As the lead singer of the Strokes, Julian Casablancas became famous for embodying classic rock-and-roll nonchalance. These days, though, he’s more interested in showing how deeply he’s engaged. Both with his music — Virtue, the sprawling and impassioned second album from his politically charged band the Voidz is out March 30 — and with his words. “Can you make complex truth sexy?” asks the 39-year-old, sitting in a conference room at the Vulture offices, stylishly casual in ripped jeans and a black jacket adorned with the Public Enemy logo. “It’s a riddle I think about constantly: How do you get people to pay attention to what’s going on in the world and not tune out?” Casablancas rubs his eyes, then offers a wry smile. “I’ve got a lot of ideas.”
The lyrics on Virtue are almost as political as they were on the first Voidz album. That was obviously a songwriting direction you wanted to continue going in, but were there things you wanted to do differently this time around?
I don’t know if this answers the question, but the easiest way to summarize it is that we wanted people to like Virtue as much as we liked Tyranny. So I don’t know. Essentially I’m disappointed so far in the internet.
Why are you disappointed in the internet?
I really believed that the internet’s capacity to let people access the best of the best of music — from underground stuff to music from all over the world — would’ve been a positive influence, that music would’ve evolved like never before. Instead music has been co-opted by some kind of capitalist profit game. I thought the internet would help balance the relationship between quality and the mainstream, but it’s gone the opposite way. Quality is being sucked out of music. One Direction will have 4 billion views and the best artists of today will only see a fraction of that attention. I’ve talked about this before, but there’s an exact parallel between music and politics.
What’s the parallel?
People thought that the internet would lead to more information and more truth. It’s the opposite: People are way less informed. It’s dark. Capitalism is a great idea but it’s changed. “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism” — my favorite philosopher said it. It’s all a bummer. The forces that push truth and quality down were supposed to be negated by the internet and instead they’ve gotten stronger.
Help me understand what you mean when you say that capitalism sucks the quality out of music.
There are formulas to make the most amount of money out of music and those formulas don’t incorporate the variable for quality. Artistic value and truth value are casualties of the process. I understand that people are trying to make songs that will work at a CVS or in a taxi or in a nightclub or for a 3-year-old. If you can do that, it’s a magical thing, but that doesn’t mean the result is artistically good. And the bummer for me as a musician is that the music world is the one place where commercial success seems to imply artistic quality.
You don’t think it’s the same for other areas of pop culture?
The Oscars obviously have blind spots, but with movies it’s generally the authentic artistic endeavors that get recognized. But when you look at what gets nominated for a Grammy? I don’t understand what the hell it’s all about. Sorry, I’m derailing.
Is the state of popular music worse than it’s been in the past?
Definitely. Today someone like Ariel Pink is relatively unknown. In another era he would’ve been much more popular.
I don’t know about that. Who’s a musician from the past that you think is analogous to Ariel Pink?
David Bowie. This is my point: People think that public opinion in their own time is the truth. Everyone knows David Bowie now, but I bet he was pretty underground in the ’70s. I think Ariel Pink will be one of the best-remembered artists of this generation and now nobody in the mainstream knows him. I don’t know — I keep wanting to jump between politics and music. People are so unaware and everything is confusing and information is coming out of every orifice.
How does what you’re talking about affect what you do with your career?
Well, I think being informed is basically the fight of our time. I don’t want to say we’re living in an illusion of democracy because people’s eyes glaze over but let me try an analogy. It might be terrible.
Go for it.
Let’s say the water in a town was being poisoned, and all the people wanted the water to be clean. In a democracy, everyone in the town would vote for a leader who also wanted the water to be clean, and he or she would get elected and help clean the water. Simple. But right now we have a situation where the same people who are polluting the water are so heavily influencing the democratic process with their money that they can figure out ways to not allow the person who would fix the water to get elected. What do you call that? Is that democracy? I wouldn’t say so. Maybe I shouldn’t even be talking about this stuff with you. Maybe this isn’t the right place.
We should talk about whatever is most important to you. I’d rather do that than talk about things that feel obligatory.
Personally I am much more interested in politics than music because I’ve done music for so long and feel like I’m in a good lane with it. So if you were just catching me as a person and wanted to talk, then we’d probably talk about politics. I almost feel about politics like I did about music when I was a teenager — just learning so much. But it’s tough. If you try to do something positive … the farther you reach out the harder you get knocked down. I don’t know. We’re essentially at war, a modern war against a calculator.
Just so I’m clear: the war is against corporate capitalism?
I think corporations should thrive and we have a good system theoretically, but the problem is that it’s evolved without any sort of leash. Everything has gone so over-the-top. Truth and human suffering are not part of the equation of corporate profit. Neither is quality.
