Back in action - and in truly festive spirit - for a Margate knees-up ahead of forthcoming fourth album 'All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade', the likely lads are writing a positive new chapter onto their wild career.
The Libertines have been known for many things over the years. As one of the most storied indie outfits of the ‘00s. As an example of that rare magic that can happen when two people - in their case, rollercoaster bromance frontmen Pete Doherty and Carl Barât - spark in a way that makes something far bigger than the sum of its parts. As a band whose generation-defining first two albums dressed the genre up in romance and red military garb before imploding in a mess of destruction and addiction.
Two decades and two reunions on, and all these things remain true. But right now, in the fireside belly of their Margate hotel The Albion Rooms, the band have got other things on their mind: namely, what a Libertines Christmas single could entail. “‘Can’t Stand Tree Now’. No wait, ‘Death on the Sledge’…” suggests Doherty with a glint in his eye as photos are taken and his massive dog Gladys snaffles a mince pie clean out of his hand. “‘Tell It To We Three Kings!’” pipes up bassist John Hassall, as all four signal their approval and break into impromptu festive song - not for the first or last time this afternoon.
The Libertines’ forthcoming new album - their first in nearly a decade, and second since reforming - might be named ‘All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade’, but on the titular Margate street, on a blustery December day, the mood is anything but sedate. The band have congregated for a special weekender of events to launch the record, beginning with an intimate show at the Lido down the road later in the evening - a working men’s club-type room with chintzy Christmas dressing that clearly hasn’t seen this sort of rowdy action in decades. At one point we turn around and someone’s bag is on fire. It gets hastily stamped out. The show goes on.
A few weeks before this, however, and the two frontmen are gathered in the oak-panelled backroom of a posh London pub, viewing The Albion Rooms from a different angle. They’ve just been delivered the mock-ups of their latest LP sleeve, on which a cast of colourful characters line the street outside their Margate space. “That’s Sister Mary from the song ‘Mustang’; that’s the ‘Man with the Melody’; that’s the refugee from ‘Merry Old England’,” points out Doherty. “Look she’s got a bottle of rum in the pram as well, she’s shoplifting. That’s good, that. Very clever,” he nods with satisfaction.
The pair have a lot to be satisfied about, too. They’ve come out the other side of the metaphorical tornado with their band and their friendship largely intact; ‘All Quiet…’, we suggest, sounds like an album made by a group of people that genuinely want to be there. “I’m glad it sounds that way because it’s utterly true, and it’s an album we actually did want to make and we really put everything into the songs,” explains Barât. “Even saying that is a bit emotional for me…”
The path to The Libertines’ latest was a very different one to any of those that have come before for the band. These days, both frontmen live comparatively sedate family lives on their respective coastlines - Barât in Margate and Doherty in France. Doherty has been clean for several years since relocating during the pandemic; his day-to-day world is clearly a whole universe away from the not-so-good old days.
Having decamped to Jamaica as a duo “to plot up together a while and see what was what”, they set up camp in a glass studio on top of a hill where, Doherty notes, “the glass was so well-polished, all the local birds kept flying into the walls”. “Every so often you’d just get a thud, and it wouldn’t kill ‘em but they’d be stunned and slowly come to life and then I’d draw them. They’re on my wall,” he says. The musical results of the trip were slim pickings (“When we got back and sat down with everyone and played the demos, we were a bit shocked at how bad they were…”), but the willingness to keep going together was cemented.
Reconvening with Hassall and drummer Gary Powell, the following sessions in Kent and Normandy were surprisingly wholesome affairs. “Some of those nights when we were doing backing vocals, it felt like we were getting a bit lashed up but we weren’t, we were all really sober. But it had that same energy,” recalls Doherty. Barât chuckles: “The energy that’s imbued in us from years of lash!” And whilst we must all pour one out for a song left on the cutting room floor, ‘What A Time For The Bellhop’, which Barât describes as sounding “like the Blackadder theme tune”, what did emerge was a record that doffs its hat to the albums that made their name whilst creating notable differences along the way.
Though the flights of fancy and arcadian dreaming are still present and correct, there are splashes of cold reality to the likes of ‘Merry Old England’’s acknowledgement of the refugee crisis that feel like an important update. “It’s hard not to be [more rooted in reality] when it’s right in your face so vividly, especially in Margate,” Doherty says. “Thanet Council has had to house more refugees than any borough in this whole country; the two years I was in Margate, that was my everyday world.
“Even when we were looking for staff to work cash in hand at the hotel at the start, we were helping people out who’d come straight out the camp and then discovering a lot of them were fucking amazing artists, or mothers, brothers and sisters looking [for a place to exist] in the same way that our ancestors came over from Ireland or wherever. We’ve got a right old mix between us [in the band]; we’ve got about twelve different waves of immigrants, probably like most English people. There’s probably only about seven people in the depths of Wales who have pure Ancient Britain DNA.”
