The SPIN Interview: Julian Casablancas
"The challenges I'm facing are real... I could fail miserably. Motivation is not an issue."
Six weeks before the October release of Phrazes for the Young, Julian Casablancas’ wonderfully familiar (that voice!) and far-out (those synths!) solo debut, the erstwhile Strokes frontman is sitting in his publicist’s downtown Manhattan office, gently disagreeing with the notion that he’s been keeping a low profile. “I’ve been around,” he mumbles, as elegantly disheveled as you remember, his shampoo-proof brown hair, untied white Nikes, and black trench coat all displaying grimy variations on their original colors. “I know it may seem like I’ve been quiet, but I’ve been busy. I’m happy to feed the illusion that I’m a lazy recluse.”
Though the singer didn’t quite go full Garbo after the 2006 release of the band’s last effort, the underwhelming First Impressions of Earth, his scant output (a Converse commercial, a couple of guest vocal spots) appears positively stingy when compared to his fellow Strokes’ fecundity. But to hear the 31-year-old tell it, the last few years have been full of hard work, as he’s struggled to find a fresh, radio-ready sound for Phrazes and get a new Strokes album off the ground, all while maintaining his sanity and sobriety.
“The music business is a pretty shallow game,” Casablancas says. “But I’ve learned how to get what I want from it.” Yeah, he’s been around.
Welcome back to the machine. Are you glad to be doing this kind of stuff again?
It depends on the hour. I go through long periods of excitement and shorter ones of anxiety. I guess I just hope that what I’m doing is good.
Some of the synth-based songs on Phrazes will sound pretty strange to Strokes fans. Was the idea to surprise people?
To be totally honest, I would’ve gone weirder with the music, but I wanted to be smart. I didn’t want people to say, “Okay, this is his weird abstract thing,” and dismiss the album. I worked too hard on it for that to happen.
Are you aiming at a pop hit? The choruses of songs like “11th Dimension” and “Out of the Blue” wouldn’t sound out of place in the Top 40.
It was nice to just try stuff — “Ludlow St.” is weirdly futuristic and old-timey and never would’ve fit with the Strokes. But it can be hard to experiment when you’re in a band. You finish a song and someone will say you have to change it. With Phrazes, I wanted to be crazy original and bridge the gap between traditional music and modern music. And if that means there are a lot of big choruses, then so be it. If the choice is between doing something supercool and having no one hear it and doing something equally cool and tricking people into putting it on the radio, I don’t think the second option is some big sellout.
Is the idea of selling out or not the kind of thing that motivates you?
I don’t know. I don’t have to dig very deep for motivation. It’s not like I’ve won a bunch of Grammys. It’s funny — I don’t think people even understand what I did with the Strokes.
What don’t they understand?
I think people were like, “Oh, he just sings. Does he play an instrument?” The challenges I’m facing with this album are real. I could fail miserably. I could run out of money. It’s not like the band sold ten million records. Motivation is not an issue.
What were you listening to when you were making the album?
I actually made a mix CD of songs that I wanted the album to sound like. Thom Yorke’s “Atoms for Peace” was on there. “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Some ’80s synth weirdness. “Beat It.” Mostly it was just mega-hit songs. That was the vibe I was going for.
What did those songs teach you?
That it’s a lot harder to make a keyboard sound not-cheesy than a guitar.
The other Strokes released new music before you did. It was easy to interpret that productivity as the result of their feeling free. Why did you wait so long?
Songwriting is hard — it’s so easy to fall into the same traps. It’s not like I wake up and songs flow out of me. The timing was tricky, too: It took me at least six months to recuperate from the last Strokes tour. The problem with touring isn’t the traveling and the shows, it’s the vegetal state you get into. The thing I like most about this whole career is coming up with ideas, and the road robs you of the chance to do that. A couple of years isn’t a long time if you have to rebuild completely.
What was your original vision for the Strokes?
I realize now, my idea was always to take undergroundish, cool music and make it mainstream. That was my goal, and we haven’t achieved it. We got to the top of the underground, but we never got as big as Green Day or Creed or any of the bands we were supposed to be replacing in 2001. So, in my mind, there’s still a step to take.
Do you think you still have the opportunity to take that step? Has the culture moved on?
I hope we can do it. But who knows? I spent two years writing Strokes songs and waiting for a new album to happen before I realized that the band as a unit was not ready to record.
What was the problem?
I don’t know. I don’t want to get into it. It’s all circumstance.
That’s often true, though, isn’t it? Didn’t the band benefit early on from being in the right place at the right time?
