Daniel Kessler is justifiably proud of what he’s created. And he can’t resist bragging about it, talking up its inherent merits and reminiscing about the recent evening he premiered his masterpiece for an intimate gathering of friends and family. “It was just a really perfect moment, when everyone was enjoying themselves, and it wasn’t too loud, acoustically,” purrs the London-born, New York-based guitarist for moody post-punk combo Interpol. Secretly, he adds, acquaintances have been checking it out on their own, with no prompting from him, and every last one has offered nothing but favorable reports. So he’s feeling fairly confident right now. Basking in the satisfaction of a job well done.
But the man isn’t referring to El Pintor, his group’s new, fifth effort, and its first since founding bassist Carlos Dengler suddenly quit in 2010, just as Interpol was finishing its last eponymous disc. The record—its title, Spanish for “the painter,” a band-name anagram—is also a solid accomplishment, with singer Paul Banks himself picking up bass on day two in studio rehearsals and adding new oomph to drummer Sam Fogarino’s monolithic rhythms. With longtime collaborator Brandon Curtis adding keyboards, the trio turned a potentially debilitating situation into ethereal paydirt, from the galloping opener “All the Rage Back Home” through an exotic, filigreed “My Desire,” a mausoleum-echoed (and falsetto-sung) “My Blue Supreme,” a Joy Division-heavy “Everything is Wrong” and a closing “Twice As Hard,” wherein Kessler’s arpeggio guitar grows to resemble a swarm of bees, buzzing hungrily over a minimal, flower-bud of a piano line. It’s a comeback in the truest sense of the word.
No, what Kessler is rhapsodizing about is an entirely different artistic achievement—Bergen Hill, the restaurant he and a partner launched a year ago in his native Brooklyn, with a private party that showcased the mostly-seafood menu he helped conceive with chef Andrew D’Ambrosi. (Currently, its dishes include a $16 black bass, with tomatillo, smoked ramp ponzu, radish, and spring greens; a $24 scallop, with carrot, quinoa, orange, honey, and chili; and a $24 octopus, with onion puree, farro, broccolini, raisin and harissa vinaigrette. Hungry yet?) The pescetarian had frequently invested in other Big Apple bar and eatery ventures. But this was the first time he truly wanted to be actively involved. “The concept, the design, the food, the approach, all these little details—it was sort of like making a record for me,” he swears. “It was like a labor of love, because I’ve become quite passionate about food over the last five or six years.”
Refurbishing the space that became Bergen Hill proved just as challenging as tracking El Pintor. There was no existing kitchen area, so Kessler and his collaborator chose to furnish it more like a sushi bar and concentrate on raw seafood specialties, with only a few select cooked dishes. A well-established chum in the wine trade hooked him up with the most appropriate pairings, and an extensive search for a culinary master turned up former Top Chef contestant D’Ambrosi. “And when you’re a novice like me in this world, the restaurant game, I think there’s a lot of room to be like ‘Oh, yeah—we kind of fucked that one up alright! What were we thinking?’” he says, laughing. “But I have to say, we have some pretty damn good octopus. It’s not rubbery at all, and they make it right in front of you.” He pauses, lets out a contented sigh. “I could talk about food all day.”
Given the sudden preponderance of reality TV shows like Chopped, Hell’s Kitchen and, of course, Top Chef—many casting heavily-tattooed rockers (not to mention Anthony Bourdain with his proto-punk bad self)—the food and music worlds are growing closer and closer every day. “And I find that there’s a real kinship between musicians and chefs,” Kessler opines. “There are a lot of bands—or people in bands, like me—who are curious about cooking. And ultimately, sometimes you have conversations with chefs, and it has nothing to do with each other’s trade. You find similar sorts of ideas, concepts or thoughts, and you’ve really got something to share with each other. It’s interesting, and something I’ve really enjoyed.”
None of the self-produced El Pintor material was directly inspired by savory flavors or delectable dishes, the axeman wants to make clear. But there was a Bergen Hill connection. Interpol recorded most of the disc at a Red Hook studio, not far from his Brooklyn apartment, so he would bicycle in for sessions, then often pedal to his restaurant for dinner afterwards. “That meant a lot to me,” he says. “Just to have that little reward at the end of the night. Or just to walk a different avenue, after you’re done with a pretty intense one, in the record-making world, which kind of pulls you somewhere else. Just to be involved with something that’s such a different mindset was so important to me. I just love food—I’m always thinking about the next meal.”
Kessler doesn’t think his diet had anything to do with it, but his songwriting technique has dramatically changed over the past few years as well. Ever since Interpol’s dark-textured 2000 debut for Matador, Turn on the Bright Lights, he followed a well-worn daily path, creatively—each morning, he’d brew a pot of the strongest, darkest coffee, sit down in front of his TV or laptop and watch a film. Usually something classic, foreign, even noirish. All the while idly strumming his guitar, in hopes of stumbling across a potentially album-worthy riff or melody. This time? Only one cut was whelped that way—“My Blue Supreme.” But for the life of him, he can’t recall which movie he was watching.
“But I do remember that moment,” Kessler says. “And I was playing it in the rehearsal space, but I wasn’t really ready to share it. And Paul said ‘Wait, play that again.’ And as we performed it later in the studio, he almost immediately began singing in that high falsetto range. It was a really nice moment where we all came together and created this exotic, space-y feel. And I like those moments, when we don’t really know where we’re going to take the song and we’re not really taking too much of a look at what we’re doing from afar. We’re just too immersed in it.”
It was travel that helped shape most of his new guitar work, Kessler insists. Just getting so comfortable in certain cities around the world that he gradually began to feel like a local. The propulsive chimes of “All the Rage Back Home,” for instance, were composed on a hotel balcony in Buenos Aires, on the last day of touring behind the Interpol effort. He was pacing back and forth, absentmindedly playing his instrument, and suddenly the riff popped into his head. The Fellini picturesque pattern occurred to him in—of course—Italy, while a thunderstorm raged outside. “The transient life has really kept me on my toes, so I’m relying a bit less on my old ways,” he explains. “But sometimes, I think shaking up your routine is important—just going somewhere where you have to start over, or develop a new approach.”
Dengler’s departure might have forced the artist’s hand. And the members could all sense something coming, long before the bassist’s announcement. “It’s a hard thing to be in a band,” admits Kessler, adding that there are no hard feelings. “Carlos was in Interpol from 1997 to 2010, and that’s a long time to commit your life to one thing, be it a job, a relationship, university life, what have you. Carlos really loved what we did, loved the band, but ultimately, he wanted to change his life and do other things. I mean, it’s not like he wanted to join another rock and roll band and go back out on the road. And when he made that final declaration one day, it was after so many conversations about other things that weren’t related that. When he said it, it just made sense. And we understood.”
Overall, change is good, Kessler believes. In the old days, when Interpol would finish a particularly grueling studio session, he says, “I’d be like ‘Well, I’ll see you guys in three days when I exit that bar!’” But now, as the owner of a bustling Bergen Hill, it’s a different story. The day he wrapped El Pintor, he had two days of hardcore cooking lessons scheduled. “I learned some tricks of the trade,” he boasts. “Although, unfortunately, when you have a life in transit like the one I have, there’s not much time to practice them. But at least I’ve acquired a few basic skills. And I’m not afraid of getting in there, in the kitchen and trying them out.”