If you ever find yourself in artist Sam Adoquei’s studio near New York’s Union Square, you’ll see a large, striking painting of John F. Kennedy on his deathbed displayed prominently on one wall. Stare at it long enough, and you might notice that among the somber onlookers is a handsome, familiar-seeming young cop. “That’s me,” says Julian Casablancas, 39, with an impish smile as he walks in on a recent evening and points out his double. Adoquei, who painted the JFK scene when Casablancas was 18, is his stepfather. An accomplished portraitist with a genial, cool-professor vibe, he has been an important mentor to the singer since his early adolescence. “As a kid, you know that what people are telling you in school is kind of BS,” Casablancas tells me later. “He was the first person that I thought was not full of it. When I started playing guitar, he was like, ‘You’ll be the next Jimi Hendrix!’”
In 1998, not long after sitting for the painting, Casablancas formed The Strokes with a few friends. That decision would change his life in irrevocable ways — and if you were a young music fan at the turn of the century, there’s a not-small chance it changed yours, too. The band’s first EP set off a major-label bidding war in early 2001; its debut LP, Is This It, was hailed as an instant classic when it arrived that fall on RCA Records. The album went on to yield two hits on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart (“Last Nite,” No. 5; “Someday,” No. 17), and, more importantly, single-handedly bend the course of history back toward good-looking guys with guitars.
That’s the legend. Living it was harder. The Strokes got very famous, very fast; had fun until it wasn’t anymore; and hit the brakes on their career in 2007, entering a long twilight phase that, 11 years later, shows no sign of ending. They’re not broken up, but they’re not what you’d call an active band, either, especially since fulfilling the terms of their RCA deal with 2013’s Comedown Machine.
But enough about them. Casablancas would much rather talk about The Voidz, the exhilaratingly unpredictable group he has led for the last five years, who are in town for a performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon ahead of the March 30 release of their second album, Virtue. Keyboardist Jeff Kite, drummer Alex Carapetis, bass and synths man Jake Bercovici and guitarist Amir Yaghmai follow Casablancas and Adoquei around the painter’s workspace, oohing and aahing at his newest impressionist landscapes. (The sixth Void, guitarist Jeramy “Beardo” Gritter, is back at their hotel, nursing a toothache.)
Laid-back rock-lifer types in hoodies and ripped jeans, they’d fit in comfortably on any festival stage in America or, for that matter, in most festival audiences. Casablancas has likened the Voidz experience to “being in a beloved, lost cartoon,” and indeed, there are times when the easygoing rapport between the men, who range in age from 35 to 42, evokes a Scooby-Doo gang where everyone is Shaggy. Their private group text is called “Immaculate Power Lords.” Their music videos resemble outtakes from a slasher flick set on the Sunset Strip in 1987. To put it bluntly, they’re the anti-Strokes, as loose and silly and unselfconscious as their counterparts are scrupulously hip.
Then there’s their frontman, more laid-back these days himself, but unquestionably the center of attention. At a private show for friends of the band earlier in the week, every phone in the room came out when he pushed through the crowd to the stage. The other Voidz had been waiting up there for a while. “Sorry” was the first word he mumbled into the mic, as though anyone on earth is surprised when a rock star is half an hour late.
And make no mistake, a rock star is what Julian Casablancas is. It’s an irreducible quality, like his height (tall) or the color of his eyes (dark brown). He was always a particularly charismatic male singer in his scene, and his gravitational pull has remained strong even as many of his rivals have faded into irrelevance. He’s still got it, because he is it. The question is the same one that has been hanging over him for years now: Is that what he wants?
It is nearly 10 p.m. when Casablancas leaves Adoquei’s studio on his own. Hitting the sidewalk with a bandmate’s borrowed winter coat thrown over his vintage Jets jacket for warmth, he blends in easily among the weeknight crowds of office drones heading home and partygoers on their way out.
