Interview: The Libertines

The Libertines might be the product of a cult novel: they've lived in a brothel, quote Oscar Wilde and are obsessed with Albion. Dorian Lynskey meets pop's likeliest lads

Pete Doherty and Carl Barat - joint singers, guitarists, songwriters and ideologues of east London-based quartet the Libertines - are having an argument about an argument. Specifically, they are disagreeing over the period a year ago when they decided "the dream had become tainted".

The row began when Doherty, 23, made some solo demos. "If the dream was tainted I'm not fucking surprised, because you didn't have me there," says Barat, 24.

"You went off in a big huff," insists Doherty. "In those days he didn't know much about music."

Barat is indignant. "What? I knew about music. Maybe I didn't know about bands. I still don't care. It's just a game. I'd rather play the computer or catch up on a soap opera. I believe in melody and hearts and minds."

Doherty smiles. "Good. Just testing."

And they raise two plastic cups of Scotch in a conciliatory toast "to the Arcadian dream".

When you talk to the Libertines' frontmen (bassist John Hassall and American drummer Gary Powell are absent), it does not take long to realise that you are in the presence of peculiar talents. Last summer, before they had even released their first single on Rough Trade, What a Waster, the NME was calling them the "best British band of the year". And when compared with other much-hyped British newcomers such as the Coral and the Streets, the Libertines have by far the most far-reaching and fantastical aesthetic. Up the Bracket bears traces of the Jam, the Smiths and Blur circa Modern Life Is Rubbish, but also has a rich palette of non-musical influences.

Like the Smiths or the young Manic Street Preachers, the Libertines come armed with several bedroom-walls' worth of heroes and icons, a cultural collage that reaffirms the idea that sometimes in rock there is nothing sexier than a voracious intelligence. They enthuse about a mythic Englishness they refer to as Albion (they keep a collection of journals called The Books of Albion) and Arcadia. In the past they have expressed affection for Oscar Wilde, Disraeli, and Galton and Simpson. You might also add Joe Orton, Lindsay Anderson's film If... and Pinkie from Brighton Rock.

"Sid James, Syd Barrett and Sid the Sexist," offers Barat. "The other day I did the Reeds: Lou Reed, Beryl Reid and Oliver Reed."

They also look the part. On a freezing January afternoon they are holed up in a recording studio in the suburbs of Nantes, France, where they are recording a limited-edition single for a French label. Fresh of face and louche of manner, they are equal parts Dickensian urchins and Wildean dandies. Doherty sits wrapped in a rug-sized shawl smoking through a cigarette holder, while Barat, in a dapper greatcoat, lights his smokes with a union flag lighter. In photo shoots, they favour antique Crimean war regalia.

Their speech - quiet, intense and drily witty - is equally eccentric. They refer to one another as Carlos and Pigman and occasionally dip into archaic slang. Discussing a period of poverty, Doherty says: "Money didn't really figure that much. As long as we had enough for a packet of Benson and Hedges, a couple of drinkies and to take a bird to the pictures." Who speaks like that in 2003?

Both men had unorthodox, itinerant upbringings. Barat has French, Russian and Polish blood and claims that he is distantly related to Basil Rathbone, the 1940s celluloid Sherlock Holmes. Born in Basingstoke, he divided his youth between his father, a factory worker, and his mother, a traveller. Doherty's childhood included stints in Germany and Cyprus. "It's not important, though. I was always living up here anyway," he says, tapping his head.

Doherty's first sight of Barat was on stage in Liverpool, playing guitar on a breakbeat version of Purple Haze while setting off a smoke bomb. He was suitably impressed. When they met six years ago, they initially had few interests in common - "I'd show him Tony Hancock and he'd show me how to skin up," says Doherty - but they forged an immediate, intangible bond.

"We had some kind of inner storm in common that drove us together, even though a lot of the time we didn't actually want to be together," says Barat.

"We didn't really get on," Doherty agrees. "But I was fascinated by ideas he had about himself and the country. I'd never met anyone like him. It was - what's the word when you can't take your eyes off someone?"

Magnetic? Riveting?

Barat theatrically arches an eyebrow. "Someone's been reading Roget."

"Yes, it was riveting," Doherty continues. "Despite everything, you knew there was goodness there. Something to believe in. Something which is good, pure and untainted by anything."

