In 2018, an era when mainstream rock stars are all but extinct, Julian Casablancas is making his voice heard. Never known to be especially outspoken, he’s been talking a lot recently—from his meandering Vulture interview to Tuesday night’s uncomfortable appearance on The Late Show with James Corden. But what is he actually saying? As the Grammys, Coachella, and the mere existence of bands like Portugal. The Man and Imagine Dragons prove that rock music isn’t what it used to be, Casablancas is loudly calling for change. “I strive to build a world where The Velvet Underground would be more popular than The Rolling Stones. Or where Ariel Pink is as popular as Ed Sheeran,” he has said. But Casablancas, now 39, is still looking too far into the past while ignoring what’s right in front of him.
Despite his claims that he is “not personally interested” in nostalgia, Casablancas’s first band, The Strokes, were almost entirely responsible for making vintage ‘60s sounds popular again in the early 2000s. For a brief moment, they were the biggest band in the world, and their 2001 debut, Is This It?, remains a beloved classic. But The Strokes achieved their success by borrowing from decades they hadn’t lived through—clad in leather jackets, black sunglasses and skinny jeans, the band’s greaser aesthetic and garage-rock template were firmly rooted in the past. Almost twenty years later, Casablancas’s trademark Lower East Side bad-boy look is mostly the same, except he wears long necklaces and has ditched his leather for the sort of bulky vests that kids wear to play laser tag. He has this haggard-yet-juvenile thing going on, like a post-apocalyptic Marty McFly. “We’re in an invisible war,” he told Corden, throwing a dark curveball at the perpetually cheery host. The two discussed Casablancas’s children and his life as a dad, but his stiff mannerisms and constant fidgeting made him appear disconnected and uninterested. As he explained that the spelling of his song “QYURRYUS” is meant to be “a philosophical mocking of all language,” the audience fell mostly silent. Right now he’s doing a great Kanye West impression, minus the blonde buzz cut.
The Voidz will release their latest record, Virtue, this Friday. Paste’s Scott Russell described the band’s “All Wordz Are Made Up” video as if “MTV and a GeoCities page had a baby.” Similarly, the “QYURRYUS” video is part ‘70s porn, part ‘80s B-movie, and part what the actual fuck. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around what Casablancas is trying to accomplish with The Voidz. The band’s auto-tuned vocals, vintage beats and glitchy riffs evoke reverence for a past in which loud guitars and flashy videos turned rock musicians into pop stars. It’s fun, but it’s barely connected to the world of music that exists right now. Perhaps it’s not meant to be taken too seriously — but with Casablancas’s inscrutably intense rock-star persona, it’s hard to tell.
For a musician so connected to the past, it’s worth noting how shaky Casablancas’s grasp of history actually is. In an attempt to point out how culture always misses the great talent of its own time, he told Vulture that Jimi Hendrix “didn’t have hits” during his lifetime, only to be corrected by interviewer David Marchese that Hendrix had, of course, been one of the biggest rock stars of his era. But on Tuesday night when Corden asked him which New York neighborhood people should be paying attention to now, Casablancas surprisingly gave the right answer: “Queens is kind of a cool vibe.” In every nook and cranny of the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, and hell, even Staten Island, someone young is doing something with music that is extremely cool — and entirely novel. They may not be making a ton of noise — at least, not in the visible sense — but they are the future, which is exactly where modern rock stars like Julian Casablancas should be looking now.