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Interpol – Turn On the Bright Lights: Tenth Anniversary Edition (Matador)

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Interpol – Turn On the Bright Lights: Tenth Anniversary Edition (Matador)

By Scott Creney

Let’s be clear. This album means nothing to me now apart from the memories — highly subjective and highly personal — it stirs up when I listen to it. Interpol and I are in very different places than we were 10 years ago. And the drama[1], the desperation, the fear, and the despair I associate with this album have as much to do with my life back in 2002 as it does with the music.

It’s odd, given the number of potentially uncomfortable things I’ve shared on Collapse Board and in my books, that I’m reluctant to go into details about that time. Naming names is out of the question. But the stories and events… it’s just kind of personal.

Up until I left California to go to college in Boston, the first 26 years of my life had meant experiencing suffering in all kinds of deep and meaningful ways. In Boston I finally got the chance to experience a shallower and more meaningless kind of suffering. From that perspective, my reaction to Interpol makes perfect sense.

2002 was the year I learned that there was no such thing as a clean relationship. Nothing was straightforward. I had been pushing myself at an insane rate for four straight years and was starting to crack. I have a photograph of myself taken that year, sitting on a couch and stabbing myself in the eye with a fork[2]. The night before had not gone well. Or it had gone exceptionally well. Perspective was slipping. At the very least, I’m sure I was funny, and I must have said the right thing, either charming or cruel depending on what the situation called for, at some point.

To live in Massachusetts that year was to find one’s depression, one’s tragedy, one’s drugs, one’s dark spidery thoughts, constantly being outdone by everyone around you. If I acted nasty towards someone, they gave me love in return. If I acted tenderly, they quickly vanished. Any kindness directed towards me was met with neglect. Only ambivalence could stir my passions. The threat of stability filled me with disgust. I remember feeling very, very tired. Keep in mind that in the midst of all these recollections I was attending college full-time (graduated with a 3.8 GPA), working 25 hours a week parking cars/carrying luggage at an expensive hotel, and writing/editing my (subsequently published — link) creative thesis — a 70 page book of poetry.

You get one story — still no names, though.

I had a mammoth crush on a girl in my fiction class with arctic blue eyes and dyed red hair. Coming into class the morning after an over-enthusiastic celebration of my birthday[3], wearing a baseball hat that read ‘YOU CAN ALWAYS TELL A GERMAN BUT YOU CAN’T TELL HIM MUCH’, purchased in South Dakota while on tour with a group called The Guerilla Poets[4], she noticed something on my ear. Reaching out to see what it was, she pulled back a hand coated in blood. A few months later we ran into each other and she invited me to a party at her house. When I went to say goodbye at midnight she insisted that I stay. As we kept seeing each other, my heart continued to skip and tumble through the next two weeks until it occurred to me that we never left her apartment. I would receive phone calls; we would watch television; sex would ensue with her both there and not there at the same time. Eventually I insisted that we go out, or that she at least come over to my place. She never called me again. At least I had the dignity to leave her alone, not try and hound her for some kind of explanation. It wasn’t dignity that kept me quiet though, it was just common sense. I still don’t fully understand what happened, though it must be said that my guesses have gotten more educated over time.

So what does any of this have to do with Interpol? Hell, even back then I thought Interpol was full of shit. I’d been listening to Joy Division and Galaxie 500 for years. I was already familiar with The Chameleons and Kitchens Of Distinction — two bands that, in my opinion, Interpol resembled way more closely than Joy Division[5].

The lyrics are ridiculous, and occasionally stupid, and pretty much always pretentious. But there’s also something disturbing — in the nonsense, in the way they hint at unseen depths that may or may not exist. It’s like Bret Easton Ellis crossed with Leonard Cohen. Check this one out.

