As Interpol prepare to drop the final curtain on a highly successful European tour in support of El Pintor, Daniel Kessler is just getting started. It's 11am on the button and the fresh-voiced guitarist is confined to his London hotel room, settling in for a day of press regarding new project Big Noble. He's in fine form and clearly proud of his somewhat surprising new outlet. Alongside sound designer Joseph Fraioli, Kessler has created something a world away from the bright lights and charging lines of his regular gig.
First Light, the pair's debut offering, concerns itself with ambient soundscapes and immersive experiences. Audio captures of New York City lightly filter through peaceful guitar lines with no real sense of urgency. Tension acts as its own instrument. A challenging listen, but, depending on how you choose to interact with it, a potentially highly rewarding one too. It is, as Kessler plainly notes, not the kind of thing to take in "while chained to your laptop". Indeed.
DiS: This is quite a departure for you. How did it come to life?
Daniel Kessler: I've known Joseph for about 15 years. I used to work at a left field electronic music company, I was managing it, and Joseph was this artist [on the label] who performed under the name of Datach'i. He was very young and he was making very left field kinda Richard D. James type records, very skitzy drum beats but quite melodic at the same time. I helped release his records and we maintained a friendship over the years even when Interpol was starting to become more of a full time thing for me. We always talked about doing something and we really truly got at it after the fourth Interpol record. I love writing songs for Interpol, creating things from scratch, but I wanted to try and push myself into new boundaries and do things out of my comfort zone; improvising on the spot with somebody recording it. I didn't know what it was going to be like, I certainly had no designs on making a record, but it was such a great experience.
So you and Joseph just clicked?
He's a really easy person to be around. He'd come over to my living room and set up microphones and record. Sometimes we'd do a session and it might turn into something I quite liked or once in a while I'd go see a gallery show or a film and come back and challenge myself to write something on the spot based on what I had just seen. Usually with Interpol I'm very patient, I wait for a song to come to me. I play guitar every day and I don't force it; if a song comes to me it comes and if it doesn't then it doesn't. That's my process. This was a different one - 'Right, try and do something now based on what you saw' - and it was a great one. Consequently, the first thing Joseph and I were thinking about after a few sessions was whether it was music for film and then trying to create some sort of installation as another arm. It wasn't until we actually looked at it that we thought, 'Wait, we have a record here. These are songs'. We never decided to make an album. It was more about collaboration for collaboration's sake.
Did any specific film or piece of culture inspire you in particular?
No, it's not like that for me, really. I've written a lot of Interpol stuff while watching films, too. I'd never be able to cite what specifically I was watching. It's more that I use the medium of film to garner some sort of idea, some catalyst for inspiration so I don't have to sit down… I find it a little sterile sometimes, thinking I need to sit down and write a song right now. That puts too much attention on the process. I'd rather sit down and get engaged with a film and maybe do some noodling on the guitar and pause the film and start working if I like what I've come up with. It's more about instances, you know?
Is it a 50/50 split when it comes to the creative process?
All the original ideas start with me. Joseph doesn't play an instrument on any of it, really. He plays a tiny bit of piano but I'm the only one performing in the room when Joseph comes over and captures it. Essentially, he's a very, very skilled sound designer. He does a lot of big commercials and things like that but he's a musician, too. After recording the natural source, the progressions that I have been playing, he would process them, but not to the full capacity that he is capable of. We keep the ambience, the warmth, the atmosphere. All of the equipment I use is very old. My guitar is 65 years old, my amp at home is from the 1960s, so we keep that analogue feeling. Joseph would add textures and pull in atmospheres that existed within the thread of the guitar. It's a really interesting thing; you do something kind of complicated but in a way it's a very minimalist approach. But the beginning of the project was just playing for playing's sake and then realising it was working and that it was good to have this other outlet. Consequently, now when I'm writing music I sort of know right away what works for Interpol and what fits Big Noble. It feels like a very healthy thing for me to have.
First Light is a love letter to New York City in some respects.
