I wanted to write about El Pintor because people have compared Protomartyr, the group I’m in, to Interpol. Clubs will often play music before we go on that somebody thinks is comparable to us and, according to our guitar player — although I’ve never knowingly heard Interpol before — that has been Interpol on several occasions. One time at the Magic Stick in Detroit, though, the sound guy played a double dose of Rage Against the Machine and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, so maybe I shouldn’t read too much into it. Or should I?
Some people I know are dumbfounded that I’ve never really heard Interpol, as if they’re some sort of cultural institution, like Bob Seger or something. These people are usually younger than I am, but not that young. They’re the type that probably got a lot of their musical taste from Pitchfork. Go even younger, and I’m sure they’ve never even heard of Interpol, or get them confused with the Bravery. Hell, if you go too young, some of them would get Interpol confused with that band Magic!, because kids are stupid.
When Interpol first came along in 2002 with their debut Turn on the Bright Lights, I had recently left college. In those days, I had neither internet nor cable and wouldn’t have been too crazy about hearing a new band on Matador that sounded “just like Joy Division.” I didn’t get invited to the kinds of dinner, drug or sex parties at which their first album was the soundtrack. I didn’t go to coffee shops. I wasn’t much into new music — it was mostly old punk junk I was listening to back then. That’s not some “hipper-than-thou” boast; I was (and remain) a rather uncool Midwest bumpkin. Frankly, I didn’t really like anything that came out of New York at the time because it all seemed awfully contrived. And really, it probably was a case of sour grapes, because so many of my friends moved from Detroit to NYC around then. Now that I’m in my dotage, I can admit that some of those Strokes songs are decent.
Before I ramble on too much, let’s cut to the conclusion: is El Pintor any good?
If you’re a fan of the band’s catalogue, I’d assume you might like it. There’s a couple of interesting musical turns here and there. If you’re a person who works out or stuffs envelopes for a living, it’s the kind of music that passes the time. The songs, for the most part, stick to a similar structure that can get a little repetitive and, to me, it sounds like the lead guitarist might be the one calling the shots. Band situations like that can lead to excessive fret-wanking, but I think Interpol, on the whole, avoids that egregious pitfall. It neither excites or offends, and although it has a narcotic fug to it, it won’t put you to sleep. So no worries about getting fired from that envelope-stuffing job due to Interpol-related sloth.
Are the lyrics on El Pintor dumb? Boy, are they. But I think that’s the point. A lot of the music is so bombastic that most lyrics would wilt trying to keep up. Most of them, even when using big, clunky words like “faith,” “invade,” “desire,” “heroes,” “death,” and so on, seem to be about nothing more than a fellow trying to catch a tasty wave or getting his bone on, sometimes in the same song and at the same time (try “Anywhere”).
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that lyrics sometimes do their job best when they’re forgotten, mixed low enough to sound like the bleating of a suave-bro billy goat. (Of course, sometimes this doesn’t apply. For instance, when you’re listening to Jim Johnston’s “Ass Man (Billy Gunn’s Theme),” it’s reassuring to know with certainty that he wants both to kick and kiss asses). It’s nice when you discover that the lyrics to a song you like are profound, but usually you’ll already like a song before you take the time to figure out whether or not you like its lyrics. Interpol probably knows that.
It seems like Interpol has been saddled with a burden of signifiers that any band would have a hard time carrying. I’ll bet each of their albums after the first one was measured by how “New York,” how “Joy Division-y” and how “artfully gloomy” it was. The funny thing is, I think a lot of people associate those terms with “post-punk” and I think those people are mostly idiots.
Genres are often straitjackets, but necessary ones. Show me a band that has no classification, and I’ll show you a bunch of self-consciously wacky, gormless bastards in a local jam band who claim they sound like a combination of “the Beatles, Public Enemy and the Clash filtered through the entire history of music.” An older lady once asked me what our band sounded like, and I said, “Loud rock & roll.”
“Oh,” she replied, “like the Rolling Stones?” So coming up with a more specific genre tag for your band is probably required.
The good thing about this is that most genres are so broad as to be meaningless. Ask someone what punk is, and you’ll get the full gamut of replies, from Hot Topic garbage and Maximumrocknroll micro-genres that only Europeans and people from the Bay Area care about, all the way to your cousin assuring you the newest Foo Fighters record is “punk-ish.”
When some people think of post-punk, they recall the bands that came after ’77-’78, the ones that took the “anyone can do it” credo of punk and took experimentation far beyond merely revving up ’50s rock & roll. You know, that amorphous, interesting period in the early ’80s before other terms like new wave, new pop, and college rock became the coin of the realm.
Today, for the idiots, it means a band that sounds like only one band from that era: Joy Division.
Which would be OK: the compression of history, the superficial nature of understanding, the aggregation of the past by the young, etc. These things happen. But not every band with prominent bass and a low-voiced singer sounds like Joy Division just because your musical knowledge doesn’t stretch past them. If some caveman were unfrozen tomorrow and started a YouTube record-review blog, wouldn’t he compare every song to the grunting and bellowing of a woolly mammoth? I would assume so.
But damned if there wasn’t a whole bunch of bands in the mid-2000s that wanted to sound like Interpol sounding like Joy Division. Wikipedia that shit. A similar thing is how every band considered “garage rock” nowadays has to be half Black Lips, half Thee Oh Sees or a 100 percent copy of either. Is it a requirement for every “bedroom-pop” tape-release to feature a song about sweaters? It seems to be. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll stumble upon a post-punk group that wanted to sound like both Interpol and Franz Ferdinand sounding like Joy Division, and that will have to count as originality.
So what’s my point? I don’t think Protomartyr sounds like Interpol. But it’s lonely in the genre hole. People don’t appreciate nuance nowadays. Not every band sounds like Joy Division. Some sound like the Blue Orchids, even. Ian Curtis liked the Doors. Not every band you think is garage rock is going to sing about evil girls or something oozing. It’s not fair, but wearing expensive suits and being from a fictional version of New York won’t save you from an eternity of being called a facsimile of the past.