A Q&A with the Strokes frontman.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t heard much from Julian Casablancas since the Strokes released the underappreciated First Impressions of Earth in early 2006. Since then, the frontman has popped up on a collaborative track here and there with Danger Mouse or Pharrell. Most recently, the leather-jacket fanatic rocked the chorus to the goofy “Boombox,” a viral video with the Lonely Planet, a joke rap act from Saturday Night Live’s Andy Samberg.
But the lull is over. Looking at the 31-year-old’s 2010 day planner, his schedule is about to get hectic—there’s a tour to promote last year’s weird and wonderful solo debut, Phrazes for the Young, and a newborn son to raise and headlining Lollapalooza and, oh yeah, sessions for that fourth Strokes record everybody is dying for. We rang up Casablancas at his Manhattan home, days after “Boombox” aired on SNL.
I’m just filling out my NCAA tournament brackets. Do you also do that?
No, I kind of know nothing about it, though college sports make more sense to me. Usually there’s more people from the region playing for the team.
You are a big baseball fan, right?
[Sighs] Yeah, yup.
Is it because you’re a Mets fan that you sound so depressed about it?
Maybe, maybe. I like underdogs. “People come together to hate each other in the name of sport” [in “11th Dimension”] was about sports in general. It find it funny how people from Boston and New York hate each other because of pro teams. But, like, everyone on the Red Sox is a random millionaire athlete from somewhere else.
So, it’s been a big week for you. Everyone’s talking about the SNL digital short “Boombox.” And your music was all over Gossip Girl, which we’ll get to later.
Has it been an unexpected response for you?
Um, you know, I was aware that it would be helpful for the tour and stuff. Yeah, it’s great how, the power, the power we have. It’s been great. I loved doing it. It’s so fun to, like, be on SNL without the pressure.
Right, you weren’t live, so you have multiple takes.
Exactly. I mean I don’t know, it was still an experience for me that was pretty awesome; I can’t say a bad thing about it.
You must be a big SNL fan. You also cover Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz’s Christmas song as a bonus track on your solo record.
Yeah, yeah, I am a fan of SNL and a big Jimmy Fallon fan too. A while ago we played that song on Late Night.
I saw that. It’s nice to see you showing a sense of humor these days. Did you ever go to watch SNL tape when you were younger, growing up in New York?
So then that “Boombox” video, did you supply your own fingerless gloves or was it something that the prop department prepared for you?
You know what, I know someone who wears a pair of those, like, everyday. The pair I wear in the video, I’d stumbled upon years ago. I thought, “Well, these are cool, but I wonder if I will ever have any use for these? [Laughs] Hopefully one day I will be working enough that I will need these and actually can wear them!” When we did this song I remember thinking like, “Oh cool, I have those fingerless gloves. I can use them now.”
Now it’s going to be your Michael Jackson silver glove. You’re going to have to wear it at all times. When you die, fans will put them on in tribute.
[Laughs] I don’t think so. I debated not wearing them. I had a conversation with Andy [Samberg] and suggested that maybe I shouldn’t wear the gloves and should be kinda angry at everyone for wearing fingerless gloves. But they were like, “No, you should wear them.” So I did what I was told.
Are there any other funny articles of clothing you have found on the road? What do you pick up when you’re touring?
I have to say, I’m good with gifts. If I find something perfect for a certain person, I’ll just get it and put it away in a kind of nook under my bed—a little gift hutch, if you prefer. Whatever it is, if it’s someone’s birthday I usually have a pretty good gift for the person. I have something appropriate for them that I stumbled upon randomly.
So let’s talk about your solo album. Especially the lyrics. How open are you to discussing your lyrics?
I’m pretty open.
Okay, great. So why a purple basket? Right off the bat, you sing that you’re “going to hell in a purple basket.” I love that line. I just don’t understand it.
Um, I don’t know,… That’s one of the bizarre ones. Umm, where is that from? How did I get that song? People always ask me about “going to hell in a leather jacket,” so I forgot about that one. Actually, when I sing “purple basket” live, I can tell people are annoyed that I didn’t sing the leather jacket line. I’m like, “Don’t worry people, it’s coming!” I was thinking about…um…I don’t know, a basket and a bicycle? You know, I can’t even remember right now. I’m derailing here. [Laughs] I don’t know. That’s my answer.
For “Ludlow Street,” did you do research on the history of the Lower East Side of New York or is that something you had in your head?
