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LAist Interview: Julian Casablancas On His Solo Album

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Julian Casablancas I Photo: Williams + Hirakawa


Julian Casablancas I Photo: Williams + Hirakawa
Some of us were worried that Julian Casablancas had pulled a Dave Chappelle and disappeared from rock 'n' roll forever. The lead singer of The Strokes, a band who defined underground New York cool for half a decade, vanished from the spotlight after the band's third album. Although never officially disbanded, other Strokes band members began releasing their own solo projects and most of us thought it was all over. (For the record: apparently it's not. Apparently the Strokes are still just on hiatus.)

Now out of nowhere, after three years of mysterious absence, a newly sober Julian Casablancas has emerged in LA of all places with a brand new solo record, Phrazes for the Young. And get this, it's upbeat. It's got synths. It is...dare I say it...downright perky. We caught up with Casablancas last night to ask him a few questions about the state of the Strokes, his new town, and his solo debut. Here is some of what was said.

Julian Casablancas - Out of the Blue


What made you pick up an instrument?
You said you'd start with easy questions! That's not an easy question. Why do the birds sing a lonely song? (laughs) I guess the first instrument I played legitimately was the guitar. I listened to a lot of Pearl Jam and Nirvana when I was younger, but I really wanted to play music when I heard the Best of the Doors tape that my stepfather gave to me. When I heard that I felt like I could hear what the instruments were doing and wanted to recreate it. I tried singing and had some friends, who were into music that played guitar. That's how I picked it up.

At what point did you realize you could sing?

I'm still waiting for that moment. (laughs) I think you always definitely suck when you start. I had this kind of boom box with a tape player that I could record on when I started. And I would sing along to Peal Jam on a blank tape and record it. And I thought it sounded really great and then I played it back and it was awful. Really really bad. I think unless you're naturally gifted, singing is something you always have to work on.

What song you're most proud of on this album?

Another tough question. Probably, I guess "11th Dimension" because it has a bit of everything in it, but if I had to pick a song to play I would pick "River of Breaklights." It's really fun to play.

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Was it weird watching your other band mates write solo albums?
Weird is not the right word. The fact that people wrote songs was great. The fact that they worked on their songs top the bottom was great. The fact that they couldn't do that within the band still baffles my mind a little bit. I really don't understand why they felt they had to do it outside of the Strokes. It's definitely changed things within the band.

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Julian Casablancas I Photo: Williams + Hirakawa

How's the fourth Strokes album coming along?
I don't know.

Where did you record this album?
We recorded it all over. In New York, Nebraska, and LA.How do you like living in Silverlake?
I like living in LA. The weather is perfect all the time.

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Did you go into this project with a vision of what you wanted it to sound like? Or was it just happenstance?
Both really. I had different visions for this album. I had musical ideas and lyrical ideas and neither of them were related necessarily. Musically my main idea was rhythms. I wanted lot of interlocking rhythms. I dunno, I wrote the lyrics half in my sleep and half when I was awake. It's very hard to explain. Interviews are always kind of like "You've written a record. Explain yourself!" Which is very hard to do. (laughs) But it's a very small price to pay, if you want people to hear the songs.

Well, I appreciate that. Perhaps I should narrow it down a bit. Did you know you wanted synths from the beginning?
Yeah, I've always written on keyboard and on the guitar. Even with the Strokes it was always written 50/50, but this time instead of the keyboards being funneled through bass drums, they stayed keyboards.

I read that you based your album title, Phrazes for the Young, off of Oscar Wilde's Phrases And Philosophies For The Use Of The Young. Where you reading a lot of Wilde at the time?
No, I just stumbled upon that thing and thought it sounded good.

Why is Phrazes for the Young spelled with a Z?
I thought that's how Oscar Wilde originally spelled it. I thought it had a Z. I was wrong.

I bet RCA was tickled that you recreated that image of the dog with the gramophone. Is that your dog with the gramaphone?
Yeah, that's my dog, Balki.

Was it hard to get him to sit still?

No it was okay. We wanted to try and get him to look at camera, but it was really hard to get him to do that. We trained him to sit, but we never trained him to look at certain places.

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Who is "Out of the Blue" about?
I will never tell. You'll never get me to talk. (laughs)

You're just lucky this is a phone interview. Otherwise you would have to contend with the famous Bergen nougie.

Is that how you get your interviewees to talk?

Yes.
(laughs) That doesn't sound so bad.

It is! It's legendary. What sort of mood where you in when you wrote "4 Chords of the Apolocalypse?"
I really don't know. I'm just writing all the time. Always working. And then every so often in a sea of mediocrity thing gems pop up. Yeah, I don't know. It just caught my ear when I was playing guitar. It was almost as if I was playing someone else's song. It sounded so soulful. I mean, I never sit down and think, "Oh I'm going to write a soul song." I think that would deter me from writing in the first place. It just sort of happens.

Speaking of the Apocalypse, Do you believe that the universe will eventually contract back into itself or eventually slow down and freeze to absolute zero?
You mean will the sun burn out or explode in old age.

Yeah, except for the whole universe.

I don't know. I will say that in a gazillion years everything will probably totally different. I'm not sure if everything will dissolve into nothing or explode or double back on itself. We'll just have to find out.

Julian Casablancas - 4 Chords of the Apocalypse


In "Ludlow St."you write really honestly about your drinking problems. Is it hard to write about your drinking? Or is it therapeutic?
No, it's not hard. I think it's in therapeutic in general to write about your life. Not to glorify it or anything, but just to be honest. I'm comfortable with it. I like drinking. I miss drinking every day. Well, no. I used to miss drinking every day. It's fun. It's like Everything is Going to Be Great Juice. It's happy juice. It's nice and unfortunately it has a dark side. I drank my whole life's worth of alcohol in a ten year span. So I'm done. I blew it.

What was the worst show you ever played?

Our first show in San Diego was the worst. I lost my voice completely. I couldn't even mouth stuff. It was a disaster. I didn't know what to do, so I just drank. I think it's a good microcosm for what drinking is. Drinking makes you feel like other people think you're cool. I was upset so I just lost it. I fell all over the place. People were walking out. We should have canceled. I think we lost a lot of fans that night. Although it was weird, I think there were one or two people who were like, "That was awesome! It was so avant-gardely insane."

How did playing Spaceland last week compare to the Palace Theater?

Well to be honest, I prefer the Palace. Small clubs are cool, but there is a reason I chose the Palace. It feels kind of grand while still being kind of small. And even the worst seat is still a totally good one. Plus you get that vibe of a lot of people having fun.

What is your favorite album this year? Besides your own.

(laughs) I don't even think I would put Phrazes on there. I like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs record (It's Blitz). I thought that was good. I really like the Dirty Projectors as well. It's about time they got noticed.

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Well thank you so much for talking with us.
Thank you!

Be sure to check out Julian Casablancas at the Downtown Palace Theater every Friday this month.