Carl Barât - The other libertinous likely lad cleans up
Carl Barât has an album, an autobiography, and a baby on the way. Fiona Sturges hears how he has turned turmoil into triumph
Friday 15 October 2010
It's a grey afternoon in central London and, in the corner of a wood-panelled pub, Carl Barât sits, fresh-faced and anonymous, sipping a glass of coke. It wasn't always like this, and I'm not just talking about his new-found predilection for soft drinks.
Such was Barât's fame in his final year in The Libertines that he was assigned a security guard whose job it was to keep their notoriously obsessive fans at bay, while keeping a distance between him and Pete Doherty, his co-singer and one-time best friend, and the drug dealers who permanently hovered nearby.
Now all that seems several lifetimes ago, Barât tells me. Since then there has been another band, Dirty Pretty Things, which, after a promising start, imploded due to its collective drink and drug problems. More recently there has been therapy, a stint on the London stage, an autobiography and, most startling of all, a brief and brilliant reunion with the Libertines at the Reading and Leeds festivals.
At 32, Barât still has the wide-eyed, boyish features that appeared on the cover of the NME next to Doherty in 2001 before they'd even released any music. He is here to talk about his self-titled solo album and his newly-published book, Threepenny Memoir, though the conversation frequently wanders into more domestic territory, such as the baby he is expecting in December with his girlfriend, the singer and cellist Edie Langley, and the couple's fruitless efforts to rid their house of an elusive but deeply determined mouse.
I tell Barât that I enjoyed the book, that it came across as heartfelt and articulate, and he looks genuinely pleased. Writing it, he admits, was a self-conscious exercise, particularly at the start when he "struggled to sit still for long enough to actually write anything. And it's not like songwriting, which is open to interpretation. You're bang to rights with a book, you have to give names, dates and places."
Threepenny Memoir tells of his childhood, his early friendship with Doherty and the rise of The Libertines, indie-rock's Likely Lads whose sales were merely respectable but whose passion, idealism and masochistic devotion to their art made them one of the most culturally significant bands of their era. It also catalogues, with great melancholy, their demise after two albums, when Barât, having put up with Doherty's many unannounced absences from the band (on a couple of occasions he absconded mid-gig, leaving Barât to face a roomful of angry fans), finally called it a day.
While Barât is unequivocal about Doherty's drug addiction, some of the more infamous moments, such as when Doherty burgled Barât's flat and subsequently served two months at Her Majesty's Pleasure, are only mentioned in passing.
"I wanted to tell my story and not tell Peter's story," he explains. "I didn't want it to be sensationalist and neither did I want to throw punches. The burglary was a significant event but there were tons of other significant stories and events, so many that I could have written the book ten times over. I had to pick and choose, which was a major task in itself."
Writing is just one of several occupations that Barât has been trying out for size in the last two years. In 2009 he played Gene Vincent in the Joe Meek biopic Telstar and earlier this year made his stage debut in Sam Shepard's Fool For Love, in which he played a Wild West rodeo rider. He has also narrated and appears in a documentary film about the London docks called The Rime of the Modern Mariner, which was screened at the East End film festival earlier this year.
"I think I was in a real comfort zone with guitar bands," reflects Barât. "It was beginning to feel like weeds were growing up between my toes. No one was listening any more and I was the last to leave town. So I decided it was time push myself in new directions. I'm not trying to be a jack-of-all-trades, but when certain opportunities come my way it would be foolish to turn them down. I think it all comes from the same place in me artistically, which I suppose is the desire to experiment."
This experimental outlook is manifest in his solo album, which boldly abandons the garage rock of his previous bands in favour of a gentler, more refined sound, complete with orchestral flourishes. Barât calls it his break-up album, "and by that I mean the break-up of two bands. It's the first time I've written directly about things that have happened. Previously I have made up stories and characters so that my songs could be about escapism and allowing me to step outside of myself." Certainly, in lyrical terms, the overarching theme is regret. On "Carve Her Name" he reveals his shame at old sexual dalliances ("carved my name over the livers of my lovers, the wives of all my brothers") and in "The Magus" where he notes that "men can be animals, savages and cannibals".
Is there, I wonder, a sense of vulnerability in releasing an album under your own name? "Yes definitely," he replies. "It's a double-edged sword, isn't it? You're accountable for the glory or the demise. Even in Dirty Pretty Things I found myself hiding myself behind other people. If I couldn't bring myself to finish a song I'd pass it down the line and say, 'Finish that, will you?' If the resulting song wasn't how I wanted, I'd just accept it anyway, which was a confusing message to send to the other guys."
It's only recently that he realised that democracy in a band doesn't work. "A band needs a leader," he states. "Fear and laziness always stopped me from being that person in the past but now I'm a bit older and uglier I don't get so worried about offending people or accommodating their silliness."
Following the demise of Dirty Pretty Things in 2008, Barât decided to test his mettle as a solo artist, performing low-key gigs in support of Glasvegas. It's with a degree of trepidation that he is embarking on a solo headline tour.
For years, Barât says, he was engaged in a battle with Libertines fans whose disappointment at Doherty's absences led to them "venting their anger in my face, and it's scarred me a little bit. I used to get on stage furious because I thought I had to be. But the audiences have grown up and so have I. I've realised that people are there to have a good time and that every gig isn't about winning them over."
Then there's the small matter of the paralysing stage fright that, both in his Libertines and Dirty Pretty Things days, prompted him to down a bottle of whisky before stepping on stage, and often another one after the show had finished. In 2008 he was taken to hospital with acute pancreatitis caused by drinking. Now, after a spell on the wagon, Barât is able to drink in moderation, though he says he "no longer feels the need to get wasted. There's not the bottomless pit there anymore."
Moderation is now something of a watchword for Barât who, since meeting Langley, has curbed the baser impulses detailed in his book and adjusted to a more settled lifestyle. "I know it sounds rather hokey but finding love has made the difference," he smiles. "It's having the support to be honest and to learn to be comfortable with who I am. I've had a really harrowing six years and have been to some really dark places. Now there's this acceptance of myself which I've never had before."
It's this confidence that allowed Barât to face his fears and reunite The Libertines for a series of shows this August. When I ask him why he felt the need to go back there he takes a deep breath. I suspect he's been asked it a lot recently.
"In ending Dirty Pretty Things, and the black emptiness that came with that, I tried to find catharsis, to understand my past," he explains. "This turning inwards allowed me to put it into perspective and get to a point where I was comfortable with it again. It was a big, daunting thing that people had been asking me to do for years. It turned out that once Peter and I had left the old grievances at the door, it was as if not a day had passed."
He adds that money wasn't the motivation. "We didn't get paid a quarter of what was reported," he maintains. "I missed the band and I missed what we used to have and I missed those songs. It was magic, it felt amazing." Barât pauses and then beats me to my final question. "Will we do it again? Well I've a lot on at the moment with my tour and a baby on the way, but who knows? Maybe we will."
'Carl Barât' is out now on Arcady. 'Threepenny Memoir: The Lives of a Libertine' is published by Fourth Estate. Barât's UK tour begins in Brighton on 15th October (www.carlbarat.co.uk)
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