“Roland is a butcher. He has 60 knives.” That’s pretty dark, but any gravity is promptly undone by the anticlimax at the end of the next line. “He carries them all over the town, at least he tries, oh look it stopped snowing.” Interpol seemed too distracted, too jittery, to focus on anything for longer than 10 seconds. Interpol pulled the rug out from under themselves. They built up monuments just to tear them down. They seemed obsessed, to a compulsive/pathological degree, with turning shit into gold and beauty into death. They believed in nothing. The band sounded bombastic and uncertain at the same time. They were simultaneously intense and half-assed, shallowly striving for depth, bullshitting their way into sincerity, and let’s just say that I could relate to all of this.

Hearing ‘Obstacle 1’ still makes me anxious even now, like extraordinarily uncomfortable in a way that the song itself only hints at. But it must have meant something. Why Interpol and not say, The White Stripes?[6]

Maybe it’s because there isn’t a bad song, an outright stinker on the album. Which, come to think of it, is more than you can say for Unknown Pleasures.[7]

There’s something in the relationships — that’s too strong a word, let’s try the male/female interactions[8] on TOtBL — that’s downright toxic, bordering on rancid. Love is something exists in the past or the future, but never in the present. The present is consumed by distance, sex and games. Turn On The Bright Lights exists in the aftermath of desire, the inevitable morphing of objects into persons, and persons into oblivion, passion into detachment.

He loves her because she — no wait, love isn’t even close to factoring into this — he wants to get her into bed for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because of her braids. She barely exists as a person, as anything more than “the person who possesses the braids that I want to play with”. If he were able to get the braids without the girl, that would be totally fine, preferable in fact. But if she’s just braids and ego gratification to him, a question lingers (off-camera, unspoken), what is he to her?

2002 was also the year I learned there is nothing easy about easy sex, aside from the manner in which one obtains it. I learned that being intelligent and being smart are not the same thing. I learned that you can be good, even great, at all kinds of things, but if one of them doesn’t include being a decent human being you are eventually going to end up (as slowly and inevitably as the implied ship in the upcoming metaphor) smashing into all kinds of sharp and dangerous rocks[9].

I learned that the euphoric release and freedom one feels when drunk, or otherwise intoxicated, only occurs because it is a welcome change to your normal mental state, and once intoxication becomes part of your day-to-day existence, that is to say once it becomes your reality instead of altering it, then intoxication just becomes one more piece of wood on the pile of stuff you have to deal with. And the temptation to just light a match and burn the whole fucking thing down, including one’s own self if it happens to go that way, feels very strong indeed in that moment of realization.

We are now wandering into territory that might seem a bit strong for a little band like Interpol to bear. But why? Because they weren’t the greatest band in history? Because they weren’t even the best band in 2002?[10] Because they weren’t original? Hey, how original are you? How original was I for that matter? Maybe I bonded so strongly with Turn On The Bright Lights because it sounded like we had so much in common. That may not make TOtBL a great work of art, but we shouldn’t always assume that Greatness automatically equals Valuable. Take Radiohead, for example. I can grant you that OK Computer is genius, a great work of art, but I’d rather listen to an Adam Ant B-side than ever listen to anything off OK Computer again.

Even if TOtBL didn’t impress me with its brilliance, or solve any of my problems, or do shit for me in any tangible way, it at least served as a reflection, a distorted echo of my own flailing psyche[11], and managed to provide some kind of perspective of my life whether the band intended it or not. One could argue that seeing through all the bullshit on TOtBL helped me see through (a little of) the bullshit in myself. “I can relate to that,” followed closely by, “I don’t think it’s good that I can relate to that”.

I understand why Interpol’s considered a joke today. Even back in 2002 I understood why they were a joke. Everyone wants to be Joy Division, but nobody has ever wanted to be Interpol. The tragedy is that 99 per cent of the people who laugh at Interpol have a lot more in common with Interpol than they ever will with Joy Division.

