Let There Be Rock
Forget the hype, the haircuts and the privileged backgrounds. New York heroes The Strokes have one thing on their mind: the music…
The Monarch in Camden is a familiar stop on London’s toilet circuit. Tonight, though, the dank, black walls are pouring sweat and the uncut anticipation pouring off every hipster and industry type in this room would make for a dangerously combustive combination if there were any oxygen in here to feed a flame.
The date is Wednesday, February 7, 2001 and The Strokes are playing their first headlining date in London. I’m currently pressed up against the speakers, lost in sonic nirvana. The New Yorkers’ eerily perfect debut EP, ‘The Modern Age’, hasn’t left my stereo since it appeared out of the blue just before Christmas, a cliche that’s also gospel truth. Up close and in person, they stretch that perfection over 10 songs and 40 minutes or so minutes, infallible sex appeal and casually brilliant rock’n’roll pouring off ’em.
There’s Julian Casablancas, tugging at his thrift store leather jacket and pouring his songs of lust and youthfulness, all effortless cool and unguarded passion. He’s flanked by guitarists Nick Valensi (cute and pouting) and Albert Hammond Jr (shaking his mighty curl mane and leaping about the cramped stage with dangerous abandon), while standing rock-steady at the back are ice-cool bassist Nikolai Fraiture and Animal-on-speed Fabrizio Moretti.
They look like a great rock’n’roll band, oozing iconic cool and confidence. And they most certainly sound like a great rock’n’roll band, the beautifully simple songs lodging instantly in your brain, pristine nagging melodies splattered with NYC grime and delivered with a ramshackle punk rock charm recalling the heyday of CBGB’s (an illicit bootleg of the show, taped on a shoddy dictaphone, will soon become one of the most sought-after items around).
As the polished punk rock missile that is closer ‘Take It Or Leave It’ detonates with fearsome precision, the entire sweat-sodden room is of a shared feeling: that we’ve just witnessed the greatest rock’n’roll show we’ll see all year.
But the story is only just beginning.
It’s 5pm on a rainy Sunday afternoon, roughly a year later, and Kerrang! is sourly re-living scenes from Cameron Crowe’s rock flick ‘Almost Famous’, sitting-around-doing-nothing-in-particular, waiting for The Strokes’ arrival a good six hours after they’d agreed to meet us at the Birmingham Academy. Later this evening we’ll witness the band play to 2,500 people who have fallen in love with the band and their massively-acclaimed debut album ‘Is This It’. But right now we’re hanging out with the band’s road crew, listening to tales of Mexican bootleggers who were selling a full range of Strokes gear from shot glasses to dressing gowns.
The past 12 months have been on crazy ride for The Strokes. They’ve gone from skulking around New York’s Lower East Side to charming the likes of Kate Moss (who turned up at one London show last year) and Courtney Love (who penned the song ‘But Julian, I’m A Little Older Than You’ in honour of Casablancas) and playing hometown gigs in front of sparse crowds to selling out out two nights at London’s 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy.
And then there’s been the media attention. From the off, the quintet have been the darlings of a slavering press who followed their every move, every word, every clothing decision. But there was a sense that the attention wasn’t healthy, that the band’s true quality – their blistering rock’n’roll, as infectious as glandular fever – was obscured by fields of bullshit.
“If I believed everything I’ve read about us, I’d think we were assholes,” grins Julian Casablancas, relaxing in the dressing room with his bandmates later on. Oddly for the frontman of a band accused of being mere pretty boys, Julian’s not actually that ‘pretty’. He’s slightly podgy, his hair greasy and lank, his skin some way from perfect; he looks like a teenage stoner. But there’s a dark depth to him, a quiet charisma that’s worth more than its weight in cheekbones.
“People tend to focus on all that other bullshit because people try to rip things apart to find out what’s wrong with them,” continues Julian. “All I can do is try to write good music.”
“It’s the focus which The Strokes are clinging to throughout this wild, wild ride. It might just be enough to hold everything together.
“We get labelled as these rich boys. And I’m, like, ‘Fuck you, man!’. I didn’t work every spare hour at Light The Lights for my spending cash to be dogged as a fuckin’ rich boy, man! That’s fuckin’ bullshit.”
Fab Moretti is pissed off. And when Fab Moretti is pissed off, he rarely see reason to keep it to himself. That’s one of the reasons why the drummer is the most instantly loveable Strokes; where his bandmates play their cards close to their chests, Fab is an unguarded sack of fevered passions. Every other word is “fuck!”, every feeling is experienced 1,000 per cent. Everything for Fab Moretti is full-on.
Like the rest of The Strokes, Fab is in his early 20s (he’s 21, to be precise). His parents brought him to New York from Brazil when he was three years old. Not wanting to abandon his education to the “shitty” state schools in New York, they enrolled him in the prestigious Dwight School, where past students included novelist Truman Capote and artist Roy Lichtenstein.
“My parents strived, worked their asses off, to send me to private school,” he continues, quietly. “I respect my parents for that, and I love them. We were not all ‘rich boys’; we’re privileged, but only in that our parents loved us and supported us.”
