Julian Casablancas is at an impasse. The front man of the Strokes, that garage-rock power quintet whose masterful 2001 debut, Is This It, was named album of the decade by both Chuck Klosterman and the British music magazine NME, is gently haggling with a hostess at Momofuku Noodle Bar. She is insistent that the New York native leave his electric guitar and silver suitcase full of stage props unattended at the front door. (Hostess: “We can keep an eye on it for you.” Casablancas: “Uh, sorry, no.”) Granted, this particular challenge seems minor compared with the sticky situations Casablancas has had to navigate since the Strokes seemingly imploded last year and he felt he had no choice but to put out a solo album. But it follows a familiar theme: Casablancas getting stuck between what he knows he wants to do and what he feels like he has to do to deal with other people.
The hostess reluctantly finds a corner for his stuff and a perch from which he can watch it, and Casablancas apologizes once again: “I’m sorry. I just didn’t want to leave it there. It’s New York.”
Momofuku was an afterthought. We’d first met up at Waverly Restaurant, a spot Casablancas had supposedly chosen. After about a minute of looking warily at the menu (“This is diner food, I’m assuming?”), he admitted that he’d actually been craving ramen, but had been too polite to resist his publicist’s orders to go to Waverly. We dashed out—although not before Casablancas had left a wad of crumpled bills on the table to assuage his guilt.
Over his coveted bowl of pork ramen, which he declares “delicious” if perhaps overpriced at $16, Casablancas says he’s still in “touring haze” from some whirlwind gigs in Europe. Before that, he’d been in Los Angeles recording his solo debut, the intricately composed, keyboard-heavy, and critically praised Phrazes for the Young. He did the album on the cheap, but then poured his own money into a four-show L.A. trial run of a staggeringly ambitious stage show complete with costume changes and elaborate sets. The video backdrop for one song, “Ludlow St.,” began in the desert and ended in skyscrapers, tracing the evolution of New York City along the way. The shows were a fiasco, and he promises the tour’s final dates, January 14 and 15 at Terminal 5, will have “none of that. In the end, it wasn’t a positive experience for me at all,” he says. “It was a constant struggle with the venue, managers, lighting guys, video people. I went broke doing it.” And yet he’s already taking meetings to fix what went wrong. “I want to do that in New York eventually. Badly.”
Even with his two Terminal 5 shows pared down, Casablancas sounds weary from the preparation. “I’m just busy with bullshit,” he says. “Working on music is the funnest thing for me, and I love it, and I could do it all day, all night. But there’s all this other crap that I just constantly have to do. I don’t have time. I don’t like the business side so much, but it’s a necessity because I also don’t like the way other people do the business side for me.”
Everything in Casablancas’s long, hard year as a soloist has carried a steep learning curve, from touring by himself to getting the album into stores. For example, RCA is co-releasing his solo album, yet, he says, “they’re not the label I signed with. The people change all the time. They’re nice, they’re cool, but honestly they don’t do shit.” So he did most of the work through Cult Records, the label he started for Phrazes and financed himself, and it didn’t turn out much better. “You have all these dreams. I still like the plan, but it was executed terribly.”
And then there’s the Strokes. Theoretically, they are putting out a fourth album. “It’s coming!” he says. The band had made it all the way into the studio this past summer and then stopped abruptly, allegedly because guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. had to go to rehab. Casablancas has already been vocal about his dissatisfaction with the way the band has been run. “We split the money six ways”—manager Ryan Gentles gets the sixth share—“but we didn’t split the work,” he says. The Strokes, he adds, were never the carefree gang of five they seemed to be to the world—the perfect postadolescent posse consumed with partying, making music, and traveling the world. “It was nothing like that.” he says. “It was really, really hard.”
Casablancas looks uncomfortable. He says he’d rather focus on what’s going right with the Strokes. “I understand people are interested, but it’s very different than before,” he says. “It’s night and day now. Everyone is working as a group, ‘Let’s do it! Go team!’ Which is amazing. Which is what I wanted since day one. But that’s only happening now. Literally now. So if I make it super-clear why I was unhappy in the past, it might just rehash things that should have been left alone. I think we’re fulfilling the promise of what we said we were: actually being a unit that really works on everything.”