Guitar Player: Electric Warriors December 2003 by Michael Molenda

Let me show you how to write a Strokes story for the popular press: “Languishing in a humongous New York photographer’s loft, Strokes drummer Fab Moretti is absolutely terrified about his choice of clothes. ‘Are they cool enough,’ he asks? Meanwhile, guitarists Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi are arguing over where to eat. Even for fabulous rock stars, it’s tough nabbing a table at a SoHo nightspot on a moment’s notice. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture is above such worries. Rolling a piece of cold pepperoni pizza in his somewhat cruel mouth, he’s idly destroying a journalist at a game of chess, while simultaneously devouring a book of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories. Slumped deliciously on a red-leather settee, vocalist Julian Casablancas is nonetheless a picture of quiet, seething discontentment. ‘Hey, aren’t we supposed to be rehearsing?” If the preceding isn’t really your style, just muster your finest celebratory, myth-making prose, and take a shot yourself.

Okay, reality time. The Strokes are not a myth. Quite sadly, in fact, for those seduced into hilarious orgasms of quasi-journalistic platitudes, they are simply — and heroically — an extremely hard-working rock band. Friends forever, the members’ work ethic is extraordinary. They rehearse incessantly, continue to feverishly hone their respective crafts, and will tear down and rearrange a song until it’s either perfectly constructed or indisputably without merit. And they’re so dedicated to musical honesty that they refuse to record anything they can’t reproduce on a live stage.

No outsider ever truly breaks into the core, either, and woe to those who attempt to subvert what the Strokes believe to be undeniable truths. Take Room On Fire [RCA], for example. After the near-hysterical critical reception of the band’s debut, Is This It, in 2001, it was a given that the follow-up would be one intensely anticipated album. So, of course, super-hot Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich was set to helm the sessions for the all-important second release. It didn’t work.

While the Strokes liked working with Godrich — and Casablancas admitted the tracks might have been the “best stuff we’ve ever heard in our lives” — he apparently didn’t make the members comfortable enough in the studio, and, subsequently, he couldn’t conjure tracks that the band liked. So the Strokes homeboy Gordon Raphael — who produced Is This It in a Lower East Side basement, and who clearly understands the group’s anxieties about studio tensions — was back in charge for Room On Fire.

Stories such as this make it hard not to applaud the Strokes’ belief in themselves, as well as each member’s commitment to “getting it right” as defined by the band. And while Room On Fire sounds perhaps a bit too comfy and “played right,” it will doubtlessly seduce countless kids to start bands, and the buckeroo enthusiasm of Hammond, Jr. and Valensi will most certainly inspire the next generation of guitarists. Given the Strokes’ adoration for playing it straight — and the member’s distaste for digital editing and other studio wizardry — the future of basic, balls to the walls rock couldn’t be in better hands.

You know, you’re not exactly going to thrill the rack and big rig crowd with your basic setups.

Albert Hammond, Jr.: Well, I feel like once you find the right guitar and the right amp — which I did — you have more than enough tonal possibilities. I didn’t really take advantage of that on the first album — I nearly always used the middle pickup. Now I’m playing with the pickup selector and tone knobs a lot more. For example, while we were rehearsing for the second record, we’d take a break for lunch, and I’d accidentally leave the guitar on a different pickup setting. When we’d come back and play the song again, the different tone might work, or it might not, but it started me thinking that I didn’t have to do things the same way I did on the first album.

Nick Valensi: I do toy around with stuff, and, every once in a while, I’ll find something fun. But when I bring it to the rehearsal studio, it usually doesn’t work out. For example, I tried bringing in some delay stuff, but it didn’t sound right — it was too modern, and the Strokes’ guitar sound is really natural. When Albert and I play by ourselves, I imagine what a guitar sounded like in the ’50s. I haven’t analyzed it too much, but the band sound really came together as soon as I started playing the Epiphone, and Albert picked up that particularly Strat. His trebly stone and my midrange sound really work with the bass.

Working one’s pickup selector and tone controls seems like kind of a lost art for many modern rock players.

Valensi: To tell you the truth, I plug in, put everything on 7, and take it from there. Albert is a bit more tone obsessed, which is probably a good thing. But I’ve bee playing this one guitar for so long that I know it, it knows me, and it never sounds bad.

