- 29 Sep 15
... well, they got the band back together only to find they were bigger than ever before. Excluding a vibe that recalls the carefree, surreally quick-witted early days of the band rather than the druggy darkness and conflict of their initial collapse, the Libertines welcome Hot Press into their surprisingly chilled 3Arena dressing room to talk about everything from the dangers of smoking whilst doing yoga to tricking the Guinness Book Of World Records. Oh, and that long-awaited third album...
It was a line embraced by legions of nattily-dressed indie kids when The Libertines declared it to be 'Time For Heroes' back in 2002 but, after years of hard experience and tumult, Peter Doherty knows now that there are far more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap. He's probably seen quite a few himself.
In early 2015, a promo video for the Hope Rehab Centre in Thailand turned up on Youtube, featuring a familiar rock 'n roll face giving a guided tour of the idyllic facility.
Unlike the postscripts to previous half-hearted expeditions to far-flung rehabs, Doherty would return to England and remain drug-free. Sobriety certainly suits him. In the video, he seems brighter than he has done in years, together and genuinely content. He also makes for a terrific host, cracking the kind of gags with a mischievous smile that once so endeared him to people as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed aspiring poet and musician.
The biggest evidence of change, however, came when he casually threw on one of the other residents' baseball caps and declared that he really rather liked it.
"I was not wearing a baseball cap!" the imposingly tall songwriter roars, aghast, when I bring it up months later. Doherty has been on his feet, meandering around his band's dressing room in Dublin's 3Arena since our interview began, but the baseball cap comment stops him in his tracks. He tries to look as affronted as possible. His fellow, seated Libertines throw knowing glances around the room and chuckle.
“That’s a lie!” he appeals. “No, no, no, that’s not true. Don’t be saying that. It was one that had the name of the rehab on it and it was more of a...”
Doherty’s co-frontman and best friend Carl Barât offers him a way out. “Were you wearing a trucker cap?”
Pete will take that. He nods triumphantly: “Yes, it was a Beatings-style trucker cap!”
We’ll let him off on that technicality. He drops the offended look as laughter fills the room. There is a lot of laughter backstage with The Libertines in 2015. Pete, Carl and the rhythm section of John Hassall and Gary Powell (steady in more ways than one) are utterly at ease in each other’s company, and there isn’t a dodgy hanger-on in sight. Friends fully reunited after the success of various one-off gigs inspired them to hit the road and the studio once more, they are relaxing less than two hours before they will turn in a performance that is as focused and tight as you’re ever going to get from this gloriously shambolic lot.
Doherty is as animated and engaged as he was in rehab, with some healthy weight on his bones that suggests the heroin has been well and truly kicked. While Carl will go into a comedy panic whenever I suggest it seems to be smooth sailing for the band, frantically reaching for wood or his own head to knock on to avoid being jinxed by a journo – “I might have to start wearing a wooden shirt!” – you can’t argue with the fact that it’s a far calmer state of affairs than their first go-round. That Beatings reference by the way? Long-forgotten British punks who toured with the Libs and Franz Ferdinand before calling it a day almost a decade ago.
“They were our rivals,” says Pete. “They used to say, ‘We're the thinking man’s Libertines’ or something like that. So we used to try and fight them all the time, as we do. You’d try to start a fight but they were difficult to fight. You’d just go ‘biff!’ and walk off... In that time when we got signed there was a lot of bands popping up. Now you see pictures of bands or musicians and you don’t see four guys in modish clothes do you? I don’t think you do.”
Is it a strange feeling, preparing to release your third album into a world where so many of the bands you started off competing against have fallen by the wayside?
“Yeah, I don’t know what happens to people. Who had that song ‘22 Grand Job’?”
“He’s got a 10 grand office job now!”
“In the city?” asks John, after piping up with a few lines of the chorus melody.
“Ah no, he hasn’t,” Pete decides. “He’s still banging away, I think.”
“I just feel like an incredibly fortunate person,” continues John. “I’m sure the other guys feel the same. It’s still that feeling of ‘wow, you’re living the dream.’”
They likely couldn’t have dreamt that the interest would still be sky-high after so long apart. Their old audience didn’t go anywhere, following the members’ various side projects and years of waiting patiently for The Libertines to realise they were best off together. The reaction they received when they played a surprise Pyramid Stage set at this year’s Glastonbury (following Florence & The Machine’s bump up the bill) said it all.
