Music When The Lights Go Out: Catching Up With The Libertines’ Gary Powell

Drummer talks the band's new hotel, touring, and their next album...

Although the highs and the lows, the countless bust-ups, media scandals, and addiction struggles have left them dizzy, The Libertines have somehow defied the odds.

And with summer festivals, a new record and even a Libertines hotel in the pipeline, the likely lads are as busy as they’ve ever been. Yet Pete, Carl, Gary and John now find themselves in the curious situation of becoming a middle-aged band.

Clash writer Liam Turner speaks to drummer Gary Powell about what’s kept them going through the years and how they aim to combat the prospect of fading into obscurity…

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Hi Gary! How’s your wrist?

Not too bad now. I was in a lot of pain, but I had a little bit of a steroid injection right before Meltdown and a course of drugs, so I could still play. It’s on the mend now.

How did you break it?

I’d like to say I was fighting Hells Angels who were attacking a woman and a child but actually I just slipped and fell.

You’ve been playing a lot of festivals this summer with both The Libertines and The Specials. How’s that been going?

It’s been going great, and the past few weeks have been extremely weird. I just ended up in Pasadena, California, playing with The Specials at the Arroyo Seco Weekend, and I met Jeff Goldblum – he was playing the same festival. I went to talk to him after his show, and he was just a genuinely nice guy. It was quite a surreal experience. I was like, wow, what the heck am I doing? And sartorially speaking, he was definitely the best-looking person there – he looked amazing. He’s a Hollywood superstar.

What did you talk to Jeff about?

Just about how we got into music really – although at first I was like, Oh my God, I’ve seen all your films! He’s a purveyor of jazz. He loves jazz, and doing wacky things with contemporary music, so it was really good to talk to him about that.

What have the audiences been like at the festivals you’ve played so far this summer with The Libertines?

They’ve been amazing, yeah, they’ve been great. The dynamic is changing with the new people that have arrived with us as well, so it’s been great. It’s been a learning curve, as well, because over time we’ve all changed our approach to how we perform the music, because we have been around for a while, and life has taught us many things. And with that, we’ve readdressed our own individual motivation to how we play the music.

A lot of our songs, like ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’, ‘You’re My Waterloo’ and ‘What Katie Did’ for example, are a lot slower now, because we realised that the first time around when we recorded them, there was a lot of pent up tension there. Either we were enjoying ourselves more than we should’ve done, or we wanted to get out of the studio as quick as possible. Whereas now we’re trying to figure our emotional connectivity to the music. So, it’s always changing for us.

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There’s a few fast songs in your set. Is there one that tires you out the most?

There’s a few. ‘I Get Along,’ which is quite aggressive and quite fast. ‘Horrorshow’ is up there.

Is that why you usually start with ‘Horrorshow’, to get it out of the way?

Well, no, we don’t anymore actually. And I figured out it’s because it takes me a little while to warm up, so I need to start off with slower songs before I pick up the pace. Also, you walk out onto the stage, and you pretend not to be nervous, but inside there is always something going on, and your heart rate jumps up a little bit. So, the last thing you want to do is play something really hard and really fast.

You’ve been going for quite a while now, and you don’t have the biggest discography. Do you ever get bored of playing the same songs?

No, they’re always fun to play. You know, it’s not just about the music, it’s about the reception of the music. For us to get tired of what we’re playing that’s like The Rolling Stones getting tired of what they play – not that I’m making the comparison or anything. And we’re in a very fortunate position of having three albums out there now that are liked enough by the general public that we can just play those three albums.

I also think that one of the major differences between us and other artists out there is that when we perform a show it’s fifty-fifty reciprocal. It’s about the audience getting into it and having as good a time as possible.

Do you think you could go on for as long as The Stones?

No. It’s as simple as that. I genuinely think that The Stones are a one-off. I don’t think there’ll ever be anyone like them again in the world.

You’ve recently been renovating a hotel in Margate which you’ve called The Albion Rooms. How’s that coming along?

Slowly but surely, but it’s going well. The studio is done now, which is great. It was all Carl’s idea really, to have somewhere of our own to go and record, something that really does bind us together.

Y’know, we recorded the album three years ago now, and then we were on the road a lot, and there was never anything that really bound us together apart from the music we were playing. But yeah, going back to the studio, it is going well. It has been great that we have time to record in the studio, and then we have time to hang out for a little bit, grab some food and then go back to the hotel.

