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‘Am I surprised Pete Doherty is still alive? No, he’s too smart to die’: the Libertines on feuds, friendship – and their unlikely sober reunion

<span>‘I thought, God, we <em>do</em> like each other’: Carl Barât (front) and Pete Doherty. </span><span>Photograph: Perou/The Guardian</span>
‘I thought, God, we do like each other’: Carl Barât (front) and Pete Doherty. Photograph: Perou/The Guardian

I have done battle with the Libertines three times over the past 19 years. Only I haven’t, not really. Two of the interviews were with Pete Doherty for projects away from the band that made him famous: Babyshambles and the Puta Madres. The first was in a mangy London hotel bedroom in 2005 – he was sitting on a motorbike, revving it up, when he was awake. Much of the time he was asleep. He was 26, surrounded by drugs paraphernalia, and had daubed “ROUGH TRADE” on the wall in his own blood. Last time we met, four years ago, he was in better nick and more sociable. That said, he was still smoking crack, threw a punch that just missed me, kissed my forehead by way of apology, and took me to his wreck of a house where he tried to flog me his possessions. He still had something about him: a wasted brilliance and surprising charm that he failed to hide, despite his best efforts.

As for his soul brother and sparring partner Carl Barât, I met him in 2006 when he was also recovering from the Libertines. Barât had just formed Dirty Pretty Things and the band was releasing its first album. He was quiet, likable, and profoundly depressed. Barât talked a lot about “Evil Carl”, the self-destructive side of him that had a downer on life. In a different way, you worried as much for the future of Barât as for Doherty.

Now they are back together for their fourth album in 22 years. In 2015, 11 years after their second album, they released Anthems for Doomed Youth. The Wilfred Owen-inspired title was classic Libertines (even if the album wasn’t) – poignant, poetic and fuelled by war of one kind or another. All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade, the new record, is another classic Libertines title – again referencing war, literature and trauma. The difference is that this is a classic Libertines album. There is the rollicking boisterousness of old in tracks such as Run Run Run, writerly songs that allude to 20th-century Hollywood (Night of the Hunter) and ballads of shimmering beauty (Songs They Never Play on the Radio).

Was it easy recording together again?

“No,” Barât says, quickly.

“Carl insisted on there being no alcohol even,” Doherty says. “He wanted it to be pure. It’s not like I want to get pissed, but I like a glass of cider. And he’s like, no. It was pressure. We’d never done it before. The studio had always been a time of merriment and celebration.”

Was Doherty surprised he could create while sober and clean of drugs? “I was relieved. And proud. To be able to say to my wife, ‘I’m not drinking’, I was proud.”

What’s it like to be back together? Doherty gives me a scornful look. “I don’t know if that question makes any sense.”

Barât: “We’ve been back together since 2010.”

Doherty: “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

They’re ganging up on me. What I mean, I say, is it’s almost a decade since the last album.

They give each other a conspiratorial look.

“It’s a better story actually to say we haven’t been together,” Barât says. They decide they quite like this version of history.

“I like it when someone comes who doesn’t know anything about us,” Doherty says sweetly. His moods change today as rapidly as they ever did.

What is different, they say, is that this is the first time they’ve taken pleasure in the product of their toils. “Today we were coming up the M23 and we actually listened to the new album from start to finish,” Doherty says. “We had a singalong, a bit of a laugh, a bit of a cry. That’s something we’ve never done before – put on our own record and listened to it on a car journey.”

Barât: “And definitely not laughing and crying.”

Doherty: “That must say something powerful.”

There have been many times in his life when he thought he’d had it with music, he says. But he always finds himself returning to his guitar. “It’s a calling; like the priesthood. It will always call certain types of men or women.”

Barât: “It’s like a call to arms.”

Doherty tuts. “Why d’you always see the dark side?”

What made them cry when listening to the album?

“We were coming up the Westway and at that moment Songs They Never Play on the Radio came on and a flood of memories, related to the A40 and London in general.”

The song fades out into a chaotic blur of chatter and laughter.

“Even that bit,” Barât says, “I thought, ‘God, we do like each other, we had fun together, and it was real.’”

“I don’t like the word ‘fun’,” Doherty says grouchily. They still go at each other like squabbling lovers.

* * *

We meet at a photographic studio in London. They are wearing stylish suits for the shoot. Barât is little changed – lithe, fit, glossy brown pop star hair. Doherty couldn’t look more different. Twenty years ago he was skinny, boyish, with a fragile beauty. Today, his hair is grey and he’s a huge wardrobe of a man. When Doherty piles on the pounds, it usually means he’s not taking drugs. It’s when he’s at his skinniest we need to worry.

