In Conversation With Paul Banks
Yes, I was one of those rabid Interpol fans who followed them since their very beginning and had to own every single vinyl, rarity and bootleg they ever released. For years their music spoke to me like almost no others. I have always admired vocalist and guitarist Paul Banks in particular, for his twisted, absurdist lyrics and his continuous literature-inspired quotes in the interviews.
A few years later, I've grown up as they say and their music has somehow changed. But yeah, while I'm waiting for Paul to meet me in the hotel lobby a few hours before his London show in support of his second solo album Banks, I think I'm a bit nervous. But as soon as he arrives I realise how unbelievably friendly and down to earth he is (much more than anybody else I have ever interviewed), that I feel totally at ease and relaxed as if I have somehow known him forever. We then sit down for over half an hour, talking about his music, as well as his sources of inspiration, art and his biggest achievement.
Lets first talk about your writing process. I know you usually come up with a guitar riff and then you develop the original idea adding instruments on Logic. What is more rewarding for you: the initial input or seeing things slowly taking shape?
That's a good question. It was really a special kind of moment for me when I started using Logic, because when I was in College I only had a type of 4-track machine, so I could just lay four tracks down when I was making songs. But it was very tricky and I could just use my voice, guitar and sound effects on all those old demos. So when I discovered Logic I was finally able to add the strings parts that I had been hearing in my mind for years, and all other music, all other instrumentations that I wanted, and that was very special for me. So that was really an important part of my career as a musician because it was like having a big band at my disposal, and I always wanted to write in that manner, like an orchestra. So today it's really rewarding once I put the initial idea into my computer and then I can build it up as if I had a big band at my disposal, in fact more than just a big band.
However, where it all comes from is that other thing you mentioned which is that first idea, and that's what I've been doing since I was 14. And I think that's what I have very much in common with Daniel who is also that kind of guitar player, as once a while I just pick up a guitar, then something would happen and that would be the seed of a new song. And that's what is all about for a musician like me and many others, that initial moment. So the Logic is a separate thing which is also very special though maybe not as appealing, but at the same time one of the biggest moments of my life as a musician was the access to other instrumentations that Logic gave me.
'Perimeter Deactivated' is your own interpretation of the theme from 'The Running Man' movie, Another Chance. Have some dialogues from your friend Sebastian Ischer's film Black Out. How much does cinema inspire you to write music?
I don't know about how much it inspires me to write music, but it does inspire me as a person. I never knew this was odd but many people comment that I have the tendency to quote films very often and I kinda assumed that was more normal, but apparently people don't remember movies as much as I do. I don't know what it is, but they certainly do inspire me, but it's not something that I immediately translate into a new song.
Talking about films, can you give us some news on Mine to Kill, the movie you star in? Is it still in pre-production?
I think that got kind of misrepresented as being made. It's not been made yet. My friend went to this writing workshop at Sundance Festival, I read the entire script and it's really good. But we only shot certain scenes from the film to use for the trailer in order for him to find the funding. So it's not actually a movie that has been made yet.
Back to your sources of inspiration, you have a literature degree. Does literature still play an important role for you?
Lately less so, which is very disappointing to me. I really enjoyed the fact that people were asking me about books and authors, but it has been embarrassing lately as I barely have been reading for the last year and an half. I read newspapers and everything online, but as for novels which used to be my thing, I haven't been reading much. It's such an important part of me that I will get back to it at some point, but lately no, I haven't used it as a source of inspiration. But I also feel I go through phases when one art sort of fills the void. When I was working on this record, before I started working very hard on it I was painting a lot, like every day. Then the day when I began focusing on the new album I stopped painting and then worked on music every day. I worked on the release of this record for over a year and that sort of eclipsed other interests. And now when I go to bed, and I try to pick up a book, I then just wanna watch TV instead which is really a bad habit, but that's partly because I've consumed myself over a medium of art on most part of the day that now at night, when I used to read mostly, I just want to tune out. So I feel I've been very productive and have been stimulating my imagination a lot, just not so much to literature I would like.
