Focus X Paul Banks
Interview conducted by Neil MacDonald November 2022 . Find Neil on Instagram at Science Versus Life.
Photo : Atiba Jefferson
Neil - You were in Edinburgh during lockdown, and wrote parts of the new record there. Did you plan to be in Edinburgh during those strange times, and how was it?
Paul - My girlfriend—my fiancée now—was in Edinburgh getting a master’s at the University of Edinburgh, and it’s fun to say that I did get ‘stranded’, although in reality as a UK passport holder I was allowed to go back and forth as I chose in that phase. I was flying to visit my girlfriend on March 12th, and in the air the stewardess came and said that Trump had just announced a travel ban, and US citizens can fly home, but international travel stopped while I was in the air going to Edinburgh. So what was planned as a seven day trip became ‘let’s just stick it out here in Edinburgh and see what happens’.
If you know Edinburgh I think you can kind of imagine that I got a great version of it because there was no tourism and I had a summer in Edinburgh when it was locked down. We lived right off of The Meadows, and it was lovely. We were near Morningside.
What was it like creating Interpol music in such unusual surroundings?
I think it was a very relaxing place and it was very conducive to creativity. I think the record had to become a little more pensive, and it’s got a little bit more of an ‘inside’ feeling, but it’s a comfortably inside feeling that I think is reflective of forced isolation of the pandemic. As a writer, forced isolation is not your worst enemy, creatively; it’s actually a good time to spend time on your craft. I think it was a perfect combination of being in a picturesque place that’s very beautiful with creative work in hand, and loads of time. It was not at all a bad environment to be in to work on a record.
Does where you write and record a record generally affect what that record becomes?
Perhaps, but I think it’s much more about the internal climate that you’re carrying around and all the different influences in your life that you’re bringing to a creative endeavour at a moment in time. I’ve written Interpol records at the beach. I think it’s more about your internal environment that you carry around with you and for me that’s always a bit of New York and a bit of the ocean and a lot of different places. I think the world situation is always a massive influence.
You’ve mentioned being physically fit when you make records. Has that always been the case or is that something you came to figure out over time?
I think it came with time. Early in my career I dealt with mental health issues differently, and I think that there’s the idea of the suffering artist, and to experience suffering is good to inform a creative output, but I think active suffering is not very good for creative enterprises. Just doing exercise is a good way to keep one’s spirit up, and I think that when your spirit is up the creativity which is always there flows more smoothly. The creativity’s in the person, in the world, and I think we can open the valve or we can do things that impede the flow, and I think for me exercise and physical fitness clears my mind and impacts positively towards my creative flow.
Because of the pandemic and not being able to do much other than cook and exercise, I was in good shape. I’d like to get back into that kinda shape; I’m a big fat fatty nowadays.
What was it like having Atiba around, documenting the writing and recording of the album, documenting what’s possibly quite a personal experience? Did that affect your processes?
Recording the record was not more personal than other records, but writing is sort of intimate. He’s a true artist and one of the great insights he brings to his craft is how to interact with people and how to be a fly on the wall. He’s not invisible, he’s a participant, but he just flows very smoothly in all settings and he’s just a pleasure to be around, so you just see him as a peer that’s in the mix with you, and he happens to be taking pictures. Those are abilities that can’t be taught that allow him to have the access he gets in the work he does. He was just a pleasure to be around and he didn’t make anybody self-conscious.
You listen to a lot of hip-hop. Are there any elements from hip-hop that you put into Interpol’s music?
I think so, yeah. Probably rhythmic things in guitar parts and bass lines. I don’t know. I listen to so much that I would just assume that the production styles of people I like get in there. Historically, consciously, with regards to rap, at a certain phase in my career there was a sort of absurdist- bravado thing that I would do where it was a sort of surrealistic braggadociousness. An affect of a boast. It’s not in the whole genre because there are many different types of hip-hop but there’s definitely a section of thematics which is common where it’s, ‘This is all the shit I have, but this is all the shit that I want’, and I kind of like the idea of putting that through an absurdist filter, a little bit like Kool Keith does. All of a sudden you’re saying things that sound like you’re bragging but it’s a nonsensical thing, or it wouldn’t be something that you would typically state as a brag.
Has architecture consciously inspired your music? Are there any moments of your music that are related to certain buildings?
