Q&A: Julian Casablancas On His Weird New Album, Dysfunctional Democracy In The West, And The Future Of The Strokes
Tyranny — either the second Julian Casablancas solo record after 2009’s Phrazes For The Young or the debut album by Julian Casablancas + The Voidz, depending on how you want to look at it — is a strange piece of work. A far cry from the bite-size chronicles of effortless New York cool that Casablancas made his name on, the Strokes frontman’s latest collection of songs finds him grappling with big, serious, universal subjects such as morality, selfishness, public ignorance, and the myriad ways twenty-first century democracy is broken. The real departure, though, is the sound of the thing: Casablancas and his band chose to address those topics in the context of the most abstract, experimental music of his career. If the 11-minute noise-pop sprawl “Human Sadness” and the jagged, discordant “Where No Eagles Fly” didn’t tip you off, Tyranny is a trip, and not always a smooth one.
Casablancas doesn’t exactly see it that way. When we spoke by phone yesterday, he said he and his new bandmates — guitarists Jeramy Gritter and Amir Yaghmai, keyboardist Jeff Kite, bassist Jake Bercovici, and drummer Alex Carapetis — aimed to make Tyranny as catchy as any Casablancas album. The intent was to follow his muse toward the eccentric record he’s been dying to make since Is This It, not to intentionally challenge listeners. Yet the noisy compendium the Voidz came up with will certainly challenge some. Whether it will “alienate the right people,” as Casablancas joked at Coachella, remains to be seen.
Whether you love it, hate it, or simply don’t know what to make of it, Tyranny represents a fascinating new chapter for one of the most talented songwriters of his generation. It’s a complex, whimsical record, both aggressive and aggressively weird at turns. Casablancas shed light on his latest phase throughout our chat, touching on Tyranny’s genesis, the ideas driving its disgruntled tone, his goals for his increasingly active label Cult Records, and the future of the Strokes. Read the whole thing below.
STEREOGUM: How are you doing?
JULIAN CASABLANCAS: I’m good man, I’m good. Getting some sun, talking to some folks, promoting vainly.
STEREOGUM: All part of the job, I suppose.
CASABLANCAS: Yeah, you just realize artists — or so-called artists — when they’re doing interviews, oftentimes journalists will kind of be like, “Well, you’re trying to sell yourself, so, go! Promote! Fire away about your book,” or whatever. And people who make music or whatever usually do that to not have to talk about their issues or thoughts, but they’re terrible at it, so there’s always this weird contradiction that happens. Sorry, that’s off-topic. Just a sharing of thoughts.
STEREOGUM: Feel free to interrupt with any thought-sharing later on. Anyway, Tyranny is obviously a lot more jagged and noisier than your usual records. Is that supposed to mirror the lyrical content? If I understand correctly, it’s about you being upset with the way society is going.
CASABLANCAS: Oh man, you sound like my publicist, who was just making fun of me a second ago. He was like, “Oh yeah, you ready to talk? Down with capitalism!” I was like, “Capitalism’s fine.” It’s almost coincidental, really. I mean, I’ve been wanting to do weirder, darker, more aggressive stuff for years. There was kind of a fork in the road, and I foolishly decided to go with what I thought people wanted more. I don’t know, when I was finishing up Phrazes, I went with what I though everyone would like. I forgot my main rule: If I, in my heart, think it’s cool, that’s probably what people will like the most. Instead of trying to please everyone, in which case you just kind of please no one.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel more invested in this record than some of your other recent ones for that reason?
CASABLANCAS: Yeah definitely, I definitely do. This is pretty much a culmination of things I’ve wanted to do for years, focusing on lyrics and harmonically a little bit weirder. I’ve heard people say “challenging,” but I don’t want it to be. I want it just to sound catchy and simple.
STEREOGUM: You talked about choosing to go down the route you thought would please people. Is that what you’re singing about in “Human Sadness” when you say, “Put money in my hand/ And I will do the things you want me to”?
