The Libertines Interview: Pete Doherty And Carl Barat On Thailand And Their Monster Of A Comeback Album

In Thailand, they have a saying about deeply improbable events. They say châat nâa dton-bàai, meaning it will happen ‘one afternoon, in your next reincarnation’. In England, we’d say ‘when hell freezes over’ or ‘when The Libertines record a new album’.

Yet, somehow that most improbable of days has arrived. For the first time in over a decade, Pete Doherty and Carl Barât sat down nose to nose and wrote new songs together. Then they recorded them with bassist John Hassall and drummer Gary Powell over a five-week period at Thailand’s Karma Sound studios. From that studio built on an old snake pit, where recording sessions were punctuated by visits to the notorious vice den of Pattaya, their third album has finally emerged. It’s the moment anyone who ever dreamed of Albion has been waiting ten years for – the Libertines included.

“People are going to love it,” says Pete, who’s still ensconced in his Thai bolthole, “There’s a miracle aspect to actually getting it done and all getting together to do it. We’re all really proud of it.”

“It’s unbelievable,” says Carl, back in London and still sounding like he can scarcely believe what’s going on. “It’s staggering that we’ve got to the point where we’ve actually got an imminent release for the fucking Libertines. Are you kidding me? Honestly, I’m still kind of pinching myself. Is this really going to happen? It’s mental, but I guess it is.”

The story of the third Libertines album started at Alexandra Palace on September 28 last year. At the last of the band’s three sold-out nights at the venue, Pete announced: “We’re off to play in Europe, but the next time we play in England we’ll probably be playing new songs for a new record.”

That November Carl flew out to Thailand to visit Pete at the Hope Rehab Center, where they wrote five new songs. However, at the time both songwriters expected that any new Libertines record would be largely composed of old material.

In fact, only one old song has made the record – ‘You’re My Waterloo’ – and Pete and Carl agree that it can only be a good thing they haven’t had to rely on their stockpile of previously written songs. “That was sort of the default plan, you know?” says Pete. “I think the fear was that we wouldn’t have anything in there to bring out. Fortunately, we did. We were inspired in the period leading up to Gary and John coming out and managed to write loads of really exciting new songs.”

For Gary, new material was essential for the band if they were to prove their relevance in 2015. “I would have been really, really pissed off if we’d come back with a new album full of old stuff,” he says, back in London. “I think that’s lazy. I ain’t lazy, and I ain’t working with no lazy people, so that was never going to happen!”

On December 5, the band assembled on Thailand’s Ko Si Chang Island to sign a deal to release their as-yet-unwritten third album through Virgin EMI. “The same label as The Pistols,” as Carl points out. Attention then turned to who would produce the record. In February, Carl said he’d approached Noel Gallagher about the job. Stephen Street – who’s worked Babyshambles and Pete as a solo artist – and The Stone Roses’ producer John Leckie also appeared to be favourites. In the end, the band went with a leftfield choice: Jake Gosling. Best known for his Grammy-nominated work with Ed Sheeran, Gosling has also worked with artists as diverse as Wiley and One Direction.

Carl admits to some early worries about choosing an ostensibly pop-orientated producer. “We were a bit nervous, having never worked with Jake, that he might come in and tell us to think about singles and radio play,” he says. “We were aware people might say, ‘Hang about, he’s One Direction-ed The Libertines!’ That’s why we said to him: ‘We’re gonna make a dirty fucking rock’n’roll record!’ He said: ‘OK, great!’ That didn’t faze him at all. That was our way of making sure we set our stall out. In the end, parts of it are very dirty rock’n’roll, but not all of it. If it was all like that it would just be going in, well, one direction. The truth is, it rolls around from spitting in a leather jacket areas to parts that are bathed in sunlight, and then goes to Hades and back.”

For Gary, the choice of producer reflected a conscious decision to break with the past and record a modern album. “The last thing I wanted us to do was sound like we were back in 2004,” he says. “We needed somebody with a fresh approach to production to bring us into the new age. It’s selfishness as well – why should we be working with someone like the Arctic Monkeys’ producer, when without The Libertines there would be no Arctic Monkeys? We’re not emulating those guys.”

The band say they were united by a desire not to simply attempt to retread old glories. “It’s not us repeating ourselves, that’s for sure,” says Carl. “We’ve definitely moved on. For a while, half my mind was thinking that the album would need an ‘I Get Along’ and a ‘Horrorshow’ – that fast guitar sound – but we were not really in that rhythm. There are a few nods to that for sure, but if we’re not in that rhythm and it’s not part of our lives, then there’s no point in forcing it. I think what came out was just what was right. We didn’t try hard to do anything, but with The Libertines there’s quite a spectrum of what we’ve always done. There are shades to us, and I wanted to make sure that everything I love about the band was represented.”

