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.
Where does Banks fit in alongside the rest of your previous material? Is it a conscious break from Julian Plenti?
I really look at it as a kind of a continuation. The material from Julian Plenti features songs I wrote in my very early days – the late 90s when I was in college. I feel like I'm properly attributing it to the artist because it was conceived when I was using that name. Moving forward, when I write a bunch of new songs the Julian Plenti thing kind of existed from 1996 until the early 2000s.
Until Interpol really kicked into gear?
Yeah, then I let it go for a long time. When I made that first record I was being goaded by that early work. So for me, the new stuff is just evolution. It's not a big musical shift or change; this is just what I write now.
I'm sure the promo is making a big deal about this shift from your Julian Plenti persona to Paul Banks. What do you make of it?
It's a good way to phrase it. It's a good angle. For me, it's not because I've decided to say something more honest or more personal but these are the songs that I write now.
Does the lyric from the end of 'Summertime is Coming' play into this at all? The one that goes "Is this the right time to know me?" I thought the whole track was such a beautiful and interesting end to the album. It feels very significant.
It really is profound for me. It was a private history and now it's a public history. 'Summertime is Coming' is kind of an interesting example for me. It also dates back to a very early era when I was Julian Plenti, but it kind of went through a lot of evolution and I felt it was also a song I wanted on my record. It went through a transformation over the years.
Banks goes on to outline the difficult process of working out the track – how choruses were dropped and the entire song was rejigged several times
Then I grabbed an acoustic and I played that outro to Peter [Katis, producer] and he was like "That's it! Let's just go there" and the fact that it worked was very, very gratifying because then it's really fucking full circle for me. I was very gratified that I was able to incorporate the old and the new.
Dwelling for a second on the "new" you mentioned, 'Lisbon' for example almost has a cinematic approach you've been moving towards recently and 'Arise Awake' has that picky and technical side to it. How do you feel about your perceived musical evolution?
I don't know… I really just enjoy making music. Those are two songs I really love playing live, they both translate well. They have a good kind of atmosphere. I've always been a finger-picking guitar player, so a lot of my earlier work there's quite a few finger-picking songs that are part of my style that doesn't fit into a rock band. Interpol has that sort of shouting approach, so it's what fits. When I'm working alone and I'm working on these compositions I have a little more space to breathe. So, that's really just an aspect of how I write songs. I've always enjoyed writing instrumentals. The way I see those, if I don't think it needs a vocal then I really cherish those one's that can live without it. Those are two of my favourite on the record.
Banks has hit on something I feel is important here in terms of where Paul Banks of Interpol becomes a different beast to Paul Banks the solo artist. I go on to ask him how working on solo material aids the creative process when returning to Interpol.
Is it a cyclical process where one aids the other? Or is it just a way of coping and making sense of the successful musician's lifestyle?
I think, all of the above. In Interpol, Daniel is the one who introduces the songs and I've learned a lot about songwriting from Daniel. There are some finger-picking second guitar parts within Interpol where I feel I bring my personal style to Daniel's style, so there's always been that interplay. But that's also the crux of why it's different - I'm always playing in response. Here it's me from the ground up. I think they do mutually feed into each other. They can inspire what I do in Interpol, which generates a lot of ideas then it helps with a solo record then I go back to Interpol and instead of having all the responsibility of doing everything I get to just go: "OK Daniel, what have you been working on? That's amazing, these are the ideas I have to contribute to that" And I think they do. Interpol becomes a release after the solo records and the solo record becomes a necessity after the Interpol records.
This must stop it going stale for you?
I think so. I think part of my problem creatively for a number of years was that I was holding on to that Julian Plenti early work for so long and it's bad for an artist I think to be pent up with old stuff that they want to get it out and it not getting out. I think after that record I really loosened up creatively.
Skyscraper felt like it had to come out and it reflects a fractured, long history. Not to say it is of no less value than writing a clutch of songs in a short period that becomes an album, but Banks feels assured, relaxed even. It flows. How do you feel about that comparison?
Skyscraper for me was challenging. I didn't know if I could make a record. I had been writing songs for years that I had never finished. It was a boost of confidence that I gave to myself. Now it feels like I'm off to the races. Before it was something I was waiting to do and I found a channel to let it out, now it's very comfortable for me. I like the fact I can follow my ideas up and generally [Banks] was a very easy to make.
Is that the best record to make? There's a video on your website where you describe the writing process as a "winding down" from Interpol's last album tour. How much of this is reflected in the record? Was it cathartic to write? Did it feel more like business or fun? Or both?
With a lot of people, once you're on the road there's a component of tedium which leads to substance abuse problems that flare up when they're in a touring band: There's a lot of monotonous repetition and if you're in a new city every day, I think everybody to some degree is a creature of habit and you have your habits taken away from you on the road. Everyday is "where the fuck do I go for a cup of coffee today, because I don't know where I am?" Things like that. I think it's a reason why a lot of people end up getting into drugs or drinking. I had to fall back from using that as my release on the road and so it became a focused process where me and Sam [Fogarino] get on the bus and get on our laptops and do work because it's a healthy alternative to just getting fucked every day. I think it becomes kind of, not only a way to pass the time, but it's a very enjoyable thing for me.
