Geneticists couldn’t clone a more New York singer than Julian Casablancas if they scraped DNA from the bathroom floors of Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. The Strokes frontman stands onstage in Joey Ramone’s leather jacket, bangs and hunched pose, his baritone oozing Lou Reed and an echo of long-dead lounge singers. The guy is really good at acting effortlessly cool. But in his own mind, the 31-year-old excels at gift giving. “If I find a perfect gift for a certain person, I buy it and put it away in a nook under my bed,” Casablancas says. “A little gift hutch, if you will.”
One knickknack was a pair of gaudy fingerless gloves with a Piet Mondrian pattern. “I stumbled upon those years ago. I thought, These are cool, but I wonder if I’ll ever have any use for them,” the native Manhattanite says. Last month, those ugly gloves led to an unlikely hit for Casablancas: his silly collaboration with Andy Samberg on the Saturday Night Live digital (and now viral) short “Boombox.” Yes, the stoic street rat has a sense of humor. Outside of the Strokes, he’s a little goofy. When we ring him up, Casablancas is watching TMZ with his wife and seven-week-old son at home on the Lower East Side, on a street he says was built “like 200 years ago.”
As he listens distractedly to tabloid TV about the arrest of rapper DMX, Casablancas waxes with stoner philosophy, marveling at how the beatnik and skater hangout of Washington Square Park once held a graveyard and gallows. The history of his hometown is just one of the influences behind Phrazes for the Young, the wonderfully baroque new-wave solo debut from last November that nicks from Oscar Wilde, Cyndi Lauper, Bowie and Beethoven. In the opening track, Casablancas sings that he’s “going to hell in a purple basket,” though he’s stumped as to why. “Huh, people always ask me about the other line: ‘going to hell in a leather jacket,’” he says. “I can tell people are annoyed I just don’t say ‘leather jacket’ both times. I was thinking about, um, I don’t know, a bicycle and a basket?”
His trademark croon stretches into new territory over organs and drum machines, revealing a newfound falsetto on “Glass” and straight-up soul on “4 Chords of the Apocalypse.” But the extremely chill interviewee says his main goal, vocally, was to make the songs as easy as possible to sing live. It’s the deep, disaffected bellowing on Strokes records that truly taxes him.
The side project’s compositional, fastidiously arranged material shines a new light on the supposedly off-the-cuff garage rock of the Strokes’ Is This It, the 2001 game changer that topped numerous Best of the Aughties lists. “It’s how I, or we, whatever, wanted it,” he diplomatically explains. “To sound like drunk dudes stumbling into a room. Actually, everything was put together meticulously, just weird and lo-fi.”
Currently, the rest of his fellow Lolla headliners are hacking away at the band’s fourth album, laying down tracks without their previously controlling frontman. Casablancas can tell us only that the long-awaited new material sounds more like 2006’s First Impressions of Earth and hopefully captures what Thin Lizzy would have sounded like “had they carried 15 years into the future and gone towards ’80s melodies.” After this short solo jaunt, the new father will join his old bandmates in the studio to “do my thing and funk it up a little bit.”
So, after four years of relative inactivity, Casablancas is changing diapers and rehearsing with two bands. Is he overwhelmed? “It doesn’t seem like it right now. Ask me in a little while,” he says with a laugh. “Right now I’m just sitting at home, so I feel psyched.” He pauses, “Well, if I could cut out something I would, but I can’t.”