As per the custom of this site, this is an interview about an artist's songwriting process. In this case, Paul Banks of Interpol. But while I normally ask many artists about the tangible part of their writing process--where they write, how they write, when they write--much of my discussion with Banks was about literature, philosophy, and the awareness he possesses about his songwriting process. Because that's as much a part of his songwriting process as the actual pen-to-paper part.
Good writers recognize that their writing process takes place when they walk, talk, eat, sleep, and think. In other words, it starts way before they start writing. By contrast, inexperienced writers don't see invention, or what happens before the writing, as a part of their process, so they get frustrated when they think they write too slowly. But when Banks reads Henry Miller and Herman Melville? That's a part of his writing process. When he carries melodies in his head for a week? That's also a part of his process. And when he thinks about language or thinks about how music interacts with the mind, that's part of his process too.
If nothing else, Paul Banks is a good lesson in the power of great literature: if you want to be a good writer, read a lot. Heck, if you just want to be smart, read a lot. I think his perfect dinner party would include Henry Miller, ee cummings, and Samuel Beckett. Read my interview with Paul Banks of Interpol after the video.
Since you were an English and comparative literature major at NYU, I have to start by asking about your favorite authors.
For the past couple of years, I haven't read as much as I used to. I've just gotten back into it. Most of my life, I've read constantly. After college, I set about to focus just on the classics. I wasn't getting too much out of the modern literature, so I wanted to read every book I felt I was supposed to read. That's a lifetime endeavor.
Who are some of your favorites?
There are many. One that sticks out is The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. I love all of his writing. Then there's Henry Miller. I've bought everything I can find of his. I selfishly buy out bookstores of vintage Miller and have a pretty good collection by now. He's the first author with whom I had a connectivity of the soul, a reflection of everything I would feel. His writing feels like a reflection of my own feelings.
I love Dostoevsky, who was Miller's favorite, but for different reasons. The philosophy of Miller is up there with the greats, but as far as building a world in a piece of writing, there's nobody like Dostoevsky. If I were to write a book, which I intend to do at one point, it would be more in the vein of Miller's semi-fictionalized autobiography, because the idea of constructing characters that aren't real, and worlds and situations out of nowhere like Dostoevsky does, just baffles my mind. But Miller has that more confessional tone, taking anecdotes from his life and fusing them with his personal philosophy. I could try that.
I also like Nabokov. He's another one of those writers where I wonder how he writes the way he does, especially when you realize that English was not his first language. I was also staggered by Proust's writing. He reminds me of Dostoevsky in terms of the deep quality of the character descriptions. His writing is also incredibly poetic. He's the total package: the language of Nabokov and the depth of Dostoevsky. He'll give you a turn of a phrase that will make you swoon.
Do you find yourself turning to different types of literature thematically based on where you are in your life?
I do. When I was reading Miller, I was on tour. And I would go to dinner by myself and just take Miller with me. He was a great road companion. I read Melville in college and loved Bartleby the Scrivener. So I took Moby Dick on the road. That was an exercise. On tour, I 'm usually wilted at the end of the day, and it takes a lot of effort to read Melville. The first 50 pages of Moby Dick are so challenging, because you have to get used to the way he structures his sentences. I thought that I'd have to read every sentence four times. For example, a sentence will have five clauses, and the fifth clause reveals what he meant in the second clause. After a while, I noticed that I was used to his writing style and that I didn't have to reread every sentence over and over.
After Moby Dick, I read Typee, and now I'm reading now is Omoo, which is the follow up. I was telling someone the other day that Typee is better than a Hollywood movie, better than an action film.
Do you think that the writing style of your favorite authors informs your songwriting stylistically?
I don't know. I think stylistically, I've always felt like the style of David Lynch's movies are more like my writing.
Do you ever write lyrics with an eye towards making them poetic?
No, and the reason I don't put our lyrics in our albums is because the stanza format of lyrics looks too much like poetry, and I don't hold my work on that level. Rock lyrics have the accompaniment of music. Poetry has cadence, but it doesn't have melody and it doesn't have a band playing around it to fill in the holes. Music is not as high an art form as poetry or any other writing form. That's why I listen to so much hip hop: lyrically it's superior to rock music because it doesn't rely on melody. It's a much more poetic form. Granted, bad hip hop is bad hip hop, but the greats surpass every rock artist in terms of lyrics, except for folk-based rock artists like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, who are coming from a more writerly approach that most songwriters.
