Since leaving London in 2009 to help kick his drug habit, Peter Doherty has led a nomadic existence. Matt Wilkinson joins him in a chaotic Hackney hotel room to talk about life, The Libertines and his rallying cry against terrorism
“Oi! Mate! Try not to stand on that, will ya? I know it might not look like much, but a lot of it’s important. Just take your boots off!”
It’s 3am and I’m edging my way around Peter Doherty’s east London hotel room, trying to find bits of carpet underneath the heaving mass of stray guitars, strewn clothes, shoes (no laces), toolboxes, paintboxes, beer bottles, water bottles, lighters, typewriters, ripped-up letters, blood-splattered artworks-in-progress, passports, laptops and other assorted paraphernalia that obliterates every centimetre of the room. It’s impossible, so I give up and take refuge on the edge of the bed.
Opposite me, Doherty is leaning on an ironing board that has a pressed shirt draped valiantly off it – a singular piece of perfection among an Aladdin’s cave of disjointed personal artefacts. He’s just played a solo gig at London’s Hackney Empire, larking about in front of the cameras beforehand for NME photographer (and long-time Libertines cohort) Roger Sargent. At one point during our shoot, without direction, he suddenly beckons Sargent into the backstage toilets, turns on the showers and strips butt-naked, hat aside. Sargent snaps away while Doherty, much like a naughty, drunk schoolboy, cackles maniacally. The entire room, watching open-mouthed, suddenly erupts with him.
But right now, with his post-show adrenalin rush fast subsiding, he’s knackered. He only checked into the hotel two days ago, but this has been his way of living for many years now. Something of a nomad since leaving London in 2009 in a bid to kick drugs, technically Doherty splits his time between Paris and the UK. But he’s set up shop anywhere and everywhere over the past few years, thanks to his and girlfriend Katia’s beaten-up ’80s camper van, which they drive everywhere. This includes the middle of Hyde Park: when The Libertines played there to 65,000 people two years ago, Doherty shunned the offer of a tour bus, instead making the journey himself from France via Glasgow, where the band had played a warm-up gig. When he arrived, he simply tooted his horn, drove in, parked up next to the stage and played the biggest gig of his life. Then he drove all the way home again.“I could be anywhere,” he says when I ask why he doesn’t settle. “I just need my space to work. When I’m here [in the hotel] I live like I do at home, really. I just need somewhere I can live affordably.”
Doherty was in the French capital during the terrorist attacks last November, and was the first artist announced to play the soon-to-reopen Bataclan theatre, where 89 died, a year on from the tragedy. Given his ties to the city, that must have been a no-brainer when the offer came in? “Well, yeah. I went down there [after the attacks] and just sat outside with my guitar. Just to be there. Katia lost about five people she was at school with.” He wonders if the French government should have paid for the attackers’ funerals (he can’t decide), and berates the fact that it was young people who committed the atrocities.“They’re declaring war on their idea they’ve got of the decadent West, and Satan. They just believe that Satan controls our politicians, our production and the decisions that are made by people in power. And they’re willing to die for it. They believe they’re the victims.
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“Anyway,” he says, “Let me play you this… It came out of nowhere, bang.” Onto the stereo comes a jaunty, Pogues-esque demo of a track called ‘Hell To Pay At The Gates Of Heaven’. It’s so simple and immediate that I recognise it straight away from the gig Doherty played with his new solo band a few hours previously, where it had cut through instantly. Although he debuted eight unreleased tracks in total at the Hackney Empire show (all are vying for inclusion on his forthcoming second solo album), there was something bigger about this song, a three-chord, whiskey-drenched waltz complete with impassioned vocals and a brilliant line about John Lennon’s favourite acoustic guitar, the iconic Gibson J-45.
“It’s about the f**king Bataclan,” Doherty says of the track. “About how we’re under attack. At that age, when you’re desperate to fight for something it can catch you off balance. When you’ve got the faith and belief, you’ll put as much into it as a lad who’s obsessed with guitars. So the lyric is, ‘Come on boys, choose your weapons / J-45 or an AK-47?’ Both take dedication and belief. To fight, or to make music.”
If he nails the recording properly, ‘Hell To Pay At The Gates Of Heaven’ has the potential to rival Doherty’s greatest songs. Tracks like ‘Time For Heroes’ (written about the May Day riots in London in 2000) and ‘Albion’ (which he wrote as a teenager obsessed with William Blake, Oscar Wilde and the idea of total, unabridged escapism from all mainstream realities) stand the test of time not just because they’re indie classics, but because they say something meaningful. But with over a decade of tabloid headlines about him, it’s easy to forget just how adept and vibrant a songwriter the 37-year-old is. While his battle with addictions has been well-documented, he says he now has regular bursts where he’s able to manage them. “I think I’ve probably slept 27 of the last 30 nights” is his way of telling me he thinks he’s doing OK. His relationship with his parents, meanwhile – his father refused to talk to him at the peak of his addictions a decade ago – has improved tenfold. “Yeah, it’s f**king great. It makes me wanna try harder. He’s reaching out to me.”