"I think I felt a bit trapped before I met Pete," admits Barat. "Have you seen The Lavender Hill Mob? Alec Guinness plays this wonderful, colourful person who locks it all up and goes through the motions. I always felt a bit like that. But then I met the Pigman and he said, 'You can actually knock that on the head and get out.' So we threw ourselves into eternity. And it worked."

To an outsider, the Libertines' history is a tangle of contradictory tales and details. Doherty and Barat complain about journalistic inaccuracies, but to be fair, even they disagree on several incidents and they are not averse to taking dramatic licence. The overall impression, though, would make a cult novel: a picaresque trip through a neo-Dickensian netherworld of rogues and romance.

"It was bit like finding a manhole cover and lifting it up and then going under," Doherty says."We came out of the manhole the day we signed to Rough Trade."

Until Rough Trade lifted them off the breadline, the Libertines lived and played wherever they could: a condemned pub, an anarchist squat, a disused factory run by a character called Delvin the Wizard and, most memorably, a brothel on Holloway Road, north London.

"We had nowhere to stay and we met this anorexic prostitute who said we could stay," Barat casually explains. "The NME said that she was my girlfriend. She certainly was not my girlfriend."

Doherty: "She was in love with him, though. She had the body of a 14-year-old boy with these two huge plastic knockers."

Barat: "I used to wake up with her at the end of my bed in tears with all her hair ruffled up and hollow cheeks. She really wanted to kill Pete as well. She tried to stab him in the throat with a pair of scissors, in the place where he worked. Pete called the police and she called her own police, so two lots turned up."

Several articles have mistakenly referred to the Libertines as former rent boys. The truth is that the pair once answered an ad for male escorts, mistakenly thinking they would simply have to wine and dine women. Barat says the penny dropped when he turned up at a hotel room and an old man answered the door.

During this long, messy period, the band had a revolving-door membership policy that at various points included a cellist, a 70-year-old jazz drummer called Mr Razzcocks and the aforementioned prostitute, who could drum a bit. They claim their manager ("a lady of vast ambition, like Margaret Thatcher") signed them primarily because their singer at the time looked a little like Julian Casablancas from the Strokes. She made them settle on a stable line-up and secured them a record deal.

"There was quite an apocalypse from which we emerged. Like a nuclear winter," says Barat. "Or Stamford Bridge after a bad result," adds Doherty.

Up the Bracket, recorded at speed with the Clash's Mick Jones in the producer's chair, is a dazzling piece of work. Played with such anarchic gusto that it sounds like it might fall apart at any minute, it suffuses bullish swagger and needle-sharp wit with humane romanticism: the contradictory sound, to quote Doherty's hero Morrissey, of sweet and tender hooligans.

Radio America imagines "the red-faced president, who took tea with her Majesty the Queen, and they watched old films flicker across the palace movie screen". The Good Old Days invokes the spirit of Anglo-Saxon warrior queen Boudicca before asserting: "There are no 'good old days'. These are the good old days." Best of all, new single Time for Heroes has the priceless line: "There's few more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap."

Any cynical reactions to the Libertines can probably be attributed to the traditional British distaste for rock bands who wear their intellects on their sleeves. Even deathless cockney duo Chas and Dave, for whom Doherty has a sincere love, suspected their motives.

"They did some TV programme and we were sitting behind them in awe," says Barat. "They kept stopping and asking us to move back a bit more until we were right out of shot."

"They thought we were taking the piss," says Doherty sadly. Then he perks up. "On their rider they still have the pint mugs with the handles."

In person, the Libertines charm rather than irritate, because all their eccentricities and affectations are clearly so deeply felt. Like any good Wilde fans, they know that a pose can be genuine and a fantasy can have the ring of truth. Given their ideal of Albion, I ask what disheartens them about the reality of English life.

"Everything," says Barat. "That's why I choose not to live in it."

Doherty is more optimistic. "Just when you get really wound up, you turn a corner and you're somewhere else completely. You find an Arcadian glade - a glimpse of paradise in the middle of it all. And that's why you persevere. That's why you don't chuck yourself off a building or shoot yourself at the same time as someone else, like he [pointing at Barat] wanted us to."

"Yeah," smirks Barat. "That, and I suspected you might cheat."

· Time for Heroes is released on January 13 on Rough Trade. Up the Bracket is out now.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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