CASABLANCAS: No, I think that’s just regular, all-encompassing human behavior since the dawn of time. Whatever, advanced ape time.
STEREOGUM: Did releasing this on your own label give you the sense of freedom to do something weirder?
CASABLANCAS: No, not specifically. But it just helps in how you want to put it out. Sometimes when you want to deliver a record, it’s funny: You work on the on the music and the artwork and the videos and all these things that you’re delivering to people. And at that last moment you are handing it to them, you hand it to some maybe business shark who can kind of incidentally or accidentally bastardize it to sell more records. I’ve had trouble with those kinds of experiences in the past. I think owning a label is one way to avoid that. Like, we want to make the record super cheap, affordable, you know? We want to make those lighter things, USB lighters — things like that that a publicist on a regular label would just say no.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned handing your record over to “business sharks” in the past. Is that what has been pissing you off? Could you talk a little bit about the discontent that’s behind the lyrics on the album?
CASABLANCAS: I guess to kind of summarize one issue at least in America, and I guess Western countries, one major issue I think is that we somehow feel like we’ve outgrown the fundamental problems of monarchies — which is essentially that centers of wealth dictate the laws and governments and all that, but really I see similar problems, I think. And I think that that’s worth pointing out. Bottom line: I don’t think public attitudes have any effect on policies, for example. I wouldn’t call that democracy. Democracy can work. I think capitalism can work, but only if everyone is completely informed of what’s going on and stay informed. I mean, any type of, half-jokingly, “revolution” needs to be of information and truth and understanding. And so I guess that’s the thing. The album is more about morality than politics. I think only if everyone really understands what’s going on, then it’s not that complicated in our system, which is still a cool system to have, you know? Justice for all people, once and for all.
STEREOGUM: Are you putting the blame more on people being ignorant of what’s going on or on those in power trying to cover it up?
CASABLANCAS: I don’t think it’s people’s fault. There is no blame. I think it’s something that has happened over a long period of time. It’s people who work in competitive businesses. It’s like sports. They’re trying to get every single advantage they can think of to win. That includes cutting corners, and then that blurs — I just read some fascinating thing on the nature of cheating and how it’s learned behavior, how you basically copy — if you see someone else cheating, you’ll also cheat. And I think that it’s just a system over the last 100 years-plus that has been manipulated, and the last 40 years it’s gotten extra bad. Some more things happened at the turn of the century with some companies trying to prevent people from joining the unions, trying to get children to work 14 hours a day. Now the same thing is happening, it’s just in China. Everything is kind of out of our view, the same kind of moral issues we dealt with a long time ago, but they’re still kind of happening, I guess. For me the frustration, I guess, is that people think we’re somehow beyond all of it. Like, “Whoa, this is great.” I think a lot of people probably understand what is going on, but I think it needs to grow. I think everyone needs to see it more clearly for things to change. I don’t think it’s their fault, I guess I would just feel guilty if I didn’t talk about it. I’m just a drop in the bucket of trying to get that understanding across, and I think if you’re interested in that, it’s there in the record. And if you’re not, you could give a shit, it’s still meant to be universal, and it definitely doesn’t have to be political if you want to just enjoy the music.
STEREOGUM: Did you feel like before you couldn’t talk about or sing about this kind of stuff? Is that part of what you felt like you were subverting in yourself? Not just the musical instinct, but also the subject matter?
CASABLANCAS: Not really. It’s always kind of been there under the surface of the lyrics. I think they used to be a little more vague in their meaning, but it’s always been there. I don’t think people really recognized it because it was a little more subtle. I’ve always been interested in — like I said, not politics maybe, but just morality. But no, I think that also it takes a long time to train yourself to be able to say the things you want in lyrics without coming across heavy-handed. I’ve been focusing on trying to get better at lyrics. I didn’t even really think about lyrics for the first seven, eight years. I just worked on music — just like harmonies and different aspects of music. And then in the last bunch of years I’ve been focusing on that, and I think that it’s just all come together for me a little bit.
STEREOGUM: Do I understand correctly that you recorded the album basically yourself and the Voidz are the live band?
