Thursday, January 7, 2010

Julian Casablancas

For a musician who took us on a guided tour of turn of the millennium New York City on his band's era-defining 2001 album “Is This It” – detailing the scuzzy dives, beer soaked basement clubs and tales of fleeting romance amidst the squalor – it seemed apt that The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas would be ambling through the Manhattan streets while we spoke on the phone. The soundtrack of the city played out behind him in bodega transactions, thumping traffic and a symphony of polyglot murmuring. Harder then to make him out as he paused, considered his answers carefully, and shrugged each one aside as irrelevant or more than he was willing to share, but all the more authentic in the process.

For a generation of music fans The Strokes recast the entire concept of a perpetually amorphous New York City, not to mention set the course for contemporary hipsterdom and all of its attendant solipsistic woes and sartorial miscues with their spiky, hooky post-punk and oft-imitated image. In the midst of a hiatus since the 2006 release of the uneven but underrated “First Impressions of Earth,” one that has seen a few of his band mates branch off into side projects themselves, Casablancas has cast his own lot in the frontman gone solo sweepstakes with “Phrazes for the Young.” It's a meandering, imaginative collection of keys-driven new wave. Not a Strokes record perhaps, guitars are less evident, but that's part of the point. New York City has changed, as Casablancas sings on the banjo bouncing urban pastoral of “Ludlow St.”, so too should its soundtrack.

Are these songs you've been accumulating over the years that didn't fit with the band?

Oh man, it's a little complicated. At first I assumed they were gonna be Strokes things, because I never planned on doing anything other than that. But certain circumstances arose in which I felt like I should just do something. I was just waiting. Other people were doing other things and I just needed to keep shaking. Man, I really want to be forthcoming and honest and just tell you everything on my mind.

Please do, it would be great for me.

I know, it would be great for the article, probably bad for my life though.

Did you feel freer or more unsure of yourself not having the guys to bounce ideas off of?

Well, I mean naturally at first I felt a little unsure, but as I got in the process, toward the end I felt a little more comfortable and it was very freeing.

There was a time where a rock singer making a synth record might have been surprising to people. Not anymore.

You mean offensive? I've always written on keyboard and guitars. With The Strokes it was obviously all guitars. But this time around if I wrote something on a keyboard it would stay on the keyboard. A lot of songs were not necessarily synths, we used organs or pianos or phasers. It was fun to mess around with. I'm definitely not like “I've always loved synths and I've just been waiting for this moment to tell the world!”

Do you care about that rock purist thing?

To be honest I've never been like “Rock and roll!” When I was getting into music it was more like being a modern composer, not that I pull that off at all. But the idea was arranging twenty parts to make a little machine of music that works together in a modern way. I'm more about that than just “The rock! Some guitars! Play that AC/DC beat and let's just rock it!”

Do you feel the palpable change in the city that you sing about on “Ludlow St.”?

I have to say yes. Definitely from when I was growing up it's gone crazy. The whole of New York is like 42nd St. There used to be quiet neighborhoods... you had nice neighborhoods, busy ones, whatever. But now all of Manhattan is like a big Starbucks. It's like Times Square everywhere.

You don't seem to want to talk about it, but is there anything else happening with The Strokes?

We'll be doing stuff for sure. They're starting to work any day now. The songs are pretty much done. They'll be recording them, and I'll sing on them at some point. I don't make predictions on it because I did for months and they were all wrong. It will happen, I don't know when though. I don't know if I'm excited yet. We'll see what the process is like. Hopefully things are gonna be different in a good way. We'll see.

Juliana Casablancas performs at the Paradise Rock Club on Friday. Tickets are $20 at 877-598-8497 or www.livenation.com.

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