THis story ends in 2018 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Standing alongside the rest of the packed arena, I smash the dry ice and roar to Lights during Interpol’s sold-out show as my youngest brother, Daniel, strides across the stage banging his guitar, lead singer Paul Banks leads the crowd. “That’s why I’m holding you,” we all sing, “That’s why I’m holding you.”
But that’s not how this story begins. It starts in Paris in 1985, where I’ve just told my mother that I won’t be coming with her when she emigrates to Washington DC with my two brothers, Mark, 13, and Daniel, 10. I’m 16, soon to be 17 We moved from London four years ago for my father’s work but my parents are getting divorced. I’m going back to London where, I say mum, I’ll become someone who listens to music professionally. At some point I’ll do that, continue to work as an employee NME during the 90’s.
For much of our upbringing together, my brothers and I shared a bedroom in a small flat in London and slept in bunk beds. Our relationship was necessarily close but combustible. I often fought physically with Mark. Gentle, good-natured Daniel was the peacemaker. His desire was that we could all just get along, a need that only became more acute when he realized our parents were separating.
However, the three of us had things in common beyond the parental drama. Most importantly, we shared a true religion: pop music. Music has been my obsession for as long as I can remember, and that devotion descended from my top bunk and enchanted my brothers as well. The youth culture of the early 1980s – the haircuts, the clothes – had a big impact on all three of us. When we finally got our own rooms as teenagers, the house was echoing with three stereos.
After I left home, physical distance meant we only saw each other once a year, but music sustained our bond, the shortcut we took to fraternal intimacy. We exchanged mixtapes, went to browse record stores together. On a visit, I noticed that the teenager Daniel in my mother’s apartment always wore a guitar around his neck and played the same riffs over and over again. I’d never had the attention span to learn an instrument, but Daniel’s focus was constant.
One day in 2001 a package arrived from New York, where Daniel lived. The envelope contained a stack of demo CDs with the name of a band: Interpol. My brother apparently played guitar in this group and he wanted me to hear it.
I knew he’d been in a band for the past few years after studying French and literature at NYU, but I had no intention of traveling across the ocean with it. I took it for a hobby that his career on indie record labels was his main focus, but this pack disproved that assumption.
Our music evangelism had continued separately into adulthood. While I was becoming a music journalist, he was doing internships with labels before getting full-time jobs. He proved to be a shrewd operator. He recently opened the US branch of British label Domino from his apartment, so I was surprised by this demo. Wasn’t he more of a young mogul than a musician?
At that moment, I realized that I didn’t really know him that well. I was too self-absorbed, too focused on my own work and life, to wonder about his. He was just my little brother who got a cool job in the music business. I didn’t know about this creative dream of his.
Nonetheless, these CDs seemed like an intrusion into my music journalism turf. What would the people in my shop think of my brother’s band? Out of family loyalty, I hoped it would be brilliant, that Interpol would be a success, but I feared it might not be. What if it doesn’t go down well with critics? What if people hated Interpol? Shamefully, I wondered if I would be judged by what anyone thought of my brother’s music.
His note with the package asked me if I would listen to this demo, maybe I’d pass it along to anyone who might be interested. Too nervous to give it more than a cursory listen (sounds good I suppose) I put the demos away for another day. The time came when, in the summer of 2002, I decided to NME Office. One afternoon, the magazine editor was marching across the room with a CD in hand.
“I have this Interpol EP,” he proudly told the gallery. The ambience NME The office noise was erased as the room paused to listen expectantly. This marked the first official release of New York’s newest hot name, and judgmental expectations were raised.
He pressed play. I immediately recognized my brother’s line of guitars. PDA, the first song on the demo Daniel sent me, a jagged cascade of melodies that quickly unfolds into verses. Warm, modern new wave, just right for this room.
As the volume increased, I involuntarily got up from my desk. With an audible groan, I pushed my way through the swinging doors to the elevators before the choir even arrived. I groaned in fear as I walked out, neither in disgust nor embarrassment. i was scared I was too scared to hear anyone in NME saying that they didn’t like Interpol, that they didn’t like the music. I didn’t want to witness the kind of mockery I’d heard so many times before NME, which I myself regularly disposed of with great performative enthusiasm. I wasn’t even sure at that point if anyone knew my brother was in this band. I just couldn’t take it when someone didn’t like their music. I was too protective of both my brother and (ridiculously) my own reputation. I was afraid that Interpol would reflect badly on me.
That was quite a misjudgment.
Interpol sold 1 million copies of their first two albums. Their third album reached the Top 5 in both the US and UK. Just before I left NME to join the staff Q Magazine In 2003, Interpol appeared on the cover of the weekly newspaper. This time I wasn’t afraid of how it would come back at me. I was proud.
By then, something had changed for the better in my relationship with Daniel, thanks to Interpol. They often played in London and I went to every show, which meant we spent more time together after performances and interacted with our own stories as like-minded people, rather than as siblings six years apart.
After a performance, Daniel and I sat on the floor in the rubble of their East London dressing room, drank beers, talked at length about our lives, our memories of each other, family, feelings. In that hour our relationship was made new. That’s when I realized that even though I was 32 and he was 26, we had never really spoken to each other. I also found that I really liked his empathy, his deep emotional intelligence, his calmness. We became close friends in that moment and we have never looked back. Nowadays we are always in touch.
When I listen to his music now, I hear what other fans hear: intensely romantic guitar music combined with philosophical poetry. I no longer do head exercises to wonder what this new Interpol music will mean to me. I grew out of this phase shortly after the first album was released in 2002 to generally good reviews, an acknowledged classic of its time. Now I’m listening to my favorite band. It just took me a while to get over myself.
I’m not the biggest Interpol fan in my family, though. This is my mother. She picked me up from the airport and drove to her home in Maryland, USA with the band’s latest LP blaring out the windows. Once, after throwing dinner with her friends in honor of my visit, she invited all the guests to the candlelit living room for a drink. As we settled into the couches, Mum wordlessly pressed play on the stereo remote. Then she closed her eyes and didn’t open them again until the last note of Interpol’s second album played out at full volume. I admired her, my proud mother, ignoring her amused older guests.
We laughed at that memory in the Royal Albert Hall dressing room, my brother and I. Mum died unexpectedly from a brain tumor in 2013, so we always take a moment to toast her. However, that night felt particularly poignant as we grew up near Paddington and played regularly in Hyde Park, just across the street from where Interpol had just performed.
“I thought about her in Lights,” Daniel admitted. “Your mind wanders during the shows. With certain songs I often think of the family up there, of Mark, Dad, Mum. Even you!”
We clinked our glasses and giggled. That’s why I hold you, that’s why I hold you dear.
Paper Cuts: How I Destroyed the British Music Press and Other Misadventures by Ted Kessler is published by White Rabbit for £18.99. Buy it for £16.52 from guardianbookshop.com