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Interpol’s Sam Fogarino Discusses Going Solo With EmptyMansions

EmptyMansions Sam Fogarino
Christy Bush

Stepping out from behind the drums of his longtime band Interpol, multi-instrumentalist Sam Fogarino is releasing his debut album under the name EmptyMansions. Working as primary songwriter, Fogarino provided vocals, guitar, drums and keyboards. For everything else, he enlisted Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison and Secret Machines keyboardist Brandon Curtis, who also moonlights with Interpol as a touring musician.

Due out April 2, ‘snakes/vultures/sulfate’ comes loaded with dark, brooding undertones, and the album is capped off by an almost gothic cover of Neil Young‘s ‘Down By the River.’ Fogarino laid the groundwork for the collection while on the road with Interpol, fleshing out songs with Curtis in hotel rooms in between shows. They later recorded at Fogarino’s Normal Studio in Athens, Ga.

Checking in by phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., Fogarino spoke to Diffuser.fm about what it was like to step up to the mic, lead his own band and find his voice as a singer.

How was the transition from drummer to frontman?

There was no real transition, per se, because I was messing around with my own material for years. I think where the transition happened was when I was in writing something I wanted to put out on my own and I didn’t feel needed heavy collaboration. In the past, I’ve been doing stuff with Adam Franklin for years [in Magnetic Morning]. Adam is a great songwriter, and I never wanted to go too far, so I can give him some chords and let him take it from there. And this time around, it was about finding an identity and getting to a point where you just don’t care.

Another thing that I was guilty of was idealizing what I wanted to do outside of being a drummer. If it didn’t sound a certain way, I would trash it. But I think when you try too hard to go for this idealized concept, you start to set yourself up. You can get inside yourself for 27 years and not do anything, just like My Bloody Valentine.

You’ve played with Brandon and Duane previously, but did the dynamic change working on your own material?

I’ve known for Brandon specifically since the early 2000s, with Interpol and Secret Machines coming up together and playing at the same venues, then going on tour together. When he finally joined Interpol’s live configuration, I was so taken by him that at one point, I said to myself, “I don’t know what, but I want to do something with you.” He has a great energy and is a very even-keeled individual. He’s pretty honest but never too rough. You get the truth with him, whether its flattering or not, and that’s a great thing to have.

When did you actually start working on your own material with him?

I don’t know how it happened, but I think it was a drunken night in Rome after a show when I asked him if he would play on my record. We remembered the next day and went through with it. Working with him in the studio was a lot different than working with him onstage. It’s a lot about planning and presenting something, and it’s not a very creative endeavor. I gained even more respect for him in the studio because of his ability to navigate the whole thing. I was approaching things that I had never really done. Being 45 years old, I never sang in front of anybody, but he was the best person for that. It was between me not giving a f— anymore and him taking that and making sure it sounded good. He latched on to the thing I was trying to do and found it by bringing in some early points of reference. He played Rowland S. Howard, and some other bands from the 60s, and he just grabbed me with those. It’s very key for the producer, and he just got the essence.

It sounds like he brings the best out of you as a musician.

You know, everyone in Interpol has a man-crush on Brandon. When we were on tour, everyone wanted to take Brandon for themselves. We didn’t want to do band things, but we wanted to take him to a bar or out to dinner alone without anybody else. If I saw [our guitarist] Daniel walking down the street with him, I would be like, “Daniel! God, you got to him first!”

You wrote a lot of the album on the road. Is is hard to be creative in a bus, on little sleep?

I think for Interpol, it would be impossible for the nature of how we do things, but [singer] Paul [Banks] and I both individually write a lot on tour, because you’re just done after the show. You have nothing to think about because you played the show and the day is done. But you’re stuck with this energy and an amazing amount of adrenaline, like an exercise high. Not only it is easy for me, but I feel like I need to do it. I feel like a need to be productive in those moments at 2AM in a hotel room, when I don’t have anything to do until four o’clock the next day. It’s a pretty interesting mode to be in, but I’d probably go crazy any other way.

Yeah, with all the downtime on the road, there are only so many ways to stay occupied, right?

Yeah, and the party is over for me, being in my mid-40s and a father. My priorities are so much different even than they were 10 years ago, so to have this outlet is either divine or evil. It keeps me away from trouble though [laughs].

Do you find that write songs through the lens of a drummer, maybe starting with a rhythm?

I really see no difference. It’s changing a voice and based on the same creative impulse. I’ve been told that I play drums as a musician [laughs], so I even do that from a melodic standpoint. The only times I’m really channeling myself as a drummer is with Interpol, so I don’t gravitate to drums as a go-to, especially by myself. It will usually start with keyboard, then head over to the drums.

Did you have reservations about including the Neil Young cover?

Oh yeah, definitely.  I can just imagine that man standing in front me saying, “That sucks!” in his drawl. Plus it’s my mom’s favorite song, so that’s even more pressure. It’s enough to have to think about Neil Young, but with the pressure of your mom? That’s too much. But Brandon just kept saying that I had to do it. It was actually different than the first recording. It was the very last song that we recorded, and we decided to take a different approach to it, a little more rough-and-ready.

Interpol records a lot in New York City, so how is different to record in your own studio in Athens?

There’s a big difference. Athens is such a small town and can be construed as sleepy if you’re away from the downtown area where all the bars are. Where I am, it’s “in town,” as they say, but in my backyard, it’s very lush and very green, so it can be in the middle of nowhere.

Working in New York, though, if you want to leave the studio, you’re going to be bombarded by the city, and it can be jarring. Working on Interpol stuff in Manhattan, I would never leave the studio. As soon as you step out, nobody cares who you are or what you’re doing. They don’t know or care you’re spending a grand a day to make a record, nor should they. The city moves regardless of your precious little endeavor, and the reality is ominous. As easily as it can inspire you, it can take you right out of it. I’m just looking around now, not even in Manhattan, but in a cafe in DUMBO, Brooklyn, and I’m trying to see where I can slip out to [laughs]. But Interpol is working on stuff at the moment, so that’s why I’m up here.

What are you guys working on right now?

It’s all very cursory, if you will, so I haven’t the faintest idea. We’re just getting together to play. It’s very early in the game, though, so I don’t have a clue yet.

Do you plan releasing more music as EmptyMansions?

Oh yeah, that’s my personal thrill. The album turning out the way it did, I finally feel like I have a voice. I’m not bound to anything, but I’m sure that if timing works out, we’ll all do the same thing together. The experience with Brandon has really set me on course, and it’s not so daunting anymore. Interpol takes up so much time, so two years from now, where my head will be, I have no idea. But it’s really exciting.

Watch EmptyMansions’ Video for ‘That Man’

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