Sally A. Edwards met Julian Casablancas in Manchester when he was on his first solo tour promoting, Phrazes for the Young. The two discussed creativity, success and collaborations.
The original cover story was first published in BLAG Vol. 3 Nø.2 print edition in 2011.
Interview, Art Direction and Art Direction by Sally A. Edwards
Photography by Sarah J. Edwards
“It’s the one thing in common with everything in the universe, everything looks for success."
As Sarah and I exit the train station the cold hits us. It’s freezing, the sky is bright blue, the air is so clear yet thick – with the temperature drop – you could cut it with a knife, rip it apart and step into the next phase. We walk over bridges, down streets, alleyways, along cobble stoned lanes, past vast redbrick warehouse buildings. The sound of my suitcase wheels make their own beat and my footsteps keep up the pace. The city is buzzing, sections of others’ conversations add verses to the sounds, the hum of car engines provide a continual bassline.
My un-gloved hand is stone cold holding a phone acting as a modern day compass pointing Sarah and I in the direction of our destination. On the horizon an angular utopian-looking modern building grows and rises above the history that surrounds it, just as it probably did on the architect’s drawings. We’ve arrived. I call our contact, no answer, walk to the front door, it’s locked. We split up, going different ways around the building, meeting at a side door.
A security guard in black trousers, polished boots and a white shirt walks across from an adjacent building clearly acclimatized to the temperature. “It’s unlocked!” he yells in his strong native accent as he strides in our direction, gesturing we open the door and head in. He obviously knows what we’re here for, catches us up and walks in towards the lift, “Go on, third floor.” He leaves us to jump in. The doors squeal shut and we look at each other with questioned marked expressions. We’re heading into the brand new pre-fitted Armani flagship store in Spinningfields. Now, probably unrecognisable to what lies ahead.
The doors open to an expansive vast empty space, steel floors, full frame windows, no furniture and lights that sense you’re arriving and switch on by themselves. Half of this building hangs in the air in a triangular shape above street level. The people in the office opposite are oblivious to us. Those on the street don’t know we exist. It’s a cold, but flashy new world. Something from a Japanese horror film, or “Like being on the set of a movie about grifters. Yes, exactly like that,” as our cover star later states.
This will now be our home for the next six hours. Sarah and I unpack and take care of our individual things; set up lighting, clothes, laptops and camera equipment. We prep and are ready for our requested time of 2pm. For the next hour and a half we patiently and impatiently wait. As the clock moves forward, the light goes down.
Eventually, the lift doors open and two men can be seen entering the room in the reflection of the window, they disappear off in the other direction. “This way!” I call, but no response. Sarah jumps up and walks over to find Julian Casablancas accompanied by his manager, both with beaming smiles. Julian wheels a suitcase full of clothes to mix with those we’ve brought. He asks that we do the interview first.
“We always used to do interviews first when BLAG was a fanzine,” Sarah says. “Then if it didn’t go very well, I wouldn’t take my camera out.”
Julian laughs, “So you’ll be like,” [clicks fingers and points to the spotlight we’ve set-up] ‘Move it out boys.’ Or words to that extent.
[‘Oh marvellous,’ I think.]
To describe Julian for those who haven’t met him: He’s warm when he greets you and possesses an infectious smile, is polite and not afraid to say sorry. He’s surprising, cheeky and serious. He laughs through his mouth and nose at the same time. Is more American than many I know and reminiscent of a classic 80’s film character when saying things like “phony weird” and the “fyoo-ch”– as in the future. He laughs at himself, but pays attention to his plans.
Julian’s solo album, ‘Phrazes for the Young’ grasped the attention of the well-tuned ear. He’s taken it on a world tour for his army of existing, adoring and brand new fans. He knows he needs to work hard to be successful.
Sounds like he’d be radiating confidence doesn’t it? Well, little did I know I’d be adding such words as modest, shy and unassuming to my introduction.
We had a ready-made perception given the communications we’d had with Julian’s team in our organisation which included words like ‘excited’, ‘awesome’ and lots of exclamation marks. So what lay ahead was highly unexpected.
For the shoot, Julian’s outfits have names or recollections, like “the leathers”, ‘the stage outfit”, “the video interview” and “the tiger”. During the shoot Julian sings along to the music, makes up his own lines, does a little rap over Daft Punk about himself. He extends the time to try on more clothes to give us a lot of different looks. He’s more at ease as we get going, then surprisingly at one point when Sarah pulls back a polaroid and says, “No.” He mutters to himself, “You’re messing it up again”. I take my turn to look at the floor.
