Five minutes before getting on stage to kick off his China tour at Shanghai’s Modern Sky Lab, Carl Barât gathers his bandmates. Huddling together, they laugh and joke – someone suggests they greet the crowd with ‘Beijing!’ to see what reaction they get – before Carl says something rousing in a hushed voice. There’s a real eagerness and excitement about them as they head out to play to China for the first time.
It’s a reassuring reminder that even as Carl turns 40, the energy and whimsy that defined The Libertines’ indie rock fame is alive and well. And just as well – with a first-ever tour of China underway, progress on plans to build a hotel-cum-studio for The Libertines in Kent and talk of a new album in the works, there’s plenty in store from the Likely Lad. We caught up with Carl after his Shanghai show to talk China, The Libertines and his plans for the future.
It’s your first time in China, right? Any first impressions? How are you finding it?
Yeah, it’s incredible. Obviously you hear so much, so many different opinions, and over the years I’ve met a lot of different Chinese people. But to come here and see the sheer scale of everything is mind-blowing. You know, like, I went to The Bund yesterday. Shanghai’s our first place and I’m really excited about Beijing and Shenzhen. And yeah, the fucking food man.
Ah, so you’ve had a chance to try the food?
Yeah, we had about 26 courses yesterday. Every different variation of chicken. You guys have got a big chicken spectrum, and the noodle spectrum is also vast. One of my requisites for bands that I tour with is that they have to love culture, they have to appreciate where they are. I’ve had musicians before who’ve just been like, 'where’s the English TV? What’s this shit food?' So everyone’s blown away, we’re all fucking loving it. And just the niceness of people, the politeness and the kind-heartedness.
Anything you’re looking forward to in Beijing and Shenzhen?
Well, I’m interested in seeing the differences, obviously. I’m just so immersed in the moment, I’m hoping for more of the same. If anything’s better, I’ll be happy. In Shenzhen, I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to getting loads of fake shit. I love fake shit! I can’t wait for the Great Wall, I can’t wait for the Forbidden City, and the bullet train.
What have you been up to over the past year?
The biggest challenge has been getting the hotel, bar and recording studio together. I’ve been the main person on that. I had the idea, and everyone goes ‘yeah, yeah, great’, and no one does anything, so I’ve done everything – for the record, I’ve done everything! Even applying for all the licenses, the planning permission, finding a building, getting the mortgage, raising the money… sorry, I sound like I’m really bigging myself up! Last week, I did a course to be an official licensed alcohol seller, so I’m now licensed to sell alcohol.
Is that all coming along then?
Yeah. So the recording studio’s finished, it’s tip-top, it’s by the sea, it’s amazing. The bar’s coming together, too. I’m so excited about the future, about having people there, having our favourite bands in to do recordings together just for the sake of music. Getting people in to write, having ideas, getting other musicians in, doing that. I mean, fuck it, we could make it like a TV show, we could make a comedy, we could do fucking poetry recordings, there’s so much potential there. Pete’s just bought a speedboat, which I worry about. Just a two seater.
Ah, you can keep an eye on him.
Well I can’t swim!
'Pete’s just bought a speedboat'
And The Libertines, the new album, anything you can tell us about that?
Well, uh, we haven’t started yet! We’ve built the studio already. Pete is busy, he’s finishing his thing with his other band, and I just thought I’d take some time to go and see China while he’s doing that, get some old friends together.
Have you got anything else planned, any solo stuff?
I’m not really doing [any solo work] just yet. I’m writing, some of that stuff might be with The Libertines.
So it’s mostly going to be The Libertines moving forward now?
That’s my intention, yeah.
Have you thought about the wider future of the Libs? How’s it been working with Pete?
It’s been almost a decade since we got back together. Nothing ever changed with me and Pete… It’s lovely and it’s horrible. Most of all it’s lovely.
Boys in the Band: Pete and Carl onstage in 2016. Image: Thesupermat via Wikimedia Commons
And do you see yourselves going on past this album?
We’ll do my best, I’m very committed. I’ve got my family. I love my family, I’m all about my family… What I mean is that I find my family [to be] a new passion, it’s breathtaking. Just to see the world again through the eyes of my children, you know, that’s a beautiful thing which I’d be so sad if I’d missed out on.
Do you think that’s changed your music or your songwriting?
It’s changed my entire purpose… that sounds really pseudo-philosophical, like I’m down in the public toilets in Tunbridge Wells a bit drunk: 'I’ve changed my entire philosophy, man!' I think without [my family] I’d have burned into the ground. It changes your direction, seeing the world through a different perspective. And the longevity… I’ve just turned 40 but still, since I was five years old I’ve seen myself as 25 years old. That hasn’t changed.
Obviously the industry’s changed so much since you guys first started putting out records. Do you have any thoughts on the rock scene now?
You know what? It was like the Wild West when we started, and now it’s like… well I don’t know where to go from that! It’s like the fucking Wild West now.
But there are so many good bands. I could sit here and tell you about how all of the major sponsors have bought all of the stages and all of the media outlets in the known universe, and how, to get there, you have to be media-friendly. But, I mean, the truth is, the weeds will grow through the concrete. It’s always going on, and I think the mood is optimistic. Anything is possible.
'There are so many good bands now. People who believe in what they're doing enough will break through'
So you think it’s fine, whatever happens happens?
I think people who believe in what they’re doing enough will break through. Jesus, this is sounding very hippy-dippy optimistic. But I’m buzzing off the optimism and the intent to move forward. I believe that’s what there is. Kids are nicer than when I was a kid; when I was a kid it was who you could take it out on. And now people are… I think humanity is driven to get better.
That’s nice to hear, I think maybe people need to hear that.
I hope so, it sounds a bit like I’ve taken acid. I haven’t, I couldn’t find it anywhere!
Yeah, you’ll have a bit of trouble with that in China.
Lot of sulphuric acid in the air though, that does it for me!
You’ve got the Libs back, you’re doing China for the first time, you’ve got this hotel coming up and everything, it feels like you guys are gearing up for big things. What’s to come? Are you excited?
With The Libertines, I think we’re ready for new things and I think we’re moving forward. There’s four people influenced by totally different things, and we’re ready for our White Album, our Sandinista! We’re gathering everybody, staying all in one place, we’ll see what goes down. But there’s a spirit, and it’s alive, we’re all together in that, and we’re welcoming everybody in the world into it. All is alive and well, as it ever was.
By Daniel Wu