Throughout it all, Doherty is always writing music. He shows me his iTunes collection on a battered and blood-splattered laptop, and there are hundreds of unreleased recordings. He’s currently itching to release a few of them as his second solo album, the follow-up to 2009’s ‘Grace/Wastelands’. Whereas that record was a treasure trove of songs that tapped into the collective consciousness of everyone from Gorillaz to Bert Jansch, the new batch are far more simplistic. There’s ‘Kolley Kibber’, named after the Brighton Rock character and with dreamy, Lee Hazlewood-style backing vocals. There’s ‘Birdcage’, which is like a long-lost St Etienne track living inside a garage-rock shell. And there’s ‘She Is Far’, a beautiful, pastoral folk song that was originally written by a teenage Doherty alongside ‘Albion’ back when he was still learning the guitar. It sounds like something Neil Young might have come up with had he moved to London rather than California in the mid-’60s, and was partially inspired by Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’. “Some people have this inverted working-class snobbery where if you like Simon & Garfunkel you have to be put up against a wall and hurt. But that’s a great song,” Doherty says proudly.
Recorded at Hamburg’s Clouds Hill Recordings with producer Johann Scheerer over the past couple of years, the tracks are currently the subject of a record company bidding war – so it’s still unclear when they’ll be released. But Doherty, having grown tired of waiting, has already taken matters into his own hands and formed a new solo band to play the songs live.“It was only 10 days before the first gig of this tour [he played a handful of UK shows in May] that I decided I wasn’t just gonna do it acoustic. I went for a little relaxation in the camper van with Katia. We were gonna go and see my sister in Madrid, but we stopped off in Barcelona and I met Rafa, who I haven’t seen in years. He’s a drummer – he’s always been looking for a break. He was in a Tarantino covers band! And we had a jam and then we thought, ‘F**k it, let’s do it.’ So Drew [McConnell, Babyshambles bassist] flew over, and then Stefany [Kaberian] came in with the accordion, and Miki [Beavis] turned up with a violin.”
The five-piece are joined on some songs by Katia on keys, and although they’re a mishmash of different styles, there’s a freshness in the way they gel together. While some people might think it wildly uncool for a guy so closely aligned with garage rock to flirt with something that, on paper, seems closer to Mumford & Sons than The Clash, Doherty has always been a devotee of folk songs (today he’s on a country tip, waxing lyrical about Gram Parsons and Blaze Foley). It’s a far cry from The Libertines’ huge festival fees and travelling crew of 40 roadies.
“People are so far away,” he says of gigging with The Libs, adding that on their last arena tour six months ago he struggled with the lack of interaction between the band and audience resulting from that distance.“I don’t enjoy it,” he says matter-of-factly, “but I have to do it because it’s in my blood, it’s in my soul, it’s who I am. But I would never use the word ‘fun’ [to describe it].” I’m surprised by his honestly, and press him on it. He can enjoy playing those huge Libertines shows, he eventually admits, but he has to dig deep. “This is something I have to learn – this is a fault of my own. It’s not an idealistic thing where I think, ‘You should not have fun, you should be serious.’ Not at all. I’d love to go out there and have fun and enjoy it, but I just can’t. It’s not in my make-up. I find it very difficult.”
The new solo band, Doherty says, will provide something of an antidote to all that. “These new songs, this new line-up – I’m part of it, you know? It’s a small group. There’s more people in the band than there are in the whole crew plus management.” I ask him if he ever finds it difficult to write, and like everybody else I’ve posed the question to – from Paul McCartney to Alex Turner – he says no. He just picks up a guitar, finds a melody and presses record. Where Doherty differs from the others, though, is that he’d be fine if it was all to stop tomorrow. “I wish that would happen, because I could just crack onto something else. But it just keeps coming. I think I’ve got a lot of wasted… I’ve got a lot of things invested in my songwriting and it drains me. Too many things get in the way of the essence.” The essence, he continues, is finding that one-in-a-million tune. When it happens, everything pays off. “At the moment, I’m really inside these new songs. I believe in them. And I know if people are into my other tunes it’s just a matter of time. Sometimes people just need two or three listens. Or sometimes I’ll get to the second chorus and that’s it – they know the song and they love it.” With that, he picks up a guitar and sings. “Come on boys, choose your weapons…”