Paul Banks is a serious interview. He likes to make analogies to all kinds of different fields of study when discussing his music. Songwriting is like archeology, collaborating with Interpol is painting murals. Do we care? We just want him to love us.
The day we spoke to Paul Banks, Interpol’s mysterious, standoffish lead singer and New York style icon, there was a shooting at the Empire State Building. So instead of immediately asking questions about his second solo album, Banks, we asked if he was OK—and it wasn’t just small talk, we meant it.
Are you doing OK today? That shooting at the Empire State Building was scary.
Oh yeah, the shooting. That kind of sounds like a day in New York. I’m fine. I do work in the neighborhood where that happened sometimes, and that’s one of the most nightmarish neighborhoods [that could happen it], so that sounds like it’s par for the course.
Your solo album is coming out on Sept. 19, and it’s so interesting because you had released a previous one under the monicker Julian Plenti. Why is “Banks” under your real name?
I only released one record as Julian Plenti, and those were songs that were written when I was Julian Plenti. That was my first ever stage name when I moved to New York, and that was the original persona. So 10 years after the fact, I put those songs on a record to serve the original vision. I had to do it.
After I did that, I wrote all this new music. But the need to have an alter ego was done and I was more comfortable simplifying it and [releasing the album] with my real name. If I released under Julian Plenti the second time it would’ve been perpetuating that alter ego, but that need was cured as soon as I put out the first record.
How did you differentiate between writing these songs and Interpol songs?
I’m not the songwriter in Interpol; I’m the singer and the guitarist in Interpol. The Interpol songs come from Daniel [Kessler, guitarist] and these songs come from me. So it’s a different artist altogether. There are similarities that come from my influence of working in a band, but it’s not the same person making the music you’re hearing. So it’s different by virtue of it coming from a different artist.
I write all the lyrics and the vocal melodies. The chord progressions and stuff like that, Daniel does them. I think I look at that [songwriting process] differently than other people do. But the chord structure, compositions that’s Daniel’s brainchild in Interpol. It’s my instrumentation, my arrangements in my solo work.
So how is the song writing process different between your solo work and Interpol?
Usually . . . the band generated the music together. Every band has a songwriting process that’s different, and it changed. It has been that Daniel would bring in the song; Carlos would work on it on bass. On the fourth record, I had songs presented to me, and I’d add lyrics.
[On “Banks”] I wrote a lot of it in my laptop when I was on the road with Interpol, actually. That’s how I did the first record too—I demoed it extensively on my laptop then I’d go into the studio and re-record everything. It’s like, if you were writing a film, writing a script and storyboard, then filming it in the studio.
Just a laptop? No instruments?
I did it with a guitar mostly, that’s the instrument I’m most comfortable with. I think my strongest stuff generates first on the guitar.
Interpol wears its love affair with New York on its sleeve, so I was wondering if the songs on Banks were derived from different places . . . I see there’s a song called “Lisbon” on the set list.
Lisbon is a song that I actually wrote in Palm Beach a long, long time ago. When I finished writing it I just thought, what is this song going to be called? And the place it evoked wasn’t Palm Beach, it was Lisbon. So that’s what I called that piece of music.
Where did you get your inspiration for the songs, then?
Hard to say. Whatever germ an idea comes from, it just comes. It’s not like I can pinpoint some kind of corollary experience for the songs.
The best analogy I’ve had for songwriting is that it’s a bit like archeology. You’ll see something sticking out of the sand, and sometimes it’s a rock, and other times it’s a jawbone. I feel like songs are already there, so you really stumble upon something and you go about excavating it and revealing it. Some melody will come to mind and it could be the feet of the song and then the song would just do the work for you.
I think bad bands say, let’s write a song that sounds like this or that, but if you’re functioning more with real inspiration the song will tell you what it wants to be. So the question of influence and inspiration is always a little bit tricky because it’s much more naive and impulsive and instinctual. On the critical side, of course bands can contextualize things. But the creative process is beyond rationalizing what you’re going for; it’s more like what you’re finding in the process.
It’s just a different form of creative expression. I get inspired hearing what music Daniel writes and I enjoy collaborating with him and Sam [Fogarino, drummer], but that’s collaboration.
Say you’re a muralist and you’re doing a mural with two other artists. You might say, I really love this mural but I really wanted to do something that looks like [something else]. Unless the two other muralist have the exact same ideas as you, that mural will never exist. It’s the same with songs; they’ll never exist unless you just go out and do the song yourself. So it’s not even freeing, it’s just that when I work on a song by myself I get the satisfaction of saying, “This is what the fucking song is.”
How did you choose the artists performing with you?
They’re people I know from being in bands all these years, so I got a couple of friends who are up for it and I call them and see if they’re free.
Speaking of touring, will you be going out on the road behind this album as well? I noted you only have two live dates so far.
More extensively than the first time, but everything is still being booked.
So are you thinking of playing just festivals or are you playing shows in smaller venues on tour as well?
I’m going to do both, but FYF is ahead of my actual release date, so it’s a good way to get attention to my album and play for a large audience that I might not be able to get with a small club show. It feels like a good start, a good way to get things going.
So you’re only playing solo songs at FYF?
Just Julian Plenti and Paul Banks, no Interpol at all?
I don’t even know if that would be legal, apart from being in really bad taste. I would never play an Interpol song without [the rest of the band].
Paul Banks performs at FYF Fest in Los Angeles, Calif., on Sun., Sept. 2 at Los Angeles State Historic Park. Click here for event details. Banks is also performing at Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, Texas on Nov. 2-4. Click here for details.