Louder Than War’s George Henry King last week sat down with Carl Barât and Billy Tessio – The Jackals guitarist – for a lengthy chat about their new album, battling with depression and drugs and, of course, The Libertines, who are also scheduled to have an album out this year.
Elevated above the hustle and bustle of a frantic Soho sandwich bar, The Libertines’ lionhearted axeman, Carl Barât is a long way from the glowing, Thailand blaze that he was basking in a mere two days ago. And although the popular Asian destination may well be the beating heart behind what will inevitably become the eagerly anticipated new Libertines album, it’s at Barât’s, London HQ – home to his many artistic endeavours – that today hosts his presence and captures a small segment of his otherwise hectic schedule.
And after briefly witnessing the stair-occupying, leather-clad members of Carl’s new band painstakingly scribble their signatures onto hundreds of merchandise posters, and politely declining a gracious offer from Carl to smoke a cigarette with him, I sit down with Carl and Jackals guitarist Billy Tessio to talk about The Libertines, battling with depression and drugs, and Barât’s new four-piece project, The Jackals.
Louder Than War: So Carl, in 2015 you are scheduled to release an album with both The Jackals and The Libertines, as well as tour with both – how are you coping with having to divide your time between London and Thailand, the two bands and your family?
Carl: Well, as you can see from being here this morning, it’s a bit hectic. But yeah, it’s really good and I’ve been doing this new film as well which has also been quite a lot of work, and obviously I’ve got the new baby as well. But in all honesty, it is quite hard to divide the time really, but I suppose it’s a bit like climbing – you just have to try not to look down. If you don’t look at the diary, but everything’s got a decently allotted amount of time, then it’s all good and everything should work fine. It’s a bit schizophrenic, but whatever I’m doing or working on at that specific time, that’s where I am completely at and what I’m entirely focused on.
Are you the sort of person and musician then that likes to be as busy as possible and constantly working on something?
Carl: Yeah definitely. I used to be the complete opposite in all honesty though, but now I definitely prefer to be as busy as I possibly can be – it helps to keep the demons at the door.
The first of those two albums will be The Jackals’, ‘Let It Reign’ – out on the 16th of February – seeing as your last and first solo release was over four years ago now, are you excited to be finally releasing new music again into the public domain?
Carl: Yeah absolutely, it’s great. That kind of inception of a song being sung back to you is such an amazing thing and feeling, and to be doing it with the boys and to feel that that we’ve all got as much invested in it and that we are all equally as passionate about it, is a really great thing and I’m over the moon really.
I believe you’ve described the process that you went through to produce your first solo L.P as a ‘a lonely time’ and a ‘lost weekend’, and that it was something you struggled with slightly – do you think that you needed this time off before writing and recording the follow-up in order for it to be the best it could possibly be?
Carl: Yeah most definitely – I mean, you can’t have a lost weekend without being lost I guess, but I do think that’s a pretty fair description of that time. Although there was also a kind of catharsis that went on during that period, because that’s what the record was – it was a contemplative album and obviously at the end of that one I did a book as well. So, it helped to just tie up a lot of loose ends really, after dealing with what had been a pretty ferocious decade with The Libertines and Dirty Pretty Things. So yeah, it was good to just sort of reset the trap and take some time – and now we are ready and good to go again. There’s plenty of energy again now, plenty of songs and plenty of new things – and I am definitely inspired and energised again.
After predominantly writing your first solo LP from behind a piano and without a guitar for the first time, had you already planned to re-adopt a more guitar driven sound for your new album before you decided to recruit a band?
Carl: Well, I kind of decided that myself when I picked up the guitar again after that first solo record, because I just thought, ‘shit, I need to make some guitar records’. And of course the next obvious thing then was that I needed other people for that to happen – that’s why all bands start in the first place I guess. I’m no kind of solo artist like Jack White or Steve Smith – I’m just not really that guy. I need my brothers man. So, that’s how that all came about really – it just seemed like the obvious next step.
Do you think you had to completely distance yourself from working with people you had prior for this to be as productive as possible? Because obviously with the Dirty Pretty Things, you worked with Gary and Anthony who you had also played with in The Libertines – was it important for you to be in a band with an entirely new crop of musicians?
