Modern Classics

Modern Classic: Interpol ‘Turn on the Bright Lights’

In June 2002, a 24-year-old NYU graduate named Paul Banks was working at a café, having stopped writing for magazines to focus on music. Banks, along with bassist Carlos Dengler, guitarist Daniel Kessler, and drummer Sam Fogarino, had recently released a self-titled EP as the band Interpol. Since 1998, the NYC-based band had been playing venues like the Luna Lounge and the Mercury Lounge, both on the Lower East Side, and Brownies in the East Village. Although Interpol was drawing buzz from its moody music, timing was a large factor in the band’s success. During Interpol’s formative years, Banks would see members of the Strokes at bars, knowing the places that Julian Casablancas’ social circle frequented. In 1999, Interpol shared a rehearsal space with a fledgling band called the National. Across the East River, a band who described themselves as “trashy” and went by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, were writing songs in a loft in Williamsburg, which wasn’t yet a symbol for gentrification. In that neighborhood, Karen O would stroll around with her boyfriend, Angus Andrew, whose experimental-rock band Liars was creating its first album. With groups like the Walkmen, !!!, and the Rapture also gaining ground, it was clear that a musical explosion was underway in New York.

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By 2001, the year of the Strokes’ debut Is This It, the press in NYC and beyond had become smitten with this music scene. Headlines proclaimed a revival of the garage-rock and post-punk generated by bands like Television, the Velvet Underground, and Joy Division, to whom Interpol’s angular-sounding rhythm section and baritone vocals were often compared. Of course, the Strokes were the center of the hype. Damon Albarn asserted that this band could save rock ‘n’ roll; Rolling Stone’s four-star review of Is This It opens with, “This is the stuff of which legends are made.” Despite receiving ample attention, Interpol was comparatively under-the-radar. The band’s droning vocals, unsettling lyrics, and gloomy atmosphere appealed to a narrower audience than did the straightforward rock of the Strokes and the YYYs. The artists’ labels affirmed this discrepancy: Interpol decided on the indie Matador, while the Strokes signed to RCA and the YYYs to Interscope. However, playing a secondary role within the NYC movement strengthened Interpol’s reputation instead of harming it. The relative inaccessibility of the band’s 2002 debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, lends the album its classic duality: the mysterious soundscapes hypnotize the mind, while the searing emotion beneath the surface awakens the soul.

Essential to the impact of Turn on the Bright Lights is the definition of Interpol’s aesthetic vision. The cover art, which features a stage illuminated in red against a black background, establishes the album’s dark vibe. The band members wore “dress clothes,” usually black suits and ties, at all times. And of course, the name “Interpol” refers to the International Criminal Police Organization. Nevertheless, in terms of showcasing Interpol’s secretive identity, the three music videos of Turn on the Bright Lights succeed most. In the video for “PDA,” director Christopher Mills uses collage-like visuals to depict a city under siege; the band members zoom around town, scrawl formulas on a blackboard, and man the control room while a headshot of Paul Banks flickers on a television. “Obstacle 1” opens with twisting wires and then follows a stream of water down a hallway before finding director Floria Sigismondi, who dances to the buzz-saw guitars and deliberate drums until she falls into an electrical puddle. Still, the strongest synopsis of Interpol’s persona comes from the video for “NYC,” which shows the band in an empty airport at night, backed by images of a blue-lit parking lot and sketches of the planes. The discrepancy between the desolate landscape and the musicians’ young faces raises the central question for Turn on the Bright Lights: have these guys experienced enough to create such disillusioned music, or are they just being overdramatic? In response, yes, Interpol can be pretentious. But, the weaving of cringe-worthy observations into heart-wrenching insights encapsulates the album’s magic: it validates the entire spectrum of a young adult’s emotions. Not only does Interpol document its truth unapologetically, but the band also frees itself and the audience to find profundity within that truth.

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Listening to Turn on the Bright Lights isn’t really “listening.” As soon as the riff of “Untitled” creeps in, the listener is plunging into the band’s hypersensitive Lower East Side world. Although it’s impossible to determine whether Banks’ lyrics are autobiographical, one thing is clear: when the album ends, the listener feels exhausted, finally released from someone else’s troubled head. In a 2003 interview with NME, Banks said that his sources of inspiration included “girls, books, crazy people, and film,” and those factors summarize the creative yet disturbed mindset that we experience. “Untitled” boasts sweeping soundscapes that recall headlights washing down battered streets; “Roland” moves in a frenzy while describing a butcher who smuggles his 16 knives around town. We hear about the protagonist’s unstable lover in “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down,” the moans for Stella tracing back to A Streetcar Named Desire; we revel in the shimmering heartbreak and cinematic meditation of “The New.” Still, the moments that tap into our fantasies are balanced with confessions that speak to our lives. We join the protagonist when he’s alone in his apartment, grasping for the passion for New York he once held, and when he’s surrounded by friends, toasting the first snow of winter with a false smile. In these vulnerable scenes, we see the protagonist’s true self: not cynical, but disheartened; not dismissive, but tired of investing in people who can’t care for themselves. As evidenced by one lyric in “NYC”—“I’m sick of spending these lonely nights training myself not to care”—the protagonist wants to compress himself into the stereotypically-detached college graduate. This perpetual tug-of-war between numbing out and unleashing emotion makes Turn on the Bright Lights riveting.