If we do stay up, we’ll have a quick drinkie, listen back to what we’ve been doing beforehand and then go to bed. There’s no rush or angst about the sessions anymore because, y’know what?, we’re going to wake up again in the morning, we’re going to see each other again and we’re going to do the same thing all over again. It’s a real calm environment.

We still have a lot of work to do on this hotel itself, though, before it becomes properly liveable for the general public. It’s still in its very early stages.

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When do you think you’ll get around to properly opening the hotel?

Well, the bar will be open by September, and then hopefully the rest of the hotel will follow suit and should be at least be ready by the beginning of the New Year. But we’re in a pretty good place to take out time. I mean, no one’s going to be rushing to get their flip-flops on and run into the sea in January, are they?

You’ve been selling some of the hotel’s bricks to fans to partly fund the hotel. Have you sold all of them?

No, they’re not all sold out. I’ve got a fairly large chunk believe it or not. There’s still a few that need to be signed. I haven’t signed one yet – no one’s offered me a brick to sign. If someone asks if I want to sign a brick I think I’ll just take the door, scribble on it something like, ‘Gary’s Room – Keep Out!’

You mentioned you’ve been using the hotel’s studio. What have you been recording?

We’ve been recording for the new album. I don’t want to get into that heritage act environment. I still think we’re viable enough to bring something to the table and have it feel fresh and new.

Without trying to put him down, it’s like Elton John records a new track and if it doesn’t sound like the Lion King, you pretty much know it’s going to be rubbish. And if it does sound like the Lion King, you know it’s going out to your mum, your grandmother and maybe your niece. Other than that, no one else is really going to listen to it. I’d rather not get into that scenario.

What will the new record sound like?

The last thing in the world we would attempt to do would be to reinvent the wheel. We have our own identity, and we’ll stick to our own identity as much as we can do. It’s what made us who we are. But having said that, there is an opportunity for us to investigate, and to investigate new approaches to what we do.

You know, I’ve got my own studio here, and I’m quite heavily into making electronic music, and while I’m not saying we’re necessarily going down the electronic music path, there are certainly elements of that that can be added to it. It would also be nice to start messing around with interesting tempos. Our last album was quite conventional in our approach to tempos and music. If you stripped the music back and took the lyrics off it literally could’ve been anybody playing it. It didn’t feel as special as the first ones.

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Which will come first, the hotel or the record?

The hotel. We were hoping to have the record out in September, but for one reason or another, it hasn’t happened. I think it’s partly because we’ve been so focused on getting the hotel up and running that the creative mojo has kind of waned. So, we need to get back into that frame of mind, of not just making a record, but making something that’s quite special. We’re just going to take our time and do what we need to do.

The Libertines have a turbulent history. How tight are the four of you as a unit now?

We’re extremely tight. I’d go as far to say that they are my best friends. I can’t speak for them – I wouldn’t even attempt to speak for the guys – but they’re my best friends. We had a heart-to-heart a little while back, and we said that, no matter what we’ve done and what we’ve achieved, the only reason we had that opportunity is because our fates and paths are intertwined with one another. The one thing that ties us all together is that we started this path together. It’s something you can never ignore. And I think a lot more artists should remember that, as well.

When they do get into a massive argument about publishing or whatever, the only reason that you’re in the position you’re in right now is because you started this journey together. So, you need to treat each other with a bit of respect. We went through so much of that in the early days.

One moment that sticks in my mind was with Mick Jones. We were talking about the good old days of The Clash, and one thing he said to me was that one of the biggest regrets in his entire life was not mending bridges with Joe Strummer – he was his best friend before they split it. The band split up with ill feelings, which isn’t how it should be. The one thing you should never take for granted is the relationship you had before it all started.

We were friends, and then something happened, and we almost became alien to each other. Okay, part of it was drugs, but part of it was the amount of pressure that was placed on us by elements of the industry. We didn’t know how to cope with it. Hindsight taught us to look back at ourselves and be honest with the decisions that we made and be honest with the relationships that we thought we had.

In 2010, it was kind of like, why have we been apart for so long? I just do not understand it. Because when it comes down to it, there aren’t any better people I would prefer to hang out with than Carl, John and Peter.

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Words: Liam Turner

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