Julian Casablancas of The Strokes
Skip Matheny— currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle and former bartender in a retirement community — caught up with Julian Casablancas before his show at the Cannery in Nashville, Tennessee. This is one of the more insightful interviews he’s ever given about his craft. Topics discussed include: The need for isolation while working on music, the mutual love between Julian and Arctic Monkeys and which band would be the most popular in Julian’s utopia.
Nashville Tennessee – Interview
What’s your favorite drink?
[Looks over at the green room hospitality table] Gasoline, No, absinthe… No. My favorite drink? I don’t know — I drink a lot of water. (laughs)
I know you can play a lot of instruments and you played a lot of different things on Phrazes For The Young. Is there some particular thing you find yourself picking up more often to write with — a guitar, a piano, a sampler?
I pick up whatever’s near, I guess. The thing I use a lot now [reaches in pocket and pulls out a matching digital recorder to the one I am using to record the interview ] –- cheers, ding -– is this digital recorder thing. I used to do everything by memory back in the day. I don’t know, some fascination with the Greek poets, you know they just memorized everything. So I’d be working between one and three parts, or songs, at a time. But when I started a few years ago recording stuff, I realized listening back, the things I thought were great were sometimes mediocre -– and the things I forgot about, that I thought were nothing, were great. And it kind of freaked me out. So now I record everything, and I have thousands of [recordings]- so I just play all the time and if I feel like I’m doing something that could be cool I just record it. Give work for future Julian. That’s what I do.
Do you enjoy that compressed air sound that these digital recorders capture, along with whatever you are recording? or is that trouble?
That can be a bad thing. Because you record something that feels so cool. And then you just have that demo-itis thing. It’s impossible to copy it. It has the right compression, or you know, it sounds so cool. So that sometimes is a bad thing.
Are there any specific books or authors you were reading while you were making the record, or maybe you’re reading at the moment?
No. I mean I read a bunch of stuff before Phrazes For The Young like The Analects [Confucious], quotations of people and stuff. No I haven’t really read any new things. Siddhartha and translations of the Bible on the bus right now that I’m trying to get through. It’s hard to read on the road. I think I’ve only read two books like front page to last page in my entire life.
The Odyssey and Crime And Punishment.
Wow. If you had to pick two…
It’s hard, well, the thing about The Odyssey is, every chapter is like a book. Every thing’s is like a poem, every line is like this deep quote on life. It’s really amazing. That’s probably why it lasted 5000 years (laughs). But the translation I read is really good too. I feel like translations are super important. I always go to the book store and check out different translations before you buy a book because — its night and day. I mean like the first line of Crime and Punishment, you read the first line of any book, and I mean, its insane. One is , you know, “Todd walked down the street and saw his friend.” And one’s like “Todd on the second of the ides crossed passed with his sister’s other sibling.” or you know what I mean…
Do you find yourself writing much, when you are on the road?
More than ever before on this tour actually. Its been pretty great. I’ve been relatively productive, way more than ever before on the road.
The lyrics on this record seem to use a method of describing things through collections of statements. Some are proper aphorisms and some seem like off-hand thoughts, and a bunch kind of fall in between. In “11th Dimension,” for example, there are these oddly paired thoughts or statements, some remark as casual and internal as a personal greeting, “I’ll just nod. I’ve never been that good at shaking hands” — with something as spartan and abstract as a zoomed-out photo of earth – “I live on the frozen surface of a fireball” – but when you hear them all together as the record progressses, they start create a more over-arching description of scenes or characters. Were you just writing what came out naturally , or were you sitting down sweating these lyrics out, working with a line at a time?
I was sweating a little bit because I had the name first. If it’s called Phrazes For The Young the lyrics can’t just be throw away. I do a similar things with lyrics now, I tried really hard to sit down. I can do that sometimes. But ’11th dimension” did not come that way. It was more like a collection of thoughts. There’s different themes on the record and for me, “11th Dimension’ was almost like a kind of summary of the whole record a little bit — the whole thing, ‘it’s kind of like in the back of your mind whether you know it or not’ type of thing. So that was the theme. “11th Dimension” was basically just about the sub-conscious, that was the whole idea behind it. And the opening line, yeah I thought its always nice to start off like, ‘Hey how’s it going?’ (laughs). I had a lot of different lyrics that I wrote over a course of a year. Different thoughts – different lines that I would have. I went through them all, and I would collect different things ,and some things fit musically and some things fit thematically. I feel like a lot of my process now is editing. You know — the creating — I don’t sit there and think “oh you know, I gotta write,” because that can be fruitless and frustrating. But now, I’m constantly playing music and thinking about things. And then just when it comes out, I record, and then eventually I go through everything later.
Just reading the lyrics as text, there are a lot of details crafted into place that can get easily overlooked by a casual listener. My favorite line on the record, and maybe an actual “phrase for the young” in a modern sense, sits on the fade-out of 11th Dimension: “Don’t you dare get to the top and not know what to do.” Another kind of subtle heavyweight is on the last song on the record, “Tourist.” The listener has to hang on to the very last line to have the whole song fall into shape. “Everywhere I go, I am a tourist / But if you stay with me I’ll always be at home” is kind of out of nowhere at that point, and turns the whole song around. I would say it kind of changes the lighting on the whole record. These are some pretty artful arrangements that require a listener to lean in a bit…
It’s tough to write. I feel like I suck at writing like ‘pop’ because I get too greedy, meaning wise. Because I want it to work on two or three different levels, its really hard for me to just, you know, “I went to the door and I looked you in the eye and … that’s why I’m a happy man!” (laughs) You know what I mean? I just can’t. Its gotta be — maybe something weird or complicated, like a thriller… I don’t know, now I’m rambling. The pop lyrics, I’m bad at the simple thread. I just get greedy. Like Rumi’s my favorite kind of poet. Did you ever read him?