Today, he lives in northern France with his wife, Katia, and their baby Billie-May. He has two other children, but admits this is the first time he’s been a present father. That’s largely down to being clean. “I gave up the main poisons and my health improved. Then you get told alcohol and cheese and sugar are just as bad and you were healthier when you were on heroin.”

Barât: “Gluttony.”

Doherty: “Yeah, I am a bit of a glutton. It’s not a joke. I’ve been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. And at the moment I’m lacking the discipline to tackle cholesterol.”

Is Barât surprised that Doherty’s still here?

“Am I surprised Peter’s still alive? No, he’s too smart to die. He never intended to die.”

Doherty: “I always wanted to see the result of things. I don’t switch the telly off halfway through election night. I want to see what happens.”

Is Doherty surprised that Barât’s still here?

“Yes. There were times I worried about him so much, particularly in the early days … He wasn’t very stable.”

It’s interesting that people have tended to worry more for Doherty, I say, whereas in fact he may have been the stronger one.

Now it’s Barât’s turn to take offence. “Hang on, I had to pull myself up from the wreckage, mate. That takes some strength.” He’s right – both have shown extreme vulnerability and resilience.

Their relationship is one of pop’s great rollercoaster romances. They met when at different London universities. Barât, a year older, was studying drama at Brunel, Doherty was reading English at Queen Mary. Both dropped out. Doherty’s sister AmyJo became close friends with Barât. “My sister came home and said she’d met this guy who was really fit, with a ponytail and a six-pack, and he was a really good guitarist.” Doherty fell for him as soon as they met. “I thought he was a cross between Raskolnikov and Johnny Marr. He just seemed like a man on a mission. You couldn’t pin him down. If you tried to have a conversation with him, you’d end up in a heated debate very quickly. He’d start destroying things, and I thought: what the fuck is this?”

How did he destroy things?

“He was angry. But there was also a creative, beautiful side. I tried to befriend him, but there was no way in. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough to be your mate,’ so I just hounded him really. That’s the truth, isn’t it?” He looks at Barât.

Barât: “Yeah, that’s 27 years ago.”

Doherty says it wasn’t like him to do the chasing; it was usually the other way round. But he wanted to start a band, and Barât was perfect for it.

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“I knew that I needed a good-looking guitarist. But also Carl wasn’t your average sort of lad. He was an impenetrable fortress. Raskolnikov crossed with Johnny Marr, I quite like that!” He chuckles, pleased with himself.

Barât: “I don’t know who the first one is.”

Doherty: “Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment.”

Barât: “Oh, yeah! I’ve got you now.”

Why was Barât so angry at the time?

“Stuff I don’t want to talk about, but I had a lot of unhappiness in my childhood. Maybe I was born angry. But my battle has been with that and depression in the wake of the anger.” Has his depression eased? “Yeah! I’m here, aren’t I?”

He’s been in therapy for nine years and says it has helped. “It makes it more manageable. I’m certainly not as angry as I was, and I’m not a loose cannon.” He talks so quickly, with a nasal twang, that sometimes it’s hard to catch his words. Your speech hasn’t slowed down over the years, I say. “No. There’s a lot going on there. I think they call it ADHD these days.”

There’s two ways to do this interview: try to seduce you or just don’t read it, which is what I’ve done for the last 21 years

Doherty drags on his fag dismissively. “Bloody hell. This interview.”

Barât ignores him: “I did a screening recently that said it’s likely.” He grins. “My wife keeps leaving books out with titles like How to Deal with ADHD in a Marriage.”

Doherty: “They used to just call it personality. Now they’ve got all sorts of names for it.”

I tell Doherty he seems much more self-conscious now he’s sober. “I know. I must have been so mangled the last time we met that I got really into it and now I’m just being defensive, imagining what all this is going to lead to. So there’s two ways to do this – try to seduce you and establish a great relationship with you so you don’t betray me, or just don’t read the fucking article, which is what I’ve tended to do for the last 21 years.”

Suddenly he perks up and asks what he was like when we first met. “Was the hotel in Brick Lane? I was happy as a sandboy at that time, but now there wouldn’t be the blood or the needles. They were my tools in a way. Now I’m happy with Gladys [his fabulous mastiff cross, who’s here today], walking in the woods and changing the baby, and I have a glass of cider and a cigarette. But I’m quite curious … I wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall, back then. It would probably break my heart.”

