THEY’VE BEEN CALLED NEW YORK CITY’S FINEST AND A BUNCH OF SPOILT, COPYCAT, RICH KIDS IN THE SAME SENTENCE, BUT THE STROKES ARE SURE IT’S STILL ALL JUST ROCK & ROLL
When Bob Dylan released his eponymous debut in 1961, he was just 20 years old. It was an album of covers and three very derivative originals, the whole collection rendered in a style obviously lifted from Woody Guthrie and Dave Van Rook. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were also both 20 when they reworked a few standard blues forms into the first original songs of the Rolling Stones, shamelessly copying the style of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry and calling it their own.
At 22, Tom Waits embarked on a musical career with a handful of barroom country-blues tunes as inconsistent and unoriginal as his hard-living beat-poet persona. Jimmy Hendrix spent his time as a backing man for the likes of Little Richard and Ike and Tina Turner, before having his first hit with a cover of Billy Roberts’s “Hey Joe” at the age of 24, and then shortening his name to Jimi.
Rarely has greatness come without first looking backwards. Dylan’s original charm came not from his inventiveness, but from his ability to deliver a 1930s dustbowl ballad with complete sincerity to middle-class American college students in the early 1960s. Jagger and Richards just succeeded in making black rhythm and blues sound like white music; Waits has never claimed to possess anything more than an extraordinary understanding of the power of pastiche. And Hendrix just wanted to play the blues in a way that the human sea of tie-dyed shirts and hair beads could understand.
Sure, they conquered the world with the exuberance and arrogance of youth – brash, cocky and only too eager to prove that they were as good as anyone. But Hendrix, Dylan, Waits and the Stones were also smart enough to make sure they understood the best. As Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey has fittingly pointed out in “Three Dimensions” on Triple J recently: “You’re not the first to think that everything has been thought before.”
Dressed in full orchestration – a pinstripe jacket over a faded T-shirt, pants that don’t quite fall low enough over old-school sandshoes, a softpack Marlboro cigarette hanging from pouting lips beneath a mop of designer-scruff hair – Nick Valensi looks young. At 20, the guitarist for the Strokes has the glow and energy ‘nine-to-five and not enough sex’ has stolen from so many people only a few years older.
But there is also something else, something more than a rubber soul about Valensi. It’s what they call charisma. You see a hint of it in people: a quick smile that leaves you startled, a lively laugh that only comes after three drinks on a good night. However, when it stares you in the face, unrelenting, it’s different. Even if you believe the stories about Valensi, vocalist Julian Casablancas, second guitarist Albert Hammond Jnr, drummer Frabizio Moretti, bassist Nikolai Fraiture – that they are just spoilt rich kids with over-inflated egos – spend time in their company and see if you can dislike the Strokes. I’ll wager you can’t – and if you can, it’s only because you’re jealous as hell.
Lounging lazily in the function room of a Sydney hotel, Valensi is talking about the quintet’s first official release, The Modern Age ER There is pride in his soft voice, and like a child telling his folks about a compliment from a teacher, he doesn’t mind letting you know he thinks his band is alright.
“When those recordings were first finished and we first played it back we were just like, ‘Oh man,”‘ Valensi laughs. “Since we were kids our goal all along was, and it still is, just to be good. When we were kids, we sucked and we knew we sucked – to be an amazing band right off the bat is an impossible thing. We recorded a couple of things along the way and we were never really proud of them at all and never would’ve released them. But once we did The Modern Age it was to the point where we were like, ‘Wow, we’re proud of this, we’re getting good; we’re on the right path to becoming a good band.”
Nikolai Fraiture nods. Dressed in a heavy, khaki jacket, the bassist is painfully shy. He hides beneath a mass of long, straggly hair, peering out from under this bird’s nest with a nervous smile. Onstage he is nothing like his bandmates; Valensi and Hammond Jnr crackle with rock & roll energy drummer Moretti is a mess of flailing arms and bobbing hair, and vocalist Casablancas struts with the shades of a young Mick Jagger. Fraiture, however, stands solid as a rock, hair over face, delivering his part with a minimum of fuss. It’s the awkward charm that made George Harrison such a likable chap.
