Written by Rosario “DJ Chayo” Diaz of The Starlit Hour
The past couple of months have been rather exciting for longtime fans of Julian Casablancas as audiences saw the return of The Strokes this summer at The Governor’s Ball in New York City and at FYF Fest in Los Angeles. Along with an astounding performance from The Strokes, fans were able to see Julian in a different light as he and latest musical partners, The Voidz, took the stage at FYF to give a taste of the songs they’d been working on for their new album. With its release in September, Tyranny has garnered mixed reviews, both from fans applauding this approach to a grittier, more leather jacket sort of flavor to critics who find it hard to hear past the “excess” of noise that’s very prominent throughout the album. Despite varying opinions, the common consensus seems to agree that Tyranny, going above the mere abstract and unknown, traverses toward the intangible and the indefinite.
I got to sit down with Julian after his show when he and The Voidz played at the Observatory in Santa Ana. There in his trailer, I heard what he had to say about “Human Sadness,” the infamous 11 minute track, his relationship with The Voidz and his intentions behind some of the songs.
Why the name Tyranny?
“We had different names – originally it was called Qualia. I don’t know if you’d know what it means.”
I didn’t, but a quick Google search will tell you it refers to “individual instances of subjective, conscious experience” and other sorts of philosophical definitions, which considering the unique nature and lyrics of the album isn’t all that surprising. Though they didn’t end up using the name, their tie to that word is apparent in the track, “Father Electricity” (“What I feel, Qualia / What I am, Qualia”). In the end, they decided on Tyranny, simply because “it sounded kind of classic. It sounded like it made sense with the themes from the record.”
“Thank god I didn’t go with qualia,” Julian added laughing. “Because it seems like a lot of people don’t even know what Tyranny means.”
In talking about the album, Rolling Stones has described it as “the sound of a man shedding his skin. Not pretty, but more compelling for it.”
“Ugh, sounds disgusting. Like if a serpent man did it. Um…shedding his skin- I just can’t seem to get the image of skin off a pretty person.”
Of the reviews I’d read, I actually thought this one came pretty close to describing the heavy composition of the album, but Julian, apparently, didn’t think so. I asked him to elaborate more on the influences behind the songs.
“The truth is, I try to listen to good things…I absorb them, I listen to them a lot. It just sings into my head and then when I’m writing, a bunch of subconscious things come out. I’m trying to think of how they work musically so that as I’m playing them I know how to do certain things and I guess that’s how I focus on writing. I record it. I don’t think about it…and then I listen to it a few months later and forget what it was- And it sounds like a new song and I can judge it kind of objectively.”
So I read you studied classical music theory.
(Rosario): “Which I find interesting because a lot of these songs are very…”
(Rosario): “Chaotic. The vocals sound very distorted, almost to the point of the lyrics being indistinguishable- “
(Rosario): “And it’s kind of funny to think that was orchestrated.”
(Julian): “They were more distorted. They were more distorted, less distinguishable. And I actually told Shawn, the producer, ‘Could you make it so that you can make out the words?’ and we did actually go though it so that maybe it’s not actually, like, the clearest thing, but I think most of them- if you’re paying attention with headphones, theoretically- they did pass the test where you could make out the lyrics.”
I hadn’t been judging them based on any test, but (as I told him) I had believed this “distortion effect” to be intentional and thus wondering what the goal behind this was. “The exact opposite,” he assured me, and added that their producer Shawn Everett, a fan of such similar melodic cacophonies like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, tends to favor what he called “crazy effects which sound like monster vomit.”
“Which I love…and I’m like, ‘Shawn I love this, but can we make it monster vomit plus decipherability with headphones?’ And it’s there. It’s just hiding in the lyrics.”
When I next asked him about the demo for “Human Sadness” and its relation to “The Unseen Beauty,” the short documentary it had first appeared in, Julian ended up divulging more on the making of “Human Sadness” and how it came to hold that place of notoriety as “that 11 minute song.”
The first time I heard “Human Sadness” was in the documentary about your stepfather Samuel Adoquei. When you and Alex Carapetis were working on this song, did you make it in mind to be placed in the documentary?
“Well no, but that’s the whole coincidence of the song. The thing that Alex wrote is the loop- the classical Mozart sound like a requiem. We played like two bass lines over it and it had this magical sound…When I first heard it, it blew my mind, but that demo from Human Sadness – I had never heard Alex’s thing. There were just two separate things – he had a loop thing and I had my own chord progression. But they’re the same chords. That’s why the song is such an insane song.
