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Julian’s stroke of genius

Casablancas returns to Japan, where his solo journey began

by Shaun Curran

Fresh off the stage in Denver, Colorado, Julian Casablancas is contemplating the cyclical nature of his forthcoming Japanese shows. The release of his solo album “Phrazes for the Young,” subsequent tour and news of The Strokes’ recent reconciliation have ensured that the next six months will be busy. But it was actually in Tokyo that Casablancas ended several years of solitude and returned to the fray, unveiling his solo material for the first time last August.

“It was OK,” he recalls in the kind of New York drawl that makes you go weak at the knees. “Actually,” he counters after taking a needlessly long pause, “it was pretty rough.”

Those familiar with The Strokes’ frontman will appreciate this is the typically Casablancan default interview technique. Even when in a jovial and chatty mood — as he is tonight — his penchant for painstakingly unhurried conversation and short, guarded, ambiguous answers has led to accusations of not only haughty aloofness but also a lack of substance, a reputation at odds with a man once held up as the savior of rock ‘n’ roll.

In truth, this is slightly unfair. Ripostes do take a while in coming, but when coaxed, Casablancas is well-natured, contradicting his uncommunicative disposition.

“To be honest,” he finally continues, “my voice wasn’t close (and) the band wasn’t too tight. The shows will be like night and day, I think.”

Why Tokyo for the debut show? “Oh, Japan is a super rad place. Tokyo is great, and super futuristic. Plus,” he adds belatedly and pointedly, “there was less pressure. If I’d have done it in New York, I’d have been terrified.”

An admission of fear from the cocksure purveyor of Big Apple cool may surprise some, but the Casablancas of today is not the one he was in 2001. Now 31, married with children and completely sober, he no longer cuts the snotty, street-wise, elegantly wasted figure. His unfeasibly attractive pretty-boy looks remain (as you might expect from the son of a former Miss Denmark), but aren’t they coupled with a more contented exterior? “I guess so,” he reckons. “There’s a few reasons for that.”

One reason is the success, both critically and personally, of his solo venture. After a relatively low profile during the previous three years, when the occasional guest vocal amounted to his musical output, “Phrazes for the Young,” his unexpectedly poppy, sleek, synth-tinged album, has re-demanded the spotlight in a manner free from the straight-jacketed pressure of leading the noughties’ first universally hyped band.

“It has been super fun,” he says. “And everyone’s kind of right minded (and) laid back. There aren’t too many cooks.” Cue another temporary halt. “I don’t want to incriminate, but there’s no debating over every detail.”

Is this because you are in sole charge?

“I guess so. We’re not arguing over which van we take to the airport. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had, actually.”

If this sounds like a thinly veiled, disparaging dig toward the other four members of The Strokes, it isn’t Casablancas’ intention. Not wholly, anyway, because as anyone with mere passing interest in the band will testify, relations have been strained for some time, as the lyric in new song “Ludlow St.,” “While I surrendered my ego you fed yours,” validates. And while eager to point out that such problems are “in the past,” following the band’s reunion at the end of last year, his discontent forced him out on his own.

“I realized that whilst three others were doing solo records, I was writing all the Strokes’ stuff. So it made sense to . . . I don’t know. Look, all this is taken care of, but people were making songs for themselves, and I was making them for the band. Nothing was ever five ways. Anyway, it’s all changed now. It’s cool.”

As principal songwriter, it is put to Casablancas, people do have the perception he is something of a control freak where the music is concerned.

“I think people thought my opinion was . . . look, I demanded high standards. I am musical director, but I wanted a collaboration. And I pushed back waiting for it. And it never happened, so it made sense (to make a solo album).”

Did going solo enable you to experiment with ideas you wouldn’t countenance using for The Strokes?

“No,” he answers emphatically. “I can take any song to anyone. It’s the same for them. But no, it wasn’t a case of me wanting to explore; I just wanted to do some stuff. Lots of The Stokes’ stuff is done on keyboards anyway. In the early days, I wanted to sound like Guided by Voices, or a Velvet Underground-y, y’know, that lo-fi guitar thing. This was the opposite. I wanted a cleaner, bigger, happier vibe. There was nothing more to it.”

