Carl Barât: ‘I had a rule that said you can’t do heroin and crack’

As his new band the Jackals prepare to release their raucous first album, the Libertine talks about writing songs with Pete Doherty in Thailand, playing a rock star on screen and keeping off the whisky

Hi Carl! The last time we met you were jamming with Congolese funk musicians on a train leaving Middlesbrough (1)!

Yeah, Africa Express. Much as I love the idea of any kind of fusion in music … well, I had a great time, but I’ve not been asked back, put it like that. Whether that’s because of my musical output or my bacchanalian input, I don’t know!

What did you learn from that experience?

I’ve hopefully taken on the freedom. I think we all need a kick in the arse sometimes, a reminder to put down the magazines covering what’s going on at the moment and connect with what you really feel.

Your new record (2) was originally going to be a solo one but then you formed a new band, the Jackals. Why?

Just the thought of apologetically plopping another solo album on the production line, like: “Hey guys, if anyone’s interested I’m doing another solo album – I know nobody liked the last one …” I also wanted a gang, people who felt as much of an investment in it as I did.

You chose the band through a series of auditions, a process that has been described in the press as an indie X Factor.

I would never have said that. “Creator of the indie X Factor” would be the most unjust epitaph. Basically, I wanted a band but not made up of people I know because they come with baggage and egos. I’d got most of this record done so I wanted people to come on board who weren’t jaded by touring and the rest of it. I’ve still got all the other applications here in my office, look! (3) In fact I’ve still got all the shortlisters applications, too. Actually, keeping hold of them is a sort of Sword of Damocles veiled threat, isn’t it?

What were the band doing before you hired them?

Literally rocking and a rolling, just living that life without a fucking clue how to get a leg up anywhere. They’re proper young bloods, they’re so into it, the passion and the lifestyle. That’s why I didn’t get mates in. The drummer has only left England once - he was playing in a wedding band in Swindon!

How many people applied to be in the Jackals?

There were 1,000 initial replies, some of which were just lovely kids who couldn’t play anything but wanted to write a letter. I tried to get back to them all. Some of them were from all over the world, thinking I would pay their flights back and forth to California! They thought the music industry was this club with free money – I used to think that as well, though. Anyway, we went to the Amersham Arms in south London and we got people down there to play a bit with my mates. At that point anyone blatantly out of the picture was told that it wasn’t going to work.

Did you feel like Simon Cowell crushing people’s dreams?

Not at all. The thing about Cowell is that he doesn’t mind being a bastard. I hate saying no to anyone. I had to do that effectively … 997 times. That was really tough.

The record was produced by the Bronx’s Joby J Ford. Was the plan always to make it more raucous than your previous records?

Yeah, I think so. Although I stand by my last, erm, “cathartic” effort. Actually, I think it was the cover that rubbed people up the wrong way.

What was wrong with it?

Nothing for me! It was me taking a photo of my beloved, pregnant with my child … but I think it looks a bit narcissistic. I think that cover was the reason why that fellow from the Black Keys kept having a pop at me.(4) But that’s all part of the game, isn’t it. It’s what Lily Allen did, or what Sleaford Mods are doing now. I don’t like getting involved really. I can throw a hand grenade, but it’s when they get thrown back that it bothers me.

There are a few lyrical references to the Libertines on the record. Were you conscious of that?

I was aware of them. You know how in therapy, when you’ve had a fucked-up past, you need to go back as an adult and nurture that baby? I think that’s what you have to do in songwriting.

How do the band feel about you working with Pete as the Libertines again (5)?

It must be a bit of a pisser for them to see the Libertines on stage at Hyde Park and then to play the fucking Rat and Handgun. But they still appreciate it, they’re having fun – doing photoshoots [does model poses] and getting on social media and watching comments come in … they’re enjoying the ride.

If they complain about anything then you’ve got the forms from the other applicants to hand, anyway.

Indeed, yes.

When the Libertines played Hyde Park in 2014, Pete said he was doing it for the money. That seemed like a very non-Libertines thing to say …

I liked the honesty, and I think for him not to have said that … Pete always needs the money, there’s no fucking hiding that. Everyone was insinuating it anyway so I think he pipped them to the post. But of course it wasn’t about the cash. It was about us doing it together, and putting a lot of things to bed. It was about love. Although the money fucking helps.

How’s your relationship with Pete?

Great. I was with him just 72 hours ago, leaping around a studio in Thailand.

I saw the picture on Twitter of you writing together on wooden decking, in the sunshine underneath palm trees – not an environment you’d ever have expected a Libertines album to be written in.

