Julian Casablancas Enters the Void: On The Strokes’ Friction, Why He Left NYC, and Starting Over
The mumbling, famously moody Strokes front man opens up about his new band, Julian Casablancas and the Voidz, The Strokes’ future, and why ‘democracy is an illusion.’
The enduring image of Julian Casablancas, the ringleader of New York garage rock outfit The Strokes, will be that of a grimy, grungy, cherub-faced druggie in crotch-suffocating jeans, fresh sneaks, and a leather jacket, bellowing out three-minute anthems in his trademark baritone croon in a seedy club.
Today, however, the 36-year-old musician is sober—and even showers once in a while. His Strokes have gone through a brief split, only to emerge as somewhat of a shell of their former selves. Still, whenever they embark on an all-too-brief tour, they pack stadiums full of modish admirers nostalgic for that image, akin to New Yorkers who yearn for the rougher, sexier, pre-Giuliani days. The son of Elite Model Management founder John Casablancas and Jeanette Christiansen, an ex-Miss Denmark, is also a family man, having married former Strokes assistant manager Juliet Joslin. They have a young son, Cal, and live in upstate New York. During our lengthy chat, Cal can be heard scampering around and giggling in the background.
Casablancas’s latest venture is a side project: Julian Casablancas and the Voidz. After some rough early festival gigs, they’re starting to hit their stride and released their debut album, Tyranny, late last month. The Voidz are made up of a group of pals Casablancas met about five years ago through “professional circumstances,” he says, and they soon discovered they shared “a musical kinship.” Their sound is rougher and far less polished than that of The Strokes, like a mélange of punk and prog-metal filled with weird loops, unconventional time signatures, thrashing guitars, and strident vocals. Clash magazine aptly describes it as “unbridled madness.”
The Daily Beast spoke to Casablancas at length about his latest venture; wild career twists and turns, including the state (and shelf life) of The Strokes; his disdain for his GQ interviewer; and his politics. Casablancas speaks in a drowsy mumble and occasionally needs prodding, but once you do, becomes surprisingly engaged. Our chat, meanwhile, starts on a good note:
Hey Marlow. Cool name…I like your voice, as well.
Well, you’ve got a pretty cool name and voice, too. Where did Julian come from?
My dad never told me. I have a theory that’s probably wrong, but John Lennon has a son named Julian and maybe he thought, “He’s a creative guy, so maybe that’s a cool, creative name. I trust his taste!” But I have no idea.
I was there at one of the first gigs by Julian Casablancas and the Voidz at SXSW, in Cedar Street Courtyard. I didn’t think it was that bad, but it really got a thrashing in the media.
Oh, right. Yeah…you know, it takes a while to get a live chemistry. We have a cool chemistry when we’re in a rehearsal room, but that’s a different kind of thing. When you’re on stage at a festival, you don’t get a sound check and you’re at the mercy of all these weird things. With a band with experience, you can plow through those things, but I think we were still susceptible to it because we’re new. People said we sounded awful, but it was just one of those things. If we play at a small space with our own stuff, we’ll sound amazing, but if it’s at a festival with monitors on a huge stage with all these technical things and no sound checks, it takes a while to reach that cruise-control vibe.
What are the influences with the Voidz? I sense a bit of Black Flag in there.
Definitely. That’s the whole magic about the band—it’s all these things I wanted to go towards myself, and then they all of a sudden fit lock-and-key with all these dudes that have similar sensibilities. I wanted to do something a lot more aggressive.
These solo projects seem to be tickling different parts of yourself, with Phrazes touching on the electro-tinged side and Tyranny the more punk-metal side.
With the first record, I was in a very bad place and felt like I was starting from scratch in some ways. I was picking up the shattered pieces of a young dream and trying to start anew, and I was doing it all by myself on a computer. I remember working on weirder songs, and I was a little bit more insecure about stepping out on my own, so I thought, “Oh, if I do all these weird things, I think people will kind of take it seriously.” I basically went away from a lot of my rules I had when I started doing music and drifted away in a lot of ways. I’d just stopped drinking, too, and I don’t know. I don’t have any regrets, but coming out of that, I realized that I wanted to be true to myself and what I thought sounded cool, as opposed to what I thought other people thought sounded cool and wanted to hear. If I know it’s cool in my heart, then I think people will actually like it more.
Did you feel that, with the last few Strokes albums, you were making what you thought other people wanted to hear instead of being true to yourself and your vision?
No. I think the last few records of The Strokes are an exercise in trying to get the flow and the work process smooth, and make sure we’re collaborating, everyone’s happy, and making sure it’s a positive, creative area. I’m still musically directing—or I don’t know what you’d call it—but I’ve definitely tried to let other people, rather than engage in debate, cede.
