Dirty Pretty Things - a band on the run
With their latest album, Dirty Pretty Things are finally emerging from the shadow of The Libertines. Nick Hasted talks to the group about a dark legacy
Friday 30 May 2008
Three years ago, at the Isle of Wight Festival, Dirty Pretty Things doggedly went through the motions, seeming unsure of who they were. Fresh from the Libertines' acrimonious split, Carl Barat had taken their drummer Gary Powell and New York guitarist Anthony Rossomando, the ousted Pete Doherty's replacement. Adding bassist Didz Hammond, they bashed out Dirty Pretty Things' debut album, Waterloo to Anywhere. Naturally, it sounded like The Libertines. The future looked murky.
"At the Isle of Wight," Barat recalls, "I felt I couldn't be seen to be having a good time, because I was dutifully carrying this cross. I thought that's what the fans of The Libertines wanted. A lot of them were in mourning for the band."
Three years on, Dirty Pretty Things have established their own reputation for rowdy gigs. Upcoming second album Romance at Short Notice takes a large step towards forging their musical identity, too. From the proggy thunder of "Buzzards and Crows" to the NYC punk of "Chinese Dogs", via moments of unexpected confession, it's the result of an alchemy forged in two years of touring and long sessions in Rossomando's new east London studio.
"We weren't really ready," says Rossomando of their shaky start, when I meet him and Hammond in the hotel bar before a Manchester gig (Barat, sickly, rests upstairs). "But people wanted to capitalise on us, post-Libertines, and get it out there. We understood that was going to be part of the deal. With this record, we were damned if we were going to make a record that sounds skiffly and like The Libertines. The old band has fallen away. It's like the scales falling off a snake."
The relentless touring and kamikaze lifestyle are dissected on several new songs. "We got pulled off the road by management," Rossomando says, "because they thought one of us was going to come back in a body-bag. Our manager told me, 'Didz's face was falling off, Carl couldn't be dragged out of anything.' We had burned out and become numb to a lot of stuff. But at least we've made another record."
"This tour has quite a lot more sobriety, so far," says Hammond, the ex-Cooper Temple Clause bassist, as he clinks pint glasses together to signal another round.
Rossomando's lyrics to "Plastic Hearts" investigate the psychic cost of their early days. The New Yorker has by his own admission led a life of transience and loss, which being in the band finally arrested. "I'd been caning it since the day I stepped off the plane to take Pete's place in The Libertines, till we finished the first Dirty Pretty Things record," he says. "There have been periods of my life when I've had sheets hanging over the windows, locked in my room with drugs and painkillers, listening to Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan records. Makes me cry sometimes, thinking about it. Now there's support from people. This band is family."
Barat leaves his sick-bed to say hello. "Hope I don't throw up on stage tonight," he mutters. In fact, Dirty Pretty Things go down a storm, their fans benignly rowdy in a way only matched at gigs by Doherty's Babyshambles.
Seeing Barat, Hammond and Rossomando standing together sharing vocals, with Powell staunch behind them, such comparisons seem out of date. But after the gig, Barat equably considers Doherty, his one-time blood brother. Previous tentative summits between the two have ended in media frenzies. Is getting in touch with Doherty more trouble than its worth?
"Once I've done what I'm doing now, it won't be hard at all. It may detract in the short term from what I'm trying to achieve. It's certainly a friendship I cherish. But I want to let it be for a while. A lot of my friends say you should only do reunion if you're going to write a new album. I agree. Otherwise it's just a cash-cow, a glory-milker. I've still got 'Libertine' tattooed on my arm. There were some kids outside who asked me to play some Libertines tonight. One of them was covered with blood, for some reason."
Where Babyshambles seem to have taken the part of The Libertines that teetered on the edge of self-destruction, Dirty Pretty Things seem in possession of the band's early, benign energy and idealism. "Well, 'Romance at Short Notice'," Barat offers. "Get it while and when you can. It's an ongoing theme – the optimistic, cock-eyed, wistful vision. My ideology hasn't changed much – melody, purging, remaining free of all the blandness and cheapness."
