Sitting in a booth with Julian Casablancas and Karen O, I’m clearly the third wheel. Per our request, the respective Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs front-icons are swapping interview questions at LES bar Sons of Essex, touching on everything from a mutual love for Dirty Dancing to NYC rock-scene rivalries circa 2001. After 30 minutes, I speak up to steer the conversation toward Tyranny and Crush Songs, their new solo albums, respectively, both out now on Casablancas’s own Cult Records, but that only leads to blank stares (theirs) and general awkwardness (mine). Casablancas finally addresses my question, calling it “borderline rude.” He then, thank God, smiles and touches my hand reassuringly: “I didn’t mean that; you’re a nice dude.” Still, I decide to butt out.
We are, it’s impossible to forget, just two short blocks from the Mercury Lounge, where a quintet of five scruffy dudes with a retro look and a spazzy, super-fun girl-and-two-guys art-punk trio both attained mythic status in pre-9/11 New York. Thirteen years on, both bands remain fan favorites. (Yeah Yeah Yeahs headlined Barclays Center last year, and the Strokes nabbed a prestigious Saturday slot at Governors Ball in June.) The press, however, has been slightly less kind to the Yeahs and Strokes lately, with lukewarm responses to recent studio efforts that haven’t matched the impact—and to be fair, what could?—of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Is This It, the bands’ epochal 2001 debuts.
O (real name Orzolek) and Casablancas’s conversation doesn’t venture anywhere near those records. Fitting, because neither do the solo albums they’re here to promote: His Tyranny is a dark, dense, unpoppy hour-plus sprawler, her Crush Songs a 25-minute set of charmingly intimate sketches referencing both lo-fi bedroom folk and girl-group pop. Aesthetically, though, they seem to spring from a similar place: that hermetic, unabashed, commercially oblivious zone where solo records by artists who made their names with other bands are supposed to come from.
Despite their parallel history, turns out O and Casablancas don’t know each other well—they’re more like fans from afar. Not that their extremely chummy conversation is any indication.
Karen O: All right, who first? Want to flip a coin?
Julian Casablancas: I don’t have one, but I have a Cult Records lighter I can flip. [Pulls out lighter, which doubles as a USB drive, containing the entirety of Tyranny] So do you want heads, with the logo, or tails?
O: I’ll go for heads.
Casablancas: [Rolls lighter, which comes up tails] Okay, that just flipped once, so let me just do it a little more. [Throws lighter into air; it lands on the booth seat.] Yeah, that’s tails twice.
O: So what does that mean?
Casablancas: I guess I choose? I’ll go first, with a question that I prepared for you: Do you like Radiohead?
O: I do like Radiohead, yes. [Laughs]
Casablancas: I saw a guy walk by who looked like Thom Yorke, and I thought, I wonder if she likes Radiohead? Do you like them a little? A lot?
O: Thom Yorke is very special. He fucks me up with his vocals, for one. I don’t think it’s just because I’m a singer, because I write music, too, but I tend to gravitate toward the voice more than anything else in music. And Thom Yorke’s got a whopper of one. The rest of it is…
Casablancas: Total bullshit? No, I’m kidding.
O: [Laughs] Can I ask a question now? I think I’ve probably asked you this before, but why don’t you perform with an instrument?
Casablancas: There’s an element of performing where I just like to get lost, and I think the technical thing of playing an instrument and singing is like walking a tightrope. I would have to focus on not falling off the rope, and I just want to be able to whirl around like a fool and [Sings, snaps] “shoo-bop-dop”—scat if I want to, point to someone, make melodic or lyrical jokes within the song. And also, I want each guitar to be doing some crazy shit that’s almost too hard to play and sing at the same time.
O: Are you good at playing stuff? [Laughs]
Casablancas: [Deadpans] I'm really good. Early on, I always wanted to write things. That was my fantasy. I liked composers and more complex songs. Bands like the Doors. But I actually wanted to write all the parts. So I got into music and I would play, but I knew early on that I never wanted to perform an instrument in front of people. I'm not particularly skilled with that, and it's just a whole pressure. I basically learn to play a thing to write it, and then once I write it, I forget and almost never play it.
Casablancas: My turn? You sunk my battleship. Do you believe in life on other worlds?
O: [Laughs] Yeah, I'm definitely a believer in life on other worlds.
Casablancas: So just weird tree planets or smart councils of, like, ant people? [Laughs] Or some kind of sea creature?
