Happy 15th Anniversary to Interpol’s debut album Turn on the Bright Lights, originally released in the UK August 19, 2002 and in the US August 20, 2002.
A feverish kind of romance courses through the whole of Interpol’s 2002 debut Turn on the Bright Lights. And the cryptic affair still burns brilliantly 15 years later. At its core, the 11-song album captures a complex love for the skyscraping city of New York. In fact, the title itself is embedded in the lyrics to the third song, “NYC”: “It’s up to me now / Turn on the bright lights.”
Self-rallying to make everything of the moment—such conviction is etched into the ethos of NYC. A sense of unequivocal purpose in a world of indulgent adventure. Pairing perseverance with provocation, this tribute to the magnificent metropolis would’ve been a classic in any modern era, but it emerged nearly one year after 9/11 and instantly assimilated into the city itself, as if already existing in the collective psyche of its people.
In the new millennium, a new-fashioned brand of indie rock had started to materialize in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Stylistically, the movement resurrected post-punk and new wave aesthetics of the 1970s and ‘80s. But if these genres were originally defined in the UK, this oblique revival felt quintessentially American and distinctly New York.
Here, in dive-y spots on and surrounding Houston Street, Interpol formed a following, alongside circuit neighbors like The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But where many bands in the brewing scene drifted toward previously defined genres like punk, pop and electronica, the incipient Interpol divined their own aura of intrigue. They took the stage (under various monikers until settling on Interpol), donning ties and dripping style, with cigarettes glimmering. Their film noir demeanor and atmospheric melodies slithered through crowds like a fast-release drug.
Strangely enough, it was the press across the pond, in particular, who first picked up on the gusto of the many discrete NYC acts. NME, for one, lavished attention on this art-rock epicenter and celebrated the flourishing lot with abandon, at a time—it’s worth noting—when social media and smartphones did not exist.
In between nocturnal gigs and day jobs, in pocket-size rooms from Alphabet City to Midtown, Interpol mechanically assembled songs when they could, renting rooms by the hour and making wise use of their rehearsal time. The four-piece had formed in 1998. Guitarist Daniel Kessler first approached bassist Carlos Dengler (a.k.a. Carlos D), then singer/guitarist Paul Banks and original drummer Greg Drudy—who were all classmates at NYU. When Drudy departed the band in 2000, Kessler brought in Sam Fogarino, who was the most experienced musician of the group and instilled a sense of discipline that helped the band hone their sound.
By the fateful fall of 2001, Interpol were ready to record. Two months after 9/11, they burrowed into Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, CT, handing its owner, famed indie producer Peter Katis, $900 in cash. Business-minded and opinionated, the members of Interpol argued with each other and Katis, with each trying to exert some degree of control. They agreed, however, to recreate the allure of their shows, so Interpol recorded the songs live, with Katis committing them to tape. Once the sessions were complete, British producer Gareth Jones helped Katis mix the album. After officially signing to Matador Records in early 2002, Interpol released Turn on the Bright Lights that August.
And despite its deliberate sound, it’s an album that elicits mystery. The opening track, “Untitled,” is an unmarked entrance inviting the listener into a clandestine space, like stealing into a speakeasy from the boisterous street. All of a sudden, you’re transported to another world, a secret, operating with its own rules and pace. Whether on record or live, “Untitled” showcases the winning brilliance of Interpol. Building off Kessler’s guitar, the song acts as a portal of sorts, a way to seduce the listener into a covert corner, where drama and uncertainty decorate the night.
Banks’s compact lyrics offer a perplexing promise: “Oh, I will surprise you sometime / I’ll come around, when you’re down.” Is this to a person he loves—a romantic relationship, a friend, a relative? Or a total stranger? Or maybe, the singer himself is the recipient, and he’s channeling the voice of NYC. Having spent four glorious years (and dozens of vacations) in Manhattan, I can safely say the city can make my darkest days twinkle.
The album’s second track, “Obstacle 1,” is sneaky. Up-tempo and catchy, the song easily invigorates the listener. Yet the words are mournful. A troubled woman, perhaps a drug addict (“Her heaven is never enough”), is weighing on Banks. Rumored to be about a model who died, “Obstacle 1” may, too, jump narrative perspective. When Banks sings, “It's different now that I'm poor and aging / I'll never see this face again,” I can’t help but picture a mirror reflecting the model’s maturing visage.
The song’s more uplifting counterpart, “Obstacle 2,” appears later on the album. The fact that Banks penned its more lighthearted lyrics and pretty imagery (“Gonna play with the braids that you came here with tonight / I'm gonna hold your face and toast the snow that fell”)
before the bleaker “Obstacle 1” makes it somewhat bittersweet. But still, it contains some of the album’s sweetest sentiments.
Although I dig both “Obstacle 1” and “Obstacle 2” (for truly, there are no missteps on the album), they share the distinction of preceding the two best songs on Turn on the Bright Lights.
“Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” follows “Obstacle 2” and, at nearly six-and-a-half minutes, is the longest track on the album. But it beams and tugs with enigmatic, heart-dissolving magic. The mingling of guitar and bass is poignant, and there’s a femme fatale quality to Stella. While she’s the object of desire, she is also intentionally detaching from reality, and lies catatonically aside the lustful, yet empathetic narrator. Though “there’s people watching,” no one really sees her, and we get the impression that she’s been hurt so badly, she escapes unto herself rather than confiding in another. It’s crushing, and the narrator closes the song resignedly, “There's something that's invisible / There's some things you can't hide / Trying to detect you when I'm sleeping / In a wave, you say goodbye.”
Throughout the album, the narrator describes moments of untouchable loneliness in this city filled with millions. “But New York cares.” And I must admit, I wholeheartedly believe it does. The sense of community is palpable. The love for the city is shared and strong. And the artistry and culture are perpetually electric.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Interpol’s spine-tingling homage “NYC,” which appears directly after “Obstacle 1.” In just over four minutes, “NYC” manages to venerate the city’s sprawling luminescence, intimate its many voyeuristic secrets, and reveal the narrator’s complicated relationship with the metropolis.
From total anonymity on the streets to half-amused disrobing in high-rise windows to supercharged swagger, you’re free to define yourself from moment to moment (“I had seven faces / Thought I knew which one to wear”). On one hand, it’s liberating; on the other, exhausting. If the city was perking up the narrator’s spirits in opening track, “Untitled,” we see it can also magnify a depressed state (“The subway is a porno / Pavements, they are a mess / I know you've supported me for a long time /Somehow, I'm not impressed”).
Despite the grit, the grandeur of opportunity prevails. In reconstructing the city post-9/11, New Yorkers could rehabilitate themselves. This is the equalizing gift of NYC – the ability to awaken the best version of oneself.
For their debut, Interpol dared to take on one of humankind’s greatest achievements and landed a masterpiece worthy of its muse.
Yes, you wonderful city and band, “turn on the bright lights.”