Barât: “It broke our fucking hearts, mate. We were flies on the fucking wall.” He sounds upset, almost angry.

Doherty: “I don’t particularly want to go over all this. Normally, I enjoy reminiscing about this kind of thing, but I don’t think it’s healthy to do that today. I mean, what are you trying to do by asking these questions?”

I’m trying to find out about your lives and how you’ve changed, I say.

“He’s gotcha there, boss,” Barât says in a broad Bronx accent.

Eventually Barât succumbed to the young Doherty’s charms. They formed the Libertines united by a love of poetry, punk and chaos. Doherty and Barât came from very different backgrounds. Barât had grown up on a council estate in Basingstoke. His mother was a CND activist, his father an artist until he found a job in an arms factory. Not surprisingly, his parents split up. Doherty’s father was a major in the Royal Signals, and the family moved around the country with his job. Until he was 15, Doherty was convinced that he would also join the forces and serve his country. Both were clever boys who gave up on university. Barât discovered drugs at the age of 10, Doherty much later. In the early days, he says, he only took them to impress Barât.

Barât was by far the better musician. He dreamed of killing it on stage, but he’d not reckoned with nerves. “I was so shy. When I finally got to where I’d been pushing myself my entire life, I’d be crippled by self-doubt and terror. I wasn’t able to commit in the way Peter wanted. I was going, ‘Oh my God, this is terrifying.’”

Was Doherty shy?

“Was he shy?” Barât giggles. “He was not shy, no! He doesn’t know what shyness is.” He says the only time he’s ever seen a hint of it is if the conversation turns dirty in front of Katia. Doherty nods. “There’s something from my childhood that’s been instilled in me. It’s like a kneejerk reaction. She swears like a trooper, she doesn’t get offended, but, yeah, for some reason I still have those Victorian standards.”

Perhaps that’s the influence of your father? “Yeah! He’s the same. It’s strange,” Doherty says.

Barât: “It’s a prudish thing really, isn’t it?”

Doherty: “Yeah. Prudishness.”

Doherty has had a difficult relationship with his father. How do they get on now? “Why d’you ask that?”

I’m an interviewer, I tell him, I’m here to ask questions and I’m nosy.

Barât grins: “He’s gotcha there, boss,” he says again in the Bronx accent.

“I seem to talk about that a lot,” Doherty says. “Whenever Carl and I talked about fathers in the early days, we really bonded. How fucked up we were about them. I’d love to be able to ask him, but I don’t think I could ever say to him, ‘How do we get on, Dad?’”

Then he comes to a stop. “Whose business is it anyway? What does it matter? Do you really care?”

Yes, I say, I want to find out what makes you tick; what makes you the person you are.

He softens. “I love him so much and I feel that a big part of me changing the way I’m living my life, particularly since I got married and stopped taking heroin, is to be accepted by him.” And now Doherty’s tearful. I’ve never seen him like this before. “I think it’s too much for him to see past.”

“You don’t have to go that far,” Barât says gently.

Doherty: “I think I’ve done things that have made our relationship better, but in my heart I still feel I can’t … I don’t know. I’d have to score a hat-trick in the World Cup final for my dad to say all is forgiven, or make a million from selling this album. When I go up there with Billie-May and my wife, he says to me, ‘Are you still trying with the music?’ If I picked him up in a limo with a chauffeur or had a helicopter landing he’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ But for me I’ve always been happy to write songs that I’m fucking proud of. Maybe I’m still really seeking it.” He’s weeping silently, thinking about how much his father’s approval would mean to him.

Does he appreciate you’ve been successful, or did he just see the negative stuff? Seconds pass in silence. “I think he thinks I had potential and threw it away.”

Barât puts his arm around Doherty. “I’ve got to tell you now, mate, I think he’s really proud of you for just doing normal things he’d never have expected. He struggles to communicate it, like you do.” Doherty smiles and says, “We’re doing a therapy session for Pete.”

As friends, it’s not just a big happy-clappy love-in. It’s still hard and prickly and spiky, and there’s a darkness there

Life’s hard, I say – doing normal things, getting by, looking after family is an achievement.

“Life is hard, isn’t it?” Doherty says. “I used to think I could run on air. But now I feel the need for community and somebody who knows how to fix pipes.”

Barât laughs. “Can you do DIY, Pete?”

Doherty has recovered. “Basic plumbing, yeah, when things are clogged up.”

“What can you do?” Barât asks, disbelievingly.

“I can clear clogs,” Doherty shouts defiantly. “I can clear clogs in the U-bend under the sink.”