O: Yeah, I lean more toward, like, those things that were hanging out at the bottom of the ocean in The Abyss. That's what I'd like to think—more than Alien or something. Maybe it's already here, and I don't even know it.
Casablancas: Here? What do you mean?
O: Like if there are aliens here right now. Maybe they're hanging out.
Casablancas: So you think that there are aliens among us is what you're saying? [Laughs]
O: [Laughs] There very well could be. We might be sitting with one right now.
O: So what art inspires your music most? For me, it’s probably film first and poetry second.
Casablancas: Other than Coors Light commercials…when it comes to music, this is not a very interesting answer, but I’m probably going to say music. When it comes to life, in general, great speeches or great books. Those are the kinds of things that make me want to stomp on the table with a fist. Is there a way to say this with one word? Fist the table? That sounded terrible. That made me want to…
O: Fist the table? [Laughs] One of the reasons I ask is that the new record with [your band] the Voidz transports me to another place, and it feels like a little bit of a dystopian science-fiction film to me. Were there any films that tripped your trigger with that?
Casablancas: Tripped my trigger? I like that. Films? Hmm…a lot of the footage in the [video] teasers that you’re talking about we filmed with a VHS camera. When I look back on what we’re doing, it’s like Repo Man or something.
O: Yeah, or The Warriors or Escape from New York.
Casablancas: Yeah, there’s one documentary.… When we were recording, we had a TV on mute playing a bunch of cool, weird, random movies and stuff. A really good one was 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s. It’s a documentary about gangs in the Bronx in the ’70s.
Casablancas: My turn? Do you like the film Dirty Dancing?
O: Yeah, I do. I loved that film when it came out—I really did. Patrick Swayze…
Casablancas: Johnny Castle, you mean? That used to be my fake hotel name, if I ever needed one.
O: He was a great dancer! Jennifer Hudson, pre–nose job.
Casablancas: Jennifer Grey?
O: [Laughs] Oh, sorry.
Casablancas: I’m, like, an expert on this movie. I don’t even know how I know this.
O: I think I got the soundtrack to that. I was big on film soundtracks as a kid.
Casablancas: [Deadpan] Good use of music in that movie.
O: [Laughs] But you know, being a young girl who was not the pretty, popular girl at school, that’s a fantasy: You go away for the summer with your family, and you stumble into this underbelly of cool, sexy…a reinvent-yourself type thing. I ate it up, basically.
O: So this is something that I actually am really curious about—it's something that I like to talk to other songwriters about. Do lyrics come easy for you?
Casablancas: [Laughs] Uh, yeah. [Laughs] No! It's the hardest thing.
O: This is why I love talking about this.
Casablancas: My biggest issue with lyrics, to go off on a tangent: I always really disliked—not disliked but just personally as a musician-artist couldn't give two S's about musical theater. The two musicals I like are The Wall and Jesus Christ Superstar. Other than that, I really don't like. But I understand why people like it, because there's expression in melody that can say more than just a thing. Even though someone's just singing [Sings] "Hello, how's it going?" the melody can kind of say, Oh, she really loves him or she's scared of this guy. The reason I'm talking about this is because I think it translates to [how] the words themselves get completely transformed meaning-wise by the melody and performance, so you can write the coolest, deepest line, and you sing it, and it just sounds like the most contrived.… And "Ooh, baby, baby, baby…" for some reason, it just works, and it's more powerful.
O: When did you figure that out, by the way?
Casablancas: I don't know—I wrestle with it constantly, because I don't want to say, "Ooh, baby, baby, baby"; I want to say…whatever. "Freedom to the heatseekers" came into my mind. But "freedom to the heatseekers" doesn't work; it doesn't sound good; it ruins the melody; it sounds heavy-handed. And I'm like, I'll just sing, "Ooh, baby, baby, baby," and the meaning of my song has gone to total S. I have a four-year-old; I don't know why I'm not cursing [here]. I cursed earlier.
O: So does it take you a while to write lyrics? You can be somewhat prolific in your lyric writing? If you check out my songs, even on Crush Songs, they're generally about six, seven sentences…
Casablancas: But I think what you hit on is the best target. There's an Abraham Lincoln quote. He writes a long letter—I'm probably butchering the whole story and quote—and then he says, "If I was a great poet, I could say all this in, like, two lines." And I think that is the true power… When it works best, it's a really simple thing. It's like I was saying about that line in your show [at the McKittrick Hotel’s Manderley Bar] last night. What was it? "Don't you ever have enough"?