That's not a knock on rock, because you can make the best rock song ever, and no one needs to know what the fuck you are talking about. You don't even need to make real words half the time. Look at "Hey Ya" by Outkast. That's one of the best pop songs of the past 20 years. You don't wish there was a better lyric there, because what's there just works. I don't hold what I do up that high. It's music, and melody always comes first.
What's your philosophy, then, behind lyric writing?
To be an artist, you must have a grasp of the sensible. If you're going to go absurd, you have to be confident in knowing which way you're veering away from what is standard. People say you need musical training to write experimental music, which I disagree with, because I think it's instinctual. But in terms of the written word, if you're going to do something that doesn't make sense, it's only going to work if you know how to make sense. You have to have a firm grip on the sensible. I've always tried to destruct or reconstruct notions of what sense is, so sometimes I work on juxtaposition and absurdity and surrealism in my lyrics. In some ways, I still have that college age mentality that everything is stupid and bullshit and worn through and tired.
Here's an example of what I'm getting at: Shepard Fairey's "Obey the Giant." He's a street artist who creates posters. He started out with posters that just said "Andre the Giant has a posse." Then he wrote "Obey" under some of his other graphics. When I moved to New York and saw all of these posters around, I said, "What the fuck is this?" I was enthralled. So I read his manifesto and realized that was his whole point: we are being so saturated with advertising. Everything is an advertisement, and people don't even notice what they are looking at anymore. His work was a way to jolt the viewers out of oblivion and make them pay attention to what they're reading. You read that poster and think, "I'm pretty sure I just read something that said, 'Andre the Giant has a posse,' but that doesn't make sense."
I like the idea of saying something that's jarring. Or as Kafka said, "Literature should be a sledgehammer to the frozen pond of the mind." Those are the things I aspire to do when I write. But then I take into account that I'm being carried by song and by melody, so what I do is not on par with what poets do.
You sound like a post structuralist literary theorist who talks about the playfulness of language.
Exactly. I speak Spanish and I lived in Mexico, where slang is unbelievable. I learned turns of phrases in a few different languages, and I like playing with that kind of idea. Grammatical errors in song, for example. I've done that since day one, getting the tense wrong or inserting a non-sequitur into a phrase that's otherwise well-constructed. I just put a little shift in the middle of it. The idea is not just to evoke a reaction to the writing, but to get the reader or listener to wonder why I did that. It's a secondary thought process: not just what I'm saying, but why I'm saying it like that.
That's what ee cummings, who purposefully breaks every "rule" in his poetry, says. Yet he's filled with meaning. The best literature is something you have to read over again to discover the meaning.
I'm a major grammar buff. Unlike music and painting, where I don't think you need any training to be expressive, it's good in language to know what you're doing when you break those rules. There's got to a point to breaking them. You can't just do it randomly. But I do obsess over semi-colons and dashes, and I check punctuation in magazines and newspapers.
That reminds me of what I used to tell my students. It's ok if you break the "rules" of grammar and punctuation as long as you tell me why you are breaking them and what stylistic purpose it serves to do that.
This conversation reminds me of when I was choosing which direction I was going to go in with art, whether it was visual art, music, or writing. They're all things I intend to work in at some point, but I decided to study literature because other types of art are open to interpretation and depend on the viewer. And I don't know how else to put this, but I really feel like literature is the end-all be-all of human communication. There's nothing expressible in this world that isn't expressible in literature. It's so obvious, but it's an odd phenomenon. There is no expression beyond the word. Whatever you hope to express in any form of art, however profound and evocative, nothing can ever be as precise as with the written word. That's the marker of how well humans can communicate: the written word.
That's why it surprises me that you don't read much poetry. A good poet expresses an idea that is inexpressible in any other type of prose.
Yeah, I hear you. And poetry is the most succinct form while also being the most resonant.
Let's talk about your writing process. What comes first: music or lyrics?
It's always music first. There have been times when I've wanted to put a lyric in a song, but ultimately I'm way too beholden to melody. I will absolutely tweak a lyric for the sake of the cadence and the melody. Some writers don't, like Dylan. He'll squeeze in a great lyric because it's gotta get in there. If the lyric isn't working with the drum beat I have, it's out. I work from the music.
How often do you approach songwriting with a topic you want to address? Or do you let the music guide what the song is going to be about?
I let the music guide me. In fact, on the last couple of records, I've trained myself to cut out all the bullshit when it comes to the conscious mind guiding what's supposed to be in a song, so I don't worry too much now about what I'm trying to say. It's become more about clearing my mind and getting into a meditative state as I listen to the music I'm working on. The ideas then bubble up to the surface. That's always the way it's been, but I used to fight it more. Now I don't fight it at all, and I just let it happen. But that took years of experience to make myself get out of the way.