Of course, extracting meaning from Interpol’s songs can be difficult due to the labyrinthine lyrics. As an English and Comparative Literature major, Paul Banks specializes in complex words, and he arranges them in a way that’s off-putting at worst (“I feel like love is in the kitchen with a culinary eye,” from “Obstacle 2”) and haunting at best (“In the bottom of the ocean she dwells, in crevices caressed by fingers and fat blue serpent swells,” from “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down”). Ultimately, these turns of phrase enhance Interpol’s mystique, especially when interchanged with colloquialisms. In “Obstacle 1,” Banks cryptically describes a tortured woman before deadpanning, “Her stories are boring and stuff.” Rather than merely filling space, the line acts as a razor-sharp reminder of the album’s premise: to accept both the wise and frivolous facets of the young-adult mind. Still, the fiercest means of returning us to this premise is Banks’ delivery of the lyrics. In the closer to Turn on the Bright Lights, “Leif Erikson,” the protagonist portrays a relationship in which he is more invested than his partner. The last lines are ornate, but Banks’ voice is racked by childlike yearning: “If you don’t bring up those lonely parts, this could be a good time,” he warns before pleading, “You come here to me / We’ll collect those lonely parts and set them down / You come here to me / She says brief things, her love’s a pony / My love’s subliminal.” This sequence showcases the key accomplishment of Turn on the Bright Lights: to simultaneously explore deep understanding and desirous youth.

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Although every song on Turn on the Bright Lights feeds into its romantic atmosphere, the heart of the album is its fourth track, “PDA.” For the first three minutes, the song rages with dual guitar, hammering drums, smooth basslines, and the elliptical line, “We have 200 couches where you can sleep tonight.” But after the second chorus, all elements drop out save the guitars, and we’re dangling in midair while the song shape-shifts. Gradually, the bass reappears and the drums thump like a revived heartbeat while the guitars spin to spiritual heights. In these final minutes of “PDA,” Interpol’s depiction of New York clarifies. It’s the tension between you and a stranger in an otherwise-vacant subway car. It’s leaving the apartment on a Friday night, anticipation fluttering in your stomach and coursing through your arms. It’s the burnout of the last Bowery streetlamp. It’s the couple walking past art galleries and alleyways, their conversation broken and their minds distant. It’s the girl leaning over the sink to apply mascara, bored with the party unfurling outside the bathroom but obsessed with the others’ perceptions of her. It’s the guilt of staring downward while a man on the street talks to a cardboard box. It’s gazing upon rows of skyscrapers, realizing that you wanted more from New York than the city could offer you. It’s hopelessness and impulsivity, worldliness and fascination, naivety and grief. It’s a stamp from the Lower East Side circa 2002, but ultimately, it’s steeped in the timeless tradition of navigating adult life.

Since Turn on the Bright Lights, a number of bands have given force to their music by refining their aesthetics. The “package deal” approach wasn’t new—from the Beatles to the Jam to Pavement, many of Interpol’s predecessors had articulated their identity through their wardrobe, videos, and album artwork. Still, Interpol set the standard for a cohesive band within the 21st century. For one, the band’s trademark of guitar angst with a glossy sheen can be found in the debuts of Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, and the Killers. But more broadly, Interpol’s technique of relying on aesthetics to draw out the darkness in its music remains relevant. From Savages and Iceage (both Interpol’s label-mates) to School of Seven Bells (whose members met while opening for Interpol in different bands) to the xx, several of today’s artists reflect the Turn on the Bright Lights style. Although Savages and Iceage tend toward lacerating post-punk, School of Seven Bells toward dream-pop, and the xx toward minimalist synths, all fine-tune their appearance so that the music hits at full force. Savages is arguably most-committed to presentation; on its website, the band includes “manifestos” that outline its motivations and describe the listening experience. Savages Manifesto #1, which appears in all-caps, includes the following: “Savages are a self-affirming voice to help experience our girlfriends differently, our husbands, our jobs, our erotic life, and the place music occupies into our lives.” Savages’ aim for its music to permeate the listener’s mind, becoming an insightful lens through which to see the world, is one that Turn on the Bright Lights fulfills without compare. The album’s chilling lyrics and expansive sonic palette tell a beguiling story of the city, leading the listener to examine his own environment with newfound interest.

Emma Willibey

Contact: ewillibey12@gmail.com

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