Ten years ago, Julian Casablancas released his first and only solo album. It arrived at the tail end of a contentious four-year hiatus for The Strokes after the release of their third album— the band’s first break since becoming an overnight phenomenon with their 2001 debut Is This It? —during which the band’s other members were quick to pursue side projects. Casablancas, meanwhile, was newly embarking on sobriety, marriage and fatherhood. After taking time to recover, Casablancas ultimately unveiled Phrazes for the Young in Nov. 2009. The result was a concise but complex eight songs (plus a few B-sides) drawing heterogeneously from new wave, punk, soul and country influences — unified by shiny, synthesized production helmed by Casablancas alongside Jason Lader and Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis.
The album was met with mixed reviews, and in the years since, Casablancas has expressed his own feelings ranging from lukewarm to remorseful. Phrazes was also the inaugural release on Casablancas’ independent label Cult Records, which has seen releases from Karen O, The Growlers and Har Mar Superstar, and is the current home to The Voidz, Casablancas’ primary musical outlet these days. Casablancas recently sat down for a lengthy chat with Billboard, where he delved into his complicated feelings about the album, what insight he’s accrued about himself and about the industry over the past decade, and what he hopes the future holds.
Where did Phrazes for the Young begin for you?
I just came off years of touring. Hadn’t really caught my breath since the beginning, really, and so it took me a while to recover from all that travel, and drinking, and all that. The problem with music is it’s not like riding a bicycle: if you stop doing it, you have to start from scratch a little bit. There’s a certain amount of knowledge that you retain, obviously, [but] I was really kind of starting over. We had had all these, I don’t know, weirdnesses within the bands at the time — other people were doing records, and there were a whole bunch of problems that I’m sure a psychiatrist could have helped with. Time has helped and healed and all that [but] at the time, things were pretty volatile. I had never really wanted to do a solo thing, because I felt like The Strokes was my thing already. [With that] kind of fraying at the seams a little bit, I decided to try to do some things myself.
What was that songwriting process like?
I’ve always [done a lot of work] myself anyway, from the beginning. I do a lot of the demos myself, and I’ve co-produced most of the things I’ve ever worked on. I would say that it was kind of an experiment. In hindsight, I’m full of so many regrets about it… I had all these different ideas, [but] I thought “if I go too weird, people won’t take it seriously,” so I did the safest ideas. What sounded like the biggest choruses, and easiest to digest songs. And then… maybe it became this “oh, this is what he does when he’s on his own” vs. The Strokes, and that was annoying, frustrating.
Was that judgment something you perceived from outside sources, or was that your own judgment upon looking back on the work? You felt like, “Oh, that wasn’t really me?”
It’s not that it’s not me. It was me, but… I think you do music half for yourself, half for other people. Also, there was something about the sonics of the record that I had an issue with. When we were recording it, it had a certain sound, [but ultimately] it sounded very computer-y to me. Kind of ProTools-y or something. When we were doing it, we were programming beats that sounded like drum machines, and it was more beat-heavy. Little by little as the mixes went… the end result was weird for me. I want to feel good about something, but there was weirdly an invalidation of things I’d done because of how that came out. I feel like I’ve been fighting that ever since. And it might be a good thing; a good motivator, I suppose, but that’s why I have mixed feelings about it overall — psychologically and spiritually.
If you could go back to those sessions and talk to 2009 Julian, what would you say?
Tough to say, because I don’t want to mess with [the continuum]. I just had to learn those lessons. I can see it now. It’s just trial and error, really. [But] I had to do that in public. I don’t like doing that. I like perfecting things and having everything put out to a standard. That trial and error motivated me slash frustrated me.
How would you summarize the lessons you learned from that experience?
Not to do what you think other people will like. You have to care what people like, but it’s gotta be through something that you know you love. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’ve always disagreed with people who say you do music [just] for yourself — Why put it out? You could make it in your house and never release it. Which is cool and maybe more admirable or something… But anyway, then there’s the opposite extreme: some people— I think pop people — are good at knowing what other people will like. I am not good at that. I can’t guess. [Making Phrazes,] I would be like, “I think this a chorus that people will like,” whereas I never really worked that way. It was always like, I have to know deep down; “I know this is good. I don’t care what anyone says. I know it’s good.” And it’s not just me selfishly [saying] “I don’t care,” it’s more like an honest thing with yourself. I feel like I’ve always had that, but I lost it with Phrazes a little bit. I wasn’t like “I know this is good” with everything. Some things I was like, “I think people will like this. This sounds like music people will like.” I think that it was because I was stepping away from something familiar that I was a little over-cautious. I regret that.
