Julian Casablancas

“I mean, if you were interviewing Godspeed You! Black Emperor, would you say to their faces: ‘So, you guys make //messy// music?’ Maybe you would. In which case, I apologise for questioning your question…”

Julian Casablancas doesn’t agree with the widely held opinion, just put to him, that his latest album – ‘Tyranny’, credited to him and his new band, The Voidz – is, y’know, a bit //messy//. Messy-good, of course, not messy-bad: a fine sprawling space-junk carousel of a thing. But he doesn’t much fancy that line of questioning. And in the company of his Voidz, all clustered round a phone in LA, he’s at Twisted Sister levels of not going to take it. “It wasn’t like that we were trying to make something offensive to the ear it’s just that… Maybe we set our time machine dials a little too far into the future for some.”

If you’d dialled up in a time machine from 2010, this isn’t quite the future you’d have predicted for JC. Certainly, nothing on the likeable, efficiently melodic ‘Phrazes For The Young’ – his 2009 solo debut – suggested that Julian was going to throw off his cassocks to reveal a whole other guy stood there, barking and slurring over fat waves of static, Afrobeat, metal solos, jumbled-up double-tracked bedroom production. And nothing on the last Strokes album, 2012’s ‘Comedown Machine’, suggested he’d return as Kurt Russell with the cast of //The Warriors// as his backing band: five men with ’80s perms, VHS-age ripped jeans, pencil-line moustaches and the general air of having recently shot a laser gun into the thigh of a cyborg.

Julian initially comes down the line with all the Voidz – interviewed together at their request. Crackling down a speakerphone from The Wiltern, where they are about to play, they’re jocular bordering on jock-ish. There are five of them. Guitarists Jeramy ‘Beardo’ Britter and Amir Yaghami, bassist Jake Bercovici, keyboardist Jeff Kite and drummer Alex Carapetis.

Two members – Kite and Carapetis – came in via the Phrazes For The Young touring band, the ‘Sick Six’. The rest, he has cobbled together over a matter of years: a gradual organic growth of ace musicians: what he will later describe as his lifelong dream of assembling ‘an A Team of musical super-ninjas’.

They say many things. Carapetis saw Russell Brand at a kundalini yoga class recently. Their favourite tyrant is Louis XIV. They like Sunday roasts. They dislike Coca-Cola. They’re excited to play the UK. What unites them is that they’re ‘all into weird kinds of music’. If the point of interviewing the group together was to reinforce the sense of the Voidz as a gang – a real rock’n’roll unit who hunt together and play together and giggle at each other’s gags, that’s certainly achieved.

Then, 49 minutes into the scheduled 20, the rest of the Voidz depart for soundcheck, leaving Julian to pick up the receiver. On his own, the guy who comes down the line has shed any cockiness, and is simply quite sweet and slightly goofy. He rambles, of course. That’s just how he talks. And he overthinks some questions, leading him into spasms of indecision. But as always, he’s also capable of being disarmingly honest for a rockstar.

With ‘Tyranny’, Casablancas has thrown us for a curveball, and not just in terms of how the album sounds, because – after years of just mumbling wry ennui into his studded jacket – the most reluctant voice of a generation since, well, the last one, has discovered politics.

Someone recently observed that Julian Casablancas in conversation can often resemble “a man trying to figure out what rock star Julian Casablancas would say in that situation”. That’s quite true – there’s something about him that is still guarded. Part of his arch-cool is a talent for deflecting the bits of himself he doesn’t want discussed. Yet, despite this lifelong habit, it seems now that Julian is sticking his neck on the line with an album full of slightly more than his usual sly-funny rich-boy shrugs. The man who gave every critic the stick with which to beat him when he wrote an entire chorus about how he had “nothing to say” is now suddenly saying something.

‘Tyranny’ is about many things, mainly how we’re all failing to relate to each other, or solve our collective problems. How we’ve retreated behind our white picket fences. How a sullen anti-politics mood combined with an uptick in the concentration of the levers of power is ratcheting our democracy into even more of a shallow puppet show than it’s ever been.

O‘Dare I Care’ seems to be a sort of hellish gap year built on the bones of the third world poor. Written in quarter-tone Arabic scales, it’s like MIA got bitter. “That wasn't fun/
The bricks and the gravel and the mud and the blood/Another wild teenager in search of success, welcome to the jewel of the modified west”/ Take Me In Your Army deals with the military-industrial hard-on, while Johan Von Bronx gives Bronx cheers on cynical outsourcing like: “It’s part of the show/It saves me 2 dollars if kids do the work”.

It’s not Frank Turner yawping on about Tories eating babies; Julian couldn’t uncoil his skepticism or undo his weary air of equivocation that easily. His ‘Tyranny’ is an oblique critique of the state of things as they are now, not a tub-thumping one. It’s Jonathan Franzen’s //Freedom// or Dave Eggers’s //A Hologram For The King//, not Owen Jones’s //The Establishment// or Michael Moore’s anything.