“Even from the beginning, when people saw us live, it was like they so badly wanted us to bring back something from the past,” Fraiture mumbles. “They laid any and every name from back then on us, and a lot of the time it had nothing to do with us. People liked that sort of music, and for good reason, and then they see us and they hope that maybe it still it exists.”
There will be no escaping the comparisons for the Strokes. Since the release of the three-track EP last year, the name-calling has continued unabated: the Velvet Underground, Television, the Ramones, New York Dolls, the Stooges, a young Elvis Costello, the Smiths – and more. The Strokes have eschewed the heavy chord changes of grunge and metal for a swinging rhythm section and dual, spiky guitars over a world-weary vocal that borrows heavily from the Velvet Underground and Television.
Just as Dylan weathered the storm of Guthrie jibes, the Strokes have found their Zen headspace on the copycat taunts.
Fabrizio Moretti best explained the band’s position a few weeks before their sold-out tour with You Am I. On the phone from a train in Switzerland, the drummer was to miss the Australian shows through a fractured wrist. (It also led to further comparisons with a big-nosed Beatle who missed the Fab Four’s first and only trip down under.)
“I mean fuck it,” he drawled down the line. “Why not sound like that? It sounds better than any of the shit around today. Sure, we have looked back, but it wasn’t because we wanted to steal anything or be like anyone. We were just music fans looking for good music; and that was where we found it. We listened to that stuff a lot before we ever thought about being the Strokes.”
It’s a sentiment enthusiastically echoed by his bandmates a month later in Sydney. “That was a good time for music and a lot of music sounded good,” Valensi says. “The way people record things these days, and the way things are produced, is just way off; things sound like bullshit. The sound of a drum kit is just, ‘What the fuck?’ You don’t need 72 mikes on a drum kit to record a song – just put one on the bass drum, one up there and one in the corner somewhere and you’re fine, you’ll get a much cooler sound. It’s not a lead instrument, for fuck’s sake.”
It’s not just the appropriation accusations the young New Yorkers have faced on their meteoric rise. The Strokes are the latest talents to endure the Next Big Thing tag. The search for the new Nirvana is sadly holding up hopefuls with frightening regularity as journalists, MTV and record companies fight viciously to be the first to identify the New Cool. Valensi is only too aware of the situation, comparing it to the hype that hounded At The Drive-In not so long ago. “I think they got called the saviours of rock & roll, too,” he laughs.
While the guitarist can relate to the predicament that drove the Texas quintet back underground, Valensi can also see a few differences for the Strokes. “They were touring and working their arses off for eight years before anyone paid any attention to them; travelling in shitty vans and under horrible conditions,” he explains. “Once people started paying attention they were like old men who were exhausted, and they had to take a break – and I hope that’s where they’re at now, not gone forever.
“But for us, this is very new,” he continues. “We worked in our bedrooms for years, and once we were good enough we introduced ourselves to the world. Hopefully it means we can weather this a little better.”
It’s an interesting distinction because, for once, here is a band close to an overnight success. The Strokes started playing together in 1998; Julian Casablancas was writing the songs and was clearly going to be the frontman. The singer, whose father founded the Elite modeling agency in NYC – a fact the singer would like to forget – had known Valensi, Moretti and Fraiture from school at Manhattan’s Dwight School. He met Hammond Jnr during his time at the private boy’s college, Institute Le Rosey in Switzerland, where the two spent time for disciplinary reasons When Hammond Jnr moved to the Big Apple, it was the catalyst that brought the band to life.
“For a long time we were four people making bad music,” Valensi admits. “Julian would play guitar while he was singing but he didn’t like doing that at all, so we needed a guitar player and we knew it. It was about 1998, Albert moved to New York from Los Angeles and went to school; he’d made Julian’s acquaintance a long time before that and he looked him up. It turned out he was playing guitar at the time and was really interested in music, and it was like, Ahh… a godsend.’ Personality wise we just clicked, and musically we worked really well – so from that moment on we were a band and we started getting serious. In September 1999 we played our first gig, shit scared.”
That year, the Strokes played a series of shows at the Mercury Lounge, a dingy club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Here they met Ryan Gentles, the Lounge’s booking agent. Gentles became the Strokes’ manager, and last year sent a three-song demo tape to Geoff Travis at London’s Rough Trade Records. If you can believe the grapevine, Travis called Gentles and offered to sign the band before he had finished listening to the first track. The demo got its English release in March (The Modern Age), and the Strokes found themselves in the odd position of being the UK’s new upstarts with virtually no recognition in their home country. A tour of Europe followed, and the Strokes had arrived.
