something.”
“That whole record had a profound effect on me, so I just wanted to pick one good example that summarised what the album presented. I could’ve gone for something else, like ‘Fuck the Police’, but it just would’ve felt a little too on-the-nose.
"It wasn’t necessarily my introduction to hip-hop, that probably goes all the way back to anything that broke through to MTV or MTV2 in the ‘80s - so guys like Kool Moe Dee, Dana Dane, Kwamé and Ice T. There were quite a few artists on my radar, but none that I reacted as strongly to as I did N.W.A.
“That was edgy shit that they did there. As a kid, there was a lot of talk on MTV and the news about censorship and music that was apparently too extreme to be consumed by the public. 2 Live Crew had been in trouble for obscenity and there was a movement to say that this was all too much. Obviously, if you’re an inquisitive kid, that thing that culture is telling you is too much? That’s the thing you want to latch onto and know about, “OK, I need to fucking find out what’s going on here.”
“It’s a record that’s full of very cinematic pictures of a scene that was very foreign to me. It was really informative and transporting and super vivid. It made it all feel very real, even though these guys were talking about some really heavy shit that was completely outside of my realm of experience. There was a fascination with the otherness of it. I knew every word to that album, as soon as I saw the title I started running down Ice Cube’s verse.”
“I wanted to end on this song because it’s the one that made me want to play guitar. I probably heard it for the first time on some compilation of classic rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s and this was the one track that just hit me like a truck.
“To this day, I can definitely get into some ‘Dream On’. There’s such a wonderful atmosphere to that intro and it was something about it that made me sit up and say, “OK, I need to pick up a guitar and learn how to play it, because I need to participate in this piece of music in a way that goes beyond just listening to it through my headphones.” I needed to get closer.
“It’s so crazy too, to think that Steven Tyler doesn’t sound anything like Steven Tyler! I mean, even at that age we’d already had ‘Walk This Way’ and I came to this much earlier song of theirs much later on. It sounds like a completely different band.
“‘Dream On’ informs my appreciation of Aerosmith to this day; the fact that they had a song this good in them tells you a lot about them, but more than that, the guitar line felt accessible. They were these rock stars that I could actually try to emulate; I didn’t get that encouragement from Page or Gilmour. Like the rest of these songs, ‘Dream On’ is a real milestone on my personal journey.”