Up the racket: Carl Barat on why he loves Hong Kong
Ex-Libertine Carl Barat is back with a new album and raring to hit Hong Kong, writes Charlie Carter
CARL BARAT, WHO co-founded hell-raising British band The Libertines with the notorious Pete Doherty, is ready to reclaim his crown as king of indie rock - and he's chosen Hong Kong as a launch pad for the next stage in his colourful career.
Almost a decade after folding one of the most influential British outfits of the past 20 years, he is back with a new album and a renewed enthusiasm for music. But first he will get into the groove with a gig at the Hangout in Sai Wan Ho next week, along with some former members of The Libertines and the band he formed after their break-up, Dirty Pretty Things.
Next week's gig was inspired by an impromptu show he gave while on a promo trip here last year. "It was perfect," he says of the last-minute concert in Kennedy Town's Beating Heart Studio in November. "Doing a free gig is always great, but especially [in Hong Kong]. The last gig was ad hoc so it'll be nice to do one properly. Hong Kong was like another planet to me."
Barat, 34, was so impressed with Hong Kong that he sung its praises on Facebook. "The fee barely covers flights. HK crowds are amazing, though, so [that] more than makes up for it," he wrote.
The gig is one of a handful Barat is playing in the run-up to recording his second solo record since he and Doherty revitalised British rock as The Libertines' answer to John and Paul, or Mick and Keith. The new material has been a long-time coming and follows years of ups and downs in a solo career that has been hampered by high expectations.
"I've kind of gone back to my roots," he explains from his home in London. "[The new material is] harder, there's a lot of energy and a lot heavier stuff than on my last record. It's more like The Libertines."
That will come as a relief to fans who have been waiting anxiously for new material since Barat's disappointing eponymously-titled solo debut. Polished and middle-of-the-road, it was compared unfavourably to Paul Weller's 1980s indulgence band The Style Council. Fans had expected more when his band Dirty Pretty Things split after a promising start.
The Libertines were always going to be a hard act to follow. Their spiky rock and intelligent lyrics on now-classic garage punk tracks such as Up the Bracket and Can't Stand Me Now blew away the cobwebs of a British indie scene dominated by soft-rock plodders like Coldplay. With their charity-shop clothes and street-urchin attitude, the four-piece were Britain's answer to New York outfit the Strokes, who had been similarly hailed as US rock's saviours a year earlier.
But the band split after two albums, because of Doherty's drug problems. Barat's career since has been hit and miss.
Still, he hasn't exactly been idle. He's written a biography, Threepenny Memoir: The Lives of a Libertine, appeared in the lead role in a London stage production of Fool for Love, acting alongside British screen star Sadie Frost, and has taken up photography, mentored by renowned rock snapper Roger Sergeant. "It all comes from the same sort of expression, I like to think," he explains, adding modestly that the results viewable on Instagram are "not really a gallery full of masterpieces".
Most of all, however, he's been living in the shadow of his first band, with his solo projects lost in the tabloid frenzy surrounding Doherty's spiral into drug-related despair, his relationship with A-list model Kate Moss, and stints in prison.
Life as the sensible half of The Libertines has come at a price. "It's a mixed bag, really," Barat says in an endearing mumble that bears little relation to the confident swagger he projects on record and on stage. "Some days it's wonderful and some days it's a bit of a millstone. Usually, it's great. I love the band and I'm proud of what I've done. There's been a lot of talk and it's often just best to forget about all that and get on with what I'm doing."
The "lot of talk" he refers to is the perennial guessing game of whether pop's most recent super-duo will reunite.
Friends since their student years, Barat and Doherty formed The Libertines in 1997, drafting in bassist John Hassall and Gary Powell (Powell will join Barat at next week's gig, as will sometime Libertine Anthony Rossomando). The duo were legends in the making: Barat the son of an artist and anti-nuclear campaigner brought up largely on a commune, and Doherty the star-struck teenage poet.
After meeting through Doherty's sister, the pair bonded over music, art and literature, and moved to the seedier side of London. In an early interview, they admitted to being so poor they resorted to male prostitution, among other illegal activities, to get by.
Their tight friendship was touching. In public, they fondly referred to each other by their boyish nicknames Biggles and Bilo, and each professed a mission to seek a romanticised vision of a heroic Britain they dubbed Albion. As a result, they had a welter of experiences to pour into songs such as What a Waster and Don't Look Back into the Sun. Debut album Up the Bracket was hailed as a masterpiece and their place in history was assured.
Success was fleeting, however, as Doherty's drug intake - already rumoured to be gargantuan before the band found fame - started getting in the way of gigs and songwriting. The disappointing follow-up album, The Libertines, exposed fractures in the band, which reached an impasse in 2003 when Barat told his partner to kick his heroin and crack addictions. As Barat set off with a stand-in to play Japan's Fuji Rock Festival, an angry Doherty took revenge by burgling his friend's London flat. The event hit the headlines when Doherty was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail.
Since then, the pair have kissed and made up, headlining the 2010 Reading and Leeds festivals. Part of the appeal of a reunion would be money the four could expect to earn.
"We must have been the only band that was massive and poor," Barat says. But a real reunion has been stifled by Doherty's inability to kick his addictions. Barat is tight-lipped on the subject of his old pal. "I've not spoken to him for a while, actually - he keeps losing his phones," he offers diplomatically. "I'm always about three phones behind. I do leave the occasional message."
Just for the record, however, he says: "I'm always up for [a reunion], should things be right some day. You never say never, but then again you never know."
Carl Barat, plus members of The Libertines and Dirty Pretty Things, May 10, 8pm, Hangout, Youth Outreach Jockey Club Building, 1/F 2 Holy Cross Path, Sai Wan Ho, HK$540 (advance, wegottickets.com HK$600 (door). Inquiries: 9709 2085