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Cover Story: The Voidz

| September 13, 2018


“A man’s got to know his limitations,” Clint Eastwood once observed as the defiant renegade cop Dirty Harry. Similarly unforgiving Strokes bandleader Julian Casablancas is still gradually discovering his own with his latest splinter combo –initially dubbed Julian Casablancas + The Voidz, now known simply as The Voidz – and its sleek, sophisticated sophomore set, Virtue. And he’s still not sure what it all means.

Casablancas only knows that the tableau around him has changed dramatically signaling the need for a brave new team to assail it. “I think I’ve always been honest, and I’ve always had a political side,” says the diehard New Yorker, whose Strokes helped launch an edgy, guitar-centered rock movement out of said city with its landmark, picture-perfect garage-punk debut from 2001, Is This It. “But after George W. Bush won the second time, I really rattled awake, like, ‘What is going on?’ So I tried to immerse myself and study and learn and see what’s going on.” He sighs. “And it has just been a scary learning process. So with The Voidz, I’m trying to deal with it in a way that’s positive.”

Because Casablancas – son of late Elite Model magnate John Casablancas – is no longer a lone wolf. And he and his wife Juliet have cubs – two young sons, Cal and Zephyr. And there’s still something ominous about this perpetually brooding, bed-headed-and-black-leather-jacketed misanthrope, but there’s a warm pulse thumping just beneath the surface of Virtue, which features fellow Voidz musicians he’s been working with since his first 2009 solo disc, Phrazes For the Young, like Jeff Kite and Alex Carapetis. It opens on the strummy jangler “Leave it in My Dreams,” with a warped Duane Eddy guitar break and Casablancas waiving his signature metallic vocodered singing style for straightforward miking. It’s startling at first, but as the set continues through the sinister metal of “Pyramid of Bones,” a Joy Division-buzzing “My Friend the Walls,” a No Wave-dissonant “Black Hole,” and the hula-hypnotic “Wink,” which does boast those old signature-affected vocals again. “It’s not like I wake up in the morning and think, ‘You know what? Let’s do distorted vocals all day today,’” he explains. “So sometimes they’re affected vocals, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s just an acoustic guitar with a couple of chords, recorded live in a room. Or sometimes you’re thinking of some strange computer-music sounds, and you stumble upon something that just sounds cool, and then that makes it onto the record. A lot of music that I listen to really affects me, and I’m open to just about any idea.”

Having just returned to the mainland from a Honolulu getaway with his clan, where he had narrowly avoided Hurricane Nate, Casablancas was getting used to the novel concept of the family vacation itself, which he’d never attempted until he had kids. “And I have to admit, I don’t find them very restful,” he yawns. Otherwise, he’s ready for a nearly hour-long chat to preview his upcoming Riot Fest festival appearance. It’s also his birthday — he just turned 40.

ILLINOIS ENTERTAINER: On “Phrazes For the Young,” you sneered “Out of the Blue,” where you pretty much openly admit to being a defiant brat, then ask, “Yeah? And what of it?” How have you changed since then?

JULIAN CASABLANCAS: I never specifically thought of myself as defiant. So I guess defiant relative to what is the question. But I’ve always tried to stand for things that are true and good, and against things that are bad and false. So I don’t think I’ve changed much in that respect. But there’s this glory quest thing that people like to glamorize and like to read about, so doing something great or grand does have its importance. And I’m not saying that I’m not on some kind of glory quest, but I think the important thing now might be internal happiness. But again, everything is relative. If you have a chance to save a village with certain actions, that might be a priority. But if you’re just shouting at the world from some small corner of the internet, maybe you’d serve the world better by being a better father, for example. Having said that, I think I’m maybe somewhere in between. I think most people are. And I think that nourishing our young ones – without that over-protective, helicopter, everything-you-do-is-special kind of entitlement issues – is probably the first important cornerstone of our society. And that also gives you the satisfaction that you’re doing something positive, for sure. So there are two different sides to work and a quest for happiness.

IE: But you did cultivate a profile of the elusive, reclusive artist, toiling alone in his garret.

JC: With the reclusive thing, I think that there are things that, as an artist, are overvalued and things that are undervalued. And the #1 thing that gets undervalued is that whoever works the hardest is going to be the best. And my point is if you’re working intelligently or [in] the right way or [doing] the right thing, valuing working is important. And I’ve always balanced things to where the social element is secondary, which – from my warped position – is what makes an artist interesting. But I understand it from a fan’s perspective, that the social aspect is equal. I get that because I am still a fan. I’m still a human that gawks at gossipy stuff. So the perception might be that I’m reclusive, but I don’t feel that way. I just value working more than ‘being on the scene,’ or whatever. But I like to have a good time! I like to party! And I’ve always just wanted to lend my talents to be part of something’ that’s greater than myself. But to get to what you’re saying, I supplanted a lack of confidence with drinking, so that gave me the fake energy and courage to b some form of what I wanted to be. But – as time has passed and I’ve made mistakes, and I basically didn’t stop drinking – that took a few years. And now that I’ve found my confidence without drinking, I feel so much more powerful. And I stopped drinking a long time ago.

IE: Obligatory question here – are The Strokes over? Or is it never say never?

