That’s All Strokes by Eamon Sweeney
An overnight success story that was years in the making, The Strokes have been dismissed as flagrant hype and lauded as the saviours of rock’n’roll. Eamon Sweeney, a journalist who has spent more time in their company than most, gets the fullest account yet of the rise and rise of New York’s band of brothers. “Whatever happens, we’ll be there together,” they tell him. “We won’t let each other fall.”
Prologue: Meet the guys in the band.
To hell with hype. Let’s stick to the bare facts.
It is January 2001. Five school friends from New York are pretty chuffed that they’ve just landed a support slot to Texan rock revolutionaries ..And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. Nice timing, as they’ve got a debut EP to plug. A few days later, they find their first release nestling in Tower Records singles section, beside Stereolab. Then their lives get just a little bit crazy.
One year and two months later, they’ve sold out two world tours and 1.6 million people own a copy of their debut album Is This It. Julian Casablancas (vocals), Albert Hammond Jr. (guitar), Nikolai Fraiture (bass), Nick Valensi (guitar) or Fabrizio Moretti (drums) haven’t been in any other band except The Strokes. Aside from sharing such wonderfully exotic names, they are all aged between 21 and 23.
It is something of an understatement to say that it’s been the strangest and most surreal year of their young lives. In the Temple Bar Music Centre, Dublin, back in June 16 2001, Fabrizio Moretti told me: “It’s been like an injection in the butt and now we’re riding this weird wave ever since, but we just want to continue to make great music.”
Nine months later at Glasgow’s Barrowlands, Nikolai Fraiture attempts an updated summary: “It’s been like every emotion you can possibly think of multiplied by so much. You do go temporarily crazy.”
Even though this quintet have made it look so ridicolously easy – as if they’d just stumbled out of bed, put on their best junk shop clothes, turned up and banged out eleven classic tunes without beaking sweat – it hasn’t been as effortless and dreamlike as one might think. It may seem the stuff of fantasy, but The Strokes story isn’t just one big fairytale. For starters, their ‘overnight’ success story really began about seven years ago.
Part One: Daydreaming at the Back of the Class
“Up on a hill is where we begin/This little story, a long time ago.” – The Modern Age.
In the mid-90’s, three New York high school kids bonded over Nirvana and Pearl Jam, while their classmates obsessed about gangster rap. As Julian, Nick and Fabrizio (Fab) got closer, they collectively explored the back catalogues of Bob Marley, The Velvet Underground and The Beach Boys. Whenever they could, they attended concerts given in New York by US artists such as Guided By Voices, Built To Spill, The Mooney Suzuki and the Reverend Horton Heat.
“Whenever there was a big show I was there,” recalls Nick Valensi. “It was pretty much what we did. If there was a show going on, we all went to the show. We started to play, but we were just really like little kids in high school messing around. The goals weren’t set and we knew we wanted to do something good together. But we didn’t know how.”
Julian dropped out of school. Nick left around by the eleventh grade. Fab stuck it out. The trio remained strong friends. Soon, they were to be joined by two other former school acquaintances of Julian’s, Nikolai Fraiture from Jules’ days in a New York grammar school, and Albert Hammond Junior, the only other American in his class during a short stint at L’institut de Rosey is Switzerland. A plush institution recently described by Casablancas as “horribly snobbish”, it was the private school that his father had attended.
Now a five piece, the lads began to take a more active interest in playing their instruments. Albert hooked up with JP Bowersock for lessons via Richie Baxt, a retired police officer who ran a guitar shop from his apartment.
“JP started out as Albert’s guitar teacher and little by little Julian started taking lessons with him too,” Nick Valensi recalls. “I took up lessons with him as well. He helped out a lot with Julian’s songwriting, Julian is still always showing him little ideas and asking him for advice. In terms of guitar solos, he was always helping you try a different way to do something. Even last year, he was always around when we were recording the record. Always. There was never a time when we were there that he wasn’t there. Even if we stayed until seven in the morning, he stayed to seven in the morning.”
“He was articulating things to the producer that we couldn’t articulat and giving advice on everything from vocal to drum tones. He was always giving little pieces of advice and saying things like, ‘Do you guys think that bit sounds a little bit loud at that part?’. And we’d all be listening together going, “Yeah, dude. It does’.”
JP is the man photographed and accredited as ‘Guru’ on the inner sleeve of Is This It.
Julian Casablancas officially christened the band The Strokes in 1999. According to Albert, the name sounded hard and strong and it was the first one they could all agree on. They started gigging.
