- Interpol is an indie-rock band capable of captivating much more than indie-rock fans. Whether they’re ready to make the leap is the question.
Last week I saw Interpol live at Radio City Music Hall. It was a hometown show for the New York City band, and a triumphant one at that – the second show of a surprise two-night stand. “Surprise” because the band wasn’t expecting to get a second night at Radio City, but then the first night nearly sold out. So they added another.
Radio City has become an interesting waystation for live acts passing through New York. One-fourth the capacity of Madison Square Garden, but bigger than any of the large clubs or theaters that host rock acts (Irving Plaza, Roseland, Hammerstein Ballroom), Radio City has emerged as the venue of choice for midtier, non-blockbuster acts with large followings. In the last three years, I’ve seen Morrissey, Wilco, the White Stripes and the Strokes at Radio City – evidence either that the place has become less square in recent years or that those acts have become more middlebrow.
Regardless, two nights at Radio City equals half a night at the Garden, which is staggering for a band that hasn’t scored a gold album or a smash radio hit yet. The crowd at the show I attended was young, well-heeled, hip but not hipster, and in their reserved, Gen-X/Y way, they seemed to be loving Interpol.
And me – I enjoyed the show, mostly. Interpol’s drone can be both immersive and dense, and there was a long stretch in the middle of the show where their postpunk-meets-neogoth material oozed together. In fact, the band’s encore – including the devastating 2002 single “PDA” – was arguably stronger than the main show.
In short, Interpol live is suitably heavy and often exhilirating, but it isn’t a transcendant night. That’s a lot to ask of any band, and I rarely go to a venue the size of Radio City expecting to be transported. But I want Paul Banks & co. to be that great, and two albums into their career, I feel like they’re nearly there. The status of “Great Band of the ’00s” is, at this point, Interpol’s to lose.
After emerging in ‘02 with the adored Turn on the Bright Lights, Interpol was primed to explode. Bright Lights won the indie band a surprising amount of mainstream attention: lead singer Banks and bassist/fashion plate Carlos Dengler made the rounds of rock magazines; “PDA” got moderate MTV and rock radio airplay; and you even started hearing bits of their music in remarkably mainstream places (I swear to God a bit of Interpol guitar was used as a soundbed on an episode of Friends). By ‘04, scenesters and industry-watchers expected the band’s next album to be their Elephant or Good News for People Who Love Bad News – the commercial breakthrough.
After being courted by all the majors, Interpol made the admirable decision to stay with their starter label, the Greenwich Village–based Matador Records – home of über-indie acts like Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Cat Power. In Billboard and elsewhere, Matador professed its ability to play with the big boys, to finally break an act into the mainstream on its own. The only gold records in Matador’s history are the first two Liz Phair albums, both of which broke through a mid-’90s distribution agreement the label had with Atlantic Records. With Interpol, Matador wanted to prove it could truly go it alone.
For their part, Interpol delivered Antics, a fine second album and restatement of purpose. Here and there, Antics broadens the sound of Bright Lights, keeping the Joy Division goth-punk but adding elements of jangly pop on its catchier songs, especially “Evil.” It’s an album to keep the faithful happy, but it doesn’t sound like a serious audience-expander. In short, as second albums go, it’s more of a Room on Fire than a Nevermind.
So far, Matador’s efforts have been fairly, if not overwhelmingly, successful. Antics debuted in the Billboard album chart’s Top 20 last fall, and Matador has toiled to get the band’s singles on modern-rock radio, scoring mid-chart hits with “Slow Hands” and “Evil.” If an album release is an invasion, radio campaigns are tours of duty; it costs money, patience and perseverance to keep a song on the airwaves. Whether Matador will get Interpol a top 10 hit is anyone’s guess, but it will clearly be a long slog.
I admit that I’m rooting for a full-blown mainstreaming of Interpol. And it doesn’t have to be a soul-sucking sellout. Recent breakthroughs by such former indie acts as the White Stripes, Modest Mouse and the Mars Volta (a top five album debut this week!) have hewed admirably close to those bands’ core sounds, with just the wisp of an olive branch to pop radio thrown in.
Interpol’s rock-radio-friendly sound should be an even easier sell. It’s a sound whose time has come – veteran bass-heavy goth bands that had trouble in the mainstream 25 years ago, from the Cure to Joy Division, are considered rock staple acts now. And if the Antics chart debut and Interpol’s thousands-strong live shows are any indication, the band can’t go home again to the comforting obscurity of indiedom. If they’re gonna be huge, let ‘em be huge already.
That’s what made last week’s concert cool but a bit frustrating: Interpol are in a kind of purgatory right now, and their live show reflects it. I don’t expect Banks to breakdance or to see inflatable pigs onstage. But the pacing of the show overemphasized the sameness in Interpol’s towering sound, rather than highlighting the depth and smarts of their songwriting. The band is pretty tight, but the sound mix was awfully droney for such a large space. It was a club show writ large, which should have been charmingly low-key but instead felt slightly limiting in a space like Radio City.
I’ve decided that in music, the so-called “sophomore slump” sometimes has less to do with chart position or songwriting than it has to do with the netherworld of material in which a two-album band finds itself. With two albums under your belt, you’re beyond the limits of the shambling little club show (I’ve seen baby bands with so little material they sheepishly repeat their best songs for the encore), but you don’t yet have the depth of material to select a wide array of songs for a two-hour arena show. Whatever you’ve got, you play, and if you’ve produced two albums of songs from the same stylistic well, the show is going to blend together. Three albums, it seems, is the minimum amount of material to produce a truly stellar, wide-ranging concert.
This gives me hope for Interpol. They look comfortable up there in front of thousands of screaming fans, and they’ve clearly hit the boards for enough years to have serious chops. And you should have seen how the show came alive for the spine-tingling opening chords of “Evil” and the cathedral of sound of “NYC,” the requisite mid-show ballad. Imagine what these guys will do with one more record’s worth of songs.