What are your criteria for quality in music?
Personally I look for something that elicits a strong feeling. What’s the word Brazilians use? Is it saudade?
Something that’s pretty and sad and powerful. I like that. But I know that’s not really objective criteria. The problem is that [musical quality] is a little mysterious and that’s why it gets scoffed at. My bigger point is more that there is music with quality that gets ignored. We don’t live in a world where Transformers is nominated for Best Picture, so why do we live in a dimension where the music equivalent of that is nominated for Grammys? I mean, how do you define quality?
I think maybe you can start by evaluating how effectively the piece of art achieves the artist’s intentions.
What if the intent was only to entertain?
Maybe that’s something different? I guess you could also look at things like proportion and balance and flow and originality. Those aren’t objective terms, but they can still work as a basis for evaluation.
Okay, the way I see quality is as the work that people put into it. That’s what’s generating quality: the people who work the hardest. But in terms of judging it superficially, that’s like saying, “What makes a good doctor?” There are a lot of possible answers.
I’ll ask a more straightforward question …
I just thought of something. There’s a song by Porches that just came out. I think it’s called “Goodbye.” The end of that song is really powerful. The beginning almost sounds like Coldplay but from, like, a minute-thirty on it’s very, very cool. In my opinion that’s a song that would be more popular if we lived in a world where quality was being accurately peddled.
Given how fraught both politics and culture are now — and they’re clearly even more fraught than in 2014 when Tyranny came out — do you feel more responsibility to be talking this way? It’s my own narrow-mindedness, but I’ve never thought of you as someone that eager to talk publicly about anything, let alone politics.
I don’t think I feel more responsibility. Back on [the Strokes’] first record we had “New York City Cops,” which is a political-ish song that we had to take off the album. But Room on Fire — the title is not referring to a dance party. It’s referring to the state of things.
I don’t remember hearing the Strokes as a political band back then and I don’t think I was alone in that. Were we all missing certain messages because we’d put the band in the wrong box?
I would say it was two things. One, “New York City Cops” was an overtly political song that came out of the news of Amadou Diallo and police brutality. But when it was taken off the album after 9/11, the political element got removed from the band’s narrative. And then the other thing is that until [President George W.] Bush was reelected, my feelings were more vague, so I wasn’t saying things as clearly.
How did Bush’s reelection change your thinking?
I was completely baffled by it. I didn’t understand how someone so lacking in the necessary skills to be president and clearly guided by unspoken, dark financial agendas could be elected ahead of John Kerry, a war hero. I’m not the world’s biggest John Kerry fan but when that happened I was like, Let me see what’s going on here. I dove in and started reading stuff.
Was November 2016 even more baffling than November 2004?
I don’t think so. Honestly in a lot of ways people are more informed and less naïve than they were in 2004, so it’s easier to talk about this kind of stuff.
What are some of the things you read that turned your head around?
Right when I was making Tyranny I discovered Chris Hedges, which was a revelation. Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States was another life-changer. That book is kind of like Howard Zinn. It’s all kind of snowballed, and now I feel like things are crystal clear to me, so I’m going to be clearer.
I saw that the website for your record label has a politics section full of links to news stories from places like Truthdig and Alternet.
Yeah, step one is being informed. I just feel pulled to this kind of struggle. The struggle could have been against England way back in the day. It could have been the civil-rights struggle. There have always been oppressive governmental systems but there’s a new form of that happening now and people need to step up. But to go back to your question about how I go about what I do: My mission is the same as it’s been from day one, which is to try to make something that has artistic value and bring it to the mainstream. Nothing about that has changed. I strive to build a world where the Velvet Underground would be more popular than the Rolling Stones. Or where Ariel Pink is as popular as Ed Sheeran.
I don’t understand how much of what you’re saying about music is based in purely idealistic scenarios or actually plausible ones. A world in which Ariel Pink is as popular as Ed Sheeran …
Have you heard Ed Sheeran’s music?
Do you like it?
It’s not my thing.
Do you like Ariel Pink?
Some of it.
Do you think you have good taste in music?
I like prog rock, so I don’t know. But I do believe that I understand why the Velvet Underground was not a mainstream band. In what world would “The Black Angel’s Death Song” ever be widely popular?
What about Loaded? What about “Rock & Roll”? Those should’ve been bigger. Or Jimi Hendrix: People don’t realize that it took years for him to get the acclaim that he has now. You look at the charts back then and he was at No. 300. He didn’t have hits.
Jimi Hendrix was very popular during his lifetime.
No, you’re seeing it through the rearview mirror.
But Electric Ladyland was a number-one album.
I don’t know. From what I’ve seen I thought he had never had any commercial success.