“We played our first proper show in a small crappy little club called The Spiral which is closed down now,” Nick reminisces. Little by little, The Strokes improved with every show and won a fan and friend in Ryan Gentles who booked bands at the Mercury Lounge. Ryan began to see some potential and became increasingly involved.
“Back then, we did all the steps a band should take I think, but we did them faster than most bands do,” says Nikolai Fraiture. “I don’t know what exactly caused that. The first shows when we started in New York we didn’t even have to send a demo. You just called up and you got a show. We took each step up. We did a tiny club first. Then a few more people started coming. Ryan would book us club shows in the middle of nowhere to people who didn’t even like our music. Little by little, we took our steps.
“But there was some awful shows though! There was one that I think was in Delaware at a lobster house or fish house or something. We came onto this tiny little stage and Julian’s microphone kept on cutting out during every single song. The PA was nothing – just a tiny little box – so after each song it would completely cut out. Thankfully, we only had eight or nine sounds at the time! We were playing our songs to one family of five having dinner.”
Ryan Gentles decided to play The Strokes’ demo containing ‘The Modern Age’, ‘Last Nite’ and ‘Barely Legal’ to a few people in the know. At this stage, the band were playing a weekly residency in Ryan’s club and had scored opening slots to Julian’s Ohio favourites Guided By Voices and on a US visit by Manchester’s Doves, in support of their magnificent Lost Souls album. Soon, the demos were bringing a taste of The Strokes to the wider world.
“Rough Trade was a name we had heard of and maybe we had noticed it written on one of our albums or something, but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh man! I really want to get signed to Rough Trade’,” muses Fab Moretti. “But when Geoff Travis picked up on it, Ryan whispered to us, ‘Y’know, that guy is a very influential man in music. You guys should be proud of the fact that he likes you’.”
Travis didn’t just like The Strokes, he adored them. He immediately wanted to release ‘The Modern Age’ as an EP, but only without re-recording, over-dubbing or, indeed, any tampering with whatsoever. That EP, which many of you now own and love, is arguably the most famous demo tape of the 21st century to date. It also led to the band’s new fabled club tour of the UK.
A few cover stories and a whirlwind of fevered hype later and every single date sold out faster than you could say, ‘Kate Moss. Plus one please.” Of course, at one leve, this was a well-worn story we’d all heard ad nauseam. “The next big thing”. “The sound of the future.” And of course, “the saviours of rock’n’roll”. The reality was that, at that moment, The Strokes were just another band with three good songs. Big deal. However, coincidentally, they had a few more gems up their sleeves.
The first two were ‘Hard To Explain’ and ‘New York City Cops’. arguably the two finest Strokes’ moments to date. They toured Europe again in summer 2001 for their second release and dropped round our way for their debut Irish performance with fellow New Yorkers and Rough Trade label mates The Moldy Peaches. To be brutally frank, it was a rather dull show with some fine moments. No more, no less. But then came Is This It.
Part Two: New York City Debutantes
“He knows it’s justified to kill to survive/He then in dollars makes more dead than alive/Let’s suck more blood, let’s run three hours a day/The world is over but I don’t care..’Cos I am with you/Now I’ve got to explain/Things, they have changed, in such a permanent way…” – ‘Alone, Together’
In June 2001, I asked The Strokes what their imminent and then untitled album sounded like and how it related to ‘The Modern Age’ release. Fab Moretti replied; “It’s easy for people to jump to the wrong conclusions when they’ve only heard one three song EP. While we are appreciative of some of the comments we have been given, it is not the full picture. Hopefully, when the album comes out people will realise that it’s not just some New York thing and that it is a lot more universal than that.”
In fact, the album struck a massive emotiona pwoer chord worldwide. Immediately upon release in Ireland and the UK, Is This It went straight into the top tens at numbers four and two respectively. The packaging also caused some minor controversy due to its stark cover image of a bare behind and a black glove. Some rumoured this shapely rear belonged to one of the band. Others thought it was a homage to Spinal Tap’s ‘Smell The Glove’. In reality, it was just a classic raunchy visual with a far humbler origin.
“The cover picture was taken by the same guy who had taken the pictures for the inside cover (Colin Lane),” explains Moretti, eager to clear up the confusion. “It was just a photograph he took of his girlfriend, so it was really, really nice of him to let us use it.”
Is This It was only 36 minutes long with absolutely no fillers or interludes. Hence, it functions as the perfect album to put on while getting ready to go out. Packed with buzzing riffs, it showcased a very welcome bias towards brevity, of a mind not mastered by an alternative breakthrough act since the Pixies. Every song also contained a clutch of killer lines. “See, alone we stand, together we fall apart/Yeah, I think I’ll be alright” (‘Someday’). “Flying overseas, no time to feel the breeze/I took too many varieties” (‘The Modern Age’) “I say the right things but act the wrong way,” (‘Hard To Explain’) “Girls lie too much/Boys act too rough/Enough is enough!” (‘Take It Or Leave It’).