Which isn’t to say that just because it doesn’t court radicalism it isn’t radically fed up at the world. Julian didn’t vote in America’s mid-term elections earlier this month. The voice of JC was not heard and it barely mattered – the election wasn’t settled by a single vote, but by millions of them battering down the Democrats and President Obama to 40-year lows.

But Julian’s already got that fever where he starts talking about how “there’s only one party that is comprised of both the Democrats and the Republicans”. He says he’s a big fan of revolution-lover Russell Brand, but stops short of endorsing his “don’t vote” platform.

“I’m not into anarchism and I’m not into libertarianism,” he says. “I think Occupy Wall Street was a good thing, but having no leadership made it too easy for the people who wanted to destroy it…. I think [capitalism]’s been totally kidnapped and hijacked. It’s not real anymore; it’s much more like a modern version – much more comfortable, much more wealthy – of how things were 200 or 300 years ago.”

There is, though, the argument that capitalism is merely the handmaiden of our moral choices; that it’s not good or bad in itself, but how you use it.

“Yeah, but that’s like saying, ‘Why do we have a law against murder?’ Society needs to set those rules. We need to agree that murder is wrong, because, hey, I wouldn’t like that to happen to me. It’s when things start to get more complex and subtle that the analogy starts to break down. Most people can’t tell what’s happening. They’re not informed.”

So, there needs to be a step-change? “Humanity needs to make a leap, yes.”
Not only does he talk the talk, he’s also trying to be the change he wants to see in the world. You may recently have purchased a download of ‘Tyranny’ for £2.28 and wondered why it was precisely that price – $3.87. It was because it’s being put out on Julian’s own label, Cult, and he decided to set a price he thought was decent, rather than one he could make more money on.

He explains: “I’m trying to do things honourably. Say you wanna set a fair price on the record: I think three dollars, four dollars is a fair price for the record. And everyone on the business side is looking at me and saying: ‘You’re gonna lose a lot of money.’”

Are you losing a lot of money?

“Ha ha. I would call it an ‘arts funding project’ at this stage…”

How deep in the red are you?

“I knew what I was getting myself into. Using money you make from synchs – songs to commercials. Trying not to flush money down the toilet, but being aware that it was going to take some cash from that. So far, so good. It’s still early…”

It’s strange to think that Mr NYC has moved out of NYC. But there you go. “I’ve always wanted to move out,” he says. “It’s cool. Since I was 16, it’s been my dream to live in a place with nature all around.”

As of late, Casablancas has decanted himself, his wife and new baby to a small town on the fringes of the city. He doesn’t want it named. He can confirm that his house is not quite the rock star pile in the country that normally accompanies mid-life breakdowns, and he assures us he doesn’t yet go for long rambling walks in the hills. But certainly, there’s more space out there to feel at liberty. And yes, he’s friendly with his new neighbours. It is, he says, “A little slice of ’50s America. There’s a little ice cream shop, a movie theatre... I still drive into the city two or three times a week. It’s not like I just sit on my porch and smoke a pipe and think about the old days. If anything, I feel like an old school New Yorker now – part of that bohemian gentrification-migration cycle – and I’m cool with that. But now that the city’s so changed, I probably feel the way that some guy who’d lived in Alphabet City their whole life did when we started hanging around the East Village. It’s different.”

He has a big practice-cum-art space up there that he uses for label business and to bring interesting arty pals up to work on things. He drives himself around in his 1986 Chevrolet Monte Carlo – a chunky “personal luxury coupé” that he bought off Craigslist and adores because he likes slightly gawky old cars that aren’t necessarily that smart. “I feel like in the ’90s, car design started to go downhill. Nowadays, they’re just round chubby aerodynamic things. I don’t get it.”

The commute’s no bother to him because he honestly loves to drive. “I was always the guy who got his learner’s permit the day after his birthday.”

While he’s chunking through the hours trekking in and out of the city, he listens to the radio, scanning the dial, and Shazam-ing the tracks he likes. “I have a formula, which is to only listen to things below 92 on the dial. There are so many weird stations where you don’t know what you’re listening to: Russian folk music, Romanian techno from the ’90s, or new indie bands you’ve never heard of.”

That’s how he absorbs new music in the 21st century. “That’s almost how you get the most plugged in,” he says. “The guys on college radio are really digging for the good stuff. If anything, I feel like people who pay attention to iTunes and popular radio stations are completely trend-hypnotised.”

In terms of his day-to-day life, Julian’s label, Cult, takes up a lot of his time at the moment. He’s quite hands-on. Clearly, he doesn’t need the kudos, so it can only be the sense of artistic mission inspiring him. Although he’s losing money, he talks nobly of this being “only the beginning”. He’s put out a fair number of records by now. Mainly mates. He’s got Cerebral Ballzy, with whom he appeared on his last //NME// cover. And he’s got Har Mar Superstar because he’s a funny little guy, and hey, someone’s got to. Also Karen O and local man Albert Hammond Jr. After he’s done with all of his Voidz touring commitments, he’ll meet up with The Strokes again to, he says, “see if the vibe is right”.