He closed Woodstock.
I guess my question is this: Are you saying that wider exposure is all that prevents musicians like Ariel Pink or the Velvet Underground from being more popular? Because to my ears — and this is not a quality judgment — it makes sense that Ed Sheeran is more commercially successful than Ariel Pink. One of those musicians is trying to be pop and one isn’t.
Everything you’re saying sounds 100 percent like cultural brainwashing.
Because if you grew up in a world where Ariel Pink was popular then you would say “I don’t see how Ed Sheeran can be popular.” People grow up with norms knocked into their heads. And I’m not trying to diss Ed Sheeran or any pop star. Ed Sheeran seems like a nice, cool guy and I have nothing against his music. Let him sell a billion records. I’m just saying I don’t understand why there can’t be a world where Ed Sheeran gets 60 percent of the attention and Ariel Pink gets 40 percent. Now it’s almost like Ed Sheeran gets 99.5 percent of it. The creative bands have been pushed so far into the margins. But my bigger point is that whether it’s music or politics, right now we’re mired in whoever’s propaganda is loudest. I’m sorry — I’m not good at explaining things.
No, I understand you. Is the imbalance you just described discouraging? Or does it make you want to try harder to break through?
Well, here I am. I’m trying to convince someone who I think is smart that technology and algorithms don’t have to erase truth and quality. That’s all I’m saying to you. Because if you don’t think that’s what’s happening, you’re not seeing what’s going on. If you’re asking what’s personally interesting to me, this is it. I’m happy to talk music more if that’s what you want.
Given where your interests lie, is being in the Strokes at all inspiring?
That’s not where my focus is. To me, the Strokes — I was thinking about it earlier today. I may have been fooling myself but back in the beginning it was good and I was loving what we were doing. I just wanted to musically progress in certain ways. You have to be super hard with yourself. We would do demos and people would want to put them out and I’d be like, “This is not good. Let’s move on.” I did the same thing with the Strokes. I was like, “This is fine but I want to move forward.” I want to evolve and do something even more challenging: Black Sabbath, Nirvana, some Doors stuff — music that’s not mainstream but breaks into the mainstream.
Are you using mainstream as synonym for “commercially popular”?
So do you see a musician like Kendrick Lamar as being an outlier? He’s inarguably both artistically valid and extremely popular.
I would say he’s on the coolest side of the pop spectrum. He’s on the border of art and pop, which is a cool place to be. But when I hear stuff like Joyner Lucas, that feels more inspiring.
I’m not sure I understand how you’re delineating between music that’s artistically valid and invalid other than by your own taste.
I’ve dedicated my life to analyzing this stuff. It comes from a belief that I developed when I was 15 years old — probably from my stepdad — that art is not subjective. I believe art is objective, and that time is the truth-teller of quality. If you could time travel 30 years into the future, tell me who is going to be more popular: Ed Sheeran or Ariel Pink?
I don’t know.
Don’t you, though? Let go of your conditioning.
I definitely agree that over time the cream usually rises.
Like I said, I have nothing against Ed Sheeran, and maybe he’ll still be putting out records 30 years from now, but I just think that with the internet and how accessible things could be, we shouldn’t have to wait years and years for time to sort things. But that’s not how it’s turning out. You see all these people wearing Black Flag T-shirts now and that band probably was playing to 12 people back in the day. With my record label I’m trying to find the Black Flags of today and get them heard. But you never know what’s going to take.
Assuming you tour again with the Strokes at some point, would you have reservations about playing corporate-owned arenas or corporate-sponsored festivals?
I don’t blame corporations for anything. I blame the laws. It’s like if there were no laws against murder and then there were roving pirate-gangs of murderers, I wouldn’t say the problem is the pirate-gangs, I would say the problem is the lack of laws. The mystery to me is that the business world somehow is allowed to be a lawless place where decisions are made that destroy people’s lives, but if you did those things person-to-person you’d be put in jail.
The Voidz is obviously a fulfilling outlet for you. Is there fulfillment that you only get from the Strokes? Or is being in that band not about that kind of emotion anymore?
To be honest, this question reminded me — I just saw Annihilation, and I was talking to someone about how Natalie Portman was also in the Thor movies and thinking that was interesting. She was mind-blowing in Annihilation, and I just thought she probably does some things out of passion and certain things that are more pay-the-bills. I think actors do that and it doesn’t mean they don’t like what they’re working on. It’s a different kind of energy. That situation may be similar to me and the bands I play in.
The music on Tyranny and Virtue moves in so many more directions than a Strokes song would typically move. Can you describe how your songwriting has evolved musically as well as lyrically?
