By Lauren Harris Photos By Piper Ferguson on January 14, 2010
Julian Casablancas doesn’t so much walk but bound through the doorway. He is wide-eyed, muss-haired and slightly gawky as he scans the bar and slides into our booth, apologizing profusely for being 30 minutes late—embarrassed in a way that people who’ve sold millions of records typically aren’t. His initial anxiety is palpable, but as he leans into his publicist, his eyes focus. Before his explanation even ends, a wry smile cracks across his face and he leans back. His eyes narrow, and as he seems to both plead and hate the sentiment, announces, “My future is in your hands.”
The future to which Casablancas is referring is his foray into solo-dom, that incredibly difficult-to-navigate territory that has claimed many a good band, one member at a time. With Phrazes for the Young, Casablancas is swerving the wheel away from obscurity and the promise of another Strokes record, and heading straight for the recognition he’s long deserved. “People assume I’m just a singer,” Casablancas writes to me weeks after our meeting, when I inquire about the press’ biggest misconception of him. “They’re surprised that I can even play an instrument; little do they know I was writing most of the instrumental parts including the guitar solos.”
Casablancas is not bragging; he’s simply stating fact. To imply that Phrazes constitutes score-settling or record-setting would be to miss his point completely. To listen to the opening lines Casablancas’ deadpans on “Is This It” juxtaposed against the emotional cataloging that comprises Phrazes’ first track, “Out of the Blue,” one is struck by the sheer amount of self-reflection that must have transpired—the staggering therapy bills it must have entailed. This isn’t to say there aren’t many of the emotions present that provided the engine for many a bad night out that inspired The Strokes’ catalog. To the contrary—his new solo record contains all those feelings and much more.
The Strokes’ lead singer is not the petulant, unkempt 23-year-old the world met eight years ago. Back then, between fawning cover stories comparing Casablancas to a fellow initial holder and frothing reports of him stumbling around the Lower East Side, Casablancas never seemed comfortable in front of reporters who were all too eager to portray him as a spoiled-rich-kid-cum-rock savior. Which isn’t to say Casablancas handles interviews with ease and aplomb now: He moves self-consciously through them, but it’s difficult to tell whether the discomfort or some self-preserving distrust came first. What is an acute self-awareness has in the past been mistaken for antipathy. What was youthful inexperience was mistaken for snarling cynicism. To paraphrase the opening lines of Phrazes—hopefulness turned to sadness, sadness turned to bitterness, bitterness turned to anger, and anger turned to vengeance.
The funny thing about Casablancas’ “future” is that he didn’t even want it—not consciously anyway, and certainly not initially. After The Strokes finished touring behind First Impressions of Earth, Casablancas was “a broken shell of a man,” he says, only half-joking. He says he couldn’t write following that tour, given how psychologically draining it’d been. When asked what about that tour made it difficult, it’s the only time he will simply state, “No comment.” Joking, he says, “Maybe I was still hungover. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it took me six months to feel normal.” Two years ago, when Casablancas ultimately did start writing again, he was writing songs he assumed would be for the next Strokes record. In speaking about The Strokes’ decision to take a break and pursue solo projects, Casablancas tempers the implication of any hurt feelings with a hint of sarcasm and a proclamation of the greater good. “I think by the time there were three solo records [by other bandmembers], I just thought, ‘Why not?’” But in the next breath he is more optimistic. “I think it’s natural and healthy and probably good for The Strokes long-term that everybody’s doing it.” When pressed as to how consciously that break was taken, Casablancas falters for a moment, and then says, “There was never any kind of heated how-dare-you’s,” the alliterative phrasing evoking something familiar, a line he might have howled into the microphone a few years ago. He says he hasn’t yet played the album for his bandmates, and when pressed for his reasons, he looks surprised. “No—I think I had them in mind,” he says sweetly. “Hopefully they’ll like it.”