“I know, can you imagine that?” says Pete. “At the last minute they wanted us to do it. It’s not true, what they said, about us rigging that broken leg...”
Instead of a carefully-planned, clandestine assault on Dave Grohl, initially due to headline the Friday with Foo Fighters, it was instead “cosmic timing”.
“And I got some amazing free clothes as well,” notes Pete. “When they find out you’re headlining Glastonbury they just throw clothes at you... You say [the old audience] are still there but we didn’t even play Glastonbury the first time around.”
“The biggest thing we could do was three Dublin Castles,” Carl agrees. “We didn’t realise that we’d worked, lived it and put so much into it that it was still strong enough to come back to. It was fermenting in our absence, I suppose. Which is why when we did Hyde Park, or even Reading and Leeds in 2010, we couldn’t believe that people were still there and had joined us since. The amount of people I heard say, ‘We get to see them! I’ve dreamed of this for so long!’”
“We knew it was going to be creating a monster,” counters Pete. “And it was too much for us, you know? And then to just pause for breath...”
Carl: “It’s like keeping your weight to fight Tyson!”
Back in the ring with Anthems For Doomed Youth, it is their first studio collection in 11 years. ‘You’re My Waterloo’, a beautiful, literate, Morrissey-esque ballad penned by Pete long before ‘What A Waster’ reinvented them as England’s noisy answer to The Strokes, takes pride of place on the record, but for the most part they’ve been looking ahead. Powell in particular was insistent that they wouldn’t become a mere heritage act and that new material was crucial. Those 11 fresh songs find the band pretty much picking up where they left off, combining uplifting elements from their Up The Bracket debut with the more complex, helter-skelter and lyrically self-referential aspects of its eponymous follow-up.
Recording took place over six weeks at Karma Sound Studios, Thailand, with producer Jake Gosling. Best known for his work with Ed Sheeran and One Direction, Gosling manages to control the chaos and ever-so-slightly polish the sound without neutering them. When their decision to work with someone from the pop realm was questioned earlier this summer, Powell said that they needed that fresh approach and asked why they should work with Arctic Monkeys’ producer when “without The Libertines there would be no Arctic Monkeys.”
The band perk up when talk turns to the results.
“You listened to it last night?” Pete ventures. “That’s really exciting for us because it’s the first time people are hearing it.”
They are pleased when I say I’ve been playing it to death, relieved as an old fan by its quality.
“Wicked! We would have had to put our tools down and walk out of the studio if it wasn’t working.”
“It’s like bumping into that old friend that you haven’t talked to in ages and you just start talking as if it was yesterday,” Gary says of the process. “Just carrying on as you were, that’s pretty much how it was.”
“It’s a Peter Pan situation,” muses Carl. “Being a musician and giving up that standard life path, throwing yourself into this and doing it for years. You don’t really grow up in a way. If it’s the same band, with the same chemistry, and you all effectively feel the same about each other, then that time doesn’t really pass. I don’t hear the 11 and half years that have passed between this album and the last one at all.”
A few scratched out words on the cover sleeve suggest Hallelujah Day was the working title. It’s a bit of a leap from that to the Wilfred Owen- referencing ...Doomed Youth.
“Yeah, but for something to be doomed there has to be something worth celebrating in the first place,” says Doherty. “To experience loss you have to have had something to lose.”
Carl: “It was like tiptoeing around the void. I know that sounds a bit grandiose and dramatic but that’s how I felt. With this album, you think you’re getting away from the void for good. But if someone pulls that lever, BOOM!”
More mature and taking care of themselves these days (though you imagine Gary and John were ever thus), they’re not exactly straight- edge. The video for lead single ‘Gunga Din’ is essentially ‘the Libs do The Hangover 2’, as the four wander down “The Walking Street” – the red light district of Pattaya, Thailand – and feed each other beer. If it’s fairly calm backstage, they aren’t exactly rolling out the yoga mats...
“I fell asleep on my yoga mat and set fire to it a couple of years ago,” says Carl, revealing the dangerous side of healthy living. “I guess I left a lit fag on it. I was doing the opera at the time and after a few afternoon shandies I thought, ‘it’s getting a bit late.’ Then I woke up and my fag was on the mat burning!”
‘Libertines Frontman Perishes In Bizarre Yoga Incident’ is not a headline anyone would expect to see. It wouldn’t have been a great way to go.
“Running through Paris with a yoga mat fused to your face!”