I think touring does generate that kind of inner-tension that is conducive to making work because music is just an offsetting of tension, I think. It was very comfortable for me, in a hotel room or the bus, to just work on my stuff. Not because I was fed up of tour but just out of the necessity. I hate it when I feel static as a person like I'm not doing anything or improving. The road has that feeling, as the only thing that really matters is if the show is good and the rest of the day is kinda inconsequential. That's a very strange way to live. It's a bit repetitive so if you're able to create a little bit when you're on the road it's a healthy thing to do.
Speaking of touring, you're getting to the point where it'll soon be time to take Banks out onto the road. You mentioned in that same video about how important it is to get that "feel" between fellow band members. Is that at the bottom of getting a live performance right? How is it feeling for you?
Really good. I was mindful, as before I never thought about live too much I just thought about what kind of record I wanted to make. The first record I found a little challenging to translate the songs in a compelling fashion to the live arena. This time, I had that in the back of my mind like, how can I orchestrate these songs so that a band can get up on stage and really feel like they're really playing the songs. So a bassist isn't like "So, shall I just play the root notes?" "No, I've got a bass line for you to play", or "here's a subtle guitar part for you to play" so I try to build them up so everybody could have a very relevant piece of the puzzle for the live setting. I think that paid off because these songs really do have a good energy live and we've rehearsed the shit out of the material so I'm pretty excited about how the shows are going to be.
Following on from this, I found it interesting when talking about touring with the solo project you said that "we're not fucking around". It's that "we" that stood out for me. Does it show how you're still a musician who benefits from feeding off of the input of others?
The other musicians you work with are totally fucking integral. It's a wonderful thing when you've got somewhere in music and you can just call someone up and the people that came made it really exciting for me. I have a lot of admiration for other players. As a member of the audience you're always spending some time watching those other players so I think the more personality and the more skill you can get out of those other players the better it is for everyone, on stage and off.
How does performing it live compare to Interpol? Surely you must, for example, be very accustomed to say, Sam and Daniel's habits and musical styles, is it difficult to adjust to looking over to your right and not seeing Daniel there? Is it exciting or is it weird not having that safety net?
It's such a different ball of wax. Daniel has an incredibly expressive way of playing guitar and the pieces fall together in such a way that you're relying on everyone. I wouldn't look over at Daniel and say "why is he relevant to me?". I listen to the entirety of the band because it's the whole construction of a piece of music. So I look over at everybody when I'm on stage and feel what everyone is doing. So it's almost the same thing here, but I'll hear Damien [Paris, bassist] playing my solo stuff and he'll play something that's very personal to me like it matters to him and there's a similarity here. When Daniel's playing something, its coming straight out of his soul and when I work on the solo stuff some part of my soul is being articulated by someone very respectfully and very well. It's a great feeling playing with Damien because he never fucks up and he gets it.
You can learn someone else's songs in summary, you know what I mean? When you do there's a tendency when you're playing someone else's music to sort of, half-ass it, I think. You summarise what part of it means something to you and that's what you express. Whereas Damien gets into what my idea is and represents it. So I look over and I'm like "you're awesome, dude". It's a very different thing but it's the same kind of respect I feel when I look over.
It's easy to picture as an outsider that the rest of the guys must just be hired hands but this sense of respect really seems to give the whole project a sense of vitality and authenticity, especially in the live arena. It definitely feels more like a band in this respect rather than the "Hey, look at me" approach of some solo acts.
Excellent. I mean, it's about the songs and what best serves the songs. It's not about ego or persona: It's about music.
Anything exciting planned?
Hopefully we'll be adding more and more tour dates. I think I'm ready to go through the summer next year with this, there's a lot to be figured out and announced. There's probably a video coming soon and there might be a little strange added bonus after that which might be unexpected… Let's see, I don't wanna talk about it in case it spoils any surprise.
Finally, do you have any advice to all those baristas and bartenders who moonlight as artists?
Persistence is the key. Some people try and do something and if it doesn't yield immediate results they change their style up or they get a new band member so the most compelling art is stuff that's very honest to the person and so you should be able to do it for a couple of years with no one giving a fuck. If you're just doing something to just get a reaction or to get fans you're not really doing it for the right reason. I think the key is to believe in what you're doing and if you feel you've got something to say just keep doing it because at least people will wind up respecting you for your persistence and will give you a second look.The key is to not give up, especially if you feel like you're on to something. Keep doing it.
Banks is out now on Matador.
- January 2013 Tour Dates
- 20th - Dublin, Academy
- 21st - Glasgow, King Tuts
- 22nd - Manchester, Sound Control
- 24th - London, Koko