During the interview Julian barely makes eye contact, he looks away with his head turned or stares at the floor. To add to this he speaks at incredibly low volumes. He’s apologetic and sings his umm’s as though accompanied by a tuning fork. My British dry wit is lost in translation which is awkward – but I’m subtly determined. With the room completely unfurnished, our interview is conducted at floor level, voices don’t echo as you’d expect, but get caught up amongst the buzz of the electrics.
What are you most passionate about?
“No, I’m kidding... What am I most passionate about?”
Everyone laughs when I ask this...
[Pauses]... “I guess, I’m most passionate about... I’m supposed to say music, right?”
You can if you want. Everyone so far has said what their career is. What do you have most patience with?
“So, um... patience... ummmm. You’re supposed to have a lot of patience in poker? Which I very rarely play. I mean... I don't know."
Shall I come back to that?
[Laughs] What tests your patience?
What tests your patience?
"Gosh. Um... Sorry.”
Don’t worry, the questions are about you next, so they should be a lot easier.
“Yeah, um... I don’t know why I can’t get my head around it. I’ll be better later with your patience questions.”
[Laughs] The first thing I wanted to get from you is the story behind your album in a nutshell. Just why you did it and how it came about.
“I mean, well, what most tests my patience is..."
Oh, you’ve gone back to that, OK!
“Well, I want everything to be right. So I guess when easy things don’t get done – that, or being lied too. You work so hard to get everything right, so I’m kind of done working with people who are all talk... the people I love working with are above and beyond. It’s almost like – I don’t know – greatness is just common sense, you know? Nobody seems to have it. [laughs] So yeah, you spend all this time and work for so long and it does test my patience when things are done wrong. Not when things go wrong, it’s just a simple thing you know? ‘Place this object here’ and you spend years working on other things and just expect that part to be done. You say it clear, but I don’t know... they don’t make ‘em like they used to. [laughs] People!”
That’s why we don’t really have many people working for us. We just do it ourselves, because you might ask someone to do something and they just don’t deliver what you want. So you’re just like, ‘Oh, I’ll just go and do it then.’
“You need a lot of money to pay for those people or spend years in the Amazon searching for them.”
THE STORY BEHIND...
[laughs] It’s true! OK, tell us the story behind your album in a nutshell?
"[laughs] In a nutshell.... Ummmm. I don’t know... You start playing music and then that’s what you do when you put music out. I just... if I didn’t have a concept for the album, would I still make music? Yeah. So there is a concept I guess, I don’t know, do I need one? [laughs] I guess so. I mean I think, I don’t know... Yeah, there was a concept. It was a good one too.
Sarah: This is like a mystery interview.
Sarah: Well, we have themes for every issue and this is something I talked about with Franz Ferdinand, that if you come up with too much of a concept, you almost cage yourself in with what it should and shouldn’t be.
I didn’t even say concept anywhere...[laughs]
“You didn’t say concept? What was the question then?”
I asked for the story behind your album in a nutshell.
“Oh the story behind it. Like the series of events that lead to it happening? Oh, OK. Gotcha. Sorry my mistake.”
“Ummmm. [sighs] That’s a tough one too. [laughs] Well, I never really wanted to make a solo record. So I mean the thing with the band is that I’ve always been trying so hard to create this vision of five equal dudes. When someone wanted to put just me on the cover or take a photo or [write a] story of just me for The Strokes I always insisted ‘No, it’s not just me, it’s all five of us.’ I’m working so hard to do that, we share everything equally. I could take all the internal conflict stuff, internal struggles and resistance, but I guess when people started with the solo records, I guess I was gonna express myself too... A series of events lead to the making of the record really, that perhaps being the main one.
“I had a tough time [on] the last [major] Stokes tour, and right after that I decided to myself I wasn’t gonna bring up the next record to the band, I was gonna wait and see what they said. I was kinda done with what I perceived as pulling teeth and the reaction eventually was everyone going off on their own... Possibly for the best, ‘cause now all seems happy between us.”
Do you think it was the age you were at, because what were you about 27 when you last did an album together? Is that about right?
“Probably yeah. I’m 32 now...”
Because many people go through a lot of changes around 27.
“I don’t think that’s... hmmm. I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
OK, never mind. What’s...
“Well, I’m not saying I didn’t change, but the exact reason was a series of actual outside events, not just some change of heart brought on by time.”
THE STORY OF...
What’s your personal favourite track and why?
