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A Quietus Interview

"Those People Can Go F*ck Themselves": Carl Barat Interviewed
Lewis G. Parker , October 4th, 2010 07:52

Lewis G. Parker talks to Carl Barât and considers his new wardrobe

The solo career will always be one of those items that lurks at the bottom of the dressing-up box of the music industry, like a silly blonde wig or a pair of French knickers, begging to be experimented with. Few men who have opened the box will be able to resist the temptation to feel that silky fabric against their skin and to wonder how their life may pan out with this new identity, with lipstick and fishnets. The freedom to truly be their self beckons them. But like the costume they like to wear around the house with the curtains closed, solo material by people who have already made a name for themselves as part of a band is an experiment which is often best kept hidden from the rest of the world, which often finds it difficult to accept these new indulgences.

In releasing an album under his own name, Carl Barât risks being one of the idiots who trips over his fancy dress costume in public. So when I meet him in London, Barât is in the middle of a heavy press day to make sure that as many people see the self-titled pair of French knickers he is releasing on his own label — as if to draw even more attention to himself — as possible. His rectangular face has just appeared on the cover of NME for the 161st time, as well as being featured prominently in last Sunday’s Observer. Barât is clearly keen that we have as much chance as possible to see him pirouette.

It's not without trepidation that approached this glimpse of chiffon. I expected Carl — always the junior partner in The Libertines for most — to churn out more of the soulless guitar rock of Dirty Pretty Things on his new long-player. So I was prepared to be as turned off by the new costume as I would be by seeing my father in a girdle. But the 11 tracks which comprise Carl Barât are closer in scope to the theatrics of Rufus Wainwright than anything associated with his or Doherty’s previous recordings.

It’s slightly camp and sparkly and over-the-top with violins and trumpets accompanying Barât’s sullen vocals, and the odd show of jazz hands too. The chamber pop of his solo effort turns out to be as fitting for his romantic couplets as the screeching guitars of The Libertines ever were.

If you’re familiar with The Libertines beyond their two studio albums you can see that the old-world feel to the songs of Carl Barât hasn’t emerged like Dr Who from a TARDIS. “Between 'Legs XI' and now, everything’s had loud guitars in,” Barât says in a quick mutter. “You take those guitars away, and everything’s inevitably going to be a lot more refined.” The influence of music hall songs and old books and films is in fact clearest on the early demos such as the hidden gem, 'Legs XI'. I wonder if there is anything in particular that has made him feel confident that he can create something which isn’t the banal guitar/ drums/ bass/ vocals indie he could write with his feet, and which he admits he resorted to with Dirty Pretty Things. “What helps me get away from that sort of bland world I found myself in, of listening to the radio in the kitchen and MTV coming at me off the telly — a total breath of fresh air — I put Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs on. That made me connect again to why I was writing music.”

No other musicians have owed their livelihoods to one publication as much as the members of The Libertines do to NME. Then editor Conor McNicholas made the decision to put them on the cover in 2002 before they’d released their debut single, ‘What a Waster’. After that, the magazine was not only the band’s most vocal cheerleaders, but its unofficial biographer and their story’s narrators as the drama of the relationship between Doherty and Barât unfolded every week in its pages, leaving pubescent fans like me eager for the next episode of Britain’s new rock & roll soap opera. Eight years later, Barât is still their cover star in support of his new album. That’s quite a cosy relationship, I tell him, to be having with a notoriously fickle paper. “It was alright until that fucking stinking review — they weren’t overly favourable about the new album. So yeah, that editorial policy is interesting.”

Do you feel like you owe anything to NME?

“Back then, I’d say that was true, there’s no denying it,” he says. “What do I owe them? They’re a business, they want to sell papers. And if putting my boat race on there’s going to help them facilitate that, then that’s my job done for them. It’s a funny game, isn’t it? It used to be that they would have the power to lift you up and then smash you down, and the trick would be to jump off when you were at the top, before they could grab you. But now, even the tabloids — which you could consider the lowest form of newsprint media — well, some would, although I quite enjoy them — they’ve come to realise that they can cover music quite properly. They have proper journalists who care about music writing in those papers. I think that’s a problem for NME.”

It’s hardly surprising that NME’s review of The Libertines’ recent batch of shows was — along with everyone else’s — a gusher. But in my review of the shows in these pages, I wrote that there was a contingent of Libertines fans which was dissatisfied with the band’s flawless performances. It could be argued, I said, that the band were too well-rehearsed, offering none of the spontaneity for which they were once revered. “I think those people have got it wrong,” says Barât, sitting back in his chair for the first time. “That’s the first negative thing I’ve heard about it. Thank you very much! What the fuck do they expect? Do they want us to play in a tiny fucking sideshow tent and just play to people going by? That’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, and it winds me up a bit. What were they expecting? These are the kind of people who want us to fucking punch each other, vomit and then jack up — and then cancel the gig. If that’s what they want, then fuck ’em. Those people can go fuck themselves. That’s never what I’ve promoted, or what I’ve been in this band for.

"That’s just something that’s occurred. If people want to see that, there are other bands who like to fight.

“The people who want to see that, do they not realise that it hurts somebody? That’s why I’m being defensive about it. It’s like somebody wants to see me fucking up. Do they want to see me put in front of a firing squad? This shit hurts, it’s real pain. Do they not realise that? What do they want for entertainment? They can go fuck themselves because I’m not in it for that. Maybe I’ll retract telling them to go fuck themselves, but tell them politely that they’re going to the wrong gig.”

Upon breaking up his band, it’s not unusual for the songwriter to reach into the dressing-up box and fetch a few solo efforts out, in search of a new identity. This much we have come expect with solo careers from Morrissey, Paul Weller and Pete Doherty, to varying degrees of success. So Barât’s solo album is hardly a Keyser Söze moment in the story of The Libertines. But that ending — if it really was an ending — in front of 100,000 people at Reading, was certainly a cup final which the majority of fans never expected their team would get to, let alone to triumph, as the consensus says they clearly did. For a band whose story has been narrated as much as their music has been played, and for two men whose main points of reference are sepia-tinted tales of romance and glory, it couldn’t have been more fitting. As Barât says, “It was as slap-dash and risky as it ever has been as to whether we’d pull it off. I guess the forces were on our side for that one.”

After meeting with one of rock’s most memorable and expressive performers, I can confirm that Carl Barât has, after all, put together a great new outfit from the dressing-up box. He has not, as we feared, assembled a garish pastiche of his former outfit which he’ll trip over and embarrass himself with.

Although it does have a few more sequins than you’d expect.

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