The Aquarian Institute in Berkeley, California, is located in a modest two-story home with a white picket fence. It is the place of business of one Allen David Young, Ph.D., a man who is known from time to time to converse with souls who have passed away. This is why I've found myself at his doorstep. I am planning to summon the soul of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, who committed suicide in 1980. I have some questions for him. After all, this is an article about the band Interpol.
Interpol is great. Its debut full-length on Matador, Turn On the Bright Lights, was without a doubt one of 2002's most captivating records. Here's what this writer said about it when it came time to put together a year-end top ten list: "Interpol gets lumped in with all the other NYC retro-rockers 'cause the members are style-obsessed. But if you look past that, you hear an amazing band juicing the fruits of melancholy to make a post-punk concoction so gooey and addictive you want to cook it in a spoon and mainline it. This was the only NYC band this year that earned the right to dress up." Indeed.
Last year, as New York City projectile-vomited no-wave art punk, retro rawk and electroclash, and became obsessed with making the point that style can be more important than substance, it might have seemed impossible for the city to produce a band that was actually doing something genuine. Interpol, accepting the challenge, for the most part pulled it off.
Dressed in slick suits that make Robert De Niro's character in Casino look like a hobo, the band has delivered music that has reintroduced the word "plaintive" to the hipster vocabulary. Drenched in layers of twinkling, crunch-caked guitars, yet with a rhythm section that adds a bubbly upbeat punch to nearly every tune, Interpol trips the light fantastic with a variety of moods, including melancholy, angst, sorrow and self-consciousness.
But guess what? Those of us who "had this dance" with the band in 2002 are about to have mainstream pop culture roll up behind us, tap our shoulder, then deck us in the stomach, leaving us on the gym floor as the house band plays "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and MTV, David Letterman and Clear Channel have an orgy with our date in the bathroom. In short, Interpol is getting big.
Hell, they're even playing the band in department stores these days. This kind of commercial success is unheard of for a band signed to Matador.
But the one thing Interpol can't escape, the specter that follows it around like a ghost, is its constant comparison to Joy Division, the Manchester band from the late '70s and early '80s that reinvented rock after the Sex Pistols mangled it (hence, "post-punk"). Every article about Interpol makes a comparison to Joy Division, usually in the first two or three sentences. Of course, it's not hard to see why critics love to associate the two bands, but it's not terribly helpful either.
"Usually it has to do with concentration on atmosphere -- perhaps more moodiness, a slightly darker sort of feel," says Carlos Dengler (who prefers to have his last name written as simply "De.", but who will not be obliged for this article). The bassist for Interpol was speaking via telephone from a tour stop in Chicago while chewing some kind of vegetable. "And there's always the similarities [crunch] with the voice, a particular ethos about composition [munch, munch], maybe a similar attitude or approach to music, but at the same time, those things are so vague that you could say the same thing about a bunch of other bands [munch]."
Nonetheless, there it is: Joy Division, Joy Division, Joy Division. And so, rather than ignore the comparison, like the elephant in the room that nobody's talking about, I decided to delve into the Joy Division issue a little bit more. Actually, make that a lot more. I decided to find a psychic, get them to summon Ian Curtis, deceased front man for Joy Division, and answer two questions: 1) What does Curtis think of all this bullshit; and 2) Are psychics full of shit?
When asked his opinion on the psychic arts, Dengler replies, "I am so ardently [crunch, crunch] opposed to the illusions that these charlatans create and the way that they prey on innocent people that I can't even get into it. I feel like there has to be some kind of law that prevents people from taking advantage of other [munch] people's [crunch] stupidity."
Since he's curt and jaded and chewing a fucking carrot, I decide to make that three questions: 3) Should Interpol kick out their bass player?
So here's the scam. Affecting a fragile, insecure voice (i.e. I'm new to all this and would you please walk me through it?), I call around to find someone who can help me with my "dilemma." I am a musician, I tell them, and my band, Interpol, is having a problem with the critics. They think we're stealing from a musician who has passed on to the other side, a man named Ian Curtis. Since I'm a huge fan of his, I'm beginning to grow insecure. I wish to discover if Curtis disapproves of my work and if he believes us to be stealing his shit, or if he's okay with it.
Admittedly, I feel kind of guilty for lying about being in the band, but most of all I can't help but wonder if one of these peeps is gonna sniff me out. After all, they're psychic, right?
The first person I call is Madame Davis. The phone rings a few times before a sweet, geriatric voice answers.
"Hello," says Madame Davis (note: She doesn't say, "Hello, Madame Davis," which would seem to make sense if you run a business and the phone rings during business hours).
"Hello," I say. "Madame Davis?"
"I know who this is," says Madame Davis.
"This is the gentleman whose wife left him. We've spoken before, correct?"
"Uh, no. I don't believe so," I say, wondering if every grown man who calls a psychic has the same problem. Nonetheless, as I explain my situation, it becomes clear that she cannot help me. She recommends the Berkeley Psychic Institute, which, according to the Web site berkeleypsychic.com, is "a psychic kindergarten which teaches students how to recognize and develop their own psychic abilities."