“Probably, River of Brakelights because when we play it live, it’s the funnest for me. It’s kind of a moment where – when we play it well – you capture the crowd. You kind of lift off the ground a little bit. It feels intense and I don’t know, it’s
usually a moment where we seem to win people over, or something like that... A lot of people come to the shows, they’re like ‘OK, I heard the record, but how are you going to play all this crazy stuff?’, or ‘How’s it going to sound live?’ and I feel like we execute pretty well and that’s fun, and good sounding, hopefully.”
Cool, can you tell us some anecdotes from writing or studio sessions? Anything that stands out that was really memorable?
Or really funny, or something that just really struck a chord?
“Well, I don’t really write in the studio so much, but...”
Oh sorry, I’ve got an ‘or’ in there.
“Glass was originally a song I wrote just for my woman. The chorus melody. Then she kind of forced me into putting [it] on the record.
While we were recording the end of the record [producer] Mike Mogus’ wife was nine months pregnant and it was my last chance to finish the record. As soon as the baby was going to come we couldn’t work anymore, so we had a month to work where everyday could be the last, but the baby stayed put until we were done [laughs]. Or not until we were done, right up until then, so it was pretty perfect. One day I walked in and all the lights were off and I thought [whispers] ‘They’re having the baby!’... Those weren’t hysterical stories, I’m sorry.”
No, don’t worry. Don’t worry at all! I said, ‘or’!
Yeah, have you got any boring ones? [laughs] So I wanted to talk to you about the artwork and the themes you’ve got running through the website and the trailers.
Am I right in saying some of it’s very kind of Blade Runner and little bit art deco inspired would you say?
“Sure, yeah. I mean, whatever it invokes, I’m all for it. It’s not like, ‘No you mis...’ You know what I mean?”
Did you come up with a brief for someone to do it?
“Well, there was this guy... You know we’re talking about people who are good? One of the guys we found and have worked with along the way is a guy called Warren Fu, a graphic designer and artist. He’s just really good. Everything we’ve done looks cool and so I asked if we could work together for this and just employ him or collaborate... First we had this website where we gathered images – we probably now have thousands of images from Picassa, it’s like this image website – [so] we gathered pictures and concepts. [From that] we’d do photoshoots. We did this big photoshoot where we had like nine different looks and concepts. Then we have different images that we liked and we’d put photos into the concept and fonts and build from there. It takes a long time, but...”
Well, you can definitely see there was a lot of effort put into it.
“Yeah, but I also like to pretend it took a couple of days and was slapped together. [laughs] There’s something about being lazy – people tend to respect natural talent more than hard work.”
ON THE ROAD
I wanted to speak to you about the live aspect. Can you talk us through the stage show and sets you did for your first LA residency?
“I wanted to bring [the sets] everywhere, but it was kind of a test to see if it would work. Yeah, eventually I’d like it to tour it like that. It was a very different experience. The crowd gets more subdued watching that type of show, but it’s more intense. I mean when we played without the backdrops, the whole stage thing and the sets, the crowds were definitely better. [It] was a more rockin’ show. There’s enough going on where you can just watch one person and it’s already kind of intense and good, but for the LA shows every song had a different set with stuff moving, projections of stories, videos that are slowly moving through the song. So there was a lot more people being blown away, but unfortunately it’s too expensive to take on the road, hopefully one day soon...”
Cool. I also read about outfit changes, is that right?
[laughs] “It’s not... I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds. Basically we didn’t do an encore. We didn’t do an ‘I’ll be back in 15 minutes’ or whatever. Just the whole encore thing, the whole [claps hands] ‘OK, we’re doing this now, we’re clapping and you’re coming back out’. It’s so phony weird. So we were just like ‘We’ll be back in 10 minutes’ and we had a Cab Calloway, Blues Brothers, Cotton Club style set. We all dressed in white and would come back after the break. There was actually lights on all of our jackets, so it’s bright on one song and dark on the next and all our jackets light up. It was fun.” [laughs]
Nice [laughs]. OK, so can you tell us about crowd favourites and crowd reactions. Was there any difference to the shows you did in LA to the shows you’ve done in Europe? Obviously, you’ve got the difference with the set.
“I think there’s a bigger reaction to ‘11th Dimension’ here maybe, but other than that it’s pretty similar.”
What’s the difference between all the places you’ve been to with regards to doing promo and certain crowds? Mind you, you said the crowds were similar didn’t you?
“What do you mean?”
When you’re travelling and you go to LA and you do some promo there, then you go to France and you do some there, then Germany, then here.
