Julian Casablancas is sat backstage at Kansas City’s Starlight Amphitheater. On tour with his band The Voidz playing support for Beck, they’ll soon hit the stage to perform tracks from their their sophomore record, Virtue.
Released earlier this year, this second offering from the band is a spiralling, psychedelic romp of a record. If the band’s 2014 debut – Tryanny – was a head scratcher, this new longplay is more of a deep tissue massage: working those initial sores and tensions to the bone. Segueing from strung-out, out of tune guitar solos to wacky sci-fi synths through auto-tune warps and a whole host of 80s tropes, here, Casablancas & co prove that there’s comfort to be found outside the box.
Beyond music, that rugged, mishmash ethos pulses through the band’s blueprint: an off-kilter ensemble, the group includes musicians from various different groups and projects, all pulled together by friendships, musical appreciations and a hard-wired ethos to push boundaries until they deliciously melt.
It’s a sonic M.O. shared – and indeed carved – by a certain Jennifer Herrema, frontwoman iconoclast of Royal Trux then RTX and later, Black Bananas (and also part-time HERO interviewer). A major Royal Trux fan, here Casablancas and his Voidz bandmate Jacob “Jake” Bercovici connect with Herrema over Skype, from backstage in Kansas City to Herrema’s West Coast pad these icons collide.
Jennifer Herrema: You’re on tour, right? Going good?
Julian Casablancas: Yeah it’s going good.
JH: Can you hear me? I get told I mumble a lot.
JC: We can hear you. I get told I mumble a lot too, and I think it might weirdly be a form of saving energy.
JH: Yeah I think you’re right. Well not if I’m mumbling to you, because I’m trying to be professional here. But yeah I think you’re right, half the things I mumble aren’t important really, I mean, I talk to myself a lot. I used to have a cat, so now it’s considered talking to myself because there is no cat [laughs].
JC: You been playing at all recently?
JH: Yes. We just finished mixing a new Royal Trux album, kind of yesterday. So we’ve been working a lot on listening to the same songs over and over again, you know how that is, right? So where did you record your record, Virtue?
Jacob “Jake” Bercovici: We recorded most of it in Los Angeles at the Beard’s house [Jeramy “Beardo” Gritter, The Voidz guitarist], but then kind of in a studio here and a studio there, and a bedroom maybe.
JH: Around, around. Was there a process? Did you guys sort of start it and then over time… or did you say we’re making a record and then boom, you’re in?
JC: Erm, we had a sort of official thing where we spent a month in a studio in Downtown LA and hashed out like 100 ideas, narrowed them down and then we went to the Beard’s garage and we’d put a song together a day or every two or three day.
JH: Cool, so it wasn’t just a meandering two year journey between the two albums? Or four year journey right? It was just time off, right?
JC: Yeah it was a long process, I guess the vocals took a long time, being all in one place took a long time. But yeah, we’re always sort of busy somehow.
JH: You have a family, right?
JC: I do, yeah.
JH: People being in different places and having different responsibilities really tends to slow shit down. With Royal Trux everybody is scattered around, so getting everybody together is tough. Same thing.
JB: The speed of records changes from when you’re nineteen and you just knock them out in a few day or whatever.
JH: Totally, also there’s so much music. It’s not that I listen to it really. But there’s a lot of gibber gabber, content everywhere, content up your ass. So I think it’s interesting when people make an album that is more thoughtful and they take time to not just slam some more content into the world.
JC: I think the problem mainly is touring, if we didn’t have to tour we could easily put a record out a year. It slows everything down in terms of writing, at least it does for me. It’s almost like you have to be off tour for a few months to even gather your writing ideas and songs.
JH: So with Tryanny and Virtue, you chose one word titles, I’m in the middle of trying to make up a title for my record so I’m interested.
JC: Yeah, well I guess we were sort of trying to join the two records in a sense. One of the discussions we had… it’s funny, my mum didn’t suggest the album title but she was like, “OK, you’ve kind of said what you’re against, so what’re you for?” So it’s switching it to finding the positive.
JH: That’s cool. This is like a total nonsense, but when I was listening to Tryanny… So Blue Öyster Cult are one of my favourite bands, so Tyranny and Mutation is one of my favourite records of all time because it tells a really weird story. I was listening to Virtue, and I know you’re from New York and the band are called The Voidz, you’ve obviously got some sort of Richard Hell influence.
