Julian Casablancas is not the man he once was.
Life as we knew it changed after New York City was rocked to its core by events in 2001. Three months before that September’s tragedy, the seismic release of The Strokes’ debut album, ‘Is This It’ tore a new arsehole in the body of rock, ushering in the garage revolution of the Noughties, and establishing NYC as its nucleus. Catapulted to instant godlike status, The Strokes came to define the decade, but by its close, they appeared to have frayed and fractured.
Albert Hammond, Jr. was the first to strike out on his own, followed by Fab Moretti in his Little Joy side-project, then Nikolai Fraiture released his solo effort under the name Nickel Eye. Nick Valensi, while not pursuing his own individual career, was busy helping out his bandmates’ and the likes of Devendra Banhart and Regina Spektor. All this and the underwhelming reviews of third album ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ seemed to spell the end of the Big Apple’s finest.
‘Phrazes For The Young’, Julian’s own solo debut, came at the tail end of 2009, and revealed the decidedly electronic sound he’d only previously hinted at in The Strokes. In the wake of its success, Julian became a father. Growing up and moving on was supposedly the order of the day… Then came the news that The Strokes were indeed reuniting for a fourth album, and were coming to the UK in June for just two festival appearances – headlining the RockNess and Isle Of Wight events.
This is an extended transcript from an article that appears in the 50th issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from May 7th. You can read the full issue online HERE and subscribe to Clash Magazine HERE.
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But it wasn’t all so easy. As Julian confesses to Clash, bringing the old team back together would mean some big changes, including an egalitarian unit of commitment that reflected the band’s five-way wage split, and the reigning in his of his own asserted authority.
Older, wiser and slightly less autocratic, this is the new Julian Casablancas.
You’re criss-crossing around the States at the moment. How is the tour going?
Yeah, we’re doing our first real tour. We’ve only played a few shows so far, but it’s been nice to get on the road and play.
Your schedule is packed – lots of driving to and from venues. You’ll be seeing a lot of highways over the next couple of weeks.
Yeah, but it’s been kinda fun though. We’ve got the bus and it’s been fun – we’ve got movies, games, good folks… It’s been fun – probably the most fun I’ve had on tour, that I can remember.
What’s your popularity like in the States compared to the UK?
It really depends on where you go. Each city has their own kind of vibe. I would say it fluctuates – New York is probably the best, followed by LA, then Toronto maybe. Montreal is really good. The crowds have been great – they’ve been my favourite kinda shows because people are showing up like, ‘What is this gonna be?’ They’re not sure. I’ve always loved – even with The Strokes – trying to win over a crowd, you know? It’s pretty tight what we do and it’s pretty complex, and I think by the end of the show people are just like, ‘Wow, this is rad’. I love that feeling of seeing the difference between the end and the beginning of the show. It’s pretty cool.
I saw you when you played the Forum in London, it was a great night.
Yeah, we were getting there – I don’t think we were quite… Did you go on the first or second night?
The second night. You looked like you were having fun.
Yeah, it was fun.
You’ve got quite a few people in your band. Does it feel good to be a band leader?
Yeah, I mean that’s pretty much my function. But I do that in The Strokes too, kinda.
Have your band turned into collaborators? Do you work with them in creating songs or do they just play live with you?
Well, it’s been tricky because some of them…they’re all really rad dudes, first of all, but also really rad musicians. Yeah, it’s been interesting. Even if they would come up with something almost cooler than the original song, it’s tough because people…it’s something that I feel like when I go see a band live – if they change it from the record sometimes it’s a little annoying, for me. I kinda like to keep it consistent, so the trick was really to make the band work the way the record works, which was a little complicated because the whole record was not a live band – it was a bunch of different stuff put together carefully. Sometimes in the verse there would be three instruments and then in the chorus there’s five, or vice versa, you know what I mean? So there’s people playing keyboards and then they switch to a ride cymbal or bass – it’s so crazy. But yeah, maybe in the future, I dunno.
Have your feelings about any of the songs changed since you’ve been playing them live?
Not really, no. I think you strive to just do the record. It depends on the song… For the most part I feel like the recorded final versions of the song are pretty good, so it’s trying to get to that level – the tightness and the right balance of sounds and the rhythmic chemistry.
Is it difficult to switch between your musical responsibilities? Your mindset is all about the solo tour but then you’ll have to get into the Strokes world next month…
I don’t think it will be that tricky. I’ve got like a month between the two.
Have you written any songs while on this tour that might make a second album?
I don’t really write on the road, but before that I’ve got a bunch of stuff for I don’t know what. But I’m always busy – I just need the time to figure out what to do with them.
You once said that you never really wanted to go solo – was it something that you were forced to do or felt compelled to do?
