Something Win Butler revealed in a recent Guardian piece that gave me pause, how he’d first gotten Radiohead’s The Bends at 14, and it quickly became his favorite record—without yet listening to its second half.
“It took me a year, easily, to understand it,” Butler told Laura Barton. “And I don’t know if people have the patience to listen to records like that, now.”
The premise of that particular Guardian piece hinged upon Arcade Fire’s decision to accompany the release of their latest album, Everything Now, with a rush of satirical “news” articles and overall buzz of silliness (Creature Comfort cereal!) that had the (perhaps) intended effect of alienating reviewers and fans alike.
It has been fascinating to follow Butler’s take on the reaction, his most recent observations coming in that piece. It’s not surprising to realize that many of us missed the point, entirely. The band wanted to challenge the perception of art in the digital age, the noise surrounding the release of the music in Everything Now acting like the technology in noise-cancelling headphones. They cancelled each other out.
Anyway. This musing felt poignant given that that Guardian article dropped last Friday, the same day that The Voidz released their second album. If you don’t know, the lead singer of this band also happens to be the lead singer of The Strokes, a man of whom it has often been mused:
Does he really want to be up on that stage, singing?
It’s the perfect modern embodiment of my favorite line of Dryden’s, in Lawrence of Arabia, when the American journalist is at his wits’ end over Lawrence’s decision to slink away from the considerable spotlight afforded one of World War I’s great heroes. That boy could be anything!
“Well right now,” replies Dryden, “He doesn’t want to be much of anything at all.”
Julian Casablancas has in no way disappeared from view. He is the owner/creator of Cult Records, lead singer of The Voidz, and is still making beats with The Strokes. So he slipped away from the Atlas-holding-the-world-heavy spotlight thrust upon him during The Strokes’ early-aughts heyday. One can hardly criticize him for that.
What we do castigate him for is his having a political opinion—even, and perhaps especially—when it’s borne from serious introspection and relentless pursuit of knowledge. We rightly condemn conservative TV operators for taking athletes to task when they dare voice a political opinion; why then do we rush for our keyboards to tap-tap-tap away a snarky response to the “stupid” thing Jules just said?
It was with this sense of loathing about the immediacy with which we praise and condemn these days that The Voidz’ new album, Virtue, like their last album, Tyranny, was a welcome change of pace. Good music has that quality of being both immediate and cryptic; the sound hooks you, then it takes months if not years to chew over what the song means to you.
So why the antagonism geared toward Casablancas? Is it that we think he owes us something? What would that be, exactly? Well, we’re not sure, but he’s not playing by the rules we’ve come to expect, and it’s always a bit unnerving when someone goes against the grain.
It isn’t enough that he pours out his soul during live performances; we need to know the real Julian, we need him to tweet and Insta us incessantly. But Casablancas realized quite quickly that fame is what Jack London noted so satirically in Martin Eden: it’s an aura that is created around you. And you pale in comparison to that aura. People will risk anything to snap off a piece to make their lives, they assume, more worthwhile.
It’s Paul Banks in his song “The Base”, lamenting in those opening lines that he has reached a level of fame and renown where what he produces is no longer questioned. What he draws is recognized as shape. People know him from Interpol; and they get pissed when he dares draw outside those lines. How does one grow as an artist when you are packed firmly within a box of preconceived notions?
Maybe we’ve become embittered because rather than an all-access look into Casablancas’s own life, he provides a mirror before which we come face-to-face with whatever it is about modern society that carves up our souls. A professional athlete once tweeted that to “favorite” one’s own tweet was tantamount to masturbation, but it really extends to any sort of social media offering. So, y’know: moderation.
This is a man who’s all about the melody. In one of my all-time favorite anecdotes, from The Strokes: The First Ten Years, that while the Strokes were recording Is This It, Casablancas rose up from the couch he appeared passed out on after many beers, to suggest a slight alteration to a certain portion of a song.
There’s how this Voidz album drops into a culture beset with an immediacy problem. How Spotify has revealed that most users will skip a song within the first thirty seconds; then, there’s declining attendances reported for many recent rock band tours. People wonder: are kids still willing to pony up money for them?
Billy Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins singer, told Joe Rogan that studies show that one of the most rewarding aspects of purchasing an item from a band—a CD or record, or a ticket to a concert, or some kind of merch—is that it makes you more inclined to support that band. You’ve entered into a relationship, you’re invested, whereas with Spotify you’re simply paying for a monthly streaming service in which one band is among millions you can access immediately. It’s no wonder Casablancas recently bemoaned the fact that the Internet hasn’t led to the discovery of new music; if anything, it seems to have consolidated a certain type in a closed loop of popular opinion.
Then there are the responses to his most recent work, which so often seem to stem from preconceived notions solidified before the first listen. Julian Casablancas’s latest work with The Voidz is an incoherent mess. Or, the opposite take, for the sake of being different: Julian Casablancas, eternal rebel, doesn’t care what you think!
When it came to Virtue, I hopped into my car and let it course through the stereo on a long drive. It’s something Thom Yorke once said about experiencing new music; he has to be driving for it to sink in. It’s like the old take on meditation; that true peace comes from focusing upon a mundane task: ergo, pedal to the metal and the rest of the mind roams free.
It’s a thought joined at the hip with a line from John Densmore’s biography on The Doors: when he first listens to an album, all he wants is for the sound to grab him. If it does, he’ll go back and have another listen for the lyrics. As Win Butler told Laura Barton, “You like what you like, in the air, when you hear it.”
That’s what was so special about Is This It: the sound grabbed you at first listen; the lyrics took time to paint the overall picture. I first heard that album at 12, but it wasn’t until I was 21, flying over Germany at night half-drunk on wine that Hard to Explain really hit me.
It took longer for Tyranny to sink in, but that’s part of why Casablancas has been so much fun to follow, of late. He’s trying something new; we should enjoy participating in this journey, peripherally. As he told Rolling Stone back in 2014, about his involvement with The Voidz: “I feel like the Strokes is an oak tree, and this is a new plant. So I’m focused on that right now. The plan is to eventually have two trees and swing in a hammock. One side nailed to each tree. It would be cool playing shows with the Voidz and the Strokes, that could be a cool model.”
It’s the great closing line to Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges documentary, when Iggy Pop delivers the ultimate ode to rock and roll. “I don’t wanna belong to the glam people, alternative people, to any of it. I don’t want to be a punk. I just want to be.”
But it might be a comment made by Cult Comedy, quoting Lester Bangs on the YouTube video below, that takes the day: “Every work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity.”
We often say the greats are ahead of their time, but Casablancas is intent upon making music that unflinchingly addresses the issues of our age. Should his Voidz work be more popular? Yes, but that’s hardly worth worrying over. One day it will be. Like that clip of chopper blades at the start of Human Sadness, Casablancas is ushering us toward something new.
He’s just doing it in his own way, with his own sense of time. And that is pretty cool, man.