Notable, too, is the sense of camaraderie that rings out during the rousing, laughter-soaked singalong that closes final track ‘Songs They Never Play on the Radio’ - named after a book about Velvet Underground collaborator Nico. Though there are little musical moments (a ‘Don’t Look Back Into the Sun’-esque riff on ‘Oh Shit’, or a nod to ‘What Became of the Likely Lads’ on ‘Be Young’) that will put a smile on any Libertines nerd’s face, it’s this jolly, jokey moment that stands as the record’s most heartwarming. It’s an end to the album that suggests there’s a strong chance that its makers might want to write another one - a sentiment that was perhaps missing until not so long ago.
In the years since 2015’s ‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’, there had been a lot of talk of new music, but nothing by way of action. “I’d been saying, ‘New music’s just around the corner!’ in interviews cos you don’t wanna not say that, but it had started to wear a bit thin,” says Barât. “We had this thing for ages in interviews where we’d list the songs but we’d just be coming out with titles on the spot,” remembers Doherty. “‘Yeah we’ve got a song called ‘Bottle Your Mum’ or something like that. And then we’d have to read back through the interview to write songs with those titles.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that it took so long to record ‘Anthems…’’ follow-up when you look at the spectres that were still swirling around the band during its writing and release. “When I think back to that time, it’s all a blank. Not even a blur it’s just a jumbled blank,” muses Doherty as Barât mumbles: “Yeah, well there’s a reason for that…”
They recall moments of entertaining ridiculousness to that album’s sessions out in Thailand. “You bought that whiskey with a snake in it and you made us all have a drink for good luck,” Barât nods as Doherty re-enacts the scene: “If you care about this album, you’ll drink the snake!” But there’s evidently still a lot of pain associated with that time. “It was a beautiful album for me, but it’s complex,” Barât says, his energy visibly dipping. “Maybe it’s to do with the memories of making it and going back into that trauma. It was certainly a queer time.” “Let’s not be talking about that album actually…” Doherty hastily decides.
Today, the magnetic, see-sawing nature of the chemistry that’s been the pair’s greatest asset and biggest source of upset is in full swing. One moment they’re bickering about grammar and flinging hilariously petty insults (Barât: “You said ‘my bad’ the other day…” Doherty: “I have NEVER said ‘my bad’. EVER”); the next they’re breaking into random Cockney songs; a few minutes later, a topic will come up that looks like it might bring either or both to tears. These days, with a literal sea between them, they don’t get to hang out much outside of the band. “That’s why we come back and do it, I think,” says Doherty. “Because we want to check up on each other.” But there’s still the sense that the two musicians are bound together by something stronger and more innate than most. As Barât puts it: “He’s a part of my life that I’d miss horrendously if it wasn't there.”
Doherty has an analogy. “It’s like two shopkeepers that have got this massive backload of stock in the back room, and one of them decided he wanted to sell something else for a while and now he’s come back, not cap in hand exactly, but he’s like, ‘Actually, some of this fruit’s still good to go’,” he says, picking up steam. “‘Let’s pump out some tangerines in the early morning rush’, and it turns out they’re as juicy and ripe as they ever thought they were. And maybe it was just the glass that was dirty rather than the actual produce.”
Barât raises his eyebrow in mock indignation: “For me, I was selling tangerines and then he went into insurance. So now he’s back from insurance, he’s realised that tangerines taste nice and oranges aren’t the only fruit!” Cue both men breaking into a simultaneous rendition of ‘Let’s All Go Down The Strand (Have A Banana)’.
Watching The Libertines barrel through the hits as lucky Margate Lido ticket holders holler back every word; seeing the quartet mess about like old mates in front of a Christmas fire, and listening to a new record that feels like a band reinvigorated, there’s something undeniably heartwarming about this current era of the quartet. There’s still an aura of charming chaos around them, but these days it’s in a jolly, eccentric way rather than something that could genuinely rip them apart at any minute. “It’s never felt normal - these characters, this chemistry,” says Barât. “It never feels normal, but it’s certainly a lot more normal than it has been in years.”
“It makes me think of those two young lads tramping down the Holloway Road - how much we believed in the music - and in many ways that hasn’t really changed,” Doherty nods. “We’ve been a little pattern on the wallpaper of the great Albion tapestry. If you could dig up Shakespeare or Graham Greene or Oscar Wilde from the dead and say, ‘Hey! People are still fucking having it with your writing’, they’d be overjoyed. Sometimes I’ll be thinking maybe we aren’t relevant any more, and then some kid will come past on a bike in his muddy boots and leather jacket and say, ‘Ah Pete, I fucking love ‘Up The Bracket’ mate’, and that’ll reinvigorate me with the force.”
‘All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade’ is out 8th March via Casablanca/ Republica Records.