Carl: Yeah totally. Also, that’s why I did it on social media. Initially, when I decided I needed to start a band again I thought, ‘well, I know shit loads of musicians’, but I just didn’t want people who were already jaded by it all or people who needed a sense of ownership over things – I just wanted everyone involved to go in fresh and completely hammer it.
So do you think that if you had formed a band made up of people who have already spent time in the industry and that you know, it wouldn’t have given you that sense of excitement you get when starting a new band?
Carl: Yeah exactly, it just wouldn’t have really felt as exciting as it does to start an entirely new band if I had of done it with people I’ve done it with before. Most people I already know in music that I could have asked, have already had some type of career or success within the industry and I just didn’t want that kind of whole super-group thing or a band full of lazy-dad, part-timers. I wanted it to be young blood and people who actually want it because they haven’t ever had it before – people who deserve a chance.
And Billy, how are you feeling about being part of your first, professional album release? Is this the first band you’ve been in where you’ve been able to record and release an album and do a full tour in support of it?
Billy: Yeah man, it is to be honest and I’m proper excited about it all. To be able to tour around like this and play these brilliant venues and the international gigs as well is obviously a massive change and it’s a big step from what I was doing before – but naturally though I’m just really excited about the release of the album and I can’t wait for people to hear it.
How did the whole process of you deciding to audition come about?
Billy: Well, a few of my mates let me know about it and they all said that I should go for it, because they knew I wasn’t really doing much at the time. But, it did actually take me about a week to conjure up the words, because I didn’t want to write something that would make me sound stupid and to be quite honest, I was just a bit like ‘fuck, I’ve actually got to write an email’. So, I kept kind of putting it off kind of thing because obviously it’s not the natural way to audition for a band. I was just laying in bed when I wrote the email and then about a week later I got an email saying that Carl wanted to meet up. I think I got off a bit easier than the rest of the boys though because I think they had to send videos of them playing, but I just sent words.
What were the main auditions like?
Billy: Well basically, we went in and played with a couple of sessions musicians and we played about two songs each whilst being filmed, but Carl wasn’t present at those ones, which makes sense really because I could have been some raging lunatic. Then he picked his favourite out of however many of us there were and then we got a call back that same evening and they told us that Carl will be there when we go back. It was all pretty straightforward, but it was a bit strange at times because like I say, there was a camera there filming us and I could see that there were a lot of nervous people in the room, but I just took it all with a pinch of salt really.
How was it for you when you worked with Carl for the first time? How did the transition from being in a band with Carl Barat, to simply being Carl Barat’s band mate actually happen?
Billy: Naturally it was a little awkward at first when we all got in a room together and it really could have been hit or miss. It could have gone horribly wrong all together and that is something that was definitely on my mind and the minds of the other boys as well, but it was fine after a little while and it just kind of all clicked into place really. I’ve always been a pen to paper kind of guy as well when it comes to music, so I think that also helped and I think that’s the kind of guitarist Carl was looking for – someone who could string a decent riff together.
Carl: Yeah exactly, I didn’t want people who were as green as grass hoppers, but I of course needed people that could play well and I respect all the boys very highly as musicians and obviously that was a very important factor for me. Also, having people that are used to not having very many opportunities to do the things we are doing adds a sense of enthusiasm to the band and in turn, opens my eyes to it all again – which makes it feel like the first time for me as well.
In 2013 Carl, I believe you allegedly announced that your second solo album was already complete and recorded – were all of the songs on this album finished before the rest of The Jackals joined, and are you still very much at the forefront of the writing process and all the major decisions when it comes to The Jackals, or is everything more of a collective decision?
Carl: Yeah, well it was kind of nearly finished, but I think I probably just said that to get people off my back at the time and also, I’ve not used all of the things that I would have used if I hadn’t have got The Jackals together. Initially, the boys came to the band with a good half of the record already done – but by the end of it all we were all writing together equally. In the beginning it was just me doing most of the writing, but now everything is a much more collective decision and process.
You also said that you were working with Johnny Marr. Did anything that he contributed make it onto the album?
