All about Koko, notices informing of the ‘unprecedented level in London’ of phone theft ‘within Licensed Premises’ such as these abound. They continue to duly apprise of ‘plain clothed and uniformed security personnel’ walking among us and although taking a break from his exclusively austere Interpol duties, Paul Banks makes a cogent case for he himself tonight being one such covert sentinel. Where he, Daniel Kessler and Sam Fogarino dress to kill nightly as though Bondian miscreants Banks. Paul Banks here appears toned down in every respect and appositely, he’s already beyond casually late by the time he materialises in an ethnically embellished jumper. He looks disconcertingly comfortable, though no matter – the thrills have been undone not one solitary button.
Though during the impatient wait, I cast a cursory glance about the place in the vain hope of picking out one of these stealthy twilight watchmen. It could be anyone. Absolutely anyone, for Banks’ audience tonight accumulated embodies the very definition of the collectively nondescript: leather jackets sheathing Reading Festival wristbands squeak up against the post-work suited, and those already booted up for nocturnal ruination, and nigh on every conceivable variable between. A dead ringer for Crispin Glover’s so-called “creepy thin man” character in McG’s Charlie’s Angels adaptation, even. It begs for its own investigation into who – or rather what Banks’ target audience actually is. Turn on the Bright Lights revivalists? Disciples of his emblematic Julian Plenti alter ego? I’m cloaked in it for a couple hours down in the dark of the stalls, although even now I’m none the wiser. The tipple of choice is quite patently lager, while Kendrick Lamar is the villain de rigueur: disaffection moulds as good kid, m.A.A.d city plays on unperturbed, only in due course cut short by Banks’ curt arrival. Lamar was but mere minutes into his 72 hours, too.
And although tonight’s protagonist is one of equivalent intrigue to Lamar, our disparate attentions snap from the West Coast – or rather the back of the room – to the East Coast and centre stage as Banks indulges in a deep breath, exhales a Presley-esque a-thank yuh vury much, and the blue lights dim. He looks deathly in such an intense hue, whilst his cowering vocal on an otherwise robust Skyscraper resonates in a dolorous baritone that’s as low as Ground Zero. It crumbles, only for Banks to reconstruct in the emotionally conflictual Fun That We Have: an idiosyncratic take on a grim sardonicism, it flickers gleefully although the mirth is of course spawned of that same unerringly glum urbanity and, beneath the bright red lights, the amorphous silhouette before us whisks the room away as a ringleader may the crimson curtain.
It’s incredibly compelling, and an estimable testament to the claustrophobic shrill of this contemporary master of that most singular melancholia – one which is immediately as impenetrable as any billow of NYC smog. There’s an intimacy to it which is at odds not only with the stature and irrefutable grandeur of the room, but so too with the intricacy of the music festering beyond. Though lyrically, Banks thrives upon repetition. His compositions often centred about as little as one solitary line, this serves to enhance the insistence of his dismal missives until disaffection and neglect are no longer viable modes. As has always been the case with his work, less is needless to say more and these importunate reiterations starkly expose his deepest introspections as though celluloid bathing in viscous liquids.
A slinky take on I’ll Sue You proffers a pretty close intimation of Interpol-sleeked pomp by the time its chorus comes stampeding in, suited sometime Secret Machine Brandon Curtis (who incidentally contributes to Fogarino’s newly announced EmptyMansions endeavour) pouting to his left; guitarist Damien Harris of The Draft pulling off some Keller-esque posturing to his right. Stripped of pinstripe and slackened of tie, there are patent discrepancies in the extravagance of the melodrama intrinsic to the work of Interpol, as opposed to that of Paul Banks (or indeed of this pseudonymic Julian Plenti) though the similarities in the appearance, and with that the structural architecture of that and this newly assembled crew are instantaneously striking. Maybe it’s a feeling of comfort; of consistency which Banks seeks – a notion I’m inclined to agree with by his informal costuming alone – but it does make parallels between the day job and the character (or the few) he tonight moonlights as that bit more precise.
Though Banks has, and I should full well envisage always will be an artist of dislocation and seclusion, as substantiated by his predilection for surfing holidays in Central America. Though the consequence is that on record, he can end up sounding all too disassociated from the listener. Certainly, his seemingly insatiable proclivity for studio trickery when working solo can so too serve to distance the audience from their artist. Though live, he is the incarnation of quite the antithesis, and proves intensely involving. He’s ever uneasy, if never ungainly and although one senses he’s at times having to haul himself through this more intimate, and consequently personal of experiences (Banks is of course accustomed to those most gargantuan of festival arenas, and so too tonight plays under his very own name) the exertion is, by and large, exquisitely vindicated. As he himself lugubriously intones on a lumbering Arise, Awake: “Oh no, this is all happening.”
