Well-Dressed Men Sing Songs for Oblivion

DISCUSSED: Anthony Michael Hall, Legwarmers, Upstate New York, Axis of Evil, the Divine Right, Synth/808 Drum Box Landscapes, Drew Barrymore, Sky’s Gone Out, the Emergency Broadcast System, the Difference Between a Hermeneutic Circle and a Hermeneutic Spiral, Ari Fleischer, Garanimals, Inclusion by Exclusion

Well-Dressed Men Sing Songs for Oblivion

Matthew Derby
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The watershed legwarmer moment came as Kevin and I were coming out of the movie theater, three quarters of the way through a John Hughes film festival. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, we’d just weathered back-to-back showings of Weird Science and Sixteen Candles, and I was thinking it was time to throw in the towel.

“I feel empty,” Kevin said.

“You ate a whole thing of Toffifay in there.”

“It’s not that. I’m having a hormonal flashback to my sexual attraction to Anthony Michael Hall. I feel totally destabilized.”

I held the door for Kevin, and as he shuffled out onto the sidewalk I saw a pair of legwarmers emerge from behind a cardboard Breakfast Club stand-up. They were made of some nappy olive material, and they were swishing across the foyer carpeting, clutching the calves of a woman who looked like she was from somewhere in Eastern Europe. I rushed ahead to catch up with her. I’d been seeing legwarmers with increasing frequency over the past year or so. At first I was horrified by the unwelcome return of these garments I last saw drooping sloppily from the knees of the girls in my upstate New York public middle school, but by degrees I’d come to see them as, well, not necessarily attractive, but endearing at any rate, and I realized, coming out of the theater, that soon they will become attractive to me—that they will metastasize in my consciousness until they attain the same sort of tyrannical ubiquity that bell bottom pants have enjoyed for the past ten years.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman. “I’m writing a thing about the Eighties and I just want to ask how long you’ve had those.”

The woman looked back sharply at Kevin. He stood at a distance, arms crossed, brow furrowed in front of the Gap, wearing a black Members Only jacket and black Reeboks.

“I seriously just want to know what’s going on with the legwarmers.” I remember clearly that I said “the legwarmers” instead of simply “legwarmers.” What an asshole.

The woman carried a take-out coffee, the kind with the corrugated cardboard jacket, and the multitude of flexible plastic bracelets she wore on her wrist gently thrummed the cup.

“Why are you wearing them?” I persisted.

“I wear them because I like them?”

“Yes but do you—that is, did you choose those on your own, or—?“

“Yes, I like them. They are warm.”

She walked on ahead, faster than I could follow, and disappeared into a smudged crowd of tourists congregated at a bus stop. I ducked into a loud, vintage accessories boutique and feigned interest in a display case cluttered with A-Team memorabilia, two Trans-formers belt buckles, and a withered, cracked E.T. “Phone Home” light up glove.

“That was so stupid,” Kevin said.

“Fuck off. I’m trying to buy a Swatch.”

What I wanted the woman to tell me—the thing I knew, even as I’d asked, that she would not tell me, that she couldn’t possibly tell me, was whether people bring things back, or do events have a way of changing our minds for us? Did the woman decide on the purchase of the legwarmers just because she thought they were flattering? Or does the newfound appeal of legwarmers originate from their nostalgic power as a prominent component of Eighties culture? Most importantly, why is the legwarmer reappearing now?

