Carlos D, former bass player of Interpol, was an integral part of the band — and was once described as its “most infamous” member. As a founder of the heavily bass-driven post-punk outfit that dominated the indie rock scene of the early aughts, his seemingly sudden departure in 2010 after issuing four solid albums, and realizing fame and success beyond what he could have ever imagined, was shocking for many fans. Not only did Carlos D quit the band, he disappeared from the downtown scene he inhabited altogether.
Carlos hasn’t granted an interview since leaving Interpol (save for his contribution to a 2012 Pitchfork oral history piece about Interpol on the 10th anniversary of Turn on the Bright Lights). “There’s nothing on me. I’ve been, quite deliberately, very much removed,” he admitted last week when I caught up with him in Midtown Manhattan, a place spiritually millions of miles away from the rock scene Carlos was embedded in.
When we shook hands, I realized I could have seen the new Carlos thousands of times and thought nothing of it. Dressed in a frumpy blazer, a whatever-t-shirt, and aggressively un-stylish Merrell shoes (the kind that scream “I’m comfortable! You’re goddamn right I’m goddamn ugly!”), he looks like a totally different guy. And now that he’s outdoorsy and wordy, less like a rockstar and more so the strict but relatable English professor, it’s almost impossible to perceive his wild past. This new Carlos Dengler is completely unrecognizable as Carlos D the gothy, brooding bass player of Interpol. Knowing this, it’s clear that his departure from the band was so much more than a simple divorce.
While reaching out to former Lit Lounge regulars we turned up Carlos, who declined to comment on what we imagine were some wild nights he spent at the East Village bar. He’s adamant about putting the past behind him, but he was open to telling us what he’s been up to. Turns out he’s spent the last three years honing his skills as an actor at NYU’s graduate theatre program, and in some ways has circled back to the person he was when he joined Interpol: a scholarly, nerdy kind of dude.
I’m auditioning and looking for an agent. Really, I just graduated. Also, it’s not fair for me to even say, “This is what I’m doing.” I spent three years in acting boot camp [at NYU’s graduate acting program] and I’m a 41-year-old man. I’m no spring chicken. So I’m looking at some of my younger classmates and how they’re coming out of the gate with fire under their asses and they’re doing a lot of stuff. I’m like, “Wow, that’s pretty fucking impressive.” I just don’t have that ability right now. I’m still putting all of the pieces together.
For three years, it was Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. till 11 p.m. And Saturdays it was 12 to 6. It was like prison, an all-consuming three-year adventure with 14 other people. It was monastic. I really could not engage in anything that I wanted to do recreationally or relationship-wise. I was just completely removed from whatever else I was doing and I was just in this spaceship, pretty much like with the band, except this one had a very firm expiration date, Spring of 2015.
I’m just settling into my adult, post-Interpol, post-actor training life and just getting cool with that. The book, the one-man show, and the acting thing are what I’m really passionately engaged with and they seem to be better off without my hands all over them. They’re kind of happening on their own accord.
I auditioned for it while I was in school. It was a good play to do to not have to worry about digging too deep. It was more of a satire Sherlock Holmes than a straight-up Sherlock Holmes story. It had elements of both. Sherlock Holmes fans were very pleased, but there was also a lot of comedy.
My role was John Smythe, who was the lackey of Professor Moriarty, who is the arch-villain in the Sherlock Holmes saga. That was fun. I had to put on a Cockney accent, which I hadn’t worked on. I’d worked on a couple dialects in school, but not Cockney. It was really, really challenging.
The other character was actually a legitimate historical figure— I didn’t know this until I looked it up— but his name is Abdul Kareem. He was the chief servant to Queen Victoria. He just showed up for a couple of scenes, strictly for plot purposes and I had to don a whole get-up.
One thing I’m discovering about getting out there right now– this is the first time I’m out of school since leaving the band, and I’m completely starting over. Nobody in the theater community really knows about my band. They don’t really know. I have to tell them. I have to kind of lead with that, which I don’t like doing. So it’s a problem.