Carl: Well, I did actually get him to play on a demo for one of the songs that features on the new record, but his version didn’t end up making the final cut because he wanted to re-do it and I was in Los Angeles. It’s all good though, I spoke to him and we cleared it up and he wasn’t angry so we’ll do something again one day.
Were all of the songs for The Jackals’ album entirely new or were any of them composed from any old Libertines ideas?
Carl: No, nothing actually – honestly! It’s all entirely fresh material for this album.
Prior to the confirmation of The Libertines’ reformation, would you ever write songs with The Libertines in mind and think, ‘no, I won’t use that for any other project in case we reform, because that’s definitely a Libertines tune?’
Carl: Actually no, that’s never really happened I guess. Peter actually really likes The Jackals record though, so I think maybe he might be a bit like, ‘oh, we could have had some of them for The Libertines’. But I just like to do everything fresh, I never really like to save stuff because I always want to tell it how it is now and use what I’ve got now – there’s never any holding anything back.
Having found a sense of stability so to speak with The Jackals, were you at all sceptical about doing The Libertines, Hyde Park shows after only finding out about them through the British media – because didn’t Pete confirm the news before you had even found out about it?
Carl: Well, Peter was the first to say yes before I had even heard about the offer to do a reunion show – but he didn’t say yes for all of us, he only said yes for him I believe. Although, that did pretty much mean it was just up to me after that – and of course the others boy as well, let’s not leave them out now. In regards to having to tell The Jackals though about it, it was pretty awkward actually, after having finally gone through this entire process to say, ‘right lads, here’s the thing – we are doing all of this, but The Libertines are also reforming now’. I guess it’s a double edge sword though for them, because The Libertines connection gives them a spotlight that we as a new band wouldn’t have otherwise had. I’m not saying that we couldn’t of put years of hard work in and got it on our own, and I guess a lot of Libertines die-hards are only going to ever want me to do Libertines stuff, but it’s there now.
Did either of you two worry about what the die-hard Libertines fans would make of The Jackals, seeing as you were working with entirely new musicians? Did you feel as if you’d have to try even harder to win them over?
Billy: Well, I wasn’t losing any sleep over it, again naturally it’s just one of those things where you think about what they are going to think, but I like to think that it’s all about the record really. When it comes out, I think the music will speak for itself.
Carl: And the thing that Pete and I have learn’t over the years is that Libertines die-hards are Libertines die-hards – and whether or not we were going to do more Libertines gigs, they’d still only ever want the pair of us to just be The Libertines.
Billy, when you heard about The Libertines reunion, only a little while after you had joined The Jackals, were you worried that The Jackals would be pushed to one side for a while? Or were you just as excited as Carl that The Libertines were getting back together?
Billy: No, no way man. I was just as excited really and as happy as Carl, because I’m a huge Libertines fan myself. So, I was just proper interested to see what was going on and I think it’s really great – I’m definitely all for it.
Carl: Adam, our bass player, doesn’t even like The Libertines!
You recently said in an interview with NME Carl, that The Libertines aren’t going to do the heritage run – what’s your opinion then on bands who reform, do a run of shows playing their old material and fail to produce new material?
Carl: Well, it only really truly bothers me when bands do a comeback gig and actually say that next time they’ll have new material, but then don’t bother to produce anything new. Although by saying that, I’ve seriously shot myself in the foot now, because I definitely can’t do that now. I’ve got nothing really against it though – if people want to hear that music then they want to hear it. In one breath, it’s an amazing time if you can go and see Pink Floyd or fucking Zeppelin – it would be a pretty mental time. Obviously since the industry as we knew it took a nose-dive, everyone’s popping back up and resurfacing. There are bands who are alive and bands who are no longer alive and if the bands who are no longer alive can get back together and show everyone what they are still capable of then it’s a great thing. And if bands who are still alive can keep their momentum going and write new material that’s just as good as their early stuff, then I’d say that’s preferable.
The first time I saw you both perform as The Jackals was at London’s, XOYO – how was it for you Billy to be playing sold-out venues so soon after joining and forming what was still a very new band?