Gosling, engineer Guy Massey and the four Libertines met at Karma Sound studios in Bang Saray on April 18 to begin recording. They effectively lived in the studio until May 20, taking over multiple recording rooms and turning the basement into a den. They put up canvases to represent each song, which they then all painted and drew on as the music developed. They even had a pool table put in. In short, the band had the run of the place. “I think they might have regretted that actually,” says Pete. “As everyone rode off into the sunset, they were still picking up the pieces down there.”

Working in Thailand brought with it a whole new set of dangers for the band. “The studio was built on an old snake pit,” explains Carl. “The snake god Nāga had a shrine. You could still find snakes there. I said to the guy there: ‘Do you have anti-venom for the snakes?’ He said: ‘Anti-venom?’ I said: ‘Yeah, anti-venom for snake bites.’ He said: ‘No, if snake bites you, you die.’ I thought: ‘Ok, what about going to hospital?’ He said: ‘No! You die!’ It scared the life out of me. They’re called pit vipers. Nasty buggers.”

Serpents aside, the band found the secluded environment the perfect place to focus on their music. “It was really conducive to work,” says Carl. “We couldn’t have done it in London, or England, or even in Europe. Everyone would have always have had a reason to go out. It’s as fast as we’ve ever worked, and as committed as we’ve ever worked. I’m ecstatic about what we’ve done, which is very, very rare for me to say. We wrote the album we needed to write.”

“Spending so much time together made us feel like a proper band again,” says John from his home in Denmark. “Seeing each other every day made it feel just like the old times.”

Any worries about Gosling fitting into the Libertines lifestyle were soon dispelled as well. “He’s a bit of a wildcard himself,” says Carl. “He was painting with one hand and holding a bit of what-he-fancies in the other. He was thriving in it. Together with Guy Massey, the engineer, they were both just perfect. They got the balance right in terms of what to tolerate and what to encourage.”

While the tracklist has yet to be finalised, Pete expects the finished album to contain 11 tracks. Both he and Carl confirm that they split writing and lead vocals 50/50 on the new songs, which include ‘Fame & Fortune’, ‘Iceman’, ‘The Heart Of The Matter’, ‘The Milkman’s Horse’, ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ and lead single ‘Gunga Gin’.

“‘Gunga Gin’ is a true Libertines amalgamation, in the proper old fashioned sense of the word,” says Pete. “There’s a lot in there – there’s a Peter Wolf lyric, which you’ll probably pick out: ‘Woke up again, to my chagrin’. We’re not really pessimistic on that level, that’s pure Peter Wolf pessimism. There’s a middle eight borrowed from Billie Holliday: ‘I’ve got those Monday blues, straight through Sunday blues’, from the song ‘Good Morning Heartache’. There’s a nice Doherty and Barat singalong chorus. I think there’s a bit of Gary in there as well to be honest.”

“It’s our initial mug shots, really, after ten years,” says Carl – although Pete isn’t sure he agrees, referencing elements of the lyrics which deal with his heroin addiction. “I don’t think [it’s a current mugshot]. I haven’t been using intravenously for some time to be honest. Apart from that, I think it’s quite accurate. Carl was quite adamant about letting the world know about all that stuff.”

Unsurprisingly, many of the new songs are autobiographical. ‘Fame & Fortune’ traces the band’s story, from their early days to their tabloid notoriety. Pete explains that they’ve been carrying around the melody since the very beginning of the band, but have “finally put it to bed”. “We scuttled off and did the lyrics one afternoon,” he says. “Then everyone decided it needed a chorus, and Gary and John mucked in for that. It’s even got a scooter solo.” Carl decided that what the song really needed was the sound of a engine revving, so wheeled one into the studio to record it.

Jake Gosling says that he encouraged the band to experiment: “For me, it’s capturing magic. Carl was saying ‘What about a motorbike?’ so I said ‘Brilliant! Let’s wheel it in and record it!’ He was there revving it up in the studio and beeping the horn and all this sort of stuff. Creating and having fun and being able to do those things in the studio that I think they haven’t been able to do before was a real jump for them.”

In another first for The Libertines, Carl even plays synths. “We’ve gone progressive,” jokes John. “No, don’t get scared. It’s still The Libertines, but it would be weird if we came back and just did exactly the same thing.”

On ‘Iceman’, Gosling moved the studio equipment down to the beach so that he could record Pete and Carl playing there together. “I think the original idea was to get us actually coming out of the water while playing guitars,” says Pete. “That didn’t really work out that well. It was a bit of a mess to be honest, but I think he got what he needed. It was one of them moments when he said: ‘We’ll just take you and the guitars down to the beach’, then half an hour later there were about 30 of us down there. It all got a bit complicated, but it worked out OK. The ‘Iceman’ cometh!”