This used to be his city — not just the place where he spent the first 30-odd years of his life, but a place whose cultural significance he helped define for the world. The songs he wrote for Is This It, in particular, have had a lasting influence on New York’s self-image. Every third guy we pass looks like he’s trying to dress the way Casablancas sounds on that album: cool without trying too hard, maybe a little hung over, cynical in a way that feels romantic.
One such 20-something dude spots him on MacDougal Street. “Julian?! Is that you? ‘Instant Crush’ is my favorite song!” the fan says excitedly, naming the synth-pop gem he co-wrote and sang for Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories in 2013. Casablancas obliges his request for a photo without much enthusiasm.
After ducking into a Japanese restaurant, he fishes an Albert Camus paperback and an iPad Mini from his jacket pockets and puts them on the table. “I’m trying to get rid of it,” he says of the Apple device. “I have it instead of a phone, but now I just text all the time with it.”
His tone is wary as he makes small talk. This interview was supposed to start hours ago, but he doesn’t seem entirely sure he wants to go through with it. There was a time, before he quit drinking in 2005, when he would’ve said at least three outrageous things by this point in the night. He’s more careful now; he has been burned before by journalists who, in his view, don’t get him.
In some ways, his life in 2018 resembles that of any suburban dad. He lives about an hour outside New York with his wife, former Strokes assistant manager Juliet Joslin, and their two young kids. It’s a low-key existence, with few celebrity moments like the one we just witnessed, which suits him. “Back in the day, seeing someone like Drew Barrymore, where just going to the store is intense, that seems… not fun,” says Casablancas, referencing the Hollywood star who dated Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti in the 2000s. “I don’t have that at all. It’s great.”
He made one solo album, 2009’s Phrazes for the Young, before remembering that he’s much more comfortable as part of a band. The touring musicians he hired for that project included Kite and Carapetis, and their informal jams as a trio were the earliest incarnation of The Voidz (though they went by Goatmeal at the time). “It was magical,” he says between bites of edamame. “Powerful. Soulful.”
The rest of the lineup came together gradually over the next few years, united by their love of over-the-top studio experimentation. “The band name, The Voidz, is about exploring the unexplored,” says Casablancas. “We’re all on this wavelength of trying to push the boundaries.”
The first LP they made together, 2014’s Tyranny, barreled boldly past the horizon of taste with songs like “Human Sadness,” the 11-minute prog opera released as its lead single. Tyranny, which peaked at No. 39 on the Billboard 200 and got mixed reviews from critics, dared you to say only a genius could make something that weird. Virtue is something else, which might be even weirder: It’s fun.
That goes for the Knight Rider-inspired Auto-Tune hallucination (“Qyurryus”), the glam-metal rager (“Pyramid of Bones”) and the underwater trip-hop groove (“Pink Ocean”) — all exciting new entries in the category that the singer refers to as “what the fuck am I listening to, but I love it.” Unlike the first Voidz album, though, Virtue’s 15 tracks also include a strong contingent of elegant indie-rock tunes in the classic Casablancas style. “It’s a little more people-friendly,” he says. “I think we just want to be able to afford to keep doing it.”
Maybe he’s being modest, or maybe he really doesn’t know how thrilling it is to hear him sing world-weary, melodic stunners like lead single “Leave It in My Dreams,” “Lazy Boy” and “Permanent High School.” There just aren’t that many musicians left with his gift for writing casually unforgettable rock songs. For everyone who has been waiting for him to make records like this again, Virtue is a big deal.
He’s quick to note the collaborative nature of the album’s writing and recording, the bulk of which took place between 2015 and 2017 in Los Angeles, where most of the Voidz live. Some songs stretch back to their 2014 Tyranny Tour: The shambolic mid-album highlight “Wink” began when Gritter plugged his guitar into the DVD system on their bus during a snowstorm in North Dakota. They were in Kansas when Carapetis made the beat for “All Wordz Are Made Up,” a blissful dip into dance music that Bercovici describes as “if Lionel Richie smoked DMT in the Caribbean for three weeks.”
