Julian Casablancas is confused. "Teetotal," he says, rolling the word around in his mouth.
"Tee-total. I'm sorry... what does that mean?" It's a balmy afternoon in Los Angeles and Casablancas, unspeakably hip frontman of New York rockers The Strokes, is discussing his long-running battle with booze.
After nearly a decade in the fast lane, he had, he says, reached a point where round-the-clock partying was beginning to take over his life. So he took the fateful decision to go on the wagon (for the record, he isn't being coy when he professes utter ignorance of "teetotal" -- tellingly, it's not a word that crops up very often in fashionable corners of Manhattan).
"I've always worked sober," he is careful to point out. "Room On Fire [The Strokes' second album]... that was done sober. You know, drinking is what happens once the work is done. It wasn't like I would sit in my room with a guitar and think, 'hey, nothing's happening... let me drink a bottle of whiskey and write a song'."
Nevertheless, all of the boozing eventually started to extract a heavy toll. Did friends intervene or was the decision to go sober made of of his own volition?
"Actually, people broke into my house in the middle of the night and kidnapped me."
Really? He laughs. "No, I'm kidding. I stopped on my own. The alcohol was affecting sober time. Basically, I was in a lot of pain from drinking. So that was the problem. It was time to stop."
Casablancas is taking maximum advantage of his new-found sobriety. He and his wife of four years, Juliet Joslin, are about to have their first child. He's tentatively started on the long-awaited fourth Strokes album (though it's far too early, he insists, to make any predictions as to what the results will sound like). And he's just announced a European tour which includes a date at Dublin's Academy on December 14 to promote his rather sweet solo record, Phrazes For The Young, an LP which suggests that, far from being the pretty-boy, empty-headed frontman he's often painted as, Casablancas may have been the major song-writing talent in The Strokes all along.
"The title comes from Oscar Wilde," he says. "He wrote a book called Phrases And Philosophies For The Use Of The Young. I saw the name on the spine and the vibe of it really spoke to me. Before that I would never have described myself as a Wilde fan. I'd read a little of him in school, I guess -- we did a bit of Picture of Dorian Gray. However, when I saw that book, I was like, 'wow... what's this? I wanna know more'. It's almost like the stand-up comedy of the day. I think in many ways Wilde was a Lenny Bruce kind of character."
Casablancas is lounging by the veranda of his rehearsal studio in Santa Monica. If you associate The Strokes with a certain stripe of NYC cool -- one that involves rumpled leather jackets, shaggy hair and mirror-shades worn at all times -- it's quite a leap to picture him kicking back in sun-kissed LA. Does he hanker for the brooding streets of the East Village?
"I don't itch to go home, no. The weather here... I guess it's probably what the weather in heaven is like. People are always arguing: New York or LA? They're both great places, you know."
In interviews, Casablancas can come off as a tad too louche for his own good. Yet today he's perfectly sweet. He's happy to talk about The Strokes, insisting the band is still a going concern notwithstanding the rumours of their demise that have swirled since the release in 2006 of their underwhelming third album, First Impressions Of Earth (the mediocre reviews of which had no effect on him, he says.)
Nor does he get all huffy -- as he has in the past -- as the conversation strays towards his privileged childhood in leafy Manhattan. "People think I grew up in the French riviera," sighs the singer, whose father, John Casablancas, founded the Elite Model Agency and whose mother Jeanette was a Danish supermodel.
"It's been blown out of proportion," he says of his upbringing, which included a stint at Institut Le Rosey, the Swiss finishing school which counts the offspring of Elizabeth Taylor, John Lennon, Aristotle Onassis and Winston Churchill as past-pupils (it's where he met future Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr).
"I say our childhood was like the movie Kids. It's New York, we're kind of roaming around, drinking beer on stoops. You know some of the people in The Strokes, yeah, their parents had success -- but we didn't live like yuppies. My parents separated when I was eight. I grew up with my mom alone. Starting the band, we didn't say, 'hey, let's all put on leather jackets and pretend to be cool', you know what I'm saying? It was who we were."
Rock and roll had been crying out for years for a band like The Strokes when they fetched up in late 2000. With their skinny jeans, '70s haircuts and cherubic pouts, they were the most exciting thing to hit the Manhattan scene since the heyday of CBGBs. Their music, a down and dirty conflation of '70s rock and '80s power pop, was pretty great too. Their first album, 2001's Is This It, was hailed as an instant classic, a record that brought together 30 years of New York rock cliches while sounding completely of its time.
Overnight, The Strokes were catapulted into a maelstrom of celebrity -- Drew Barrymore and Kate Moss started hanging out backstage; Radiohead and U2 would name-drop the band in interviews and seek them out after shows. Then again, Casablancas had grown up surrounded by supermodels. Many of us assumed this world of the beautiful and the famous was where he came from, not where he was going.
"The actors and the musicians, that was new," he says. "The models... well, I can't lie. My dad was a model agent. While I didn't live with him, I'd see him when I was young. Going backstage... the kind of people who were showing up... Kate Moss and the Radiohead people or whoever. That was a crazy new world. But like I said, I knew the modelling world. I won't say that I'd never seen a model before in my life."
He visibly perks up when I ask about his relationship with Bono, a prominent admirer of The Strokes.
"We hung out with Bono and The Edge and it was pretty darn magical and delightful," he says. "They came with their kids to one of our shows in France. Their kids dragged them there. They live in the south of France some of the time, and they invited us to the house. That's what they do. It's kind of like a royal court. They were entertaining different people every night. We showed up and the next day, I think it was [footballer Zinedine] Zidane. I gotta say, it was pretty damn rad."
After Casablancas let it be known he'd recorded a solo record, the assumption was that he was seeking to underscore his independence from The Strokes. Reading between the lines, though, it appears that he only put out the album after the rest of the band bluntly informed him they were doing their own thing. He was, in other words, at a bit of a loose end.
"The Strokes were kind of suffering a little bit of how to get everyone interested. I wanted to get back and get to work. Then it came up that Albert was doing another record and then Nicolai [Fraiture, bassist] was doing a record and hadn't mentioned it. Everyone was doing something and weren't in The Strokes 100 per cent. I don't know... I kind of felt that I had to do something. Everyone was stepping outside the box. I respect that. I felt like I needed to do the same thing."
A tinge of sadness enters his voice as he says this. You sense a hankering in him for the early days of The Strokes, when band tensions didn't exist, and everyone was enjoying the rollercoaster ride.
"It was a democracy and I was the president," he says. "Of course, there have always been five alpha males in the band. That's been one of the things I liked about The Strokes. However, it did get tough, creatively. If people want to argue about different things, well fine. If it comes to stifling something creative, that's when I have a problem with it. People putting their foot down, going, 'I don't like this' ... it's like, 'well, we haven't even chased the idea through'."
But they're all still friends, right? He sighs. "We see each other semi-regularly. There are no tensions. But you know, a band is a good way to break up a friendship."
Phrazes for the Young is released today. Julian Casablancas plays The Academy, Dublin, on December 14
Source: The Irish Independent