Between a hazy past and hyped-up future, Julian Casablancas steps out alone and finds room to breathe away from The Strokes.
With these guys, it’s all about the big JC. After the New York quintet went on hiatus in 2006, a succession of solo records has confirmed the superiority of Julian Casablancas. The wan soft-rock of guitarist Albert Hammond Jr inspired general indifference, while bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fab Moretti made similarly inoffensive records as, respectively, Nickel Eye and Little Joy.
Always The Strokes’ chief songwriter, Casablancas finally made a solo foray in late 2009 – and delivered a lesson in humility to his moonlighting band mates. Simply, Phrazes for the Young was the best record a Stroke had delivered since Room on Fire in 2003. Opener ‘Out of the Blue’ set the tone. After a burst of sci-fi synths, a Strokes-like jangle of guitar cued a trademark Casablancas vocal: half languid drawl, half anguished croon. The song told a story of soured success and thirst for vengeance, over the sound of various Strokes shifting in their seats.
Over its eight-song span, Phrazes for the Young offered a rich mix of breezy melodies, complex time signatures and eighties-sounding keyboard riffs. Yet lyrically, it was a consistently downcast affair: ‘11th Dimension’, for example, found Casablancas muttering about “bootleggers and vultures” before deciding to “forgive them – even though they are not sorry”. One wondered how happy Casablancas was with life in The Strokes.
The band has since reconvened to start work on a new album ahead of dates in the summer. Phrazes for the Young implied that they may have one or two issues to work through, and an interview with Casablancas ahead of its release deepened that impression. Sure, he was dismissive of questions on intra-band competition or difficulties – but also strikingly enthusiastic about the “freedom” that comes with working solo.
HUCK: This is you putting your own name on the record and being the focal point. How does the song-writing differ from The Strokes? Were there a lot of pent-up ideas awaiting execution?
Julian Casablancas: I didn’t think like that before I started at all, but it was definitely nice to be able to explore any possibilities I desired, y’know? With the band there’s definitely a little more… definitely parameters, whether it be what instruments people play or whether it just be people’s opinions. To be honest it was really fun to be able to follow an idea without being told it’s a bad idea. Not to say that I didn’t have bad ideas that I scratched along the way – probably half of them were. You know what? More than half. Probably eighty percent of what you do is not good. I think editing is probably the biggest part of it…
You’ve always been famously exacting with The Strokes’ records. Did the same obsessive drive kick in with this record or did you feel less pressured?
I would say it’s similar, or maybe even more pressure. You know, I think it’s not just that I’m obsessive… It’s a desire to get everything right, for everything to be perfect, to be ready – yeah, that does take a lot of work. Maybe that’s obsessive, I don’t know. It’s time consuming for sure. But I think it really pays off in the end. Some people say, ‘You’re never happy’ or ‘The record will never be finished until it’s ripped out of his hands’… It’s not like it’s never finished for me. I just think it’s taken a while to finish the ones that I’ve done. I mean, I’m done with it, I’m happy with it. I can’t say that about all the records I’ve done, because we’ve had deadlines and it wasripped out of my hands.
Is there a particular Strokes record that you wish you’d had more time with?
Yeah, I think the last one, maybe, we could have worked on a little more…
Was the solo record a chance to explore different musical influences? Clearly, some of it’s written on a keyboard, there’s more eighties-sounding stuff…
I definitely had more freedom to do that, so it came out more like that just because I didn’t have guitar players waiting to play, you know what I mean?
Obviously the other members pursued their own projects. Was there a competitive element that crept in when you saw what they were doing?
I would say no. Not really. I mean, I don’t know, maybe subconsciously in my mind. But I don’t feel that.
How do you see the future in terms of keeping the two things going? Has the first one whetted your appetite to do more solo records and continue that in parallel with the band?
Possibly. I mean, it could go a few different ways. It might get absorbed in the band – or vice versa! I’m kidding. But I think I’ll always want to play Strokes shows and do Strokes records or whatever, but… it’s not only me in the band.
Looking back, did you find it stressful when The Strokes blew up and became so famous? Did being under such intense scrutiny wear you down after a while?
I wouldn’t say so, no. Sometimes if you’re touring and you do a lot of interviews, it can be psychologically weird. You know that it’s going out to a wider view of people and it’s, like… It’s the questions that state facts to you, over and over. It’s always like, ‘So, this record is so hard – are you aggressive because of this and this and that?’ And about the same record, the next interview will be, ‘This record is so soft. Are you going soft now? Is it because you’re married?’ It’s constantly having to be told what everyone thinks about you. After a while, it’s like the opposite of what I would imagine psychiatry would do. Building up a bunch of ideas…
To be honest, touring – the travelling and the playing and all that, that’s never been a big deal. I always find I don’t mind that. It’s not a big deal. It’s just, sometimes the energy level dips below having that constant drive of wanting to play music all the time, so you just – in your free minutes – start watching TV just to decompress, and you go six months without writing a song… That kind of thing gets me personally frustrated. But… No. Any kind of success you get is great.
