Daniel Kessler on El Pintor, Interpol writing process, his new experimental project Big Noble and the most important lesson he has learnt over almost 20 years of making music.
|Photography by Eleonora C. Collini
“We really have the best and most loyal fans in the world”, Daniel Kessler tells me in reference to the reception of Interpol’s latest record. He sinks into a luxurious armchair, sipping a black coffee at the bar of London’s Edition hotel, while the sun caresses his boyish features and his polite smile through the window: "they would honestly tell us how they feel, but I can see that they really liked it a lot!”
The New York trio were in the British capital to play at the NME awards in support of their fifth record, El Pintor, which came out last September via Matador. It is the band’s first album after a four-year break, during which all members worked on side-projects: singer/guitarist Paul Banks put out his sophomore solo record, drummer Sam Fogarino released his debut under the EmptyMansions moniker, while Kessler teamed up with sound designer Joseph Fraioli to form the experimental duo Big Noble.
El Pintor is an amazing, cohesive combination of the brooding guitar-style of their much-loved debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, the ominous songwriting of Our Love to Admire and the cinematic introspection of their self-titled album. It’s Interpol at its core, yet a step forward.
Eleonora: This is the first record following Carlos Dengler's departure and the first featuring Paul on bass. How did that affect the band dynamic and was your role any different because of that?
Daniel Kessler: Not really. Paul playing bass was just something that happened on the spot. Carlos actually left the band before we finished mixing the last album [Interpol], just after he was done recording his part, then we became very busy traveling extensively in support of that record and we didn’t have much conversation about what we were going to do with the next one, as when I am on tour I don’t get too much time to plan far ahead. Then when we finally stopped touring, I started writing new songs but without forcing it, because for me songs either just happen or they don’t, and I don’t really worry about it one way or the other. When they started coming to me like little planets I just really wanted to work on those ideas with Sam and Paul, so I initially got together with just Paul and by the end of the first day of rehearsal he suggested bringing his bass the following day, and that was the first time we had ever talked about him playing bass. The next day he brought his bass and within three hours we had the foundations of “Anywhere” and “My Desire”. I just left that rehearsal so excited, but even then we didn’t decide that Paul would write all the bass parts on the album, we just kept doing it. So it was all very natural and we didn’t make this plan ahead of time or anything, it was just a very fortunate thing happening to us.
I really like the video of “Everything is wrong”, which Paul co-directed it. I find the self-irony quite amusing and different from the image people have always associated you with. How tired are you of being called dark and gloomy?
I love that video, it’s one of my favourites! Paul wrote the treatment and I love the script, and I think both he and Carlos Puga did an incredible job, also considering that we did it all in one day and on a very small budget. As for whether I am tired of being called dark and gloomy, I think people just assume things when they listen to music. From an artistic point of view, you create things because you are trying to express an emotion, it’s not that you are walking around with a dark cloud over you. So it’s not that it’s tiring, it’s just not the truth as I really don’t think we are dark and gloomy people at all! Backstage there are a lot of jokes floating around, which is essential when there is so much touring. I think we have done many beautiful videos and some of them were amazingly shot, but this was really fun to do and I feel there is an element of truth about the band. I am not saying that Paul is that character by all means, but in a way there is a side of us in that video that you don’t usually get to see. which is being playful and comfortable, like me eating an ice-cream on a cold day!
You guys have been around for longer than most people think, as though your debut record Turn on the Bright Lights came out in 2002, you actually formed the band in 1998. What is the secret for longevity?
I think the secret is that I definitely don’t consider this a job. It’s not something that I have to do and I have never taken for granted that there will be another record. To me it’s all about the music, the ideas, and when you have new songs, it’s all about the feeling of doing something better than what you have done before. We don’t sit down and say “hey lets do another record”, as we have to be in that moment before knowing how that moment is going to be, though that doesn’t mean that every band has to be that way. When Turn on the Bright Lights came out, I would have never predicted that we would make other four records, I was just so grateful about that record. It is really about being in that moment and taking it to the next one, which I know is a cliché, but it is really true and I think that is part of our secret.
Interpol have never done any covers, neither on record nor live. As both Sam and Paul’s solo albums feature covers, I am assuming it’s you who aren't so keen on the idea… how come?
I am probably lazy [laughs]. I also just like doing our own thing and I actually wish we had more time for that. But you make choices and you learn earlier on that when you are touring and traveling, it’s maybe better to just tour and travel rather than try to write new songs in hotel rooms or during soundcheck as there is no intimacy in that, and it doesn’t always do a good service to the music. So I keep the two things separate, as I need to refresh my brain and have a different perspective before being able to write.
Your side project Big Noble just released their debut record, First Light. It incorporates a lot of ambient sounds like traffic, thunders, people walking.... something quite different from your work with Interpol. What drew you into those sounds?
