Under the influence
by Erick Trickey
If I could play one song to show off Interpol's talent, it'd be "Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down," the dreamy-moody centerpiece of their first album, Turn On the Bright Lights. The first time I heard it, in a record store, I was drawn to the rhythm guitar's two-chord drone, the lead guitar's repetitive chiming, and the singer's crying out, like Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, to his love or lust object, Stella, who was either drowning or living underwater. The verses crested into a two-part chorus, first a rush of feeling from the lead guitar and then a low, pulsing menace from the rhythm guitar, mixing dream and obsession, passion and dread. I got the store clerk to take the CD out of the player so I could buy it right away.
In the 2000s all the great eras of rock music are being recycled, distilled, infused with new energy. The Strokes echo wiry New York bands from the 1970s, Jet's hooks are lifted from late-1960s British rock superstars, and Ryan Adams influence-checks 1970s singer-songwriters and then 1980s college rockers. Interpol's influence is moody British early-1980s postpunk: the Cure, the Smiths, the Psychedelic Furs.
Critics loved Turn On the Bright Lights it made a lot of best-of-2002 lists but they quickly pigeonholed Interpol as the new Joy Division. Some of Interpol's songs, like "Stella," with chilly guitars and vocals that fixate on a few notes to hypnotic effect, do sound similar to the frigid, spooky Joy Division albums that started postpunk. But Interpol, a quartet of New Yorkers in their twenties and thirties, denied that Joy Division was a major influence. They were more eager to pay respects to the Cure and the Smiths. Some tracks on the first album resemble the Cure's intricate soundscapes ("Untitled," "Hands Away"), while "Say Hello to the Angels" is propelled by a jaunty dash of Smiths-like playfulness.
But the key influence the critics
missed, I think, is Echo & the Bunnymen, the most exciting, aggressive rock band from the postpunk crowd. Like the Bunnymen, Interpol can turn a set of mystifying but evocative couplets, backed by one or two intense, ferocious chords, into a grandiose romantic gesture that never loses its cool. Their second album, Antics (2004), includes the misleadingly named "Public Pervert," which is actually an alluring, slowly building come-on: "So swoon, baby, starry nights / May our bodies remain / As deep we move, I'll feed you light."
Interpol's appeal isn't nostalgic. They've made a new art out of their influences' sounds and moods, built on the tension between their music's cold exterior and the warmth and passion the "bright lights" at its heart. For me, seeing them open for the Cure at last year's Curiosa Festival evoked the opposite of nostalgia: the feeling that the past and future are happening at the same time. Now, I'm anxious to see them on their own in the perfect setting for them: an old, dark theater.
Interpol plays the Michigan Theater on Sunday, September 25.
[Review published September 2005]