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‘The essence of life is kind of a nostalgia anticipation sandwich’: Philosophy 101 with Julian Casablancas

Julian Casablancas, left, and guitarist Jeramy Gritter of the Voidz perform in San Pedro, Calif., on Oct. 29. (Matt Cowan/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — You can take the Stroke out of New York, but you can’t keep Julian Casablancas out of a deli. Old habits die hard on a groggy Monday afternoon in Beverly Hills adjacent, where the sometime lead singer of the most lionized Gotham band of the early 2000s is waking up to a lox and bagel breakfast at the crack of 3:30 p.m.

“Is this an olive or a grape?” He wistfully ponders his platter, temporarily avoiding my question about his lack of nostalgia for the garage rock boom inaugurated by the Strokes’ 2001 classic “Is This It.” “I’ll be disappointed if it’s a grape.” It is not a grape.

Several years back, the last avatar of downtown cool decamped for Upstate New York, famously offering the quote, “I don’t know how many white people having brunch I can deal with on a Saturday afternoon.” He’s on the West Coast to rehearse and film videos with his band, the Voidz, whose equally enthralling and baffling sophomore album, “Virtue,” dropped last month. In the half-decade since the last Strokes full-length, the Voidz have become Casablancas’s chief musical outlet. That much is clear — everything else about him remains open to runic interpretation.

Interviewing Casablancas is like trying to play chess against a drum machine or using a baseball glove to catch fish: It’s clearly not his intended purpose. He’s an upper-echelon lead singer, a seemingly kind and concerned person, but once the tape recorder is turned on, he becomes purposely inscrutable and profoundly awkward. To invoke the parlance of another venerable New York native: It’s hard to tell what’s the deal with Julian Casablancas.

Once the aforementioned grape-vs.-olive brouhaha is settled, he finishes his answer on nostalgia. Sort of.

“Um . . . nostalgia,” he says deliberately, making it sound like a six-syllable word, avoiding eye contact. He attempts to answer the question, which concerns his thoughts on the groundswell of romantic sentiment for the climax of guitar bands and indoor smoking, partially stirred up by the publication of last year’s best-selling New York rock hagiography, “Meet Me in the Bathroom.”

“Yeah, I mean, life is weird. Sometimes you almost feel like, even something good itself, the enjoyment of it, other than y’know, food or sex, those, like, kind of, like, intense things, vacation . . . those kind of, like, elongated experiences . . . maybe concerts — maybe that’s a bad example.” He pauses to recollect his thoughts about the rise of the Strokes.

“My point is, the buildup to it, these exciting things . . . ‘We’re gonna be doing this . . . can’t wait to do this; it’s going to be exciting’ — and then, afterwards, when you’re remembering, ‘Aw man, that was so good.’ But sometimes, at the time, were you even enjoying it? I think the essence of life is kind of a nostalgia anticipation sandwich, or the present sandwiched on nostalgia.”

Cue nervous laughter and a nibble of lox. It’s about 20 minutes into the conversation, which begins with me expressing my sympathy for him briefly being an Internet piñata roughly a week prior. In a candid New York magazine interview, Casablancas expressed his revulsion of corporations, how cultural brainwashing caused Ed Sheeran’s ginger moptop to become inescapable and the misguided belief that Jimi Hendrix wasn’t appreciated in his time. He was swiftly lampooned and compared to Timothée Chalamet’s Kyle character in “Lady Bird.” Sample tweet: “me as a kid: i want to date Julian Casablancas! me as an adult, after reading that interview: omg i’ve dated Julian Casablancas at least five times.”

Somehow, none of this registered on his radar. Or at least that’s what he would have me believe. “Enlighten me,” he beseeches. So I am tasked to explain getting roasted on the Internet to the singer of “Hard to Explain.”

It makes partial sense, considering the Strokes were among the last major bands to slip in before digital hype became a prerequisite. They were final vestiges of the old order, deified by NME and Spin, flamekeepers of a lineage that passed through Max’s Kansas City and CBGB — before the latter became a John Varvatos store where you can buy $2,000 leather jackets that look pre-worn by Joey Ramone’s business manager.

Casablancas was the divinely ordained scion of Elite Modeling Agency impresario John Casablancas and Jeanette Christiansen, a former Miss Denmark. He went from a French lycee to a Swiss boarding repose, to the Upper West Side Dwight School (official motto: “Igniting the spark of genius in every child”). Success seemed like birthright.

A Velvet Underground CD spurred a revelation in the teenager raised on grunge. Lou Reed became an aspirational ideal, most audibly detected in his voice, a singularly distorted and crushed-glass baritone. What he lacked in range, Casablancas compensated for with a wearied, battered wavelength — a squinting cool, in the aloof and unruffled interpretation of the word. It’s New York as a July rooftop party or a rat scurrying from a garbage bag, ennui ballads crooned into an intercom, bleeding through the crumbling plaster of the adjacent apartment.

“I just think he has soul,” offers Jeff Kite, Casablancas’s longtime collaborator and the keyboardist in the Voidz.

After Casablancas rounded up four of his former classmates, dropped out and got a GED, the Strokes became the last band to instantiate that prelapsarian notion of New York: immaculate filth, lawless creativity and sepia myth. They summoned a ruthlessly tight alchemy of the Velvets, the Doors and the Cars — one that materialized in that blurry metropolitan nexus just before you were more likely to see a Starbucks than a stabbing.