While their debut was released under the name Julian Casablancas + The Voidz, this one is credited simply to The Voidz. The original name, he says, was a way of lowering the stakes. “It was kind of like insurance. I guess I wanted to avoid the problems of bands, so we wouldn’t have weird fights or something.”
But The Voidz, it seems, are beyond the ego-driven conflicts that can arise in bands made up of guys in their 20s. “I think men probably remain 17 in their minds their whole life,” says Casablancas. “But we had all been in bands, and we had experienced all the cliché band-tension bullshit. We want this to work, because it’s the thing we care about the most.”
A waiter comes by to tell us the restaurant is closing, but Casablancas is willing to keep talking. “Sure,” he says, “if you want to hear more of my boring bullshit.”
As we walk south through SoHo, this time mercifully unnoticed by fans, Casablancas turns to today’s pop music, most of which he can’t stand. “What bums me out is maximized-for-profit, scientifically tested music,” he says. “It’s like making Coca-Cola and calling it music.” The only recent pop-adjacent single he’ll cop to liking is Massachusetts rapper Joyner Lucas’ remix of Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” whose pointed anti-corporate stance makes it the No Logo of “Gucci Gang” remixes.
That’s not to say he misses the good old days, either. We’re living through a moment of renewed interest in the early-2000s rock boom, as evidenced by (sometime Billboard contributor) Lizzy Goodman’s best-selling 2017 oral history, Meet Me in the Bathroom. The book is named after one of Casablancas’ songs, and he’s one of its most vivid characters, leaping off its pages even though he doesn’t talk nearly as much as some of his peers. But he seems puzzled by the idea of nostalgia for that era. “Like Limp Bizkit?” he replies when asked about ’00s rock. “Oh, you’re asking about The Strokes.” He sighs. “Whatever. Let’s talk about The Strokes.”
Other people love talking about The Strokes. Last summer, when guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.’s father started a rumor that they were recording with Rick Rubin, the band had to step in and debunk it on Twitter before things got out of hand. Casablancas won’t rule out making another album with them at some point — “I mean, I’m assuming I will” — but it’s not a subject he relishes discussing. “It’s hard to explain,” he says, inadvertently quoting one of their most iconic hits. “I want to be nice to everyone.”
Some fans’ emotional investment in The Strokes, he suggests, is based on superficial factors. “People love band names,” he says. He brings up AC/DC, whose biggest success came after the 1980 death of original lead singer Bon Scott. “I have a deep love for Bon Scott,” he says. “AC/DC after Bon Scott, I’m not really interested in. But people who have no idea who Bon Scott is, they’re just like, ‘AC/DC!’ And I’m like, ‘Do you like a logo and a T-shirt?’”
He continues with another example. “It’s like U2 and those big bands. Those bands can fucking put out whatever, and people will say, ‘I love that band.’ You could replace all the members, and people wouldn’t even notice.”
The point he seems to be working toward is that The Voidz’ music has gotten an unfair shake in part because of who he is. “This is going to get me in trouble, I know, but sometimes I feel like I could switch the names of songs and bands, and it would be like, ‘Oh, I like this,’” he says. “I mean, if ‘Human Sadness’ was a new Strokes song, I wonder.”
He doesn’t sound angry or hurt. It’s more like he’s still bemused by the workings of fame after all this time. In Goodman’s book, he maintains that his biggest dream when The Strokes started was to become Guided by Voices or Built to Spill — a band with just enough fans to keep making music in its own lane, far from the mainstream. It has been a roundabout path, but what he’s got with The Voidz might fit the bill.
It’s well after midnight by now, the downtown streets all but empty. “Maybe I’m full of shit,” continues Casablancas, still mulling over the long arc of his career as we reach the band’s hotel. “Maybe I’m fooling myself.” He shrugs. “The irony is, it might be that my least-thought-out theories on life are about the relationship between Strokes and Voidz.”