THE RECENT PASSING of legendary British DJ John Peel triggers fond remembrances from Interpol guitarist Daniel Kessler. After all, Peel was the first DJ to play Interpol in 2001 when he spun tracks from the group's limited-edition EP on Scotland's Chemikal Underground label. Peel also invited the virtually unknown band to perform on one of his live "Peel Sessions."
"We had decided we wanted to go to the U.K. to play some shows there," says Kessler of the New York City band he'd formed in 1998 while an undergrad at New York University. "We had just put out our first EP, demos, really, and he played some songs from that. It was pretty amazing because at that point we had nothing going on."
The invitation to do a "Peel Session" was even more of a surprise, Kessler says.
"We knew that legendary records had come out of the 'Peel Sessions,' but also, they pay you a little bit of money, which actually helped finance the trip. And it was amazing to do the 'Peel Sessions' in this same little BBC studio that the Beatles and all these great bands had recorded in, with engineers that are regarded as the best engineers in the world, and to have someone like Peel accept it and be interested. It seemed to me the longer his career went on, even in the last 10 years, he really stuck to his guns and became even more about the underground and bands that didn't have labels. He dove even further into it, which is so commendable. He was a rarity."
The BBC exposure helped Interpol land opening slots for bands such as Mogwai and Arab Strap, and the band got good support from the British music media, yet somehow avoided the overeager "next big thing" hype attending other New York bands of the era such as the Strokes, Liars and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The Brit mafia likes to create (and sometimes destroy) bands before they get their legs, Kessler says, a level of attention that can be good and bad.
On the one hand, he says, "they look for things that are new, whether they're signed or not, a lot earlier than here in America. But when you have a paper like the NME saying on a weekly basis, 'This band is the greatest,' and they haven't even put out a single yet . . . I don't think it's good for a band to get too much attention [that way] because when the record does come out, people can be disappointed if 'the next greatest thing' is not there.
"For us, it's been more organic. We've always had a strong word of mouth, and that's way better. You can't plan it, so it seems more substantive. It's people who've bought our records and talked about us on the Internet more than national publications that have sort of put us where we are over there.
"I would never trade it," Kessler adds. "I'm happy that we spent four years without anyone really caring for us or rejecting us. Matador [Records] said no to us twice before they said yes, so those things are all good. They made us become a better band and made us become a little more comfortable with what we do. Rather than a band that gets thrust in the limelight with hype, we go to do everything on a very gradual level, and it makes you grow each step of the way instead of having to grow in a very short amount of time. It's much more legitimate doing it this way, and it feels much better, too, because when you talk to people, you feel like they like you for the right reasons, not because they've been saturated with you."
Not that people hadn't been talking about Interpol even before the late 2002 release of its debut album, "Turn on the Bright Lights," which ended up in a lot of critics' year-end top 10s and earned Interpol a nomination for the 2003 Shortlist Prize, the peer-and-journalist-judged American version of England's Mercury Prize.
People also talked about guitarist and lead singer Paul Banks's deadpan baritone, which evoked frequent comparisons to Joy Division's Ian Curtis. With its moody guitars and gloomy yet danceable rhythms, Interpol itself evoked comparisons to Joy Division and such British post-punk bands of the '80s as Echo & the Bunnymen, the Psychedelic Furs, Bauhaus and the Cure -- bands that Interpol has said it actually never paid much attention to, though two of its members -- Kessler and Banks -- have Anglo roots.
Kessler was born in London (his mother is English), lived in France from age 6 to 11, and spent his formative years in the Washington area, graduating from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Banks, whose father works in the automotive business, was born in the seaside town of Clacton-on-Sea and grew up in Michigan, Spain, New Jersey and Mexico before settling in New York. Appropriately, Banks and Kessler first met in Paris in the mid-'90s when both were participating in an NYU summer program. According to Kessler, they had some classes in common -- "French, some literary things" -- but they didn't really talk much about music then.
"I didn't really identify with a lot of people, kept to myself," Kessler recalls. "I didn't even really hang out with Paul so much, but he made a very strong impression on me. He was just 18 [and had just graduated from high school], but in a lot of ways, he was very similar to how he is now: He has confidence but not arrogance, he's self-assured, he can hold his own."
