Interview from the NME where the band were on the cover.
'We're from pandemonia and that's where we're going to remain'
Psycho ex-girlfriends, knife fights, a difficult rent-boy period: pursuit of the Arcadian dream hasn't always been easy for east Londoners The Libertines - the best new band in Britain
It's May 1, and NME is sitting in the Dive Bar in Soho, London. Outside, it's the day of the anti-capitalism protests and the riot police have just closed off Shaftesbury Avenue to the accompaniment of screaming and broken glass.
Down here, Pete Doherty and Carl Barⴠ- the two frontmen from Britain's greatest new band (aka The Libertines) - have just stumbled in through the door with their belts undone; for some reason their belts are always undone. They, along with bassist John Hassall and drummer Gary Powell, have just been rioting. Or, as they prefer to call it, "celebrating".
Carl - side-parting, swarthy good looks, occasionally prone to mumbling - is rubbing his leg. He's just thrown a bottle at a policeman. In return, the policeman's just whacked him on the knees with a truncheon.
Meanwhile, Pete - staring eyes, small lips, occasionally prone to walking in front of moving cars - wants to know why we're doing their interview down here.
"Why don't we do it outside?" he asks. "We could wander around and get the police involved." Well... Before we've actually had a chance to answer, the idea's vanished from Pete's head. That's because he's started an argument with Carl. This isn't a surprise. They're always bickering. He starts to taunt Carl about a recent Libertines story in NME where he was the only band member to get quoted.
"Most people fancy Carl more than they do me," he sighs. "For years I've been in his shadow, but now the worm has turned and I'm getting all the NME quotes."
"Yeah, why the fuck do you always quote Pete?" demands Carl. "Every time you ask a question, he starts yapping. And another thing, why did you call him the singer? He's a scumbag."
"Well, he does sing most of the songs," observes John.
"No he doesn't," snaps Carl. "And if he ever did, I'd have to have words about that."
"He's a psychopath," confides Pete, turning to us. "He's pulled a knife on me so many times. I've had to call the police about it."
Carl: "Well, I did nearly have to kill you last night, because you were such a c---. What was that all about, eh?"
Pete suddenly leans over to Carl and starts singing, "chim chiminee" in his face. Everyone starts to laugh. Carl just sighs and says to Pete: "Look, this time, can you just make sure you don't say all that kooky shit that makes us sound like some skanky cult?"
Pete shrugs: "I'll say what I like."
Just in case you're wondering, The Libertines really are as brilliant as NME claims. They're funny, contrary, argumentative and insane. Based in Bethnal Green, east London, their world is an old school compendium of Union Jacks, brittle English vocals and mod stylings. Musically, they're part of a 'quintessentially British' lineage of eccentric, arty and articulate bands stretching back to The Kinks and taking in The Jam, The Smiths and Blur en route. And in a time of amazing guitar music (The Vines, The Strokes, The White Stripes and BRMC) they're currently the only UK band worth talking about. Their songs are short, sharp and chaotic, and live they have a tendency towards the haywire. The first time NME saw them play (at the Cherry Jam club in west London), Pete and Carl had done so much cocaine, they played twice as fast as the rhythm section and ended up having a fight onstage. Their guitars are still flecked with the blood.
Despite that, every song they perform in their vibrating 25-minute set could be a single. And this week, they finally get around to releasing one; a classic double A-side on Rough Trade featuring 'I Get Along' and 'What A Waster'.
'What a Waster', in particular, is amazing. Brilliantly produced by former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, it's three minutes of smart, frenzied genius. Unfortunately, because of a verse that runs "What a waster/What a fucking waster/You pissed it all up the wall and round the corner too" - as well as liberal use of the phrase "you two-bob c---" (and a quick reference to the Taliban) - you're never going to hear it on the radio. So you're going to have to go out and buy it instead.
The Libertines know the value of a good story. How they got here, reads like a Greek myth. As far as NME can tell, all of them are in their early 20s and they formed at some point in 1996, although as Pete points out: "The past is such a web of shadows and lies, it's difficult to pinpoint exact dates."
Pete was born in Newcastle ("Well, it was Hadrian's Wall actually") and spent the rest of his childhood moving around the country depending on whether he was staying with his mum, dad or the social services. The same was true for Carl, although for different reasons - he was part of a family of travellers. Eventually the two of them collided "somewhere in the East End", and decided to make a pact.
