Land of Plenti
It has worked for Beyoncé and it sure as hell worked for David Bowie. Now it’s Interpol lead singer Paul Banks’s turn to wheel out his alter ego. He tells TONY CLAYTON-LEAwhat it’s like to be Julian Plenti and how he’s getting ready to unleash some well-fermented material in Dublin this week
YOU CAN take the boy out of Interpol, but you can’t take Interpol out of the boy? Right? Actually, wrong. Paul Banks, Interpol’s lead singer, has been toying with his alter ego, Julian Plenti, for some years now, and, wouldn’t you know it, he’s come up with bunches of songs that are so far removed from the intense, layered sonic template of Interpol that if you didn’t know that Banks and Plenti were one and the same, you’d think a new kid on the block had come along to take up parking space.
The 31-year old Banks is a smart guy – well travelled (his father’s work took him and his family all around the world), British by birth (he was born in the seaside town of Clacton-on-Sea), and a former journalist ( Interviewmagazine, among others) – he has been the face of Interpol for more than 10 years. “Julian Plenti”, on the other hand, has been around for longer than Interpol, a creative side project that finally came to light this year with the well-received album, Julian Plenti is ... Skyscraper. As we say, as sure as there is heinous crime in the world, it sure ain’t Interpol.
“People generally have the wrong idea about bands,” says Banks from his New York base. Refreshingly, he has no inclination to thrust his alter ego into our faces, and is, therefore, not even remotely in “character”. He is rather less pretentious about matters, and as we speak has just finished sorting out the details of his imminent US and European tour, which will bring him and his (other) band to Ireland at the start of December.
“They presume that if you’re the vocalist then it’s your band and you write the songs. But Interpol is a pretty unique operation; I didn’t start the band – it was founded by Daniel Kessler, who has quite a special songwriting partnership with Carlos Dengler. We all write the music together, with me as the singer – simple as that. It’s not as though I elected to take songs out of the context of what’s written for Interpol, and do them separately. It’s more like Interpol writes music in its own way and I write music that’s written in a different way. The latter is not the product of a Daniel/Carlos collaboration, and it’s not a collaboration between me and anyone else in the band. For people who aren’t aware of the real workings of the band, it’s difficult, perhaps, to fully understand.”
Banks sees this solo work as a satisfying and therapeutic way of controlling everything that ends up on the record. He’s not a megalomaniac, then? No, he explains politely; what he has undertaken with his solo record is more of an intellectual and creative exercise. “As well as being a necessity,” he adds.
“The songs would not exist if I didn’t write them on my own.” Certain musicians, says Banks, sit down and think out quite strategically what they want to do. That is not the kind of musician he is. “Nor have I ever been,” he asserts. “I write and make music that I think feels and sounds cool. It’s a simple process. It’s not that I felt I had to make an effort not to sound like Interpol, it’s just the music I make. So with my own music I’m not censoring myself at all in perhaps the way I might do with Interpol – if it sounds cool then I’m doing it; I’m totally committing to my ideas.”
Banks admits to having gathered his personal songs for the past 10 years. “I didn’t want to get too much older and have songs just in my head for no one to know about,” he says. “It’s almost for the state of my mental health that I had to get them out and share them; either that, or you’ve got imaginary friends. A song such as On The Esplanade, for instance, which I’ve had with me for over 10 years now, is no longer my private ballad. It’s now out of me, and that’s good.”
It is surely the live shows that will stretch the intent of the album, though. Made, says Banks, in the spirit and manner of a home recording – think a lighter Lou Barlow/Pavement/John Fruscianti vibe, mixed with Banks’s melodically neat and idiosyncratic attitude, Julian Plenti is ... Skyscraperseems as if it wasn’t meant to tour.
“But then you decide to tour it, and so how do you take what was really destined to be music for headphones and depict it live in an entertaining way? I’m kind of still trying to get the nuances of that down, to be honest. It’s a different thing in that what translates on record does not necessarily translate to the live show. But I know it’s going to be fun, heavy, lots of different moods.”
Despite their indie-rock beginnings, Interpol now have a sizeable following that means touring small venues isn’t necessarily a viable business option.
Is Banks looking forward to playing venues where he can see the whites of people’s eyes?
“It’s a funny thing when you’re in a band that gets bigger,” he ventures. “Interpol would love to be able to play somewhere like the Mercury Lounge again, but it’s a nice problem to have. Any musician loves those early days; they’re super exciting. I’ve never really had a preference for venue size, but it does feel like you’re doing the rounds again, like being a debut act all over again, to be discovered. But the spirit of this project is small venues, and, who knows, hopefully I’ll grow it over time.”
Never mind the close encounters, how will he respond to the inevitable calls for Interpol songs? Banks laughs quietly, as if it’s something he’s clearly anticipated. “What can you do about it? It actually sounds as if it’s going to be good fun to me, so I’m not worried too much about it. I’d be a tool if I was going to get humpy about it, wouldn’t I? There’s a fine line, though. I have a sense of humour about stuff, but I don’t want anyone disrupting my gig. But, yes, I think it will happen and I think it’ll be funny.”
Julian Plenti is ... Skyscraperis currently on release through Matador Records. Julian Plenti (aka Paul Banks) performs in Dublin’s Academy on December 1st music