By Jacob Gellman // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani
I was skeptical about Julian Casablancas+The Voidz, and perhaps with good reason. Aside from a handful of songs, the Strokes’ side projects have always failed to capture the magic of the original band – two solo albums from Albert Hammond Jr. were underwhelming, while one from Casablancas met critical acclaim but failed to stick with fans.
Here is the golden measuring stick for a famous musician’s side project: in a blind taste test, would you like the music if you didn’t already know the artist’s reputation? Too often have I seen otherwise rational human beings defend a bomb of an album because their favorite musician wrote it.
So in light of the negative reviews for the latest Casablancas album Tyranny, and knowing my own golden rule… I of course refused an invitation to see him live at the Crystal Ballroom. NOT. I nabbed that invite like a dog laps up the food that fell off your plate. Come on, we’re talking about the frontman for the 21st century’s greatest garage rock band.
To say that show-opener Connan Mockasin and his backing band were dressed eccentrically is an understatement. All of them wore extremely baggy pants; the backing guitarist was fitted in what looked like pajamas and a fur hat; and Mockasin himself (a.k.a. Connan Tant Hosford) was fully dressed as a farmer. “I know what you’re all thinking,” Hosford drawled to the audience in an American Southern accent, “What’s a farmer like me doing up here?” Bizarre indeed, considering the band hails from New Zealand via London. Knowing nothing about Mockasin, I was completely fooled, until he started to address the audience in his actual Kiwi accent. “Where’s he from?” my companion asked me. “England? Australia?” I replied. Sorry, New Zealanders.
Mockasin is a musician who has made the most of his connections. His music has only once broken charts in New Zealand despite strong reviews for his work, yet he has had the fortune of touring with Radiohead in 2012 and now Julian Casablancas+The Voidz. The band’s confidence is palpable, as Mockasin leads the audience through bird-like call and responses before dropping into smooth psychedelic rock.
At the risk of publishing a trite comparison, I can best explain Connan Mockasin’s music as a soulful, funk-folk, modern Pink Floyd. The ingredients are all there: the rhythm guitar picks through psychedelic chords while Mockasin solos high on the neck, choosing either a clean setting or a wah; the synths achieve a vintage organ aesthetic, while the bass explores pentatonic lines.
The band’s control over dynamics is impeccable. Rarely have I seen a group explore quiet space so effectively; songs slow and speed, crescendo and drop to a silence. The anchor is Mockasin’s backing drummer, who often is the last breath in a vacuum of empty space before the band surges to fuller sounds. These songs challenge the audience, but the crowd follows them through these silences, focused in anticipation.
The focal point, of course, is Mockasin’s guitar work. The bulk of the music is devoted to his solos, exploring creative slides and high riffs. The most atmospheric song is their closer, when the rhythm guitarist jumps on keys to deliver an emotive synth part, reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Idioteque” but infused with psychedelia.
If these descriptions sound bizarre, it’s because the music truly is. In a world where bands increasingly call themselves psychedelic, Connan Mockasin stands out as a musician who actually is psychedelic, in the truest sense of the genre.
The secret of the latest Casablancas solo project is that it isn’t a solo project at all. It’s Julian Casablancas+The Voidz. The “backing” band is so important they don’t even put a space between Casablancas, the + sign, and The Voidz. They’re not a touring band; they are the band. And on this night they featured so prominently, I was far more impressed by their musicianship than by Casablancas himself, and you can pin that on their sheer talent as a group. The Voidz’ arrangements on Tyranny form such complex and muddy polyphony, and the music is comprised of such technically difficult instrumental parts, that anything less than perfect would unravel those songs in a heartbeat.
“Father Electricity” is a prime example, a song with little foundation to support the band’s cohesion. Rather than providing a stable drum and bass floor, Jake Bercovici snakes through jazzy bass lines, while Alex Carapetis delivers frantic jungle beats. Add to that two unhinged guitar parts by Amir Yaghmai and Jeramy “Beardo” Gritter, and a band of lesser skill would fall apart a minute in. But not The Voidz. They stop and start on a dime, and even with Beardo’s pained expressions they make it look effortless. While Julian’s voice is a steady baritone presence, the tight and mathematical execution by The Voidz steals the show.
Somehow, I shouldn’t be surprised; Casablancas has never been a frontman that steals the spotlight. On the contrary, the Crystal Ballroom’s lights more prominently featured Beardo and Yaghmai, leaving Casablancas “under cover of darkness” and frustrating our photographer Yousef Hatlani, who faced difficulty snapping images of the singer’s shadowed visage. It didn’t help that Casablancas’s main stage move is to grip the microphone, covering his face with his own fist and his long hair; nor did his tendency to turn away from the audience during musical interludes, flashing his black and red “Houston Basketball” jacket to the crowd.
It may not make for a good photo, but that presence is precisely what I love about Casablancas. During music breaks, he does not dance obnoxiously or steal the show; he is himself. He relishes in the music around him. His voice is not necessarily the focal point of the music, but rather a part of it, a texture to blend with the instruments. Only once does he engage the crowd, when a girl cries out, “Julian!” His response: “Yeeees?”
Rarely am I so moved by a concert. The set featured the last-ever performance of “Instant Crush,” the Daft Punk collaboration with Casablancas, as well as a crowd-pleasing cover of the Strokes’ “Ize of the World.” The band deservedly earned two encores, closing with “Human Sadness,” an emotional rock ballad to cap off a flawless night.
So perhaps I had good reason to doubt the latest Strokes side project. But The Voidz (feat. Julian Casablancas) quickly proved that, given the right mix of musicians, a side project can be so much more.