After the band resolved to reconvene in the future and after everyone had pursued what they wanted, Casablancas began the more conscious process of carving out a solo career. “I decided pretty late that I wanted to do a solo record,” he says. “If I had something vague and loose, I thought that was for The Strokes. But if I knew exactly—the drumbeats, bassline, this kind of sound—if I had everything worked out, it went into the solo category.” Sonically, it couldn’t have been difficult for Casablancas to differentiate between those songs destined for The Strokes and those to keep for himself. Where The Strokes are guitar-playing, droll insiders, Casablancas the solo artist is all careening synths, dime-stopping drum machines and a good bit more vulnerable than The Strokes ever let on.
It’s very difficult to discuss Julian Casablancas outside of the context of his original outfit, and luckily, he doesn’t mind. He fields all questions about the band affably, divulging the status of the band’s fourth record within minutes of sitting down. “It doesn’t bother me,” he says, almost surprised by what he’s saying. “I feel like it should or something. Like I should say I only want to talk about [the solo album]. I think naturally people are going to have questions about [The Strokes]. I would ask me about that,” he grins. Here, Casablancas’ self-awareness rears up again—like he realizes some chasm between what he should and what he does feel, the same space that’s created some of his band’s best songs. There appears to be some sense of worry, that people will see this album as yet another step away from The Strokes. “If anything, I want to console people. There’s a portion of people who I think are like, ‘What the hell? When are The Strokes getting back together?’ Nothing I’m doing is slowing that down.”
Casablancas seems to have a refreshingly realistic perspective on the opportunity The Strokes have provided him—a sense of what the band has done for him, but with a wary attention to the fact that without that former success, this project would be viewed differently. In 2001, the band set England afire, a relatively easy task to perform, but once they were able to replicate in the United States with their debut album, Is This It, the heavy-lidded tone of the title perfectly encapsulated the band’s affect. Press pictures from the era show the boys (Casablanca, Nick Valensi, Fabrizio Moretti, Nikolai Fraiture and Albert Hammond, Jr.) all similar but different—Lower East Side action figures with exotic backgrounds and famous parents. Casablancas’ press persona borrowed hints of his actual identity: son of John Casablancas (the founder of Elite Model Management), and attendee of a Swiss boarding school were the two most seized upon details. This life of privilege only made his stand-offish demeanor that much more intolerable for the press, while the public fell in love with his slightly curled upper lip.
There is no one that will be harder on Julian Casablancas than Julian Casablancas. Throughout the conversation, he refers to the “dead air” that precedes an answer he gives. He will stop speaking abruptly and declare his answers boring, and he will trip over himself in his general manner—and it’s helplessly endearing. There is also a profound division between the Julian Casablancas on the record and the one who converses while the tape recorder is off. He is an interested subject, but seemingly more interested in not being a subject. When he is not on the record, he’s curious and complimentary, and our conversation runs the gamut from shiitake mushrooms to nail polish. “Put a microphone in front of me…” he trails off, noting his own discomfort. Ironically, that’s what got him here in the first place.
When asked whether this self-deprecation extends to his work, he rejects the idea that he is his own worst critic (though that may be a reaction to having had some pretty harsh ones in the past): “I try to be really objective. And the only way to fake being objective is to be a little harder than you would on your own thing because you have that motherly love.” Instrumental to this tempered sense of objectivity were Casablancas’ producer, Jason Lader (Rilo Kiley), and Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes), who did additional production. Casablancas started Phrazes in his apartment and continued the album in decidedly domestic locations, with a few brief forays into studios. He went to Los Angeles to record in a house with Lader and then to Nebraska with Mogis. “It was definitely not what I expected,” Casablancas says of the latter location. “I basically imagined the cover of the Bruce Springsteen album Nebraska—black and white barren land with clouds. I expected fields of wheat—Omaha’s actually a sprawled out, hip town.”
