"When I joined Interpol, I was past 30 already," says drummer Sam Fogarino, the New York City band's oldest member by five years. "I'd been playing [for six years] in a punk-rock band across the country at this very unprofessional level. I'd reached as much as I could handle without stabbing myself, and I still had a day job too. I was just tired. To have this band come along was" -- he inhales, and in that moment you can practically hear his relief -- "was just unexpected."
And so was Interpol's quick rise to stardom. The band is like that Winston Churchill conceit everyone's always misquoting: "[It] is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Except that this enigma looks like a designer suit, and if you want to make the mistake of dismissing Interpol because of its fashion-conscious image, you'd sound just like the music critics the group has grown impatient with. After all, how many times can someone hear his band compared to Joy Division -- just because the lead singer, Paul Banks, kind of sounds like Ian Curtis -- without wanting to tell every so-called journalist to piss off?
The band members -- Fogarino, Banks, Daniel Kessler (guitar), and Carlos D. (bass) -- always seemed to exist as an aesthetic first, their collective identity obscured by Banks' baleful lyrics and the group's austere, film-noir air. Over the course of two albums, 2002's Turn on the Bright Lights and last year's Antics, Interpol has become something of a postmodern art experiment, in which the music and the band's presentation are equally important. Perhaps that's why the Cure's Robert Smith told Rolling Stone that even though Interpol might "look really good onstage, . . . they don't try too hard. It seems almost contrived at first, but they have such a fantastically defined sense of self."
"You can't be that and be that conscious of yourself too," Fogarino says in response to Smith's observations, disagreeing with critics who accuse Interpol of relying too heavily on style over substance, of manufacturing its mysterious cool as part of a band persona. Rather, Fogarino explains, Kessler founded the group by bringing together like-minded people, who shared an understanding that expressed itself similarly in each of them. "It comes down to four individuals who are who they are on the inside, on the outside," he says.
For example, when Kessler discovered Carlos D. -- a total stranger sporting a greasy, Hitleresque comb-over -- he was sitting across from the wan future bassist in a New York University philosophy class. "For Daniel to look at Carlos in class and say 'I want to know him' just says everything," declares Fogarino.
In fact, that's pretty much how the whole band came together. Kessler, desperate to find an outlet for his musical yearnings, was on the lookout not just for musical talent, but for a certain sensibility -- the way someone looked at life and carried himself. That sensibility, he believed, would create the music he wanted to make.
"You want to know the person who put those clothes on," Fogarino says, "not the other way around. Not what's on the exterior, but what motivated them to decorate themselves that way. I think Daniel would've taught Carlos the bass, because he was that intrigued by him. It just so happens he could play bass."
But what about that mysterious cool and how impossible it is to walk away from an Interpol gig with a clear sense of what just transpired?
"I think that might be conscious," Fogarino admits. "You've got four guys who're still trying to figure out who they are, you know. We don't have all the answers. We haven't got it all figured out. It might just be a little intimidating, maybe even scary to try to answer so much."
Fogarino joined the band when original drummer Greg Drudy left in 2000. He turned out to be the foundation the band needed, offering a bit of sage wisdom to the democratic collective -- that is, if you believe Spin's April cover story. "That," he says with a laugh, "might've been the creative input or freedom of the writer involved."
Then again, he has been playing music twice as long as everyone else in the band. In a group otherwise made up of ex-NYU students, Fogarino is the outsider who earned his education after dropping out of high school. He is the only member of Interpol whose cool never comes across as cheeky, irreverent, or posed. It just is. His character is won from experiences that took their toll (his famously rough Philly childhood), but were entirely necessary for him to have wound up where he is today (the years he spent with his punk band, the Holy Terrors). It's evident in that weary smirk, in the set of his angular jaw, in the unimpressed disinterest in his eyes.
Fogarino has been through the wringer again and again, and somehow all those disappointments landed him right where he needed to be -- with three guys who, like him, didn't know that they'd been looking for one another.
"I had always been the young buck, not the other way around. But it's all worked out, and now, to think about our different ages seems so irrelevant," he says, laughing. "Which makes me feel much better."