Interview: Carl Barât

The ex-Libertine is finally free to step away from the big guitars


Thanks to Japan's often surprising interest in the British rock scene, Carl Barât needs little introduction here. As one of two pivotal members of The Libertines, the now legendary garage rock band, he is well known to Japanese audiences. Benefiting from his good looks, he is also probably a lot more popular here than erstwhile cohort Pete Doherty.

A guerilla gig (a.k.a. busking session) at the opening of Top Shop in Shinjuku in September saw scenes of near pandemonium, while Barât's solo gig at Shibuya Club Quattro in November sold out soon after being announced. Fans without tickets now have to hope that his support slot for the Manic Street Preachers tour around the same time will be confirmed.

But while continuing to capitalize on his Libertines fame — the group temporarily reunited for UK festival dates this summer — Barât is also keen to move on musically, with a new eponymous solo album that radically departs from the guitar rock with which he is associated.

"This is the first album I've done that is kind of introspective rather than escapist," Barât tells Metropolis during his recent visit to Tokyo, also explaining that the disc was composed on piano rather than guitar. "As a writer, you fall into habits. As soon as I pick up a guitar, my hands form the same sorts of shapes. With the piano, it's a whole different landscape, really, and you just find yourself going in directions you wouldn't normally."

Produced by Leo Abrahams, a cultured musician who has worked with the likes of Brian Eno and Brett Anderson, and with plenty of classical strings courtesy of his girlfriend, Carl Barât may surprise fans with its richly eclectic influences.

Run with the Boys, which Barât describes as a song "that refers to the bands I've been in and the lifestyle I've led," sounds like mid-period Morrissey moonlighting for Dexy's Midnight Runners or The Style Council. The Fall crosses a broken gypsy tango with French cabaret music—think Serge Gainsbourg or Jacques Brel.

Elsewhere, there are Scott Walker-ish arrangements, hints of Tom Waits, mawkish trumpets and the occasional flurry of polka. It's all smoothly crafted together, even though the album was written and recorded in a comparatively short time.

"I started Run with the Boys and So Long My Lover last year," Barât recalls. "But then I left them and I didn't do anything until April this year. And then I wrote everything."

In addition to forging new collaborations since splitting from The Libertines and the post-Libertines Dirty Pretty Things, Barât has also changed his musical intake. Recent iPod interests include Bonnie Prince Billy's album I See a Darkness, Tom Waits' Rain Dogs, Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits, and Jeff Buckley ("If you’re in the right mood, that can be quite poignant," he says).

The reason the new solo album works, despite its bewildering diversity, is the cohesive narrative that runs throughout, from darkly playful opening track The Magus to the somber optimism of closer Ode to a Girl, which weaves all the musical strands together.

"Well, I guess I wanted the album to be an album rather than two singles and a bunch of fillers," Barât says. "So it does take on its own sort of conceptual shape, about frivolity, finding love, enduring loss, and finding love again."

The overall picture that emerges is one of growing artistic maturity. Barât is no longer hiding behind the racket, clichés and addictions of the conventional rock band, which he freely admits was a way of prolonging adolescence.

"It did feel like that for me," he agrees. "I wouldn't say that’s true in everybody's case. But, yeah, I was definitely stuck in a bit of a rut, which is why I had to end that way of life, hence Run with the Boys. Stepping away from big loud guitars stops you hiding behind that. It wasn't always like that, but it kind of ended up like that. A loud guitar was just expected, along with a leather jacket, some whisky and a cigarette."

Nov 30, 2010, Club Quattro, Shibuya, ¥5,500.

C.B.Liddell
Metropolis
28th October, 2010

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