Up the BracketThe LibertinesUnder the Influence
played a version of himself in the YouTube serial Svengali. And he was Gene Vincent in Telstar, Nick Moran’s 2009 Joe Meek biopic. “But Telstar,” says Barât, “was just like: walk on the set, say one line in a funny voice and walk off.”
Barât’s current project is more demanding. He shares the stage with Sadie Frost in Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love. It’s an intense drama, in which a couple’s doomed relationship is played out in a desert motel."It’s about cycles you can’t break,” says Barât. “Like the hold of a relationship coming back after years.” He is not, at this point, talking about his friendship with Pete Doherty. But he could be. He also gives his strongest indication yet of a Libertines reunion. “I don’t know that that’s ended yet. We’ll see where life takes us.”
In the meantime, Barât is soaking up the technical aspects of acting. If that seems like a vanity project for an off-duty rocker, the South London rehearsal rooms tell a different story. Actually, there is one room, inside a warehouse on a snowblown industrial estate. Within that room, there is a table and two chairs, a mattress, and an oblong of masking tape representing a door. Fortunately, Barât looks the part. Dressed like a punk Brando in jeans, boots, and white vest, the 31 year-old exudes charisma. “I was always sounding off when drunk to Sadie about my great acting prowess,” he says. “Which, of course, I made up. “I’m doing it for the challenge, really. Because it scares me so massively, petrifies me, it’ll help me in other areas of my life. I’m proud of myself or seeing something through.”
Acting isn’t entirely mysterious to Barât. He studied drama at Brunel University – where he met Doherty’s sister - before being diverted by music. But Brunel “was more of a diversionary tactic, to avoid the nine-to-five. “I knew I wanted to go into performance in some way, enough to own a guitar, but I suffered years of fear. So now I’m trying to fight that fear. Rather than do a parachute jump, I thought I’d do a play.”
Frost says that she persuaded Barât to read for the role because, “I wanted somebody really raw, really dangerous, but really vulnerable, who could relate to the character’s dysfunctional upbringing. I didn’t want anyone too conformist. And Carl had a quality that a lot of actors who have trained don’t have – a kind of recklessness and unpredictability.”
The dysfunction Frost alludes to isn’t something Barât is interested in discussing. He had an unconventional childhood, being raised by a hippie mother and an artist father, who latterly worked for an arms company. Barât started taking drugs before his teens, through “a combination of boredom, and the things that lead to depression in later life. My parents split up, shit goes on. It’s a story anybody could tell. I wasn’t trying to get away from anything specific. I
don’t think. As with any depressive person – maybe it’s just chemical.”
He was treated for acute pancreatitis in June 2008, but brushes aside concerns about his health. There were suggestions that illness had forced him to give up drinking. He hasn’t. “But I don’t need to be blitzed all the time. I’m quite enjoying being alive.
“I gave up the weed a long time ago. It was making me very confused and tired and lazy. Well, I thought it was that, but then I remained confused, and lazy. But I’m less tired.”
At school in Hampshire, he wasn’t sporty, but he wasn’t bullied either. Music, he says, “was like worlds. I used to listen to my Velvet Underground records with the lights off. That’s how I used to spend an evening , just on my own. A bit of incense. Or I’d listen to Rage Against the Machine – it was like a current through my body. I was part of it.” He laughs at the memory. “It’s like I was a method music listener. I don’t love that many things, but when I do find something, it lights me up.”
If Barât is vulnerable, it seems to be a weakness he is determined to confront. He is planning a solo album, his first release since splitting his post-Libertines’ group Dirty Pretty Things in 2008. The songs are written, the record deal is being finalised, and he hopes to complete recording by the end of April. “It will sound very different because I don’t want to have loud
electric guitars,” he says. “I feel like I’ve hidden behind those for years, and I want to do something that’s more wordy. Or at least where the words are more exposed. It’s quite naked sounding… at this point. I could suddenly go: ‘This needs guitars and it’s gonna be dynamite!’ But it’s more intimate.” The new sound was inspired by Bonnie Prince Billy’s sparse, confessional album, I See A Darkness. “That started me. It gave me the inspiration to think: why can’t you do it with just your voice and a melody?
“The way I see it is: the approach I’ve taken before is still part of my vocabulary. I could revert to doing that without it being false or phoney. This is exploring another voice. I don’t want to get too wanky, but if you learn the guitar, that’s one form of expression, and if you learn to control your voice that’s another form of expression. There are so many styles of music, and maybe I’ve not flexed those muscles yet. If they are indeed there.”
The demise of Dirty Pretty Things was a product of disillusionment; with record company expectations, and the limitations of working in a group. “Especially through trying to have a democracy. There’s always natural leaders emerging, so it becomes enforced democracy.”
From this distance, Dirty Pretty Things look like they were always doomed, if only because they existed in the slipstream of The Libertines, a group with an irreplaceable chemistry, founded on the competing talents of Barât and Doherty.
“I was trying to have the same spirit as the Libertines without the sparring leadership,” Barât says. “And once you take that away, you’re dealing with a whole different thing. I believed in the music and I believed in the people, and I’m sure we’ll play again one day. But it was a distraction. It was something to hide behind. And I chose to hide behind it because I’m intrinsically quite a lazy person – lazy and nervous. So I’m going to get rid of all of that, and then I’ve got no choice.”
This is surprising talk for a man whose musical career has been swathed in the mythological swagger of rock’n’roll. Both of Barât’s bands had had a sense of identity which made them more like gangs than pop groups. “That’s what I’ve always been after,” says Barât. “But part of being in a gang is hiding. That’s why people join gangs, because they need support. And I’ve grown in confidence through having that.” He hesitates. “Maybe not enough confidence to release a solo record just yet!”
Which may be why has been giving serious thought to a reunion with Doherty. “It’s not definite definite,” he says. “I can say 2011, but it’s hard to plan the Libertines until next Tuesday. But 2011 is where there’s room for that to happen. So if everything’s all right, then, yeah, it would be glorious to get on the old jacket and venture forth, into the known.”
Barât says he and Doherty would meet to see if the old chemistry still worked. “If it works, and there’s a window for that… no, a window makes it sound like a business meeting. If there’s a doorway, then certainly we’ll go through it.”
I ask whether the reunion depends on Doherty controlling his drug habit, and Barât answers hesitantly. “Well, once he’s settled into his grooves, and he’s fine, and he’s not hurting himself or anyone else, then that’s all fine with me.”
Certainly, the conditions seems ripe for the return of the Libertines. Their speedy reinvention of English pop, wreathed in poetic tales of a mythical Albion, would suit a country mired in financial woes and political uncertainty. “I know what you mean about there being a pre-punk feeling just now,” Barât says. “I did buy a couple of Rage Against the Machine downloads before Christmas [to thwart the X-Factor winner reaching Number One]. I had to work out how to use the internet just to do it. It drives me potty that people are being told by the X-Factor that that’s the correct way to approach a song. I find that revolting.”
On the broader question of English culture, he is less certain. “It’s very hard to see what our national identity is, really, unless we get the World Cup, or a war, or a nationwide blizzard. Then it’s good to see that Spirit of the Blitz kicks back in, and there’s pride and unity. That’s the only time you see it. So is there going to be a renaissance, through anger and frustration? Probably – it’s going to come at some point, isn’t it? So, yeah – vive la renaissance!”