Since you just mentioned painting, and I know for instance that the cover of your new album is a photo you took in Panama, have you ever considered branching out into other creative fields, such as writing, painting or photography?
Hmm - how do I put this without sounding really cynical? I love to paint and I love to write, but although I was raised in a family full of music appreciation, we are not professional artists, and the idea for me of being an adult means making a living. But when I went into music I was comfortable not making a living out of it and still loving music to be my life, I was comfortable being poor and having a shitty job forever that wouldn't take away from my time making music. Now that I'm older and I sort of feel the responsibility to make a living, lots of times I just look at Art as a hobby, not as a means to make money. So I will do painting, and I will do writing but I don't know if I will ever branch out into either.
I mean, I'm attracted to the idea of painting as people don't steal paintings but they do steal music. So there's almost an argument to be made that it will be a great idea for me to stop music altogether and try to get some more painting, but then I know it would just be a fluke if I made a lot of money, because that would simply be a matter of getting trendy at some point, not because I'm a better painter than somebody else if my work is suddenly considered cool… and then someone would pay me a bunch of money for a couple of months till I stop being cool. But I do think about that as a possibility. I don't think I'm there as a painter to be able to do that yet, but maybe in some years. So I guess to answer your question, if I did that I would do it in a serious fashion in order to make money, as that's still an art form people pay for. And sometimes you're a bit jaded as a musician as that's a form of art people don't pay for, not in the way they do for films, writing or painting.
Interpol as a band don't seem to be into covers. But you covered J Dilla, Frank Sinatra, the Pixies and I recall some old interviews where you seemed the only one in the band not against it. Do you want to talk about that?
It's a really fun process for me. I think I maybe gravitated towards it because unlike most songwriters and guitarists that I know who have learnt how to play guitar by playing other people's songs, as you learn a lot about songs structure and songwriting when you do that, I have never learnt anyone else's songs ever. I learnt maybe the intros of about 5 songs, then I started writing my own music. I have never learnt someone else's songs except for Daniel's , and I actually learnt a lot about songwriting from his songs and then worked on my own music over the years. So when I do a cover, it's a bit like a great insight into somebody else's mind as a songwriter, and I think that's a great exercise as an artist.
When I did the Sinatra and J Dilla covers it was like doing a painting course. I remember walking through some post graduated painting classes once, and there were these excellent students that were recreating Modigliani, Cezanne or some sort of classical paintings. I'm not sure if I'm good at it, but that's the kind of thing you do at advanced painting courses, you try to recreate the works of the masters. That's how I looked at my Sinatra or J Dilla covers. I literally tried to get into their minds and get closer to them as artists by discovering what they did to make that song. I just looked at it as a sort of study.
And recently you also covered 'Stephanie Says' on BBC 6. Have you considered doing more acoustic shows like that, as I think that was your original intention when you started as Julian Plenti over a decade ago?
That has come up a lot and as you said originally Julian Plenti started as just guitar and vocals, but I felt that somehow something was missing. Pete Doherty sometimes play shows with just acoustic guitar and that's just fucking incredible. That's a funny thing and I'd love to be able to do that, but the songs I write today don't work that way. For instance at the same show I also played 'The Base' with just the guitar but that didn't really work to me. It worked at the beginning of my career but now it just doesn't anymore, as in my songs you need all those pieces in the composition in order for them to work. For instance if you look at 'Over my Shoulder', what the bass player is doing is just as important as what I'm doing when it gets to the chords, if not more important, so without both those pieces the chords don't even exist, it doesn't make sense musically. And much of my work feels that way to me. What I'm doing alone doesn't constitute the song, you need the counterpoint and the other countermelodies and then you have the song. I would like to write songs with just guitar and voice, but I just don't tend to do that.