Maybe the sudden proliferation of Eighties cultural insignia would go down more easily with me if I didn’t feel so deeply that we are living, once again, in the Eighties. With each new bellicose statement by the current presidential administration we seem to be lurching more violently into the paranoid, fear-mongering corner we occupied throughout that decade. What, after all, is the difference between the Axis of Evil and the Evil Empire but a few degrees of longitude? And “Missile Defense Shield” is just another way of saying “Strategic Defense Initiative,” isn’t it? To go on with the comparisons seems crude and obvious, but there are too many of them to ignore. Right down to the presidents themselves. Reagan may have had a few more years and several more film appearances under his belt than George W. Bush when he loped into the oval office, but otherwise the two are fairly indistinguishable. Both are former governors of powerful states; both are anti-choice proponents who harbor deep obsessions over military buildup and impractical, space-based weapons technologies; neither has any reservations about infusing his aggressive foreign policy with Christian metaphors (Bush Jr.’s “Crusade” remark echoes Reagan’s assertion that the struggle against communism was fueled by “Divine Right”); both are profoundly incapable of public speech, and yet both have enjoyed unprecedented popularity in the polls. A Senate leader once said of Reagan: “We may find him flawed because he doesn’t know the details…. But he can have a simple dialogue with the voters…. Jimmy Carter agreed with you and you didn’t like it. This guy can disagree with you and you think he’s great.” Bush Jr.’s success with the American public reflects a similar dynamic between himself and Al Gore in the 2000 elections. Gore said all the right things during his campaign, but every time he opened his mouth you wanted it closed again. Bush was incomprehensible, and yet he exuded a confidence that seduced the nation.

In more ways than I can count, we’re in the same spot, politically, that we were in twenty years ago. And in response we’ve been dredging up the cultural refuse of that dark decade with greater abandon, holding up as art what was, even recently, fodder for parody: The rise of bands like Fischerspooner, Soviet, A.R.E. Weapons, and Peaches, who ape the sterile, synth/808 drum box landscapes first explored by Yazoo, New Order, Human League, and Run DMC with such devotion that it’s difficult to tell whether or not you’re actually listening to something new; the return of the brat-pack aesthetic (narrow, pointy shoes, angular pink tops and black and white stripes); and films such as Donnie Darko, The Wedding Singer and Rock Star. Drew Barrymore, inadvertent poster child for the generation, seems hell-bent on resuscitating the decade, going about her task with the grave determination of a paleontologist, having donned pastel blazers with shoulder pads in films such as Never Been Kissed, in which she plays a journalist literally forced to replay her high school years by disguising herself as a teenager. Barrymore also appears in the aforementioned Adam Sandler vehicle The Wedding Singer, in Donnie Darko (as the spacey English teacher, as well as in the Penny Marshall retro-tearjerker Riding in Cars with Boys.

I’m sure that my sense of this cultural event has been heightened by the fact that I’ve been listening to Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights with autistic frequency. It’s one of those meaty, transcendent records that depresses you briefly midway through, when you realize there’s less than half a record left to hear. The stark, austere black and red cover art just barely hints at the cavernous, nighttime free-fall of the record inside. That the second song, “Obstacle 1,” contains the phrase “You’ll go stabbing yourself in the neck” alone makes it one of the best albums of 2002, but the line, hurled into an overdriven, hand-held mic by singer Paul Banks, who often sounds as if he’s being chased by a large man with a truncheon, is only one of many moments I’m thankful this band had the foresight to record. “NYC,” a remorseful paean to the music scene in which Interpol was conceived (the original lineup met while in film school at NYU in 1998), is as elegiac as they come. The last minute or so of “Stella was a Diver and She Was Always Down,” also, is astounding—the ascendant beauty of the bass line as it diverges from the minimalist, Television-influenced call-and-response guitar chords has made me tremble feverishly. And then there’s “The New,” a vivid, complex depiction of self-recriminatory lament masquerading as a pretty pop ballad. The opening line casts out a sweet hopefulness even as it’s overcome by doubt: “I wish I could live free/I hope it’s not beyond me/settling down, it takes time. One day we’ll live together and life will be better/I’ve got it here, yeah, in my mind.” The chorus doesn’t offer much in the way of comfort either: “I can’t pretend I don’t need to defend some part of me from you.” This is not the sort of pop song that lends itself easily to dance, or coitus, or whatever else pop songs are supposed to stir in the listener, but it illustrates well the richly ambivalent emotional terrain covered by the band throughout the album.