Of course, that goes back to what I was saying before about the written word being the highest form of human expression, because what I do is a weird way to go about it: if you are trying to communicate an idea, to be inarticulate internally and to let yourself go subconsciously is related to interest I have in the pure reactive idea in lyric writing. So that's why someone might say, "Your lyrics don't make any sense." I would disagree and say that nothing makes any sense and that I'm more accurately reflecting my inner life with lyrics that are spontaneous and filled with contradiction and enigmatic, because I perceive the world as one confusing thing after another.
You sound like Samuel Beckett. You should think about writing some absurdist drama.
Well, that's good to know. I liked Beckett when I read him in college.
How much revision do you do to your lyrics?
A lot if needed. After I write a vocal or a melody, I'll walk down the street, half-distracted by other things, playing it back in my mind. Sometimes I have two vocals to the same part of a song, trying to decide which one works. And I can play back both in my mind simultaneously. I wait a week, and one of them wins. It's a battle that gets waged without my involvement. It just happens with the passage of time. Whichever one is more hooky is the one that wins out and the one I'm singing when I do the playback in my head. But it also comes down to the cadence working perfectly. I believe greatly in the editing process, and I will totally rework things from the first draft.
How much time do you need between revisions of your songs?
I need to sing things back to myself and have them live in my mind. That's the other thing about music that's different and that makes it so essential. It's the one form of art that can take the active role and leave you in the passive role. If you're watching a film or reading a book, you're an active part of the process. But with music, you can be reading a book in one room while your roommates are listening to a song in the other room. And the next day, when that song comes on and you're focusing on something else, that song will come to you and take you over.
That's the infectious quality that music has, which is why I'm more comfortable going to the subconscious, inarticulate approach to writing music: it does exist, and you don't even need to be paying attention. It will come and get you. It's totally different from other types of writing. So a week is a good amount of time, if you've got a vocal or melody you're working on, to play back in your head and decide which is the right one.
Is it possible to overedit?
Yeah, I sometimes do that.
Do you consider that a flaw?
Yeah, yeah. It's easy to get caught in the trap where I'll start revising, then lose the broad scope. I'll overedit a small section and forget that when it was more verbose, it fit better. It's easy to isolate a section and keep reworking it until you lose sight of its importance to the whole. Editing is important. I hear a lot of young bands, and I want to tell them that they just need to cut a bunch of shit. That's key in writing. But I can also spin my wheels and overdo it.
How do you know when a song is done?
When the playback in my head feels smooth.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
On our third record, I wouldn't leave the room until I had accomplished something, and I wound up working like 88 out of 90 days straight. I was being a moron. It was really unpleasant, and it tainted the work after the fact to the extent that I couldn't enjoy it because it was such hell getting it done.
When we made the fourth record, after my solo record, I decided that whenever I had a deadline, if I started to feel one tenth of the stress and tension I felt on that third record, I'm out. I'm gonna go to a movie, go home, go to bed, just fuck it. That really worked for me. Then writer's block went away. You can't let that stress in, and that's what I mean about getting out of the way. If it's not gonna happen, I can't work myself into a frenzy. I did get good work that I was happy with on that third album, but it wasn't worth the pain.
Some poets and novelists have told me that writer's block is a failure of courage, that it comes because the writer is too afraid to write something bad.
That's tricky. The fatal flaw of looking at yourself relative to other artists is that if you say that it doesn't have to be perfect, and that's how you avoid writer's block, then you start looking at other people who do write great work and wonder how they do it. If you perceive yourself as weaker than your peers in some capacity, you just have to let it go. Honing your strengths gives you a singular voice that's unique. Don't sweat where you think you fall short relative to someone else. But I agree that a lot of times writer's block stems from the fact that we wonder why what we are writing isn't as good as what someone else is doing.
How do you think your songwriting process has changed over the course of your Interpol days?
I feel like I've gotten stronger. I look back at some early work and love it, but I think I was set more on "destroy" early on. That's a great place to get motivation from, so I'd just write things with the intent of destroying meaning, destroying expectations, destroying sense. Now I'm much more interested in elegance and even exploring more conventional forms.
All in all, I've learned how to relax more. I get to the good ideas quicker. And I've learned that if something is starting to turn into a pain in the ass, it's a good idea to finish it and move to the next thing. That was a big deal with our first record. I said to a friend, "This is good, but none of these songs is my masterpiece. And he said, "Yeah, who cares?" So accept that a flawed work might be the best it's gonna get. But then know that the next thing will be better.