JC: Umm…I really, really….it’s not like….people… there’s no kind of outside regulation to put labels on things. And I’m obviously not on tour right now with them or doing stuff with them this second. But I’m always around and available to work on any project – any and all projects – that make sense at the time.

IE: How do you consume your news? Even MSNBC is becoming rather shrill.

JC: No. No MSNBC. You can only trust independent media. And you have to go all over the place because even independent media will have its agenda. So I like to glean stuff from a collective that isn’t fed scripts or aren’t in someone’s pocket. That way I think you can get a broad picture of what’s going on. Websites like Alternet, Truthdig, Truthout, I’m forgetting a couple right now. But just look for something that’s not trying to sell you drugs or gasoline or cars. But it’s not just as simple as advertising. We’re in a deep mess, and an important element of a solution will be when all media is either clearly labeled or there’s a clarity about the funding. Until then, you really have to look for independent media.

IE: As a dad, you’ve got to feel concern over where humanity is headed. Basically 12 Monkeys level extinction.

JC: I do. And I’ve been doing that for a long time now. In a sense, we are designed to be in relatively small groups, with somewhere between 30 to 1,000 people. But as soon as they broaden out to these large cities – as much as they have their benefits – I think the more negative traits of humankind tend to ascend to power. So there’s always been some kind of warlord/pirate/king at the top. So I do feel hopeful, because there are things like the internet, and you can get the information out there. So maybe our intelligence could circumvent our instinctual patterns. I think that’s still is possible.

IE: Do you read the New York Times?

JC: Oh, God You can’t do that! If you look at every American pirate invasion, they’re always giving it a thumbs-up. Even though there might be some journalists or some articles there that are completely independent, or true and moral, as a whole you know, it’s skewed. You know on some level they’re going to lie o you about something, so why trust them on anything?

IE: Are you a collector of anything? Where you’re always on the hunt for a vintage blank?

JC: I’m always on the lookout for a vintage blank! It’s true! I like cool things, knick-knacks and paddy whacks. But I’m a hoarder, basically.

IE: Favorite keepsakes?

JC: In San Francisco, there was this 1979 arch-top Gretsch – it looks like a violin. And then there’s my car, an ’86 Monte Carlo. I feel like it’s been the best of all possible worlds. I pretty much can stay under the radar easily if I want to. Anyone can. But I feel very lucky. If I really wanted to go to a baseball game, I could call someone up. If a concert was sold out, I could get tickets…. whatever the things are that people covet. But also, yeah – I get pretty much left alone.

IE: What do The Voidz do for you, artistically, that The Strokes didn’t?

JC: Well, I’ve been on a journey that I see as linear. And I was unable to continue that journey I had set out on – work-wise, relationship-wise, it just wasn’t available to me. So I was able to follow some of the ideas that I was interested in. So I don’t want to say anything that could be misconstrued as insulting. I just want to be respectful o everyone, so I’ll just keep going with what I’m doing, and people can decide what they want.

IE: But you’ve actually got your own label, Cult Records, to issue music you care about Like one of last year’s greatest new bands, INHEAVEN. You discovered them.

JC: There’s a lot of cool stuff out there. One of my favorite technological developments in the past ten years is Shazam. I know it’s not like the newest thing, but it’s so amazing. I have a rule – I stay below 92 on the FM dial, and there’s always weird stuff, like college shows or foreign DJs playing random stuff. And you can find such a magical world of modern weirdness and classic unheard-of stuff. So you just listen to that and Shazam it, this world of magical music unknown to most people. But with Cult, we’ve kind of pared everything down on the label side. But Promised Land is this guy we have who’s really cool, and we’re putting out the Surf Borts record. But we’re doing less and less of that. It’s not that I don’t like doing it, but just working collaboratively, I prefer doing it with people I know, and who I know how to work with. Because it can basically go awry really easily, and if things go bad, it’s always your fault. I don’t know how music business people do it – it seems really hard.

IE: What do you know now that you didn’t get in the “Is This It” beginning?

JC: I guess what we were talking about earlier comes to mind – that continuing sober confidence inside you in this crazy world is much more powerful and important, gratifying and enjoyable than the short-cut party way. And I’m not saying this as some anti-drug PSA. But I guess people are in a little more control these days. And they might not even need that.

IE: You still can’t help thinking ‘If only I had all the money back from my cocaine-and-crack twenties. Holy crap, would I be rich!”

JC: Yeah. But if you can learn to be that way without the drugs, you dig a lot fewer graves. I just wish the people I admired hadn’t glorified drugs. But you believe it and think, “I like The Doors. So I need to drink a bottle of whiskey like Jim Morrison, then I can be The Doors.” And on some level, I get it. I’m human, and as a kid, you can think someone’s unattainable if they’re just sitting on a motorcycle, smoking a cigarette. But it’s the equivalent of playing Russian Roulette. He doesn’t fear anything, and that’s an admirable quality, and you’re drawn to those things. But then when it comes to your own life, you always end up taking the shortcuts. Maybe that’s the problem with the world today. That’s kind of ingrained in our society.

The Voids perform during Riot Fest in Chicago’s Douglas Park, September 14-16.

-Tom Lanham

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