Music Features

Interpol (An Interview with Samuel Fogarino)

In the eyes of many critics and fans alike, Interpol's superb Turn On The Bright Lights was the debut album of 2002. Some even considered it 2002's finest album period. This was high praise indeed for a band that only 12 months earlier were virtual unknowns outside of their native New York City, and consequently, it came as no surprise to me when various cynics in the music press started to become suspicious. It seems that some people just don't recognise a good thing when they see it.

Over the past days I've been working hard, hammering away at a computer keyboard for hours of my spare time, to bring you this - my interview with Interpol's drummer, Samuel Fogarino - in its entirety. Why did I bother? Because I feel the following 2,800 words offer you a genuine insight into what it's like to be part of one of the finest bands on the planet; a band that exists beyond the world of media hype, and a band whose well-deserved success was not sponsored by a major label. Interpol have reached the point where they are today through hard work and talent alone. They, unlike a handful of their New York peers, deserve your adoration. And if you don't know why, don't worry - help is at hand! Slip a copy of Turn On The Bright Lights into your stereo and read on...

N.b. This interview was conducted on January 20th, midway through the band's stint on the NME tour - a medium length jaunt around the UK courtesy of everyone's favourite music weekly.

No Ripcord: You've done three dates of the NME tour so far - how it's been?

Sam: Great, yeah. It's been kind of interesting because I was personally nervous about the eclectic bill and wondering, where do we fit in the grand scheme of things. Probably every band had that reservation at first because nobody could be more different from one another. But just three days into it I've been proved very wrong, delightfully. A couple of people have said that they find they've gotten their money's worth out of the packaged bill...

No Ripcord: Well, it does work out at £3 per band...

Sam: Yeah, exactly. And the fact that it's been very well received and all the bands are really cool. They're all very nice people; there's no real tension or rivalry or anything like that.

No Ripcord: Have you had a lot of time to spend with the other bands?

Sam: Yeah, I mean you can't get away from the Polyphonic Spree being that there's twenty something odd of them! You're working in very close quarters when it comes down to it...

No Ripcord: Have you managed to catch many of the other bands' sets then? Who have you particularly enjoyed so far?

Sam: Not to sound overly diplomatic, I do have a thing for everybody, and what they each do in their own niche is very well executed. But The Thrills... actually the last show that we did in Birmingham, they particularly blew me away. I was just like, totally awestruck - some really beautiful songs. I caught their set at the beginning, then a bit in the middle and the other night I caught it at the end and I was just really taken by them. I'm gonna buy their album...

No Ripcord: Yeah? I haven't actually heard it yet...

Sam: It's really good...

No Ripcord: Right, well I haven't heard much of them to be honest so it'll be a first chance for me tonight.

Sam: Yeah, I'd no idea who they were. The first night it was good but my attention span kinda sucked so I wasn't really paying too much attention but then the other night in Birmingham it was like, these guys are very compelling, some really nice Neil Young undertones happening.

No Ripcord: Do you find, because you're playing to a more generalised fanbase than usual, and obviously a lot of people may not have heard your music, that you have to adapt your set to suit the occasion?

Sam: It's really hard to do because we're only getting 35 minutes, so you kind of have to take that into consideration - but then sometimes it's best not to! Because you're kind of blindly trying to construct your set for 35 minutes, I think that the best thing to do is... as long as your honest with what you're trying to do, and you convey that, then it doesn't matter. I mean, we could play all ballads - if we had them - and I think if we executed them with honesty and believed in them then it would be fine. So, you tend to go in that direction... like, ok, let's try to figure this out, let's kinda be strategic about this. But then, it's really kinda silly after all because they're just your songs and you've gotta play 'em.

No Ripcord: Ok. So these NME shows mark the start of four months solid touring for you - what kind of an impact does that have on your lives?

Sam: I'm quite happy to be honest. It takes more adjustment at home - when you go back for just a few days as soon as you settle in you're gone again. When you're on the road it is what it is. It's so easy to adapt to because there aren't so many parameters involved; there are no idiosyncrasies; you just get in the bus, you go to the next town and you play a show. Everything's kinda mapped out but the dynamics of home life are... too many variables and it gets really hard to kind of, reassimilate to your own habitat so to speak. I really like being out though - the longest break we've had thus far was maybe five weeks. That just ended before this tour started and I started to go a little mad because I wasn't working, you know? After a while I was just at home and I had no concentration for anything. I wanted to get back out and play music and we weren't rehearsing or anything like that...

