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INTERVIEW: Interpol's Paul Banks on recording his new solo material

Daniel Gumble
INTERVIEW: Interpol's Paul Banks on recording his new solo material

Currently promoting brand new solo album Banks, Interpol front man Paul Banks caught up with Audio Pro International editor Daniel Gumble this week to discuss the recording process behind his new solo material, covering Frank Sinatra and the future of Interpol...

As the voice of one of the 21st century’s most influential bands, many will likely be surprised to hear that Paul Banks’s solo career actually predates his time with Interpol by several years. Having operated under the moniker Julian Plenti from the age of 17, Banks’s solo compositions have only recently seen the light of day, with 2009’s debut release Julian Plenti is…Skyscraper offering fans the first glimpse of his work outside of Interpol.

Marking a distinct departure from Interpol’s signature sound both sonically and artistically, Skyscraper effectively showcased and delineated Banks’s individual approach to songwriting when working outside of the confines of a collaborative environment. Since then – not forgetting the release of Interpol’s eponymous fourth album in 2010 – Banks has this year released two further solo offerings in the form of of five-track EP Julian Plenti Lives… , which was released in June, and full length album Banks, which hit shelves earlier this month; both were released under the name Paul Banks, whereas with Skyscraper he adopted the name of his former alter ego.

Both Julian Plenti Lives… and Banks build upon the sonic identity demonstrated on Skyscraper, exploring new avenues in terms of instrumentation and arrangements, no more so than on his soaring cover of Frank Sinatra’s 'I’m a Fool to Want You'. So, to dig a little deeper into the recording process behind his latest solo efforts, we were fortunate enough to catch up with the man himself to discuss his approach to work in the studio and what the future holds for his full-time outfit…

Daniel Gumble: The new EP and album offer a stark contrast to your work with Interpol both sonically and in terms of the song writing. What can you tell us about the recording and production process for these new releases?

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Paul Banks: For the EP I went to Electric Lady Studios in New York to track the music, where I played drums, guitar, bass and piano. I also had two string players come in to play on the Frank Sinatra cover and ‘Cavern Worship’. I then took the tracking material to Peter Katis’s studio where we mixed it and then immediately began tracking for the LP. So we mixed the EP and tracked the LP in quick succession. The fundamental difference between the two is that I then tracked and played all the instruments at Peter’s place, so the EP was tracked at Electric Lady Studios and mixed at Peter’s, whereas the LP was both tracked and mixed at Peter’s.

DG: How much of a ‘hands on’ approach do you take to the mixing and production sessions? Do you tend to leave much of the process in the hands of the producer/engineer, or do you like to be heavily involved in each area of the production?

PB: What I do is I mock up my demos very, very intricately using Logic. I’m fairly handy with EQs and getting a mix together, but that’s my mix, and it seems to me to be a far cry from a pro mix. So, for instance, I’ll just go straight into my laptop with a guitar using an Apogee ONE interface and then call up some guitar amp plug-ins, maybe a Yamaha piano, an Attitude bass and a hip hop beat and then programme it all. I then know how to EQ and mix what I’m working on, but when it comes down to working in an actual studio I don’t know shit!

DG: Does the mixing and production process undertaken with your solo work differ drastically from that of Interpol, as both convey an equally distinct yet contrasting atmosphere?

PB: Well, at the most fundamental level, the actual melodic progression of the music comes from a different artist, as Daniel [Kessler] writes the progressions for Interpol, whereas I write the progressions in my solo work. Therefore, my compositions do have a different atmosphere to an Interpol song, and that is what Peter Katis then responds to. I mean, Peter worked on two Interpol records and has done both of my records and no one ever came in and said ‘let’s change what’s happening’, both myself and the band have came in and said ‘this is what we have’. It’s then, in my opinion, down to someone who better understands recording techniques, so it’s not like Peter reinvents the wheel, he just takes the song and makes it sound amazing, and what he’s good at is understanding what the artist is trying to say and then helps them to articulate that. With my limited understanding of engineering I’ve come to understand that this fucking guy knows what he’s talking about.

DG: On the EP you cover Frank Sinatra’s ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’, which boasts a big band, orchestral soundscape; something previously unheard in your work. Is this something you’d be interested in pursuing further, be it with Interpol or your solo work?

PB: Well, I covered it because I thought ‘Holy shit, that’s unbelievable music’ - in particular the string arrangement. The string arrangement on my cover is a direct reproduction of the original. I mean, being in the studio while Rob Moose [who played viola and violin on the track] worked on it was like watching someone assemble a bomb; it was so unbelievably complicated. My original intention was to summarise the string arrangement on the guitar, but later on Peter Katis said he knew a great viola player, so maybe he could come in and play some of the string parts. I then sent him the song and a week later he comes into the studio, stands in front of a mic for four hours and then rebuilds the entire string arrangement that he broke down by ear, which was about four or five layers that he dissected. So, he started playing the first string part, and I thought it kind of sounded like the song, then he’d layer that again and I’d be like ‘cool, now it sounds a bit more like what I’m used to', and then he'd put another layer on, but there were a couple of times when I’d say “OK,  what the fuck is he doing now? This doesn’t sound anything like the song and I’ve heard the song a fucking million times!” Then people would tell me to just relax, and after he’d put another layer on all of a sudden it was perfect. This guy was really able to see through all the layers of orchestration on the strings and was actually able to put in all the counter harmonies, and some of those were so far counter that when he first put them down I said “that’s the wrong part, dude. You don’t know what you’re doing!” But it was absolutely magnificent to watch him work; a level of musicianship that I had never witnessed.

