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Peter: the Q interview

I managed to nick some time off the office work to type this interview published in the September issue of Q. It's a good read. Photo scanned by LoveCuts.

by Simon Goddard
Q Magazine, september 2007

Equal parts self-mythologising waster and Byronic romantic, Pete Doherty is the most influential British songwriter of the past five years. Arriving with the Libertines in 2002, he juxtaposed William Blake-esque visions of Albion with 21st-century squalor, reclaiming British guitar music and paving the way for everyone from Razorlight to Arctic Monkeys.
Today, Doherty fronts Babyshambles and his private life is a tabloid soap opera. The day before Q interviewed him, news broke that he'd ended his on-off relationship with supermodel Kate Moss and was living in a caravan beneath a dual carriageway. But today, Thursday 5 July 2007, it's business as usual: business being a secret Babyshambles show in North London pub The Boogaloo. He arrives a mere two hours late, carrying a guitar, a beautiful young girl with a dark bobbed haircut in tow. He immediately stalks over to greet barely alive Pogues singer Shane McGowan, the Boogaloo's resident barfly who's already fallen off his stool twice this afternoon, before disappearing to the flat upstairs. Five minutes later, Q is invited to join him in a cramped living room. The mystery girl is also there. She smiles but says nothing, even after I introduce myself. Doherty, meanwhile, falls over an armchair trying to close the curtains, presumably lest prying paparazzi snap him. He eventually settles, trilby hat on, a salection of necklaces swinging atop a black shirt. What looks like a plastic elephan earring bobs beside his neck whenever he moves. His fingers are grubby, his left hand wrapped in black gaffer tape. His skin is blotchy and clammy. His eyes are wide, pupils like dinner plates. His voice is so feeble, at times it's like talking to an asthmatic on a ventilator.