JC: For me, the biggest influence… So I remember when I first started and people would compare us to other New York groups, especially Television. But to me, that whole New York world started with The Velvet Underground, so they’re sort of like the Godfathers in a way. Therefore if you live in New York, you’re going to be influenced by them and I think that’s why there will always be similarities between groups. I didn’t really listen to Television that much, in fact I don’t even think that I’d heard them until later on. So it was more Velvet Underground and being in New York that influenced us, rather than the New York scene.
JH: Yeah, I get that. Your voice sort of reminds me of a strange mix between Tom Verlaine and, I don’t know, maybe Alex Chilton a tiny bit.
JC: Tryanny was recorded right above the Strand Bookstore in New York where the manager had a floor and she’s rent it out to artistic, eclectic people, so there were composers, record labels, and we basically took over a voice over studio and we’d come in every night at around seven, or whatever time the Strand closed. Anyway, I saw Tom Verlaine down at the Strand all the time.
JH: Did you talk to him?
JC: I know, you never know what to do in those situations. It’s sometimes hard to gauge the energy and it felt like he wasn’t going to be into it.
JH: Yeah I think he wouldn’t have been. I hear he takes himself quite seriously. I was supposed to do a written interview with him when the last Black Bananas record came out like four or five years ago. My questions weren’t all that serious, but I knew his ex-wife pretty well, but he wasn’t amused. He wanted to talk about the linear nature of how this New York sound came to be. I didn’t care much to hear his reinterpretation.
JC: [laughs] But with Television, I don’t relate to their propensity for fake-out endings. I don’t know if they don’t know how to end a song or if it’s that they don’t like to end a song, but I remember seeing them once like nine years ago and yeah, they’d be like, [sings] “And the songggg isss endingggg nowwwwwww” [does a drumbeat] “But maybe it’s notttttt.” Like ten different fake-outendings, big dramatic, “And now we’re out of the song!” And then they launch back into it.
JH: [laughs] I’ve never seen them live. When I was very young Little Johnny Jewel was one of my favourite songs, my cousin played it for me and that track was huge to me. Have you discovered any new songs or anything recently that stick with you, but a track that doesn’t just take you back to a nostalgic time?
JC: It’s not a song, but something I’ve become fascinated in recently is boredom, or the way you get sick of something. Talking about listening to a song endlessly, to me that’s the saddest thing about music in the end. Say you hear the greatest song of all time, you listen to it, I will get sick of it.
JH: It is true. I’ve talked about this before, certain songs only represent touchstones in my life now, like, “Oh, that was the song when I did this,” or whatever. Or you hear a song and it immediately takes you back to a certain emotion. You get that, right?
JC: I get that more with smells, but yeah.
JB: I remember as a kid hearing my first Joe Jackson track, I remember getting the shakes from that track and I’ve listened to it like a trillion times. I don’t ever put it on, but if I hear it it does have that same effect.
JC: Yeah, if I discover a new song I really like, I try not to listen to it.
JH: You want to preserve it? I get that.
JC: I did the opposite when I was younger, if I liked a song I’d listen to it endlessly. But I’m fascinated with that concept of getting bored of something just in general, whether it’s a view, or a house, or your friends, whatever it is. There’s something fascinating to me about getting sick of something, it’s like an evolutionary thing. It’s human made, it’s not a universal law, like you could be a parasite stuck on a mound and enjoy it until you die. I think it has something to do with evolving and wanting to go out hunting.
JH: And moving on.
JC: Yeah, you can’t stay in one place or else your tribe will get slaughtered, or whatever the hell it is.
JH: They’d be a lot of slaughtered Beatles fans.
JC: [laughs] Yeah, it’s a bummer. You find something you like and it’d be nice to enjoy it forever.
“I’m fascinated with that concept of getting bored of something, just in general, whether it’s a view, a house or your friends, whatever it is.”
JH: But it’s to do with brain chemicals changing over time too, right? Like remember when you were a kid and you had to go to school and the summer was a million years away, but now, at least for me, it doesn’t feel long at all.
JC: That was like ten percent of your memory.