Yeah. I put my life into The Strokes. I was trying to pull back as much as possible to make other people bring songs to the band – if someone wrote a song they would be more likely to just put it on their own solo record than ever try to even bring it to the band, which is weird because we split everything equally. But anyway, this is all stuff in the past that we’ve worked out. These aren’t issues anymore, I’m just taking you back three or four years. We started working on the songs and people didn’t seem that into it, and then I found out that people were doing solo records, so I was like, ‘Okay, this is not the right time. Why don’t you guys do what you gotta do’. Yeah, even though the band wasn’t spiritually ready for a record, I still felt like I had stuff to do. I was messing around with some keyboardy stuff… I kinda felt like I had to do something.
It gave you the opportunity to follow your own muse. Did you relish the freedom of your own project?
Well, I mean there’s two points to that. Yeah, like I said, I pulled back so much because I just wanted it to work and for people to be happy. I mean I’ve written all The Strokes’ guitar solos and a lot of the stuff, back in the day I was pretty involved on all levels, but for the future Strokes I’m trying really hard to pull away. But then when it wasn’t enough, people still kinda needed to go out and venture on their own. When I was doing the solo record, I was like, ‘Okay, there’s zero compromise – I can do whatever I wanna do’, and I realised that I do enjoy that a lot. I think if anything it made me realise that I’d like to do both.
I read that you said you could have made the album weirder than it was. What stopped you getting so far out?
Like I probably said, it’s because I didn’t want people to think it was like weird vanity project, like a solo of abstract sounds, you know? I didn’t want people to write it off like, ‘Okay, he just wanted to do something weird’. It’s not like I compromised the integrity of anything, but I definitely leaned towards bigger choruses and slightly safer, bigger sounds as opposed to some kind of broken, distorted, out-of-key weirdness – which I would probably enjoy more myself, but I didn’t want to scare people away first.
You could have made ‘Metal Machine Music Part Two’.
Well, not that weird! I just felt like, ‘Next time’. One step at a time. I’m still happy with the way I’ve gone about it so far, so we’ll see.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while making the solo album?
The main thing I learned was that whatever album I ever want to make in the future, I definitely want to work with live musicians in a room, to hear stuff. Because building a song from scratch is a pain in the ass. Basically you programme all the drums…you’re like layering it, so by the end, if you realise you wanna cut something short, you’re mutilating stuff and it’s not very organic. It’s like I write the guitar part, the keyboard part, the bass part, the drum part and the melody, but I’ve actually never heard them all together. For the most part it works, but doing it live, just hearing it, means you can take it a little further. You can hear it immediately and think, ‘Oh, let’s try it like this’ and get instant results, instead of spending a week building it and then having to pull it all apart.
Do you become less precious with the music too, feeling like you can record and delete stuff at your will?
Yeah, I think so, that too. But I want to get it right. Someone from a distance might think I’m being a perfectionist, because it takes time, but I just want to get to that certain place where I feel like it’s cool, and when it sounds right I’ll leave it alone. But sometimes it takes a while to get there, so… So – I like the word ‘so’ in a way. I always start a new sentence at the end of a finished sentence, I don’t know why.
You’ve admitted before that you’re very self-critical – what do you give yourself the hardest time over?
I try to keep it simple. If I think it’s amazing I’m not gonna fiddle with it too much. If I listen to it honestly and I try to put on my hardest critic hat and it doesn’t like blow me away – it’s not like amazing – I’ll try to figure out what makes it better.
Are you critical about your own voice?
Sure. I think I realised something recently about my voice. I always feel like I don’t have a good voice technically. People say, ‘You’ve got a great voice’, and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But I think it’s something that I wouldn’t trade – I feel confident that I can make things sound cool. Like, I remember I tried doing a song with someone else, and it’s funny, I can just sing in the melody… Maybe I don’t have the best range or the most stunningly accurate pitch, but I feel like I can sing a line and make it sound cool. Whereas some people who can sing better still perform and it sounds cheesy.
Do you look after your voice?
Um…yeah. I used to not at all ever warm up – just smoke and drink and didn’t care – but as I became honest with myself I would compare warming up and not, and it was a pretty big difference. Warming up makes the show better. People pay money to go see the show.
Do you think you or your image is often misrepresented by people, and if so, do you try to dispel things or just leave it?
You know, not really lately. To be honest, ever since I’ve been doing stuff of my own, I feel like everything’s been pretty positive. I don’t have four other people speaking on my behalf – they don’t always represent how I feel. With The Strokes, yeah I often feel kinda misrepresented, and I feel like the pressure’s usually weird. But with the solo thing, no, I think it’s been pretty positive and nice so far.
You’ve got a Twitter profile. Do you like having that contact with your fans and having them know what you’re doing or thinking?