However, you constructed the most unique guitar sound on the album — the synth-like tone for the melody riffs in “12:51.”

Valensi: Yeah, well how that cam about wasn’t really a fluke, but it happened in a weird way. I was playing these silly little jazz things using my neck pickup with the guitar’s tone control rolled all the way down, and I accidentally stepped on the DeVille’s channel-switching footpedal. The gain on that channel was on 12, and all of a sudden the tone sounded like an analog-synth sound — or a weird heavy-metal, Joe Satriani tone [laughs]. Julian was the one who really saw the possibilities of that tone for “12:51.” So I played along with the vocal melody, doubled the part, and that was it. It was all a bit of an accident — I was just trying to get a nice jazz tone — but it sounded cool. The DeVilles didn’t really like that tone, though. I blew up three of them.

Hammond, Jr.: We definitely think about different tones, but the main way we mix it up is by changing parts. We’ll decide this guitar sounds better than mine on some things, or vice-versa, and we’ll switch parts. Our approach is very open — we never do things a certain way — although Nick is a better player, so if a part is really hard, he’ll usually get it. Then again, if my guitar sounds better on a line, I’ll work hard to master a part that was initially difficult for me.

How do you two decide who plays what?

Valensi: For the most part, the first thing we’re inclined to do is usually the right thing. But if we’re working through a song, and it’s not really working out, we’ll say, “Alright, screw it — I’ll do your part and you do mine.” That works sometimes, but not just because there’s a difference in the way we play — it’s also about our tonal differences. Albert plays a lot looser — even when he plays chords, he does it in a real melodic way — and his tone is more jangly than mine. I have more of a precise, stabbing sound that’s pretty strict and sharp.

But the thing about the new record is, guitar-wise, there are so many melodies going on. It’s not really straight-ahead, rhythm guitar or lead guitar. Somewhere along the line, we got better at filling up space musically. Instead of strumming the chords outright — like we did on the first album — we’re not able to imply the harmony with counter melodies. Those melodies, and how they enhance Julian’s singing, make for a more sophisticated sounds. Stuff like that happens naturally — I don’t recall the five of us sitting down and talking about a direction for the record. It’s only in retrospect that we can acknowledge it. Six months ago, when we were working on the songs for the album, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what was going to happen.

Did you reference any guitar sounds — classic or otherwise — to help you dial in the tones for the new record?

Valensi: No. We only listened to Michael Jackson and John Lennon records for the drum sounds.

What was the typical recording process for Room On Fire?

Hammond, Jr.: Half the record was recorded live, and half was built up from a drum track. The approach usually depended on the drum sounds we wanted. If there would be too much signal bleed when we tried to record a song live, we’d build up the tracks. I mean, if you’re going to be isolated in separate rooms — and monitor the band over headphones — you might as well overdub your parts because you can focus more on your individual performance and your tones. The live tracks — which were full band takes — are “Under Control,” “I Can’t Win,” “You Talk Way Too Much,” “What Ever Happened,” and “12:51.” But everything we recorded — no matter how it was tracked — had to sound live. It was important that every song had a vibe.

Valensi: There’s a strict rule in the band that whatever we put to tape, we have to be able to do onstage ourselves — no extra musicians or pre-recorded stuff. Everything we record is worked through in the rehearsal studio, and we’re limited to two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals. That’s all we do — there are no overdubs or recording tricks. We’re fortunate that we have a good relationship with our producer, because he understands and respects this little rule.

Our process is collaborative, and everyone’s personality comes through a little bit. Some songs, Julian brings in almost completely finished, and they take just a couple of days for us to work up. Other songs take longer. “The End Has No End,” for example, took almost four months to finish. We knew we had a cool intro and some other parts for that songs, but as soon as we got to the chorus, everything would crumble. It took a long time to work out options and settle on the chorus that’s on the record. You see, we don’t like to dismiss something right away — it’s those one or two good parts that keep you working on something until it sounds great. So we’ll give a song a real shot, and if it doesn’t make the cut for the album, we’ll know we gave it every chance to succeed. Ultimately, that works to our advantage. For Room On Fire, we went into the studio knowing exactly which 11 songs we were going to record.