My bandmate Joseph Fraioli is a wonderful musician and sound designer, and a very good friend of mine I met a long time ago, when he was making left-field electronic music and I was working for his record company. I have always loved electronic and ambient music, but when I was in High School before Interpol started I chose to focus my attention more on guitar music than on computer-based music, though I had to really think about it. Since the beginning of Interpol I have always used films as media to start ideas, as not necessarily specific films, but cinema in general has always been the biggest influence on me when I write music, even more than music itself. When Joseph and I first got together the idea was just to collaborate for collaboration and art’s sake, we didn’t deliberately decide to write songs for a record, it just happened after looking at what we had been recording. But before making an album we decided that we wanted to make music for a film as well as live installations, because I want to do different things from what I do with Interpol and in a way they help each other. When I was sequencing the record for Big Noble I found that those outside elements were blending very nicely into the album. It’s not like when you listen to some rock songs and there are honking or people talking and that is actually a disturbance, especially when you have your headphones on, whereas when I invite people to listen to Big Noble, I recommend not doing it in front of the computer at work, but putting those songs on with headphones while going back and forth between work. I think those songs are great when you are out in the country or when you are walking through the city streets on your way home, that is the way to hear them, because you are supposed to have a visual stimulation when you listen to Big Noble. Visual elements play a huge role when I write music for Interpol and Big Noble, and I need them constantly whether I go to an art gallery or cinema.
Speaking of art, when was the last time a movie, book or art exhibition really moved you?
I think when I saw Force Majeure at the cinema in between tours, probably last October. It is an amazing Swedish movie set in France. I saw it by myself, which is something I really enjoy doing, and it really shook me from an artistic point of view, it even made me a little uncomfortable as there are a lot of family elements and it has a really bohemian nature. I am glad I saw it at the cinema, as it’s a film that dictates and speaks to the individual, like there were certain moments when I heard someone else actually laughing and my reaction was “you are sick, why are you laughing? This is not funny!” I left that film totally affected and told all my friends they should see it.
Earlier on you mentioned that Big Noble are planning to work on a soundtrack. What challenges do you think scoring a film would entail?
It’s about taking directions, whereas no one takes directions in Interpol and no one gives directions either, we just do what we want, we walk into the studio when the songs are finished and now we also produce our records. Some bands do it a bit differently as they would have part of their songs halfway through and they would have a producer shaping the record. There is nothing wrong with that, but we like going to the studio prepared, knowing already what we want to capture onto recording. Sometimes Paul would write lyrics later on, but musically the identity of the song is already there. Whereas when you are scoring a film is really about what you think the film is, what the scene is saying and what the director or whoever has voice in the process has to say, and you have to take that back and collaborate while finding your own voice. I think I was very fortunate to work with Joseph, because he is a professional sound designer who has a lot of experience working with creative directors and clients on big commercials, and therefore can understand what they are saying and what emotion they are looking for to be put in musical form. So all this will be challenging, but hopefully it will be a good challenge.
You co-own a seafood restaurant in Brooklyn, so I'm assuming food plays a big role in your life. How difficult is it for you to eat properly while on the road and how picky can you get?
I can get ridiculously picky, but I do that even when I am at home in New York. On tour it really depends where you are going, for instance in London it’s easier as I know it well. If I have a day off it’s open and I can do what I want without worrying about time, whereas on show days you eat before and it can’t be anything heavy, as you want to eat the right thing before going bounce around the stage! I have learnt along the way what works for me and what doesn’t.
You used to be vegetarian, right?
Yes I was. I never ate seafood as a kid ever, then I just got curious about it a couple of years ago, but I will probably never eat chicken or pork.
Is that an ethical choice?
I made this decision when I was young. I have never been curious about eating anything outside of seafood. I just love vegetables and eating vegetarian, and I feel the best when I do that.
If you could go back in time to when you first started playing music, what advice would you give to your younger self?
I feel like I have learnt some hard lessons along the way because things for Interpol didn’t happen very fast. We played our first shows back in 1997, then we put out our first demo in 1998, but we didn’t release a record till 2002, which is a long time for a New York band. That was also pre-social media and we had nothing to encourage us to go on, since we made three demos, but all record labels were saying “no” to us. Even Matador, the label we eventually were signed by, said “no” to the first two demos before saying “yes” to the third one, though on our first demo there were “PDA” and “Roland”, which would eventually end up on Turn on The Bright Lights. I suppose we were a very different band in 1998, Sam hadn’t joined yet and we became much better after that. It’s hard to keep young bands together over the years when you don’t have any money and nothing encourages you, and it takes a lot of strength not to give up when you are rejected, but I was the only one, apart from Sam when he joined, that really wanted to be in a band forever. Ultimately the reason that kept me going when nobody was interested in us was doing it for myself, and I know it’s a cliché, but I can really say that. I remember leaving a very good rehearsal, thinking I was doing that for myself as I was getting something out of the process and I really believed we were very good. And that happened, but if our music had never left that room something would have happened artistically anyway and I would have still got something out of it. I feel like I really learnt that important lesson.