Portals to the Sea

Discussing dreaming in waves—sonic and oceanic—with Interpol frontman Paul Banks.

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Paul Banks dreams in waves. It’s always been this way. He’s attuned to them, knows they’re all around us. He feels them in music and rides them out back of his half-time perch in Panama. For the last generational clip, waves and much more have driven a specific caliber of sound and artistic intent for Banks as the singer, contributing songwriter, and guitarist for the band Interpol.

Born in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, England, Banks globe-trotted as a kid to wherever his father’s career in automotive financial services took the family. Michigan. Spain. New Jersey. Mexico City. He found himself in 90s bloom as he graduated from New York University with a degree in English, dodged the corporate desk grind, and made a life in music. The result was profound: an act with staying power, one that’s enraptured us from almost the moment they arrived at the start of the new millennium. 

There’s more to Banks outside the group, too. He’s a successful solo artist, has collaborated on compelling side projects, such as his work with RZA from Wu-Tang Clan and the American supergroup Muzz, and he’s a trained boxer. As a surfer, he leans solely toward tropical inclinations over any kind of cold-water commitments, claiming without hesitation or remorse that he doesn’t do wetsuits, preferring, rather, to roast in the heat unencumbered, living the trunk life whenever he can. Down with shortboards—three fins and nothing else. 

As Interpol notches a seventh studio album, Banks is still very much engaged in making music with his band, still inspired by guitarist Daniel Kessler and drummer Sam Fogarino. Together, they’ve proven their sonic efficacies time and again, ever since their 2002 heart-in-hand debut, Turn On the Bright Lights, a work that helped shape the era-defining indie rock emitting from New York. They were—are—one of the last to really make it before music’s paradigm slipped the digital deluge. Timeless, minimalist cool. Melancholic impressionism. Dark, monochromatic shade. Deep-red aesthetic. Chordal structure and massive, percussive resonance that just floors. Banks has no doubt helped steer it all. 

It’s his lyrics, though, where the sentiment for the sea truly echoes. Salty, faded lips. Underground city drips and scuba days. Sea goddesses. Bubbles of interest and boats lurching. Clouds of fire. Estuaries.

Lighthouses. Dolphins. Aimless sharks. The effect is the complex of real life calling you home through sound. Songs that transport you to the coast—out and beyond the deep—no matter where you are.

Paul Banks. Art by Jules Julien for The Surfer’s Journal.

DZ You’re deep in the process of Interpol’s seventh studio album. What’s it been like?

PB We’ve been writing and sending each other material. Loads of demos and, like, a year and change of composing before we hit the studio to begin recording. It’s been something that I think we’ve been able to harness in a way to make our music sound different, which has led to results that are unique to the situation. I think we wrote some really cool stuff.

DZ Can you talk about your approach to lyrics?

PB What’s kind of crazy about writing a vocal is that the approach to meaning has always been different for me. I could say a string of words that technically doesn’t make sense in English. But if I say it with an urgency in my voice, or a pathos in my voice, or if I say it in a really weird melodic pattern, there’s things that get conveyed between the words when you’re singing. Your attitude and persona is informing the voice. You can work with raw emotion that hasn’t even been refined into something coherent, but it still conveys a big emotional punch. I think I kind of revel in the fact that sometimes I can really fuck with meaning because so much of what I’m conveying is in the tone of the delivery.

DZ What are your first memories of the ocean?

PB The first big one is when I almost drowned when I was, like, 7 or 8, bodysurfing in South Carolina. I got pulled out and ate a wave, and was under long enough where my pops was in the water running out to get me by the time I came up. I remember being under long enough where it was like, “Oh, shit—is this, like…are we done?” But I remember it feeling like a weirdly calm reaction. Then I almost drowned again bodysurfing when I was a senior in high school and I lived in Mexico. It was in Acapulco, and in retrospect there were some big waves and a massive riptide. A buddy of mine and I got pulled out to sea and were about to drown. There were two local guys with boogie boards who saved us. That was another key moment of learning what it means to really respect the ocean.

DZ Bodies of water are used as a visual and emotional setting across every album. What is it about that essence that has such an imprint on your writing?

PB Even when I was a child learning about tidal waves and tsunamis, it’s just been deeply and subconsciously the portal into Mother Nature that I can best access. I think there is something very, very deep about communing with nature and it being there for you. For me, it’s always been the ocean. And I’m talking about dreaming of tidal waves. I fucking dream all the time about big waves. It’s always been something in my subconscious that I’ve just been fascinated by.

DZ When thinking about the ocean and waves and that power, how does it strengthen the throughlines to those ideals of love, lust, affection, and romance that also feel so much a part of the music?

PB Probably because there’s mystery, joy, power—and those are all things that have an existent romance in the ocean as well. I think confronting those kinds of feelings, it’s probably similar to the plunges one can take in romance. Like, you know, “Will I get hurt? I don’t know if I’m going to get hurt.” Or, like, “This relationship feels like clear water, where I know everything around me and I can see what’s around me, and it’s beautiful.” I just think it’s one of these sources of imagery that really serves as an analogy to so much of life. And also, everything in the fucking universe is a wave form. Don’t even get me started on how important the concept of waves [is], even independent from the ocean.

