2002 was a good year to be a band from New York. In the wake of the Strokes-catalyzed cool-rock emergence, NYC indie outfits of all sonic stripes, from the danceable Liars and esoteric Walkmen to snotty garage darlings The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, found themselves winning column inches in the mainstream press. It was Seattle all over again, only with a better CD collection and fashion sense. Music writers strove to condense NYC's disparate rock landscape into A Scene, closely associating the guitar-based acts and giving the impression that they all got together somewhere on Tuesday nights, listened to Velvet Underground albums and took notes."I would find that annoying even if I wasn't involved," opines Sam Fogarino, drummer for stylish, heavily hyped Big Apple band Interpol. "I don't like classifications. Those bands are all so different. We're all part of the same scene in the sense that we all hail from New York. But, I mean, I met one of the Liars once, you know? I don't even know those guys."
Of all the acts crowding, purposely or otherwise, into the spotlight currently trained on New York fringe-rock, Interpol sits squarely in the middle of a massive buzz second only to that generated by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Critical adulation for both Interpol's late 2002 Matador Records full-length Turn on the Bright Lights and their reportedly enthralling live set has continued to pile up.
A late-evening phone call finds Fogarino and Co. in Los Angeles, where they're using a brief break in the band's hectic touring schedule to tape a Tonight Show with Jay Leno appearance. The drummer seems to be taking their packed itinerary in stride.
"I absolutely thrive on it. It's true. I really do," he says with a laugh. "I had enough times in my life where I just kind of hung out, so I don't mind if I'm busy every day. And it's a good sort of busy — there's nothing to complain about, as far as the workload."
Fogarino is a former Miami resident and veteran of several South Florida punk-scene combos, including late, underexposed Pixies-on-steroids favorites The Holy Terrors. After relocating to Brooklyn, he joined singer/guitarist Paul Banks, bassist Carlos D. and guitarist Daniel Kessler in 2000, following the departure of Interpol's original drummer. The band's layered, cinematic and somewhat shadowed sound had been gestating for a couple of years by that point. An EP soon appeared as the third installment of a series by Scottish independent label Chemikal Underground. An Interpol track also found its way onto the Fierce Panda Records Clooney Tunes compilation at roughly the same time. These two comparatively low-key UK releases demanded the indie world's attention by leading to a coveted Peel Sessions appearance and radio airplay on London's XFM.
"It was crazy. Especially Chemikal Underground, they ended up doing a really good job, especially since there was no exclusivity or money involved," says Fogarino. "They're fantastic, we owe them a big thank you. They totally primed us for what was ahead."
A few rounds of touring abroad, first in the UK and later in France, quickly followed. Given the band's fractured, darkly romantic vibe and aural hair-splitting between pop sensibility, atmosphere-building and nods to the likes of Joy Division and Bauhaus, it's no surprise that Britain embraced them early. Also, that's what good NYC rock outfits do these days, right? Sellout hometown shows, a deal with Matador and Turn on the Bright Lights came along in short order.
So did a bevy of articles focusing on Interpol's penchant for suits and good hair, along with the official assignation of their place in the perceived resurgence of a musical hotbed that, in reality, has always produced excellent artists.
"In my mind it never went anywhere, it's just that now the media has the camera eye on it," agrees Fogarino. "For me, New York City started with Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground, and from there on, it's never stopped. My favorite era was the early '90s, a very unpopular era, with Cop Shoot Cop, Unsane. New York was still scary, and the music reflected it. But nobody ever talks about that time."
Interpol certainly evinces a firm grasp on their own cool aesthetic, both visually and musically, and the timing of their arrival amid the New York hoopla surely didn't hurt them any. But Turn on the Bright Lights showcases a band for whom crafting evocative original songs takes precedence over all else. It's a collection of tracks that, stripped of their careful texturing and mesmerizing character, would've been fine alt-rock songs.
Their attention to detail, awareness of heritage and allowance of room for the group's collective personality to breathe is what makes them great. Like a film by one of the great directors, a sense of meticulous craftsmanship comes across, an undercurrent to each piece's desired vibe. It's studied, but still very organic, and very, very good.
Fogarino confirms that the band's methodology can be a painstaking one. "Sometimes we'll labor over a song for months, literally, and sometimes it's very instantaneous," he says. "But here is an Interpol process, and four people have to end up agreeing on something. It proves to be really good quality control."
While they have found the time to lay some new musical foundations during infrequent breaks in the promotional cycle for Turn on the Bright Lights, it'll be a while before Interpol finds themselves in the studio again. There's still a lot of touring in front of them, and a lot of fresh hype either to live up to or live down.
"I try to set it aside," says Fogarino of the anticipation and expectation surrounding Interpol. "It feels good, you know, that your contemporaries and fans are really into what you're doing. But you don't want to get caught up in that. You kind of take the good bit of that, the good criticism, put it where it belongs, and just try not to let it get to your head."
Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 812-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].