Yeah, it would be really fantastic for me to say I have it figured out, how to play the roles I wanna play. But I actually don’t. The mechanism that puts these plays out and the number of people that see it, is really not up to me at all. I would love to play more serious roles. Certainly that’s my ambition. But frankly for now, the focus is on meeting casting directors and getting introduced to the community.
Uh, yeah. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I don’t hang out in clubs or go to bars or really participate in anything that I used to do when I was in Interpol, is that I truly want to start over. And I don’t want any kind of head start. I do and I don’t obviously, because I complain a lot about having to start over, because I’m 41.
But in terms of my own interest in theater, I consider it to be a necessary part of my process. I don’t want to ever get a gig because the director’s like a fan of Interpol or something like that. I would construe that as a fundamentally corrupting ingredient in the mix. I might be naive or idealistic in wanting this, but it’s an ideal. I want to do this for the art, for the art.
January 2010. I mean, I just… that’s a big question. That’s a huge question. The simplest answer to that is to construe the question more as wanting to ask, “Why not use your Interpol or your professional clout to also explore film, TV, etc.?” And I think the short answer is that I didn’t really have any.
I was not really mentally all that well while I was in Interpol. I had many substance and process addictions that I was coping with. And I was, you know, the classic VH1 Behind the Music story of upward rise and downward fall. The only difference was that— because I didn’t have such a good relationship with my bandmates— I wasn’t willing to be in the band with them while I experienced my crash.
There was a little crash before the third record [Our Love to Admire] but the big crash actually came afterwards. One of the reasons why it was necessary for me to be out of the band to experience that crash was because I wasn’t, at the time, willing to let anybody know about it. I didn’t want anyone in the music industry to see me fall that way. It was beyond anything, like, that I would want anyone to know about. It shook my very belief in the career I was even pursuing inside of music.
Essentially, yeah. For better or for worse, and it’s created quite an interesting dynamic, too. I truly have started over. I truly feel that I don’t have any kind of leg up whatsoever, at all. And again, that’s integral for my present process.
Most healthy. I think no good would have happened, for anyone, any party involved. I think as lamentable as some people feel my departure from the band is, it is the best case scenario because I think everyone involved has been better off as a result of my departure.
I don’t like phrase “we don’t talk.” That’s sort of like someone hammering a plaque into a rock and engraving it: “Thus they do not speak, in perpetuity.” And it’s a much more fluid situation than that. The fact of the matter is that I have not spoken to them in quite some time.
I haven’t spoke to Sam [Fogarino] or Paul [Banks] since I left the band, since I actually left our group counseling session together, which is where I announced that I was leaving. That was the last time that I saw them in the flesh. I saw Daniel [Kessler] a couple times after that— we actually met up— and then as things got more serious with my training, I just wasn’t ready to continue the friendship.
Obviously you got your shit together and you graduated from the NYU grad program and everything. But how did you decide to pursue this acting thing? When were you like, “This is what I need to go back to school for?”
[Carlos starred in a 2008 short film, My Friends Told Me About You, about a failed scholar grappling with drug-induced paranoia. He co-wrote the screenplay along with Daniel Ryan.]
For better or for worse, I was such a late bloomer with stuff. I went to college late. I got my degree from undergrad late. I was 28 when the first album [Turn on the Bright Lights] came out. That’s a little on the older side. While I was in the group I was still struggling with my identity as an artist. I was still trying music out, in my mind at least. And I didn’t know the band would be as successful as it was. So for me it’s been an experimental thing for a very, very long time. And that movie was me still trying to figure out what I’m trying to say and how I’m trying to say it.
At some point in time, I think the moment for me, and it’s funny to think that this is the occasion for it, but when Coldplay— our old manager was Coldplay’s manager— when they played Saturday Night Live, he offered us tickets. And when I felt so much titillation and excitement over all the skits— Jon Hamm was the host— and looking at how they were being performed. And then when Coldplay came on, I felt bored, quite frankly. I knew then that there was something going on with me, some kind of identity shift, really. It really troubled me.
