The Aquarian Institute in Berkeley 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, among other things, 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 on summoning 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 DeNiro'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 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 Nordstrom 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 the group 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 has 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 to summon Ian Curtis, deceased frontman 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 its 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 are stealing from a musician who has passed on to the other side, a man named Ian Curtis. Since I am a huge fan of his, I am 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," she says.
"This is the gentleman whose wife left him. We've spoke 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 its Web site, 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, almost 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 or not 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 initiate a regular series of meetings, and, not unlike going to see a psychiatrist, only after considerable time and money have been spent can answers be expected. To think that I was the one who felt guilty about lying to them.
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