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Julian Casablancas Wants a Better New York

For nearly two decades, Julian Casablancas, the lead singer of the Strokes and the Voidz, has been synonymous with New York City, or at least one particularly iconic version of it. Casablancas grew up in the nineteen-eighties and nineties on the Upper East Side, the son of John Casablancas, the founder of Elite Model Management, and Jeanette Christiansen, an artist and onetime Miss Denmark. He formed the Strokes while still a teen. The band’s first record, the modern classic “Is This It,” released in 2001, when Casablancas was twenty-three, has been largely credited with kick-starting the city’s early-two-thousands rock-and-roll revival, which then spread far beyond New York itself. There was the sound—melodic but dirty, short and sharp and tight; there was also the look—thrift-store skinny denim and shaggy hair and sneakers. (In the words of the late music critic Marc Spitz, in “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” Lizzy Goodman’s oral history of that era, “The Strokes were making New York travel with them. I saw kids in Connecticut and Maine and Philadelphia and DC looking like they had just been drinking on Avenue A all night.”)

In the years since “Is This It,” Casablancas has released five more albums with the Strokes—the latest, “The New Abnormal,” which came out in early 2020, earned the band its first Grammy—two albums with the more experimental Voidz, and a solo record. The musician no longer lives in New York City, and splits his time between California’s Venice Beach and a hamlet upstate, where his two sons live with his ex-wife. “I don’t have a place in the city anymore,” he told me, when we met recently, at a downtown diner. “This time I’m staying with my mom,” he added.

By his own account, Casablancas doesn’t particularly enjoy giving interviews. He agreed to speak to me, however, to highlight his support of Maya Wiley, a progressive Democratic candidate in the city’s upcoming mayoral race, who he believes could make the city “a safe utopia for all,” and for whom the Strokes will play a benefit concert at Irving Plaza this Saturday, June 12th. In recent years, Casablancas has become increasingly interested in left-wing politics: in “S.O.S.,” a YouTube series that he hosts for Rolling Stone, he has interviewed luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, and Amy Goodman, and in the run-up to the Democratic Presidential primaries, the Strokes played a rally in New Hampshire in endorsement of Bernie Sanders. (In a particularly memorable moment, the band performed their song “New York City Cops” as the audience stormed the stage and uniformed police attempted to shut the event down.) During our conversation, over several cups of coffee, some fries, and a cheese-bacon-and-spinach omelette, Casablancas, who despite the heat was wearing a long, torn trench coat, was by turns recalcitrant and voluble, guarded and very funny. (Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.) As we were sitting down, he tucked a sheaf of index cards and a pen into his coat pocket.

Do you take notes?

[Laughs] No, I was just writing a reminder.

You write reminders on index cards?

Sometimes. Sometimes on my phone, sometimes cards.

I was talking to a friend who said, “I heard at one point he wouldn’t use the phone, he never texted, he didn’t e-mail, you would have to leave a message in a box. . . .”

[Laughs] A cardboard box. No, I was late to all technology. I would kind of check in and things were super slow, so I was, like, I’m gonna wait until the future. It was probably 2006 when I got a laptop.

When did you pick up the iPhone?

Probably after 2012. I had cell phones here and there. I fought it for a long time, and I still fight it.

Did it seem like a time suck? You are on Instagram, though you don’t follow anyone except your stepdad.

Yeah. I think people reaching you at all times is strange. I don’t like that.

Your career has been going for twenty years now..

September 11 was the day the vinyl [of “Is This It”] came out.

In a way, it kind of mirrors the years in which the Internet ascended. It changed the distribution of music and the way it’s listened to, but also the way musicians are perceived by the public.

[Shakes head]

What, no?

I mean, I don’t know. Maybe. It depends on what you mean. I don’t know what you mean, I’m sorry.

I mean, when you first started playing, people received you through an album, through live shows, through magazines. The way you were disseminated was very limited. It just seems much less controllable now.

Why, because of the Internet?

Yeah, among other things.

It’s still relatively controllable in terms of, if you want to hide from the world you can, I think. You can move to Wyoming and not have the Internet.

I just feel like so many artists rely on the Internet in order to get their music out there, their persona out there. Is that something that you’re not interested in?

I think, in my soul, not interested. But there is a dance you have to do, and a price you have to pay, if you want to have a positive impact on the world. For some of the ways that I would like to have an impact, unfortunately, how well known you are, how respected you are, they do affect your success rate. It’s the same as the clothes you wear. In my soul, I don’t care about clothes.

Really?

No, not really. But, if you have something you think is important that you’re trying to communicate, I think that what you’re wearing affects that.

It affects how much people listen to you?

Yes. When I was a teen-ager, I realized, going to shows, that if you’re gonna be onstage people are going to be looking at the belt you’re wearing and the shoelaces you have. It’s just part of the magic show. What’s the point of a drum roll, you know? It’s suspenseful, it’s emotional. . . . We think we’re these intellectual beings that have emotions we have to tend with, but really emotions are what we are, and rationality is like a weird illusion thing that sits on top. I think that can be unfortunate, but I try to use it to my advantage.

But you don’t enjoy it?

It’s not that I don’t enjoy it—

It seems like you enjoy it. You certainly—

You need a certain level of vanity to go onstage and say, Hey, look at me. I think all musicians have that. But I look at it as a sort of fifty-fifty thing. Yes, you’re entertaining for other people, but you have to do what you think is good and important. But then, if you’re just doing it for yourself, why are you releasing it? Just dig it in the ground and set it on fire. I don’t know. That’s the nature of humans. We want a community, we want people to be our friends, we want to have social gatherings where everyone supports each other. So I don’t think that’s necessarily vanity.

And, to clarify, vanity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to enjoy—

No, there is no good and bad, either, honestly.

I mean, there is good and bad. In life.

Not really.

Like, in general?

By human standards, sure, I think.

What would other standards be?

Like, universal. I don’t know. Animals in the forest eating each other. Is that good or bad? Anyway, sorry. [Laughing] You’re talking about the Instagram thing. The only reason I did it is that I realized that I wanted to have a political outlet. And the Voidz kind of needed attention, in the same way that, when I worked with the Strokes in the early days, I was more cognizant about the image and the magic show.

So let’s talk a little bit about politics and your political . . . journey.

It’s a quest. No, just kidding.

Before you started speaking more publicly and definitively about politics, did you have a political consciousness?

I did. I think that the music journey was political all along. I read Bob Marley’s biography when I was a teen-ager. And there’s a part of me that . . . [long pause] I questioned even the importance of music, and whether it could really make a difference. But I saw it as a springboard.

A springboard to what?

Well, for me, from Tupac to Bob Marley to early Bob Dylan to certain punk music to certain folk music. Even blues is essentially, like, slavery sadness. So I think that I was interested in politics, but I was a kid.

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