Julian Casablancas' Radical Reinvention

The Strokes frontman on getting sober, lefty politics and his wild album with a new band

Julian Casablancas in New York last spring. Credit: Colin Lane

This place is pretty cool," says Julian Casablancas. It's a late-summer evening, and the 36-year-old Strokes frontman is browsing through a volunteer-run radical bookstore a few blocks from his Lower East Side apartment. There's a pet white rat perched on the shoulder of the spiky-haired woman near the checkout counter, and Jimmy Cliff is on the stereo. Casablancas is leafing through a copy of Noam Chomsky's How the World Works, then notices a book about CBGB, the historic punk club that closed in 2006. "We were about to play 'Modern Age' for the first time, and the sound guy shut us off," he says, recalling an early Strokes show from 2000. "They were such dicks. I mean, the place is obviously legendary, but I didn't cry for it when it closed. I'm like, 'Just open one in Times Square.'"

The Strokes' days as a club act didn't last long: The year after that CBGB gig, Casablancas' band would reinvigorate New York rock with its debut, Is This It, and pave the way for a generation of rockers from the Black Keys to the Arctic Monkeys. ("They opened doors for us, because we started getting booked into clubs for being a garage-rock band," says the Keys' Dan Auerbach.) Casablancas would become famous as the deadpan, elegantly wasted personification of New York cool. These days, though, he's the sober, married father of a four-year-old boy, Cal, and spends most of his time at his home in upstate New York. When he stays up late, he might be jotting down passages from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States or checking out lefty websites like Truthout and Truthdig. "Anything with the word 'truth' in it, I'm good," he says with a self-aware smile.

He's also just completed a new solo record, Tyranny, released on his own label, on which he's backed by a band called the Voidz. The album is musically dense and politically charged. It's a far cry from the Strokes' sharp tunes, and Casablancas is clearly OK with that. "This is the final destination – this record is what I've been wanting to make since the first record," he says, referring to his debut solo LP, Phrazes for the Young. "If anything, I'm just hungry to try to inspire something as big if not bigger [than the Strokes], but with more meaning. You know? Especially now that I'm a little older."

Wearing torn jeans and a denim jacket, Casablancas is approachably low-key. In conversation, he's enthusiastic and earnest, genially holding forth on issues like Net neutrality and media bias. "He's extremely affable and outgoing these days," says the Strokes' longtime manager, Ryan Gentles. "I'm not talking about the guy I first met. I'm talking about now: the sober, mature, grown-up dad Julian."

"You think it's like truth serum, but it's more like asshole serum"

As Casablancas leaves the bookstore, he drops $5 into a jar for donations and heads out into the street. Over the next few hours, he'll be approached by a couple of fans who treat him like an old friend. At one point, a guy carrying a skateboard and wearing a baseball cap says he loves the new stuff with the Voidz. "Thanks, man!" Casablancas says. A few moments later, he adds, "That was a cool-looking dude."

Part of the Strokes' early mystique came from the perceived glamour of their Manhattan private-school background. Many early stories on the band noted that Julian's father, John Casablancas, was the founder of the massive Elite Model Management, which had supermodel clients like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. His parents divorced when he was eight. His relationship with John was contentious, and Julian was already drinking a lot by the time he was in high school, eventually dropping out. "He was such a charming, larger-than-life guy," Casablancas says of his dad, who died last year. "I think I always just wanted to be closer to him. That translated into teenage rebelliousness."

He was closer to his stepfather, the artist and academic Sam Adoquei, who grew up in Ghana and introduced Casablancas to the music of radical Nigerian funk titan Fela Kuti. Adoquei has been shaping Casablancas' view on art and music throughout his career, even offering suggestions on songwriting. (Casablancas has played a role in his stepdad's art, as well. Adoquei's 2011 book, Origin of Inspiration, a treatise on the best way to live a creative life, is full of ideas he used to try out on Casablancas. "I told Julian once that I wrote it because he left and became busy, and the kid I was sharing my ideas with was no longer there," says Adoquei.) His stepdad still gives Casablancas notes on his work, sometimes tough ones. "He will sometimes say, 'You might not like it,' " Adoquei says. "I am tough on junk art."