I know, though, that part of the reason I’m so fascinated with Interpol is that listening to Turn on the Bright Lights is like taking a walking tour through all the records I consumed growing up in the Eighties. The guitar sound on “Hands Away” is freakishly reminiscent of “A Strange Day” on The Cure’s best album, Pornography, and “Say Hello to the Angels” is a faithful homage to Bauhaus’ cover of “Third Uncle” from Sky’s Gone Out. And “NYC” does recall, in all the most crucial ways, Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” despite Interpol’s adamant assertion, in the face of innumerable comparisons by critics and fans alike, that Joy Division has not influenced their sound. They don’t sound exactly like any of these bands, but there are enough aural references throughout the album to dredge up a whole host of unpleasant adolescent memories, most prominently those having to do with the end of the world. Kevin and I grew up in the same sub-sub-suburban community, and the only thing we talked about more than the shabby stack of pilfered, secondhand records our siblings had procured at college was nuclear war. The threat of worldwide annihilation was omnipresent—at school, on television, at the movies—but the abstract fear with which we regarded the proliferation of arms was tempered by a nihilistic, self-conscious anticipation. The idea of an insensate war, and the ensuing, Beyond Thunderdome landscape (in which, we would, of course, rule), worked in concert with the brand of destructive narcissism that comes prepackaged with adolescence, and the bands we listened to fueled and amplified the fantasy. There was an armory in our town, so we figured the Soviets had classified it as a secondary target, which meant that we had time, when the Emergency Broadcast System kicked in, to ride our bikes to the high school, where there was a concrete shelter underneath the gym, before the blast waves hit. We’d emerge unscathed two weeks later—our parents, our enemies, all authority vaporized. Though we never admitted it out loud, we both longed for the apocalypse, as it was the only conceivable way our world could be changed for the better, razed and flattened like the fields outside of town after harvest.

When I first played the Interpol record for him, Kevin said, “the guitar is like Echo and the Bunnymen, the singer sounds sort of like the dude from Saccharine Trust and the songs are a little like Mission of Burma or something. A cross between Television and Mission of Burma.”

“Saccharine Trust?”

“Well, with the throatiness, you know? With that Saccharine Trust guy, it was like his throat was a wooden tube. This guy also sounds like that a little. Like if you sawed into his neck sawdust would come flying out.”

He followed with a lengthy, rambling treatise on Interpol’s proximity to early Gang of Four, early Wire, the Smiths, and the Psychedelic Furs. With the notable exception of Television, all of these bands saw their finest day during the darkest corridor of the Eighties—1980 to 1986, just as the two superpowers strove frantically for a state of mutually assured destruction. More importantly, or rather, I should say, more importantly to me, the act of listening to these bands during that time period was pretty much the only confirmation I got, holed up in suburbia, that there were other people who were aware that things in the world were not currently going so well. Aware, or worried, or pissed off—anything but comfortable, which seemed like the only emotion most people in our town were capable of. To hear those sounds again, recontextualized in the present political moment, is simultaneously painful and affirming. Within Turn on the Bright Lights there is an acknowledgement, however deeply coded, that we’re headed for more sad, sad times. Living through the Eighties was like a dull, elongated heartache—we sat and watched as our leaders said and did the wrong things, again and again. It seems inevitable that as we feel the initial pangs of what promises to be another dark age, we should reach for the things that offered solace in earlier times.