"What sort of pact?" asks Pete incredulously. "It was to sail the good ship Albion to Arcadia."
Right. "The Albion is the name of the vessel," he elaborates. "The band could have been called The Albion, but it's a shit name for a group." Can you explain it more?>br> "It's like photo booths and squeaky beds. What else do you need to know? It's just a word."
What about Arcadia, then?
"You mentioned that in the news story," chides Pete, "but you twisted it. You mentioned ancient Greece, but it's not in ancient Greece, it's in there (he points to his head. God knows what's in there, but that's where it is. It's a vision of a better place. Everything there is cool."
"Really, it's just about the realm of the infinite, which is just in the mind," corrects Carl, "and is capable of anything as radical or as beautiful or as sick as you can conjure up."
"It's where cigarettes grow on trees and all benches are made of denim," adds John, helpfully.
"Basically," concludes Pete, "we just sat down and thought, 'we're going to jack it all in and throw ourselves into eternity.'"
As it turns out, the voyage to Arcadia was rougher than they expected. For a start, both Pete and Carl were semi-homeless.
Pete: "Well, I've never been homeless, exactly. My nan lives in Kilburn. Admittedly she's mad and thinks I'm her dad, but it's not like I haven't got anywhere to go. He (pointing at Carl) has been in hostels though."
There was also the small matter of them being rent boys.
"We joined this agency," explains Carl, matter-of-factly. "We thought it was called Aristocrats, but it was actually Aristocats. We thought it was taking women out to the theatre, or escorting them to dinner. But basically it was shagging old men in hotel rooms."
How was that?
Pete: "It only lasted for about five minutes. I got all dolled up, but I couldn't deal with it. I used to push the drinks trolley over and make a run for it."
After this, they decided they needed some stability. So they moved into a brothel on the Holloway Road in north London - incidentally, located above NME's Steven Wells' flat. Did they like it there?
"It was very comfortable actually," says Pete.
"Well it might have been for you..." retorts Carl.
"It was OK," continues Pete, unperturbed, "until this girl fell in love with Carl and decided I was the devil. I was working at the Prince Charles cinema in Soho and she turned up with a pair of scissors and tried to stab me in the stomach. She thought I'd stolen money, but I hadn't. That was enough to make Carl head up to Manchester."
"When I got back, though, I had to go and live with her again," shrugs Carl. "One morning she burst through the door and emptied a tin of cat food on my head. She didn't even have a cat. Sometime after that she left a note on the door, saying 'Goodbye cruel world' and I found her trying to gas herself in an electric oven."
Her version of the events mentioned here"The whole brothel thing ended in tears really," agrees Pete. "You can't really print any of this; she's got a proper long history of mental illness. She'll see this and come looking for us."
"She's out in the shadows," nods John. "She's got scissors and she's looking for revenge."
Post-brothel, and as far as anyone can remember that takes us to 1999, Pete and Carl moved to the appropriately named Albion Road in Stoke Newington. There, almost inevitably, they started to live in a squat with someone called Delvin The Wizard. After the upset of the brothel period, these were happy days.
"Delvin let us live and rehearse there," explains Pete. "We used to put on all these gigs there; it was like the psychedelic underground (a reference to early Sunday Pink Floyd gigs which were billed as "the spontaneous underground" - '60s Ed.).
"Sandra The Wood Nymph used to play with us quite a bit. She was a French dancer, who used to crawl out of a plastic egg with fire around her. Was it any good? Well, it was a woman dancing out of a plastic egg, so it was OK, I suppose."
You seem to know some interesting people.
"Yeah", nods Pete. "We hang around with people I know, people I went to school with, family, lovers, fans, philanthropists, poets, scholars and wasters. We're from Pandemonia and that's where we're going to remain."
Carl sighs again: "Look, I've already told you about this. Do you have to make us sound like British Sea Power or something? We're not hippies, you know, but that's what everyone's going to think after you've finished." Pete shrugs: "I'll say what I like."
Somewhere amid this hectic lifestyle, The Libertines occasionally found time to play a gig. Their first one was at a house on Camden Road where the electricity meter cut off halfway through and they had to have a whip round to finish off (Carl: "I also made Pete do his Hitler impression and take this Austrian girl into the bathroom. She came out in tears and slapped him round the face").
