Felix Quinonez Jr.
15 years ago, no one could have known that Turn on the Bright Lights, Interpol’s debut album, would help define, not only the New York City rock revival scene but also a period in time. When you’re in the moment it’s impossible to see the whole picture or know what it will eventually mean. And that was the case when Turn on the Bright Lights came out in 2002.
The album was the culmination of five years worth of work. And although they put all of their time and effort into that, they had no way of knowing if it would connect with anybody. Their biggest aspiration at the time was that they hoped they could quit their day jobs.
But the album was released to critical acclaim and would go on to become one of the most influential albums of its decade. It was a beloved debut that defined the era and influenced many other bands.
In the time since then, the band’s luster has since diminished. The cool mysterious air around them slowly dissipated. They are no longer critical darlings or sell as many albums as they once did. Many would argue that they haven’t necessarily lived up to the promise of their debut album.
Another argument could be the fact that the musical landscape has change a lot since 2002. And because they are so closely associated with the early 2000s NYC indie rock scene, many aren’t interested in them anymore. To some, Interpol is a relic from a bygone era. But even their most adamant detractors would have a hard time denying the quality and impact of Turn on the Bright Lights
I’d love to say, I was there from the beginning, that I had the album the day it came out, on first printing no less. I’d love to say that I saw them playing sometime in 1998 during the shows that they were still hammering out their sound. That I had a drink with Paul Banks and the guys, that I knew they’d make it big one day. It’d great to have a story of the times I saw them in a dingy empty bar in the lower east side.
But the fact was that I was just a teenager. And I lived in Long Island, which technically isn’t too far away from the Manhattan and Brooklyn bars that Interpol spent their early days building their reputation and garnering a following. But in other ways it was a world away.
And I had only really discovered music a few years earlier. I mean I always knew of music, we all do. But we also all have that moment in our lives when music stops being a thing that our parents or older siblings play in the background. One day we all discover the first band or artist that makes us realize that THIS is what all the fuss is about and we get music.
So by the time Turn on the Bright Lights I had only been listening to music for a few years. Needless to say I was not up on all the indie NYC buzz bands. I was still carving out my own musical identity and preferences. Defining myself by the music I was discovering.
At the time, the bands I listened to could have made for a nice starter pack of any teenager not interested in the growing hip hop/R&B trend. The bands I listened to included Nirvana, Radiohead, STP, and GNR, basically bands whose coolness had already been established.
So I wasn’t really on the cutting edge of music. And even though the buzz around the indie rock bands must have been deafening in the boroughs, that noise didn’t necessarily reach Long Island until 2001 when The Strokes became the “next big thing” At that point everybody was obsessed with them. Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur, actually famously stated, “The Strokes could save rock n’ roll.” (Whatever that means.)
But to me, there was something, almost phony about The Strokes. For some reason their music didn’t resonate with me. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a contrarian. (I don’t watch Game of Thrones.) But they were all over MTV and it felt like everyone was telling me I was SUPPOSED to love The Strokes, so of course I didn’t. I eventually came around but that’s another story.
As for Interpol I first really became aware of them with the release of their second album Antics. And like the Strokes before them, it now felt like they were being pushed on me. The Slow Hands music video was inescapable and people wouldn’t shut up about them, the same way they wouldn’t shut up about the Strokes a couple of years earlier. And to be honest, Paul Banks’ voice didn’t really do it for me at first.
But three years later (in 2007) I moved to NYC to attend Hunter College. And by then the buzz around them had dimmed. I was aware of their new album, Our Love to Admire, but didn’t really hear anything from it.
But like most of the best things in life my discovery and love for Interpol happened unexpectedly. It was college, it was the city, it was a party. I was walking into a friend’s apartment, or maybe it was a friend of a friend. Who can remember these things? It was crowded; I was looking for someone I knew. And suddenly the opening to Untitled, kicked in.
It was playing loud but not so loud that people couldn’t talk over it. The chiming, guitars entranced me. The slowly building atmosphere filled up the room and suddenly it was like no one was there. And the vague lyrics came in slowly and piece by piece.
Will come around
Will come around
The lyrics were pieces of a puzzle slowly falling into place, revealing its meaning.
I will surprise you sometime.
I'll come around
Until the whole picture was made clear.
Oh, I will surprise you sometime.
I'll come around when you're down...
It was one of those vague lines that didn’t mean anything but could also mean everything. And it was a microcosm of the album. Synecdoche…A part that represents the whole. It was a mission statement. It was the best thing I had heard. It was the only thing I ever wanted to hear again. It was all there, Beauty, youth, longing…the meaning of life, of love whatever you wanted it to be.