O: "Didn't you ever have enough."
Casablancas: Right, but it's kind of intense and dark, and you keep repeating it over and over again. And it made me, personally, think of how it's that thing in life where you're never supposed to be content but you should. If you were content, you'd be so happier, but it's in our nature to always—it's just a survival instinct; it's deeply embedded in our code. But it's really like once you have enough food and you have a nice relationship, you actually should stop there and enjoy it. So that's that thing where the melody and the music take just one line… Because if you just sang, [Sings in a jaunty musical-theater style] "Didn't you ever have enough?" at the start of a song, it would just be this pointless line. It would still be good, but the way you put a spotlight on it, it's a whirlwind of intense thoughts, like my whole life flashing before me and what humans are supposed to strive for, all in just one line. That's what I love about your record. It hits it so on the head. You say these simple things that are like a ton of bricks hitting you so deep. That's what I strive for.
O: Yeah, I consider you one of the greatest lyric writers since we've been around.
Casablancas: [In disbelief] What? That's not true. Thank you.
O: Some of the songs you've written. And the lyrics are sublime.
Casablancas: Like the band Sublime? [Laughs]
O: That's why I was curious about your process.
Casablancas: The best thing that happens is that sometimes when you're playing a song, words form. And I think you have to be in a lyrical mode, and that's when the best things happen—when you're thinking about lyrics or writing lyrics, and you're in that headspace. And then you're just rehearsing a song or playing it in a studio, and that moment will happen when you're singing the melody and you say something that [translates] how you feel but it actually jibes with the melody. That's the thing: You can think of the best line that [translates] how you feel, but it might not emerge with your best melody. So usually it's while you're really playing the song that the best lyrical moments happen. But I also basically just write down most of the lyrics when I'm sitting randomly or walking down the street. Or someone will say a weird line, I'll hear it wrong, and it'll sound like some cryptic, deep thing, and I'll write it down so that when I go through music and there's part of a song where I don't have lyrics, I'll see what fits. It's a mixture of that kind of patchwork and what happens naturally.
O: It's hard as shit to write lyrics.
Casablancas: To write good lyrics.
O: Yeah, anyone who really gives it a shot.…
Casablancas: It's hard to write good lyrics that are meaningful. It's hard to not write bad lyrics and fake it and have a meaningless thing that sounds cool. That move you on a deep level and have a deep meaning but just sound good and you can enjoy lightly.
O: Lou Reed was really good at that.
Casablancas: Oh, man. He’s the best. When I was probably 19, he was doing a book signing at Barnes & Noble, and we went. He was walking away; we almost missed it. So I just grabbed one of the books—I didn’t even know if I had the money to pay for it—just to stop him, you know what I mean? And he was totally weird and awesomely insane.
O: “Sangria in the park,” man.
Casablancas: He’s the king.
Casablancas: People used to always ask about “the scene” [in New York] back in the day. I feel like there’s more of a scene now. I’m talking to all these cool bands and musicians. Before, it was just bands trying to make it.
O: And I think being in New York at a time when New York was not on the map, it was real easy to make music just because you wanted to, without any expectation. But now, it’s impossible, almost anywhere, to not have the expectation.
Casablancas: I think [we met] at our show at Mercury Lounge?
O: It was very early on.
Casablancas: Neither of us were signed. And did you guys play before us?
Casablancas: I remember you guys playing, but I was, like, nervous before our show, so it was hard to.… Like I told you, before shows, I’m just…
O: Oh, dude, yeah.
Casablancas: Seeing [Yeah Yeah Yeahs], it was like, That’s cool—what’s going on there? One guitarist. It was an original setup.
O: I saw you play before that show at—I’m pretty sure it was—Don Hill’s. It was a really early show. You were wearing either a blue- or purple-velvet blazer.
Casablancas: I think I had a red Levi’s thing.
O: I thought it was velvet. This could just be my memory, but I feel like you had the collar up and you could only see your eyes, and the lapels were covering your face, and you had the mike here, and you were definitely pretty sweaty and wasted. There were murmurs about your band at the time, so it was my first beholding of it.
Casablancas: You were checking out your future rivals?
O: Yeah, and then you were a rival for quite a while.
Casablancas: I definitely did not [see it that way].
O: Of course, you didn’t, because you were at the top! You were ruling the school.
Casablancas: Yeah, but your last records have been huge megarecords. You know, it’s funny, because we had bands like that, like the Mooney Suzuki. And Guided by Voices was, like, the big time.