Like all truly great bands, the initial incarnation of The Strokes was so perfectly conceived it was almost too good to be true. Five striking New Yorkers whose arty arrogance and brattish demeanor was backed up by irresistibly sexy, CBGB-derived, scuzzy rock ‘n’ roll were the perfect antidote to a musical climate where the abhorrently knuckle-headed Limp Bizkit were America’s biggest export and the U.K. made stars of the safe, terminally bland likes of Travis.

Unadulterated fawning from almost all quarters inevitably followed, as their unimpeachable debut “Is This It” not only made rock ‘n’ roll dangerous and danceable once more but turned Casablancas into a poster boy for the generation that came of age at the turn of the millennium. Diminishing returns ever since (their last album, “First Impressions of Earth,” was an overproduced, bloated misstep) have not tainted their appeal, proved by the eminence of “Is This It” at the top of many decade best-of polls. Are such accolades important?

“Important,” he muses. “Important. That’s a weird word. It makes me feel happy,” he says with surprising intonation. “I don’t know if it’s important. I don’t take it for granted, I don’t say it’s bullsh-t. I’m super-psyched about it. It’s more important than album of the year. People can get things wrong at the time. That people are looking back . . . that’s totally rad.”

How do you feel about that period, looking back?

“I don’t remember it too good,” he says, hesitantly.

Is that because of the drink?

“I think so. I wish I could go back and enjoy it more. I’m enjoying it now, the whole vibe. I wish I remembered it more. I remember the hangovers better.”

Was there a particular catalyst that made you stop?

“I told myself that if it got in the way of the music, I’d stop,” he says, determinedly. “And it was definitely getting in the way of the music. Now that I’ve stopped, there are 20 other reasons. It’s a weird social crutch. You drink because you feel like other people will like you more. But it’s an illusion. It’s like, ‘Drink and then you’re rad.’ I’m much more confident and comfortable now. I mean, being around really drunk people can be annoying. All that, ‘Man, I love you!’ stuff. But it doesn’t bother me. I can be around drunk people.”

Newfound sobriety has coincided with, or maybe resulted from, a settled personal life. Casablancas now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, The Strokes’ former assistant manager Juliet Joslin, their 3-month-old son Cal and their dogs — a far cry from the “get drunk and wait for the girls to show up” attitude of yore. Does domesticated life suit?

“Domesticated . . . ” he says as if the concept is completely alien. “I work more. It used to be, if you played a good show, or had a good rehearsal, or a good day in the studio, or even a bad day in the studio, you’d go out to celebrate. It takes a little more for me to celebrate. I’m out less often. I certainly get more done, which is the super thing. So . . . yeah, I suppose so.”

Increased work-rate and heightened focus mean Casablancas is now juggling solo commitments with work on new Strokes material, which he hopes to release in January. Does he feel The Strokes have a point to prove?

“Not really, no,” he answers flatly. “No.”

So what’s the motivation?

“I want to make something like other edgy, cool things, like a cool indie movie, so people go, ‘Man, I wish that was popular, more popular than that crappy popular thing.’ I just want it to be good first. Hopefully it’s good, and if it’s good, I hope it’s as popular as that unlistenable stuff.”

Was that ultimately the hope for “Phrazes for the Young?”

“Er . . . the album’s more . . . it has big choruses, I suppose. It’s not some smash-hit thing, but it’s a different style. I think people were expecting it to be a vanity project. Maybe next time it will be weird. That’s a dream, to make something weird that could be popular.”

He takes one last protracted pause. “Maybe I’ll do that one day.”

Julian Casablancas plays Tokyo’s Akasaka Blitz on May 11 and Osaka’s Shinsaibashi Club Quattro on May 12. Tickets for both shows cost ¥6,300. For more details, visit www.juliancasablancas.com