No Ripcord: So you didn't know what to do with yourself?

Sam: Exactly, I did not know what to do with myself!

No Ripcord: Is there anything you all like to do, aside from the music, to keep yourselves sane on tour when your schedule is so demanding?

Sam: Well, you know, it's kind of typical - there's drinking involved and other forms of self-entertainment. I read, [watch] television, but to be honest with you I don't really like to do much of anything else. After the show I like to be sociable, but I really have no other serious interests that I can't wait to do... it's not like "Oh Interpol's done, I can go skeet shooting"... you know, movies, books, anything that loosely revolves around music is where my interests lie. I've ruined a few good relationships... (adopts mock female voice) "is that all you can talk about? Music?"

No Ripcord: So how's life changed in general? You've transformed from being a semi-professional band with day jobs on the side into a professional working outfit...

Sam: It's kinda weird. Once in a while I'll try to fathom what's going on and it just doesn't register. I don't know if it was a very slow process, kind of morphing into a working band, or whether it was really fast. I don't know where the line was that we crossed but we're here and it's like I've always been here. I can't remember where the transition was and what it was like. I think we just got really busy all at one time and there was no looking back.

No Ripcord: Were you surprised at the response to Turn on the Bright Lights?

Sam: Yeah, well I'm just a humble guy - it sounds so silly - I didn't have any grand expectations. I wasn't insecure about Interpol and I didn't lack confidence but I'm thinking "band slightly left of centre, independent label, I'll do a jig if we sell thirty thousand copies" - I thought that would be kind of exciting. But so far it's far surpassed that. In the US alone it's like a hundred thousand copies which is really hard for me to get my head around. I don't think that any band I've ever loved, aside from the Beatles or something classic like that, has sold a hundred thousand copies, you know? It's kind of strange to be in that bracket. But on the other hand it's great. All you can do is be thankful and concentrate on what's important and that's making sure your music doesn't suck.

No Ripcord: Have you started thinking where you're going with the next album yet?

Sam: We've touched upon it, there's like a few songs in the works. It's kind of hard to give a definitive direction. I think this time around what'll be interesting is I think we're gonna complete the album in a studio as opposed to... with ...Bright Lights the album was finished really. We went into the studio and we recorded the songs and it was done. There was a lot of pre-production involved and this time there's not gonna be any time for pre-production. We might even end up penning a few songs in the studio which I think is gonna be quite exciting because it kinda leaves things a little open, y'know? There's no template to follow so to speak...

No Ripcord: And there's maybe more room for the producers to get involved?

Sam: No, we'll beat them up. No producers allowed. It's just the band and a really good engineer - that's usually a good enough camp.

No Ripcord: Are you a bit worried though, because the last album was four years in the making where as for this one, you're gonna come off the back of a demanding tour, maybe with a few new songs, and maybe some pressure to get the next record out within a year or so?

Sam: Oh I'm sure, as soon as we stop touring they'll be like "Ok, guys, go now, come on". But it's just so typical, y'know? Before one started playing music, one could read about it every day in a music mag, and I've had a little bit of experience, not personally, with friends of mine, but now it is personal, now it is going to happen. I think what will really help fuel the process is the fact that things have been going so well. We kinda have some solid ground to stand on, and there is a springboard that has been erected so to speak, by what we've been doing. So, I don't think the pressure would be as great as you'd think, and I think musically we have a really good head start. I think it's going to be really nice, and I think just having the experience of doing the first album and having that under our belt - and going through the mix down process on the first album, not being too happy, going back and redoing some stuff - I think there's been a lot of good bad experiences to prepare us. So, I think it's gonna equate to a lot of comfort which will make it easier to handle any residual pressure from Mr Matador.

No Ripcord: I'm sure they're not the harshest label to have on your back...

Sam: It's kinda funny, they're not harsh at all. I consider them friends more than anything really. But it's funny; they'll give us a pat on the back for working so hard just as they hand us the next assignment. "You're doing a great job! Keeping busy? Ok here; here's a stack this big. Now go to work!" They do it in a very friendly manner though. The better things go, the busier you get, and one should be thankful.

No Ripcord: Ok, if I could just go back to the start, because I know you joined the band when it was just a couple of years old - what was it that struck you immediately, that made you think "yeah, this is the band for me"?

