This is the start of an ongoing series, in which I’ll examine two long-running interests of mine: 1) the concept of the art movement (and related issues like “scenes” and “the zeitgeist”), and 2) how the culture-at-large is not all that homogeneous, but rather braided together from numerous different subcultures, each following their own individual traditions, which sometimes overlap with one another, but often don’t.
Since we have to start somewhere, let’s start with Interpol, as they have a new record out (but let’s look at an earlier song and video, since no one seems to like the new stuff):
“Obstacle 1,” 2002, directed by Floria Sigismondi
Interpol formed in 1997, and became widely known when its members signed to Matador in 2002. Since then, the band’s been associated with the “post-punk revival” (PPR) of the early 2000s, its fellow travelers being bands like Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and The Strokes.
But how similar is Interpol, actually, to those other bands?
Well, where did Interpol come from, artistically speaking? Their two most obvious influences seem to be the post-punk bands Joy Division (1976–1980):
(Interpol’s lead Paul Banks obviously sounds a good deal like the late Ian Curtis, and tends to sing depressing lyrics about failed love affairs)
…and the Chameleons (1981–1987):
…with whom Interpol shares many musical similarities:
- an emphasis on staccato notes;
- strong, hook-laden melodies built from interwoven guitar lines;
- climactic build-ups largely driven by a propulsive use of bass and drums;
- a tendency for the songs to progress in sections (not just verse-chorus-verse), each section containing unique hooks.
There are differences, too, of course:
- Interpol favors a lusher, fuller sound than anything Joy Division ever did (Joy Division’s effect rests a fair amount on its angularity and starkness)…
- …but at the same time doesn’t rely as heavily on reverb or the use of keyboards as the Chameleons did for their own thick sound (Interpol’s texture is cleaner and even “crunchier” than that of the dreamier Chameleons);
- and, vocally, Banks has little in common with the Chameleon’s lead Mark Burgess, whose lyrics—while often angst-ridden—are generally more romantic and metaphysical (and certainly less petty), and just as likely to be cheerful and optimistic (which provides a great deal of tension with the darker-tinged backing music) (although it’s safe to call one and all “brooding”).
Visually, Interpol’s preferred style is fairly minimalist:
…which shares some influences with Joy Division:
…and is nothing like the more psychedelic/prog-rock-styled art that the Chameleons favored (and which, I think, looks surprisingly incongruous today—why that is so is a question we’ll want to return to):
(I’ll have much more to say about Minimalism—and minimalism—in following parts.)
Interpol has also borrowed liberally from the ironic pop minimalism of 1970s German bands like Kraftwerk:
Well, all of this goes to show that intelligent bands never steal whole-cloth from anyone; it’s better to mix and match in one’s influences.
By way of contrast, the Scottish PPR band Franz Ferdinand (2002–present) rather overtly drew its initial visual style from Russian Constructivism (1919–1934):
…while drawing its sound:
“Take Me Out,” 2004, directed by Jonas Odell (and continuing a…vague…Constructivist influence, I suppose)
“Michael,” 2004, directed by Uwe Flade
…more heavily from funkier/dancier Scottish post-punk bands like Orange Juice (1979–85):
…Josef K (1979–82):
…and the Fire Engines (1980–1):
Of course, there are clear similarities between Franz Ferdinand and Interpol. They are both now, for one thing, and subject to the dominant pressures of our time. The above video for “Michael” sees FF dressed in matching dark militaristic suits, not unlike the kind favored by Interpol’s (now former) bassist Carlos D:
This strikes me as being part of a larger contemporary trend not unique to the post-punk revivalists; plenty of twee bands, for instance, have been playing “military dress-up” throughout the past decade:
…a style reflected in popular films like those of Wes Anderson:
(Cleanliness is in these days.)
(As this series unfolds, it will be my argument that the culture is comprised of multiple subcultures, each with their own individual traditions and influences and concerns, but which occasionally converge at various points, united by larger cultural dominants. “Cleanliness,” especially as expressed in the form of matching uniforms, is one such larger cultural dominant.)
What about the other post-punk revival bands? Briefly, the Killers:
…seem more influenced by The Cars (1976–88):
…and by late New Order (more their 1998–2007 reunion period than their initial 1980–93 run):
(Indeed, the Killers took their name from the drum kit in this video—and took a lot of its visual style from late 80s/early 90s Britpop in general.)
(An aside: Is anything more 1990s than purple and yellow side-by-side?)
Bloc Party, meanwhile:
“Helicopter,” 2004, director unknown (you can watch a better quality copy here)
…claims to have been influenced by the 90s Britpop band Suede (1989–2003):
…but I don’t really see it (except for a fondness for delay effects). …Well, I can somewhat see it their softer tracks, like “This Modern Love”:
More than anything, they strike me more as more contemporary take on Gang of Four (1977–84):
…kind of what you’d get after the sped-up tempos of 90s electronic music. That said, the band has denied any interest in GoF. Still, one hears what one hears—and I certainly hear GoF more than Suede.
The Strokes, finally:
“Last Nite,” 2001, directed by Roman Coppola
…swipe heavily from the punk proper of the Ramones (1974–1996):
…and the Cars (the true modern genesis!), not to mention more straight-ahead 80s rock like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976–present) (Petty could have easily sued them for swiping the central riff in “Last Nite” from “American Girl”):
…A lot of critics have claimed some connection with Television (1973–8), but speaking as a huge Television fan, I’ve never been able to see it.
…Well, that was fun, reliving the Naughties like that. But where did this pedantic hair-splitting really get us?
- Even a fairly coherent scene like the Post-Punk Revival has a variety of influences, resulting in some range of sound (although admittedly it may all sound the same to some listeners).
- That divergence, in this case, is certainly ultimately due to there existing a wide divergence in what the originating term “post-punk” means. I’ll have a lot more to say about that in my next post.
- Even when bands share common musical influences, they’re still free to mix-and-match other influences, such as their vocal styles, lyrics, and visual aesthetics. (What really interests me about that above Interpol video, as well the Franz Ferdinand “Michael” video, is their use of fluorescent lights—indeed, that’s what I initially sat down to write about. So expect more about that in a later installment.)
Some of the above may seem obvious, but we’ll see if we can’t build on it. Meanwhile, several questions remain:
- How do coherent scenes emerge? And how coherent are they, ever?
- Why do certain sounds and looks—certain aesthetic styles—seem to gel together, while others appear more incongruous? (I’m thinking about why we accept Interpol’s minimalism, but might not accept the Chameleon’s album covers.) (And perhaps you disagree with me on this point?)
- One might argue that Interpol and Franz Ferdinand share a similar visual aesthetic, despite drawing on what have historically been classified as widely disparate art movements (Minimalism and Constructivism, respectively). …Well, how can that be the case?
Lots to think about and do. Until next time, happy listening!