When it came to how the demo became the infamous song, Julian said that “the stars aligned.”
“I’ve been thinking for a while we should do a 10 minute song, because I love Heroin by The Velvet Underground, and The End, November Rain, Bohemian Rhapsody…there’s a lot…”
“Alex’s thing moved me pretty hard. I sang a bunch of different parts. I sang the same melody for Sam [his stepfather] and there’s another song that me and Jeramy [Gritter] did. He played this machine- he was just laying it with random chords in the studio and I just took the mic and I just sang different melodies of different songs we’ve been working on over it….And we recorded it so it just came to me…This is the song. This is good enough. This is the song that’s going to be the 10 minute song.”
“You didn’t even ask me that did you?” he realized aloud and it was at that point I could see just how much of a vocal thinker he was. More than once throughout the interview, the conversation derailed, not into another topic, but a different branch of it. Whatever train of thought he was on, it would tumble out from his mind and through his words, which is what made it difficult sometimes to follow along with what he was saying. Halfway through the question, he talked about a sudden “terrible realization” about the potential similarity between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Human Sadness.” “Oh man…it’s got the same exact spirit as, like, one of the most famous long songs ever but which I’m not that into,” he said, adding in a singing tune that “it ends with a slooow paaart.”
When you work on your music and you write the songs, do you ever have certain people in mind?
“Victims? Music victims?”
Not quite what I had meant, but I cited an example of name dropping that he did in “Nintendo Blood” of the album where he mentioned the name Jeanette, which is also the name of his mother (“What you say about my mama?”)
So then do you intentionally write or perform with these peoples’ faces in your mind?
“It just happened and it was weird and I guess, I wonder if she’s gonna hear it and what she’s going to say to me…but that crossed my mind when I decided to pull the trigger and keep the song. It’s more like a little nugget of coolness if you know that’s my mom’s name because then…you know it’s intense.”
How different do you feel it is performing with The Voidz, musicians who you’ve known in the recent years (“I’ve been hanging with them 4 or 5 years”) versus playing with longtime friends you’ve known since school?
“You mean distant childhood friends that I don’t keep in touch with anymore?” he said with the smallest of smirks and then muttering that he “still hung out with Albert.”
“I like working with all kinds of musicians and friends and people. I have to say that working with The Voidz is for me a dream come true. We’re very on the same wavelengths and have, like the same level going on with taste and musicianship and respect and pushing each other and inspiring each other and living the same weird stuff and bringing the chaos together.”
Commenting on their relationship musically with each other and also on the origin of the band name, Julian said that they “wanted to fill the void between the accessible and the abstract or just things that haven’t been done yet which haven’t been bridged.”
In the public eye, you had always been painted as this indifferent don’t-give-a-fuck kind of guy and I feel that may have been in part because fans felt you didn’t open up as much personally about yourself or as much as people might expect out of an artist or celebrity. I’ve been seeing a lot of more personal interviews lately so I wanted to ask why the change?
“I don’t know if it’s more. It’s probably less personal. I would just talk about anything back in the day. I was a little more naturally comfortable maybe when I was starting out. The thing is to actually say more with less and that’s the tricky part. My point is, I’m older so I think it’s a good order to do it in because when you’re 22…even if you’re smart, I don’t think you have as much to say as maybe when you’re older. And I’m sure it keeps going when you’re 40…So my point is that, maybe now I’m more comfortable.”
With that I ended my interview, but before doing so I added something like a bonus question.
Do you ever plan on releasing that "I Like The Night" song you did for Azzaro’s Decibel for men’s fragrance?
"We’re working on it. The band and I." And when I remarked how it had gotten a lot of popularity and cries from fans wanting to hear the song in its entirety, he wondered if anyone would like it.
"I wonder if it’ll be disappointing." "Sorry," he added at the look of surprise on my face, "I mean inner monologues…but when you know a part and it’s only 30 seconds- people are like ‘well let me hear the whole build up’…and then ‘I was expecting it to be like the whole other part I know.’"
It was definitely one of the more memorable interviews I’ve had in that it shed light on his character and mannerisms (or as much of it as he would allow in front of a complete stranger) rather than just on the answers to my questions. Pictures were taken, inappropriate jokes thrown around and as I was leaving, I did the fan thing and thanked him for playing River of Brakelights.
Photo Cred: Kyusung Gong via The Orange County Register & Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images via The Guardian