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There’s a moment on Turn on the Bright Lights, Interpol’s haunting, and of-the-essence 2002 debut record that isn’t quite like any other.
Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down, (Stella for short) finds it’s place as the longest track on the record, and follows an exquisite narrative, written with an exposition, climax, and conclusion in mind. Lead singer Paul Banks draws elements from his formative years at NYU, where he primarily studied literature and criminology. Interpretations of Stella vary between the story of a stalker, a rapist, a murderer, or a form of disjointed obsessive fetishism – loving something so much you want to kill it. Themes from Robert Shea and Robert Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy are evident as well; Stella and Leif Erickson are two prominent characters across the novels. (Leif Erickson, of course, is also the name of Bright Lights’ closing track, although spelled Erikson). Strangely enough, those two become lovers, and spend some time together in a submarine, alluding to the diving part of the song.
Trivia and background aside, this gruesome, gloomy 6-minute long window into both Banks’ mind and the world of a post 9/11 New York City ironically begins in an inherently humorous fashion. Paul Banks introduces the song by saying “This one’s called Stella was a diver and she was always down.” before any real instrumentation commences. This almost improvised sounding introduction was said with ice cubes in his mouth, and upon my first listen a long time ago, I was led to believe Interpol was an English band due to how the cubes affected his speech. Interpol’s former bassist, Carlos Dengler had this to say to n+1 magazine on the 15th anniversary of this record: “Our singer, whose lyrics and vocal timbre give that first record of ours a special place in the indie-rock pantheon, was so prone to his vodka cocktails that you can hear the tinkle of ice cubes leaking into the mic during one of our song openings.”
Followed by a deceptive chord progression with a heavy accent on the lower notes, the listener is immediately relaunched into the instantly recognizable and eerie atmosphere of Bright Lights that was heard on all 7 tracks prior. Lead guitarist Daniel Kessler plays a chilling melody to compliment the rhythm, which is soon joined by the percussive regards of drummer Sam Fogarino. Tension builds as the bass guitar is intertwined into these first 20 seconds, fusing elements of symphonic Gothic harmonies to that of the post punk revival. Fogarino actually holds his drumsticks in a unique way; he plays with the thick side up. The introductory drum pattern on Stella is almost irregular, and reminiscent of a continual rolling, falling, or tumbling with little to no breaks, brought to life by the heaviness of this unique method. All four members’ musical contribution congregate beneath Banks’ perfectly awkward and noticeably nervous, unhinged vocals, amalgamating to the identity of Stella. A first time listener might find it hard to discern what Banks is singing with his uncommon register, but the most audible and repeated phrase of the first verse is “people watching”, which is enough to create the imagery that fuels Bright Lights. When I hear the first verse, I am taken to a vacant Times Square where the unanimous “she” (Stella) walks alone, and observed like a specimen by people lying on the outskirts. The line “the building fronts are just fronts, to hide the people watching her” especially adds to this anxiety. The thought that the only purpose of some New York City buildings are to house people watching you is a very Black Mirror-esque concept, and sounds like a real schizophrenic thought. Banks says he gets the most inspiration from “girls, film, crazy people, and books” in this 2003 interview, three of which are present in Stella, but it is still possible some visual aspects of film could be incorporated and we may never know.
Going back to the mentioned line, “the building fronts are just fronts, to hide the people watching her”, the word “her” is sung only after a brief pause, as if there were ellipses preceding it. A short form of nervous laughter is also heard towards the end of the line, and it’s these minor quirks that make Stella stand out from the rest of the record. Every detail honed in this short time frame points to Stella being alone, isolated, watched, and worst of all, victim to falling down a manhole – in a bad way. Is there a good way to fall down a manhole? Nonetheless, it isn’t until a minute into the song the instruments come to an abrupt halt. An undoubted personal favorite of mine are the rapid buildups and breaks found throughout this piece. The crashing cymbal indicative of the music resuming is like an ocean wave reaching its peak before collapsing, only to restart once again. The last words of “just like her scuba days” echoes throughout, alternating between the word days and daze in various vocal inflections, using the homophone counterpart as a parallel. The verse ultimately concludes with a gradually increasing chord progression on Banks singing daze, and is protracted to fill the gap before Stella erupts into its remarkable chorus. Fogarino’s drum pattern has equated accents on both the up beat and the down beat, closely tying into the wandering bass line of Dengler’s. The pauses are still there, but are overtaken by Banks’ soaring, seemingly monotonous vocals, with sparse but evident emphasis on certain words. The lyrics sound like someone trying to get a story straight, or attempting to remember an event in a particular manner. The lines that include “She was alright, but she can’t come out tonight, she broke away” shift between past and present tense, generating plain confusion. A crisp hi-hat sequence is heard before Banks recites what we can only assume to be the same event presented in the opening verse in a creepy, overly romanticized and fascinated tone. “The sea was so tight… air tight”. I am fondly reminded of the countless cliché television shows and movies where a serial killer or psychopath tells someone of the crime they committed with the sole purpose to relive the experience.
The song, for lack of a better word, enters its third phase midway through the spiraling chorus. It sounds far more ferocious, angry, and intimidating. It feels as though it sonically matches how the album’s cover looks. There are brief moments where the guitars adjust to a more friendly sound in order to match the voice of Banks as he sings “She broke away, broke away” redundantly with power, and perhaps even a hint of remorse. This does not last long, as the bass quickly guides the rest of the instruments to retake their unforgiving tones as heard previously. The chorus concludes and smoothly transitions to the familiar guitar riff played by Kessler in the introduction. Faint and distant phrases are sung in the background, notably “She hides in nowhere”. Stella’s presence resonates with Banks, or the subject, and if she hides nowhere, she must be… everywhere. Peculiar imagery follows, as Banks paints the mental picture of Stella dwelling below the ocean. He soon describes “a fat blue serpent” who swells. Whether or not this creature is supposed to symbolize Stella is unknown. As far as mythology goes, a serpent represents the internal conflict of good and evil. The theme of loving something so much you want to kill it reoccurs, as Stella likely fell victim to this situation, dead at the bottom of the ocean due to someone’s overpowering affection. The listener is soon welcomed back to the buildups and breaks, but this time altered so that Banks sings of his seemingly unrequited affinity for his character, his love-joy diver, Stella in between. He directly belts “Stella, I love you” through what sounds like clenched teeth. After the chorus repeats, the song appears to zoom out. The tempo is calmer, the bass is more serrated, and the guitars sound far more ambient, as if the subject has come to a realization or epiphany, and Banks quietly sings his sentiments of what Stella was to him.
Ernest Hemingway spoke of a philosophy where, in terms of writing, it is best to focus on the positive; it is important to describe what something is rather than what it isn’t. Albeit music differs from literature, but in the case of Turn on the Bright Lights, most tracks are pivotal to the idea of absence. Obstacle 1, PDA, Roland, The New, and of course, Stella are all about people leaving. Contrary to Hemingway’s approach, the glory that Bright Lights basks in is rooted in focusing on the negative – we wouldn’t have Stella without it.
written by oliver