That the born-and-bred New Yorker ventured to points like Omaha (however urban it may be) speaks to the spirit of inventiveness and creativity found throughout the album. Casablancas travelled outside of the known sphere and came back with an album more varied than anything on the three Strokes albums combined. The first single, “11th Dimension,” serves as something akin to a mission statement for the album. “Each song on the album has a theme, and ‘11th Dimension’ is like a summary of all the songs—it has a little bit of everything in it. It’s about trying to tap into the all-knowing mind and seeing what it is.” The unrelentingly upbeat synths belie a slightly disturbed state of the world (“where cities come together to hate each other in the name of sport”), while a disappointing mentor and the need for forgiveness give way to one of the most uncharacteristic lines on the record: “I’ve got music coming out of my hands and feet and kisses—wooh!” The line is delivered without guile, with true and unfakeable exuberance, and in a way that Casablancas has never appeared before: caring, and unabashedly so. The song itself might be the best representation of Casablancas yet. “[It’s] a happy song with a dark undertone. This song has quick bursts of ominous intensity. So, like the song, I’m mostly happy but there’s an underlying seriousness that comes out sometimes.”
There is a dizzying amount of lessons recounted in some way or another on Phrazes, a title chosen because it was earned. Phrazes for the Young had been kicking around Casablancas’ head well before the last Strokes record, but it’s a testament to the comfort and confidence he’s garnered in the past few years that he was able to use it, and back it up. “The last record, the lyrics weren’t ready for that title. To be honest, the lyrics were a little secondary to me; I just wanted to make the music work, which was my focus. Singing was almost like an instrument—I just didn’t want to mess things up.” In the interceding years since that record, Casablancas has stepped up both his lyrical and singing games. He delivers assured lyrics on the corrosive effects of anger (the bluesy, warm organ-ed “Chords of the Apocalypse”), and clear, upper register vocals that imply susceptibility in love in one breath and the denial of it in the next.
It’s noteworthy that the genre that would inform Casablancas’ solo album most would seem to involve him the least—at least at first blush. For much of the writing and recording of this record, Casablancas had a classical music mixtape he would listen to: “There was a Benjamin Britten song I was listening to; Beethoven—even though that sounds ridiculous to say…Mozart; Bach.”
Which isn’t to imply that Phrazes sounds like a classical record at all, only that each song is incredibly complex, the confluence of multiple elements laid over each other. One can’t help but wonder about Casablancas’ attraction to the classical genre—for years he was known only for his voice, employed it as another instrument, and by his own estimation, tried simply to not mess anything up. It’s strange, then, that wordless classical music has in turn inspired some of his best vocal stylings. “I’ve never dreamt of being an instrument player. My secret dream is to be a modern composer,” he says. “To arrange music on a more sophisticated level and in hopefully more exciting ways.” Which is precisely what Casablancas has accomplished, along with some of the most ornate pop flourishes heard this side of the keytar, as well as some deep and dark emotional exorcisms.
As “Left & Right in the Dark” bounces along, Casablancas easily keeps pace with a drum machine while synths careen. “River of Brakelights,” a tense, racing song about “the arrogance of getting ahead at any cost,” sounds like it might have been built around a discarded Strokes riff. When asked later whether the song is autobiographical, Casablancas seems to resist any suggestion that the track parallels his own life: “It’s not autobiographical, it’s life-biographical…it’s the American way.” “Tourist,” a haunting, slo-mo song in the mold of Talking Heads’ “The Big Country,” features Eastern flecked strings. It’s an interesting perspective to hear Casablancas, after years of being the ultimate insider, confessing to feelings of displacement and outsider status.
Nowadays, he sounds like a different Julian Casablancas—insecurity isn’t being mistaken for antipathy, and he doesn’t snarl. He sounds excited about the album as well as talking about it, something he never seemed to be able to do with The Strokes. There’s something incredibly fitting about his parting words at the end of our interview. When asked whether he has any trepidation over releasing this album or worry of what the reception might be, all traces of the sneering 23-year-old are gone. “Worst case scenario, I’m happy with it.”