That idea of “the vibe” always seems to take on a strangely mystical air when it comes to The Strokes. What is it between them that requires the planets to align so exactly?

“I think it’s less mystical. I think you have good work chemistry if you are just honest with each other and you just wanna do something good, and you just wanna put in all of your magic, and create something cool with other people’s magic, with friends… I think ‘the vibe’ in the recent past was lost, but I think we learned how to work together better. More professionally. But I think now we’re looking to combine those things. If we’re arguing about what studio we wanna be in, the vibe won’t be there.”

What was ‘the vibe’ like in the bad years, then? You were all just really defensive?

“I think we were in the past.”

You just weren’t very good at taking criticism?

“In the past we often didn’t give it out well, but we’re talking 10 years ago. We’ve hung out even non-musically, and I think we’ve turned a page. I think we have some magic left. But creatively, there’s magic in many different for me places right now…”

After many years of coyness, it’s now widely known that Julian wrote the first two Strokes albums on his own – not just the words and melodies, but every guitar lick, every drum break, the bass parts, everything. The idea of The Strokes as a gang was true in one sense – they’d go out, drink heavily, punch someone, be as much the classic rock’n’roll unit as they were painted – but when they got into the studio, it was Julian Time. He was, in his own words, a “dictator”; a 6’2” tyrant in Converse. Things worked swimmingly. Indeed, it was only when democracy came to The Strokes that things began to head south. The cloud of “vibe” began to hang around the band, through the slightly awkward gestation of their 2006 third album, ‘First Impression Of Earth’, into the car-crash gestation of its follow-up, ‘Angles’, an album whose birth involved Julian not being present in the studio when his bandmates were, and whose fractiousness can be best summed up by what Nick Valensi said ‘the vibe’ was when asked why the band had got back together to make it: “We gotta pay our mortgage, so may as well get this going.” Since then, they’ve stepped back from any brink. ‘Comedown Machine’, made simply and barely-promoted, seems to have channelled the enthusiasm of all of them, and reunified them.

It’s strange, though, that Julian, who says he works best alone – who creatively only slid back from perfect-10s when he began to relinquish absolute control – has thrown himself straight back into another gang.

“Um, I have a weird love-hate thing with being alone. As an only child, you spend much of your childhood alone. The thing is, I kinda hate it, but it’s my natural default. If I’m alone, I think I work the best – my ideas flow – but I think there’s a part of me that despises it, too.”

Is there, it’s easy to wonder, a kind of tension there – between the person he’d like to be and the person he is? He needs that covering-fire?

“When I started doing the solo thing, it was almost like picking up the pieces of your broken life and dreams was kind of confusing… it takes a lot more work than you think, it’s like starting over,” he says. “For this record, for my parts I wanted to focus my attention on melodies and lyrics, and then I always wanted to be in a band where I was with the best drummer in the world, the best bassist. But it’s different – it’s gotta be friends, it’s gotta be people who’re servicing the song.”

You chose them to be a gang of friends?

“I’m just honoured to play with them because they’re like this A Team of musical super-ninjas. The stuff they play if I’m not even around is mind-blowing. I feel very lucky for that. It’s not just subordinates or anything like that.”

It feels like a real band?

“It does, and the thing is, I always wanted more democracy in The Strokes. It was me pushing for that, not them demanding it. I always wanted that kind of ‘gang together’ thing; I always wanted it to be that there was no ego; that whoever came up with the best bass part, the best guitar solo, the best ideas would win out.”

Eventually, he too gets the call for soundcheck. It is now one hour forty since this began. “Is that all ya got?”, he gags. Then, in passing, he asks about the NME review of Tyranny. “Didn’t you give it two stars or something? I don’t normally look at the reviews but I think I may have accidentally seen it.” Turns out he’s one of those: artists who never read any reviews. Who secretly get severely bummed-out by negative comments, because they’re as human and fragile as anyone.

His sensitivity is understandable. For years, Julian has been under pressure to live up to a superhuman standards he set himself in his early twenties. I ask him about how he deals with pressure. He says he never had much BMT when it came to sports - “My personality didn’t mesh with that”. But he did when it came to music. “That was always my thing. I think if you know a particular arena really well, then it becomes much easier.”

When he was making Room On Fire, Julian used to ask producer Gordon Raphael to ‘make the drums sound like they’re from 2012’. That’s the past now, but Julian’s still pushing things forward. The Strokes may not have fulfilled all our wilder expectations, but in terms of where his talents and ragged questing spirit have taken us, if you got in your time machine in 2001 and set the dials for 2014, you’d conclude we’re living in one of the best of all possible Julian universes.

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