Because you were following something other than your intuition?
Yeah. But it’s not with every decision. It’s a last stage thing when you hear it, and you just kind of know. You’re honest with yourself. I think I’ve always been extra cruel with myself and hard on myself. “This is not good, this is not good.” You’re so tough on yourself, but then at some point, if you keep trying and trying, eventually you’ll get one thing and you go “oh, that’s kind of good,” and it hits you in a different way. It’s a deeper, weird, subconscious “ooh.” It’s like when something rings a bell. It’s similar to those kind of, deja vu, I don’t know what you want to call those kind of deeper realizations. I think I ignored that a little bit.
Is there anything about those songs that you still appreciate or identify with?
Certain songs still work for me. Like “Glass.” But a song like “Out of the Blue,” or a song like “11th Dimension,” they have issues for me.
How did the trials and errors of that experience lead to the formation of The Voidz?
Going to the safe side made me jump back. It gave me a reverse reflex of [realizing] I’d rather do what I think is cool and advanced and musically exciting. I’d rather do something that I know is cool and have everyone hate it, than have success with something that I don’t love. Maybe it’s good that Phrazes wasn’t a huge success, because if it was, maybe I would think “Oh, I should definitely be safe.” But the truth is it’s just not what I’m good at.
You started Cult Records when you put out Phrazes. Tell me how the label was born, and what it offers as another creative outlet. What was the vision when you started it?
A little bit out of necessity, a little bit part of the dreams I had with how The Strokes would do things — kind of being more grassroots and controlling your own destiny — [and] partly not finding the right label when we started. If you have a major label, you need to have the president really behind you, because why it works is there’s a lot of money, a.k.a. a lot of people [helping.] The dream is to have that kind of operation, [but] with good taste. [A major label is] generally a hard thing for an artist to work with, cause they’re pushing you to do things that you might think are cheesy, and they’re not gonna give you money to do things that are interesting and cool and worth it. So that was kind of the reason for Cult. But the problem is that you don’t have the resources and money that a major label has. You’re very limited. I jokingly call it an “Arts Funding Project.” You can’t compete with the capitalistic manpower of a major label. But [Cult is] a little microcosm of what the dream label would be.
Music has shifted so much in the last 10 years, both culturally and mechanically. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?
As an artist, it doesn’t change. No big changes, really. In terms of what a label should be… no one knows what’s going on or what to do. Even a major label, they have their relationships, but it’s all about Spotify. I don’t use Spotify. I think all those streaming services are… I don’t like them. They’re the new MTV, the new gatekeepers, so labels make deals with them to basically… they’re all just ripping everyone off. I don’t know. I don’t think labels have a clear identity right now. I’m not there on the forefront trying to figure out how to exploit and make money. I’m more interested in doing something like The Grateful Dead did: go town to town, be friends with the cool radio stations, play the cool venues, make relationships with cool promoters. You can have your online existence, but trying to suck on Spotify’s sweet sweetness is just a waste of time for me.
Music is more democratized than ever, but still influenced by these systems. What’s the ideal role a label should play in 2019?
Resources and manpower. But how they even have so much money is… you might as well just find an investor. I mean, it’s not a smart financial thing. Finding a great talent and nurturing them has its place, and that’s where [labels] could technically survive, but really what they’re doing is trying to play the system and make as much money [as possible]. There’s making money and then there’s developing artists. Developing artists is hard and complicated and annoying and thankless. Trying to scam the system and make deals to rip people off is easier.
Since you don’t use Apple Music or Spotify, how do you like to listen to music?
I listen to the radio and generally stay below 92. That’s the best place to hear music. There’s still DJs playing cool things. Everyone I know who’s listening to Spotify or Apple Music doesn’t discover anything interesting. When I ask them to pull up a cool song, they don’t even have one. If you have to choose a streaming service, I would say YouTube is the only one, even though that’s kind of not what it is.
Does that feel most conducive to discovery for you?