“Oh, the difference in interviews?”
“Um, not to drag anyone through the mud, but...”
Sarah: We’re not asking you to do that.
“No, I want to, I’m just saying that! [laughs] It’s just something I say, I don’t mean it... No, I’m kidding. Funny enough, press is pretty different everywhere you go. Germany I kind of like, they’re pretty good and pretty passionate and into it. Though I have no idea really what they write so it could be horribly scathing for all I know! England is fun and obviously the press - the way they write - it’s a little sensationalist, gossipy... In France most journalists are cool. Some – perhaps – seem too, you know, maybe know it all? I don’t dig it so much when people just talk to me like they ‘get it’ and that’s it - I have to comment on their opinion as fact. No one can ever ‘get it’ really. Your whole life is spent trying to get it. You have the right to your opinion of course, but not to consider it fact. People who understand there’s no getting it are probably closer to getting it, and people who think and act like they get it probably get it the least, but I’ve totally de-railed... the Irish journalists are probably the nicest I’ve talked to and maybe the Dutch journalists can be the toughest, but I love ‘em all...”
I wasn’t digging for anything, I was just curious.
“No, well the thing is, that’s the truth of how I feel, maybe I shouldn’t say...”
[Laughs] OK, so moving on. We love the video for 11th Dimension, can you describe it?
“Um... Yeah. Well, the song is about the subconscious, so basically the story is kind of based on Bruce Lee’s ‘Game of Death’. You go up these levels of a pagoda [laughs] and each level is a different era. There’s a black and white era scene, this 80’s scene and this post apocalyptic futuristic scene and each one is a moral decision. Each character represents the subconscious that’s there the whole time trying... It’s basically the relationship between how much you listen to your subconscious.”
Cool, and are you going to make any more for others from the album?
“Ummmmm.... I don’t know yet. I mean hopefully. It depends on how the first one does, right?”
I didn’t know whether you may have made a conscious decision not to make a video because of music TV or lack of...
Or whether you may have had some kind of plans for some sort of special release.
“I used to feel that way, I used to feel videos messed with you. Kind of like the book and the movie, like it might ruin the song a little bit. Like when you think of a song, you think of the video, but I lost that somewhere along the way, somehow.”
OK, would you ever been interested in doing a film score?
What type of film would you like to do one for?
“Well, I’m not sure I can talk about it, but I have friends who might be doing this movie and I love the concept. I begged if I could write the music for the movie and they said yes so I hope the movie gets picked up. Yeah, I want to do a big 80’s Superman kind of theme song, like a big John Williams theme type thing you know? [laughs] But yeah, there’s a lot of good movie score dudes. I wouldn’t want to just do that. Just one movie that would be cool.”
Oh no, I wasn’t thinking about it for a different job. [laughs]
“Some people do that, they’re in a band and then they... like Danny Elfman who was in [Oingo Boingo, famous for ‘Weird Science’]. Apparently he doesn’t do arrangement though, he just writes the melodies rather than the whole trudge work or the guts of the arrangements. I don’t know if that’s true or not though.”
I wanted to find out what the goal is with your solo project.
“The goal other than superstardom and financial rewards and all sorts of doors opening up?”
And having to come in and sit on the floor of an empty shop.
“It’s the one thing in common with everything in the universe, everything looks for success, like a meteor, or a plant or...” [laughs]
“Everything kind of has its own form of desire to succeed I think. Even if it’s to do nothing, that’s what a person is – in some form – setting out to do. A long time ago during an infinite amount of blips of nothings there was probably a spark or something that desired to succeed or survive and that’s what made it, that’s what became matter. Eventually everything probably cascaded from that place... Anyway, that’s a little out there, sorry.”
COLLABORATIONS & INTERVIEWS
I wanted to speak to you about the collaborations you’ve done with Pharrell Williams and Queens of the Stone Age. What was it like working with them? What are the similarities and differences between them? We’ve given them both covers so we’ve spent time with them and have known Pharrell for quite a long time, so I’m just curious from your perspective.
Sarah: We were saying earlier, they can both be quite energetic, quite hyper. They’ve got a really good young energy and they’re both really knowledgeable about loads of different things, like if you’re having a conversation they can bring in metaphors and references. So for me, that would make me understand why they do what they do musically.
“I suppose so. Josh Homme is just a funny guy, he’s like a comedian.”
It’s still one of my favourite interviews, it’s really good.
Sarah: This one’s going to be your new favourite isn’t it?