I wouldn’t say there were songs that I could relate to certain buildings but I think that with my appreciation of architecture there’s a connection point in the music in that I like complimentary juxtapositions. So that often will happen either within the architecture of one building or in the aesthetic of a skyline where there’s different structures built at different times that don’t have anything in common per se, but the contrast is harmonious. I think sometimes, as a lyricist, ‘jump- cutting’, so to speak, to something unrelated to the previous line has a harmoniousness that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s working despite being unlike the other. I think that’s a parallel in my interest in architecture and some of my stylings as a lyricist.
Do you have much opportunity to explore buildings when you travel? Do you research local architecture in advance?
I did for the first time when I was in Brazil because I knew that I’d be seeing a good amount of interesting Brutalist architecture, so I did do a little Google search and found a stadium in Sao Paulo where I wanted to go photograph and when I got there it was completely fenced-in as a private health club and you couldn’t even see the structure.
Every once in a while I might do that if I think there’s something worth pursuing in a city but for the most part I enjoy just walking around and when I see it, I see it. I think that’s how it stays a nice pleasurable hobby for me; I don’t feel obligated, like I must go find the next building to shoot. I’m just always happy when it finds me.
Have you got a favourite part of the world for architecture?
I think Eastern Europe, and Russia. Communist, Eastern Bloc Brutalist architecture From the ‘50s and ‘60s. I really want to go to Brasilia and see all the work that was done there, although I don’t know if you’d call that Brutalist. I think I like concrete; I think concrete takes the light really nicely. Modern buildings with the very reflective windows, the glass skyscrapers, I seem to photograph less and less and find them less and less interesting because they’re visually very harsh. The light is just on or off. A lot of architecture pictures, I’m finding, are better off in overcast conditions and I think glass in particular—when it’s not overcast—is just too harsh and I think with Brutalist architecture or concrete structures, or even cement, when it’s overcast it takes the light almost like human skin or something very texturally velvety. I’m particularly into concrete in overcast conditions these days, and I think a lot of Brutalist stuff is made in concrete. That’s really my favourite thing to shoot at the moment. It also has to be black and white. Then you get this incredible amount of information of contour and shading.
Can you talk about the boards?
The one in Edinburgh is not concrete, but the building has square tiles and windows, and in person the tiles are like clay, or almost stone, and on a subtle level they’re maybe more porous than metal, and that maybe has something to do with how the light plays. It looks like it might be titanium but it’s actually stone. When you put it in black and white and have it overcast, I think there’s something visually very beautiful about those square tiles. It’s not beautiful because it looks like titanium, I just use that to say that the properties of the visual take on very interesting qualities in black and white. The tiles look very luscious, somehow, even though they’re just flat clay or stone. I feel like that’s one of the essences of what I was getting at about liking concrete or stone surfaces in overcast conditions.
The San Francisco one, with the bird, is also a favourite. I think that photograph was the beginning of a new phase for me, in photography.
New Orleans looks like a cheap old casino from the ‘60s; I love that one.
Thailand is an example of Modernist architecture, and I’m all about that. What a great fuckin’ design, with the deconstructed Tetris wall. That’s definitely a shiny glass building but two big thumbs up from me. I love the design on that. I’m happy with the photo selection.
I think Ken’s a really talented designer and I was really impressed with his approach. I feel like the design could have been something very obvious which was photo-centric, and I think he really elevated the board into something that has much more of a statement to it. I think the way that he put the geographic coordinates in, and the colour schemes, makes them really work together as a group. It’s bold design choices and I would never have thought to do what this person has done and I find it very striking. Respect to Ken for the cool work he did on it.
Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai wanted to ask a question: “When Interpol and Mogwai played together over twenty years ago, did you have any inkling that we’d still be doing it two decades later?”
I guess I never let my mind venture that far ahead. I guess there were some artists that impressed me so much that it does kinda feel like you can imagine them in the world rather than not. I think some bands from twenty years ago have come and gone, and I feel like Mogwai always struck me as something extremely essential. I’m not surprised that they’ve kept it going so long and it gives me a good feeling deep down to know that we’re all still in the game and my respect and admiration for Mogwai just grows. I was a huge fan back then and as I go along in life their whole career arc just makes me smile. It feels to me like the amount of recognition they get grows and grows and I think it’s wonderful because they’re important and true originals and just fuckin’ badasses.
Paul Thompson, formerly of Franz Ferdinand, is wondering who your top five MCs are.
Kool Keith. Ghostface. Kendrick Lamar. Lil Wayne. MF DOOM.
I really love Sibs, and Focus, and I had a really nice time being in Edinburgh. It was a little place that I enjoyed discovering. Shouts out!
The Focus x Paul Banks Collection is available to purchase here.