Carl Barât: Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magic

Terror. Disbelief. Elation. That’s what Carl Barât felt when he found out he had a baby on the way. And then the longest nine months of his life went by in a flash. They’re feelings most of us have felt during the last decade watching The Libertines traverse from the toilet venues of north London to some of the world’s biggest stages, via the crack dens of East London and with the British tabloid media in tow. Make no mistake, Barât remains an icon to millions and is looking better than ever. He’s on the straight and narrow now and won’t be falling off the sides. He tells FMS about near-death experiences, writing a new record with Peter Doherty and why he’s been watching a lot of Come Dine With Me.

The Queen’s Golden Jubilee at the start of June 2002 saw a memorable weekend of partying across London. Paul McCartney stormed the Buckingham Palace on Bank Holiday Monday and one suspects Liz had more than a couple of gins. But down the road, something far more important to the fabric of Great Britain was happening. The Sonic Mook festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts was showcasing the future of rock’n’roll. And most of the bands present have now returned to the obscurity from which they briefly climbed, The Libertines came of age that night. What followed was a decade of decadence, confusion, tabloid fall-outs and some magical times.

It seems like a whole lifetime ago. Guitar-based music was still hunched around the periphery of mainstream culture and apart from the maelstrom of public interest around Blur and Oasis that had begun to fade; people were quite content to leave the indie boys alone to the backstreet record stores and basement clubs littering Soho. The Libertines changed all that, despite not having a fraction of the Gallaghers’ record sales.

Yet it didn’t matter that The Libertines never troubled the Top Ten. Their sassy combination of Jam-esq storytelling, boundless energy and gritty pursuit of romanticism gave the British music magazines their new cover stars, while fashion retailers revelled in a healthy boost too. This was long before anyone could have contemplated seeing an Allsaints store smack bang in the middle of Camden Market, let’s not forget. With former Clash man Mick Jones producing their material (along with former Suede star Bernard Butler, who Doherty famously disliked); the band had their fingers literally dipped into the past.

Though never the most consistent of bands, they captured a mood. It was as much down to the band’s look as to the music, of course and Barât and his songwriting partner (and “brother”) Pete Doherty became the great unwashed pin-ups for an entire young generation. But the wider world took them seriously too. Barât recalls Hedi Slimane, one of Christian Dior’s designers coming along after a gig (“he was all Dior and French and charming”) to take photos of everything they were wearing. “I wore mostly charity shop stuff,” Barât says, “like leather jackets, skinniest jeans, and some sort of Beatle boots, like Cuban heel and zip. The next thing you know Dior have got their own range of all these clothes.”

What did they give you for this? “A shit load of free clothes. They basically gave us our own clothes but well-made and not from a charity shop. So it’s kind of a winner really. Is that then selling out? They’re going to do it anyway.”

The other key accessory for any Libertine was the customary Burberry scarf – the result of Barât and Doherty picking up five euro knock-offs in Paris. “They sold them at the tourist stands over there. Suddenly it became part of the uniform. Now you just see total chavs wearing them.” And just as Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn had ushered in a resurgence of parkas and Adidas tracksuits a decade before, so The Libertines helped fire up an industrial strength demand for battered old leather jackets and red neck ties. Topshop and co had a field day selling people the same clobber their uncles probably took to Oxfam the week before. But while they never compromised artistically, there’s little debate over the fact that last summer’s festival reunion with Doherty was a nice little earner, helping Reading sell-out quickly.

“I’d like to write some stuff again with Peter,” Barât muses, swishing around those age-old phrases like ‘it just depends on the right time’ and ‘if he’s up for it’ and that old classic ‘I just don’t have the time right now’. We’re perched discretely in a darkened bar in Camden on one of those cold, rainy, wintry nights that London does so well. Barât complains about his memory a lot. He seems a bit uneasy about being probed deeply but opens up, and gives a lot of way. With a newborn baby Barât does have other priorities. And one week on from the birth of his firstborn son Eli, Barât is positively gleaming, despite clearly being knackered. He doesn’t quite want to admit that his whole world changed, but let’s slip that he’s been watching a lot of Come Dine With Me and Four In A Bed, crossing the road more carefully and learning to be less clumsy.

I don’t want to be drunk right now; I want to be in control of my faculties,” he says. I feel blessed to still be here really. And from changing nappies to crossing the road more carefully, it’s like the paternal instinct just grabs hold of you. When it’s someone else’s baby you feel awkward holding it but when it’s your baby, you just pick it up and it’s just instinct. I suppose if you could explain it then it wouldn’t be such a shock when it happens.”

Barât, 32, was born in Basingstoke into a working class family and grew up with three brothers and three sisters. “My dad worked in a factory and my mum left and lived in a hippie commune and I remember the difference between the two,” he remarks, recalling how he was closest to his sister Lucie, who appeared in 2004’s Troy.

As with the majority of today’s Brit School trained pop stars, Barât’s early years were spent chasing the stage, although he says that it was more a penchant for laziness that drove him in this direction. “In my head, drama was the only thing where I didn’t have to do anything because I was so lazy. But then you just enjoy it, so it feels like a blag. It started at school but I was always too scared to audition at a proper drama school, so I’d sneak in through the back door.”

Studying drama at Brunel University, where he was “a bit quiet and a bit chubby”, Barât was a bit of a loner, describing the experience as “horrific”. He left the course after a couple of years to move in with Doherty after sharing a flat with Doherty’s older sister, Ellie. No one I was on the course with is doing drama now,” he points out with a wry smile. “It was literally like being in big brother. It was horrific.” But the experience was to prove a positive one. “Feeling like an outcast is going to propel anyone in a certain direction – anybody.”