Talking about the old songs, what happened to 'Cellophane'? I think that's the only song from the early Julian Plenti era you never released.
I don't know. There was that song and also 'The Larynx that you have'. But that was the same song, maybe?
No sorry, I forgot about that one. That's a different song.
I don't know… those two songs were written around the time I also wrote 'Girl on the Sporting News', 'Fun that we have', 'On the Esplanade', and 'Fly as you might'. But those four songs I just mentioned stayed in my head over the years and I would keep playing them every time I picked up a guitar. For some reason I wouldn't play 'Cellophane' when I picked up a guitar so it kind of faded.
I noticed that on the last few shows you've been playing 'Goodbye Toronto' again, which made its first appearance towards the end of the Skyscraper tour. Is that song going to be released as B-side or something?
Yeah, it was supposed to be on this last record. It was actually supposed to be on both records, but then I just forgot to put it. I don't miss it on the new album though, as I don't think it would have fit. That's a song that in fact I'm still writing. I think we've played it three nights on this tour so far and every night is different. And now I think we are finding a version that finally works. It's like 'Cavern Workship' which I put on my EP: that's a song that never gets there, I kinda never get the composition satisfactory to me. It's one of my favourite pieces I have ever written but it's just this big mess that's hard for me to nail down. And 'Toronto' is a bit like that. But I'm almost certain that I will put it on my next record.
What would you consider your biggest achievement as an artist or as a person?
Hmm - it might be learning to surf. That may sound dumb to people but I think the hardest thing I've ever done physically is learning to surf, in the first couple of weeks, as I was on this very difficult beach and it took me almost two weeks before I was even considering standing up, as I was just paddling my surf board. Surfers would know what I mean… those two weeks were the most painful of my life as every day it felt as if I had broken my ribs and that I was going to drown. That was the most focused and committed I had ever been, two weeks of dealing with incredible pain and very little results. And then I finally broke through.
How are you coping with fame? Is it something that you enjoy or do you somehow hate it?
I don't think I have ever hated it. I had a bad relationship with media but I think that was due to my personality type and being young. I also think it's all relative. I'm famous in a room full of Interpol fans, but the cab driver has no idea of who I am. I think I'm just slightly famous. I just feel very lucky to be able to make music for a living, as that was my dream, and privileged that I wouldn't have had to have that shitty job I was telling you about. The idea that I can spend my time trying to make sound compositions is really amazing to me. But I'm also a very conscious person and I don't want to take it for granted so much. I just want to stay focused. I think I am concerned with being worthy, rather than sort of feeling untitled or self-satisfied. My concern is if I do deserve this and how I can get better.
Everybody noticed that you now seem more open both in your lyrics and interviews. You also communicate to fans much more, like for instance with the 'Ask Paul' thing on twitter. What made you change so much?
There was a degree of reserve that I had with Interpol because I have never looked at myself as the mouthpiece of Interpol. I didn't want to hijack the interview. If we did an interview as a band it was our interview, as we are all equal members in that band. So I guess I would sort of withhold a little bit in order to just speak the line of the band, to just be a member…you know what I mean, like I could say this or Sam could say this. I'm not the guy fronting the band in that sense, we are all fronting, we are all collaborating with this band. When I work alone I don't care if this guy doesn't agree with what I'm saying because it's just me.
In fact it's not the matter of someone else not agreeing with me, it's just that I didn't want to speak for those guys because I can only speak for myself. And I also think I got even more removed because I felt that what critics and journalists were writing in the early days was so off-base to me, they bothered me so much that I just didn't feel like showing them anything if they didn't get it at all, and I felt antagonised by what people were saying, which as I said was due to my personality type and being young. I think now I realised it and don't take it too personally anymore.
I'm sorry but I cant help but ask you a couple of Interpol related questions. I know you guys have been working on new material, right?
What do you think of the Turn on the Bright Lights 10th anniversary edition Matador recently released? Were you part of it or was just a Matador thing?