You could argue the toss about its derivative nods to the Velvet Underground and retro-riffing a go go, but this was pure, perfectly executed power pop at it’s very finest. Is This It was produced by Gordon Raphael, a producer for over twenty years who once toured as a keyboardist with The Psychedelic Furs. His basement studio, called Transporter Raum, was situated off Avenue A in Manhattan.
“We had a chance of recording in a couple of places, but we always went back to Gordon just because those specific songs asked for that kind of production,” explains Fab Moretti. “I really love the way Gordon and The Strokes do their thing. We’re a good team. He doesn’t have an ego. We are so incredibly lucky in that I think that all the people we have worked with, including Gordon, have let us happen.
“Rough Trade to us is a bunch of friends that can envisage the same sort of final product, which needs to be untainted and pure and true. They are just these amazing guys that understand that we have a very specific way of working and that we love to give ourselves to the music and not hold anything back or do anything that in any way compromises our integrity.”
Albert Hammond Junior firmly believes that as accomplished as their debut is, it could be bettered.
“It was the first time we went into a studio for an abum, so we were just trying our best. A studio is such a weird place. You’re playing music and you’re trying to capture it onto a tape that is going to last forever which you can’t change. I feel like we will experiment more when we’re more experienced. When we’re better players, we’ll have more knowledge of the actual buttons. I also think we might be able to work faster.”
Fab Moretti is even blunter. “I think what we’ve done isn’t much yet,” he stresses. “Hopefully, we’ll have a future ahead of us. I know we are not the best band we can possibly be. We all have to work harder. The moment we start thinking we are the best band on the block is the very moment that we pigeonhole ourselves and fuck up.
“If anything, we’ve just opened a door,” he continues. “And I’m trying to speak humbly and not claim to have done incredible things. But at least now the press and the entertainment industry is starting to notice us and bands like The White Stripes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. There is integrity in music that has to be upheld. It’s not just fun and games and entertainment. I think it had been realised a little bit more that if you are true to that and if you don’t try to fuck it up, you can get into those charts without ever having to put yourself through the mud.”
Part Three: Is That It?
“Even if half-mad he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors.” – from Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo
It’s hardly surprising that The Strokes have been recently and suddenly been on the receiving end of a backlash. It’s the traditional fate of bands who are lauded early on, invariably and ironically, by some of the same people who then rush to do them down. But also by those who see the hype and miss the substance.
“I know that some people think we are here because of some kind of gimmick or that we were a moment in time,” reflects Fab Moretti. “I’m not sure exactly what the full reason for it is. The press and the hype and everything definitely has a lot to do with it. I feel that we have done everything so far pretty well just in terms of stepping on the right stones and not tripping. Point is, human nature is very competitive and instead of allowing things to happen and trying to learn from the past people try to dog it.
“There are no sort of mirrors or shtick with what we do. I hope that what we inspire in people is that whatever it is you want to do, you can achieve it with enough hard work. I think that if we were ever to stop playing, we would at least have left this small sort of blueprint about how you can do the music that you love without ever having to compromise yourself but you’ll still be able to be recognised.”
In February 2002, The Strokes received the biggest public honour yet – winning the Best International Newcomer category at the Brit Awards in Earl’s Court, London. Even though the boys dutifully accepted this prestigious industry gong, they remain sceptical of such accolades and occasions.
“I don’t think it means much at all,” opines Nick Valensi. “I don’t think it’s any gauge of how good your music is. Getting a platinum disc meant more to us because it meant a certain amount of people own our album, listen to it and have it in their CD collection. I’ve never been a fan of those occasions when all these rich and famous people pat themselves on the back to say a job well done and host a big celebration about how good they are. That’s certainly not for me and I don’t think it is for us. I’d rather just put that in the past and work on something new and do something better as opposed to just throwing a party for self-celebration.”
Nikolai Fraiture is reflecting on how, for their own part, they have judged some things wrongly. “In Paris, we were to play a TV show but something happened with our record company (BMG) where they weren’t very nice so we just left it alone. We didn’t realise that about 40 or 50 kids had won tickets. Some kids had taken off work or school and travelled all the way to Paris to see this little thing we were supposed to do. So, we took the names and numbers of all the kids and we called each of them and told them we’d be at this bar in some neighborhood in Paris if they wanted to come and get their stuff signed or if they just wanted to have a beer and hang out.
