Interpol was still a young and hungry band with something to prove when they took the stage at La Route du Rock festival in August 2001. With only two EPs in their discography, the group had yet to sign with Matador Records or begin recording their debut Turn on the Bright Lights. Instead, they were one of many hyped-up bands from the burgeoning New York City indie rock scene, known as much for their style and their music at this point.
How the band managed to secure a prime spot at the French festival is still relatively unclear. Perhaps the band’s management was able to convince the organisers that Interpol was on the same level as The Strokes, who had just recently released their debut LP, Is This It. Maybe the NYC hype had already invaded across Europe. However, they pulled it off, and Interpol was now set to take one of the biggest stages of their nascent career. A killer performance was sure to do wonders for building an international audience, and this was their chance to prove their worth outside of their home country.
But that’s not how it went down. You see, along with sharp suits, a supremely goth aesthetic, and hip haircuts, another essential element to the Interpol experience at this time was drug abuse. The band members had a fondness for cocaine, and tales of their debauchery can rival those from just about any other band of the era. It wouldn’t affect their performance most times, but their appearance at La Route du Rock is an obvious exception.
There’s a bizarre feeling that is immediately established once singer Paul Banks begins shuffling clumsily and dancing awkwardly during the opening song ‘Untitled’. The other members are stoic and play their parts diligently, but Banks’ voice is completely off the second he opens his mouth.
Anyone who has been way too drunk at a karaoke night knows the kind of singing Banks is producing. It’s thin and reedy, utterly ignorant of pitch, and wavers as if it’s being controlled by the various chorus and reverb pedals at his and guitarist Daniel Kessler’s feet. Banks manages to get through the minimalist vocals of ‘Untitled’ without seeming completely sloshed, but once the band kicks into ‘Obstacle 1’, things start to go south.
Credit where credit is due: Banks doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to his guitar parts. The intro to ‘Obstacle 1’, the intricate changes of ‘Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down’, and the twin-lead lines of ‘The New’ are all solid. Also worth noting: some of the songs have yet to be fully fleshed-out, so when Banks seemingly bungles lines from ‘Obstacle 1’ and ‘NYC’, there’s a decent chance that those songs didn’t have finished lyrics to begin with, so the singer’s inebriation gets a pass in that regard.
What doesn’t get a pass is just how inebriated Banks is. The dude is wasted, constantly in danger of falling over or accidentally knocking into his bandmates, and his warbling yelps don’t do anything to conceal this. The band manage to get through their entire set without much incident, but the chance to leave the crowd awestruck had passed the second that Banks steps up to the microphone.
The performance doesn’t seem to have had a terribly negative effect on Interpol’s career in France: Turn on the Bright still charted, and their follow up Antics made it all the way up to number 11 on the French charts. But for a band with so much to gain and lose from what was easily their biggest concert in that country up to that point, the results are more embarrassing than emboldening.
Still, looking back at it, there’s something admittedly endearing about the plastered performance. Banks was barely 23 years old, in a hot young band from an incredibly hyped-up scene and likely was quite nervous about taking such a big stage. His methods of quelling that nervousness were probably a bit excessive, but they also represent a certain uncontrolled and unrestrained goofiness that you rarely see from a band as serious as Interpol. Banks would later kick his drinking habits, and if every performance was in danger of sounding like this, it was likely for the best.