When you spoke about making music to please other people instead of yourself, it made me think of The Strokes’ third album, First Impressions of Earth. After that album you guys took a break, and if I had to choose an album in your discography, that seems like the one where part of it had some tunes that seemed a bit compromised and didn’t have your total stamp of approval on them—unlike the first two albums and the EP that preceded it.
Um…I mean, kind of. Not on everything, but yeah. For me, in a weird way, I see a lineage between the first two records and this Voidz record. The first Strokes record I felt turned out exactly how I wanted it to be, and the second one felt just like Part II of Is This It. But then after Is This It, I just felt musically [First Impressions] was a little simple. With all the confusion of what we were hearing from the outside world and the turmoil within the band and my life, I feel like things got sidetracked in many ways, so the Voidz is a continuation of Room on Fire in many ways in terms of clarity of vision.
How’s the vibe different with the new fellas compared to The Strokes gang, and how is it affecting your personal energy?
Well, if I had to go pros and cons…[Laughs] the thing about The Strokes is that we played so much together, so there was always that chemistry and that ease of playing the same songs hundreds of times together. With this new thing, it’s similar to what The Strokes was starting out, where you need to play a lot of shows before you get a chemistry going. So one is like a brand-new thing, and one is like a well-oiled machine. With the Voidz, what we’re striving for is a more respectful thing, where you help each other up and…I don’t know.
Why did The Strokes go on hiatus and split for a bit? Was the control you exhibited over the band, writing almost all the songs and “directing things,” a part of it?
It’s not even worth getting into. With each person, it was different things. It’s a mix of being too overbearing in some ways and too overgenerous in others. It’s 25 different, subtle things and two or three larger moments, but each one alone wouldn’t have done it. To be honest, the past five, six, however many years have been dedicated to fixing all those issues, so we haven’t really done a record post-fixing the issues.
What were those “two or three larger moments?”
I feel like if we do a couple more records and things are still going smoothly, then we can talk about it. But because we’re still starting fresh in some ways, they’ll be like, “Hey, I read that article and you mentioned that time I ruined your life!”
Like a lot of hardcore stuff, there is a political bent to the album. It’s called Tyranny, of course, and many of the songs are critical of the state of affairs in the U.S., and a lot of Bush-era anger and fatigue.
It’s not just the Bush era. I think the Bush era illustrated some of the problems more clearly for mainstream eyes, but are you familiar with Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky? Two of the leading intellectual minds of today—marginalized, as all intellectual minds of the day are. I don’t know…how political do you want to get here, Marlow?
I’m ready to rock. Shoot.
It’s a tricky thing to tiptoe into with musical shoes on because I feel like so many people are so much better at talking about it, so a lot of people say, “Get back to singing your little songs.” But creating awareness through art is a pretty common thing that’s happened through history. I’m going to put myself out there. Where to start? Democracy is an illusion, freedom of speech is an illusion, freedom of assembly is an illusion. It’s a complicated problem and there isn’t a sexy, simple way to explain it, but the key is to understand the inner workings of what’s going on, because that’s the only way to change things and open people’s eyes—especially when you’re in the bubble of pre-Revolution Versailles, in New York City or a big city that’s benefiting as opposed to being victimized. The more people are comfortable and complacent, the more it plays into things that are destroying the world.
You said, “freedom of speech is an illusion” and “freedom of assembly is an illusion.” Are you referring to Edward Snowden and the Occupy Movement, respectively?
That’s why it’s tricky: You’re free to say whatever you want, which is great, but if you actually threaten someone’s profits or power and start to make a dent, then you get shut down like any dictatorship. There will be a trial against you, they’ll find child porn on your computer, or whatever. They won’t come to your house and kidnap you, which is why the situation is still hopeful, but the thing with the overall record, for me, is that it’s still hopeful. There are a few bad bogeymen, but it isn’t this large swath of people. The system over time has been corrupted, and it’s unfortunate. There’s this sense of post-monarchy hubris where you think, “Oh, we’re so free,” but now it’s the corporations who are controlling things. Who decides environmental policy? Fossil fuel companies have to OK it. Who decides health care? The pharmaceutical companies have to OK it. How about food and health regulations? Big food companies. It’s like with Big Tobacco, where they were deciding whether the government considered if it was even harmful or not.
And then it took the government quite some time to promote that message.
Right. I think there’s a parallel with art, too, where things are cool 20 or 30 years later. Nowadays, everyone’s wearing a Black Flag T-shirt, and 10 years ago everyone was wearing Ramones T-shirts. But in their time, in the time it was happening, the Black Flags and Ramones of today will still be underground. The quality of art is parallel to truth in politics—they’re both on these weird time-delays, underground, chastised by the media in their own time, and then validated in the end. And then the process repeats itself. Now everyone says, “Oh, Black Flag and the Ramones were great, and slavery was terrible.” But if you lived in those times, you’d say, “Slavery is great, and Black Flag is weird and terrible.”