Personally I was busy but the band was definitely part of it. It was mainly Daniel's baby actually. I think it was a pretty special re-release as Daniel doesn't do anything by halves as they say. As a band we have an attitude that we shouldn't really do anything like that unless you make it worthwhile. There is a lot of rarities on that thing, like very old, unseen material (Ha, he doesn't know that I've actually had all those rarities and soooo much more since the early days!). Even for me being in the band I would say that's pretty good re-release as there is a lot of our archived stuff. I knew exactly what Daniel was compiling, but I was busy prepping for the road when that was being done. Also had I listened to the early work that's on it, I would have said “you can't put it on there.” So I told the guys “if you think our fans are going to enjoy listening to me singing like shit in the early days, then go ahead, but if I listened to it I wouldn't let you put it on there”. So I just did what I think was just best for the fans, which was keeping myself out of it, as I'm very conscious about how I sounded live and how all my early stuff sounded.
To me it's sort of funny that especially lately you don't seem willing to take credits for Interpol songs much, saying that you just write the vocal parts, when personally I think vocals are very important and can totally change a song, a bit like editing in filmmaking. But I think you almost entirely wrote 'Hands Away'.
That's not completely true. I introduced that song, that's one of my compositions, but it wouldn't be what it is without the keyboards that Carlos wrote.
Can I ask you the meaning of the word "ham" in the "lets see about this ham" line? I think I understood the meaning of that song, but...
I doubt you understood the meaning of that song. It's so absurdist, it's an almost dreamy snapshot of a scenario that involves homosexuality, you know, like bondage and some weird sexual partnership which at the time I felt was very radical as a lyrical context for a rock song. And I felt like I gotta do this as this is crazy. As I've said, usually it's Daniel that introduces a new song but that song I was the one introducing it. As for taking credits, like you said, that was more on recent interviews because our fourth record was written in a little different way from the others. I was more involved in the previous albums, but on the last one it was mainly Daniel and Carlos generating the music, presenting it to the band and then we just kinda put our touch on it. It's not that I don't feel comfortable taking credits, it's just that I'm being honest that on our fourth record I was just less part of it than the other ones.
Finally lets talk about touring. How important is for you to feel the audience when performing live?
Oh that's very important for me. The energy in the audience in the sense that they are enjoying themselves, in the sense that they let the music speak about them… that fills any musician in any band ever. There is an absolutely symbiotic relationship between the audience and the artist on stage. But at the same time for me sometimes if I focus too much on a person in the audience for instance, then I freeze up and I forget what I'm doing . And I think there is a part of me which requires a special kind of concentration, and that has probably to do with playing guitar and singing. So I almost have to internalise myself a little bit in order to perform well and also to feel what's happening. I feel that the audience would respond more if you are enjoying yourself, and the way I enjoy myself playing music tends to be somehow introverted. It's not more fun for me to go “Hey check this out”. It's actually more fun for me to play right and feel what's happening. So my stage presence is really just based on me trying to simultaneously enjoy what I'm doing, feel what I'm doing and do it correctly.
Do you still get nervous?
Not anymore as it's become routine now. I mean there are still some situations like a TV performance or something that's out of the ordinary that get me a bit nervous, but when it's a room full of people that are there to see you, why be nervous? They don't want me to have a bad time, they want me to feel good and have a good time playing the show, and they also want to have a good time, so there is no reason to be nervous, and I just focus on having fun and everything will be fine. So no, I don't get nervous.
You can visit Paul Banks by heading to bankspaulbanks.com
Purchase and listen
Following on from his Julian Plenti Lives... EP, which was released earlier this year, Paul Banks (Interpol) has announced details of a new album. [read more]
It's 5.30pm and I’m informed that Paul Banks is running a little late, which is fine as it gives me time to pour another drink, stretch and relax a little. After swapping a few pleasantries, I ask if he’s ok to dive straight in to discuss his latest solo project, Banks and he graciously obliges. [read more]