Carl Barât on The Libertines latest reunion
They haven’t played together since 2010. It is more than a decade since The Libertines collapsed in a heap of Class A drugs, Kate Moss and jail terms, with Doherty incarcerated at HMP Wormwood Scrubs for burgling Barât’s flat.
All of which raises the stakes for the band’s reunion this summer. Barât and Doherty (plus trusty bandmates Gary Powell and John Hassall) will play Hyde Park next month for what Doherty has boasted is a “filthy amount of money”. With the ever-present risk that it could all fall apart. Again.
“F*** knows what I’m going to find when I get to Barcelona,” Barât says when we meet at the office he keeps in Soho, sitting in front of a tattered Union Jack. “When you’ve seen what I have, you have a hardened sense of doom.”
After his most recent jail term in 2011, Doherty divides his time between Paris and Hamburg, where he has developed a Jim Morrison-esque paunch. Barât is concentrating on raising his young family and getting his latest band, The Jackals, off the ground. Still, there’s always been a heady mythology to The Libertines – and I sense Barât is more susceptible to it than anyone. There were all those gigs in public loos, in their Bethnal Green flat, on rowing boats. At the centre was Doherty and Barât’s intense alliance. Nothing either of them has done since has had remotely the same impact.
“What I would say is that every time I do see Peter, it’s like not an hour has passed,” Barât says. “With your closest friends and your brothers, there’s a timelessness to your communication. The cadence of the voice, the things we want to mention to each other… it all comes flooding back.” Sure enough, a few days after we meet, a video turns up of the pair of them busking in Barcelona, trying out one of the first songs they ever wrote together… until the Guardia Urbana comes and threatens to arrest them. Just like old times.
Actually, Barât admits the Hyde Park gig is happening “by mistake”, in a sort of Withnail & I spirit. They often turn down offers of “filthy money” to reform. This time, Doherty made a careless comment to an Israeli newspaper, word travelled across the newswires and before they knew it they had signed on the dotted line. “The idea of The Libertines at Hyde Park felt good,” says Barât. “It could be the most boring show anyone’s ever seen. We could get bottled off. Or it could be breathtaking and everyone could lose their minds and their bowel control.”
And a million-odd quid can’t hurt? “Kings of Leon or the Arctic Monkeys get that amount every time they play a gig!” he protests. “Is getting paid for your work filthy?” It’s not just the money, though – it’s the idea of seeing The Libertines on a huge corporate-sponsored stage that feels a bit diluted. “If it reassures you, there is an immeasurable amount of anarchy behind the scenes,” he says. In the meantime, he hints that they may just roll up at “one of their old haunts” for an impromptu gig.
Still, if anyone deserves a bit of security, it’s Barât, who always seemed doomed to clearing up the mess after his bandmate. At 35 he still looks the part, in a T-shirt shot full of holes, and is easily persuaded in the direction of a nearby bar. Still, there’s also a slight vulnerability to him, an earnest friendliness. Since what he calls his “lost weekend” (he developed acute pancreatitis due to his alcohol intake and has admitted to snorting a “mountain” of cocaine), he has found peace in domesticity, living in London with his partner, cellist Edie Langley, his three-year-old son Eli and with another child on the way.
“I went through a bit of a wilderness after the demise of The Libertines, and then certainly after Dirty Pretty Things.” (His second band broke up in 2008.) “I hate the word cliché but I sort of fell into the cliché of being a cliché. It was just bars and drinks. All the things that used to be props to my life became my life. But instead of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), or NA (Narcotics Anonymous), I just found life again.”
It was Edie who saved him, he says – they met in 2010 when she was part of his band. “It’s very rare to find someone who can save you but who doesn’t want to change you. And when we had a baby, I just cared about life again. It felt like I had been banging my head against a brick wall for years and it fell away.”
He gives every appearance of being a conscientious, modern father. “It’s so rewarding. Every new thing Eli does, it’s just a ray of sunshine. Fatherhood has given me a real sense of the need to provide –and that focus is kind of a liberation as well.”
With the arrival of his son came a deeper catharsis, too. Barât’s own upbringing was unrooted. His parents divorced soon after he was born. He spent most of his childhood in small-town Hampshire with his father, who worked in a munitions factory in Basingstoke. He recalls taking acid at school and listening to Velvet Underground. Meanwhile, his mother moved around communes and squats, living with “anyone who was vaguely alternative, CND people, gypsies, anarchists...”
His childhood was also shadowed by tragedy: he was born a twin but his brother died as a baby – which hastened his parents’ divorce. “It’s a horrific thing, isn’t it? As a father, it’s the last thing…” he breaks off. “So that was sad. I carried on being sad about it, probably until I became a father.”
It is perhaps too easy to trace Barât’s intense brotherly bond with Doherty back to that trauma – as well as the apparent attempts to “save” his friend. He does entertain the idea, but says the dynamic was a little different. “I come from a state of trauma and chaos in my being and I’ve always wanted to get away from that. Whereas Peter came from this army background and was seeking the opposite. I think we came together and clashed in the middle, trying to break through to the other side.”
As for Barât’s career, he’s open to offers. He released a solo album in 2010 and says he’s still proud of it. He also wrote a self-deprecating autobiography, Threepenny Memoir. He will soon star in a French film about a rock star’s relationship with a groupie.
Does he not feel that now, if they’d played it slightly differently, The Libertines could have endured for a decade? Their impact was always measured in the devotion they inspired rather than anything as banally Coldplay-esque as album sales. But looking back, does he mourn the masterpieces they never made, the Glastonburys they never headlined?
“The toughest part was calling time when I felt there was still time to do more. But it doesn’t end, you know. The waters are calmer now. I’m still as hungry as ever.”
• Carl Barât & The Jackals will release their debut album later in the year. The Libertines headline Barclaycard presents British Summer Time Hyde Park on 5 July, day tickets from £55, www.bst-hydepark.com