Well you can find anything. Most of these streaming services you can’t really… I mean I get it. If you want to hear music in a simple way, it’s $10 a month, I get it. You’re not gonna buy songs on iTunes, I understand that, but.… Yeah I basically rip things and put them on a non-Apple device, because they don’t even let you have MP3s anymore, it’s so stupid. It’s gone so backwards. The whole process of music is so stupidly complicated right now, for all the technology.
So what’s cool? Any trends in the last 10 years you’ve been pleasantly surprised by? Or anything presently exciting to you? Is there a current artist or a body of work you look at and you’re like, “They get it”?
I don’t really see it, but what a cool trend would be— and “trend” is a hard word to use for it —is a cultural shift towards quality and community. Basically the only value we have in society right now is making money. You can have that value, but there’s also other important values. It shouldn’t just be to make money at any cost. [We should] not harm others. [I’d prefer] if there were cultural values of quality and doing things that are good for people that make life enjoyable… [For example,] vinyl is that in a certain sense. It’s not financially the easiest, it’s a pain in the ass, and it’s not necessary, but people like it; the art of it. The whole process. Those things will always live on. If eventually that cool living standard becomes franchised, that might be a good thing. That might be in 400 years. I have no idea. It might be tomorrow. Might be happening already. Eventually when [capitalism] wrecks enough of the world and society, then there might be the shift. That would be a positive trend direction.
To seek different barometers for success other than financial gain?
Exactly. Whatever values are natural to humans. Whatever it would be in a small community. If I built a water filter that made the stream better for us all of us to drink, everyone would say, “That was awesome,” but right now you’d be laughed at in the business world. You have to somehow figure out how a large society can function as a small society would, in terms of empathy. People act more morally in a smaller group. Right now we have all these values where it’s like, “Do whatever helps you, and fuck everyone else.”
So when you use a broad term like “quality,” you mean something that embodies moral or artistic values you identify with— something that nourishes other people. Is that what quality means to you?
Yeah. If you’re designing cups or something, for example, right now a company that makes the cups in a country where children are allowed to work 14 hours a day will have an advantage over a cool designer who designs cool cups and it costs them like $7 a cup to make. If theoretically, in society, we valued not having slave children make your cups, and an aesthetically-pleasing cup would have more of an advantage, then what would society look like? I’m trying not to say anything where someone would just say I’m a communist, but… If you’re making cups yourself and you’re doing it for the community, someone doing that should have an advantage over someone who’s hiring slave children to make the cups. But right now it’s the opposite. I remember I was working on this electric bike, and they were like “Oh, we should make it in Taiwan, cause they work like 15 hours a day there.” I was like, “You realize how fucked up what you just said is?” (Laughs)
How does that relate to the way you see art and music?
All the stations that have cool music are dying. Right now you can only survive if you’re corporate-funded. I think that goes against quality, because it’s just whatever makes money. You can have corporate-funded channels, you can have popular channels, I’m not against that. I’m not against making money. I just think there should be many values that we all agree on and if we agree on quality then there should be… how to make a system that caters to that is much more complicated. You have to get on the same page first, so it’s almost pointless for me to say a theoretical scenario… Again, the smartest way to look at it is to think of a smaller society. How things work in a smaller community. Local arts, I suppose, is a short answer. Funding for local arts. Figuring out how to do that is the tricky part, but again, if society comes around to understanding those values, then it’s not that complicated.
Do you think it’s at all possible that mainstream art— whether it’s pop music or anything else —can embody positive values? Do you believe it has any capacity for that?
Left to its own devices, no. It will exploit the worst of humanity. Again, it’s the same way the business works now; we don’t operate in a way that we would allow if we were a small village of a hundred people. If someone was like “I own the lake now, and you all have to pay me,” [we] would just run that guy out of town. But now those people are in charge. That’s an extreme example. But I think that [ideally] there would be a guy who would sing his popular song, and everyone would like to go see that, and he could exist, and then there would be an artist who maybe had less fans, but he could also exist. Right now, it’s a lot harder. It’s fine. There’s way more important problems in society. I just see the parallels.
Do you foresee yourself ever making another solo album?
I don’t really have the need. I feel like I have freedom within the things I do, [like] The Voidz. I feel like I have the freedom to pursue what I want to do. So no. If ever I feel caged in by something, then I might, but I don’t feel that right now.
What else have you got coming up this year?
I’m in the laboratory at all times. Working on many things.
Photo by Brett Rubin.