Photo credit: Michael Edwards
You’d never guess from the pre-show mania that New York rockers Interpol are not yet superstars. Those who arrived later to Bowery Ballroom, in attempts to bypass the two opening acts, found themselves queued around the block for up to half an hour. A desperate enclave of non-ticket holders—looking just as down and out as the panhandlers and hustlers hanging out a few blocks over on Skid Row—stood against the brick outside, every so often making eye contact with passersby in hopes of finding someone with a spare. Scalpers were peddling entrance for $75 a pop, a more than 500% mark up from the original price of tonight’s show. All this, on the opening night of the group’s first cross-country tour, just two weeks after their debut album, Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador), hit shelves nationwide.
3 Sep 2002: Bowery Ballroom New York
Still, in music, everyone knows that there’s no such thing as home court advantage—and superstardom is something that must be earned. As the band everyone with any interest in indie rock is talking about at the moment, alongside the overwhelming excitement incited by this show comes incredible, perhaps even unattainable, expectation. From the music journalists ready to write Interpol off as another product of the buzz machine, to the crowd of cool kids packed shoulder-to-shoulder who could make or break this band, tonight is overloaded with literal and figurative meaning. Could Interpol, who nurtured their sound here, whose album reeks of New York influences, come away from this show as hometown heroes? Or, would they fail before the very people who know as well as they do the cold, harsh reality of what it means to be a band in the Big Apple?
Interpol wear this momentous occasion on their faces as they enter the stage, looking not so much like Big Men on Campus as they do cautious, confused freshmen. No one embodies this trepidation more than lead singer Paul Banks, his blondish schoolboy haircut and presentable sweater making him look like he stepped out of a casting call for Dead Poets Society. The red blaze of the stage lights—mimicking the cover of Turn on the Bright Lights—give him and his bandmates a fresh, ruddy countenance as they assume position; the glow then melts into a somber, pensive blue. Appropriately so, as the band launch into “Untitled”, the brooding opening number of their debut.
Right away, it’s impossible not to notice that Banks vocals are curiously innocent and naked—a skeleton of the haunting volume and density that makes so much of Turn on the Bright Lights so unforgettable. In fact, everything about the band tonight seems more hollow—their trademark methodical pace quickens and slows awkwardly as guitarist Daniel Kessler and drummer Samuel Fogarino try desperately, yet unsuccessfully, to find one another. Bassist Carlos D., his instrument slung low and ‘do foppishly cocked to one side, plays with a prima donna egotism that comes off as bizarre and out of place. They end that number and begin a slow, more pedantic, and frankly disappointing version of “Obstacle 1”, also off Turn. It really appears as if they might not be able to hold it together tonight—Fogarino speeds away from Kessler and D., and Banks viscous vocals are clogging up everything, like gum caught in gears. I’m honestly beginning to wonder if they’re just the product of an incredibly talented and savvy producer.
But once they charge through “Specialist”, off their self-titled EP released earlier this year, things improve markedly. Banks falls head-first into the manic, quivering abyss from whence his vocals on disc come—the place where your knees shake and your stomach churns and you wonder if he’s going keep singing or run off stage and be ill. “I love the way / you put me in the big house,” he wails, as though insides ripping apart, while D. struts around the stage like a peacock, pummeling his bass and finally seeming like he’s there to do something other than be looked at. The precision their music demands is at last within their grasp, and the crowd responds in kind by plodding in time, ticking like a bomb about to explode.
Yes, as the show continues, Interpol grow more and more comfortable in their own skin. Though they barely interact with the audience—Banks says a few thank yous and offers a few song titles—they thankfully come to a place where they can be fully present before their spectators, navigating their way through the hype to simply put their best foot forward. Though a few numbers are a bit off the mark—most notably, “PDA”, which is short on velocity and sounds more like a cover than their best known anthem—the majority of the latter part of the set is tight, instinctual, and moving. “Stella was a diver and she was always down” is electrifying and disturbing, and “Say Hello to Angels”, sounding particularly Smiths-influenced on stage tonight, gets the audience shimmying and shaking to the beat. Even more crowd-pleasing are “Song Seven”, a bopper that features the EMF-style rap-sing of Kessler, and “Obstacle 2”, their blistering closer.
Considering the much-deserved praise showered on Interpol these days, it’s possible to forget that they’re still a relatively new band, and even more new to being in the spotlight. Rather than a complete hit or an absolute miss, tonight’s show demonstrated that, while the shoes they’ve been asked to fill might not yet fit, they’re still growing. Here’s to hoping that some time on the road allows them to find their groove as a live band—so that they can come back home and really give New York something to be excited about.