And that’s what makes the album so great. It was the distinct work of four guys but it was also something that was malleable. Listeners could shape it to mean something different to them and connect to it, perhaps in a way that the band never intended it or knew it could.
Then that beautiful outro just plays, no words needed. Until it slowly and beautifully leaves you…standing there in awe that you had the privilege to hear…to feel such beauty.
Suddenly the friend I was looking for tapped me on the shoulder or said hey, or…well whatever, he was there. And all I could say was,
Who’s this band?
After thinking about it for a second that seemed to last forever, he nonchalantly responded,
Oh…that was Interpol.
Interpol. I had heard of them before, I had heard a couple of their songs. But this was the first time I HEARD them. But unfortunately it was playing off of someone’s Mix CD and the next song was…who cares it wasn’t Interpol.
Turn on the Bright Lights came out in 2002 but Interpol had been playing shows since 1998. Lead Guitarist Daniel Kessler was the one who put things in motion in 1997 while attending NYU. Like most bands, Interpol is made up of individuals with their own personalities who bring their own contributions to the table.
If there was a leader of the band, it might be Daniel Kessler, the lead guitarist and songwriter, who used his own experience in the industry to help shape Interpol in the beginning. He is the one who got the ball rolling. Lead singer, guitarist Paul Banks adds the often-quotable lyrics to the band’s music and is a very important part of Interpol’s guitar sound. Drummer Sam Fogarino, who replaced original drummer, Greg Drudy, is key to the band’s sound and the other members credit his arrival to the band as a new beginning. And lastly Bassist Carlos Dengler’s local celebrity status and unique style played a big role in giving the band an air of mystery. And his musical contributions to the band’s sound can’t be overstated.
The task to assemble band members wasn’t an easy one for Kessler but he was up to the challenge. He was more interested in finding people with similar sensibilities as opposed to finding the most technically gifted musicians. Paul Banks and Carlos Dengler were already open to the idea of being in a band and they liked the music Daniel Kessler had made at that point. When Carlos Dengler was approached, it was just Daniel and the original drummer Greg Drudy.
As they started playing, they began to hammer out their process where Kessler would kick things off and the other guys would contribute after. Needless to say, they didn’t become a band overnight. And at one point as they were struggling to figure out their sound, Paul Banks, who wasn’t even the singer yet, almost left the band.
Kessler didn’t want to lose Banks and suggested he try singing. And as soon as Carlos and Daniel heard him sing, it became clear that the band and its sound were taking shape. Another pivotal moment was when Sam Fogarino became their new drummer.
Sam Fogarino was an acquaintance that, at the time worked in retail. Although they all say that Greg was a great drummer they also agree that Fogarino took the band to the next level. Daniel Kessler has said in the past that when Sam joined Interpol was reborn and became a much better band. Sam Fogarino described Greg as a capable drummer but stated, “He lacked the swagger that Dan was really looking for.” When Sam started playing with the band, Dengler said that he was really giddy.
In April 2001, the band travelled to the UK for a small tour and to record a session with BBC radio personality John Peel who had heard their demo tape. Although it was a small tour it still gave the band a feeling of validation that they were on the right track. And after the tour ended, they recorded with John Peel.
Although they were staying on people’s floors, there was also a great sense of accomplishment for the band. And Dengler has stated that during that tour, it was the first time he signed an autograph. They also did get to record in the same room where Zeppelin and Bowie did so that was a big moment for them. And even though the session didn’t get broadcast right away, the recordings did get circulated to different labels and one of them wound up at Matador records.
While speaking with Pitchfork media, Chris Lombardi, co-owner of Matador records recalled meeting with the band the first time. He said he felt like was meeting “four businessmen who happened to be in the business of making music and who were very serious about their art. He had already heard their demo and was very interested in working wit the band.
A couple of weeks later, their manager announced that Matador was interested in signing a two-record deal with the band. Paul Banks’ first reaction was to ask if he could quit his job.
In the fall of 2001, the band headed to Connecticut to record at Peter Katis’ home studio. The result was Turn on the Bright Lights. It’s almost disappointing to find out that one of the most “NYC” records of all time was actually recorded in Connecticut, of all places. But being away from all of the NYC distractions was the only way the band could actually get work done. The band would sleep in the house and record in the studio in the attic. Sam Fogarino was the only one with a driver’s license and was always in charge with getting alcohol for the band.