The first two Strokes albums are unimpeachable if slightly interchangeable classics, but everything starts to unravel from there. Fame, touring and adherence to Jim Morrison’s axioms inflamed substance abuse problems that imperiled Casablancas. Half of his Strokes bandmates got married and fled to Los Angeles. Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., Casablancas’s ex-roommate and closest friend, became embroiled with a grave drug problem.

The lead singer and principal composer got sober, married to the band’s co-manager, fathered two children and floated upstate. Having released only two full-lengths in the past dozen years, the Strokes are scattered across the country, semi-dormant but periodically reuniting for big-money festival-headlining sets that will keep them flush in Converse for eternity.

Four months from now, Casablancas will turn 40, putting him safely in those middle age years that often augur bizarre left turns in musicians famous since they were scarcely old enough to legally imbibe. It’s when Bob Dylan found Jesus and started making ecumenical disco. It’s when Neil Young acquired a vocoder and got sued by the label for not making Neil Young records. It’s when the Rolling Stones shot the album cover for “Dirty Work,” a fluorescent tableau that made them look like they were smuggling cocaine inside tropical parrots. In the instance of Casablancas, he’s undergone a philosophical revolution taking him to the Adbusters left wing. He may be rock’s wokest Bernie bro.

“I’m more interested in talking about philosophy and human politics, things that help,” he says. “But talking about the technical side of the music? I don’t know if I’d want to read that kind of story, even if I loved the [artist].”

Despite the encroaching onset of early middle age, Casablancas retains a certain boyishness. He’s unshaven, but his facial hair remains mostly tendrils. He wears a dark racecar jacket, silver rings of tribal provenance, a beaded necklace and a thin metal chain. He’s 6-foot-2 and sturdily built, with a bobbed cataract of hair swooshing forward and giving him the vibe of a genial jock in a 1980s teen comedy, inevitably played by Judd Nelson.

The aesthetic coheres in the context of the Voidz, an eccentric, hirsute congregation of gifted second-act journeymen who look as though they were created in an animation studio to be paramours of Jem and the Holograms. “Virtue” swerves through garage rock, psychedelia, New Wave, hip-hop, hair metal and even Afro-pop. It’s scattershot, but the high-water marks rank up there with the best songs he’s written in a decade. If anything, it comes off as Julian Casablancas making a goofy and winsome Ariel Pink homage.

“I’ve always been interested in the struggle,” Casablancas says in answer to the question of when this intended shift toward higher consciousness began. “Um . . . man’s, you know, quest towards utopia. The end of needless man-made suffering.”

Et cetera.

But apart from “New York City Cops” — a track dismissive of New York’s finest that was famously cut from the American edition of “Is This It” in the immediate wake of the Sept. 11 attacks — it’s difficult to point to anything explicitly political in the Strokes catalogue. He cites Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of the United States” as a book that hastened his awakening. Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States,” too. Nor will a conversation with Casablancas go far without a reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose autobiography has become his ideological north star.

What’s more unclear is what Casablancas believes beyond the self-evident conclusions that King was brilliant and that corporations exert a disproportional influence on American life. When asked if he’s been closely following the gun-control debate in the wake of the Parkland shooting, he answers enigmatically.

“I think it’s not worth it,” he says. “It’s not worth sending the earth down the toilet because of a moral stance on gun rights, do you know what I mean? I wish politicians were smarter.”

I ask him to elaborate.

“If anything, gun rights, I think, is a great magnifying glass for the whole symbolic problem,” he continues. “You know . . . 90 percent of people — you’ve probably heard this — want some kind of basic gun, you know, gun regulations that, basically, the government doesn’t vote for because of who the donors are. Basically, it’s evidence that, you know, giving donations to a politician gives you more power than what 90 percent of people want.”

It goes much like this for the duration of the hour. He says he loved President Barack Obama initially but indicts his refusal to take on the corporations. He inveighs against President Trump as the most corporate president we’ve ever had. The Democratic National Committee’s support of Hillary Clinton and “billion-dollar donations from Goldman Sachs” are similarly castigated.

As the conversation winds down, I change the subject to his own philosophy.

“The purpose of life is enjoyment, I suppose . . . that’s the one that comes to mind.”

Couldn’t that be interpreted as selfish?

“I guess it depends on if, seeing other people suffer, you can be happy with that.”

Somehow, he avoids a stridency in person. Maybe it’s a salient gentleness to his demeanor or the innate charisma of successful performers. Nonetheless, he comes off as an engaged and genuine seeker attempting to educate himself to the best of his ability. He’s at least on the path, even if he’s frequently wandering around in circles.

The waitress brings the check and offers a big smile, telling us, “Now I can say that I served someone famous today.” He smiles nervously, and I ask a final question about how he’d like to be remembered.

“I don’t know. I don’t think about that. I honestly don’t,” he retorts, looking at the carpeted floor underneath the booth. “The thing about death is, the second you die, the entire universe joins you in death at that moment, because for you time is nothing and eventually everything is going to die. But I don’t know. It’s, like, weird, but I don’t know. I know if you’re very enlightened, death is not dark, but I’m still a pretty human-centric guy.”

We stand up to leave, and he asks me if I play soccer. I shake my head. As we near the door, we exchange goodbyes, and his publicist asks him how the interview went. He shrugs his shoulders.

“I have no idea,” he smirks. “I guess I’ll find out at the next one.”