Since, they have had magazine covers, television appearances and gig audiences – with the cream of England’s celebrity circuit attending shows on their UK tour. Famously Noel Gallagher – who once took a young Travis under his Oasis touring wing – has courted the group as a support act, but he just blends into the crowd of rabid hands eager to grab a bit of the Strokes.
Through it all there have been recurring themes: the saviours of rock & roll, the Velvet Underground for the 21st century. And the fighting.
“Ever since that first NME story which talked about us getting in a fight, that’s all people have been asking us about,” groans Fraiture. The article, the band’s first major press story, opened with a recount of the guys picking a blue on a NYC street. Since then, their perchance for fisticuffs has been a recurring theme in the media – a subject that is as tired as the rest of the sensationalism. Fraiture sees it as just another piece of the over-promotional puzzle.
“We get in a few fights, but there’s more to it than that,” says the bass player. “People just like it because it fits the whole idea of what they want us to be: it’s punk, it’s tough, it’s New York. Really, we’re just five mates making music and having a good time.”
While the band have had their share of fun with the hype – at one point their flamboyant frontman made the Oasis-like tongue-in-cheek comment, “Of course people are saying we’re the best band in the world – we fucking are!” – the group hope the release of their debut album, Is This It?, will quell the fuss.
“To an extent, it’s happened because our music hasn’t been that available or accessible,” claims Valensi. “People were just talking like, ‘Oh did you hear this band the Strokes? They’re the best band ever in the history of music,’ and you’d have other people saying, ‘Nah, actually I hear they suck and that they’re all gay and can’t play,’ and all sorts of stupid things. Word of mouth spread so much faster than our actual music did, so it created this shitstorm. Once the album is out there the hype won’t exist anymore; people will be able to judge for themselves.”
These thoughts might be a little optimistic, but it will be interesting to see what effect the release of Is This It? has on the ‘band as saviours’ status. Initially the album has been very well received; in Australia, the first territory to have the record, it debuted at number five on the National ARIA chart, and number one on the ARIA Alternative list. Sure, this came on the back of a national tour where the Strokes pretty much blew one of this country’s best live bands, You Am I, off the stage, but there’s more to it. Heads down, dressed in the loose fitting, Television-inspired garb of pants, shirts and jackets, the Strokes’ onstage shtick was comprised of not a lot of movement, but a hell of a lot of attitude. And riffs. Is This It? certainly comes good on the promise of the preceding EP delivering thick, classic textures with imagination that belies the youth of the band. It also serves a match for the vibrant live shows, leaving audiences gob-smacked.
“We want to write music that people who don’t know anything about music will like and people that know everything about music will understand and appreciate,” Casablancas said recently. “That middle ground is where great music exists and that’s sort of what we strive for.” But did the frontman know just how close his band had come to realising it?
As the sun lengthens shadows on the mild winter afternoon, Valensi is trying to put things into perspective for me – and also for his friend, Fraiture. The guitarist is aware that things have happened quickly, and that he is in an unbelievable position – one any 20-year-old would sell their mother for. But often, the more things change the more they stay the same. In his head, Valensi is still the same kid who accidentally stumbled onto the Velvet Underground five years ago.
“Recently at the movies in New York, Lou Reed was there in the line and I was really freaked out that I was right next to him – Lou Reed! I couldn’t help myself, I just had to go, ‘Hey, I’m just a huge fan, and I know you get this all the time,’ and he didn’t look amused at all,” he offers. E ‘Just out of curiosity I said, ‘Have you ever heard of a band called The Strokes?’ – this was only about six months ago – and he just looked at me and said, ‘No,’ really grumpy and short.
“It was really crowded in the movie theatre, and I was with Albert,” he continues. “We just went right down the front and started watching the movie. After about five minutes, I turned my head and there’s Lou Reed sitting right next to me – in the seat next to me. I don’t think I paid a second’s attention to what happened on the screen. We were going to see Blow, that Johnny Depp film, and I don’t remember any of it.
“All I remember thinking for an hour and a half: ‘Man, that’s Lou Reed'”