CASABLANCAS: No. I did Phrazes by myself and kind of regretted that. And then I’ve been kind of seeking people over the last four of five years, friends I’ve met, kind of musical soul sisters — I don’t know, just the same wavelength on a lot of things. So yeah, it’s kind of taken a while, but I think this specific band, it’s just a new band, really. We’ve got a certain chemistry, and we’re on the same page about a lot of stuff. No, we recorded almost all of it live. We just did it over the last nine months or so. But we had been been playing together for a long time. The band kind of grew incrementally. At first it was like three of us playing, and that was like four years ago, maybe. And then another joined, and then we were four. And then finally at the end Jeramy and Amir — salt and pepper, as we refer to them — joined a year and a half ago.
STEREOGUM: What was the reasoning behind adding a band name to it as opposed to just calling it a Julian Casablancas record? Was it just because it was a band effort?
CASABLANCAS: Yeah, it was very much a collaboration, totally. It would not sound — some of the songs, like “Human Sadness,” that was something that Alex, the drummer, he brought me the Mozart sample that was the basis. He just played that for me and that had a deep effect on me. I really loved it, and so I would write melodies over it and different parts. And I guess I still like writing guitar solos and stuff, and JP [Bowersock], who helped me co-write or coached me through like all the Strokes solos on the first three records, we did a lot of that stuff. But basically we were just together. We played the songs together, and it was pretty organic. I don’t know, it’s the way bands do things I guess, that weird voodoo.
STEREOGUM: What drew you guys to Voidz as a band name?
CASABLANCAS: Well, I thought it was always cool when bands had names that had a meaning behind it. And I think that a lot of what we’re doing, which brings together different genres — like the Arabic quarter tone scales and some kind of metal song, modern classical stuff, modern harmonies — all this different kind of crazy music that we all share a love for, but trying to kind of fill in that empty space between that hasn’t really been done. The name was meant to be like we would try to fill that space or become it. I should probably think of a catchier tagline, but that’s kind of where the name kind of came from — or why it stuck, I should say.
STEREOGUM: Are all the songs relatively new? Or has any of the material been stored up for a while while you waited to do this kind of record?
CASABLANCAS: Some of it is new; some of it is a little old. Like, “Nintendo Blood” is probably the oldest. But I think that the way it developed, they really took on a life of their own in the last year or two. Because some of the ideas brewed four years ago, but the majority of it got thought up and finished — yeah, what I said before.
STEREOGUM: One of the things that stands out besides the sonic and stylistic differences is that the songs are longer — definitely longer than Strokes songs and even some of the Phrazes songs. Do you feel like you’re moving toward writing more sprawling material compared to the shorter, more compact stuff you used to do?
CASABLANCAS: I like to change things up. There’s a couple influences on my thinking, I guess. In early Strokes land, I was probably influenced by, foolishly enough, you know the movie Demolition Man? Well it’s like the future, and what they listen to on the radio is basically like old commercials, so it’s like 15-second songs. So I always thought, “Oh yeah, the future, it’s got to be shorter.” And then also I was listening to a lot of Guided By Voices back then, and they have a lot of short songs. So I think the combination of those songs kind of affected my stance on, you know, no wasted space. But I think now, there are some short songs on the record too, there are a couple of short ones. I just think, I listen to a lot of music now that — other than “Human Sadness,” which is like our “November Rain” — I think a lot of the music that I’ve been listening to, some of the older stuff, whether it is like Turkish stuff or African stuff or from the ’70s, ’80s, some of those songs are really long, and I’m just kind of getting my head around that. I don’t know, I like doing both. Some songs feel like they need to be longer than others. We just did a lot of cool things, and it was hard to — we actually edited most of it away. It was hard to get rid of the stuff that had a lot of character. I think we kind of tightened it up as much as — we probably should have less songs on it, it might be easier to listen to it in one go. Because we had a few shorter songs that we cut that we might still do. But no, I don’t really have a policy on it now, I just go with the flow.