Though as does a suit, the set assumes a more snug fit as it wears on and although there is not a glimmer of neither the pomp nor show his ostentatiously glittery guitar strap may otherwise insinuate, it’s a quietly celebratory occasion – for which see the New Porno-cum-Morricone instrumental that is Lisbon, or Young Again. Exemplary as anticipated even against a wretched projection of that barbed RHCP star form, this one recalls the lyrical repetition of before, its refrains homogenous as a litany of shiny Manhattan office blocks. It’s emblematic of the platitudinous adage of being able to take a native out of its natural habitat, without ever being able to rid it of that indelible identity besmeared upon it by the setting itself. Summertime Is Coming though, unlike New York, is quietly grandiose in its own understated kinda way, whilst No Mistakes comes across quite incongruously in that it sounds like Angus Andrew’s momentarily avifaunal coo feathered over Buck Rogers.
Fly As You Might begins with a chinking, tuneless guitar line which more or less leaves Banks’ gelid lyrics alone and out in the cold though here, his voice stands firm. Heck – it sounds as though it could uphold Koko by itself, before it is greased over by Numan synths courtesy of his slicked-back resident Gary-alike, Curtis.
The intimacy then overcomes the entertainer: “It’s a great, great joy to be back in London. You look beautiful. Always beautiful”, he confidentially pledges as his voice bristles with that same emotivity overemphatically feigned by Tom Hanks in his every film. His larynx sounds brittle, if his sentiment feels as brawny as those supposedly burly security personnel aforesaid.
Now being beautiful is one thing, though to as the Manics might say stay beautiful is another feat altogether, and this emotive preamble again seems contrary to the lyrical content of No Chance Survival, into which it segues. He warns of there being “no chance survival; no time to waste” within an era in which “something so vile has become so commonplace”. Articulated over a lullabying picked guitar fizzling with a twinkly grace, it’d be irremediably defeatist were Banks not to change tact and implore we don’t live out our whole lives “in a cage, man” though I can’t help but feel that there are certain abhorrences in attitude which, alas, are indeed becoming all too commonplace. Talking at these sorts of shows, for instance, is one and one to mar the latter moments of this. For no matter how superlative Over My Shoulder may tonight sound, it’s not so much overshadowed as it is eclipsed by apathy. “You only know me like the shoreline knows the sea”, Banks scathingly presents and seemingly most in attendance were first attracted by a comparably superficial sense of knowing. That he feels compelled to tell us every title only elucidates the woeful truth, which is that these songs are new to this most, if not almost all. As lucid a vocal delivery as I can recall, he continues with another Grade A metaphor: “You only hold me as the canyon holds the stream” and it’s this sense of perfunctory necessity which can again be applied to the context of tonight’s show. That Banks is seen as the bloke from Interpol is reason enough to go see him, and this stain rubbed off from celebrity culture is another undeniably vile human tendency. And with that he’s gone.
Only to inevitably return.
He gives yet more effusive thanks, dishes a shout out “to my mum”, dons the guise of Julian Plenti and gets on with an anything but plentiful encore. First, there’s On The Esplanade – caught in a perturbingly suicidal undertow, Koko’s static disco ball spits plashes of detritus-like white. Musically, it’s still as an upturned cadaver drifting down the Hudson, as it pertains to that same morbidly tranquil ebb. “It’s nice to see the window/ Washed my dreams away” are the rolling words foaming from Banks’ curled tongue. You’d surely feel bad having nattered throughout now. Plenti then palms down on the strings and ups the ante with Games For Days, during which he anxiously sneers: “In your eyes I am magnified” as though he feels scrutinised as might a fascinating beast pinned beneath the microscope of some crusty scientist. Is he being judged? Or rather observed? I’d argue he’s perhaps only being seen, but that’s just me.
Whatever the impression, he never condescends to break into the briefcase marked ‘Interpol’, thus leaving any breath awaiting anything as such bated. Yes, a part of me would’ve hopped right aboard even the foggy notion of hearing, say, Take You On A Cruise, or Untitled though it’s all to his credit – and indeed to the credit of his latest batch – that he can afford to eschew these contemporary classics. For conversely, Banks and Plenti tonight came together as one with each sounding inordinately more affecting in the physical. “I’ll see you real soon”, he says before receding into shadow. Just how soon is he meaning? I suppose only time will corroborate his statement, though Julian Plenti lives and Paul Banks breathes, and although it may be so that “no matter how high we set the bar/ We will [waste some more time just colliding in space]” to have elided tonight should’ve been enough.