Back at NYU in the fall of 1998, Kessler was enrolled in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, "which the Olsen twins go to now, so I'm really excited," he says. "You make your own concentrations, and mine were very liberally on music, French and literature."
Eventually, Kessler was concentrating on only one subject. "I had decided that, one way or another, I had to do music. It was something I got such a strong feeling out of that I don't get out of most things on an everyday basis."
Kessler says that he has two older brothers who were very serious about music, "but I've always had my own path, and when I discovered music from D.C., it was a big inspiration overall. To this day, Fugazi is still my favorite band, and I'm as moved now by putting on a Fugazi record as I was then, which is pretty impressive. I've been listening to [1993's] 'In on the Kill Taker' like crazy this week. Doesn't mean I listen to it all the time, but when I put it on, it sounds really fresh, innovative and doing something different."
The post-punk punk band's influence can be heard in Interpol's taut rhythms and the intensity of their live shows, but no one will ever trace Interpol's fashion sensibility -- notably those trademark black Italian suits -- to Washington. That's pretty much the province of Kessler and bassist Carlos Dengler, originally a philosophy major at NYU and host of the campus radio's goth show, "Theatrum Aethereum."
"I didn't always dress this way, but in some capacity I knew that one day I would," says Kessler, a fan of '50s and '60s films, particularly the French New Wave, and the way "gentlemen" in those films dressed. "I've always had an affinity for people with style. When I met Carlos, I was dressed very similarly to the way I am today, and that's one of the things that drew us together. We were in a dorm full of undergraduates who wore NYU sweaters and jeans -- maybe that was one thing that made me feel we might have something in common."
Music would be another, and by 1998, Interpol was coming together with the addition of drummer Greg Drudy (replaced in 2000 by Sam Fogarino, formerly of Florida punk band the Holy Terrors) and Banks, whose double major -- English lit and comparative lit -- remains evident in his lyrics.
This time around, Kessler and Banks had conversations about music. "He told me he sang and played guitar, and the bands he listed were not even bands that I would have liked that much," Kessler recalls. "I didn't really care how good a musician someone was. I cared about their sensibility, the way they looked at life, the way they carried themselves, the way they thought about things. To this day, you can go to any guitar center and find someone who can shred licks like crazy, but are they going to write a good song, or a song that's interesting, or comes from a certain place? Probably not.
"But if you have something that you appreciate in people, chances are, the way they're going to look at music will be from a more interesting standpoint. It's what they chose to do within writing music rather than what they can do."
What Interpol did was sell half a million copies of "Turn on the Bright Lights" worldwide and follow it up with "Antics," which last month entered the Billboard 200 at No. 15, the highest debut not only for the band but also for the 15-year-old Matador label. "Antics" sold 62,500 copies its first week; by comparison, the one-week high for "Turn on the Bright Lights" was 6,000 copies. It helped that MTV streamed "Antics" the week before release through its online program "The Leak" and put the "Slow Hands" video in rotation on MTV, MTV2 and MTVu.
Interpol also got a boost after being handpicked by Robert Smith for summer's Curiosa Festival tour. Smith, playing critic, told Rolling Stone that Interpol is "very good at writing melodies. Lyrically, their songs are very heartfelt, and that makes for a good contrast with the starkness and icy veneer of their sound. They look really good onstage, yet they don't try too hard. It seems almost contrived at first, but they have such a fantastically defined sense of self."
More so on "Antics," which finds the band moving away from its perceived inspirations to a more polished and groove-driven sound on tracks such as "Slow Hands," "Narc" and "Evil." Banks's vocals are more expansive, though his lyrics continue to explore the pleasures, and anxieties, of romantic relationships, albeit with a more upbeat spirit.
"It's not like Interpol changed with this new record, it's just people only had 11 songs to judge us," Kessler points out. "We have always known there were other sides to the band, but you can only prove that with time. The band's always been about progress, not just from album to album but from song to song. That's really fundamental, and the band will not exist unless there's progress."
INTERPOL -- Appearing with Secret Machines on Tuesday at the 9:30 club. To hear a free Sound Bite from Interpol, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)