Billy: Yeah well I was very nervous – but I was just trying my best to channel them nerves really and in all honesty, that’s the beauty of it all and that’s what I thrive on. But yeah we kind of just did our thing really. I’ve played to large crowds in the past, but not really to this level. Of course there are a lot of people there just to see Carl and we will always know that the punters will always be there for him.
Carl: That was a bit of a shoddy gig that one, and if they hadn’t of been nervous I would have been really fucking worried haha. I’d have been like, ‘guys we’re going to be out of a deal here’ haha. But Billy that’s a bit defeatus mate, I think with the XOYO gig, there were actually still a lot of people there to listen to you guys as much as they were there for me.
Billy: Okay, well maybe that came out wrong. There’s a small minority who come just to see Carl, but I think that gave the rest of us something to prove and it was something that we were all well aware of. We just had to ensure though that they knew we were The Jackals, and this wasn’t just a Libertines gig.
Do either of you get annoyed when you are playing a gig with The Jackals, and some of the audience members are shouting out Libertines songs that they want you play?
Billy: I find it funny if anything, especially in Glasgow when some of the crowd were chanting a couple of Libertines lyrics. I’d happily start strumming the songs and I think at that gig I was even looking at Carl waiting for him to start joining in with me.
Carl: I think it comes from a place of love though, and from my experience with dealing with anything negative from the audience, if you just single someone out and collar them afterwards and question them for shouting any obscene shit, they often just say they were pissed and that they’re sorry – it’s never really real negativity as such. Once I was doing a gig with the Dirty Pretty Things in San Francisco and there was this guy shouting, ‘YOU FUCKING COCK SUCKERS, YOU’RE FUCKING AWFUL YOU ASSHOLES!’ and I saw him after the show so I went over to him and asked what he was saying and he just said, ‘argh man you know, I was just having fun in the moment’. They just don’t really ever realise that what they are saying can have an effect – they think there is like a glass barrier between you and the audience. It happened with The Libertines in Belgium once as well when some guy was shouting, ‘YOU ARE FUCKING MONSTERS, WE HATE YOU!’ Gary fucking got up from behind the drum kit, smashed a lightbulb and went out the front half naked, fucking sweating with steam coming off of him from the heat of the lights and then it turns out to be just this little fucking midget who’s shouting the abuse – if Gary had done anything he would have looked like a right proper bastard.
When The Libertines officially broke up, did you ever imagine you’d one-day reform and actually release another album? Or if you knew you’d one day write new material again, did you think it would take over ten years for that to actually happen?
Carl: Well, I think what was important was that we all connected as friends again because that’s always been what’s important to The Libertines – because without that friendship everything else is just impossible. So if the friendship was real, I knew that the music was going to eventually come again one-day. I think in this instance it was really important to make some memories together, get on the same page as each and then make some records together – before embarking on anything major and that’s exactly what we’ve done. And it didn’t take us very long to make a few memories again, but I’m glad it’s happening and so far it’s been really good.
You have openly spoken about your experiences with depression and even your attempted suicide – what’s your opinion on the negative stigma that is constantly attached to mental illness and do you think there should be more being done to help combat mental illness?
Carl: Yeah I definitely think there should be more being done to help sufferers of mental illness – and I don’t mind talking about depression, I love talking about depression actually and luckily today I’m too busy to feel depressed. But, yeah depression I think is a really dangerous epidemic and I think it’s a sign of the times and it’s become really normal now for people to be depressed and it is literally hell being depressed. As Winston Churchill said, ‘if you go through hell, keep going’, but it is a shame that some people have to feel like this and I believe it is related to society and the way we operate and are made to think from an early age and how doubt is now more prevalent in everything we do than anything else.
People say are you worried about this, are you worried about that, and I’m like yes of course I fucking am, I’m worried about everything. If you look around there are a lot of people who don’t suffer from depression and they are right up there doing well for themselves and I think, ‘why am I like this then and not more like them – why am I not happy?’ It’s a fucking horrible thing and I think it is a really dangerous thing at this time and suicide in young men is one of the biggest killers and now as a father, it bloody terrifies me. So, anything I can do to help at anything I will because it’s something that is really close to my heart – so I completely agree with you basically.