In addition to the chatter concerning musical cues from their forebears, Interpol has fallen into step with the early New Wave movement (as have contemporaries Fischerspooner, The Hives, and Ladytron, among others) in another crucial way: They’ve got a reputation for spoiling themselves in the clothes department, having appeared in numerous photo shoots decked out uniformly in Dolce & Gabbana and Cesare Paciotti. In the press, they look intimidatingly sharp—in one recent interview with the French newspaper Liberation, bassist Carlos Dengler actually said, “When I see a badly-dressed guy, it makes me sick.” Onstage, though, their presence is more heterogeneous and homely. On the night that I see them, only guitarist Daniel Kessler is dressed in a proper suit, and he looks small and uncomfortable inside. Carlos looks like a twelve-foot–tall Crispin Glover with a Kraftwerk haircut, just back from a trip to Caligari’s cabinet. The drummer, Samuel Fogarino, well-groomed but otherwise a dead ringer for Moe, the bartender from “The Simpsons,” only makes his presence known when he steps offstage for a drink during an instrumental break. Banks, the accidental focal point of the band (accidental because his discomfort at having to take center stage is palpable), is soft and boyish, but with an unnerving, glassy-eyed stare, the kind that tells you that drugs could never really touch this person—that, after a certain point, they’d just, like, bounce off the center of his head. He’s wearing a weird, black v-neck, T-shirtish thing over a longsleeve button-down shirt and ascot, an ensemble that is stern, innocent, and a bit demented, which is pretty much how he comes off in person. There’s another black-clad figure with Robert Smith hair on stage, lurking at a Yamaha keyboard—I hesitate to categorize this figure as a fifth member, as he’s more of a ghostly, hunchbacked presence, hovering at the stage’s periphery. He shares no credits in the liner notes, and is never introduced before, during, or after the show. I was afraid, from what I’d heard about them and their clothes, that they’d be pricks, which would mean I couldn’t go on listening to their record, and that would be needlessly irritating. The band’s stage presence is reassuringly organic, though, and after the first few bars of the delay pedal-saturated album opener “Untitled,” I stop looking at their attire altogether, because there are more interesting things going on—namely the music itself, which is not like a shirt at all; more like a stark, elaborate soundtrack for a film as-of-yet unmade.

I want to know what they’re getting at as a band, though; why their sound seems so familiar one minute, unsettling and strange the next; how I can pinpoint certain passages in their music as tiny, detailed replicas of other, earlier songs from my youth, and yet the effect of the record as a whole is obscure and mysterious, requiring a knowledge of Braille to uncover.

Kevin can’t go to the Interpol show because he is starting an Electroclash band called Special Shut Down, and tonight is their first practice. Before I head out I stop by his place to ask about his take on the Eighties resurgence.

“The Eighties were nice because they were so weenie,” he says, gnawing on a melted Payday. “It wasn’t about being ‘tough’ and ‘hard’ and ‘real.’ I think we’re all tired with that. That’s all a front, all overcompensation. And at least the surface-ness of the Eighties was honest about that.”

“But why is being honest about being shallow a cool thing? I mean, that’s cool?”

“You sort of need to get over it, dude,” Kevin says.

I tell him about the things I’ve been thinking, about the present mirroring the past, with all of us gradually falling into step with something bigger, some unnamable force in the face of which we’re powerless.

“Yeah,” he says, “but I think I could argue either way. It definitely looks that way right now. But it could also just be a happy accident of generational cycles coming into tangent with political tides. The kids today are just young enough to see the Eighties as ‘retro’ rather than ‘nostalgia’.”

“What’s the difference?”

“It’s like the difference between a hermeneutic circle and a hermeneutic spiral.”

I nod thoughtfully, pretending to know what these things are.

“Like, you know how the hermeneutic spiral is when the thing returns without its original context. So ‘retro’ is when you take something old and make it new by cutting away all the reference points. Like that woman with the legwarmers the other day. She didn’t know what the fuck legwarmers are. She got them because they were at Urban Outfitters, or whatever. ‘Nostalgia’ is when you fondle something old, something you knew when you were young, to try to get some of the original feeling back. Like those Alzheimer’s nursing homes that are built like a small town from the thirties.”

“Which one are you?”

“Both,” he says. “I’m totally whacking off to the Eighties.” He begins to masturbate in pantomime. I cannot believe I call this person “friend.”