1624, that’s the date that New York officially became the city of New York. It’s the date that they, like, uh, I can’t remember. It’s the date that they… It’s an official date. I should know these things!
Did you just remember that stuff from school?
I’m interested in the history of New York in general. Thinking about Indians running around, and how it was in the 1600s. I read books about the city’s history. I just remember reading 1624, which was when they kicked the Native Americans out of the area or made it official. It’s an official date. Just trust me. The street I’m on right now was built, like, 200 years ago. It’s kind of the same. Well, maybe it’s higher, I don’t know.
Yeah, whenever the city digs up the streets there are always layers and strata of old bricks and pavement.
Yeah, it’s how Washington Square Park was once a graveyard. Everything here was cornfields and graves. It’s such a weird thought. People were being hung there.
Something else you do in your lyrics is sing about a progression of emotions. There’s a step-by-step account of how you feel that you do. For example, “Out of the Blue” talks about hopefulness turning to sadness to bitterness, etc. It reminded me of the Strokes tune, “On the Other Side,” when you talk about how you hate people, drink more, love them, drink some more, hate them more. Are you a mercurial person, writing from experience, or are you just observing people?
I don’t know, it’s probably 50/50. Roughly, it’s half personal experiences and half trying to paint a picture and storytelling. Not traditional storytelling, more of putting out general emotional feelings. “Out of the Blue” and “On the Other Side,” with those two songs, those have a before and after. Those two have that in common for sure. You’re very astute.
Ha. Thanks. There’s definitely a classical vibe on your new record. As the Classical editor, I feel obligated to ask you what records and composers you were taking notes from?
There’s no major composer overall I was looking to. I look at composers by songs, as I do with modern bands. Like, I love a Times New Viking song, but I don’t necessarily have their albums. Same with classical. Benjamin Britten has one song “Funeral March,” or something. That one killed me. There’s Ravel, you know that famous song, “Boléro.”
The keyboard solos on “Glass” and “11th Dimension” have a baroque, 17th-century organ feel to them.
Yeah, well, definitely my favorite is probably Beethoven. Not a very original favorite though. I feel like if those guys were around today, they wouldn’t be playing classical music. It was a different era. There’s always been parallel lives in music, like intellectual music, say jazz, where people are studying and proficient. And then there’s folk or pop music, which is more simple and accessible. They’re intertwined in some new music, like Beirut. But I guess that’s kind of what I’m going for—trying to have complexities, music that like musicians love, with the accessibility and catchiness that makes folk and pop music more popular.
I have the fancy, deluxe version of the record with all your demos. I was struck by how detailed and thought-out your demos were compared to the finished album. Not that far off from the album, really. It made me see the Strokes in a different light, because it seems your main way of thinking is as a composer or arranging pieces. Which is funny with the Strokes material, as it was pegged as a return to raw rock & roll. Phrazes demonstrates that the Strokes is a much more arranged endeavor. The levels of all the instruments in the mix are weird and really thought-out.
Yeah, I think that’s totally the thing with the Strokes. That’s how I, whatever, or we, wanted it. We probably sound like these drunk dudes stumbling the room and trying to play. Actually, everything was put together meticulously even though we make it sound weird and low-fi. It was definitely planned rawness. There’s not much jamming.
So were those solo demos something done at home or in a studio?
I did it at home, with a friend. There was a time when I was trying to learn to do it myself. I was dedicated for a few months and I figured I’d be okay at it, fiddling with GarageBand. But I got into music because it naturally felt like it was something I had a mind for. It felt like I knew what I was doing. But with computers, it just takes forever for me to figure it out. I tried and I tried and I thought, You know what, man, it would save a lot more time if I’d just work with people who had spent their life working with computers.
The other thing noticeable on the solo record is the development of your singing voice. You’re much more confident than in the early Strokes material. Especially in “Glass,” where you hit some pretty high notes you hadn’t really hit before on a record.
I’ve been kind of slowly getting higher and higher. Not that there’s a plan to it. I actually just wanted the songs to be easy to sing live. I didn’t want any notes that’d have me stressing a little bit.
That’s weird, ’cause I’d think the opposite. I’d think that the falsetto in “Glass” would be harder to sing.
Yeah, doing “Glass” has not been a problem. Although, watch, now I’ll not hit it. “And after that interview he never sang it quite the same.”
So don’t judge me, but I saw the new Gossip Girl last night and the show used half of your album. Were you aware?