He was done with his parts pretty early on in the process and wound up doing a lot of cooking and making trips to the liquor store. Daniel Kessler remembers that they barely left the house. In and oral history of the album from Pitchfork, Peter Katis described the band as “super ready.” and added that, “it was really more of a question of trying to get a really cool, good, solid, overall sound.”
But like with most bands, they had some tension at times. Fogarino and Dengler clashed a few times during the recording process. Aside from that a lot of time was spent trying to work around the limited budget and the band’s limited experience.
And on August 20, 2002, Matador released Turn on the Bright Lights. The album received very a positive critical reception but sales began very slowly. And soon after the album’s release the band started blowing up. Their US tour sold out at almost all the stops. In the past, the band had stated that during the tour they felt like people greeted them like warriors returning home after winning a war.
But one of the things people bring up about Interpol almost as much as their music is their style. Paul Banks has said that, “We take the look seriously, and I think every band should. To phone-in any facet of the artistic idea is contrary to my overall philosophy.” Chris Lombardi added, “That's how they rolled, and it wasn't a bad look-- it's not like they were wearing clown suits. They were well-behaved gentleman, which was refreshing.”
And their attention to detail even extended to the album artwork. The now iconic album cover was designed by Sean McCabe. It was a photo from his personal location. The picture was taken inside a theatre in London while he was waiting for the movie to start. But it also fits the album perfectly as it is dark, a bit abstract and very stylish.
But something colossal happened before they got a chance to record that would greatly impact their album, their career, the music landscape and the world at large. On September 11, 2001 the twin towers attacks occurred. So although the songs were all written before 9/11, the attacks changed how people reacted to these songs and they added more meaning to the songs, the album, and the band.
Carlos Dengler, who saw one of the towers go down from his 7th street apartment, remembered thinking, “how could anything go on?” Tragedy has a way of reframing the way we see things. And when it’s something on such a large scale as 9/11, it can make everything else seem trivial by comparison.
Sam Fogarino thought that they would all just shake hands and go their own way. He remembered, “For a few short weeks in New York, everybody was your best friend. Everybody had your back. Everybody held the door for each other. And then you realize life has to move on. And lo and behold, everybody got back to it. You can't hold that city down.” And Dengler added that, “Things went on. Shows continued. Music continued.”
Before 9/11 there was a general feeling that NYC had lost some of its cachet. It was no longer the cultural epicenter of the country. Seattle had become the mecca for bands. But afterwards there was a cultural shift back to NYC. The whole country rallied around the city and NYC had no choice but to pick itself up. Its residents had to look within and remind themselves and the world what it means to be a New Yorker. And bands like Interpol helped the city find its voice again. And together, the city came back stronger.
Because of all this, it’s kind of surprising that Turn on the Bright Lights was only a modest commercial success. It peaked at number 158 on the Billboard album charts. And although Interpol got a lot of attention it wasn’t at the same level as the strokes. Besides, their distorted vocals, ambiguous lyrics, and dark moody atmosphere wasn’t for everyone so they attracted a narrower audience. However this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as it lent the band a level of mystery that became a big part of their identity, especially in the beginning.
Turn on the Bright Lights captured what the city became after 9/11. It was a darker, often times scary place. It was filled with smoke and covered in shadows. It was real and tough and Interpol captured the emotional truth of the city during that time. The album provided so much specificity that even people who had never been here could see NYC if they closed their eyes when they listened to the album.
And it also captured the feeling of being in the city. The album’s dark atmosphere was like the sonic equivalent of the smoky bars all new Yorkers wind up at some point, where strangers promise to name their first born after you, if you just let them bum a cigarette. It captures what it feels like to be that age, the brief magic of youth that’s gone before you know it. But the album was also drenched in a sort of existential longing that anyone living in or around NYC could relate to in the new post 9/11 world we were all violently shoved into.
Turn on the Bright Lights was New York City incarnate. It was the feeling you get in an overcrowded subway car. It’s the moment you’re about to go out and the night is full of promise and anything is possible. It’s the lonely ride back home when you’ve had too much to drink and realized you blew your chances with the object of your affection. It’s all the shitty things that can and often do happen in the city. It’s every time you’ve had your heart and spirit broken living in this city. But it’s also every time the city takes your breath away and makes you realize that you can never leave this place behind. It’s reminder that it’s a beautiful thing to be alive, to be young and to be young and alive in New York City. But in a more universal way, it’s about navigating the strange and often wonderful path of youth into adult life.