Music’s most shambolic band, The Libertines, are back with a new album and sense of purpose
Time Out Dubai staff
How long can Pete and Carl hold it together this time? By Kevin EG Perry
Pete Doherty is having a flashback. “I used to squat around here,” he says, gesturing out of the window. “Albion Towers. There, the place opposite the Scala.” “That was my little belfry,” adds Carl Barât. “There’s a tiny little room at the top.”
We have ventured to the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, to witness The Libertines complete their crazy circle, from success to madness and back. Barât picks up a book by Sir John Betjeman that has been tossed on a table and reads from A Child Ill: “Oh little body, do not die…” as we wait for our drinks; they’re called Ring of Roses, a potent concoction of Russian beverage, bubbly and elderflower. The evening is falling outside: all the scene needs is Chatterton dead on the couch. You can never accuse The Libertines of not staying in character.
A lot has happened since Doherty and Barât, along with drummer Gary Powell and bassist John Hassall, arrived on the scene of British rock ’n’ roll. Among music’s millionaire rappers and business-class casuals, the Libs wore their wit and mercurial intelligence on their sleeve. The press loved them: in 2002 the NME put them on the cover before they’d had a record out. At their heart was the singular relationship between Doherty and Barât: loving, co-dependent, doomed. If Britpop had looked to the ’60s, the Libs were the Romantic poets, more Keats than Kinks.
And, like the Romantics, they carried the shadow of their own destruction. They were – initially in the best possible way, subsequently in the very worst possible way – a shambles. Within two years of the release of their acclaimed debut, Up the Bracket, they had disintegrated in a mess of amateur burglary and prison. Doherty was appointed artist-in-residence to the tabloid media. A reunion looked unlikely.
But now they’re back, with a third album, Anthems for Doomed Youth. Recorded at Karma Sound Studios in Thailand, close to where Doherty recently completed rehab, the record represents a chance at redemption. After a triumphant set at Glastonbury, their return is a breath of smoky air to 2015’s clean-living music scene. Maybe we need their uncompromising devotion to the spirit of rock ’n’ roll more than ever. As new single Gunga Din snarls: “It feels like nothing’s changed/ Oh, here I go again…”
Was there a moment when the band’s relationship clicked again after the initial awkwardness of getting back together? Carl: “By the time we were in Thailand there was no awkwardness. We were just really eager to get on with recording the album. I guess it all clicked when we pressed record and started playing Gunga Din.” Pete:“Yeah, that’s true. Just playing together in a room like that...”
You seem to be getting on better now. Are you older and wiser? Carl: “I think we just understand things a bit better. We called down the thunder, and did we get it: like a pile driver that squashed the four of us. Now we’re realising a bit what things mean. How little time there is.” Pete: “Maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe we really understood what things meant then, but things are different now in all our worlds. Carl’s got two little children who he loves. They call him daddy, because, well, that’s what he is. He’s a different person. There’s something in his eyes that wasn’t there before. Something fast approaching happiness, I think.”
Now you’re back together, you can see you’re still finishing each other’s… Carl: “…Sandwiches.”
Exactly. How did you deal with being in the tabloids all the time? Pete: “To be honest I’ve always been more of a TLS (Times Literary Supplement) reader myself. But sometimes you can’t avoid it, when it’s in your face when you’re buying milk.” Carl: “I’m more interested in the crossword.” Pete: “Or you find yourself in the dock because someone’s taken a picture of you from a funny angle that makes it look like you’re doing something you’re not. The tabloids can kiss it, man. As soon as I get 12 Number Ones I’ll buy them out and have a huge bonfire. They’ll see!”
Is there a pressure on you returning to the fans after ten years? Carl: “A lot of them weren’t there then. You see a lot of 15-year-olds in the front row. We’ve just got to do what we do. If what we do is true but it isn’t good enough, then that’s a whole different issue.” Pete: “Pressure really only exists when you have two opposing forces. If all the forces are pushing in the same direction then you just let the energy flow, and utilise it. There’s no-one out there now to prove anything to.”
Does it feel more permanent now? Carl: “We’re forever in the moment. There’s no permanence to our state of mind.”
What advice would you give to a young band just starting out? Pete: “You should start that question, ‘Is there any advice…’”
Is there any advice? Pete: “No.” Carl: “Nothing apart from ‘keep the faith!’ It’s the hardest thing in the world, and sometimes the easiest.” Pete: “Just don’t listen to the naysayers who say it’s a bad idea to put on this certain event at this certain place. Just do it. Play the really dodgy pub at the end of the street. You could meet a songwriting partner.”
Do you still get nerves before big shows? Pete: “That ain’t even the word, mate. ‘Nerves’ ain’t even the word. It’s proper heebie-jeebies.”
It hasn’t changed with age? Pete: “The day we just skip on [stage], we’ll knock it on the head.” Carl: “That is the metaphor of The Elves and the Shoemaker. At the end, they’re given clothes and they all go away happy.”
And that’s The Libertines in 2015: the same but different, as vital as ever. How long they will hold it together this time is anyone’s guess. Gunga Din also contains a warning: “The road is long/ If you stay strong/ You’re a better man than I.”