Feature The Strokes' debut defined a decade in popular music, but for the group's founder and frontman Julian Casablancas, a solo album represents a move away from the hype. He talks to Michael Odell about ambition, Obama and what's next for the band.
Casablancas: It makes me laugh when people say we are cool
The Strokes' debut defined a decade in popular music, but for the group's founder and frontman Julian Casablancas, a solo album, Phrazes For The Young, represents a move away from the hype. He talks to Michael Odell about ambition, Obama and what's next for the band. When his big frame fills the doorway, heads turn and folks mutter. On a weekday evening none of the New Yorkers in the International Bar on 3rd and 7th in Manhattan expected to be sipping their drinks next to "the coolest man in rock". Doe-eyed, floppy-haired Julian Casablancas takes his place in as unassuming way as you can when you have been told so often that your music represents this very city.
But perhaps the frisson of cool abates a little when he opens his mouth. You see, Casablancas doesn't sound like the ultimate hipster. He has slipped in at 6pm for an early-evening drink after a photo shoot and he orders a Coke in a distinctly nerdy nasal tone. On record with his band, The Strokes, Casablancas's vocals often sound as if they were recorded down an ancient, buzzing telephone line. It comes as quite a shock to realise that these are not special studio effects. This is what he sounds like in real life.
"I'm trying to shrug off a cold I think," he says. He's ordering "soft" because of this but also because he no longer likes boozing it up. Also, his wife, Acacia, is expecting their first child within four weeks. Besides, Casablancas famously got into his rock 'n' roll meltdown quite early. He was 13 when he first got drunk, and his father John Casablancas, the founder of the Elite modelling agency, sent him for counselling and then packed him off to his own former private school, Le Rosey in Switzerland.
"Ah, they thought I had an issue but I did it because I thought it was fun," he says. "Or because I was bored. I was a teenager and that's what kids did then. It was seen as a rite of passage. But now I know that the benefits of drinking are very, very short term and as you get older all you remember are the hangovers." Casablancas, 31, is not what you'd expect from anyone remotely associated with "the coolest man" tag. There's no sneer or attitude or self-mythologising. He is friendly and mellow, a little shy or wary perhaps. But most of all he is thoughtful and a bit of a philosopher.
His recent solo album, Phrazes For The Young, is a playful manifestation of this. In song and in the sleevenotes Casablancas sets himself up as a grizzled rock 'n' roll vet handing down stories and epigrams to the next generation. He can sound like a grizzled bluesman talking with the authority of several liver transplants behind him. Sometimes he can even sound like an Ancient Greek. For example, "Drunkenness is cowardice. Sobriety is loneliness," he intones on the album sleeve. Does he really sit around in the studio thinking this stuff up?
"Yeah, and I stand by that. Being drunk can give you the illusion of not being alone. There comes a point where you're better off just facing it, the loneliness or the fear or whatever it is. Alcohol is definitely not your friend, though it acts like it sometimes. It's a pretty obvious insight to have into alcohol but it's true." As the founder and writer of The Strokes, Casablancas is the man credited with lighting the touch paper on an indie rock revolution nearly 10 years ago. Prior to The Strokes, the charts were dominated by Eminem, Limp Bizkit and Korn. Forming an indie band seemed a grimly retro thing to do.
But The Strokes had been a glimmer in Casablancas's eye since he first heard the Velvet Underground at the age of 13, when his mother gave him a CD. Three members of The Strokes - Casablancas, guitarist Nick Valensi and drummer Fabrizio Moretti - attended the swanky Dwight School, in Manhattan, during the mid-1990s. Casablancas says he learnt "very little of use" there. However, the trio mastered instruments together, indulged Casablancas's Velvet Underground obsession and formed a cell opposed to the prevailing hip-hop culture of the time.