The city is all over that thing. I'm very impatient sometimes in the recording situation. Some people love technology and all of that but I'm not a pursuer of it so much, I get tied up in, 'Why isn't this working right now?', and when you have an inspirational moment you want to record it right there and then. Sometimes this happens in a studio and you're ready to go, you finally know how you want to say it and how to approach it but then you have to wait 10 minutes. It's almost like a buzz that calms down and it becomes a drag. With Joseph, he would come over to my apartment and set up in no time at all and I was able to get into that moment. We'd be in my living room with the windows open and you'd hear construction, you hear a car honking...
In a normal recording situation, those kind of noises ruin everything. In this one, it became part of the thread. What I discovered while listening to the record walking or cycling around the city, these exterior sounds entered its fold. Rather than be a disturbance, they enhanced it and with each listen it would be a different one depending on what was happening around you. I really liked that, I feel it's a big part of it. Listening to the record and walking through beautiful parts of the world, through nature and so forth, different elements from those settings seeped into each track. Exterior sounds are very much welcome to the listening process.
Did anything else surprise you?
I really like writing songs, it's almost like putting a fishing rod in the water and reeling it out when something bites, then you cover it up like a statue and when it's ready I take it my bandmates and it's like, 'Hey, do you like this? Do you want to collaborate on it?'. What I liked about this process is that I had no time to really think. That's not usually the case, it's almost like I let go of control. I knew it was a good thing for me to do but it was a very vulnerable thing too. I really enjoyed it, though. There were times when I was thinking, 'Well I don't know why Joseph is coming over to record today, I don't have any ideas', and then two hours later I find myself attached to something new that I love. It's a cathartic process. Those are the feelings that brought you into writing music in the first place. I very much remember that buzz after having new pieces of music after an Interpol rehearsal or on your own. I'm quite discerning, really. I don't write 100 songs a year. I write quite few in that they get my attention that way. So for something to happen in a very short amount of time with Big Noble, it's an experience. Whether it becomes a piece of music or not, you have that experience. That's the point of why you make art.
Was Joseph particularly good at keeping you busy?
He's one of the most patient people that I know of which is absolutely key with someone like me! He just made it really easy. The best assistant engineers in a recording studio are the ones who are great at their job when they need to do something technical or beyond that, but they're also great at being a fly on the wall that you don't even notice. You can get down to what you're trying to do without thinking there's another presence in the room interfering with your concentration. That can happen a lot. 'Why is this guy hanging around? Why is he staring at me right now?!'. You're trying to do something vulnerable and personal at that moment. Considering I'm the only one actually performing, Joseph is just there to record me. It was easy to forget that he was there and just concentrate and follow the path and the ideas I'd hear in my head at that time.
I feel like that's a great trait and it really speaks to his quality as a person. On the flip side of things, as an engineer, he has a great approach. It's a very different kind of record, if you ask me. You can definitely reference it to people who have made and approached music in a similar way but just the way we went about it without many designs, the fact that we recorded in my living room, the fact that Joseph, coming from his present life as a professional sound designer who does a lot of commercial work and finding somewhere in between and not going that far… it's been a very rewarding experience.
As you said, it is a different kind of record, one that has drawn comparisons to Brian Eno's Music for Films. Was that an influence?
It wasn't! I love Brian Eno but I've never really gone and explored everything he's done. In fact, I don't think I've heard that one. I have heard people make that comparison, though. A few people, a few journalists have referenced Brian Eno.
So it's lazy journalism then?
Not at all! It's very flattering journalism.
You mentioned patience. Is it fair to say that First Light is designed to test the listener's patience? We live in a playlist-oriented climate where it's tough to keep people's attention on a full-length album even for 30 or 40 minutes.
Absolutely. I did this because I wanted to do it, but I also did it for people who might like this kind of thing and veer in its direction. Or maybe they don't listen to this kind of music but might give it a chance. And this is why I tell people not to approach it in the way that you just stated. That's definitely a good component… just in general, we're very saturated with music left and right. Basically, I wouldn't listen to this while chained to your laptop. I think a visual form of stimulation is actually quite important while listening to this record, whether it's commuting back and forth between work or you're about to go on a trip and you're going through an airport or you're out and about in nature or you're walking from your house to go to dinner and it's a perfect 20 or 40 minutes, whatever you have available. I think that's the experience you're supposed to have.