STEREOGUM: Obviously, this isn’t the only record you have put out recently on your label. It seems like Cult has become much more active in the last year or two. What made you decide to ramp up that activity?
CASABLANCAS: It wasn’t really a specific thing. I think in general we are just trying to organize things to put out more music every year, but I think we are trying to do things right and take on what we can handle. For me it’s about if something is great, just having a crazy high standard, every song being mega-powerful and just having no bad songs on records, no filler. Just a high standard. So anything that comes in and is awesome, we do. So I think I’ve been lucky enough in the last year or two to kind of have awesome things come into my space or whatever. I think that’s why I did the label in the first place, like I said before: not having barriers when you put out a record. And also I feel like I know a lot of people in music, so many people will have projects that are so interesting and cool, and they’ll say, “Hey, can you help with this? Do you have an idea for a label?” So I wanted to have an outlet for all the stuff I thought I could help.
STEREOGUM: I hear the Strokes might be getting together in January to work on some material?
CASABLANCAS: Yeah, I mean I think as of FYF, I think all old issues we ever had seemed to be resolved, and the vibe, the mood just seems right now. So I think that yeah, we’ll be doing stuff. At this point I have a bunch of engagements and I’ll probably be busy for the next year, developing and touring with the Voidz. But there’s room for both in my world — and the world, whatever.
STEREOGUM: You talked about the vibe being good and the tension being resolved. Is that mainly why there was not really touring for Comedown Machine? There was just a negative vibe?
CASABLANCAS: I mean, it was a couple of reasons, I think. It was our last album on that label, RCA, and so I think it was kind of like — I don’t want to say umbilical cord because that would be some kind of weird, old-ass umbilical cord, but the adult equivalent would be like we need to move out of the house I guess? OK, no more analogies for me today. I think that was part of it, but it wasn’t — I think we needed to be in the right space. Just going through the motions is what I think happens to so many bands. It destroys a lot, or even worse it kind of zombifies them. They keep going through the motions and it’s, like, bloodless. I just really wanted to maintain the enthusiasm and just all be dudes on the same page who just want to do something cool and aren’t necessarily contractually tied to each other. And yeah, I think it just took a while. The last two Strokes records were good — we learned, I think, how to work together as a band in some ways. And I think now we can come back and everyone is confident, but we’ll all be — there’s a way of working on music. I just don’t think arguing is a good way of working on stuff — not that we were arguing. I don’t mean arguing. You know what I mean? There’s probably a way it happens to you when you’re working on stories or something. There are probably certain work relationships you have where you’re on the same page and you can talk it out and come to the best conclusion, which is a great way to be and how I like to work on anything I work on. There is another way where you just kind of don’t see eye-to-eye and you’re, like, tension-debating, and someone’s unhappy. You know what I mean? So I think I’m going for A and not B. It just took a while, I guess, to just get it to that spot. You know, 10 little subtle reasons, but time seems to heal.
STEREOGUM: When I talked to Spoon, Britt Daniel talked about going off and doing Divine Fits for a while and how that reenergized his approach to Spoon. Do you feel any of that in your situation? Is your time with the Voidz helping you bring a fresh approach to the Strokes?
CASABLANCAS: No, not really. I think the Strokes is going to evolve, and I don’t know exactly where it will be. I think for me the Voidz is in some ways a continuation of a vision that I guess I had irrelative — if that’s a word — to the Strokes. I guess I’ve always been kind of striving for that, it’s just a kind of situation and a collaboration that’s just, I don’t know, it’s kind of what I’ve been looking for in general. And so I think the Strokes definitely have more magic in them, so I’ll look forward to that new adventure. But I think for me I still see a lineage between the first two Strokes records and this one. I don’t really look at in terms of, “Oh, I need to go play with these other boys to kind of learn how to…” I think I know how to work in all the different surroundings. It’s just very different.
STEREOGUM: Is there anything else you wanted to discuss?
CASABLANCAS: I just wanna give a shout-out…! No, I’m good, I’m good.