Yeah, I have.
That stuff is bonkers out of this world cool. And out there crazy and yeah, that’s always the dream; that the lyrics can still work like that. Cause I think he was a musician, you know? So it can feel like those poems he sang, that’s like ideal.
Yeah, that kind of goes back to the Greeks we were talking about. All those memorized poems were passed down by bards actually singing them. There wasn’t always, so to speak, a separation between music and poetry.
Although did Homer sing? Do you think?
I imagine he did, I don’t know.
Did he have like a horrible voice? Were people like “Stop singing. Just tell the story… if you could just tell us the story…” (laughs)
When you were a kid did you hear a particular song, riding in a friend’s car or something, and it kind of made a connection, where you thought you might want to start making music?
Yeah actually, my best friend kind of. His brother had a friend who got a bootleg of like – what was that B-side at the time… “Yellow Ledbetter?” It was…
Oh yeah Pearl Jam, I remember that.
But he had like a tape, it sounded terrible at the time. You could barely make out… [imitates Eddie Vedder singing momentarily] …it was very muffled. But that song was the first time I like, felt weird… that music reached deeper. Not that I never really… I mean… I liked music. But [up to that point] it was never the main thing in my life. That was the first song where I felt weirdly moved by it.
Do you work better in isolated environments?
Definitely. Totally. I need to. If I’m working on stuff [now], it’s “You know you’ve got to soundcheck… You’ve got to…” I’m looking forward to a time where, yeah [pauses] I need at least two, three weeks, with nothing, at home. And still, my mom will call (laughs) or I’ll still have stuff to do, you know, walk dogs or — I’ll still be busy somehow, other than just working on music. But that’s the funnest thing for me, is working on music. I think it has to be, if you’re gonna do that for real. It can’t feel like work. That’s the problem with touring in the past for me. You get kind of tired. You don’t do anything tiring. But somehow you’re tired and you don’t have that natural energy to pick up the guitar and play. You wanna watch TV or lay down. I don’t remember the original question now… I kind of derailed…
Oh no, it was great. I was asking if you worked better in isolated settings.
Oh yeah alone for sure. I mean before this record, we like escaped. We’d been talking about taking a vacation for a long time. And we went to Aruba. I’d never been. We went there for like a week and half, just so people would not bother me, while I was getting all the lyrics together and stuff.
In this same interview series we had the opportunity to chat with Alex and Matt from Arctic Monkeys, and during our talk, your solo record came up.
Those guys are really great. The drummer is seriously underrated. He’s got to be one of the best. Quite a team those two, I think.
Yes they really are. They were talking about how many ideas and hooks were packed into each song on your record, and how they continually reveal themselves the more you listen. I was wondering, since this is such a layered record, in your personal relationship to it, now that you’re on the other side of it, and have toured behind it for a while, does it sound like roughly the same thing to you, as when you finished mixing it, or has it changed shape at all?
Lyrically I don’t know. I’m probably too close, because I sing it every night, the words almost don’t even make sense to me anymore. You know its like saying one word too many times. But musically, just two nights ago, I heard these two Japanese dueling guys; one guy who does it, I think, it a little better… but they do these like eight-bit versions of “Phrazes For the Young.” And its like a drum machine, and it was a version of “Tourist.” This guy must have put a lot of time into it, and just hearing the song in such a weird way, I was really psyched about all the music and all the time spent kind of building it… just listening to it back in such a weird form, so it was fresh to my ears. I was pretty psyched. I was happy because I work on something to where I feel its right and then I sort of have to walk away cause I’ve heard it three million times. So its like my ears are dead to it. I would say I was presently surprised with how it felt. That’s as objective, I’d say, as I can get.
Are there any songwriters in particular you always go back to?
Probably Bob Marley is my one guy who has a body of work. That’s probably number one by far on the list. As far as bands go I’d have to say Velvet Underground is number one, but in general, probably number two under Bob Marley. I think Lou Reed too. Also again, you know the drug thing. I don’t know if that maybe made things weird, you know after the Noise Machine record or whatever but before that, he was pretty on the money. Actually, before we were starting out, I mean we had a band, but we hadn’t done anything yet. People had school, jobs whatever. We were still rehearsing. But we were at this bar, and Lou Reed was doing this book signing at a Barnes and Noble across the street. We went there and I got a book of his to sign, as he was walking out. So anyway I had no idea, until I was reading the book, how amazing his lyrics were. ‘Cause I always thought they were cool, but like, they’re amazing. He’s kind of underrated lyrically.
He is. It jumps out too when you’re reading it on a page.
I don’t feel like they get enough… I mean I feel like they should be bigger than the Rolling Stones. That would be a perfect world for me. Is that wrong for me to say? I love Loaded too. Its probably my favorite Velvet Underground record, because its them like trying to be pop. But they still cant help but be like kind of weird. So the mixture for me is kind of…its mine. I like that.
Julian, thanks. It’s been a great pleasure.
Oh, the pleasure was mine.