ABOVE: PAUL BANKS. IMAGE COURTESY OF HELENA CHRISTENSEN
Most people know Paul Banks for the 13 years he spent cranking decibels while taming arena crowds as the frontman of indie nonpareil Interpol. Before the band announced its indefinite hiatus in 2011, Banks had already released his first solo album under a new moniker, Julian Plenti, which delivered the euphonious flavors Interpol fans adored while reintroducing him as a mad musical scientist who favors unexpected instrument pairings and intricate song structures.
“I just try to do honest work that feels right with the band, and honest work that feels right when I work alone,” he says, discussing the differences in creative process between his Interpol days and his independent work before sound-check at a Chicago rock club. “With Interpol, I’m working in this collaborative environment where everybody’s trying to build a song together. When I work by myself, I can have a goofy idea and follow through with it without getting approval for some strange compulsion that I have. One isn’t better than the other; it’s just two different ways to satisfy creative energy.”
Banks is back again—now performing under his given name—with a new record that employs everything from nuclear sirens to string solos worthy of a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. As he readies Banks for proper debut by way of an extensive national tour, Banks takes us through his latest release, how he navigates new sounds, and what exactly he means by “sonic possibilities.”
HILARY HUGHES: How important is it to pursue a solo project while you’re in a band? Has this afforded you a new look at your songwriting that you didn’t necessarily have before?
PAUL BANKS: It’s a complete vision. I’ve been writing my own songs since prior to joining Interpol. It’s not a new thing for me; it’s been a part of my life for a long time, and this record is simply where I am now as a musician and a songwriter. I learned infinite amounts of things making this record, as I think one does with every new endeavor. There are formulas to songwriting, so you can explore conventional formulas or get lucky and find some sort of odd structure for a song that works in an organic way, one that’s a bit more experimental and not forced, like “Arise Awake” on Banks. Then, there’s just very straightforward, verse-chorus-bridge type songs on the record, but I don’t know—I think it’s fun as a songwriter to play with sounds and play with structures. Songs have architecture to them. When you work in a collaborative, and you develop a song entirely as a band, that’s very different than when you can sit there and sort of have all the Lego blocks to yourself and just exercise a vision and be the director rather than the member of a collective. I think I’m learning about how I want to direct music.
HUGHES: Which songs really clicked for you throughout the writing process?
BANKS: I had recorded the songs prior, so there was no surprise when I got to the studio. I had already made recordings of the compositions numerous times. In writing, I think there was definitely a moment when I wrote the riff in “The Base” where I said, “I just know that this is going to open the record.” That was a good feeling. I went to the producer and said, “Hey, the next one we’re going to record is the opener—” and he said “Great! I love knowing which song we’re doing that’s going to open the record, because I’ll address it in a specific way.” I could say that “Arise Awake” is one of my favorite songs on the record, too. When it comes to process, for me, it’s all very simple: I get an idea to do something that usually comes from having just made some music on a guitar, and then that idea just tells me a bunch of shit to do. As an artist, I’ve found a way to get less and less conscious and articulate of what that process is; I just let it happen, which feels right for me. It’s what I did recently and what I’ll continue to do.
HUGHES: Is it important for a listener to experience your records in sequence, especially considering how the consumption of music has changed through the use of YouTube, iTunes and Spotify? How do you want people to experience this album?
BANKS: I kind of pick my battles in the sense that fighting a general trend as to how the public consumes music—”You should do it like this!”—is so futile. People are going to do what they’re going to fuckin’ do, and a lot of people will probably check out one song on YouTube and download it. There are a lot of people who will buy records and listen to them in sequence, too. Out of respect and solidarity with those people, I definitely pay attention to what the sequence is and lay it out, mostly envisioning vinyl. I like the idea of having two halves to a record. I definitely pay a lot of attention to that for those people that will appreciate it. For people that appreciate the record, I want to do it for them, but I don’t mind if people listen to it out of order and if that’s what they’re going to do anyway.
HUGHES: Sure. I do love how “The Base” and “Summertime is Coming” feel like a clear lead-off track and closer, respectively, so the flow of Banks in sequence really works for me.
BANKS: I think they serve as bookends in a very essential manner. I liked the idea that the one track that had been released, “Summertime is Coming,” should go all the way to the back of this record—I put it out on an EP in the summer, and that’s the only song on this record that I wrote as Julian Plenti. I love the fact that it was so good as a closer because it was already out.
HUGHES: What do you hope your fans take away from your live show or Banks?
BANKS: I definitely made both records to be studio albums. I worried about the production of them both without worrying about the live show, in the sense that I learned that the amount of details I want to put on a recording can’t really be replicated live. This time, I thought, if I’m going to embrace all those details that I might not be able to recreate with this band, I will do that on the record, because I want to enjoy the sonic possibilities.
But live, whether or not it’s about replicating every sound you hear, it needs to have energy, so these songs on Banks, whether or not I’m having all the string arrangements performed live—which I’m not—we make up for it by approaching the songs with maximum energy, and they seem to translate well. What I hope will happen is that people will get a surprising visceral feeling at the show, because it rocks. That way, I can look at them as two separate things: I can do whatever I want on the record, and I can just make the live show visceral and edgy and exciting, but not because I’m slaving over reproducing every detail from the album. For example, there’s a chemical warfare warning siren that I sampled when I was in Geneva, and it comes in during “Another Chance.” If I were to play that sound live, I could have a computer play that siren back through the PA, or I could have a guitar or a keyboard replicate that energy. That’s way more exciting than having someone pump the sound through a PA system.
I express myself through all the instruments: the guitar part is as equally expressive as the keyboard part, as equally expressive as the drum part, as equally expressive as the guitar part I’m playing, because I wrote it all. They’re all interchangeable, so the agility of the moving musical expression between instruments is important. I definitely need to replicate that. The little blips and electronic noises and chemical warfare sirens, I don’t need to worry about those, but I can’t just reinvent these songs because I spent a lot of time on generating these compositions and allowing them to be this sort of dance between instruments. That’s what I need to preserve, because it’s the identity of the song. I’m certainly not approaching the live show from that jam-band point of “Whatever man, we’ll just jam in A because the song is in A.” I keep it a lot tighter than that.