Interpol's Paul Banks Looks for the Limits of Raunchy

[caption id="attachment_62091" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Paul Banks Paul Banks photo courtesy of Matador Records. Photo: Helena Christensen[/caption]

Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.

When I first moved to New York in the early 2000s there were two camps in the downtown rock scene: Interpol and the Strokes. Team Interpol hung out at Lit on 2nd Avenue, wore tailored clothes, and knew what foie gras was even if they couldn’t afford it. Team Strokes drank beer and whiskey at 2A, wore motorcycle jackets and Chucks, and ate pizza at Two Boots. The bands don’t remember it this way and will roll their eyes at you if you bring it up but -- sorry guys -- it really wasn’t about them. Fandom is about defining who you are through what you worship. Because rock stars are actual people writing and playing this music they are sometimes the last to understand what it means to the rest of the world. And in New York circa 2001-03 which of these bands you identified with said something about who you were as a human being.

"Banks has spent ten years being misunderstood by many as an Ian Curtis doppelgänger, a dour aesthete with a closet full of obscure post-punk records when he’s actually a bit of a bro."

I was a Strokes kid for a variety of reasons but looking back, it kind of came down to one word: fun. I wanted to have fun. As a kid from a cerebral, subtly uptight background, the escapism rock and roll offered was about plain old primal rebellion. Sex. Drugs. Loud guitars. That’s what I was looking for and the Strokes offered amain line to that world. They had a kind of unhinged swagger, a danger and a looseness that epitomized youth and abandon. I loved Interpol too but I never felt scared of what their music would unleash in me. And I wanted to be scared.

Over the years of course this has all shifted and softened a bit. I’ve come to feel a real connection to the tightly wound intensity of Interpol’s deeply emotional art rock. Like everybody else, I spent about a month walking around the city listening to the recent reissue of Turn On the Bright Lights gobsmacked all over again by how fucking good that record is. What I’m saying is there’s no residual mods vs. rockers melodrama hanging around, which is why I was surprised to show up at Interpol frontman Paul Banks’s solo show at Webster Hall the other night and feel that fear I was looking for a decade ago.

The musically satisfying tautness at the core of Interpol comes from the fact that the four original members are vastly different people. Banks has spent ten years being misunderstood by many as an Ian Curtis doppelgänger, a dour aesthete with a closet full of obscure post-punk records when he’s actually a bit of a bro. The last time I interviewed Banks, in advance of the release of Interpol’s self-titled fourth album, he told me there’s a running joke in the band that drummer Sam Fogarino and guitarist Daniel Kessler should tell Banks what to say when journalists ask what he’s listening to so he can keep up the myth. “I want them to make me a list of really cool indie rock –Avi Caribou,” he began. I told him he’d have to pick between Avi Buffalo and Caribou because they are two different artists. “Okay!” he replied. “Avi Buffalo. That’s my new favorite record. Beach House. Loooove Beach House.” What do you really listen to, I asked him? “Old hip hop.”

There’s a playful directness about Banks that doesn’t have a place in Interpol. But on his solo stuff – from the deliciously infantile “Girl On The Sporting News,” to the possessive sexiness of “Fly As You Might,” to the unvarnished wistfulness of “Young Again” -- you can hear it. This is still a dude who studied Comp Lit at NYU, speaks a bunch of languages, and feels comfortable pairing the word “sue” with “impugn” (see new track “I’ll Sue You”) but the rock show he played the other night displayed the kind of slightly unhinged who-knows-what-will-happen-next looseness that I wanted from Interpol when I was twenty.

“I’m more of a sloppy, loose person,” Banks told me last year, discussing his personality compared with others in Interpol. “I’m a mess sometimes.” At the time, I was skeptical and asked him to elaborate. He quoted Thoreau. “When I was in college I loved his notion that your past self is this cadaver that you carry around with you -- this sense that you need to stay true to who you were and not veer from your path in a way that will alienate your peers. He’s like, ‘you need to let that go.’You need to at any given moment be open to contradiction or self-contradiction or the changing of paths. I’ve believed in that the whole time. My entire philosophy has been that everything should be fluid.” He paused, took a drag of his cigarette, smiled, and said. “I want to know how raunchy shit gets.” Amen to that.