What was the first song you ever wrote?
Honestly? It's dead embarassing. Billy The Hamster.
How old were you?
Twenty-one (smiles). No, about 12. I just wrote it in my head.
About a real hamster called Billy?
No, I wasn't allowed one. I think I was promised a hamster, so I went and bought the cage and the sawdust and all the things, hoping that they'd get the hint and buy me a hamster. By the time they did, I was a bit old. And anyway, its name was Reindeer.
Was that when you realised that you could write songs?
Er... (bats eyelids vacantly) dunno.
When did you start playing guitar then?
I picked up guitar quite late. About 16 or 17. I just hammered away at it fow two or three years, not really getting anywhere. Then I bumped into Carl (Barat). Just sat at his feet, gobsmacked. Just taking it in and drawing on that, really.
What point did you start to think you were any good?
Maybe when I was getting the same feeling from things that I wrote that I was getting from other people's songs. Albion. When I wrote Albion, probably.
Do you write every day?
I dunno if I write well every day, but I write every day. I have to. Normally I just flick on one of these things (points to Q's dictaphone) or a laptop.Just playing and playing and then a month or two later I'll listen back to what I've done and think, "Fucking hell. There's something in there somewhere".
Your songs don't come fully formed then?
Not always. Sometimes they can gestate for years.
What about lyrics - is it a case of grabbing a pen and writing on anything when the moment strikes?
Yeah. Me leg's been covered in biro many a time (rolls up trouser leg revealing pale, hairy skin but no biro). But I'm quite precious about my writing. Like, I've got scrap and things... (gets up and scrambles over to retrieve a notebook from his satchel, then sits back down and opens a book at page with a couple of spider scrawls) This started with me going (sings a cappella) "Torn torn torn torn. Torn torn torn torn" (stops singing) That's all I had for ages and then... (grabs guitar from side of chair and proceeds to sing and strum) "Torn torn torn torn. Da dee, dah dah" (stops playing). And then I'll play it to somebody and say, "Hey, listen to this, it's an old Velvet Underground song". I pretend someone else has written it. And then I go, (resumes singing) "Torn torn torn torn / Torn torn torn torn / Torn between two lives / La la la... (membles something about a ghost ship) Torn, da dee dah dah".
Is environment important when writing?
You think it's important at the time. You think, "This place is dull, I gotta get outta here". And then you look back and think, "Actually that was the right place to be".
Like prison?
Well, that was ideal because there was nothing else to do. Literally, it's just you and a pen and paper.
Is songwriting a catharsis for all the chaos in your life?
A lot of the songs I haven't used, or tend to get embarassed by, I'd say were, but I think my most successful songs are ones that are pure fiction, really. Taking a small idea from reality and telling a story. That's when people get paranoid and say "Why did you write that? That's about me". I'd say "No, no, no. It's just a song". My famous last words. "It's just a song and it's not about anyone".
So you've written some songs so personal that you've chosen to hide them?
I wouldn't say hide, I just don't think the outside world has anything to gain by them.
Do you live your songs or sing your life?
Well, take What A Waster. Line by line, verse by verse, every line of that began to ring true over time. But when I first wrote it I was a clean-living lad, to be honest.
It became a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Completely, yeah.
Are drugs a help or a hindrance to you as a songwriter?
I'd sayd drugs are an alternative to songwriting. It's something else to do rather than playing guitar. Sit down and have a pipe instead. It's not conductive to concentrating and playing and singing.
So whenever you write, you're always straight?
Erm... it's not really a conscious thing. But I tend to not get a lot done when I'm battered.
Does it bother you that the tabloid circus surrounding you continually detracts from your works as a songwriter?
It would worry me if I thought about it. But I can't afford to think about it. I care an awful lot about what people think about my songs, but I'm not interested in their opinions of me personally.
Audience reaction is important to you?
It started off as the be all and end all of songwriting. Wanting to find the audience and crave it. For a long time it was such a pipe dream. It seemed there was no way in the world we were ever going to get a crowd. And then we reached a point where the crowd were singing the songs back to us and it became to be all and end all again. Like "I can't wait to play this song to a crowd". There's nothing worse that when people say to me, "Oh I really liked what you used to do, what you're doing now is alright". But I know I wouldn't carry on writing unless I could maintain standards.
You've not peaked yet?
No, I'd say the record that's coming out this year (Babyshambles' second album) has got the best songs I've ever written.
It's five years since the Libertines' debut...
Is it? (eyes widen). Fucking hell.
...and since then bands like Arctic Monkeys and The View have followed. Are you aware how influential you've been?
I dunno... (frowns) Arctic Monkeys are quite special. I don't see too much of the Libertines in them. I think they'd have along anyway. I've had to swallow my ego and admits they're a good band.
Can you communicate better though song than you can in real life?
(Still talking about Arctic Monkeys) That's a comment on them as songwriters not as people. Cos they wouldn't let us stand by the side of the stage and watch them at Glastonbury.
As I was saying, can you communicate better through song than you can in real life?
Yeah. That's the only way I can communicate successfully. Like you can say to a girl, "Can I kiss you?" and she'll say "Well, no". But maybe in two and a half minutes (she'll see) what's come from inside. Although it's drawn, and it might be fictional, it's not really false, if you know what mean? It's not like someone might hear a song and say, "I wanna kiss that person because they wrote that song". But you never know. There might be be someone out there (like that).
So songwriting is your means of finding love?
Hmm... (grimace) I thought so, but really the one or two people that I thought I was in love with, they've never really been big fans of my music. In a way it's good because you know that they're not with you just because they like your music, but it's sad. Everything you do at a certain time in your life, no matter what the song's about, all the energy is really directed towards that one person. Whatever that was for Carl. Or for Kate. Or for someone else I fell in love with.
Kate didn't actually like your songs?
No. It was always a bit of a choker.
Is sadness a good muse?
Even if I'm feeling blank or not particualrly feeling happy or sad, suddenly a song will come out and it'll suddenly occur to me that's how I really feel. It's better than any therapy or any conversation. You just hit something on the head and it captures a mood. Like Well I Wonder by the Smiths. I used to put that on, especially the 7-inch (it was the b-side of How Soon Is Now) where you'd hear all the crackles and then the drumbeat and then... (starts to hum Well I Wonder). Just that mood.
Your new song, The Lost Art Of Murder. Was that inspired by George Orwell's Decline Of The English Murder?
Yeah, yeah! (eyes popping out of his head) Fuck! That's what I meant to call it but I couldn't remember the Orwellian bent on it.
Literature is still a big influence on your songs?
Yeah. Titles are almost the be all and end all of the song. I've got reams and reams of scribbled titles that have never been used. I'm always checking them. 32nd Of December, I had that as a title for so long. It's had so many shapes and sizes and curlies. I could have a whole album of 32nd Of Decembers.
What's the perfect song?
It all depends on the time of the day and what you're wearing.
Right now, what song would that be?
We'll Meet Again (adopts barmy Irish accent). You can never fail with the G to the D7, now.
Do you know the Number 1 song on 12 March 1979, when you were born?
I do. I Will Survive (by Gloria Gaynor).
Is it fitting?
(Shrugs, smiles)
How long do you think you'll continue writing?
As long as the person you want to kiss doesn't want to kiss you , then there's always room for another song. I'm not trying to kiss you, by the way. But you've got quite nice teeth.
You've gone red, mate.
Would you be happy if your gravestone read simply, "Pete Doherty, Songwriter"?
That's just a fantasy, though?
It might happen.
I dunno. That is fantasy stuff. I'd love that. It's like a craft, songwriting. Medieval. Traditional. It'd be the ultimate accolade.
So, what's your secret?
Er... (stares at the ceiling) Being lost. Gettng lost and then not being able to ask the way. As my nan always used to say, "As long as you've got that (grabs his tongue), then you can't get lost".
Our chat ends when Doherty is summoned to start his soundcheck in the bar below. Before going, he shakes my hand and asks if I'll write something in his notebook. I agree on condition he scribbles something in mine. We swap notebooks. In his, I draw a set of dentures, sign my name and add, "Not such nice teeth, really". An hour later, long after we've said goodbye, I finally check what he's written. It begins with a quote from another Smiths song, Rubber Ring. "Don't forget the songs that made you cry... that line always made me well up. Love, Pete".

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