When I arrive at the Middle East in Boston to talk to the band, the restaurant on the ground floor is nearly empty, save for two husky security guards in the back, slumped by the twin fire doors that lead to the downstairs stage. Interpol is in the midst of a sound check—I can hear the dull rumble of Dengler’s bass emanating from the closed doors. The nicer of the security guards goes down to fetch Interpol’s tour manager while the meaner one ushers me over past a table where a group of WBCN deejays, four overweight men wearing promotional T-shirts and studded belts, gather around a pair of mics, shouting on the air about the impending “Christmas Bash” event, of which Interpol is a part. Two nervous boys enter the restaurant. It’s 6:45—the show doesn’t start until 9:30, but they’re here, in that way that kids going to their first rock shows feel they have to arrive early, that they might somehow miss something, like a surprise early performance by the band, or a sudden call for extra help backstage, or a harried tour manager who desperately needs to offload some super-rare, signed, live recordings to, say, the first five people waiting at the door. The boys are young, shapeless, just scraping by puberty. You can tell by the way they tremble slightly that they’ve been pushed into lockers and been called “Faggot” a good number of times. We all stand in the back of the restaurant, underneath a gigantic television monitor broadcasting an angry-looking Ari Fleischer. His voice is periodically drowned out by the soundcheck as various personnel hurry in and out of the fire doors, the moving, insistent drone of “NYC” obscuring his statements concerning the Iraqi weapons inspections.

When Interpol’s tour manager finally emerges from the stage area with Banks and Dengler, they are cordial but seem exhausted and bored, sick of defending themselves against accusations that they are simply putting a new sheen on music that originally saw daylight around the time that they were learning to coordinate their Garanimals. I attempt to ease what I perceive as a preemptive wariness on their part by telling them I promise not to mention the band Joy Division during the course of the entire interview.

Paul asks, “What’s the English major term for what you just did?”

“Oh yeah,” Carlos seconds, “I know what you’re talking about but I can’t remember it either.”

“Inclusion by exclusion or something.”

Oh fuck, I write on the small pad I have in my lap.

They make a few more jokes, but there’s a tender meniscus of anxiety in their demeanor—it’s clear that they’ve had enough of the comparisons to the relentlessly moody, pre-Xanax band from Manchester whose legendary status has far exceeded its actual recorded output. I realize, some forty seconds into the interview, that it must suck to have to watch your work discussed only as a thing that is like another thing. Under the table I discreetly cross out over half of my questions. But it’s nearly impossible to hold a conversation with a band without addressing the issue of influence in some fundamental way. After a few awkward, meaningless questions about how their recent tour of Europe has gone, as well as their recent appearance on 120 Minutes, I find myself grilling them about the very thing I’d promised to avoid.

“So what do you make of this resurgence of Eighties nostalgia and how it’s being applied so directly to your work? Does it irritate you, or do you feel that it’s touching on something integral? Do you think that, if your record came out in 1996, it would have garnered the same sort of comparisons?”

Paul answers, “Well, basically I think that everything about our music is an extension of our personalities as individuals and how they come together. That cannot be stressed enough.”

“Yeah, definitely,” Carlos adds. “I mean, I don’t feel that individuals are necessarily an entity to themselves, fully in control of whatever it is they express. I feel like influences are unconscious and imperceptible. You don’t know what you’re getting influenced by, so of course your own sense of personal expression has to be factored in with whatever else is going on at the moment.”

Carlos smokes patiently as he responds, watching Paul stab a cluster of deformed olives in his half-finished martini. I can’t tell which of the two is scarier—Paul with his I’m-not-really-here-right-now stare or Carlos, dressed like an extra from The Hunger. I feel more than a bit uncomfortable in their presence, but this is, more or less, the same sense of discomfort I experience when listening to their music, and what is rock music good for if it doesn’t, to some degree, creep in at the peripheries of your life and stay there, staining the walls of your head a dark brown?