Luckily, Barât lived to play another day. Do they still enjoy performing all the old numbers? Especially considering how often their lyrics laid bare the dysfunction and strife in the band. Most people don’t have to regularly relive what they did in their twenties.
“I think a lot of people do,” says Pete. “It’s like F. Scott Fitzgerald trying to live up to something that he’d written earlier. With The Great Gatsby, he didn’t write that when he was still young, it was all building up to it."
“He’d already written [debut novel] This Side Of Paradise,” notes Carl before their bass player gets in on the literary chat.
“I went past Oscar Wilde’s birthplace today,” John says happily. Cue much eye-rolling from his bandmates.
“He kissed the Blarney Stone as well!”
“If you had to get up and recite lyrics it would be different but this is all set to music and that’s the buzz,” says Pete, picking up the conversational thread. “You can just disappear inside it. If you were really into the Smiths when you were younger, and those lyrics and that music meant everything, it doesn’t dilute. The relevance maybe does, compared to what you’re doing now. But no, we wouldn’t be able to play those songs if we were too estranged from them."
“[With the likes of] ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’, they were always big tunes but we never really nailed them back in the day. They just came along. Like, the day we did it on Jonathan Ross – we hadn’t even really written it properly. Playing them now, it’s almost like we’re still learning them. The opening to ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’, it’s tough to get it. I watched one on YouTube the other night and I was embarrassed man.”
So is that how Pete Doherty spends his evenings now, sitting at a computer and YouTubing himself?
“Nah, I find it difficult to watch live stuff. But we’re trying to make these gigs work – it’s good to see what works.”
“I think we’re playing better than we’ve ever played before,” says Hassall. History has taught them, however, to take things one day at a time.
“The more we feel that we’re there for each other,” says Powell, “the more opportunity there will be to do another record.”
“But I think...” interjects Pete, “we’ve got the record for most splits in a year!”
Considering they’re in Dublin, they should get on to Guinness and make it official.
“I’m in that Guinness Book Of Records,” Pete deadpans. “Can’t remember what for now.”
His little known, death-defying trapeze feats?
“Oh no, it’s some bloke with hula hoops. He put so many hula hoops in his mouth but I said ‘ahhh... I beat him!’ and they put it in.”
In terms of other, less dubious goals, Doherty would quite like his band to comprehensively conquer Europe.
“I was looking at this map of Europe and I was going to turn it into a poster for the Libertines tour. I was looking at all the countries we’ve played in the last couple of weeks and all the countries we’re going to play in the next couple of months. I think it would be amazing to just do the whole route. Just to fill in that map. It’s just an old school map, it doesn’t have the cities. Just the shapes. You can see the shape of the old East Germany and old Czechoslovakia...”
Hassall: “We’re gonna play in East Germany soon.
Doherty: “Germany, John.”
As Powell explains it, in keeping with their old adage that anyone could be a Libertine, they’re aiming for inclusive experiences rather than ego-boosting jaunts.
“With most of the bands that play those circuits, the more they play they create notoriety and get all of these people around them that they count as their ‘fans’. Whereas with us guys, we just create more and more friends that feel that they’re part of the family. I much prefer that arrangement. Coming out of the hotel and having a chat with a bunch of kids as opposed to standing there for an awkward picture, signing an autograph and walking off. These people are as interesting as we are. There’s nothing more special about us than there is about anybody else...
“You see these bands when they turn up. They’ve got the sunglasses on, they’ll wave and they’ll sign a few autographs. They give you a coy look and then they just walk on.”
“I was talking to some of them today,” says Pete. “They said they saw you in the pub last night and said, ‘Ooh, there’s Gary!’ but they were too shy to come and talk to you.”
Did he have shades on at the time?
“Haha, THEY probably had the sunglasses on!” Whether or not they fill in that map, their journey together appears to be far from over. “Personally, I think you determine your own course,” says Hassall. “It’s been an absolute pleasure so far and I’m convinced that it will continue to be an absolute pleasure. This album and everything after it... I think it’s gonna last. I believe that.”
Doherty agrees with John’s theory on the power of positive thinking, and suggests it’s possible that, in the past, he was purposefully manufacturing an idea of chaos.
“A lot of my childhood was achingly dull, sat in an army barracks. So you invent, you fantasise. I was told when I was quite young that if you could fantasise hard enough it comes true. Your life will evolve. It’s like songs, isn’t it? You put a song together to create a certain mood. Control the dance floor and you can control people’s minds. If you can make someone dance, you can make them do anything.”