Do you feel that you started taking drugs during your time in The Libertines to kind of forge a sense of escapism from that feeling of depression? Or do you think it was purely the lifestyle you found yourself involved in at that time?
Carl: It was a bit of both I guess and it’s a little hard to tell really. I suppose it’s a bit like the chicken and the egg. The more drugs you take and the more hangovers you have, the more you don’t realise or notice the extent of the psychosis that’s being generated. You can make yourself so depressed that you can’t even remember where or when it started. Like the Dirty Pretty Things split up after pretty much a two year hangover and cycle of just getting wrecked everyday to get over it and then feeling dreadful in the morning. Doing that to your body, mind and soul with that amount of alcohol and drugs just really pollutes you. But now I can go two ways really, and like I said earlier, I like to be busy because it keeps the demons at the door. Sometimes I won’t even have the urge to get up and take anything and more often than not that is the case, but if I have a couple of drinks and I’m suffering from the ol’ the black dog, I’ll take it the whole way – which never ends well.
Is there any chance do you think that we could perhaps see a festival line-up this summer that features both The Libertines and The Jackals?
Carl: It’s perfectly possible, definitely! I think I’ve still got enough of the ol’ energy in me to hop from stage to stage and do a couple of sets. Maybe we could even do a Libertines festival with The Libertines, Babyshambles, Dirty Pretty Things, Yetti, The Jackals and Drew’s new band, Helsinki. So, yeah I guess it is definitely more than possible.
A rather long time ago, you were a judge on the road to V competition – and of course you had to pick from thousands of audition’s in order to form The Jackals. Do you think there should be more TV talent shows that look purely for new bands and musicians that write original material, as opposed to shows like the X-Factor who fail to champion true originality and creativity?
Carl: Yes, definitely. I think if you are going to have those horrible, horrible things then it would be much better if they looked for creative and original individuals as well as just people who aren’t entirely creative in that way, because otherwise it just leads to even more puppetry and gives even more power to the bastards – which is something I’m of course not particularly fond of.
I don’t doubt that the new Libertines album won’t be anything short of brilliant, but were you at all scared about committing to a new record? In case it wasn’t received as well as your first two and would perhaps tarnish the legacy?
Carl: Well I think for me, if it’s as good as the first two records we’ll release it, but if it’s not as good then we won’t and unfortunately the rest of it I can’t crystal ball. I don’t know what people are going to think of any new material we release, but hopefully they at least see that it all comes from the same place and the same beating heart of the same rhythm as those first two records.
Did this come up in conversation at all though, amongst yourself and the rest of The Libertines when you first sat down to discuss the possibility of a new record?
Carl: No, not at all. We just love being together and playing as The Libertines and I hope that becomes apparent to people again. So, I don’t think any of us ever had any doubts – I think we would have all regretted it throughout our lives if we had decided against doing a new Libertines record. We’re always going to write, because we love doing it and we are going to be doing it together again and so far that’s working perfectly fine for us.
So how have the Thailand sessions been going? Have you recorded anything yet or have you just been writing?
Carl: Yeah it’s going really well – we’ve only really recorded some new demos at the moment. We always like to get everything in demo form first, before we commit it to the album generally. I think when we did ‘Up The Bracket’, we actually wrote and recorded about 30 songs and ended up with about 10. But yeah I’m going out there again soon to do another bunch of new songs.
Finally, do you get annoyed or disappointed when people ask if The Libertines are reforming just for the money and question the state of yours and Pete’s relationship?
Carl: Well, I guess people are always going to say that and I don’t particularly mind, but I’m just not bothered about that any more. At the end of the day, there’s going to be a record regardless of what people think and if people want to listen to the record and still say that we were just doing it for the money then so be it, but I can’t be worrying myself about shit like that and people like that because I have enough to worry about as it is and it’s not even true. I’m doing it for the love, I always do it for the love and I’ve spent my entire life doing it for that, not for the money – 72 hours ago I was in Thailand leaping around the studio arm in arm with Peter listening to new material.
This interview was by George Henry King. More writing by George on Louder Than War can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive. @Georgehenryking