Whether or not his new album Banks counts as Interpol front man Paul Banks’ first or second solo album depends on whether you’re including aliases. Banks’ first non-Interpol release was 2009’s bulkily-named Julian Plenti Is … Skyscraper, recorded under the performing alter ego he used pre-Interpol. And despite a mostly-covers EP earlier this year called Julian Plenti Lives, it would seem it’s RIP Julian Plenti, hello (again) Paul Banks.
Not only has Banks reclaimed his name, he’s beefed and brightened up his sound on his new album. A man who’s suffered many an Ian Curtis comparison over the years may never be seen as “cheery”, but Banks’ songs offer real sparkle and positivity (“Over My Shoulder”), determination in the face of chaos (“The Base”), dark humor (“I’ll Sue You”, “Another Chance”) and a reflection on the artist’s 17-year-old self (“Young Again”) and where that guy is headed next. Banks also told us that there is another Interpol record in the very early stages of preparation, but for now it’s all about Banks, and we caught up with the singer on a rainy Tuesday recently in — where else? — NYC.
First off, it’s nice to actually call you Paul again for this record. Was retiring the Julian Plenti persona, that name, something you knew you wanted to do after that first solo album?
The reason that I did that first album under the alias was because before Interpol I had performed under that name. I had gone on stage, written songs and played them. And years went on and I had never released any of that material, and then I finally reached a threshold of I needed to put that music out because it was important for me in my early days. It felt really right to kind of stay true to the original idea and put it out kind of like a retrospective of the early work, as Julian Plenti. And I also did it just to sort of feel like what being a debut artist would feel like, sort of as if I had continued as solo artist and never joined a band. Having done that though, having off loaded all that original work, now it would feel a little bit forced, because the work on my new record does not date back to the time when I was going by Julian Plenti. It’s mostly all new.
I don’t want to overstate or over-generalize the differences in the two albums, but I’d say this record is overall more upbeat, with less acoustic, folky, wistful moments than on the Plenti album.
I mean, that’s what Julian Plenti was. It was me with an acoustic guitar at open mic nights doing solo shows. The key tracks that made me do that first record were really stripped-down songs, so I think that’s the thread that kind of goes through that record. That’s a facet of who I am as a musician, that’s how I started, more in the folk tradition. And then I always kind of wanted to go a little psychedelic with it. But I just never really knew in terms of production how to do that. So that’s why the first record took so long to put out, because I was never satisfied with them being just acoustic songs with one musician. It wasn’t until I learned how to use Logic and I could sort of build up an orchestration and arrangement that I was confident enough to put that out. But in a way, this time I made a conscious effort this time to make a record that sounded more like a band.
And now you’re using your own name, Banks as the title, which might suggest that this is more of a personal record. And yet you’ve never been the confessional type when it comes to writing.
I think a little bit of that sort of personal honesty was in the last Interpol record too. I think it’s where I’m going as a writer, it’s not so much “now this is really me, and I’m gonna use my name, because it’s an honest thing” because all of my work in my opinion has been completely honest, and from the heart. I just don’t feel that narrative, biographical stories are that compelling in songwriting, so I don’t generally do them. It’s dull to me. So it’s not so much that I’m trying to be more me or anything like that, it’s really just that I did the alter ego record to serve that original vision, and having completed that idea, it’s really that the next thing was more about taking it down, stripping it down to something very simple, and just going with my name. But not to indicate this is more me than the last record.
On “Young Again” the first single, you’re singing “I am young again, thanks a lot” and “rah rah” in this kind of melancholy way that suggests some mixed feelings about getting older.
I think between the age of 15 and 19, I formulated my ideas of what I wanted to be as a person, and what my goals were and what my dreams were. And I think for many years I’ve been in service of that idea. I set a template for that idea and then I got to the point where I feel like I am at the end of a road, where like I felt maybe now time to set up a new model of who I want to be, and what I want to do with my life, and let some new kind of vision guide me forward. So there’s kind of a beautiful feeling of like shit, if I could check back in with that 17-year old self, I kind of did what I said I would do. So that’s very satisfying, that’s the sweet part. But then the kind of bitter part is like shit, what’s now? You know I don’t think I want that dream to fuel me anymore. I’ve given it all that it deserved. And now the next thing should begin. So it’s kind of bittersweet.
Not so much now that I’m approaching it, but from further away I thought, “What will happen then? Will I still want to be singing ‘PDA’, something that I wrote when I was 18, when I am 45?” But it actually seems kinda simple to me, and “Why not?” is pretty much my attitude on it. Because even though it’s pretty obvious that I’m not in the same mindset as when I wrote it, I’m still gonna be the best person to perform that composition live.
On the topic of “PDA” and the album that contained it, Turn On the Bright Lights not too long ago got another endorsement of its legacy when the Pitchfork “People’s List” voted it the number 12 album of the past fifteen years. Is that enduring affection for the band’s debut ever an albatross for you—a “thing” against which all Interpol records, or for that matter Paul Banks solo records, must forever be judged?
I just think that we’re incredibly proud of that first record, and I feel like especially when you’re collaborative, there is magic. As a solo artist I could never reproduce the magic of a band. When you’ve got four people who all have something to prove and their energy is bouncing off each other, there’s a special magic. And I don’t try and even think about what the band does when I work on my solo material cause I’m trying to satisfy my own creative urges. Rather than looking at it as though, oh, how are people gonna value this record against the first record, or is this record gonna “lose” because the first record’s so special to people. It’s like, that’s great, it’s great that we have a record that’s special to people. I don’t think you do music or art to win or to succeed, you just do it to satisfy yourself. And I don’t think any of us look at it as being an albatross. I think we only look at with pride.