Tyranny incorporates everything from hardcore punk and African rhythms to metal solos and robotic voices. "We'd listen to a world-music song and a metal song, and we wanted to bridge those gaps," Casablancas says. The writing process was sometimes emotional: Julian's father died while his son was writing songs for Tyranny: The 11-minute-long track "Human Sadness" seems to address some of that grief when Casablancas echoes the poet Rumi: "Beyond all ideas of right and wrong there is a field/I will be meeting you there." Says Julian, "It was intense. Even if you were not close with your father, once that leaves, it's like the roof came off your house."

Casablancas and the Voidz spent more than two years writing the album, and recorded it over seven months in a studio above New York's Strand Bookstore, usually working from 7 p.m. until sunlight. "I thought I was a perfectionist until I met Julian," says Voidz bass player Jake Bercovici. "I think we spent 20 days looking for one keyboard tone."

Casablancas fought hard to get to this point. After the Strokes' initial success, the youthful fun many associated with the band had evolved into a serious alcohol problem for Casablancas. He got to the point where he was drinking vodka in the morning. "I was probably charming 10 percent of the time, when I had a perfect buzz," he says of his drinking days. "You think, 'I'm brave and I'm crazy and I can drink.' But it's really like, 'I can't socially talk to people without having a stupid fake confidence that's obnoxious.' You think it's like truth serum, but it's more like asshole serum."

He began a long period of recovery. "I was hungover for, like, five years. Like, literally four years after I stopped drinking, I still didn't feel 100 percent. I still had that feeling of being a little hungover, and you just don't want to go downstairs to the deli, and you just want to stay inside. I felt kind of really roughed up by it."

In 2009, he released his solo debut LP, composing songs on his laptop in his apartment. At the same time, he took a step back from his leadership role in the Strokes, ceding more control of their songwriting, "keeping the peace," he says. The results, as heard on their last two albums, 2011's Angles and 2013's Comedown Machine, lacked the hooks and emotional impact of their first three albums. "I maybe wasn't as iron-fist-y as I had been in the past, but that was on purpose," he says. "Because that created all these issues [with the rest of the Strokes]. I wouldn't want to fight or argue about it. I was like, 'You like it better that way? Fine.'" 

Throughout all this, the Strokes have remained a beloved, huge concert draw. Fans flew in from all over the world to see them play their first show in three years at the Capitol Theatre, in Port Chester, New York, last May. "I was almost in tears," says Gentles. "I've missed a total of maybe 12 Strokes shows ever, and it was the best I've ever heard them." The next week, they played at New York's Governors Ball festival, to the largest main-stage crowd of the weekend. (After the band had finished its set, the crowd noticeably thinned out for headliner Jack White.)

The same day as the bookstore stop, Casablancas is eating dinner – an avocado salad in a Dominican restaurant where he also had lunch – and thinking about all the conflicted emotions brought up by the band and its continued fame.

"It feels humbling and validating that you're doing some things right," he says about the Strokes. "But it's the same thing with an actor: If a movie does really well at the box office, they make 10 of those afterward because that's what they think people like. . . . If something has commercial value, it doesn't mean it's good."

The night before the release of Tyranny, the band plays a secret show at a loft in Brooklyn, billing themselves as Rawk Hawks. When word of who is really playing gets out, a crush of fans packs the small space. Wearing an oversize New York Jets jacket despite the sweltering heat of the room, Casablancas attacks the mic and howls his aggressive new songs. The sound is light-years from the Strokes, but girls still scream at his every gesture and people yell for him to turn up his vocals.

For now, Casablancas will take that over an arena gig with his original band. "It's still fun to see people react," he says of the Strokes' recent concerts. "But do I emotionally feel anything from it? No. Like a little while ago, I saw someone perform a cover of some Top 40 song in an empty bar, like he probably just learned it two days ago. He was probably enjoying playing that more than I enjoy playing 'Last Nite.' I just smiled about it."