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.”