Barât: “How d’you do that then?”

Doherty: “Well, you get down there with a bucket, you take it apart so all the shit goes in the bucket, and then you’re all right for a bit.”

Barât: “Remember when you pissed in the sink at that party in Harlesden and it was full of washing-up? Then somebody nicked my guitar, that Gibson?”

Ah, happy days. Maybe.

* * *

There was nothing safe about the Libertines. They were raw, primal and unpredictable. The band were a four-piece – Barât and Doherty, accompanied by John Hassall on bass and Gary Powell on drums – as they are today. Both Doherty and Barât were frontmen, playing guitar and singing (Barât rockier, Doherty more soulful) from the same mic like a punk Lennon and McCartney. But there the comparison ends. The Beatles enjoyed global success, evolved, and left an astonishing back catalogue. The Libertines? They fought, stagnated and imploded. They had one chart-topping album (the self-titled second) and four top 20 singles between 2003 and 2004. Their best songs (Time for Heroes, What a Waster) had the Sturm und Drang intensity of a young Goethe – self-destruction went hand in hand with hedonism. Meanwhile, their biggest hits, Can’t Stand Me Now and What Became of the Likely Lads, documented a relationship that had already fallen apart; a success story already in the past tense.

The Libertines were done and dusted by 2004. Yet there was something special about them – their Blakean vision of an England rich in culture without being jingoistic, their desire to break down barriers between fans and band (playing gigs in basement flats), and a life-affirming raucousness alongside their reckless nihilism. They provided endless front-page news for the tabloids, usually courtesy of Doherty – whether it was about his tumultuous relationship with supermodel Kate Moss, his drug habit, or bizarre behaviour on stage (he ran away from a gig mid-song in 2004).

After Doherty was temporarily thrown out of the band in 2003, the headlines came thicker and faster. He was jailed that year for breaking into Barât’s flat and stealing items including an antique guitar, a laptop, a video recorder, a CD player and books. In 2006, he was caught on CCTV running past 30-year-old actor Mark Blanco as he lay dying on the pavement. It is still unknown whether Blanco jumped or was pushed off a balcony at the flat where they were partying and had been involved in a confrontation. In 2011, the Crown Prosecution Service said there was insufficient evidence to charge anybody over the death. In the same year, Doherty was jailed for six months after pleading guilty to possession of cocaine.

Soon after we last met in 2019, he turned his life around. At the time, he was having a break from Katia. They got back together, and he did the one thing he could to prove he loved her: he gave up drugs and started to take opiate blocker injections, which prevent opioids producing rewarding effects such as euphoria. (In 2006, he had an opiate blocker implant, but he dug it out with a combination of hands and knife.) Has it been transformative? “Yes. With all the will in the world, I don’t think I’m ready to lose it. People around me definitely prefer me to have it.”

“Good lad,” Barât says, patting him on the knee approvingly. “Keep that up!”

How does Barât think Doherty has changed over the years? “Well … ” Barât starts.

Doherty: “Be honest.”

Barât: “I was about to say before I was interrupted, he’s grown stronger in so many ways. He can let himself be loved in ways he couldn’t before, if you want to go to the kernel of it. And as his friend, it’s been easier on me, which is a fucking bonus because it means I get to lower my defences. It’s not just a big happy-clappy love-in. It’s still hard and prickly and spiky, and there’s a darkness there to navigate.”

The darkness is by no means confined to Doherty. When I met Barât, I remember thinking he seemed incredibly troubled – and by then he was in a far better place than he had been. “I still struggle now,” Barât says. “Yes, I’ve had my moments. I’ve still got the scars.”

Doherty: “It’s a strange crossing point, because you’ve got this one fella who was from a disciplined and ordinary background who had this romantic vision.” He’s talking about himself. “And you had someone from a really chaotic background who was maybe longing for normality. I was going the other way, and we met right there. We tried to hold on to each other in the storm.”

One day we’ll make a record that will sell so many we won’t have to worry about money, but it hasn’t happened yet

What does Doherty think has changed most about Barât? “On a purely basic level, he’s got bricks and mortar around him. He’s got a home. It’s a huge thing. I quite enjoyed the vagrancy and sofa-surfing and squatting. I don’t think Carl did.”

Barât says his dream was always to feel normal, on his own terms: “To feel I can make it in this society, I can exist on this planet, and I don’t have to just throw myself into the canal.” Barât says becoming a father (he has two children, aged nine and 13, with his partner Edie Langley) finally gave him a sense of belonging. “There’s something about having kids. You can’t switch off and let the depression overcome you. That’s no longer an option. Then it makes you realise that if that’s not an option now, what was it about in the first place? I don’t know; it’s a bit paranoid.”

