"Who Cares If Rock Is No Longer What It Was?" An Interview with Julian Casablancas
Just before of The Voidz's South American tour, we talked with the rockstar who, scattered as always, philosophized quite a bit in his answers.
Photo by Kevin Winter / Getty Images
This article originally appeared on Noisey en Español. Leer en Español.
It's Thursday, October 5, 2017, and Julian Fernando Casablancas is about to set off on a tour that will cover the length and width of the South American continent. The tour, which will include cities with barely any rock tradition—like Barranquilla, Colombia, or Córdoba, Argentina—has a pretty eloquent name: Hollywood Bolívar Tour. The 39-year-old white conquistador of Spanish ancestry won't tour the Andes, Amazon, or Río de la Plata with The Strokes, but rather with The Voidz. Alex Carapetis, Jeff Kite, Jake Bercovici, 'Beardo' Gritter and Amir Yaghmai join the experimental rock band and give a new wave and electronica touch to the work to which Casablancas has been devoting all his efforts recently, and it seems, to which he will be devoting himself for the foreseeable future.
Casablancas is already somewhere in Colombia. When he answers his phone, there's the sound of chaos, cars and horns on the other end of the line. He's in our land, scattered as ever, but ready to talk about his journey through the mountains that were liberated by Simón Bolívar, about the future of The Strokes, about his addictions, and about some debates in the contemporary music industry.
Noisey: You grew up in New York, but I'm not sure how close you were to the Latino community. Today, in a really productive moment in your career, you decided to come to South America to do a huge tour. In cultural terms, do you feel a special connection with our region?
Julian Casablancas: In New York, I grew up alongside many members of the Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Mexican community. When I'm in South America or Latin America generally, it's always in and out for festivals. I feel like the energy of the people here is incredible. For a year, we talked about the possibility of doing an extensive tour that would include small cities and that would also include shows in small clubs. We want to come more often—I personally want an adventure, I want to learn more deeply about the differences among all of your cultures. I have an idea, but I want to learn more. I also wanted to go to Venezuela and Cuba, but the organizers were like, "Don't do that." They weren't in agreement. But, in any case, in the end, I understood them.
Talking about The Voidz: What are you exploring right now? Where do you feel the most freedom? Does The Voidz satisfy different needs than the ones you have with The Strokes?
Without a doubt. I'm still on the same mission, still with the same restlessness I've always had. I feel like the first album with The Strokes was the start of that mission and later, I wanted to take another direction. I was just interested in a another type of music, different styles, and countries. The internet opened my mind up a lot. The world of people expanded at a rapid speed and, as in music, you can only learn from it. To listen, for example, to Turkish music from the 70s, African music, or whatever.… It's incredible, but I think the process has slowed down, or, in a way, everything is happening to the contrary. The good new music is in danger—it's hard to find; it's more underground than ever.
Would you recommend that a fan of The Strokes go to a The Voidz show?
Not necessarily. If you're interested in the evolution of music, then I'd say yes, definitely. If you want to listen to mainstream indie rock, maybe not. But the idea is to reach everyone—that was really the goal behind the first album. We want to go farther in the future.
With the new songs we just want people to enjoy them. We're definitely trying to discover what sounds good to everyone. We still play songs from Tyranny, to, I don't know, other songs that are pretty aggressive. So, I don't know: Yes and no. [Laughs] I'm a terrible businessman, but one part of my mind says, "Everyone should come." I don't understand some of those people from the old school who grew up loving The Strokes and are now criticizing this new exploration. I wrote all the songs that you love and now you don't want me to change? I don't know. I respect the opinion, but I also don't give a fuck. [Laughs] I want to be positive and I want people to enjoy it. I'm trying new things that I think are interesting.
Do you have anything to say about Lizzy Goodman's book, Meet Me in the Bathroom, which basically declares that The Strokes are the last true rockstars and which also talks about The Strokes' influence on indie rock?
Um, honestly, I don't know. I know Lizzy, but I was never down with the idea of writing a book about that. I don't think I can identify with that feeling. I feel like it's weird to talk about. I don't know; it distorts things; it's not very precise. And it's like, I guess, like everything's always been: The person whose opinion is presented more eloquently or more loudly is the one who gets to tell the story. You get what I'm saying? But these things really bother me; they're like gossip. Honestly, I don't pay much attention to it.
I get it. So how do we understand that rock is no longer the voice of that generation? Is the fact that more synthesizers than guitars are sold today something that really bothers you?
