When Wu-Tang Clan leader and rabid chess enthusiast RZA was asked who was his favorite showbiz opponent, he responded in a heartbeat: Paul Banks. It’s true, says Interpol’s cryptic crooner. He and the rapper have played several serious games. “But RZA is an infinitely better player. He’s beyond hobbyist. He’s studied — and I’ve just played tons of chess. And chess goes by ranking systems, so if you’re in some chess community online, it’s very humbling. I’m never beyond intermediate!” He’s even applied game strategy to his (relatively) sunny new solo recording, “Banks,” using more straightforward songwriting configurations than he has in the artier Interpol.
RZA really respects you. But you say you aren’t that skilled?
If we’re talking a one-minute or two-minute game, I can play. I had a data-entry job at one point where I didn’t have to do any work, and my boss would only come around once in a while. So on the computer, I played one-minute games. Thousands of one-minute games. And that’s where I have an advantage — with a clock running.
How did chess knowledge add to “Banks”?
As a younger artist, I felt like everything should be formless and shapeless and intuitive. But then I realized that applying a framework to what I’m doing can actually enhance the art. There’s a reason that a lot of great songs have verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge. So the key is to understand the formula and then make it your own. Like in chess — just embrace the standard opening and go from there.
What was it about songs such as “Young Again” and “Arise Awake” that screamed “solo album” and not “Interpol”?
Well, Interpol has a standard writing process. And it begins with the material of Daniel (Kessler, guitarist). We work out songs from progressions that he introduces, so by definition the solo work is songs that I’m writing.
You used to pen lyrics on cocktail napkins in dive bars. Has your method changed? Yes. Firstly, I don’t spend that kind of time in bars anymore. Secondly, I realized that I’m never going to try to shoehorn a lyric into a song again. Now it’s really just finding what the song wants me to say, so I take the music first and go from there.
But you make even dirges such as “I’ll Sue You” sound — dare we say — cheerful?
That was a fun juxtaposition — making that song quite romantic, but ultimately the message is very different. Creatively, I’ve cultivated an approach which is, er, not overly thought out — just tapping into my inspiration and not second-guessing ideas. So I feel like I’m in a really good, healthy place.