Dirty Pretty Things: Don't mention it...

Carl Barat of Dirty Pretty Things talks to Nick Duerden about the struggle to be more than Pete Doherty's former partner
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The Independent Culture

As ever with Dirty Pretty Things, today is very much the morning after the night before. No matter that it is 2pm in the car park of the Reading Festival: frontman Carl Barat is horizontal and unconscious somewhere in the festering womb of his tour bus, and he is not coming out. Drummer Gary Powell and guitarist Anthony Rossomando have surfaced and staggered off in need of calories, while bassist Didz Hammond has made it into the bus's chaotic lounge area, where he lights up a cigarette and sucks on it as if it possessed the very essence of life itself. Yesterday, DPT played in Paris, the day before Belgium. Belgium, he recalls, was "a stinker". "We were bad because we were wrecked," he says, his mouth crumpling towards a self-conscious grin. "Foolish, I know, but what you gonna do?"

From the back of the bus comes movement, then a groan. In the distance, a shadow mutates into Barat, DPT's frontman and, today at least, a 28-year-old who looks like he died yesterday. He is dressed in boxer shorts fast disappearing up his arse, and a stained T-shirt from which his right arm hangs limply, courtesy of a broken collarbone (about which more later).

His legs are bowed, his hair an explosion of multi-directional split ends. He collapses into the nearest seat and roots in vain around a tabletop strewn with cigarette butts, spent lager cans and half-empty bottles of vodka. From the depths of his throat comes a question in the form of a single mumbled word: "Cigarette?" Hammond leans over and gives him one.

"Look at that," Barat slurs, pointing to a neat puncture wound halfway up his forearm. "Looks like I've been shooting up, but I haven't. Reckon the bus has fleas." His collarbone, he now says, is giving him gip. He has somehow damaged his knee. His vocal chords hurt. Visibly, he deflates. "That's it," he announces. "Gig's cancelled. I'm serious. I can't face it." But Hammond doesn't appear a bit concerned. He's heard such things, and worse, before. The whole band has.

Dirty Pretty Things were only a concept this time last year. Barat, then 12 months free of Pete Doherty and their joint former act, The Libertines, had spent the majority of 2005 convalescing, "not from any particular illness", he notes, "just from all the shit".

But then DPT formed. They released their debut album, Waterloo to Anywhere, in April, and have toured it almost constantly.

Three years previously, Barat and his former mucker were hastily heralded as the new Strummer & Jones, their band a 21st-century Clash. The Libertines were brilliantly louche and sparklingly punk, and spent much of their time soaking up the idolatry of an ever-increasing army of fans. But Doherty, already a troubled soul, didn't fare well in the spotlight, and quickly spun off the rails and into heroin and crack addiction, stints of burglary and spells in prison.

By 2004, shortly after the release of the band's second (and last) album, he was no longer turning up to live shows. Barat soldiered on without him, but by the time Doherty started dating the supermodel Kate Moss, he finally gave up the ghost. The Libertines were now a soap opera played out in the tabloids. Nobody cared about the music, and so Barat, busy fighting demons of his own, disappeared from view. He had no idea what to do next. "But somehow," he says now, curled up into a ball and talking mostly into his chest, "I was offered another record deal. I'm not sure why, exactly, but I snapped it up."

He enrolled Powell and Rossomando from his former group, and Dirty Pretty Things was born. A few months later, his close friend Didz Hammond (formerly the bassist of The Cooper Temple Clause) joined, and the quartet knocked out Waterloo to Anywhere, a gleefully shambolic album of Libertines-esque punk rock, in weeks.

Barat now wanted to be accepted on the strength of his new music. But that was never going to happen. All anybody wanted from him were his recollections of the by now vastly notorious Doherty. "I was asked a lot of stupid, ignorant questions," he mutters. "And everyone was convinced the album was all about him, about Pete." He snorts. "It wasn't."

He rejects the suggestion that the track "Bang Bang You're Dead" - with its line, "I gave you the Midas touch/ You turned round and scratched out my heart" - could be about Moss's latest boyfriend. Likewise, from "Blood Thirsty Bastards", this: "You're a legend in your mind/ But a rumour in your room." Other songs suggested bitterness at his old friend from their titles alone: "Dead Wood", "Doctors and Dealers", "The Enemy". Barat denies it all.

"Look," he says, "I'm not out for notoriety the way Pete so clearly is, and so I'd never air personal feelings in lyrics. I wouldn't be that insensitive. And anyway, if I wanted to be notorious, I could [be]. Let's face it, it's hardly difficult. But do I want to be Jade Goody? I don't think so. Not that I'm saying Pete is Jade Goody...."

