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Interpol frontman Paul Banks explains how Nirvana saved his childhood

Interpol formed in 1997 and made their debut in 2002. Since then, the band has developed a reputation as one of the leading indie groups of the guitar revival that occurred at the beginning of the millennium. Alongside outfits like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol formed in New York City and brought back a very distinct brand of rock ‘n’ roll music that found its roots in the post-punk music of Joy Division. 

The singer of the group, Paul Banks, has frequently been compared to Ian Curtis of Joy Division. It is not only his stoic stage presence that has prompted this comparison but also the guitar stylings of the band’s dark and brooding compositions. Another similarity that the NYC band share with the original post-punk rockers is that both singers exhibit an emphasis on their love for the English language, and more specifically, literature.

While Curtis’ lyrics were informed by the romantic poetry of Wordsworth, Banks’ style of writing is more modern, in that it is cryptic, freeform and more of an emphasis on the surreal. Banks is much more of an impressionistic writer than Curtis was. For the former, it is about the feeling of the sequence of words and his experimentation with how different words sound together. Interpol subsists on a diet of juxtaposition, both musically and lyrically; they often marry quite stark emotions together; they deal in the subversive, the unknown, and the eternal. 

Interpol never offers any answers to life’s formidable questions. They don’t even ask that many questions; Interpol exists in the shadows of the spaces in between our distant thoughts. It is probably because of this that Interpol have always been taken seriously and why they are the best post-punk revival band to have existed.  

Interpol represents the eternal duality of life: good vs. evil, light vs. dark, happiness vs. sorrow – the yin and the yang. On a material level, one can see this as clear as day. It’s the same brand of music that Nirvana played — but perhaps with more chords.

Part of Banks’ dark charm is his sense of indifference, his natural beauty and his fashion sense. One day, you may find him dressed as sharp as a razor, suggesting high-class sophistication and elegance, another day, you may find him looking rough as the streets of NYC, clad in sweat pants, his favourite team’s shirt, and a look on his face that would silence the fakers. 

On a deeper level, this of course translates into his mood and conversation style. He may be friendly and talkative one day; another day, he may have a perpetual scowl.  Since finding success with Interpol, Banks has also ventured into producing a mix-tape record featuring the work of hip-hop artists, Everybody On My Dick Like They Supposed To Be in 2013. Later, in 2016, Banks also worked with RZA under the project name, Banks and Steelz, releasing Anything But Words. 

Growing up, Banks moved a lot and lived in different countries. “We were like a military family, but we weren’t military,” he said once in an interview. He returned to the United States to live in New Jersey, where he finished high school. It was here that Banks would discover the band that ultimately changed his life and would prompt him to get into music.

Banks is usually a gentleman in conversation and feels especially at home when he’s talking about music and artistic intention. In an interview with Pitchfork in 2020, he said: “We moved back to New Jersey for my junior year of high school. I was coming off my sophomore year in Spain—drinking in bars, smokin’ doobs, hanging out in a major European city, and living a pretty dope fuckin’ life.” 

Undoubtedly, his diverse upbringing allowed Banks to creep in and out of different cliques in school. “Lunch was a defining time in high school. Sometimes I’d eat with a jock who was a cool bro. Sometimes I’d eat with the Asian raver girls,” he added.

It is no surprise, then, that Banks would discover a deep affinity with Nirvana and the enigmatic lyricist and singer, Kurt Cobain. “I discovered and became obsessed with them,” he explained. “I remember listening to Nevermind with my brother and my mom, and she was as into it as we were. Nirvana helped me understand that music was what I wanted to do with my life. When guidance counsellors called me in and asked what my plans were, I’d say, ‘I want to be a rock star.'”

Banks would soon start playing the guitar and, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Banks admitted that even his guitar-playing kind of fed into his ensuing introversion and alienation. “If someone heard I played guitar, they’d be like, ‘Well, play a song,’ and it’s like, I can’t play any song except original stuff, because I never had the attention span.”

Banks felt extremely passionate about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Enough so that he got offended when people began listening to Greenday at the time when Cobain passed away. “After Kurt Cobain died, I really resented everybody getting into Green Day. I was like, ‘A fuckin’ legend just passed, and you guys are listening to Green Day!’ I was really passionate about it.”

Nirvana’s influence on Paul Banks can be heard throughout the music of Interpol. A notable similarity lies in Interpol’s song ‘Evil’.