Obviously you were seen as leading lights of the New York scene of the early part of this decade. When I spoke to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs [in April 2009], Karen O said she’d moved to LA because she was grieving the death of that scene. Do you feel that there was something there in New York that you now miss, or was that never on your radar?
Um [pauses]… What was on my radar was, I think, a small group of friends – I wouldn’t call it a scene, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like everyone had a certain kind of outfit and haircut and always went to a bunch of different venues. To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t remember it so well! I always thought they were trying to make more of a scene than there was, to be honest. But having said that, whatever little there was has changed.
Manhattan has pretty much moved to Brooklyn. I think Brooklyn is pretty much the centre of new music. I feel there’s more of a scene now, there’s so many bands in New York and LA, everyone’s like, ‘Have you seen this band and that band?’ I don’t remember that so much. Other than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and us, and maybe like the Liars – but I didn’t even see the Liars that much – I don’t know. I mean, I guess The Walkmen too. But these weren’t people that I personally hung out with, you know what I mean?
In hindsight I can think of bands from New York from that time that were cool. Maybe they all hung out, I don’t know. When we first started there was a bunch of bands that no one really would know now, you know? But I wouldn’t say that ever grew into a scene. We came out of that bunch of bands but I think we came on so strong from the beginning that we would kind of… It’s not like we would make enemies, but I think people were like, ‘Wow’. I think people were sometimes surprised at our vibe. So sometimes that can cause a little bit of competition. Because we’re all friends and we started different bands and we’re like, ‘Yeah, go dudes!’ We’re playing with these guys tonight and then… It’s more complex than it seemed to me, but maybe I’m being overcomplicated. If people want to see it that way, and people want to think it was so, I’m not going to dispute it either. Again, I’m not a good eyewitness because I don’t remember things so well.
Was that because of the alcoholic intake at the time?
I think a little bit of everything. In general, I’m hanging out with people and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I saw that person three weeks ago’ and they’re like, ‘That was two years ago.’ So I don’t trust my own memory. With some things I’m good. Faces: I can remember random faces from ten years, twenty years ago, but //time// memory is very weak.
Did shows change a lot when you cut out the drinking? You gave up alcohol a few years ago, right?
Yeah… I think it made the behaviour a little less whatchamacallit – it’s like a Catch-22: it’s like you perform way better, technically, but don’t act as kind of reckless, which people obviously love. You walked onstage and you tripped and people kind of liked that… But then at the same time, you get that wasted and the songs sound pretty terrible. So it’s weird. Musical people will be like, ‘I thought the show was pretty terrible.’ And then tone-deaf people will be like, ‘That was AM-AZ-ING!’ So it’s really, like, you’ve got to pick your poison, and I think I’ve – well, I guess I’ve chosen not poison. That’s a terrible analogy, but I think you get naturally high if the music is really good, which is maybe even more kind of… I don’t want to say pure, but it feels better. Does that make sense?
Do you foresee the different things you’ve done on Phrazes for the Young carrying through to what The Strokes do in the future?
I think the band will probably simplify things. And I think that sometimes that’s a good thing. It depends where I’m at really, I don’t know. I think the point with the band is that it’s more of a group effort so I do the singing part and the general music directing but I won’t really tell people what to play. Maybe that’s been a problem that’s made people go off and do solo records!
A lot of people are talking about The Strokes as the band that defined the noughties, musically. Is that something you take pride in or do you view those kinds of statements with a jaundiced eye?
That sounds insane to me! But I love it.
Do you have a lot of material stockpiled for The Strokes’ next album?
Yeah, yeah, we’ve got a stockpile of stuff we’ve got to go through. Soon as I can get everyone ready to go! I’m ready to go.
Is it always tricky to get those five personalities in the room together?
It has been, yes. It has been lately!
Do you find the way the business has changed hard to get your head round – the shift to downloading, the focus on live shows rather than records…? Do you feel you can go with it or is it something you want to rail against?
I think it’s been good. I think that it’s good that there’s not that thing where there’s ten albums that the record industry loves. There’re so many different bands and so many ways to get heard, and the internet helps people have so much more eclectic taste as they’re able to get their hands on a lot of music. I feel like there’s a lot of good stuff coming out. There’re more good bands I think than ever in my lifetime, so I don’t think you could argue that it’s a bad thing.
With the freedom that you’ve had with the solo project, do you think that going back to the band full time is going to be, initially, a bit challenging?
No. I think it will be fine. If anything it’s the other way round – that intuition…
You know each other well enough by now, I guess.
Yeah. I think if you play music with people for that long, there’s a certain musical chemistry.
Do you see yourself ultimately ending up as a Leonard Cohen figure, performing rapturously received shows to adoring fans the world over while in your seventies?
Um – I don’t know. I don’t think so, maybe. I mean, it’d be fun to do it for fun, but I don’t know – I guess I would see that as ‘still in my job’ perhaps. Is that weird to say? Still in my primary job.