Back in Black: Interpol's Daniel Kessler introduces El Pintor

With his band about to release fifth album El Pintor – their first since the departure of talismanic bass player Carlos Dengler – Daniel Kessler tells us why Interpol's muse is on the rise

Feature by Gary Kaill | 29 Aug 2014

“After touring is done and I’m just playing my guitar, not putting any pressure on myself and things kinda start coming – a good body of songs that start to get my attention – that’s when I start to think: I really wanna work on these with the guys. To me, those are exciting times, very pure times, you know?” Daniel Kessler is on the other end of a transatlantic phone line, talking to The Skinny from his home in New York City. But his breathless enthusiasm, that’s right here in the room with us. He’s not the only member of Interpol who has perhaps been guilty of being taciturn with the press in the past, often simply refusing to entertain questions that don’t appeal, and certainly unwilling to suffer fools gladly.

To paint Interpol as inscrutable is, certainly on this evidence, unfair. Kessler is in good humour as we discuss upcoming fifth album, the excellent El Pintor. With bassist Carlos Dengler now departed, the trio return after four years away and, while much of the Interpol palette is still in evidence (Kessler’s chiming lead guitar, Paul Banks’ astringent vocals, and Sam Fogarino's increasingly unmistakeable rhythmic throb), they continue to explore. Lyrically, tonally, there’s reflection amidst that de rigueur sense of menace. There’s a soulfulness on the likes of My Blue Supreme and Tidal Wave that adds a welcome breadth. El Pintor is refreshingly not Interpol-by-numbers.

“I really, really need to see what will happen when Paul and Sam start to add their parts,” continues Kessler, returning to his theme. “And that takes me back to the beginning of the band. An excitement thing, seeing what we can do together. And when we got together this time, we hadn’t had any discussion about what we were going to do. Whether we were going to do anything. There was a real purity. And when you do get together, and you have all of these things to say, I think it kind of speaks for itself: you do have good chemistry, and you do have a lot more you want to say.”

"You stay in the club because you have something you want to put out there, something you have to say" – Daniel Kessler

It’s tempting, as ever, to start slapping on labels. So, this is Interpol’s first album in four years, the longest break of their career. While some of those who side-stepped 2010’s self-titled release were simply unwilling to accept anything other than a complete re-write of their 2002 debut Turn on the Bright Lights, the trio continue to show a healthy mix of both respect and disdain for their formative years. Interpol still sound, to all intents, like Interpol. Kessler is keen to explore: “Whenever I go about writing songs, I try not to overthink too much. These are the songs that came out. These are the songs that came to me after the last touring campaign. They just felt right when we dressed them up into pieces of Interpol music. They’re just where we wanted to be, and I guess I can understand you saying it sounds like an Interpol record. I’ll take that. It probably does sound recognisably like the band and at the same time I do think that there is probably a sense of progression in our song writing.”

At times, El Pintor breaks thrillingly free from expectations. Paul Banks adopts a winning falsetto on several tracks. This is Interpol revealing their softer, more soulful side, perhaps. “Yeah, I’d have to agree,” says Kessler. “I’m happy for you to describe it as soulful. I think that’s a good way of putting it. Certainly on a song like My Blue Supreme, what brings us all together is a desire to essentially mix all of these elements and not overthink it, and just explore what we feel like doing and gravitate towards what’s right for us. We don’t really know what we’re going to do until we start doing it. This is how it happened here this time. But you really appreciate it when you don’t need to have much conversation – you just need to play together. And when I brought these songs to Paul and Sam, they both in their own ways dived right into them and made them…our music, Interpol music.”

Besides a sound that early commentators were keen to attribute to an unfairly narrow lineage but is now distinctly their own, Interpol’s offstage persona is similarly atypical. No spats with other bands and certainly no narcissistic posturing. They're refreshingly boring on that score. “I think that’s fair,” offers Kessler. “I think so. Look, I think that’s the way it really should be. It feels pretty intuitive to me for it to be that way. And at the same time, I’ve nothing against the sport of rock ‘n’ roll banter, talking in the press, talking the thing up. It’s just not in my nature to do that; making proclamations one way or another. I like to do things this way because, artistically, I go back to why I wanted to start a band. I wanted that moment – that moment where you, you know, you leave rehearsal and you’re like, 'Man these songs are sounding good!' The first few days we were rehearsing, we had a real bounce in our step, a real high. I still have that. I still want that. To me, you do this stuff because you have to do this. You don’t get in the club and then stay in the club because you feel you have to stay in the club. You stay in the club because you have something you want to put out there, something you have to say. So, for me, still, everything else falls into place intuitively.”

Of course, getting a record out there is one thing. Getting people to buy it is something else entirely. And yet, Turn on the Bright Lights became a crossover success quite quickly. “Well, yes. Remember, we played our first show in March 1998 and we didn’t make that record until the very end of 2001. And as for people taking to the record, it wasn’t due to a hit single. There was more of a sense of discovery and word of mouth. Incredible. A natural growth. That was really great to see but I was not expecting it. We had all those years to get to know each other, to learn how to play together, and to not have that much encouragement to go on, it does make you somehow comfortable. You’re just doing your thing. I never stopped and took stock of our situation as much as much as I might have done.”

Kessler is effusive about the response to their recent UK dates: “You know, for the first time I started to see these fans in maybe their forties alongside kids who were 16.” It makes it difficult, when listening to a seasoned musician do anything but romanticise the slog and the eventual breakthrough, to envisage that oft-mythologised awakening where suddenly a sea of faces singing your songs back to you makes worrying about the rent a thing of the past.

Was there a ‘Made it!' moment? “Mmm. No, not really so much like that for me,” says Kessler. “I did all the management stuff for the band in the early days, sending off demos to everyone I could think of to get anything, to get any interest. So in the midst of having to coordinate all that stuff, the big moment for me was having Matador tell us they wanted to put out our record. They were one of my favourite labels. That was enough right there. What a fortunate situation – to be making a record but also to be working with one of your favourite record labels. It’s a dream, I think, really. Apart from that… actually, no, that was it!” He laughs. “All we could think was, 'Thank God we finally get to do this.' Plus, I’d reached a comfortable position internally a year before, maybe eight months before, where I was thinking that if no-one ever wants to do anything with our music, well…” He stops to recall. “We’d reached a point where I personally felt that, artistically, this was enough for me. If nothing happens, I thought, well we did it. I genuinely did think: I’m getting enough, I’m getting something pretty big out of our music.”

El Pintor is released on 8 Sep via Soft Limit. Playing Manchester Albert Hall on 8 Feb 2015