When stylish, Old Wave Night-worshipping New York quartet Interpol released Turn on the Bright Lights in the summer of '02, the band already had a cachet with deep-digging indie scenesters, thanks largely to a Peel Sessions appearance and a limited-edition EP on tiny but hugely influential imprint Chemikal Underground. Still, few outside of an obsessive subculture of a subculture knew about the band.
By the end of that year, however, things had changed radically - Interpol was well on its way to achieving the independent-music equivalent of superstardom. The band's name was in every magazine and on every hipster's lips, and its debut full-length landed high on nearly every even half-aware critic's end-of-the-year Top 10. The lovefest continued throughout '03, with nary a hint of the minor music-snob backlash that usually accompanies such an ascendance, as Interpol maintained the kind of intensely rigorous touring schedule reserved for groups that hadn't "made it" yet.
But surely some wondered what would happen once the tide of first impressions, trendiness and critical acclaim receded. Would Interpol sustain its initial momentum? Would the fickle post-punk crowd move on to something else? Would the band capitalize on its fringe success by leaving the incredibly respected Matador Records for a major label and recording a really shitty sophomore effort?
"We really didn't think about it too much," says guitarist and singer Daniel Kessler, who, having co-founded the band in 1998 and experienced everything from the inside, sees the process that culminated in Bright Lights' success as a steady growth rather than a sudden explosion. "The first record evolved very gradually, it grew, there was always a consistent word-of-mouth but no gigantic jump."
In any case, those who figured the act had nowhere to go but downhill or mainstream were in for a surprise. Last fall, after playing to its largest American crowds yet on The Cure's Lollapalooza-goes-Goth Curiosa tour, Interpol released Antics. The second LP, which augmented the band's dark, wiry, coolly brooding pulse with more ambitious rhythms and arrangements, enjoyed a reception eerily similar to that of its predecessor - music-mag laudation, year-end list Preferred Status, and sold-out medium-large venues around the world. In a cultural climate where protracted good fortune for new musical artists is increasingly rare (particularly with regard to those groups for whom style seems, at first glance, at least as important as substance), Interpol appears to be settling in for a nice long haul.
As huge as the band seems to have gotten from the fringe-rocker's perspective, though, Kessler points out that Interpol's success thus far has largely been of the below-the-commercial-radar variety.
"We haven't had, like, a [song like Franz Ferdinand's] 'Take Me Out,'" he says. "That is a hit; we don't have something like that. That's not to say we haven't done OK radio, we have. But people are coming to the shows because they like the albums. I get the feeling that the people who buy our record do come to our shows too, that those two sides are a little more united."
Given the band's career trajectory, the question of how much longer the underground community can contain Interpol is a pertinent one. But Kessler isn't ready or willing to predict what the next step will be; Antics is barely six months old, and there's plenty enough going on in the present. Besides, not worrying too much about the future has worked pretty well for him and his bandmates so far.
"We don't know what the next step is going to be," he says. "It would be really silly for us to look beyond this year, and potentially damaging. But I think we've proven that we don't have to [move to a major label]. We're on an independent, and we're getting a lot of opportunities that bands on major labels don't get … I couldn't invent a better scenario than where we're at."