For a long time, Doherty was homeless, relying on the goodwill of friends and lovers for a roof over his head. In 2017 Barât invested in a seaside hotel in Margate, partly so Doherty had somewhere to live. He called it The Albion Rooms (after the first flat they lived in together), had it refurbished and built a studio on the site. This is where the new album was recorded.

Could this record finally make them wealthy? “Yes, in theory,” Doherty says. “But for me, there are tax bills from 15 years ago. Also, every time I think I’ve made a bit of bunce, it’s gone immediately.” In tax? “Yes. I’ve always paid it, you see. It’s complicated, though – now living in France, and my child support. It’s like Sisyphus with the money thing. I’ve always said one day we’ll make a record that will sell so many we won’t have to worry about money, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Barât: “The thing is, unless you want yacht money, if you can live in a house, and not have to do jobs you don’t like, that’s as good as you need to be, right?”

Related: The Libertines’ Carl Barât: ‘My guiltiest pleasure? Love Island’

The band’s publicist, Tony, pops in to say we’re running out of time. Tony has worked with Barât and Doherty since way back. I ask if there’s anything he’d like to ask. He has a think. “Is there anything you would have done differently?”

Doherty exhales loudly. “Wow, this is hypothetical. Like science fiction. I wouldn’t have run down Brixton high street halfway through Can’t Stand Me Now. I love playing that song, but I was so mangled, and my head was so far up in the rafters, I couldn’t hold it. Sometimes when I was lashing out I thought it was the start of some movement, like loads of people were going to join in and smash everything together and it was going to mean something, and in the end it’s just me and maybe a couple of others hurt themselves, end up in prison or ... ”

Dead, I say.

“Yeah, too many dead.”

I ask Doherty if he regrets running away from the scene of Blanco’s death in 2006? “Ooooph, mate!” he replies, as if he’s just been hit. “What are you asking about that for?” He says it’s unfair because it’s come so late in the day. “If you’d started on that … ”

Barât finishes the sentences for him. “You would have left the room.”

“Nononono,” Doherty says. He comes to a stop, and says he doesn’t want to sound flippant about such a serious matter. He knows he will always be dogged by the CCTV footage of himself, then girlfriend Kate Russell-Pavier and “minder” Jonathan Jeannevol walking past the body on the ground, then running away. Three weeks after Blanco’s death, Jeannevol walked into Bethnal Green police station and confessed to his murder. Hours later, he retracted his statement, citing stress as the reason for making a false confession.

“Of course I wish I hadn’t run away. Of course I wish I hadn’t,” Doherty says. “I should have stood there and waited for the police and just thrown everything down the drain.” He means his drugs. “Of course. I mean, yeah. Basic stuff, isn’t it. Legging it down the street barefoot ... ” He’s still haunted by the night.

* * *

We return to the new album. Sure, it’s taken a long time, but it really does sound like a band that has finally matured. Do they have a renewed trust in each other? “I never trusted him in the first place,” Barât says.

“These questions,” Doherty protests. “These are deep and personal questions. We probably don’t know the answers to them ourselves and don’t want to know. We made a good go of our music, which we both believe in, and I think we both trust each other with. We didn’t go into the studio with the songs written. We spent a lot of time sat there with a typewriter, hammering these songs out, so we believe in the album and trust the album. Maybe in 10 years we’ll go into a serious group therapy session and get these things hammered out. But there’s no time for that now. We’ve got to spend nine days on a tour bus with each other.

“This is the type of in-depth analysis of friendship that might make things uncomfortable – and I don’t want to make Carl uncomfortable. I want him to be happy and comfortable that he’s doing this. The more we delve into these things, the more I’m likely to say something stupid to try to get a cheap joke, and it won’t be a cheap joke to Carl, it will be something hurtful, so I don’t want to do this.” There is a painful sincerity to Doherty’s words.

Barât once said he’d never find another songwriting partner like Doherty. Was he right? “I think it’d still be true now,” he says.

“Ermmm,” Doherty says. Another loud exhalation. “You want the honest answer?” Yes, please. “Maybe I’m not thinking it when I write the song, but the first thing I think afterwards is, ‘I wonder what Carl will think of that?’, whoever I’m writing the song with. The honest answer is, everything I write is for Carl.”

All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade is released through Casablanca and Republic Records on 5 April.