I left Boston in 2002, less than a week after I finished my last class. Until last week, I hadn’t listened to Turn On The Bright Lights all the way through since I left. I have no idea when I’ll listen to it again. Whatever Interpol once had to offer me, it has nothing for me now. And I would consider it a personal failure on my part if it still did.


[1] which veers way too often into a dramatic subcategory commonly referred to as ‘melo-‘

[2] In the picture I’m wearing a black Rough Trade T-shirt that I found around 1994/95 at Amvets Thrift Store in El Cajon, California. It disappeared about seven years ago. Please e-mail scott_creney@yahoo.com if you have any info. Visiting the UK for the first time earlier this year, I had one touristy goal — to visit Rough Trade and replace my missing shirt. The bastards didn’t have any. The guy working the coffee shop sold me a mug for 10 pounds though.

[3] We celebrated at a bowling alley in Jamaica Plain (saw Le Tigre there in 2000) where a couple of friends worked. They got the bartender to serve me the most disgusting shots imaginable, a few of them containing cough syrup. I then jumped up on top of our table and informed them that they were all Dr. Frankenstein and I was their monster. I took off out the door with them chasing after me. The rest of the night involved me trying to get into people’s cabs, diving off of strangers’ houses into the bushes in their front yard, and breaking into some friends’ house and rearranging all their furniture. The night ended with crawling, vomit, and apparently (given the blood behind my ear) hitting my head on my dresser.

[4] Don’t even fucking ask.

[5] It probably goes without saying at this point that ‘In Shreds’ [The Chameleons] was listened to an unhealthy number of times.

[6] Let’s just agree not to mention The Strokes.

[7] “Where will it end?…Where will it ENNNDDDDD?” Couldn’t agree with you more, Ian Curtis.

[8] It’s entirely possible that there are some male/male relationships (possibly male/female/male, and extremely likely male/female/female) as well, but since the female pronoun is used so often I don’t feel comfortable making any assumptions on the band’s behalf.

[9] It would be more accurate to say that I began to learn these things.

[10] That would be Outkast… or possibly Missy Elliott and Timbaland.

[11] This phrase sounds unbearably precious, pretentious, and other words that start with the letter P, but I’m going to leave it in b/c it also sounds like something Paul Morley would write, and I love the multiple stacked ironies that are created when I write about Interpol the way Morley wrote about Joy Division.

6 Responses to Interpol – Turn On the Bright Lights: Tenth Anniversary Edition (Matador)

  1. dzzzz (@dzzmzz) December 20, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Really enjoy that.

    Aside: I always thought the lyrics to Roland went ‘Murder was a butcher, he has sixteen knives’.

    Looking around google for a second, I can’t seem to actually find the ‘official’ lyrics. some say it says ‘my best friend’s a butcher’.

  2. Lydia December 20, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Frankly, you were lucky if thats the source of your hardship. Seems a bit much to be brought to such strong painful emotions given the nature of the problems.

  3. Scott Creney December 20, 2012 at 11:21 am

    I’m aware, thanks.

    Up until I left California to go to college in Boston, the first 26 years of my life had meant experiencing suffering in all kinds of deep and meaningful ways. In Boston I finally got the chance to experience a shallower and more meaningless kind of suffering.

  4. Jason December 21, 2012 at 2:51 am

    Fantastic writing and reexamination of Turn on the bright lights.
    The only thing is it makes me want to hear this album again, but like yourself it’s too tied to a particular time period.
    Living in NYC at the time, this seemed to be talking directly about the city….and where did they get off releasing this as a 7″ boxed set? In an Interpol store no less!

  5. Gerry December 21, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    I never quite understood the comparison with Joy Division. I thought they were very clever with their song construction though. This isn’t a great record. Too much thinking and not enough feeling.

  6. SeaBuoyed December 31, 2012 at 12:21 am

    Didn\’t Editors wanna be Interpol? (And they quickly exceeded them.) Fucking great writing and an entirely legitimate way of responding to this kind of album.

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