Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights brought sexy back to indie rock
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Maybe it wasn’t apparent at the time, but 2001 was a massively influential year for music. Rap-rockers and post-grunge monoliths like Lifehouse, Nickelback, and Linkin Park enjoyed chart and radio hits, success that would continue for years to come, while the waning teen-pop trend opened the door for Justin Timberlake’s eventual solo triumphs. In addition, future scene darlings !!!, The National, The Shins, and Rilo Kiley all released their debuts. And perhaps most importantly for Interpol—whose 2002 debut, Turn On The Bright Lights, is being reissued by Matador on December 4—2001 was the year New York City bands became the epitome of cool once again.
The catalyst for this movement was The Strokes, a quintet fond of casual debauchery, shabby-glam chic, and rough garage jams. The group’s 2001 debut, Is This It, drew comparisons to scene totems Television, Ramones, and The Velvet Underground, but was wholly of its time: The album’s release was delayed to accommodate the removal of the song “New York City Cops” as a post-9/11 sign of respect. In this changed, emotionally charged environment, Interpol recorded and released Turn On The Bright Lights—a record that held up better than Is This It, and ended up being more influential.
In a literal sense, the album was a long time coming; Interpol had been kicking around the NYC scene since the late ’90s, long enough to release a few EPs and lose its original drummer to hardcore (Greg Drudy of Hot Cross/Level Plane Records fame). Luckily, by 2002, music fans were primed by The Strokes’ refreshed rock and anxious to hear more from New York’s music scene, and no band would make more of that moment than Interpol.
The band was well-positioned for success in other ways, though. Its circa-2002 live shows were precise and professional; Daniel Kessler’s ringing guitars and Carlos D’s equally lively bass gave the music focus. (Even the group’s onstage fashion choices—debonair dress clothes, a notch above business casual—looked exceedingly mature.) In addition, the band’s sonic touchstones—choppy riffs, greyscale tones, crisp rhythms—recalled gloomy, swooning British post-punks such as Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, The Chameleons, and especially Joy Division. Where The Strokes represented a raucous, sloppy party, Interpol was the sonic equivalent of having an illicit makeout session in a dark corner.
In hindsight, the Joy Division comparisons were grossly overstated. Thanks to Carlos D’s nimble basslines—best heard on “Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down”— Interpol’s music had far more velocity and movement. As a vocalist, Paul Banks could be as stern as Ian Curtis (see the harried “PDA”), but more often, he sounded paranoid (“Obstacle 2”), panicked (“Obstacle 1”), or sympathetic (“Untitled”). On demos of “Roland” and “PDA” (both of which appear on the second disc of the Bright Lights deluxe reissue), Banks sounded eager and almost pleading.
And while Joy Division’s music was deeply tormented by inner demons and informed by England’s economic and social discontent, Bright Lights is more preoccupied with making sense of tangled relationships (romantic or platonic) and battling baser impulses. These interpretations were abstract—“The subway, she is a porno” is one of the great lyrical enigmas of the last decade—and embraced dichotomy. Interpol’s lyrics were optimistic and despondent, tender and violent, lust-filled and repulsed.
In fact, the band’s take on romance was often ugly. Its protagonists could be selfish and unlikeable, and the relationships portrayed were messy and sometimes volatile. The POV character in “Obstacle 1” talks about a woman who “puts the weights into my little heart,” though “her stories are boring and stuff / She’s always calling my bluff.” Hints of condescension permeate “PDA” (“But you’re so cute when you’re frustrated, dear / Yeah, you’re so cute when you’re sedated, oh dear”) and “The New” is conflicted between commitment and dishonesty. Yet in spite of (or perhaps even because of) this lack of sugarcoating, Bright Lights sounded sexy. Interpol created an alluring world where romance was embraced as often as it was scorned, and frustration and elation went hand in hand. In that sense, the band’s music had more depth, and more realistic complexity, than most rock music at the time, because these tunes were so imperfect. Instead of sanitizing its version of NYC for a post-9/11 world, Interpol stayed gritty and self-absorbed, and didn’t shy away from the darker side of life.
The band never replicated the dour magic it created with Bright Lights, in spite of a hit second record (2004’s Antics, which spawned the single “Slow Hands”) and later experiments with keyboards. The slew of Interpol clones that sprang up post-Bright Lights helped diminish the band’s mystery, and when bassist Carlos D departed in 2010, he altered its chemistry (even though several notable touring players—including ex-Slint guitarist David Pajo and Secret Machines keyboardist Brandon Curtis—ably filled in during concerts). While Banks has stayed in the public eye—he recently released a solo album, Banks—Interpol itself has been dormant since summer 2011.
Even this hibernation can’t undermine Interpol’s enormous influence. In the immediate wake of The Strokes and Interpol, radio paid attention to bands such as The Hives and The White Stripes. NYC’s other creative types also started to get noticed; among the beneficiaries from this bump were art-school synthpopsters (Fischerspooner), soul-punks (TV On The Radio), post-punks (The Rapture, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and neo-Britpop acts (Longwave, Elefant). Interpol even made post-punk and darker ’80s music culturally acceptable to a new generation of listeners.
But unlike many albums by those bands, Turn On The Bright Lights didn’t wallow in its messy emotions or take a fatalistic view of the world. These songs were simply snapshots of experiences accumulated during Interpol’s first few years as a group. There was never any indication this melancholy was a permanent state—and even if it was, the album wasn’t looking for empathy or salvation. Music fans were starving for something that reflected their own experiences, not some idealized sentimentality, and Turn On The Bright Lights delivered. The record ushered in an era of smart, self-aware songwriting that didn’t apologize for its honesty or its misery. It’s hard to imagine the ongoing mainstreaming of indie rock without Interpol first blazing a trail—and it’s even harder to imagine where music would be without Turn On The Bright Lights.