Hammond, Jr.: For this record, we tried not to do anything that we did on the first one. Otherwise, the whole process of recording gets boring because you’ve heard everything already. The songs changed a lot, so there was a natural evolution due to the new material, but we also expanded our tonal palette and ended the songs differently. It was pretty exciting.

But isn’t one of the challenges showing an evolution on your second record without flying too far afield of the style that won fans on your first release?

Hammond, Jr.: The only thing we didn’t want to lose was our vibe. Our first record was a moment in time — a document of our set list. But I think this record sounds more like us. Because of all the touring we’ve done, we’re better players, and we’ve become more adept at making sure our individual voice as a band gets down on tape. But, having said that, I also believe that the charming quality I liked so much on our first record is still there on the second.

Valensi: Any band that had success on their first record is going to have some difficulty isolating themselves for their follow-up album. It’s hard to put into words. However, any pressure we felt going in to record the new record was internal, and it was stuff we could talk out.

When we got off the road, we were more focused than ever. Julian writes the music and words, and it was good for him to be home in New York, where he’s in his element and comfortable. Once there was new material to work through, it was very exciting for all of us. That is, perhaps one of the best feelings — going downstairs, hopping in a taxi, and driving to the rehearsal studio, knowing you’re about to work on a new song.

Hammond, Jr.: When you’re in a room with five guys who can play songs well together it’s the biggest ego boost you can have.

How do you approach your solos?

Hammond, Jr.: All of my leads are worked out, and Julian helps a lot — he’ll actually write some of the solos. Sometimes, we’ll go for a certain thing — like on “I Can’t Win” Nick was trying to get a Bob Marley, “Concrete Jungle” kind of solo — and sometimes we’ll work on something without knowing where it’s going to lead us. It depends on the song. But, overall, I tend to favor the Freddie King style of blues soloing. I really like his technique of using slowness, silence, fire, and then slowness again. It’s all about letting things breathe, and then coming back and attacking the notes.

Valensi: My influences are sort of scattered. I always liked the way Slash played when I was a kid— which maybe isn’t the coolest influence, but it’s the truth.

Have any of your individual influences helped forge the Strokes sound?

Valensi: When we were 13 years old, we were all friends because we dug the same music. At that time, it was Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Bob Marley, the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, and David Bowie. Back then it was fun to figure out songs and talk about them, but we were never into playing covers. I wish there was more of a story line to get the progression of the Strokes sound, but it all happened so organically, it’s like trying to describe a tree growing.

Do you have plans for continued growth and evolution as guitarists?

Hammond, Jr.: I still take lessons with JP, but what I practice at home doesn’t always reflect the Strokes. I want to grow as a guitarist, so I’ll study things like ’20s jazz or some blues. That stuff doesn’t really tie into the Strokes, but in a weird way it does, because it opens up my attitude towards the guitar. As my feel for the instrument evolves, I’ll become a better player. It’s all about setting that impossible goal you can never reach, and, in the process, you keep learning, keep learning, keep learning…

I mean, one thing I’ve learned about the guitar, is that as soon as you learn something new, you’re back to square one again. You’re never really finished with it. So, when I see young people playing guitar, I want to tell them it’s an easy instrument to give up on. You’ll typically learn something fast — and think, “Wow, I’m really getting it” — and then the next year-and-a-half will drop off into a very slow progression.

Valensi: Right now, I never really think about being a great guitarist. I know we’ve got a great band, and I’m only interested in doing what’s good for the group, and getting our music out to people. It’s about the Strokes, and we all put our egos aside for the good of the band.

You know, a lot of bands say that, but egos have a way of creeping into things.

Valensi: When you put five really good friends in a room who have the same goal, they just find a way to make things work.

What about the pressures of fame? You guys are way more famous now than when you released your first album, and people are expecting big things from you.

Hammond, Jr.: We don’t really think about the fame thing, because it happened in steps. I just try to think about being a really good band. You know, it’s only later — when you’re back home after touring — that you might look back at what happened and go, “Cool!”