The truth is, no. I believe there's room for everything, there's room for African music, for Indian, for electronic music, for rap…. Traditional rock is maybe a bit boring now, but I understand. I think there's good music in every genre right now, and finding new forms of music is what interests me. For example, the scales are a huge source of inspiration to me right now. When you talk about musical styles in the East, there's a whole word of scales that aren't fully understood; there's a lot of room for melodic music to be mixed with rhythmic music because it's almost always one or the other. It's unusual that the two are mixed. That's what interests me about working with The Voidz.
I don't think, "Oh, rock is dead." There's some hip-hop music that's inspiring. There's a lot of old music to rediscovered, like jazz from the 40s, underground stuff, legendary popular music that we don't listen to for some reason. The new artists of tomorrow will discover all that, so I don't limit myself to genres. I just believe that as long as music moves forward, who cares if rock is no longer what it was?
Do you remember your acidic but funny comment this year at the Estéreo Picnic in Bogotá? When you spoke with the public, you enjoyed it, saying how easy it was to get massive applause. Do you believe that the public is generally less critical today?
From my point of view, there are a lot of tricks you can use on the stage to pump up the people: "Everyone clap!"; "Everyone scream!"; "How's everybody doing?" And if you're really feeling it, yell, "Are you ready to party hard?" You know what I'm talking about? And everyone's like "Yesssss!" And I can understand if you're at a concert and an artist does that. But from my point of view, I feel like I have to say something more interesting. The same thing happens when you touch on something truly powerful and people just look at your and their silence says, "Wow, that was cool." But in your head, you're thinking "Wow, they hated that." And after that you can sing "Happy Birthday" and everyone will clap. [Laughs] People love that song, so it's hard to evoke a massive reaction in terms of artistic quality. But I think that there's an immense inability for critical thought in general these days, given the way the media works, because they control every story, and the sad thing is that so many people don't realize this. It's really depressing and disturbing, and it's worse than ever.
We know that music doesn't necessarily have to act as a form of political resistance. But do you think that, given the current situation, especially in the United States, the music industry should be more combative?
Well, yeah. For me, the music industry is basically a disaster, but I think there's a parallel between quality music and political truth. The most political music is probably rap, but even the mainstream rap isn't very political, you know?
On the one hand, I think that music is a dangerous thing because it gives you a kind of escape, and politics is rubbing the problem in your face. Sometimes it's a downer; it doesn't matter if it's Bob Marley who's on the stage telling you, "I'm going to tell you who to vote for"—that's just not sexy. Sometimes, people just want to lose themselves in music. Politics in general, as we know, is really boring. It's not so much about government policies, but about philosophy, about bigger picture issues, about what kind of world, system, and society we want.
Do we want to spend our time and energy resisting those forces that cause the problem, or does it even matter that we tried? Sometimes, it doesn't have to do with the world or the news, but with who controls what we're seeing and thinking. And that's the problem. What's essential is the truth. Is 'the truth' the key to fixing the world? Personally, I believe it is. And seriously, even if we could, how can we preserve it and ensure its continuity instead of starting over again and making the same mistake, generation after generation?
"There's an immense inability for critical thought in general these days."
What do you think of the classic archetype of the rockstar? Is it something you aspire to be? How do you see things now, after 20 years in the industry?
I think that my personal view is that image and those things aren't the most important, and I personally don't care a lot about them. I've learned to take care of them, but as part of the job. Music has a visual element, a narrative element, and elements that go beyond the (musical) notes. In other words, it's the notes that are the most important. Don't misunderstand me. But if you're young, you go to a show, and you also want the band to look cool: Look what belt he's wearing, what shoes he's wearing… everything on the stage, all of that is key to the final story that's told. That's the image game and I participate in that game because I believe it helps me personally. Get it? Obviously, I try to do it my own way, but honestly, it doesn't seem like something essential to life.
At this point in your career, how do you deal with the critics. Do they matter to you?
Typically, I stay away from the comments section. I think that kind of negativity can be terrifying. If you're not mentally prepared, stay away. Does it matter to me? Yes and no. Do you understand? I don't really believe those people who say that they make music only for themselves. I think that half is for me and half is for the public.
Not too long ago, you denied that The Strokes were recording in the studio with Rick Rubin, but what are your plans for the next year? Can Julian's fans look forward to new stuff?
Yes, I'm really focused on The Voidz right now. Some new stuff will come out soon. With The Strokes, I don't know—there's no news right now.
We know you have a really addictive personality. How do you deal with your obsessions now?
Right now, mine is coffee, even though I hate it. [Laughs]
How many do you drink a day?
Seven or ten. It helps you; it's a drug that the human body doesn't reject, I think. It's natural for people. I'm not an expert on drugs, but if you don't always mix it with milk and sugar… everything will be ok. [Laughs]