At this point in time, I’m in a band whose manager is Coldplay’s manager, I reckon that we’re pretty serious. We’re flying around all over the place, we’re internationally known. I think I should have this figured out already, you know. Or at least, it would behoove me to have this figured out. And I didn’t. I did not have it figured out. I was looking more at what the cast of Saturday Night Live was doing for inspiration.
At Interpol shows people were screaming bloody murder [in reaction to] whatever kind of tie I was wearing and perhaps the shape of my holster, and the glimmer of the chrome clips on the holsters. It was much more about the spectacle.
In improv class people were similarly expressing that kind of adoration– they didn’t know who I was, it wasn’t like they were fans of me at that point– but they were listening to what I was saying. I was opening my mouth and I was talking. I think that might be the reason: an actor communicates by speech and for me, I consider myself a man of ideas, and music doesn’t really…There was a certain limit to it. There there were things I wanted to discuss. I wanted to influence. I wanted to do all sorts of things verbally, and of course there was no room for that [with Interpol]. Acting became a way for me to communicate.
I look at people and I try to figure out what’s going on behind their eyes. And in this city, there are just hundreds of stories walking past us. That’s where my mind goes. You can’t really communicate that through music. I need to be able to tell stories. We’re by the Drama Book Shop, that became my Bleecker Bob’s, if you will.
You had this very distinct style of dressing back when you were in Interpol, and you look very different now. Everything has shifted. I don’t think I would have even recognized you had I not known. Have you had an identity shift like this before?
Yes. That’s another thing. I’ve been a chameleon from day one. As soon as I got skillful at that sort of image making, I started to feel that image as a constricting suit of armor and I’d have to change it immediately.
I started out as a headbanger, but then that got too constricting so I turned into a hardcore punk. And then I didn’t like that, so I was like, “Well, fuck music altogether, I’m going to become a scholar.” So then I changed into a Dead Poet’s Society-style, Ivy League scholar and that’s when I went to NYU. That’s when I met Daniel [Kessler of Interpol] and I shifted back to, let me put it altogether, and that gave birth to the image people see when they look at Interpol.
The great challenge for me right now is living with the undeniable fact that one of those transformations was heavily documented. During one of those moments in my life, all of a sudden fame entered. For me it was absolutely thrilling, but just as constricting. That’s sort of the challenge I’m dealing with today, and it’s a big challenge.
I think I’ve stopped [transforming identities] because after a while it’s not cute anymore. After a while you have to become a man, a human being, which is essentially what I am today.
Sure, I love telling myself that I should have continued along with my scholarly pursuits and that was the plan, then it got derailed by Interpol. This is a very attractive story to me. But that’s not really the story. And most people don’t really give a shit about me, they care more about the music that has changed their lives, or the music that has affected them to some extent. That’s the story that they’re emotionally tied to. So my own kind of, “You need to know I was on my way to being a scholar,” it’s peripheral. And I try to remind myself of that when I get too caught up in what I want to do and what I want to get done.
Well, again, I don’t go to the same places, so it’s rare. There’s a coffee shop on the block that I live on that played it one morning, it was like eight in the morning, and I was just like [eyes wide open, stunned looking]. I was walking my dog and just waking up. That was interesting.
But for the most part, I don’t hear it. When I do, I hear it when my cast mates play tricks on me. In the dressing room before going on stage they’ll bring up an old YouTube video or something like that, like “Who’s this guy?” “Fuck you! Don’t do that!”
It’s very cruel. But it’s cute, too. That’s the experience I have now, like, wow I did that. But it’s just in another galaxy right now, and always will be. Yeah, I look at it and I feel immense pride, but conclusive pride. I feel like my work there was done. I don’t have any misgivings about it.
Oh yeah. Spalding Gray and Mike Daisey are my two inspirations. Mike Daisey was recently at the Public Theater doing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. This is a guy who sat there for almost three hours and did not get up once, had a glass of water he did not take a sip from, and just talked. If I had tried not to pay attention to him, it wouldn’t have been successful, that’s how captivating of a storyteller he is.
He subsequently experienced some controversy regarding some of his fact-checking about the working conditions in the factory in China that was making the iPhones. When I saw that show and I started watching old footage of Spalding Gray. I realized this was the aesthetic for me, in terms of how I wanted to reach people and personally just for myself.