Yeah, it’s crazy. I kind of didn’t really wanna do it, to be honest. I’m more of a 90210 guy. [Laughs]
Were you apprehensive because of your background? Are you afraid of people dragging out the whole private-school topic again?
No, no, because that show’s just a total fantasy. Or, if it’s real, it’s not a world that I ever experienced. No, the show said it was a huge fan and they wanted to use a few songs and my manager asked me and I said okay.
Does that stigma of having gone to private school bother you? I think that argument is ridiculous, that privileged people can’t make great art. It goes against all of history, really. Those classical people we were talking about earlier went to institutions to learn and were paid by royalty. Do you sympathize with how people attack Vampire Weekend? That’s what I’m getting at. Ha.
Well, I mean, I went to different kinds of schools. I briefly, you know, went to schools that were weird and elitist, and I might have been the only person who didn’t have a trust fund. Just weird, rich people that were at a different level. But mostly I went to my school, my high school, which was pretty much considered the lowest end of private school.
Right. Again I’m revealing my terrible TV habits, but there was a show on Bravo called NYC Prep and the main character went to your school, Dwight, and all the other kids just ridiculed him like he was an imposter, because he went to Dwight.
Yeah, that’s how it goes. I don’t know, there’s, like, Dalton and Spence. It was a little different years ago. To be honest, I feel like you can learn in a lot of different places; obviously good teachers will help. It’s such a weird thing with private schools, not the one I necessarily went to, but for other people it’s the name that helps you. It’s a weird thing that I always felt was weird even when I was young, and as soon as I was old enough to figure it out, I left school to study music and just kind of did stuff on my own.
Of course, I can’t talk to you without getting to the fourth Strokes album. So how’s that going? Is it stressful or helpful creatively for you to have your solo thing going on simultaneously?
I think it will help the Strokes for sure. Let me think, um, it’s not really affecting us. It’s crawling there, you know?
I noticed that you weren’t in the “Inside the Studio” video posted on the Strokes site. Or, well, maybe you were shooting the video.
Directed by Julian Casablancas. [Laughs] Yeah, they were doing a lot of tracking without me. Recording a lot of different parts.
What does it sound like?
Um, I don’t know; I mean right now, it probably sounds more like First Impressions of Earth, but soon I’ll get my head around it and do my thing and, uh, funk it up a little bit.
I read you wanted it to sound like 21st century Thin Lizzy.
Ha, yeah. If Thin Lizzy carried on 15 years in the future and just kind of went towards ’80s melodies.
Well, who wouldn’t want to hear that? So was it recharging to just have so many media outlets rank Is This It as the best record of the decade?
I think it was validating, you know? I felt like uh…I felt if I’m gonna pick the guitar up, for some people to legitimize is nice. I felt like I could have been wrong to some point. But some think some writers are like, “Yeah the solo thing is great, but the Strokes.” The thing is, to be honest, I was upset with the reaction to our band at one point, so it’s better a delayed positive reaction over no reaction.
The second and third records don’t get enough credit, though.
I can’t say what’s better, but I guess I feel like they’re underrated in a sense.… Who is that? Is that DMX? …Sorry, I’m watching TMZ.
Understandable. Speaking of DMX, after “Boombox,” have more hip-hop artists approached you about singing hooks?
No much. Though, there’s an album coming out that has been mentioned. I don’t know if it’s totally happening, if it’s even legit, as they’re just a lot of big names. I don’t know, we’ll see. I’m open to it.
Interesting. You’re a new father now, right?
Yeah, I am. Yep.
For how long?
Wow, you suddenly have a lot going on in your life.
Um, yeah, it’s new, so it feels kinda fun.
Do you play music for your baby yet? Baby Mozart or Baby Thin Lizzy?
I sing to him. I just make stuff up.
After a few years of relative quiet, you have two bands going, touring and recording, and an infant. Is it overwhelming?
Uh, it doesn’t seem like it right now. Ask me in a little while. But right now I’m at home, so I feel pretty psyched about things. I don’t… Well, if I could cut out something I would, but I can’t.
As for headlining Lollapalooza, have you put any thought at all into what you’re going to do?
Mmm… No, nothing is done yet.
No costumes or anything?
Ha, no. We didn’t even consider costumes.
Well, did they tell you who you’re going up against? It might be Lady Gaga. Do you worry about that?
You know I someone asked, “What if you’re gonna be up against Lady Gaga?” I don’t know; I haven’t really thought about that. I just hope that doesn’t happen!