“Primarily we are here to make music, but they are the people that come to see us and they are the reason we are able to come to Europe in the first place. Without them, it is impossible. The fans that come and see us are of every age and every colour and are so diverse, but the one thing they share is that they are all really excited about our music.”
Those fans Nikolai so touchingly acknowledges have been setting some astonishing box office records. Two nights in London’s Brixton Academy sold out in 45 minutes. At the show I attended in Glasgow’s Barrowlands, tickets were changing hands for up to £150 sterling.
“I feel really good about the shows doing so well, but at the same time I feel really bad,” reflects Albert Hammond Junior. “I’ve been a fan of many bands and if I left it too late and I’d have to do my fair share of lying to get in! I don’t mind people doing that. I always feel like if you’re able to get in then good for you! You broke it! I got no problem with that. But it has become really crazy. This is our second world tour and the whole tour is sold out and they’re all the same sized venues, 1,500 to 5,000. That’s just crazy that we go all over the world and sell out.”
Part Four: No, there’s more
On the evidence of the two shows I caught in Glasgow and the Olympia in recent weeks and judging by first hand reports from James Endeacott and Geoff Travis at Rough Trade about the second Brixton Academy gig, The Strokes have developed into a powerful live act.
They play everything from Is This It and three new songs in one great hour long flash of noise and melody and passion. Two of the new songs, the wonderfully titled ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ and the provisionally named ‘Ze Newie’ deserve a special mention.
“The first time we played ‘Newie’ was the New Year’s Eve show at the Apollo in New York,” explains Albert. “It was written a month and a half ago and since we were on the road from January 19th we’ve been changing it. It finally got fixed somewhat in Germany two weeks ago. ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ came from around the same time. The way our songs evolve is that when we get them to a good enough level, we play them live. We discard stuff, but if it’s good enough to play live then we take it from there and we realise very quickly what is good or bad.”
As it happens, ‘Ze Newie’ is very, very good, boasting a typically addictive razor sharp Strokes chorus. Another show-stopping Strokes newie is ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’.
“I love playing ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’,” enthuses Albert. “I think it’s a good song, it’s a mixture of rock and something that is so melodic because the chord progression is an old jazz chord progression from the 20’s. If you heard the same chords in a jazz song you wouldn’t realise it could work in a rock song at all.”
Even the hardiest cynics on the fence must admit that two great new songs so soon after a monumental debut album and punishing tour schedule add considerable weight to the argument that The Strokes are more than a one hit album wonder.
Now, refusing to succumb to the temptations of the summer festival circuit, they’re planning a strategic retreat.
“I understand why we have to tour because people want to see live music,” reflects Julian Casablancas. “It is probably the purest and the truest way to really enjoy music. But for now, we’re going to take a few months off and work on some new stuff. Before each song, I feel like I don’t know how to write a song, so I’ll probably feel that way again.”
Nikolai Fraiture shares Julian’s sentiments wholeheartedly.
“For the summer, I think we have to work on more material because on the road it’s very hard to create anything new. So we must take time off to do that. We’d love to do the festivals because they’re so much fun, but I think in the long run it would hurt us more as a band. It’ll be good to get back to a normal state of mind and way of life where we are going into the studio a lot and writing.”
The Strokes are backed 100% by Rough Trade on this stance.
“We don’t want The Strokes to milk their fame,” maintains Geoff Travis. “We want them to go and write some new songs. We want them to make records for as long as they want to make records. I’m looking forward to the third, fourth and fifth albums. I hope that some of the mistakes that happen to bands like The Stone Roses don’t happen to them and that we can help them to avoid falling into some of those traps.
“The psychological context of how you do your work is critically important. Very few bands have that network around them. I’m sure New Order appreciated it during their Factory years more than they could even say now. I thnk that is also true for Depeche Mode and all those other bands that have stayed for long periods of time with the best indies. It has helped them to make good work and it’s really important.”
Love of loathe ’em, here is another inescapable fact of Strokes’ life. For all the time I’ve spent with them, they have always eaten together, drank together, acted the clown together and, in short, appeared as a rock solid unit of friends.
“We have stayed very strong together,” Fab confirms with evident passion. “We’ve been friends since God knows how long. Because of that friendship we have together, I couldn’t imagine reading an ad saying ‘Drummer needed’ because I need to be with my friends because they are my confidence and rock in the world. Who knows what way the weather will go, but we’ll open up our umbrellas when it’s bad or we’ll put on our tee-shirts and sunbathe when things are good.
“Whatever happens happens,” he concludes, “we’ll be there together. We won’t let each other fall.”