Essentially I started with the shit that I love and hate: technology, sex, and paleoanthropology. Paleoanthropology I’m a huge fan of that and laymen’s Astrophysics, anything about Lucy or Neanderthals. All that stuff I gobble up. And primatology as well, it’s just a huge pet interest of mine.
And I was like, I wanna talk about this shit. I dunno, I just get so fired up about the idea that these beings that we once were had to survive on the savannah with just fire and some rocks. But we were human. That just fascinates me, so I wanted to tell stories about that. Of course that goes into technology, and there’s the typical iPhone rant in the piece as well, or an anti-internet rant really.
I also experienced my own fall from grace via technology from the band because Interpol became pretty big around the advent of YouTube and the smart phone. So there was a certain kind of novelty to a band’s identity taking shape during this time when technology was also advancing. When we started, Facebook didn’t exist, but by the time the second record came out, Facebook was up and ready and going.
So I also have my own personal nostalgia for the simplicity of how things were before. And I take things further and I say, what about all of this then? Maybe ancient homo sapiens had it right, even before ancient civilization. What’s the dignity of life there? That became the central focus for me for the piece.
What I wanted to do is have a piece where I sit behind a desk and talk to people: Let’s imagine what it is we’re losing on a day-to-day basis because of technology? Let’s think back to those times when things were visceral and more instinctual.
It’s not so much, here’s my story. It’s more, here’s all this cool shit and ideas I want to talk about and I’ll bring in my own personal details to add some blood and guts to it. There are some parts where I get very personal about my experiences. I’ve workshopped it quite a bit and I’m going to workshop it one more time at Stella Adler Studio of Acting. And I anticipate I will have it in somewhat more of a finished form soon.
This is another thing that I realized, because I’m also talking about the origin story of homo sapiens, I’m like, what’s my origin story? A lot of it has to do with the music I was listening to when I was young, my youthful anger, all the heavy metal I consumed when I was a teenager in the ‘80s and so forth. So there’s a Megadeth track I blast while I’m talking.
I realized recently that my piece is really ’90s, without me even trying to do it. And then I thought to myself, all the stuff I struggled with, that all happened in the ’90s. So there ’s a Smashing Pumpkins track in there, Nine Inch Nails, and “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
You also have a book project in the works, right?
I do. It’s in the very early stages. I anticipate that it’s going to be a sort of companion piece to the show, so it’s going to be much larger, it’s going to go much deeper. I don’t want to make it a straight-up, tell-all memoir, I wanted it to be more of an essay and more literary.
Yeah, absolutely. Someone who really got me at school, she said it really well: “You’ve already been famous. None of your classmates even have a fraction of an idea of what life was like as a famous person. You’ve already done, you stopped doing that, and then you started doing this thing. You have a very ambivalent, uneasy relationship with fame and you’re probably exuding that to all the agents.”
And it’s true, whenever [the agents] walked into the room at school, I would get so nervous. I could just feel the energy of money, fame, you know, providence, opportunity, all of that stuff you don’t have in classes. You’re just there to learn and that’s it. But as soon as those people (the people who are actually making things happen, like casting people in shows) showed up (like Alexa Vogel, who’s the casting director of The Wire and many an HBO show would come in and do workshops with us), I was like the worst person to work with. She was filming me doing a reading and I forgot my lines. I was squirming. I looked at my footage and I was like, “Oh god! That’s horrible! Why am I so bad?! This was in front of Alexa Vogel!”
I realized I have a certain relationship to all of this, because I was already there and I chose to do this. So yeah, I definitely want success in acting. But it’s gonna take some time.
In the one-man show I talk a little bit more about some of my painful experiences. I blamed fame and I blamed commerce and I know those things are necessary, I just have a very love/hate relationship with them. So I’m really drawn to being a successful actor, but I’m also like, “But it’s going to be more of the same crap that I encountered before!” So I’m just figuring out what it all means. It’s really, really tough.
Note: in a previous version of this interview Carlos was inaccurately quoted as saying he “had such a good relationship with his bandmates.”