I always associate The Strokes with 9/11 because your debut album came out in the wake of it. That album holds a special place for a lot of New Yorkers.
Actually, the very first thing that came out—the vinyl of Is This It—was released on September 11, 2001. I’ve heard certain people say that. For me, it’s just a dark, dark time. If it gave people some kind of joy afterwards, great, but everything took a backseat.
You mentioned “pre-Revolution Versailles” before, and compared it to contemporary New York City. The one thing a lot of people gleaned from your GQ interview was that you left New York City because of brunch. I was born on the Upper West Side, and it’s certainly changed a lot since then, and native New Yorkers do always struggle with their relationship to the city and whether they want to cut ties. There does seem to be a lack of “community” and “neighborhood” now, with everyone wrapped up in their own business.
And juice presses. I like driving and come into the city all the time. This has been my dream forever: to be as close as I can to the city but have that Bruce Wayne fantasy where you drive through some mountain and you’re into the countryside somehow, yet still just four minutes from Gotham City.
So you’ve got your car parked behind a waterfall.
Not yet! Although that’s a good idea. The waterfall-garage. But God, that quote. People are mad about it! It’s so true, but I guess you can’t say it. That GQ reporter was bogus, anyway. He was a total part-of-the-problem yuppie guy. He was a very nice guy, but I was talking about when I dropped out of high school and when I went to study music, and he had this weird, scary, shallow grin thing going on, and then said, “Oh, I didn’t realize that until my last year at Harvard,” and we were talking about current political stuff. It went over his head. I wanted to say, “Maybe you’ll understand this in a few years,” but I didn’t. Now I wish I had.
I guess it’s nice to be just outside the city and close enough to access it, and look over at it romantically from a distance, versus being inside the tornado.
Well it’s still the cultural epicenter of the known universe, so it’s still awesome. What inspires me are those in-between neighborhoods that aren’t super nice or super dangerous, where there’s cool stuff and it’s all cheap. That’s how the world should be: this sustainable middle ground where everything can be happy and without such luxury that you forget about the good things. I think that is totally gone, and that’s been happening for a long time. Actually, I think it’s 9/11 that started it. About two years after 9/11, there was this mass migration to New York. And gentrification is fine, the problem is the consequences—the people outside your line of sight—which is very troubling. There are still cool pockets of New York, but they’re so minimal now, this secret place here or there, but it’s all been swept away. I lived right near where Mars Bar used to be, and it’s just such a sad sight every time I walk by.
When we recorded Is This It, too, we recorded it above The Strand bookstore where there were all these little, cool studios and offices. But now they raised the rent so much and probably charged some big Internet company it that could afford it and got rid of all the cool things. There needs to be freedom while respecting the freedoms of others.
I’ve always been curious about this: After the release of Is This It, The Strokes recorded some sessions with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich that never saw the light of day. On paper, it seems like a fun combo, but what went wrong there?
It didn’t come to happen because it wasn’t that rich. We just worked differently. Every time someone’s told us, “This will be a good mix,” I’ve learned that it’s not to be trusted. When you say, “The drums sound totally wrong,” and they say, “Oh, we’ll fix it later,” that’s a red flag. And that’s kind of what happened with him, where we’d just record everything and then he’d rework it. The thing with Radiohead is he’s had this long relationship with them where he’s like a bandmember, basically, so we recorded this one song as a sampler and it wasn’t really that hip.
As far as The Strokes go, is there a shelf life? You are involved in all these side projects, so how far do you see The Strokes carrying on for?
I think I’ve always left the door open. I think we still have some “magic left in the bag,” but I also feel like there are plenty of other exciting things I have to do that aren’t Strokes-centric. Right now, I’m just interested in staying open and doing cool things, and learning.
I’m curious what inspires you now, as an artist. A lot of great art is born from conflict, but these days you’ve got a nice family, experienced great success, and are living upstate. Where does the inspiration come from now?
I think I have to credit my stepdad, Sam Adoquei, who basically gave me all my artistic knowledge from when I was 14 on. We’d always talk about art, and he gave me all these books and music that’s served as inspiration. I think pain can be a motivator, but I haven’t fulfilled what I want to do, so I feel like I’ve stayed hungry. The main goal wasn’t just to get my foot in the door and have success; the main dream when I was a kid was to be a band like Guided By Voices that’s been able to sustain itself just by touring and making music. That was the height of my ambition. When people talk about The Strokes’ success, I was doing this interview where someone said, “And kids still wear the Converses” and all that, and I think, “Well, that’s cool that that happened and is flattering and surreal, but I’d really like to make an impact with something more substantive.” So that’s what still motivates me.