With the Voidz, we have such large-ranging interests and we like to see our ideas through in a musically interesting way. We all like things from jazz to hip-hop to metal. My long-term goal was to have a situation musically where I could focus on lyrics and harmony — I don’t really write drumbeats anymore because [drummer] Alex [Carapetis] is so next level. I’m still a little bit involved in some solos, but not so much, whereas back in the day I was writing the solos. And harmonically now the things I’m interested in are basically quarter-tone.
“QYURRYUS” on the new album has that element, right?
A little bit, yeah, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. Essentially, Western music scales are seven-note or six-tone scales. Middle Eastern scales are more complicated, and I think that there is a whole ocean of melodies that are catchy to the ear but also based on those other notes that are a little flat or sharp. Can I take a step back and explain more clearly?
Yeah, for sure.
I feel bad in a way because it sounds douche, but things like Broadway singing and that kind of straight John Legend style — these are the best singers in the world, but for me when you hit a note on the nose is when the personality goes away. I’m interested in the in-between notes.
I assume when you used to write a song for the Strokes you would sit down with a guitar or a keyboard. Is the process different for the Voidz?
I try actively not to write music anymore. Because if I pick up a guitar I’ll strum around and probably write something and I end up being a digital hoarder with thousands and thousands of things that I don’t have time to get through. I find it better to be inspired by more finished things.
What do you mean?
Like if I hear a completed track that sounds really good, then I’ll write into that. But it’s a mixture of that and the same old way. I’ll write stuff and bring it to people the same old way, we’ll play it in a room the same old way, we’ll develop it the same old way.
Over the last year or so, there’s been an uptick in nostalgia for the old days of the early 2000s New York City rock scene. What’s being distorted when people look back at the Strokes and those years?
I don’t know the perception and am definitely not personally interested in that whatsoever.
No strong feelings one way or another. I don’t have an opinion about the nostalgia. It doesn’t make me mad. It’s not exciting, I guess.
All right. Generally speaking, what moral obligation do artists have to address politics if they believe the country’s politics are fucked-up?
I don’t think people have that responsibility. To me it’s just more interesting when music has that bent. Like, “The Unknown Soldier” by the Doors is this intense thing, but they also have “Love Street.” If I’m going to go up into people’s grills, which I don’t like to do, I’d say that more people should run for office, because we need to find a way to get power back from all these politician puppets who have been lined up by big money. You know what I mean? What do you think?
I don’t want to waste anyone’s time talking about myself, but the idea of individual political responsibility and complacency is something I thought about a lot after November 2016.
You’re so vague about it. Since “the incident.” Just say it.
Okay, after Trump was elected. It just felt clear to me that policies were going to be pursued that would make things tougher for people who were already having a tough time. I don’t know — I did wind up thinking that my job was pretty frivolous.
But you have a platform. You can use it.
I’m the last person who should be talking about politics.
But more people need to be speaking up. That’s exactly the problem. I’d trust you or someone on the street who’s honest about what they think about politics more than I would one of the pundits who’s paid to have an opinion.
I try to make an effort outside of work to contribute to what I believe in but I’m not the guy who should be talking about politics as part of my job.
“Shut up and dribble?”
Shut up and dribble.
You’re so wrong. If not you, who the hell else is going to do it?
What about the readers who will see this and think, Why do I care what a rock star thinks about politics?
I can see the comments now.
But what’s your response to the “shut up and dribble” argument?
That I have no agenda. That’s why it’s okay for LeBron to be talking about politics: He’s not paid to do it. He’s probably losing money when he does it. There’s no reason for him to say anything except what he believes in. That’s the person I want to hear from.
Who’s a model for you as far as politically engaged musician?
You know Paul Robeson?
Yep, of course. The way he would make a point of going and singing directly to workers — it’s impossible to see the footage of that and not feel inspired.
He’s someone who was legitimately serious about politics but his first skill was singing, and he found a way to have those things help each other and not undercut each other. He’s awesome.
The other day I watched the interview you did with Henry Giroux and you asked him what he thought of Bill Maher. Then a day or two later my editor mentioned that he’d once seen you at a Bill Maher show. What do you like about him?
He’s a funny guy and he’s doing something that’s entertaining at the same time as he’s trying to politically inform people. That’s a noble thing. There are certainly things that I disagree with Bill Maher about, but I think overall he means well. I’ve heard people say that [Maher] is a racist, and that’s a whole other argument. He does step in it sometimes but I think Bill Maher is trying to move things in the direction that he thinks is just.
What makes you hopeful for the future?
That the solutions to what’s led us here are simple. In a free society you don’t want to tell people what to do, but you’ve still got to put a leash on the jerks. It’s almost as simple as that.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
Annotations by Matt Stieb.