As I said, exterior sounds very much fit in. If you're talking about other records or artists that might be like-minded, I feel like it's the same for those guys too. With Joseph being a sound designer, there are slight little details that find their fold when you're out on a street corner and so forth. But it's also why we're making a video for every song on the record. The idea is that if you're going to listen to every song on your laptop, you should have that visual component. We have these really fantastic pieces which we are revealing one by one.
The video for 'Ocean Picture' is quite striking.
I've known the director Daniel Ryan for quite some time and Joseph actually works with him routinely on commercial work and more from a sound design perspective. Rather than go to these directors - and they all come from that world, that creative director side - we approach them to see if they're interested in creating some sort of video clip for this piece of music, and because they're used to working with clients and on more commercial pieces, they tend to jump at the opportunity. A) they have a response to our album and B) they jump at the chance to express themselves in a different capacity. They're true artists, these guys.
With Daniel Ryan, it was the first time he had ever used that particular form of camera and we just let him do what he wanted to do. We let all the directors do what they want to do which I think is a very liberating process. I wouldn't have predicted he was going to make a video like that. I could have pictured something in nature or landscapes and things like that but he made this thing with a plot, influenced by a film from over 100 years ago [L'Assassinat by Felix Vallotton]. That's great, that's what he heard when he listened to that piece of music and you know what? It fits. It speaks to what we're trying to do.
We ran a piece recently on the state of British guitar music. The argument that guitar music is stagnant or 'dying' seems to crop up quite regularly. What's your take on it?
I remember working in a record store 20 years ago when Aphex Twin was becoming more popular and The Prodigy were breaking through to the mainstream and there were certain flirtations with other electronic music artists and the same conversations were around. I think it's just part of the cycle. Obviously there has never been a time regarding music that's made just from computers and so forth but I think there's room for everything. I don't really think too much about that stuff. At the end of the day when I'm listening to music I don't think about it was created. I love electronic music and I always have. I don't think, 'Oh, this is this kind of music', I think, 'Man, I really love this piece of music'. I think more in terms of the actual record and how it hits me.
So when you're making El Pintor, there's no attention paid to emerging trends?
Interpol doesn't operate like that at all. We don't have conversations about what we want to do, we just kind of do it and we talk about things like the actual song we're working on but we've never said, 'Oh you know what would be great to do for our next record?'. We just naturally let ourselves evolve and we take it from what we see that's happening. That was very much the case with El Pintor.
Around the release of that album, you were quoted as saying "I felt like we owed it to ourselves to get together and see if we had anything left to say". What do you feel that you did say with the record?
Well, with that too, I meant it not being like, 'Here's another Interpol record'. It's not a job to me. I can't tell you what I'm going to do for the next Interpol record right now because I don't want to take the experience for granted. So I have to get there, finish touring for this record and so forth and then artistically you see where you're at and see what kind of person you are at that moment. It's almost like you gather all of these experiences together and see what the result might be. I feel like those things are important rather than it being too planned or contrived. There's no right or wrong way, but I like that. It's like we got together [on El Pintor] and then we saw that we had a lot of ideas, a lot of energy in the room and the songs are growing very rapidly… I feel like we showed that we're still growing and that we're progressing as songwriters. At the same time, it's still very much an Interpol record and a very cohesive album from start to finish in an age where it tends to be more about the song. We've always been an albums band and I feel that we made one of our best albums.
It felt like a band revitalised. How much of that had to do with the departure of Carlos D?
Obviously that is going to change things but in all honesty we didn't really think about what was happening and the big changes. We had a couple of years to tour from when Carlos had left, we played 200 shows on the fourth record and then after that we took some time off and I started writing new songs while those guys put out other records. That's what I meant about seeing where we were at; we just got together and pretty quickly, in the second rehearsal, things went super fast in a very exciting way. When those things are happening you're not really analysing what's happening on the outside, you're too much in the middle of it. In that way, we were very fortunate that that's how it was from start to finish in the writing and recording of that record. Consequently, to write and record an album in one calendar year - this being 2013 - is pretty fast for us, but I feel that's a testament to us. There are obviously things left to say because it's a pretty compact record and quite detailed but we accomplished a lot in a very short amount of time.
First Light is out now on Affiliates Sound