Carlos continues. “I think the question of ‘what if the album came out in 1996’ doesn’t really have an answer because I don’t think we could have produced whatever it is that we produced in 1996. Things happen in waves, you know? Every time a new movement comes along there’s always some reference that people apply to it because nobody really has anything else to reference it to because it’s new, but then when you look back, years later, you think, ‘What were they talking about with it being retro?—It wasn’t retro, it was new.’”

Before I can ask another question, the hunchback arrives. He’s without a key to the hotel room, and while he and Carlos sort out where the key is, I cross off more questions underneath the table. We talk some more about the origin of influence, with Banks and Dengler maintaining that their influences arrive in the finished songs mysteriously, passionately, beyond the band’s control. Which only reinforces my belief that our collective lurch backwards into the Eighties has been triggered by a force that is working beyond our comprehension, terminally over our heads, an invisible grid work in the sky. Like, perhaps the retro, reverb-enriched guitars on Turn on the Bright Lights have nothing to do with an overt reference to the Eighties but have been elicited in an unconscious response to a specific array of cultural/political circumstances. We’re being forced by the current administration, as we were under Reagan, to posit ourselves as a lone, benevolent aggressor, acting out against an increasingly hostile world, despite our profound misgivings with the role. It is an unthinkably frightening mode, but one that we are not unfamiliar with, and we gather around us the mode’s most recognizable attributes—the detachment, the big, empty sound, the career of consumption and willful self-importance, the obsessive attention to appearance—Kevin’s notion of the ‘surface-ness’ of things—in order to forge a psychic barrier between ourselves and the world, to ward off the host of complex uncertainties breathing constantly at our face. The connection between Turn on the Bright Lights and the prospect of a missile defense shield is circumspect only to the degree that we can deny that, as we move into the future, accumulating a personal cache of knowledge about the shape of things, there is a larger cultural knowledge accreting in tandem, and that everything we do, everything we consume, informs and is informed by that collective repository. It is not so much that we are suddenly into the Eighties, but that the Eighties have suddenly bloomed inside of us.

At the end of the interview, the two kids approach us, the boys who stood under the monitor with me. As politely as possible, they stand in our way. “You’re Interpol, right?” they ask in unison.

“Yeah,” Carlos says.

“Good times, man. Good times,” they chant, again in unison, swaying back and forth slightly, appreciatively, like monks before an altar.

“You’re, like, the only reason we’re here,” the first kid says.

“Wow, that’s cool. Thanks,” says Carlos.

“Yeah,” says the second one, “we had to buy our tickets on eBay.”

“You’re the kids that bought my tickets,” I say, but no one is listening to me.

“Hey,” says the second one. “One question—the songwriting—how does it happen?” It’s not difficult to tell that he’s rehearsed this line, possibly for days.

“Well, that’s a big question,” Carlos says, rubbing his chin. “Have you read any of our interviews before?”

“No,” the first one says, “not really. We’re from way up north. Nothing ever gets to us up there.”

At first I am thinking, “Up north? What, the Arctic Circle?” It seems like an absurd, anachronistic statement—how could a place possibly be so out of reach as to elicit this kind of response? These kids couldn’t have come from any farther north than Portsmouth. But later, while I am watching Interpol run through their set, I can see the two kids, crushed against the stage, literally screaming along to every song, just fucking losing their minds over this band, and I recognize that the distance the kids were referring to has got nothing to do with cable modems or amazon.com or independent record stores. It’s the distance that every kid feels from everyone and everything else in view, especially when the available real estate in which one can feel confident about one’s place in civilization shrinks daily. It’s the deep, hidden price we pay when we decide to go it alone against the rest of the world, rattling our swords to drown out every voice. In this way, the two kids might as well be living at the North Pole. I say to them, go now—hunt a large animal and kill it. Huddle around a small fire, and sing songs for the spring thaw. The winter promises to be long and cold.

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