After over 20 years of rock stardom, and all its provisions and trappings, Banks and Interpol still have their shoulders to the wheel. The frontman has recently found a balance between the highs and lows, specifically on a small slice of Panamanian coastline he’d prefer to keep quiet and away from the limelight. Photo by Gary Miller via Getty Images.

DZ Do you feel like surfing has gotten you closer to who you’ve ultimately wanted to become?

PB It’s one of those things where, as a kid, I wanted to fight and I wanted to surf. And I think it’s a passion that you’re drawn to forever, even before you start doing it—your whole life kind of leads you there and you do it. I was probably 30, and it was one of those things like, “If I don’t start now, I’m never going to really get the muscle memory properly.” I mean, it’s never too late to learn. You could always, like, longboard later in life. But I wanted to shortboard. I think it was the fulfillment of a long-term understanding with myself that it would be something that I would do. Then, in doing it, it really taught me so much. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done by far, just learning what it feels like to just absolutely suck at it. I still suck at it. But to do something for so long and suck, and not get that reassurance of “I’ve mastered this!”, is such a humbling thing to do as an adult—to learn something that takes fucking years, and incredible patience and humility to just keep going back at it. That’s a really rewarding thing to do, and has helped me grow as a person. Once you’re an adult, you tend to gravitate towards things that you can do, and I think that it’s important to still try shit that you can’t do. And then some shit that you can’t do for years is even more rewarding.

DZ It takes an elevated level of commitment, for sure. It’s similar to pursuing a life in art and music. Looking back, what was it like knowing at your core that there was no other way? 

PB I think if you love something and if you just have a drive toward it, then taking that plunge is just like, “I’m going. I have to do this thing.” That means you have to take the plunge, because there’s no doing of the thing without taking the plunge. I don’t think I could’ve lived my life not trying to be a full-time musician.  

DZ It’s certainly a dice roll, though. And there’s a lot that plays into it, whether it’s opportunity, luck, drive, timing—a combination of it all.

PB Well, you don’t do it because you know it’s going to work. I guess it’s also a good analogy with dropping in. You don’t commit to being a rock musician because you think it’s a viable option. [Laughs.] It’s just that you’re fucking compelled. I’d rather fail at this than succeed at anything else.

DZ You’ve been candid about the pull of rock stardom and its pressures. For a while, you weren’t necessarily living your healthiest in mind, body, and soul. What turned it all around for you?

PB It kind of felt like not forgone conclusions, but that I was going to burn out with the lifestyle. It was definitely unsustainable, and I felt like I pushed drugs and alcohol to a limit. And then I started to feel my potential was going to suffer. I wasn’t going to live up to my potential in the world if I was dead of an overdose, or just not really keeping my shit together. There just came a point where I realized I couldn’t continue on the road that I was on. Then I got sober and it was like, “Okay, knowing the type of addictive personality that I am, I’m going to have to put all this energy of getting fucked up into something else that gives me a reward.” So it’s just been something that complements my lifestyle, getting deep into surfing and boxing. Extreme athletic pursuits give you this big rush of endorphins, and so that sort of compensates for, I think, whatever you might get from drugs and alcohol. 

Once you’re an adult, you tend to gravitate towards things that you can do, and I think that it’s important to still try shit that you can’t do.

DZ And you just feel good after surfing, right? That visceral impact of what you’ve physically done.

PB It’s the greatest. It’s like meditation. It’s nature. It’s fucking exercise. It’s everything.

DZ What is it about boxing that does it for you?

PB It’s something when I can’t surf, whenever I’m on the road or in a city, that absolutely kicks my ass to the same degree. Because you can box anywhere. And it’s like a childhood thing too, along with surfing. I want these hands to be fucking dangerous.

DZ Panama is home for you, at least part of the time. Out of all the places and all the waves in the world, what makes it so special?

PB Well, it’s like there ain’t nobody [there]. Just big fucking waves, dude. And if it’s a world-class day, there’s, like, 12 locals and that’s it—on, like, 20 miles of beach. And I love that. I think that’s a special thing, where it’s just unwieldy enough to not attract people from all around the world. But if you’re there and the waves are fucking firing, it’s beautiful because there ain’t going to be a crowded lineup. It’s sand bottom and just the most beautiful shit you’ve ever seen, while also being, like…it’s big. And when it’s [too] big and you can’t even surf, it’s something to behold, man. 

DZ I bet, especially after a long tour and being pulled in all kinds of different directions.

PB I think it’s just kind of like a yin and a yang. I cherish my job and love traveling and playing [around] the world, but [not] being on planes, trains, and automobiles for months. I think sitting on your board, waiting for a set in the middle of the ocean with, like, one friend, and a dolphin cruises by and says what’s up, it’s just a balm to the soul. And I think sometimes you can look at it as the antidote to another thing, but it’s like—and I get this—“You’ve got a good balance. You got your city life and you got your ocean life.” And it’s like, “Man, I don’t even know if I need the balance.” [Laughs.] I think I could just sit on my board all day, every day. I don’t even need the other thing to make it necessary to recharge myself with this. I could just live like this.

[Feature image by Al Pereira via Getty Images]

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