But we were listening to the new Hancock on the wireless, so it’s not entirely alien. It was a bit like being in the colonies in the 50s or 60s. And they do say that there’s nothing more English than an Englishman abroad. Not that I want to keep hammering on about Englishness, that’s getting a bit tired.

When Pete wrote his piece in the Independent about overcoming addiction, I thought it sounded very honest. Maybe for the first time I believed that he wanted to get better …

It had all the hallmarks of someone who really fucking means what they say. There was no covering it to sound cool. And I appreciated that. I think he’s choosing to be – in the words of rehab – his higher self. Did I really just say that?

Are you worried about when the time comes for him to return to the UK?

I don’t know, man, it’s baby steps … and you don’t want to fall into that fucking abyss of habit and familiarity and the crutch of people you know in the nefarious little world behind curtains way past dawn. That’s the other end of the spectrum I’d be keen to see avoided. But we don’t have to rush back into the metropolis while Pete finds his feet. There’s talk of going to the Pyrenees next, because Thailand is a bit of a hike every time.

Life during the Libertines’ chaotic peak seemed too intense to actually be enjoyable …

Mick Jones once said to me, about 10 years ago: “Look, this is really important - you need to enjoy this … all these things that are happening are just storms in a teacup.” Well, 10 years on, I can finally say I’ve learned how to enjoy it.

You’ve said in the past you didn’t like heroin. Why not?

It made me feel nauseous for a start, and that’s never a pleasant experience. Also, my drugs have always been uppers because I like to be in control of my faculties - I’ve got so much to expel and express that I feel like heroin’s slowing me down. It also makes you sexually inactive, and I didn’t want to be sexually inactive as a 23-year-old. And also, it’s just a drag - it’s smelly with all the paraphernalia and burned fingers. It’s not romantic opium, it’s skanky heroin.

Was it hypocritical to embrace a debauched life yourself while criticising Pete’s drug addiction?

I embraced it as much as Peter did, no doubt about it. And that made it hard, of course it did. But I had a rule that said you can’t do heroin and crack, because they seemed to be in a different area. Now that rule would maybe have been broken if I had been interested in crack and heroin. But to me crack is just panic and heroin is inactivity … but hopefully that’s all behind us.

Tell me a bit about your acting career. What made you want to go into it?

I’ve always wanted to act. Rather than apply direct, I went to university to do something completely different and tried to slither across. Which I managed to do in the end, because I think the guy in charge was a bit pissed and had an eye for me.

Your upcoming film For This Is My Body has you cast as a vampirical rock star who has gorged himself on drugs and groupies. How on earth did you prepare for that role?

Ha, well I was about to say I’ve spent 15 years preparing for it!

Was your first experience on stage, in Fool For Love, a bit of a baptism of fire?

It certainly was. I’d never done any real acting before - so why not go on the West End stage, learn an entire book, play a principal character and do a fucking accent that nobody is going to believe? There was nowhere I could really hone my craft where I wasn’t being watched by someone. It’s not like I had time to learn at a community theatre in Wales! I felt like: “What am I doing here?” Going onstage is weird, it can often feel like steps to the gallows. Before you go onstage you say: “See you on the other side” … it’s not a cliche, it’s a real thing because there’s a fucking abyss between now and after it’s finished.

I remember one part of the role involved nonchalantly lassooing a chair leg, which sounds terrifying.

Oh that was horrible. The amount of times I missed!

Do you enjoy it once you’re up onstage though?

Yeah, there’s an alchemy that happens, something takes over. Once in a while, the alchemy doesn’t happen and you still feel awful, which is when you start defaulting to drink and necking the whisky on the rider. So I’ve had to start removing that or getting watered-down versions.

You seem very upbeat.

That’s good. I feel like everything I’ve ever wanted has suddenly come to me all at once: Jackals, Libertines, films, writing for other people, family … It’s about fucking time! I spent 30 years being the most unhappy, miserable person.

You’ve talked about your struggle with depression, do you still suffer from that?

Yes, but I’m keeping too busy to be able to get depressed, which is a good tactic. I’ve also started meditating (6) which is great, although the thought of meditating when I’m stressed is a bit like: “Are you joking, i haven’t got time for that shit!”


1) In 2012, Africa Express chartered a train, filled it with musicians and toured the UK. It was immense.

2) Carl Barât & the Jackals – Let It Reign is out on 16 February on Cooking Vinyl.

3) One of the questions on the application reads: “Have you ever been arrested?”

4) The blues duo once claimed there was nobody they would like to punch in the face more than Barât.

5) Pete and Carl are currently demoing songs for the third Libertines album in Thailand.

6) According to Carl’s meditation app, he’s put in 100 hours of meditation.


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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