Sam: Well, nobody really asks that question and I appreciate it. I'd known of the band, and I'd been very well acquainted with Daniel, since the band's inception. I saw their second show, I got a hold of their first batch of recordings, we'd worked at the same studio, with the same engineer, on different projects, and I just saw a massive growth happening throughout the course of this.

I never really had it in my mind at the beginning, when I befriended Daniel, that I would be in the band - I wasn't looking at the band in that way. And I thought "this is really promising, this is really good", just giving my honest opinion and supporting a friend in his newest endeavour.

So we'll fast forward to like, two years later, when Daniel asked that I meet him in a bar to talk about me playing with them - because they'd finally parted ways with Greg, the original guy - and I brought home this, what is called the "Self-titled EP", or the "Grey EP", or the "Precipitate EP", and put that in the stereo and it was just instantaneous really. It was just so well realised; it had matured from the original demos to this. This two-year period was just... in my opinion it was just insane how much the band developed; I didn't need to hear the rest.

And I had a friend - I still have him (laughs) - a friend of mine who kinda felt the same way. I took it to his place - and he's a music journalist as well - and he just put it on, looked at me, and said "Y'know, sometimes, after hearing something for just ten seconds, you know you're gonna like it". And that was exactly how I felt. It was something visceral.

I really think it had a little bit of punk rock energy - 'cos I'd come from a rock and roll background myself - and it encompassed a sense of atmosphere as well, which I've always been a sucker for. I thought of early-Killing Joke and stuff like that, and I thought, "I can play this, I can fit in here, and I think maybe I can better it?" And that was that. One rehearsal and I never looked back... only with a smile!

No Ripcord: You probably thought you were gonna get away without me mentioning this, but I've noticed pretty much every review I read of you guys, people always insist on...

Sam: JD, Jack Daniels?


No Ripcord: Do you think things have started to get a little out of hand?

Sam: It has, and it almost gets to the point where you don't want to acknowledge it anymore. But there's a few people that have come around, fans and otherwise, that have said they don't understand and that's what you kind of lock onto. On one hand I understand, how is one to explain how something sounds. In this day and age you have to give a labelled point of reference, so on one hand you can almost appreciate that they're seeing a really good point of reference. But when you know in your heart that's not what influenced you, in the least, y'know?

Or maybe it was just like, y'know, that time period is a good time period of music, and for me personally - I'm a little bit older than everyone else - that whole period kinda influenced me, because I was there the first time around. But it wasn't any one particular band. And it's just funny - there might be one similar element that is common, and it just seems like they put a microscope on that and just kept, like, beating that into the ground. Maybe you can hear it Paul's voice, especially his younger voice, a couple of years ago, when he was more kind of monotone and shaky, but now I just think he's, with no disrespect at all, far beyond what people say our points of reference are. I think he's grown into his own and has become more colourful and more dynamic than say, an Ian Curtis or... someone of that effect... (laughs)

No disrespect at all, because... I don't own a Joy Division record by the way - I never have - but I like them. It's kind of hard but after a while you can't help but get defensive - it's just like "I have my own identity, don't tell me I look like my older brother" or whatever.

No Ripcord: And finally just to wrap it all up, what have you been listening to of late? Do you have any tips for 2003? Sam: Yeah, look out for, and kids you'll have to do your homework, Casino Vs. Japan. Maybe they would sit in the same room as Boards of Canada or something to that effect. A friend of mine who works at Other Music in New York City - the thing that sold me on this, 'cos I just bought it blindly - he said that the artist really loves the sounds he makes, and that just intrigued me. For somebody to say that, that they can hear that guy is impassioned by the synthetic sounds he's creating... and he is. It's just very beautiful.

And Warlocks. I've been waving their flag for about a year and a half now!

No Ripcord: Aren't you going on tour with them?

Sam: Yeah, in the West Coast... actually California through to Texas, which is gonna be quite a thrill. And Devendra Banhart. Actually it was a couple of English friends in London that turned me on to this American artist that's on a very small label based out of New York City called Young God. And I don't know if he has records out here or not but he's delightfully twisted, really. There's something very honest about what he does that I really can't articulate, but I would look out for that.

. . .

And with that the interview came to an end. I thanked Sam for his time and wished him luck for the show. Of course, I knew he wouldn't need it; Interpol long ceased to rely on such trivial things...