The UK is where I’ve had a lot of my sh*t press,” drawls Paul Banks down the phone line. “Everything I recall reading about me and my work is f*cking ridiculous.” As opening interview exchanges go, a roundabout way of saying, “I hate British journalists,” is hardly the most encouraging sign and the spectre of an abrupt click followed by a dialling tone haunts our next few stuttered questions with Interpol’s ice-cool lead singer.
But any worries about a torturous encounter are soon put to bed by the endearingly eloquent wit of Banks (“Prince William has done extremely well for himself,” he says during a royal wedding reverie) and it becomes clear that he’s just seriously passionate about his band’s music. And the passion is clearly paying off.
Having broken out of the same early Noughties New York scene as The Strokes and earned their cult stripes as rock gloom-mongers, they garnered as many plaudits for their sharp outfits (“Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club was actually one of my early style icons,” laughs Banks) as they did for their tunes. Even if you haven’t heard of them, we can almost guarantee you’ve thrown some questionable moves to brooding indie disco classic Evil and Interpol properly took flight this year with a support slot on U2’s tour and an eponymous fourth album that hiked its way to No7 in the UK charts.
“I don’t know too much about the album sales,” says the 32-year-old, humbly, when ShortList asks him about Interpol’s amazing 2010. “But the shows seem to be going really well.” Either way you look at it, he hasn’t done too badly for someone born in the legendary rock star breeding ground of, um, Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. Does he still go back for a bag of chips and a whirl on the amusements?
“Yeah, I used to go back and visit my grandmother when she lived there,” says Banks, perking up. “She’s passed away now but I still remember the arcade games, the amusement park, the coast and when we lived in a caravan, which was fun.”
His family moved away when he was three but hestill thinks of himself as an Essex boy. “Well, I heard more about the Essex girl thing when I was growing up,” he says with a laugh. “But I guess I do. I’m actually pretty proud of my heritage.”
COPS AND MODELS
Anachronistically proud Essex boy he may be, but don’t expect to see him burning a souped-up Vauxhall Nova around a one-way system. Essex was just one stop-off in a globe-hopping childhood that included stays in Spain and Mexico. It was these years that inspired his future career.
“The music bug hit me pretty hard when I was in Spain so I grew up on a diet of European MTV,” explains Banks. “I was [the] prime age for rock dreaming when Nirvana broke in the early Nineties [Banks was 13 for 1991’s Nevermind] and Spain left an indelible mark as it was where I realised my calling.” Interpol have often been lumped in with the Joy Division-inspired acts that begat British bands such as Editors and White Lies. Banks’s trademark sorrowful croon does bear an uncanny resemblance to the voice of Ian Curtis, but he thinks it’s a red herring and cites more surprising influences.
“A band I can actually attribute a lot of influence to is The Boo Radleys,” he explains. “Comparison is one thing, but people have said we’re derivative when they don’t actually know sh*t about what my influences are.” His time in Madrid may have marked his creative incubation but it was also where he learned to speak perfect Spanish and began his fascination with “language, crass Spanish slang and the inventiveness of the local Mexican vernacular” that would form the basis of Interpol’s oblique lyrics.
Did knowing the language help him talk his way out of trouble in Mexico’s mean streets? “I got busted a couple of times doing illegal things and bribed some cops,” he admits. “[But it was] nothing out of the realm of a typical high-school student. I wasn’t like a drug baron or anything.”
It’s clearly a time he looks back on fondly, laughing at the “unbelievably crass” Mexican chat-up lines he was taught. We’d wager that his approach was smoother when he got together with legendary supermodel Helena Christensen about two and a half years ago, a relationship that has since made him the reluctant subject of paparazzi flashbulbs. Is he still with Christensen? “We’re close,” says Banks after a long, studied pause that has us fearing a swift hang-up all over again. “We met through friends and she’s tops, man. She’s an amazing person.”