Rock 'n' roll through a lens

Dubai-based photographer Julian Castaldi has toured with The Rolling Stones, Oasis, Radiohead, Pearl Jam and Iggy Pop to name just a few, and boy, does he have some stories to tell…

October 25, 2014

The tape is running for several hours as Julian Castaldi, an affable 45-year-old photographer and enthusiastic raconteur, blazes through an odyssey that traverses venerable rock pits on LA’s Sunset Strip, tour buses and bars across Europe, arenas and hotel rooms in the US, all the way to his new home city of Dubai.

It can be hard work keeping up with him. Even Castaldi, his banter full of humour, much of it the self-deprecating variety, has trouble chasing his own tail. “My wife Ellie told me to make sure I talk before I have three or four drinks,” he warns.

Throughout the interview, Castaldi, unshaven and dressed like “an old skater” in baseball cap, T-shirt and long, baggy shorts, often hits dead ends on maze-like anecdotes: “I need Post It notes,” he shrugs. “What was the question? I’ve forgotten the point,” he laughs. The words 'Destination' and 'Journey' are each tattooed on a left and right forearm.Brandon Boyd of IBrandon Boyd of Incubus by Julian Castaldi.ncubus.It’s amusing. Never boring. Hey, man, this is rock 'n' roll. A roll call of rock gods and superstars he’s snapped peppers the conversation: Oasis, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Iggy Pop, The Rolling Stones, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Black Crowes... the list goes on. He toured with The Charlatans, Supergrass and Stereophonics, documenting life on the road and backstage hijinks.

“There are stories,” nods Castaldi, when asked about groupies and partying, “but I don’t want to pin specifics to people because there'd be backlash.” He has felt the venom before. One of Castaldi’s most remarkable tales of the afternoon is of Kelly Jones, lead singer of Stereophonics, discovering the long-time band photographer had got together with his ex.

“It blew up with him coming over and smashing my cars up and me smashing his head into a 1950’s American vintage fridge in my house. It was unpleasant.” Jones later wrote and released a song about the incident – Rainbows and Pots of Gold – which Castaldi is adamant he has never listened to.

Castaldi grew up in the Welsh valleys and had been boyhood friends with members of Stereophonics long before the band formed. “There was nothing I enjoyed in school, apart from painting and drawing,” remembers Castaldi. “And in the valleys there wasn’t a particularly burgeoning art scene.”Liam Gallagher and Kelly Jones, by Julian Castaldi.At 17, he sold up his record collection and, with a thousand pounds in his pocket, boarded his first ever flight to Los Angeles, finding a cheap place to stay above a Venice Beach jazz club. “I started going to clubs and photographing all those epic Sunset Strip bands of the Nineties. Great craic, rubbish pictures,” laughs Castaldi, recounting meetings with Slash and Motorhead’s Lemmy in iconic Hollywood venues Whiskey a Go Go and The Troubadour.

It’s compelling to try and live out rock’s inner sanctum vicariously through Castaldi, but he’s quite content to have all that in his rearview mirror. Now, he rises early, cycles to Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach in the mornings to swim and relax and then pedals home to quietly work on his art until late. “Coming to Dubai was all about trying to spend more time painting. I love it more than photography. And there comes a time in life when you really need to do what you love,” says Castaldi.John Malkovich, by Julian-Castaldi.He talks about several friends in the music industry who didn’t have an off switch and never made it out alive. “It’s better to fade away than burn out – it really is,” offers up Castaldi in a rare moment of seriousness. He lightens the mood with a story about actor John Malkovich. “Great guy. I did a piece of collage art for him, commissioned by him – of him! Maybe he got sick of watching himself on DVD?”

Last month Castaldi exhibited a year’s worth of work in Dubai’s Gallery One, and he feels it marked a new beginning in his “random life”. He reflects on missed opportunities to exhibit in big galleries because he’s not naturally the pushy type. So, is he here to play the game in Dubai? “Yeah, I am. Because I’m older and wiser and I want to live in a house by the beach.”Noel Gallagher, by Julian-Castaldi.Family matters to Castaldi. He speaks often and fondly of second wife Ellie, and there’s likely to soon be an extra small mouth to feed. “Next year it’s on the cards for me,” he grins, raising his glass. “The oldest new dad in Dubai.”

Does he ever get nostalgic and pine for those crazy days? “I suppose now, looking back, you don’t realise how privileged you were. But, no, I wouldn’t want to go back. There’s no privacy on those tour buses and people are caning it, some more than others. All you’ve got between you and that party is a curtain - and some tours last six months.” Throw into the mix regular in-band fighting and bickering with tour managers over “the demon cash” and it’s clear the lifestyle can quickly take its toll.

Castaldi tells of two well-known singers having emotional meltdowns right in front of him – one at a bar and another over the breakfast table. “I didn’t know what to do,” he exclaims. “I mean, I’d find that awkward if it was my wife.”Paul Weller and Ray Davies, by Julian-Castaldi.The commercial photographic work he now undertakes – Tom Ford, American Apparel, Adidas – is less chaotic and better paid. Castaldi reckons he always finished tours dead skint. The real pay off, he says, was opening the bus door in a new city and stalking the streets and alleyways with camera in hand. “I love it here in Dubai,” smiles Castaldi, who claims the city’s only problem is a dress code that stops him wearing his beloved baseball caps inside bars. He begins to elaborate and pontificate, but instead somehow weaves off into a narrative about photographing a feuding Public Enemy in a Bristol hotel room. The tape rolls on. Iggy Pop, by Julian-Castaldi.Details: visit Castaldi.co.uk