Billy Edwards speaks to Libertines bassist John Hassall ahead of his band’s new album, All Quiet On The Eastern Esplanade, and an intimate grassroots venue tour that takes in Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach.
John Hassall defines The Libertines’ fourth album, All Quiet On The Eastern Esplanade, as uniquely harmonious. Their bass player attributes the change in their once-constant conflict to their newfound trust in each other. “It was funny – it took us seven years to do the album, and it was so hard to get to that right space, spiritually and physically. When we finally did it, after seven years, it went really, really easy and very quickly. We trust each other to come up with good stuff.”
To return to the guises of mythical troubadours has proved, says Hassall, “the most liberating time that you could have.” He cherishes the nostalgic escape of red military jackets and the Albion dream of songwriters Carl Barât and Pete Doherty.
“Everyone’s living in this almost-fantasy world of music and lyrics. You’re really putting everything into this project. You forget all the conflicts because you’re so focused.”
Hassell is keen to discuss a new song, Man With The Melody: his first fully-fledged songwriting credit in The Libertines, it boasts vocals from every member in turn and comes with a fairytale story of its own. “That was quite a funny one! It was one of my teenage songs. I rewrote it a bit, and then Gary [Powell, Libertines drummer] did this wonderful string arrangement for it, which really took it somewhere else.”
It’s apparent that Placebo producer Dimitri Tikovo has tested The Libertines beyond their comfort zone. “In the studio, I was all ready to sing, but he said, ‘It’s a very good song, but I think you should all sing it!’ So, I was like, ‘Oh, OK…’ But it opened things up to something completely different. The best bit is the solo: just random notes! And it sounded great.”
I remark to Hassell how intense I’d found the Libertine adulation at a question-and-answer session with Doherty, in Cardiff last summer. “It’s developed a lot over the years. Now I have what I consider friends who are also fans. It’s not a one-way relationship: not like ‘Oh, we’re amazing, you know’. There is a relationship that is based on music.”
There is a little cult of personality; Hassell values their critical honesty to ensure new songs are even better. “I love catching up with fans. By talking to each other, you learn. If it’s all one way, you’ll never find out what people really think about your music, or you as a person – so you’ll get a slightly distorted view of things.”
Eager to tour, the group has prioritised this time the smaller, grittier venues to bring them closer to their fans and sprinkle some of that sweaty 00s magic – something the bassist is pleased to revisit. “We love Cardiff. We love Wales!” Although he laughingly affirms that his behaviour will have improved in the intervening decades.
“I’ve got a proper memory… The first time we ever went to Cardiff, I got really drunk. I was lying in bed, and I had to go to the toilet. But I walked out of the fire escape by mistake. I was completely naked. The weirdest thing was that the reception was normal about it.”
After years of hellraising, are the sumptuous string arrangements evidence that middle age has softened The Libertines’ edges? “It’s the first time in 20 years that we’ve let go of a lot of stuff. It wasn’t, like, a conscious decision, but it does sound different.” Possibilities have been kicked wide open for the Libertines. “I think it’s exciting to be organic again. We haven’t sat down and worked out what we’re going to do. I think we can go further. We’re in a new beginning, and it’s up to us to write that history.”
The Libertines, Clwb Ifor Bach, Sat 27 Jan.
Tickets: £30 (sold out). Info: here
All Quiet On The Eastern Esplanade is released on Fri 8 Mar via EMI.
words BILLY EDWARDS