DG: What was it that made you decide to cover this particular Sinatra song?

PB: I wanted to cover a very rare big band song that is not candy coated like most of the stuff is, and I asked Rob 'why does this sound so different to other songs from that era?' and he said that basically they tended to soften up the edges of classical compositions and turn it into that big band music, which was very pop friendly, but this is just classical music. So those are the reasons why it spoke to me, it was just so much darker and edgier than other compositions from that period and I just wanted to build a little sign to it to indicate that people should check out this Frank Sinatra song because it’s fucking crazy and dark and beautiful.

DG: The EP also features a cover of J Dilla’s ‘Mythsizer’. Did you also see this as an opportunity to try your hand at a composition with an equally complex arrangement?

PB: When I was a kid I was walking through a university or something and I saw a group of really high level painters taking a class on how to paint, and their assignment was to reproduce the work of a master. Basically that’s like what these covers were for me; as an assignment for myself - I don’t understand how J Dilla was able to make these mixes or layer sound in such away, but I’m going to try and reproduce it by way of study, and the same was true of the Sinatra song. This is not at all because I feel I can do these songs, it’s much more about wanting to learn about music and about these particular artists that I admire by trying to emulate what they did. And it was really, really rewarding.

DG: What can you tell us about your home setup? Are there any particular programmes/software you like to operate on?

PB: Well, I use Logic Pro with an Apogee ONE interface, and if there’s anybody who knows the sample bank of Logic it’s me. If you’re looking for something, I can take you there because I’ve done it all. I’ll make a track with 40 tracks and six plug-ins per track until my E CPU dies and all my RAM is maxed out and the computer shuts down when I play back the session. I’m too lazy to bus the reverb! I’ll create a new reverb plug-in for every single track that I want to have reverb on just so I can tweak that reverb for the track, because the idea of bussing a bunch of tracks to the same reverb to me, is like, ‘yeah, but what if I want different reverbs?’ So, I have my own way of doing things. I see it as creating a Super 8 movie equivalent of a song, and then I take that movie, where I’ve already written the story, I’ve cast the actors, I’ve got the locations, and I take to all to Peter Katis and say ‘right, now lets transfer this to film.’ That’s how all of my albums have been made; I’ll do them all in my computer down to the very last hi hat, the last flute, the last fucking zither, and then I’ll load that up to Peter’s computer and then we’ll go about replicating the demo but with real recording techniques. 

DG: What do you have planned next? Are we likely to see a new Interpol release before a third solo album?

PB: I think it’ll be Interpol next. We’ve kicked around some tracks and the three of us are all very excited about how it’s sounding. I’m going to promote and tour this record now but, you know, I wrote most of this record while I was on tour with Interpol, so I think that a lot of writing for Interpol can go on while I’m touring this, so that’s most likely what’s next for me.

DG: Have there been any further developments in terms of recruiting a full-time fourth member following Carlos’s departure, or will you essentially remain a three-piece with a touring bass player?

PB: All I can say is that it’ll be one of those two things and we are really undecided. You can’t replace a Carlos, so it’s more a matter of if we were to find someone who was a great fit artistically then I think we would take on a fourth member, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t. We would never force something like that, as we are fortunate in the sense that I think we have enough juice as a three-piece to move forward as a three-piece. Whether or not we will do that is totally undecided.

DG: So, regardless of Interpol’s future output, will you continue to keep releasing solo material?

PB: Basically, I was a solo artist before I joined Interpol, and when I joined the band it was because Daniel and Carlos and the original drummer were already working on music. They already had ‘PDA’ mocked up for instance. I said ‘I’m not really looking to be in a band, but holy shit, I will work with you guys as this is some amazing music’, and I then put my solo work on the back burner while Interpol went on to make three records. It was only while we were making Our Love to Admire that I thought I really needed to do that solo material from my college days when I was Julian Plenti. So I finally got the motivation to bring back my early work and put it out, and that’s why that album is called Julian Plenti is… Skyscraper, because that music was written when I was playing as Julian Plenti, or at least the four key songs that made me have to make a record were all written as Julain Plenti. These were ‘On the Esplanade’, ‘Fly as you Might’, ‘Girl on the Sporting News’ and ‘Fun That We Have’. That was why I used the alter ego, because it was music by that alter ego that made me say I have to put out the record and I don’t want to be 50 and be the only person to know ‘On the Esplanade’. It’s a very natural thing for me to write as a solo artist, so now I’ve opened the gate to releasing solo work I will certainly continue to do it as it’s always been a part of my creativity, it’s just that nobody heard it for a long time.

Banks’s new solo album Banks is available now on Matador.

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Tags: Studio, yamaha, interpol, frank sinatra, matador records, paul banks, j dilla, electric lady studios, peter katis, rob moose, logic pro, apogee one, carlos d, our love to admire, julian plenti

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