It’s tricky. I mean, the whole Twitter thing, to be honest, I’m not such a fan. I mean, I think the idea is pretty cool, but there’s just some inherent vanity about it that’s kinda gross. As a struggling solo artist I feel like you gotta do it just to compete or you’re almost at a disadvantage or something, you know? I don’t recommend restaurants or talk about the movies I like necessarily – except for the MacGruber movie, which I saw, which I thought was funny – but anyway, my point is… (Laughs) That was an inside joke so I guess I shouldn’t have brought that up. But yeah, I mean, we talked about it with all the people I work with, and I just had a list of these weird random thoughts that I would never use for anything. So I just gave a list to [tour manager] Richard, who does the Twitter, and he just kinda posts them randomly. As well as like thanking cities when we play shows.
Do you think it has blurred or demystified the boundaries between artists and their fans?
I think I still try to keep it slightly mystified. I mean, there are some artists, I think, who are like reality stars through Twitter, and that actually helps their career. I mean, the nature of reality television is not really… I guess they’re still mystified in the way that you want to live with them or see them or be their friend live, but I dunno; it’s a different thing.
It can be an invasion of privacy too. If you don’t want press intrusion you shouldn’t put your life online…
Well, I think it’s different. I think if you’re happy with the music that’s the main thing, and the creative thing you do, I think, is more of a fun way to communicate with fans. I think it’s just in this day and age a way of, without having to do anything, just being funny or witty or having your personality help make you famous. I’m not quite sure; the whole is kinda weird. Like I said, I try to do enough of it so that it’s not like a disadvantage, but I’m not super into it.
How do you think fatherhood has changed you?
It’s still pretty early. I definitely see how I’m going to probably generally change, because you’re thinking of different stuff, but I dunno. Everyone told me that everything was gonna change, but I don’t see that really. I mean, they’ve changed for the great and it’s been magical, but I don’t see this change like I gotta get a different haircut and move to the suburbs. I think it’s the most exciting and best thing, but I think they make too much of the other parts of their lives sometimes revolve around it. I haven’t quite put my finger on it – it’s only been eleven weeks, so I haven’t experienced fatherhood by any stretch.
So it just feels like a new experience that you’re getting used to?
It just feels more natural than anything else, you know what I mean? But yeah, a new magical dude in the family.
How do you think you might evolve as a father – will you be the cool dad or the strict dad?
I think you have to be strict but just have to be loving and encouraging at the same time. I think that’s the key. I guess I don’t want him to be too entitled, so we’ll definitely try to keep him down to earth, and be strict with him but also be loving and encouraging, like I said. That’s the main thing that I see as important right now. I mean, not yet – I think six months is when you start… For six months, if the baby cries and needs something you have to give it to him, but I think after that then you have to kinda start showing him, I dunno, how to be a good dude.
If he grew up and wanted to be in a band would you support that decision?
[Exhales deep breath] Man, I don’t know. I personally think it would be cooler if he did something else, but we’ll see. I mean, I’ll talk to him about stuff hopefully. He’ll do whatever he wants to do, but I’ll always be there if he wants advice. I guess I don’t want to make him feel weird about anything, but I’ll try to be honest with him. I will definitely, if he asks, try to advise him, but that might lead to weirdness.
You recently moved back to New York from Los Angeles. Did this feel like a homecoming?
Yes, for sure. You know, the main thing I think that I felt was the excitement. Because LA is like a vortex, it sucks you in. Because the weather’s nice and the food is good and healthy – it’s nice living: you can get a nice outdoor space that’s so much cheaper than New York. I don’t know why so much was made about me living out there. I think it was because I was there for five months and I embraced it, but it was temporary. When I got back to New York, the main thing I noticed was just that New York is the centre of excitement. Although if you stay there too long it can make you anxious and it can make you feel oppressed a little bit, but it really is the most exciting place.
When The Strokes emerged in 2001 it felt like all eyes were on New York – the music scene was throwing up dozens of bands…
The music scene threw up all over itself. (Laughs)
What’s the scene like now? Do you manage to get out and see bands?
Well, now the whole thing is Brooklyn, Williamsburg. That’s pretty much the cultural centre of indie rock, or of new music. But no, I don’t really check out that much stuff. I listen to a lot of stuff online, and I haven’t seen that many new bands – I’ve just been kinda busy all over the place – but eventually… I really want to see Beirut live, that’s a band I’m just dying to see live. That’s about it.
There were mixed reviews about the last Strokes album. Does that mean there is more pressure now to deliver next time around?
Um…no, not really. No. (Laughs)
Now that you’ve resolved the creative issues in the band, has that made the group a different and more cohesive unit?