There was also a brief period where Carl and Pete would play acoustic sets at Filthy McNasty's Whiskey Caf頮ear King's Cross. That was followed by a few months when they played with a 70-year-old drummer called Mr Razzcocks. Then, about two years ago, everything went totally off the rails.
"We were following melodies down the street," dreams Pete. "We thought we had the songs that were going to save the world and get the girl and cut the ribbon."
What went wrong?
Pete: "Nothing went wrong. Well, alright, every single thing went wrong. There was incest and greed and disaster. Then John quit and it was all quite lame for a while. The Arcadian dream had been tainted. We'd lost our faith."
The band were saved by the arrival of a new manager in the form of a girl called Banny about 12 months ago.
Pete: "She said, 'What's the matter with you? There are these American kids coming over here and they reckon they're in rock'n'roll groups, and what are you doing? You're just lounging around and getting fucked up. Get it together'. So we did. She also said, 'I'm going to get you signed to Rough Trade'. And she did."
We've been talking for 20 minutes, and Pete and Carl are getting restless. Things are about to unravel. First, though, we manage to ask them whether 'What A Waster' is about anyone in particular.
"Yeah," responds Pete instantly, "it's about you. And me. And her (points to girl over the other side of the bar). And his mum (points to Carl). Of course, it is. I played it to my dad and he started eating my cigarettes. I've never seen him like that before. He was eating cigarettes and telling me to fuck off. He started dancing around the room and saying it reminded him of the Goldhawk Road in 1969. They were German, you know."
"The cigarettes he was eating."
Right. How was Bernard Butler to work with?
Carl: "We're not talking about Bernard in this piece."
"I was a bit jealous, actually," says Pete. "He seemed to get on better with Carl. He was always tickling him. By the way, we've got a competition for NME readers."
Carl: "That's right. We're looking for go-go dancers. There's a casting in about three months."
Pete: "Do you want my home address? (Gives NME his address)" "Don't print that," says Carl decisively. "Well, if you do tell them it's not our home address it's the competition address."
Pete: "Good thinking."
It's at this point that sense flies out the window completely, and we start having conversations like this...
Pete: "Everyone's a libertine."
How do you mean?
Pete: "At my house, people associate libertinage with sadism, but that's wrong. By the way, do you see a glorious and illustrious career ahead for The Libertines? Personally I think two of us will be dead by Christmas. (He picks up the microphone) Mum, listen, you know I love you. We'll still meet you back here next year, though. The only difference is that we'll be ghosts. That's alright though, ghosts have good voices."
We try to get them back on track by asking why they were rioting.
"Well, I agree with the redistribution of wealth," decides Pete. "I've redistributed enough of mine recently, so I don't see why everyone else shouldn't bother."
Is there any serious political agenda to what you're doing?
Carl: "Not to speak of."
Pete: "We don't give a fuck about anything. The Queen's a skanky old hag, but we don't even care about that."
Carl: "That's a bit harsh."
"Carl has got a patriotic side to him, you know," confides Pete. "It's not patriotic," corrects Carl, "it's romance. It's the romance of kings and queens and palaces. I'm up for anything, really." Pete: "We both are. Fuck it. Can we go outside now?"
The Libertines' first ever interview finishes after 31 minutes and 27 seconds. It's been amazing. Everything Pete and Carl say is quotable. They're confident (when we ask what they want to achieve, Pete says: "I want to be in a position this time next year where you're not asking me questions like that"), funny (Pete: "Can we read this piece before you print it? I'll give you a Yeah Yeah Yeahs badge. It's got two rabbits on it") and obsessed with NME (Pete again: "NME always tries to play the cynic, but we know it's a romantic at heart. NME is just another dream, it's a dream of a better world").
As they prepare to head off onto the streets again, they ask when they can do "that thing where you choose your favourite songs". They also say they want to edit the letters page and review the singles. Both Pete and Carl give your correspondent their phone numbers, so we can call them as soon as it's time for them to "get on with it".
Better than all this, though, is the fact they've also got the walk to match the talk. Their songs are sensational, and live - for all their slipshod diversions (we see them in Southampton a few weeks after this interview and they're awful) - they're as thrilling as any band we've seen in the last ten years.
They're on this week's cover for a reason and the reason is simple: they're the best British band of the year. No question