Many of the songs, like ‘The Heart Of The Matter’, came from Pete and Carl taking each others’ half-formed ideas and fleshing them out. New tune ‘The Milkman’s Horse’ demonstrates the symbiosis of their current working relationship. Originally uploaded to YouTube by Pete as a solo acoustic demo back in February, the song now has a completely new chorus written by Carl to replace the original that Pete half-inched from The Supremes’ ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ and The Four Tops’ ‘I Can’t Help Myself’. “Songs like ‘The Milkman’s Horse’ I thought were finished,” says Pete. “Then I’d give them to Carl and the pressure was on him to make them better. He really had to go all guns blazing, because there’s no point changing something unless you’re improving it. He really did us proud. He gave it a whopping great chorus, better than the Supremes rip-off it had before.”

While the whole band report that Pete – who completed a rehab programme in January – was focused and committed in the studio, that didn’t necessarily mean his time-keeping was much improved. As Pete himself explains of ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’: “Those bastards recorded it when I was asleep! I was supposed to be lead vocal on that song and rather childishly refused to do harmonies. ‘If I’m not doing lead I’m not doing anything’.”

“I don’t want you to think that I didn’t have more than a fair share of writing on it,” he adds. “It’s strictly Doherty and Barat that one, but time and tide waits for no man. I slept in and he’d gone and laid down the vocals. He said if I didn’t like it we could do them again, but everyone was like, ‘Oh, Carl’s done such great vocals, you’ve got to hear it’.”

The inclusion of the one old song, ‘You’re My Waterloo’, came at Carl’s suggestion. “I had to fish for that,” he says. “The way that had been recorded and remembered didn’t seem like we had done it justice. It’s such a beautiful thing, and it’s still just as pertinent as it ever was to us. Also, I wanted to play a piano part on it. I never got to do that before because I only learned how to play piano last year.”

‘You’re My Waterloo’ also showcases Pete at his very best. “That was one vocal take from him,” says Gosling. “That was it. Literally, I swear. He did it, one take, nailed it.”

As ever with The Libertines, tragedy wasn’t far away. On April 26, just over a week into recording, Pete’s close friend Alan Wass died in hospital from a heart attack two months after severing an artery in his arm after falling through a window at his home.

“He was a really good friend of mine, a really good friend of all of ours,” says Pete, who sounds genuinely heartbroken that he was unable to return to England in time for his funeral. “We’re going to dedicate the record to his memory. His death affected me in a big way. I know he would have been really proud of us for getting the record done and coming back and doing loads of festivals. He was big on the work ethic, Alan. I know he’d be really proud of the record, and that we’re dedicating it to his memory. My first port of call when I get back to London will be his grave.”

He adds that another friend was watching over them. “The studio was quite sparsely decorated, but we did have a little NME front cover of Amy Winehouse over the mixing desk the whole time. The one constant in the mixing room, apart from John Hassall, who was always there from dawn to dusk, was the picture of Amy.”

“She was never a massive fan of my songwriting, or at least she never admitted to it!” continues Pete. “She was a bit of a harsh critic, but in a lot of ways we were kindred spirits, and all the boys loved her. She was quite inspirational as well, because while she was critical, that’s because she had very high standards.”

The truth is, for much of the last decade it seemed as if Pete’s struggle with addiction could have consigned him to the same tragic fate as his friends. When I ask Pete whether an increasing sense of mortality helped spur him to actually finish the album, he demurs. “Not really,” he says, “It was just the right time, you know?”

“Maybe it needed ten years, for the story,” suggests Carl. “It must have done, right?”

“When we write, we write, in a funny way, to each other,” he adds. “That hasn’t changed, and we had a lot to say. We could go and do another one right now, I reckon. It’s funny, once you set the song up it starts to absorb your history from you, and the meaning arrives without you even intending it to half the time. It was a long journey with a lot of twists and turns and ‘Apocalypse Now’ staring-at-the-ceiling moments. We reached the highs and the lows of The Libertines, and I think that’s reflected on the record. I think we have got more records to write. Whether we get round to it, who knows?”

For Pete, the rekindling of his old friendships seems as valuable as the album they’ve made. “It was more than I could have dared to hope for, to be honest,” he says. “It was grand to spend that much time with the boys. It was much needed. The lifeblood was pumped back into the band.”

Whether the album can mean as much to the fans as it does to the band remains to be seen, but at the very least – against the odds – we’ve reached one afternoon in the next reincarnation of the Libertines.

The Libertines headline this year’s Reading & Leeds Festival, taking place at the end of August.