But they can't help me either. As a matter of fact, relatively no one can. I get a hold of a lot of shysters who tell me that I'd have to come down for a reading -- at $25 to $50! -- before they can even tell me whether they can help me, and a few people who inform that the kind of request I'm making, where I need to talk to a specific spirit, not to mention play music in the psychic's office for the spirit to listen to, is simply not something they do. Apparently what's considered the norm for most psychics is that one initiates a regular series of meetings, and only after considerable time and money have been spent can answers be expected (not unlike going to see a psychiatrist). To think that I was the one who felt guilty about lying to them.
Finally, after dozens of calls, I settle on the Aquarian Institute, run by Allen David Young, Ph.D. Speaking eloquently and sincerely not sounding like he was three Tom Collinses into his afternoon, Young was the only one who made any sense on the phone. He explained that since I've already played the music in question with my band, it's likely that Curtis has already heard it, perhaps even sat in on a few "jam sessions," so there was no need to bring in a boom box (damn!). Further, he didn't try to con me into multiple sessions or feed me some line about how the more money I spend the more likely it is we'll make contact (yeah, that's right, Madame Star, I saw through your flimsy little game). At $200 an hour, he wasn't exactly cheap either, but he offered me a shorter session at a reduced price. If I really wanted to find out what Curtis thinks about Interpol, Young seemed to be my only hope.
The Aquarian Institute could really be renamed the Aquarian Duplex, because it's nothing more than Young's house. Ringing the doorbell, I run through my lines in my head again, praying that all this psychic shit is as fake as I think it is and that Young isn't going to be able to "sense" my true identity. But as he greets me at the door, his warm smile and polite handshake put me at ease. Standing a few inches above six feet tall, Young is a clean-cut black man with salt-and-pepper facial hair. And he's wearing a sweat suit.
Sitting across from me in his office, a charming room lined with books on subjects ranging from linear algebra to Freud, Young reviews with me the intention of my visit.
"You feel that you want to basically get Ian's impressions about what you're doing," says the clairvoyant, in a slow, soothing voice that suggests he may hypnotize people in his spare time. "You want to know, are you indeed extending his music and honoring it, or are you doing what some of the critics are saying, perhaps not being innovative. And you want to get it from the horse's mouth."
You got it, doc.
And so we begin.
Still pretending to be a shy, nervous guitarist, member of Interpol, and true believer, I try not to laugh as Young slips into a trance in order to contact Ian Curtis on the other side. I sit there, stroking my chin, waiting for him to out me or start speaking in tongues or reciting the lyrics to "Love Will Tear Us Apart." But none of this happens. Young remains still, eyes closed, and jots down notes. He is transcribing what Curtis is telling him, word for word. He stays entranced for a good five minutes -- which is a long time, when you make $200 an hour -- then returns to "this world" to relay the results of his conversation.
"First, [Curtis] says, 'Continue to do what you're doing.' And he's very busy when he says that," Young says. "When I first tune in, I just get this concert going on. And it's not like a live thing, it's more like a jam session, so I had to sort of get his attention."
Cool. So that's what all the musicians are doing in the afterlife. It's like one long jam session. Fuck, yeah!
Young continues: "He sees all the -- and I'll just use his expression -- 'shit' around us, but he says, 'Just keep doing what you're doing.' [That's twice.] Then he says, 'You're tapping into the same source that we did and you're only getting a fraction of the source, like we did.' "
Wait a second. People pay money for this kind of shit? Why not just take that $200 and go to Burning Man? And something tells me that this guy is trying too hard to come down to my level, to talk "music" with me. I'd imagine that when Ms. Jane Doe sits down to contact her deceased uncle, the word "shit" never comes up.
" 'It's not my music,' " continues Young, still reciting Curtis's words verbatim from his notes. " 'Keep doing what you're doing. It's the music. It belongs to all of us. You can be better than me if you keep up what you're doing and stop listening to the critics. Listen to your soul, man. Play.' "
Young pauses and lets out a little chuckle, as if he's just surprised himself.
"And that's just what he said," says the psychic. I'm trying to imagine Ian Curtis -- intelligent, pugnacious, a resident of working-class Manchester in the '70s -- saying something like "Listen to your soul, man." But apparently that's what happens on the other side. Even if you're Ian Curtis, you're still forced to speak fortune cookie.
Our session's just about up but Young says I may ask one more question, provided it's a quick one. I tell him there is one thing
"We're thinking of kicking out Carlos, the bass player," I say. "He's kind of a dick."
Short on time, Young resorts to tarot cards because getting Curtis's attention again would take too long. After much deliberation, he interprets the various cards I've turned over and delivers a verdict.
"I don't think you should rush to get rid of him right away," he says. "You may have to deal with and suffer through his difficulty a little bit, but ultimately you'll be able to pick the fruit off that tree."
But gee, doc, on the other hand, aren't there plenty of fish in the sea? Or maybe you're right, maybe the grass is always greener on the other side, after all, all's well that ends well, right? About the only thing that rings true is a penny saved is a penny earned.
But Young's last little aphorism, whether he meant it to or not, did have some application to the band as a whole. Self-respecting indie rockers will instantly note that they come off like a bunch of smug, fancy-suit-wearing, overstylized twats (does anyone remember the Britpop band Menswear? Didn't think so). But if you put up with their conceited shtick, you'll discover that, for better or worse, Interpol can write the fuck out of a post-punk pop song. Even Ian Curtis thinks so.
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