Four ghostly-pale young men dressed i near-identical black suits are slowly shuffling up a gangplank and onto the deck of a125-foot yacht docked in the San Diego Marina. They look exhausted, hungover, and utterly out of place like the cast of Reservoir Dogs doing a guest spot on the The Love Boat and more than a little bewildered by the curious string of events that has led them here today. ''This,'' one of them sighs, as he gingerly climbs aboard, careful not to scuff his shiny black shoes, ''is surreal.'' Two years ago, this impeccably if gloomily attired foursome was on the cusp of alt-rock greatness, the most achingly hip band in Manhattan. Interpol's 2002 debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, was a slow-build indie smash, selling an impressive but still respectably fringe 300,000 copies. Critics lauded them as the second coming of Joy Division. Fans bowed before a new Radiohead. Their tunes (like ''PDA'' and ''Obstacle 1'') were blasted all over their native New York, from fashion catwalks to Brooklyn boîtes to Madison Square Garden (where Michael Stipe crooned an acoustic version of Bright Lights' ''NYC'' as a post-post-9/11 homage at an R.E.M. concert last October).
But now, on this balmy late-August afternoon, they find themselves lost at sea metaphorically speaking on a ship named Endless Dreams, performing as the onboard entertainment for a record retailers' schmooze cruise sponsored by their label, Matador Records. For the next few hours, Interpol will play their neo-new-wave garage rock for a crowd of 250 khaki-clad record-store buyers who, after enjoying a Mexican-themed buffet of quesadillas and tequila shots, will get to decide the fate of the group's long-in-the-making (perhaps too long) second album, Antics.
''It looks like we're playing a wedding,'' groans drummer Sam Fogarino, 36. He scans the rooftop deck, dotted with white plastic chairs and a tiny makeshift stage. He casts a rueful glance at his buttoned-up, pinstriped self. ''Suddenly the suit? Not so cool.''
It looked pretty cool back when Interpol composed of guitarist Daniel Kessler, 29, singer-guitarist Paul Banks, 26, and bassist Carlos Dengler, 30 first started playing small East Village venues back in 1998, while attending NYU. (Fogarino replaced original drummer Greg Drudy in 2000.) In fact, it was their Goldfinger-era James Bond look that made these alterna-rockers stand out as men of mystery among their musty vintage-T and Converse Chuck-wearing peers. (''We've always dressed this way,'' says Kessler, straightening his gray silk necktie. ''This isn't a gimmicky stage thing. This is how we would look, whether we were in the band or not.'') But it wasn't just their sartorial splendor that drew in audiences; it was also Interpol's sound, the richly textured, velvety dark tones that bubbled beneath their angsty, reedy wails.
''They've always been this magnetic band,'' says Brandon Curtis, singer-keyboardist-bassist for the Secret Machines, a New York group that often shared the stage with Interpol during their early dive-bar days. ''I remember it would be packed when they would come on stage and then clear out as soon as they were done.''