I don’t think we’re rock stars, although when you’re onstage, you have to be confident. No one wants to go see a band that’s timid — you want to see a band that’s taking things to the next level. That’s fun. For us, we’re always intense and nervous before we step onstage — scared, actually — and that’s half the energy. I mean, there are five guys up there who are naturally intense being nervous together. That’s something an audience can feel, and that’s what pushes us to deliver balls to the walls performances.

Valensi: I know when I was a kid that this is what I was going to do with my life. Music is the one thing that I enjoy the most, and I thank my parents for shoving a guitar into my hands when I was a kid, and telling me that I had a knack for it. Once I got going, nothing could stop me. Making music in this band is all I care about right now.

Hammond, Jr.: You know, it’s all pretty strange. It’s quite strange to be on the cover of a guitar magazine. It’s a compliment. I know that I’m definitely not a Clapton, and I’m sure that some of your readers will wonder why Nick and I are on the cover. We’re young, and sometimes even I laugh when I tell people I’m a guitar player. I almost feel like I haven’t earned the right to say that yet. But I love the instrument with all my heart, and I’m excited that the process of being a better player is never ending. Of course, I also realize that it’s easy to put stuff down. But, you know, it’s harder to come up with something better.

+++

The Guru

Although most articles on the Strokes mention him ever-so-briefly, JP Bowersock is far from a minimal presence. In fact, his influence on the band and its sound is so huge that he should be considered “the sixth Stroke.” He not only remains Hammond, Jr.’s and Valensi’s guitar teacher, he’s also the band’s vibe master, cheerleader, protector, sage, and apparently, the only one who can translate the group’s sonic ideas to its production team. In other words, if you’re looking for some substantial clues to the development of the Strokes sound, you need to consider Bowersock’s contribution in the same light as each individual member’s musical influences and performance techniques.

“JP offers support for everyone,” says Valensi. “He’ll help me figure out little licks, ways to make some lines cooler — such as asking me to check out how a riff would sound with one or two notes hammered on — and how to EQ stuff. He provides general supervision on everything, and I definitely consider him part of the production team. It’s reassuring to have someone in your corner who is a little bit older and wiser, and who knows so much about music.

“JP’s knowledge of the guitar and life and music is amazing,” enthuses Hammond, Jr. “In the studio, he really helps us when we’re stuck. I might say that something sounds flat, for example, and he’ll tell the engineer to boost the 2kHz range or whatever. Then we’re like, ‘Oh, wow — that’s just what it needed!” He also knows that vibe is everything when you’re recording, and he helps us relax. Maybe someone will think their tone sucks, or they’re not playing something right, and he’ll be able to talk it out and make it alright. Perhaps we’re not sure if a take is ‘the one,’ and if he says it’s great, it boosts our confidence. Basically, he’s a figure that everyone in the band trusts, and, when you have someone like that in a room, it creates an atmosphere where it’s your own little world, and you can survive with everything you have.”

+++

Mapping the Strokes

As the Strokes will not record anything that can’t be replicated live, it’s fairly easy to trace Hammond, Jr.’s and Valensi’s parts — they each stake out their territory in either the right or left speaker.  To help identify exactly who is blasting through one channel or the other, however, Hammond, Jr. provided GP readers with this basic, song-by-song script of what the guitarists are playing.

What Ever Happened?
Chords: Hammond, Jr. Lines, instrumental break after chorus: Valensi

Reptilia
Chords: Valensi Lines: Hammond, Jr.

Automatic Stop
Chords: Valensi  Lines: Hammond, Jr.

12:51
Chords: Hammond, Jr.  “Keyboard” lines: Valensi

You Talk Way Too Much
Chords: Hammond, Jr. Solo: Valensi

Between Love And Hate
Chords, solo: Valensi  Lines: Hammond, Jr.

Meet Me In the Bathroom
Chords, lines (chorus): Valensi  Chordal melody, lines: Hammond, Jr.

Under Control
Chords, different inversions: Both  Solo: Hammond, Jr.

The End Has No End
Chords: Both  “Crazy” bridge: Valensi Solo: Hammond, Jr.

The Way It Is
Chords: Valensi  Lines: Hammond, Jr.

I Can’t Win
Chords, lines: Both Solo: Valensi