The barriers The Libertines broke down between bands and fans with their infamous guerrilla gigs, at venues including their own east London flat, have stayed down for Dirty Pretty Things. "I don't think you have to give anything beyond the music, and performances on the stage," Barat says. "But I do like to take it beyond that. The 'them and us' culture – us famous people, those normal people – I can't bear that."
"Every night we go outside and hang out in the street," says Rossomando. "Once in a while, we take kids who've been hanging out a while and are obviously looking for a bit more love up to the bus and play them a few songs and have a few beers." Doubts, though, are beginning to creep in. "Personally," he says, "I feel like I'm still on stage when that happens. You don't just want people hanging around telling you you're great."
"If I don't set some limits," Barat admits, "I just end up getting abused in the pub." Has Doherty's example made him cautious? "I do fear being recognised for things I don't want to be recognised for. I'm not slighting Pete by saying that."
Watch the video for Dirty Pretty Things' track Bang Bang You're Dead
Two songs on Romance at Short Notice sum up Barat's current state. "Tired of England" is a celebration of a nation – really, of London – he has always unambiguously loved. "You have to accept everyone in their colours and classes, whether good or bad or gay or bohemian," he says. "London and England are interchangeable in it, which is a bit naughty. I see London as an organism, and for me it's the heart of England."
There is a mythic underpinning to Barat's thoughts, culled from films, books and the remnants of London's bohemian past. "Thousands of films," he admits. "I've been reading Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. And Saki [the source of the new album's title]. And illegal Soho clubs like Patricia's that still exist, from a time when the taxi ranks would be full of gangsters and Chinese at 6am."
The most furious and revealing song Barat has ever written, by contrast, is "Hippy's Son". We leave the band in the dressing room, loudly singing old Lemonheads songs, and find ourselves in a silent room full of roller skates, which Barat wheels around in while we discuss his most intimate lyric.
He is, indeed, a hippies' son. He's never spoken directly about this childhood, but he has indicated it was far from happy, one source of a lifelong depression. On this song, with its talk of being "built to destroy" and having "fascist alloy" and, finally, being "my father's son", he goes a vital step further. "It's difficult to talk about that. I am a hippie's son, and I suppose I should be grateful. I wouldn't say it was a bohemian life. It was just alternative. Colourful. But my dad lived on a council estate. He worked in a factory."
The song suggests a dark, churning, monstrous world that left Barat with violent urges. Were such feelings really part of his childhood? "I guess so. But it doesn't have a go at anyone. It just takes my make-up apart. You miss out on stability in the hippie world. It has other benefits. But that's the downside. Of course it's vitriolic and spitting, but at the same time it's full of love – like the chorus." His voice softens as he quotes it. "'Come fall into these arms', you know – have some safety, security, some love."
Is it like he's going back to that family environment, and offering his arms? "I guess so. It's quite a loving song. Being autobiographical is new for me. It was hard to sing, and hard to allow to come out. It felt scary. I spent ages trying to explain it to my parents. They haven't heard it. But they know I don't mean any ill by it."
The "downside" of his childhood – has it been cured, with the years? "Well, no. I'm still left with it now. I have to do something fast, or I'm going to fall apart again. I've been recovering, through the years. I took some time out and realised I've got a lot more problems than I ever thought I did."
There's no rock-star bravado in Barat. To make one final comparison to Doherty – physically imposing, charismatic and manipulative in person – Barat sometimes seems to shrink into himself as we talk, as if expecting to be hit.
As an artist, he feels he's barely begun. "I still haven't written my magnum opus," he says. "That's something I want to knuckle down and do. I've been a happy-go-lucky, romance at short notice man for a long time now. You can't be a chancer for ever. Well, you can – but then chancer becomes blagger. I don't want to cross that line. I want to write, and write better. Which is new for me."
Does he have thoughts of improving his life, to improve his writing? "Yeah. More books. Less Deal or No Deal. No drugs." And how are those ambitions going? "Well, with the exception of No 2, they're going all right. My delivery will come one day. I know I can write something good. And it'd be a pity if I die before I do."
'Tired of England' is out on 23 June and 'Romance at Short Notice' on 30 June on Vertigo
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