Celebrating the New York band's seminal debut
Interpol’s 2002 debut ‘Turn on the Bright Lights’ is being given a huge anniversary tour this summer. The New Yorkers will play massive shows including London’s Alexandra Palace to help mark the 15th birthday of their first work. To celebrate, we’ve dug a little deeper into the record’s backstory, picking out the little-known tales behind this essential album.
You might expect Interpol’s biggest fans to be Editors, The xx or anyone striving for the same mournful, scaled-down guitar parts. Instead, The Killers claim ’Turn on the Bright Lights’ was the biggest influence on their own debut, ‘Hot Fuss’. At New York Governors Ball in 2016, frontman Brandon Flowers covered ‘Obstacle 1’ after saying: "You had the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But there was another band who were darker and more mysterious. [Interpol’s] first album was on constant rotation while we were making ‘Hot Fuss.'”
Sat in the studio, bassist Carlos Dengler once told producer Peter Katis: “This better be big, because I'm tired of being poor.” The odds were in his favour, but ’Turn on the Bright Lights’ didn’t make a huge impact on the charts. Peaking at 158 on the Billboard 200, it also failed to make the top 100 on the UK Albums Chart. Still, it sold 15,000 units in its first week — coupled with universal acclaim, it put a few more pennies in Dengler’s pocket.
Every one of ‘Turn on the Bright Lights’’ songs had been written pre-9/11. But due to the record’s unflinching grip on New York, these tracks took on a new purpose following the attacks. “We were holding the cards to a certain message that was about to become relevant,” Dengler told Pitchfork, adding somewhat oddly: “It's like the universe is taking care of us, even in the form of a horrific event.”
Such was former member Dengler’s impact on the record — his fidgety, one-step-ahead basslines being one of its main signatures — he joked about giving the album a new name. “Part of the joke is how egotistical of a remark that is,” Paul Banks clarified. “But it stayed with me because I'm a huge fan of that guy's work, and later it reminded me that, yeah, basslines should be celebrated, and it is the future.”
In the 90s, Interpol weren’t quite ripe for success. The brigade of brilliant New York bands, led by The Strokes, hadn’t begun to pick up steam. And even then, Julian Casablancas and co. tended to hog the limelight and label attention. Nobody wanted to sign them, not even Matador, who eventually changed their minds. “We played a lot of empty spaces, I mean, we've paid our dues,” guitarist Daniel Kessler told Under the Radar.
Just like with so many bands, legendary DJ John Peel switched the agenda for Interpol, when few others were interested. The group’s Peel Sessions recordings, made on April 26 2001, saw the group performing rough, unfinished takes of what would become ‘Turn on the Bright Lights’’ highlights.
The band rehearsed at Sound City, a former Vox production factory turned fabled studio. At the time, Battles, Black Dice, Gang Gang Dance and TV on The Radio were also working there.
With their inception, Interpol appeared to be made up of skilled instrumentalists, but no standout vocalist. That changed when Daniel Kessler, who himself considered providing vocals, convinced Banks to try out his own chops in a tiny rehearsal room. “I remember when he first started singing it, Carlos and I sort of turned around and made eye contact, we were like, ‘What the fuck?’” he told Paste. “For me it was definitely one of the great moments of our history. I can still say that that was one of the things that I’ll never forget.”
Sean McCabe was working at MTV with the band’s manager, who asked the photographer if he could contribute something to the ‘Turn on the Bright Lights’ sleeve. McCabe, who knew nothing of the group at the time, offered a shot from his personal collection: a red-hued photo of a theatre in London. Somehow, one solitary shot perfectly summed up the record — gloomy, stylish and playfully abstract.