O: So, yeah, I remember feeling that way at the time.
Casablancas: Shit, I didn’t realize. Well, we didn’t know each other.
O: And it was kind of like a boys’ club around that time, so I always felt a little bit like a black sheep, but in a good way. I used that to rev me up.
Casablancas: I went to see [your] Stop the Virgens show, and I’m just a fan. We had met each other; we’d played some festivals and said hi, but we’d never really hung out until recently.
O: I feel like—and I talked to Josh Homme [of Queens of the Stone Age] about this too—sometimes frontpeople don’t connect. It’s like when two magnets that are positively charged [repel each other]. Only in my thirties have I made a concerted effort to connect with other frontpeople, and it’s awesome, because I relate! I kind of wish I would’ve done that when I was younger and more insecure.
Casablancas: I think that with our other bands, and I can't speak for [you], once you get to this point that people understand that it's a successful entity, all these other things come into play, and the artistic part is definitely not as pure. If all the people in the band can stay in the same headspace with each other…
O: Which is really hard, by the way. After being in a band for so long, it's a challenge.… You start off really pure in a band, right?
Casablancas: Yeah, for sure.
O: But it feels like a constant process, trying to retain as much of that as you can, but there's so many things that come into play that complicate it. With the thing that I did, it was never really intended to be heard, so it was more the decision to release it, which was the whole thing, rather than actually writing the music, if that makes any sense.
O: What is your favorite restaurant in New York?
Casablancas: There's a place I think is really cool. I'm not sure how to say it: Emilio's Ballato.
O: Yeah, I know that. It's right around the corner from my house.
Casablancas: That place is pretty cool. It feels like a legit, old-school Little Italy spot. Obviously from back in day: Lil' Frankie's—I gotta give a shout-out.
O: I haven't been there in a long time.
Casablancas: That was a place where a lot of birthdays and things were held.
Casablancas: It's funny, because I think 9/11 did something. Two years after 9/11, the world kind of flocked [to New York], it seems. It was a horrific thing, but for some reason, I think the whole Brooklyn scene as it is now comes from the evolution of people migrating here post-9/11.
[Gentrification] can happen, in some kind of utopian situation, if there's an understanding of the indirect causes of what it's a part of is creating. White people can have brunch all day, all the time, on every street if it doesn't indirectly contribute.… They're not evil-ly contributing to the problem, but they're part of the thing. So when it grows so exponentially inside this kind of prerevolution-Versailles bubble, it's offensive to me, and it annoys me. And it's a problem, and I think that people inside the bubble more than anyone should realize what's going on, and that's the only way that things can get better. It's a little annoying—all the banks, and all the cool old things having to leave because they can't afford the rent. But that's always happened throughout history. That's fine. I don't mind it in a vacuum, but it's part of a bigger problem. I think people are starting to understand that slowly, I think, so we'll see.
I don't know. Probably a lot of people come to New York and read Time Out to find out what restaurants to go to, so I don't want to be like, [Mock-menacing] "Get out!" It's not like that at all. Things always change like that. It's just that the spirit of New York always had a balanced thing. It was nice to have different neighborhoods coexisting and a vision of what the world could be. Like a low-end cool neighborhood where it's not dangerous, but it's not living in such luxury that it indirectly means that next place over is going to live in extra depression. So that's the thing—it's this luxury sandwich, and it's spinning out of control a little bit, I think, in a way that's no one's fault. But to do it without cognizance of the negative effects—that's really the whole issue with everything in the world. Freedom is a vague thing; it's not like freedom to shoot anyone you want in the face. No, it's freedom without hurting other people, and I think that's not a concept that anyone understands.
O: That's really nicely articulated. I have similar feelings, but I wouldn't really know how to put it into words. But that captures how I feel about it, as well. But on the flip side, on a lighter note, I’ve been going to the opera more.
Casablancas: The opera house is amazing.
O: And experiencing cultural things in New York that I didn’t know about or I just wasn’t cognizant of in my younger years. The cultural bounty of the city hasn’t changed at all. All you have to do is lift the veil a little bit. It’s the best.
Casablancas: It’s still amazing. 100 percent.
O: I’m not just hanging out at bars; I’m tapping into these other things.
Casablancas: …she says, from a bar. [Laughs]
Crush Songs and Tyranny are out now on Cult Records.
Julian Casablancas + the Voidz play Hammerstein Ballroom November 25.