JH: Exactly, I’m just making shit up, I’m not a scientist, but I think that the brain changes over time and makes things seem different.
JC: An example is that you might be doing something and not particularly enjoying it, but then once it’s done you might look back on it as a fond memory and you’ll like, “Why couldn’t I enjoy it that much when I was there?”
JH: Exactly! I feel the same exact way, it’s not like that with everything, but like being in the moment breaks everything up into little parts and then looking back you see the big picture.
JC: It’s a lesson in living in the moment. It’s a bit like looking at a photograph, maybe you weren’t having fun, but you look at a photograph and you can feel that longing joy from that moment.
JB: Yeah, it’s like a warping experience… [the line breaks up]
JH: Wait, you sound like Darth Vader.
JC: [laughs] High praise.
JH: [laughs] You guys have impeccable style, what’s your relationship with fashion and style? It seems to me like you aren’t self-conscious about having such great style. Like my ex-husband, he’ll just do put on the worst lady’s blouse just because I said the other one was cool. How important is image to you?
JC: I think for me personally, image is something I wrestle with philosophically on a face to face human interaction basis. The image, to me, philosophically holds almost zero importance, but I think that when you’re delivering music, it’s almost like tactically, it holds incredible importance. I remember as soon as I started seeing bands, when you’re watching them on stage you’re looking at what kind of belt they’re wearing, their shoes, and it’s all influencing how you hear the music, fortunately or unfortunately. So for me, I remember I got married in this church and it had massive organ pipes that didn’t work, so I brought in a little Casio with the organ setting on its speaker and started playing church-y choruses and the people who worked there were walking in and looking at these pipes like almost in tears, like “It’s beautiful! I’ve never heard them.” And I was like, “No, that’s the Casio.” But because the pipes were so beautiful, the music was bringing them to tears. So yeah. I do wear cool stuff because I know that it’ll make the music come across in a certain way. But deep down I don’t give a shit.
JH: Yeah, well cool stuff is defined by stylists or whoever, but there are a lot of people who put cool stuff on their body and it really fails because it doesn’t feel like it’s them. But it seems like you make all your own decisions and that, you can’t just get a fucking stylist to make that happen, you obviously have a knack for it.
JC: Obviously growing up in New York, you see the new cutting edge styles before they really happen, so that influenced me I guess, but even so, I wasn’t a stylish kid, it was more to do with when I started getting into music. But again it’s about that self-edit, whether it’s music or fashion or whatever. Sometimes when I put something on and look in the mirror, I think about what someone who would hate me would say. I put on something and I’m like, “Oh, confused jock,” and I take it off and put something else on and it’s like, “Wow, you’re trying way too hard dude.” I have to like insult myself in the mirror to figure out what I want, then when I put something on and I’m like, “Oh, I don’t really know what this guy’s deal is, but I’m interested,” that’s the one I’ll wear [laughs].
JH: Yes. I’m being really sincere, you do it really well. Do you ever tell the dudes in the band like, no shorts on stage or some shit?
JB: Beardo said something the other day, he said, “Wearing shorts on stage equals career suicide.”
JC: Me and Beardo in the band, I feel like we’re sort of like the fashion police in the band a little bit. Like we don’t tell anybody off, we’re all friends, but you know, you’re in a band and someone’ll be like, “Hey, what do you think of this?” And you might get blank stares [laughs].
JH: So he’s not going to wear those shorts on stage? [points at Jake’s shorts]
JB: Oh god no [laughs]. I run hot, I’m hot-blooded so I need to stay as cool as possible.
JC: It’s very hot in Kansas City right now, it’s crazy hot.
JH: If you could clone yourself, how many would you put in reserve?
JC: If I could clone myself?
JH: OK, say there was an opportunity where you could clone yourself but each time it got a little bit watered down. How many times would you do it?
JC: Like the Michael Keaton movie Multiplicity?
JH: I’d just do two.
JC: I have a bigger question, if you could clone yourself, would you? And if it didn’t deteriorate at all, how many would you make?
JH: If it didn’t deteriorate at all and the memory was at the same place in time as the DNA example was extracted… I’d say like six. Enough for three hundred years, in case of emergencies.
JC: [laughs] I’d have to say zero because I’d be paranoid that they would cause mayhem.