People always ask me what it was like to be in that whirlwind eight years ago. I guess everything felt very exaggerated at the time — whether it was how big we actually were or whether I was a control-freak maniac or whatever. But I drank a lot back then. I don’t even remember that time so well.
Really? It was that bad?
[Laughs.] Partly. I know it didn’t feel like success happened that fast. We sucked for years. I sucked for years. It wasn’t like we played the Tonight Show and suddenly were on the cover of magazines and winning Grammys and selling millions of records. We played shows for 60 people, then 100, then more. Then we toured. It was always incremental enough that I never felt like I forgot who I was.
Did that come later?
It’s embarrassing to admit, but yeah, especially when Is This It started to get attention, that kind of thing probably happened. Egomania takes over. We felt like we had to walk into a room and kick a table over. It’s like in conversation, if you make a joke and someone laughs, you tell another joke.
Was drinking a result of that, too? Did you feel like you had to play the role of the wasted rock star?
Who knows? I was hungover for two years. I’ll be the first to say I had a problem. I felt like I couldn’t say anything if I was wronged or disrespected or there was ungratefulness or lack of effort within the band. Then I’d get drunk and say what I wanted to say. But that’s no way to be. That’s not a problem anymore, though — I always spent less time in bars than the my-life-on-acid version of me in the press did.
Do you think the band was portrayed unfairly?
People thought we were some put-together creation. The press created this weird parallel universe for us to exist in. I know that everyone was trying to write an exciting story, but it’s weird to imagine the idea of me and the band that you’d get from reading about us. I’m actually a pretty normal person. I watch Seinfeld. I came to it late, but I watch it.
There was definitely the idea floating around back in 2001 that the Strokes were a bunch of Johnny-come-richlys slumming it on the Lower East Side. Or even that the band’s success was a sign of New York City’s gentrification.
I understood why people thought that, but from day one, we never tried to hide who we were. I’m not going to argue that I wasn’t privileged. But do you have to grow up in a ghetto RoboCop war zone to make rock music? It’s not like I grew up a millionaire; I grew up with a single mom. I always felt like I worked really hard.
Did you always want to be a musician?
No. I was so lost for such a long time when I was a kid. When I was 13 or 14, I thought, “So I’m supposed to get good grades so I can go to a college and then get a job?” It didn’t make sense. But then my stepdad, Sam Adoquei, came in the picture. He’s my idol. He should be the male Oprah. Everything he ever said made sense to me.
Did he turn you on to music?
Sam gave me The Wall and The Best of the Doors. That Doors tape changed my life. I heard it and I could understand what was happening musically. I had a sense I could do something like that. It just triggered something. Holding on to that feeling has been important.
Did you ever let it go?
There have been times of weirdness. In 2001, things were good. Then we were rushed to finish the second album [2003’s Room on Fire]. We were told to get another record out before everyone forgot who we were. So there was a lot of panic. It was stressful. I was happy with it, but the resounding reaction was that it sounded too much like the first one. That led to some hand-wringing: “The ship is sinking because the second record sounds like the first one!”
You’ve been back in the studio with the Strokes recently, right?
We’ve been in and out of the studio for the last six or seven months. We had 20 songs or something. I don’t know what’s going on, to be honest.
Are the songs not good enough?
I don’t know. What can you do? I don’t know. Roughness. We’re working stuff out.
Is it hard dealing with the Strokes at the same time as your solo —
Is the problem splitting time or splitting creativity?
Has the fact that everyone has been their own boss in different projects affected the dynamic of the band?
Definitely — no one feels like they’re trapped in a horrible situation. With my solo album, I wasn’t willing to compromise because if I was going to do it, I was going to do it my way. But I’ve always been compromising with the Strokes, even when I was also being strong-willed or opinionated. Now I just want everyone to be happy. I think good vibes are the most important thing for us if we’re going to restart. We did find an outside producer who we think can help be a tiebreaker with some decisions. It’s gonna be…I shouldn’t say.
If the Strokes never make another record, would you feel comfortable with what the band accomplished?
If those three albums were our legacy, it would be all right. A little weak. It’s not about legacy; it’s about trying to put something good into the world. If we can prove that five strong-minded individuals, with all kinds of stuff working against them, can still get along and make music, that would be a great thing. It would at least be a symbolic victory.
What kind of victory is your solo album?
I think it’s fun to listen to and it’s also got something to say. It’s 50 percent stuff that you can enjoy while hanging out with friends and 50 percent the search for a perfect philosophy of living. If you’re looking, there are some Creed moments. [Sings the chorus of Creed’s “What’s This Life For?”]
You’re the last person I thought I’d ever hear sing Creed.
It goes to show you.
People remember all sorts of strange things.