And the direction of his solo album has certainly taken a few people by surprise – not just for its lack of guitars, but for the sumptuous, bruising and quite fantastical arrangements. “It was a lot about catharsis. I’ve only ever written from a point of escape before, whereas with this record the floodgates were open and I was drowning in material.”

Carving his name on the livers of lovers, Barât shines most when at his darkest (such as the splendid ‘Carve My Name’). The haunting piano led numbers veer gloomily into Tim Burton territory (‘The Fall’), tangoing around relationships break-ups without any fear of embracing some rather pretentious and quite often wonderful orchestration. There are still jaunty, Morrissey-brushing guitar tours round the north London districts of Haringey and Holloway (‘Run With The Boys’).

And there’s a clutch of wonderful ballads, like the Kinks-tinged ‘So Long, My Love’. But the record opens up a whole side of Barât that no one’s seen. ‘Shadows Fall’, a song written for his son, is one of the many highlights, and it’s no wonder he’s itching to get back into the studio. “There’s only so much Come Dine with Me I can watch,” he quips. “I have a routine. I get my morning hour. That’s when I’m at my most creative. I’m more domesticated yes, but I’m back where I should be as an artist. The night world is something I’m moving away from.”

Of course, there can be no greater escapism from the darkened realms of tabloid junkies than a beautiful week-old son. “I’ve got to take my baby seriously,” he says, “and I want to take my records seriously as well. But I’m guessing, in my heart, that I will write another record with Peter. But that won’t be until the end of the year.” In the meantime he wants to go off and live ‘like a writer’: engaging with literature, being receptive and even, he says, listening to opera with the curtains closed for prolonged periods of time. It’s a kind of madness, but at the end of it all when you’ve got reams of paper, some of them are going to be gold dust.”

It’s a world away from the madness of The Libertines’ heyday. (Rumour has it that when Doherty gave up heroin the street price massively increased in London.) “I learned that drugs, addiction and womanising were urges you can never feed to repeation. These monsters will never be satisfied and I don’t have to bother with them. It’s nice to shake hands with them every now and again but I don’t want to get into a relationship with them.”

As the evening continues, Barât trades shandies for whiskeys and stops the tape occasionally for a cigarette. As you’d expect, he talks fondly of Doherty and their “impenetrable bond” and seems focused, with most of his personal problems vanquished. While he denies ever doing crack or heroine, Barât admits being just as consumed as Doherty was at certain points. “The things I tended to do never had much of a hold on me, so I’d be able to go without,” he admits, “but I don’t have the option to have problems when I’ve got a baby, you know? Now I know why I didn’t die at 27.”

And with that, he launches into something even deeper. “Just when everything’s bleak at the end of a wilderness when you’re wondering why you’re not dead yet, when you’ve done everything you could possibly do and exhausted every possible option open to you, suddenly a door opens and there’s a ray of light, a ray of sunshine and a pastoral beautiful scene out there awaiting you. You’ve got the other world; you just start a whole other vista. It doesn’t change who I was, it just means I’m going forward. I think I was just going four or five years waiting to die.”

He wearily recalls several near-death ‘incidents’, one of which included a week without sleep around Glastonbury in 2009 when Blur reformed. “All kinds of ludicrousness happened that week. I was climbing around on the roof of a hotel in Italy despite being petrified of heights. It just all sort of became a game to me really, just asking the universe if it wanted me dead.”

Despite bemoaning the state of the music industry (“no one wants to invest in you”) and not being massively impressed by Biffy Clyro’s X-Factor sell-off (“well done lads, get it where you can”), Barât is resolutely upbeat about his life, even if he’s not into any new music personally.

“The national mood is really dour at the minute. They say normally there has to be a World Cup or a war or,” he says, pausing briefly, “a massive recession to make everyone think ‘fuck the government’, which apparently seems to be happening right now. That creates the black and the white, as opposed to just grey, which is what we’ve had for a number of years.” It’s a point people keep making, but thus far the only breakthrough act to make it out of the recession is Tinie Tempah – not exactly angsty, recession beating rock’n’roll.

“I keep using the phrase ‘bleak wasteland’, but there are a lot of bleak wastelands to talk about and nothing I’ve seen yet really captures it. You get all these bands like The XX and all that, I’m sure they’re great, but it’s not something I need in my life right now. I’m looking for someone to take the ol’ crown –someone needs to get hold of it.” He doesn’t think Kasabian are that band and doesn’t like the office worker crowds they get.

Barât is of course a romanticist at heart. He talks fondly about his old science teacher Mr Williams who gave him his first Velvet Underground tape. He loved Tokyo and gleefully shows photos of the 24 hour puppy shops. “Isn’t that mental? The concept was just beyond me. It’s four in the morning, I need a dog.” He misses buying singles and the thrill of hearing the B-sides and wants to stop losing his temper. I just get lairy. It’s just like drones who work in big companies who care more about the company than the company does for them,” he says – a rant brewing. “I turn down Grumpy Old Men and now I’m doing it to you!”

The thing about that world,” he points out, “is that it’s right here before us. It’s just part of English culture to shoot someone down for doing something lofty. To take the piss out of someone for being ‘wanky’ I suppose is how you put that in day to day terminology. But er, yeah you have to romanticise things. Everything that’s fantastical and romanticised in song and film and literature is right there in front of us.” He believes everyone gets stuck sometimes in a prison of their own design but that what needs to come through will come through. “That’s the nature of the universe,” Barât says, reclining. “That’s the human spirit. That’s evolution. It’s what I was talking about. That’s instinct.”

Words: Andrew Future
Photos: Michael Robert Williams
Art Editor: Elliott Webb

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This feature was first published in Issue 08 of FASHION.MUSIC.STYLE, February/March 2011.