"It makes me laugh when people say we are cool. I know what it is like to be an outsider. At school we kept a low profile because everyone else was wearing chains or trying to be a homeboy. The music we listened to and our whole frame of reference made us weirdos," he remembers. After his teen drinking episode, Casblancas was pulled away from Valensi and Moretti and despatched to Switzerland but the trip only served as a further band recruitment exercise. He met Albert Hammond Jr at Le Rosey. Nikolai Fraiture, a friend of Casablancas who had a bass guitar, completed the lineup.
The rest is improbably flukey history. Ryan Gentles, who booked acts at New York's Mercury Lounge, loved the band's demo tape so much he left his job to manage them. And Geoff Travis at the legendary UK indie label Rough Trade listened to their demo down the phone and agreed to release it "after 15 seconds". By 2001, The Strokes debut album, Is This It, had brought indie rock back to life.
And their legacy has lasted. Despite their second and third albums being politely rather than rapturously received, many critics believe The Strokes to be the most important band - and Is This It, the best album - of the decade. For some, though, The Strokes have just been a tad too lucky, a mite too good-looking or maybe just too plain posh to be the real deal. "Oh, people make out you had a servant bringing you coffee on a silver salver. It wasn't like that. I always want to know - what is the threshold of comfort you have to pass before you can pick up a guitar and write a song? I'd really like to know-."
But it's fair to say that The Strokes' success has followed a predictable arc: not many albums (two more since 2001); plenty of column inches devoted to Moretti's relationship with actress Drew Barrymore (after dating for five years, the pair split in 2007). At the end of last year, though, amid reports that Casablancas was finding the other Strokes work ethic too flimsy, he released Phrazes For The Young. Although two Strokes are credited with contributing a chorus to one song, it is very much his baby. Despite this, he is never less than diplomatic. There is clearly a sense of frustration that he had to go the solo route in the first place.
"I like to work, what can I say?" he half laughs. "When we get in a rehearsal space and pick up instruments, then that's where I want to be. And it sounds simple for us to get to that place but it can be the hardest thing. It can be impossible to pin people down. We have lives. We have problems." A new Strokes album is due for release in September. The fact is, Casablancas was ready to make it a year ago, and has a fierce sense of ambition.
"On the one side, the goal was to take the music of bands like the Velvet Underground or Guided By Voices and make it mainstream, make the edgy cool weirdness into pop. That was the fantasy. But what actually happened is that we became indie superstars... But me and my big mouth sometimes have to admit we haven't quite achieved the fantasy goal, as cool as the Velvet Underground but as big as the Rolling Stones."
The Strokes, then, will soon issue another set of "swaggering gang" music. But Casablancas as a solo artist is a different proposition. Inevitably more reflective and thoughtful, it has not escaped his notice that The Strokes came to prominence in the aftermath of September 11. "We started to go on foreign trips just about the time when the world was starting to detest George Bush and, therefore, America.
"The rudest reaction we ever got was in Holland. People in our party would be walking down the street and things were said to us. It was not pleasant. The height of the Bush hate was hard for regular Americans. We took the flak for his mess-ups." The band is due to headline this year's Isle of Wight festival in Britain and he thinks that this time around, people will be better disposed towards them.
"Not only because I hope we have written a string of great new songs but because Obama has done a year in the toughest job out there. It's terrible to be hated for where you come from. Hate the music, by all means, but that other stuff is just terrible to deal with. "Not to sound like the shallow-but-deep guy at the bar but- I just think greed is America's main issue. It's the root of all our problems. We have a government which is at the mercy of lobbyists who are working for corporations. They are hard-wired to grab, and that mind-set really sucks when it dictates what a government does... I think if the world were a bit better organised then people would go for each other's throats less."
As a successful rock star, Casablancas is surely setting himself up here? "I'm not greedy about money. I mean, I like not having to worry about paying the electricity but that's about it. I like to eat. But I really think America's problem has been to do with greed and thinking you need more. But I do have feelings about achievement that I suppose are sort of an offshoot of greed. I'd like to write a couple of songs that everyone knows. Michael Jackson-level stuff. Queen-level penetration of the culture. Maybe that is greed. Maybe I should get over that too-"