Julian Casablancas, the lead singer of The Strokes: ‘The direction of mainstream music has been super-depressing to me’ (2024)

Driving through New York State, The Strokes singer and songwriter Julian Casablancas (New York, 44 years old) answers this newspaper’s phone call with a very effusive “hello!” The background noise indicates that he has decided to stop the car to do the interview. In Casablancas’ 20+ year career, he wrote the Strokes most iconic songs and released six albums with the band. Now, he describes what he sees around him less than enthusiastically: “There are poles and trees in the shape of a cross everywhere. I’d love to be able to send you pictures. I’m literally in the middle of nowhere,” he says. During the conversation, on a couple of occasions, he jumps at the sight of men holding what he thinks are guns.

There’s a lot to discuss with Casablancas. His two active bands, The Strokes and The Voidz (a side project since 2013, the group has released two albums), continue to tour and produce new songs. In addition, the unreleased track with which Daft Punk celebrated the re-release of their mythical Random Access Memory (2013) is still fresh. Entitled Infinity Repeating, it is a bossa nova-influenced song in which Casablancas’ voice, in its softest and most melodic tone, describes an ambiguous relationship. “It was a very cool recording studio moment. I really like the result, the structure and the sound they achieved,” he says. In addition to that song, The Voidz recently released a new single Prophecy of the Dragon, a complex song with a powerful metal riff that the songwriter says was inspired by certain predictions from Master Yoda in Star Wars, sacred Buddhist books (the song mentions the Lotus Sutra) “and, in general…that feeling of being bewitched by something, like in a psychedelic state.”

Trees, crucifixes and guns aside, it seems more interesting to start the conversation by talking about the documentary Meet Me in the Bathroom (2022), based on Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 book. In over 700 pages, Goodman—who moved to New York in 1999 at 19 years old—recounts the generational impact of the groups that emerged at the beginning of this millennium, especially The Strokes, who were the ringleaders of the movement; according to EL PAÍS music critic Diego A. Manrique, that was “the last powerful rock scene, after grunge and Britpop.”.

Julian Casablancas, the lead singer of The Strokes: ‘The direction of mainstream music has been super-depressing to me’ (1)

At one point in the documentary, which uses original footage from that era, Adam Green of The Moldy Peaches is at a party, and someone says, “Julian’s come in and he’s in the bathroom getting high with a young girl.” One of the guests clarifies to Green that Julian is the lead singer of a new band called The Strokes. “I’m not really interested in watching that [documentary]… at this moment. Because it’s like when someone’s…taking a photo…when you’re…doing something. And I’m like, can we just enjoy the moment? [It’s] still happening… It’s hard [to point to something I’d want to change from that time] because you don’t want to mess with the space-time continuum, you know?” he muses.

As the stars of the documentary (and that scene), The Strokes were the last group to experience the music industry’s golden age, before the impact of digital platforms on democratizing musical content. They also served as representatives of the rockstar lifestyle, which has been romanticized ad nauseam and even today remains a subject of debate and reflection. We talk about that moment in the documentary and about the verses from Barely Legal, from The Strokes’ debut album, Is This It (2001), about a very young girl: “I wanna steal your innocence”.

“Do people say that rock’s masculinity is aggressive? I had never really thought about it. Compared to hip-hop and reggaeton? I don’t really feel like reggaeton and hip hop are… great [in terms of misogyny] … [In rock,] you hear a lot of songs [from] a long time ago and think, ‘Wow, that would not fly to try and do [today]’ ... I’m sure we all do. So, I think it is a little different now. [Unlike Europe,] in America, sex stuff has always been very repressed. I don’t think the Beatles could come out now, singing ‘she was just 17, you know what I mean,’” the songwriter says, quoting the 1963 lyrics of I Saw Her Standing There.

He points out the issue of cancel culture. Did The Strokes participate in it when, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York, they left the song New York City Cops off their debut album at the last minute? “I mean, in a way. [But] I don’t think the pressure was so much from the outside. I mean, maybe it would have been. But I think we [ourselves] just felt… it was just such a different vibe. Like before 9/11…cops killing people…was… all [over] the news. And then all of a sudden… [they were] heroically trying to save people and… it felt weird. So yes, in a way, but it wasn’t [really],” he explains.