Nevertheless, it's a malignant shadow that will not recede. "I'm not pleased by it, it doesn't titillate me, and it's insulting to the rest of the band," he says. "How would you like it?" Hammond chips in: "It is frustrating, yes. I can't see why people won't just leave it alone. We're trying to move forward, but everybody wants us stuck in the past. I do fear it could ultimately be a hindrance to our band, and sometimes I do worry that we are heading towards a kind of premature self-destruct as a result. But who knows? Maybe I'm just saying this now because there is a lot of general fatigue around. We are all incredibly tired."

Barat grew up on a council estate in unpretty Basingstoke. His father was an artist, his mother a CND activist and self-confessed hippie. They split up soon after his birth, and Barat now describes his childhood as an unhappy one, "for various reasons I'm not about to disclose to you". He started taking drugs at the age of 10, first marijuana and then, by 14, acid. Nevertheless, he was a good student, leaving school with 11 GCSEs, and went on to study drama at Brunel University. It was around this time that he first met Doherty, their immediately strong bond prompting him to ditch any notions of acting in favour of becoming a rock star. Though it was drugs that ultimately severed his alliance with the singer, Barat has never claimed himself to be a particularly clean-living soul. Like Doherty, he, too, is drawn to the dark side, convinced of the skewed romance so often associated with hard drugs and creativity. Unlike Doherty, however, Barat drew the line at crack and heroin.

Getting high, he explains, would often distance him from a sense of melancholy he has all but nurtured since early youth. More recently, however, he has been taking the homoeopathic remedy St John's Wort for his depression. "It does work, but you have to take it regularly," he says, "and I keep forgetting." And when the depression returns, "it's like that bit in the film Ghost when Patrick whatshisname [Swayze] dies and becomes like a shadow, looking at himself from a distance. It's not a particularly fun feeling, no."

Presumably, the fact that he is also constantly handcuffed to his musical past by the media and fans can't help his mental state, either? "Well, no, but I suppose it's worth more than your job not to bring it up with me, right? But I don't think I unduly suffer from it - not any more. If this band didn't have enough of its own mettle, then it probably would. Fortunately, we have more than enough mettle, and I think people - or our core fans at least - realise that."

Though he claims he wants nothing more than distance from The Libertines, he did recently meet up with Doherty, fuelling rumours of a reunion. Barat had initially agreed to on meeting, "just to see if the parts I still loved about my old friend were still there", but Doherty turned it into something altogether more public.

"It really is no business of yours," Barat says sourly, "but then I suppose Pete does like to embrace the press, and so I can hardly blame you for asking. Anyway, he wanted us to do a gig together; I didn't. In the end, we compromised. We met in a pub, and everybody reported on it." And what of the rumoured reunion? Suddenly, Barat's bloodshot eyes pull focus. "Excuse me, but are you a donkey? Were you listening to me? Of course we're not getting back together. I'm in a band called Dirty Pretty Things. Hadn't you heard? Seriously, I don't want to perpetuate any ridiculous circus, I want to get on with my life."

Much of which is currently, and rather mysteriously, dictated by injury. The man is terrifically accident- and illness-prone. He recently had a benign growth behind his ear removed, and this was then compounded by an unspecified eye injury, the fracturing of his cheekbone, today's mysterious knee and throat ailments, and, just days after announcing a benefit concert for alcohol awareness, falling off a motorbike while drunk and fracturing the collarbone. "It's split in two," he says, indicating a point just below his shoulder. "It's like Marie Antoinette's face after she got beheaded, ha ha. Oh, I'm sorry. Was that an unpleasantly morbid thing to say?"

He chuckles lasciviously when I ask quite why he is so accident-prone. "You're not trying to suggest I'm some kind of masochist, are you? Because I'm not but, you know, sometimes I do think I feel naked without an affliction to hide behind, and right now I have many. In fact, right now I need a Nurofen. I'm in pain."

Three hours later, despite constant threats to flee the site, Barat does manage to go on stage with his band at the Reading Festival, and he plays with a bruising intensity that, at last, sees him come fully alive. Afterwards, I ask him if he sees a future to Dirty Pretty Things. "Faintest idea. My clairvoyance days are over, I'm afraid. I'm mostly happy doing what I'm doing, and that's enough for now. I'm sure we could be more successful if we tried [Waterloo to Anywhere has barely scraped 100,000 sales; a very modest amount for a man with his command of column inches].

"I mean, I could easily write something catchy and have it all over the radio like, you know, Razorlight [whose frontman, Johnny Borrell, was also once in The Libertines], but that's not what I'm about. I'm not here just to sell a certain quota of records. I do music to feel alive, that's all."

He coughs something dark and nasty into his hand, and now looks as bewildered as he did earlier. "I'm sorry, but you've caught me at a low ebb today. Anyway, what's your name again?" I tell him. "Well, hello, mate. I'm Carl. Pleased to meet you."

Dirty Pretty Things' new single, 'Wondering', is released on 25 September; the album 'Waterloo to Anywhere' is available now on Mercury Records

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