[I smile, but don’t say anything]
[laughs] Have you got any other collaborations planned?
“What were you expecting for the interview?” [laughs]
I’ve got no idea. I never have any idea at all. I never go in with any preconceived thoughts of what might happen.
No. I just like to think they might enjoy themselves and not be too stumped. [laughs]
I was talking to you about what it was like working with them.
[Sighs] “It was... In some ways it was maybe easier working with Pharrell which is kind of a different world, but I guess I worked more technically with his engineer. Pharrell was obviously in, but I would just do stuff, try it and with Josh I think I kind of came in a little blind and...”
They’re really experimental - I don’t know whether I would say compared, but they are with instruments. Didn’t your guitar have rubber strings and was headless [when you worked with Queens of the Stone Age]?
“Yeah. A digital guitar.”
CASIOBLANCAS AND THE NEW BOY
“One of the producers called it Casioblancas. It was funny. I thought... yeah, no because with Pharrell I had a song first, I played it and I had all these ideas and so I could come in and try things. With Queens of the Stone Age I just kind of came in and I didn’t really know the song until I got there.”
Were you like the new boy?
“It was a little... Ahhh, man, I mean Josh is amazing and I think it would be fun to make a record with Josh, but there was the band there and I really [laughs] felt like... it wasn’t awkward, because they were super nice, but I sensed if they’d had their choice they might not have asked me to come.”
“I mean, no, not just because I think they’re...”
Sarah: They loved you from our interview. Didn’t they?
“Did they? Cool. I loved them too. I honestly just don’t like to step on people’s toes, you know what I mean? Everyone was obviously super nice and I just... you know, they’re doing their thing. Josh asked me if I have any ideas and I was like ‘Woah!’ and when you said did I feel like the new boy, that’s what I remember. That’s what you triggered in my memory. Yeah, they had such a built in structure, you know? They had their relationship. He played the song and they’re like ‘How about this?’, ‘How about this?’, ‘How about that?’ and so I’m just kind of coming on top of that which was a little... Where as with the Pharrell thing it was raw, I mean Santogold had sang her part after I... but the point is [Queens of the Stone Age] was just music, no singing and it was like ‘do your thing’. [For Pharrell] there was singing, there were parts, everyone had contributed what they thought was good and now [with Josh] it was like ‘Anything else?’ and I was like ‘Well, I can do this?’ you know? And I had more of a minor role, but they were both equally as fun. I think it was easy for me to contribute creatively in a more impactful way with Pharrell, but definitely with Josh I always kind of in my mind thought that we’ll do something someday more kind of starting from scratch. Or maybe just the two of us, you know what I mean? I don’t know, I think he’s really good.”
Have you got any other collaborations planned?
Oh no, I did a yes / no question. What’s that all about? Anyway, I’m going to get a little bit deeper on you now. I hope you don’t mind.
“I don’t mind.”
ALLOWANCES OF CREATIVITY
I wanted to speak to you about the allowances of creativity with how other businesses have infiltrated the arts. I don’t know whether it impacts you very much, but it does with us and quite a lot of the artists that we work with. They have to work with brands or certain companies to add to their bread and butter. So I wanted to know how you felt about how it’s changing the music industry, because it doesn’t work the way it used to. It’s not just about record sales, it’s not about just necessarily live shows. Is there anything you’ve ever done other than playing at festivals where there’s some kind of brand involved? Obviously you’ve got the Converse track haven’t you?
“Yeah and I’ve done some other music in TV ads... It might not happen, I have no idea but Dior asked if I... you know the French actress from Public Enemies?”
“Yeah, I think that’s her. She’s does the Dior...?”
Yeah, they made a short film with her.
“Yeah, they’re going to do some other thing like that and they asked me to write a song for that for her and things like that. I would do that. Sure.”
Do you find that kind of thing impacts your finished piece because you know there’s someone else you’re creating it for rather than purely creating it under your own name?
Sarah: And maybe it’s someone who isn’t in your field of work.
Sarah: They’re not in music, they’re in fashion.
“Well, more... I guess it is tricky because you could do it and it could end up bad if they’re like, ‘Well, we want you to change it and do it like this’ and I might not be able to that. You know, they definitely have a way of twisting your arm – you know – financially [laughs]. It’s like, ‘We can do it your way and no one will see it, or you can let us ruin it and we’ll give you a lot of money.’ And there is your choice.”
As we finish up, Julian is gentlemanly, waits for us to pack, without question helps carry our bags and waves goodbye, flashing another big smile.