Now, Casablancas is preparing to embark on a summer tour across Europe and the United States and is working on two active projects. It’s hard to imagine Casablancas spending time at home with his two children, Cal and Zephyr, the fruit of his 2005 marriage to one-time Strokes roadie Juliet Joslin. The couple divorced in 2019, after Casablancas had already overcome his problems with alcohol. Of fatherhood, he observes that “it changed me probably more just as a person. Sometimes when I work with people… I’m maybe a little more kind [and] understanding… Before I was, like, angry and there’s something wrong… I think [fatherhood] is a big responsibility. It just makes me maybe a little more responsible, stuff like that. I don’t know if artistically, it’s really changed so much.” He adds, “I like playing live music, but I hate touring. Because when you tour, you just get tired. [You] just don’t have the energy to create… I think my dream would be to be home recording and maybe play, like, once every two weeks… a little show in…my [own] cool club… I like traveling. I like playing music. Well, you mix the two, and you’re always traveling and playing music and the songwriting part is gone. And I have like 200 songs I want to record, and I never have time.”.

How does the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) in music, which can create songs in seconds, affect a songwriter who loves the recording studio so much? “I’ve really been, like super not into pop music recently… It kind of drives me insane… The kind of things I’m interested [in], I don’t quite think you can copy it. I think it can make good art yet. I think people can use it as tools, like in design. I think that’s probably the best thing so far…. the image-generating stuff. Yeah, I think people can use it… as a tool in the future… I think there’s still [going to] have to be [a] producer, engineer, [etc.]… Maybe, hopefully, [it] will push people to do more original stuff because the direction of mainstream music has been super-depressing to me for… 15 years now.”.

Julian Casablancas, the lead singer of The Strokes: ‘The direction of mainstream music has been super-depressing to me’ (2)

Now you can understand all the jokes about bands like BTS that Casablancas often posts on his Instagram page, where he has around 431,000 followers. He doesn’t follow any of them back. “I think post-pandemic the Internet is definitely [becoming] a little more like… reality, unfortunately. But I don’t think it’s an important element of being a human being now,” he says. He talks about what politics means to him in the same melancholic tone. “My position is pretty simple. I just… don’t really know if humanity on a big scale has ever really tried or understood the concept of democracy. I mean, from when it started in Greece, it was slave-owning men who were making the decisions that they called a democracy. But that’s not really what we think of when we’re children… We think it means everyone’s just going to have some good information and then make a decision together. I don’t know if that ever really happened in history. So, I think there are a lot of technical things that would need to happen in order to have the kind of democracy that we imagine as children. But my essential thing is, I don’t think there’s really democracy anywhere in the world on a bigger scale.”

“I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” sang Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner in the 2018 song Star Treatment; in passing, the tune recounts his comings and goings and the perks of success. But what was it really like to be a Stroke in his prime in the early 2000s? “The best memory that comes to mind…[was] maybe the first record… Yeah, I remember the first time. You work for years… recording… and playing and trying and studying and going to… school, playing shows, jobs. [But] that first moment… I remember listening to the demo and thinking, Oh wow, that’s actually… cool… I was always very hard on myself… I was always like, ‘This isn’t good enough…' I remember [when] the band [said], ‘Let’s put this out.… So when I finally got to that point, those are my best memories. [The worst memories:] There are definitely moments where other band members and The Strokes said and did things where I just thought, ‘Oh, wow… they’ve ripped my dreams apart [The Strokes stopped performing in 2006 and didn’t return until five years later].” But that feeling has nothing to do with what actually happened, and coming from someone who likes prophecies, it is quite surprising. After fifteen years, there is still a lot to talk about with Julian Casablancas.

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Julian Casablancas, the lead singer of The Strokes: ‘The direction of mainstream music has been super-depressing to me’ (2024)

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