Yeah, I think it’s different, for sure. I think we’re getting a lot more from all the band members. The last record was like a half-assed attempt at that. Again, I was trying to pull back and trying to have other people write stuff. You’d bring in a song – not just me, anyone – and people would just kinda noodle on it, jam on it, but then they’ll be like, ‘meh’. I mean, that’s the old Strokes. In the early days, unless you brought in every part, it wouldn’t get done sometimes. So that was kind of a transition thing. I think hopefully this new record is more in the direction of everyone being equal, but it’s not so half-assed. Everyone brought songs and then allowed me to kinda mutilate and edit as musical director or whatever, and everyone just kinda trusts each other, you know?
Do you think the other guys benefitted from doing their own solo albums?
Sure. I mean, the main benefit that I can see is that people now would write a song and bring it to the band instead of doing it solo. They needed to go out and do songs on their own before they could do that, so for that, yeah, I think it helped.
So, were problems resolved with a deliberate meeting to discuss things, or did you just start playing music and let the problems work out themselves?
I think time helped, and more communication helped. We’ll see; it’s like ‘to be continued’. We’ll see if things are okay with the band when we’re on tour. When we’re not on tour, everyone’s super nice and chilled and it’s all great. It’s just when you go on tour that things get weird.
You’re playing RockNess and Isle Of Wight festivals in June. Are you excited to be coming to do festivals again?
Yeah. Festivals have always been weird to me, because I’ve never gone… Like, everything in music that I do, I can relate to when I was a kid or when I was a music fan, just that first level of trying to get bootlegs or trying to see videos, you know what I mean? But I never went to a festival, so I don’t know. I can imagine, I guess, what it would be like, but I don’t understand… You know, I can’t relate to it in that personal way, like, ‘Oh, when I go to festivals it was all about the headliner’, or, ‘It was all about the tent’, or it didn’t matter where you played, it would just matter if the crowd was like this – I don’t have any of those references, you know what I mean? So it’s fun, but I don’t really know what I just did. Because it’s different than a concert. Do you know what I’m saying? I dunno.
The thing I don’t like about festivals is the feeling that you’re missing out on something good somewhere else – it’s almost too much choice sometimes.
Right, right. Yeah, that’s the thing; I don’t know if I would like that. Like, if I grew up in England, I dunno if I’d be like, ‘Festivals is my favourite thing’, or if it was like, ‘Oh man, I hate festivals’. I don’t know. (Laughs) I think it would be great, because you would be sixteen and you’d go in a tent and take mushrooms or something – that sounds like fun – but in terms of musical structure or line-ups or what stages are cool… Like, I don’t even understand: what’s cooler, to play like 6.30 on the main stage or like 10.30 on the tent stage? What’s cooler? I don’t know.
It just depends how drunk the audience is, really. So probably the later the better.
Right. That’s what I figured. (Laughs)
RockNess is on the banks of Loch Ness in Scotland. Have you ever been up that way before?
I don’t think so. That’s obviously north of Edinburgh/Glasgow? Is it past the Highlands?
It’s in the Highlands. Maybe you can go and look for the monster.
Right, the Loch Ness monster? (Laughs)
Will these festival appearances be an opportunity to play new Strokes songs?
I don’t know, really. I really don’t know. I’m sure we’ll play at least one new song, but I don’t know what. We’ll see. If everyone feels strongly about playing no new songs, then I’ll be like, ‘Okay, let’s not play any new songs’, you know what I mean?
Going with the flow is easier?
Do you know when we can expect the new Strokes album?
I think January. I was told not to predict anymore. But I’m pretty sure it should be out in January.
The album was recorded in New York?
Yeah, in New York, with some work upstate.
Is it difficult to work with a band that’s dotted around the country?
No, I think we pretty much agree on New York. People live in LA, but they don’t ask us to come to LA.
But LA is warmer!
For me, there’s something about recording in New York – I was just thinking about it literally yesterday for the first time, in terms of if I could have a choice. Because everywhere I’ve ever recorded has kinda been like a logical choice or out of necessity. But there’s something about recording in a nice studio in New York. Maybe it’s just because it’s expensive, I dunno. Recording in LA is nice though.
Last year ‘Is This It’ was voted the best album of the Noughties. Was that accolade weird for you?
No, it was great! (Laughs) I’ll take it. I’ll take anything positive over negative things. I’m psyched. There were some people that really loved it from the beginning, so to those people, thank you, that was awesome. But it was nice to be validated by…it felt like there were a lot of people who were like, ‘Okay yeah, we’ll see where they are in ten years’.
Why do you think that record has lasted so well and continues to be popular?
That I don’t know. That’s your job. (Laughs) Those things weird me out if I think about it.
What do you think the next decade will hold for you and The Strokes?
I don’t know, man. We’ll see how touring goes, and then I’ll have a better idea, I guess.
Are you a ‘one day at a time’ kinda guy?
Yeah, pretty much. One week at a time, with a loose three-month plan ahead of me.
That’s what managers are for!
No, managers are more like six months or a year ahead!
Words by Simon Harper