Like Fab, Casablancas’ lifestyle was nowhere near as glamorous as many have suggested. Yes, the 22-year-old singer’s father, John, set up the successful Elite Modelling Agency, but that doesn’t mean that Casablancas Jr was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.
“My dad paid for me to go to Dwight, but my mom raised me, I lived with his,” says Julian of his father.
It was as 13-year-old students at Dwight that Fab, Julian, Nick and Nikolai met. Fab was already overloaded and utterly in love with rock’n’roll.
“I had an older brother who was really into rock’n’roll, thank God,” he remembers. “I was young and I really rooted myself in it. It was a full-blown obsession. I was a sculpture major in college, but my love for sculpture doesn’t come close to my love of rock’n’roll. It’s less of a love and more of a life support.”
Fab found his perfect foils in his friends. Julian was obsessively wearing down the grooves of his copy of ‘Nevermind’. Nick had been obsessed with his guitar since his dad bought him one for his fifth birthday. Nikolai, meanwhile, was a passionate music fan who picked up the bass so he could be a part of his friends’ band. The latter’s reason for wanting to be a Stroke speaks volumes of the strong relationships at the centre of the band.
“I never wanted to stop hanging out with my friends,” he says, touchingly. “And this seemed like the only ‘job’ where I could do that forever.”
But there was one piece of The Strokes’ puzzle that had yet to fall into place. Albert Hammond Jr had been living in LA with his father, Albert Hammond Sr, a singer/songwriter who’d had a minor career as a pop star in the early ’70s, and had since made millions penning tunes like Leo Sayer’s ‘When I Need You’, Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, and easy-listening staple ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before’. The perfect background for a wannabe rock star, perhaps?
“I hated music,” the guitarist says, grinning wildly (Albert does everything wildly). “I just wasn’t into it. I think it’s cos my dad did it. I used to sit around his studio really bored. Now I look back and I wish I’d paid attention, because I could’ve learnt everything. Instead I just played video games.”
Salvation came in an unlikely, geeky form.
“Buddy Holly,” he smiles. “I was 12 of 13, and I just played his songs for about two years, the same three chords, in my bedroom. I never wanted to play my guitar in front of anyone.”
In 1998, Albert moved to New York to live with his friend Julian. Now it was time for The Strokes to take their first steps outside their bedrooms.
“A year-and-a-half ago we were playing to 40, 50 people, tops,” marvels Nick Valensi, wandering around the cavernous Academy.
With the press’ focus on the speed of The Strokes’ ascent to superstardom, you’d be forgiven for thinking Julian and the boys were to the arena born. But no, the band spent their early days playing New York’s legendarily grimy club circuit, graduating from their swanky school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to the Lower East Side’s University Of Rock’N’Roll.
“The Luna Lounge. Arlene’s Grocery. The Mercury Lounge. We wanted to play these places,” remembers Albert, reeling off a list of legendary NYC venues. “And then we wanted to sell them out. CBGB’s; that was, like, ‘Wow!’. We did audition night, we passed, and we were on the stage. It was so exciting.”
It was while playing the Mercury Lounge that the band hooked up with Ryan Gentles, the man responsible for booking bands at the venue. Gentles became their manager, despite having little or no experience in the field. And even though the band are now playing at higher stakes than they ever could ever have imagine, he’s still their manager. The loyalty goes both ways; the band continue to surround themselves with people they know they can trust, who’ve been with them from the start.
“Its like with a girl,” explains Nikolai. “If she was with you before everything happened, then you know she’s not with you because of the money or the fame. She’s with you for you.”
The Strokes estimate they’d been playing New York’s clubs for about 18 months – building up a strong local fan-base and dealing with jealousy from other local bands who resented the attention they were already getting in the city – when Ryan sent a three-track demo tape they’d recorded to Geoff Travis of Rough Tade Records in London. Halfway through playing the first track, he called the band and offered them a record deal. Within a couple of months, that demo was pressed up as ‘The Modern Age’, the band’s debut EP. Then things went crazy.
“It just seemed like what we’d strived for a year-and-a-half to achieve in New York was instantaneous there,” reels Nick.
“When we first came over to England, that seemed to sum up that whole period,” adds Albert. “This feeling of, ‘Hey, maybe this is something that could be real’.”
The effect of The Strokes had on the music industry was as powerful as it was immediate. Here was a band who made guitar rock cool and sexy again, in a way lumpen home-grown talent had never quite managed. They sounded great, they looked great. And it was at about this point when the hysteria got out of control.
“I feel there are a lot of traps, y’know?” says Julian Casablancas, with a kind of weariness. A year after the initial explosion, people still want to talk about The Strokes as a phenomenon more than as a rock’n’roll band, and it’s getting to be more than a little tiresome. Today, the band say they were never too concerned with the hoopla that surrounded them.
“It was never our main concern, we always just tried to focus on the music,” says Nick, ever taciturn. Of the five, Nick – at 19, the youngest member of the band – greets the interview most like an inquisition, perhaps, sensitive that questioning might move onto his nascent relationship with Amanda De Cadenet, a subject most emphatically out of bounds.
“Some people just wanna talk about shit,” says Albert, bemused by it all. “I don’t think out clothes or the people we hang out with have anything to do with our music. I think people enjoyed the music so much they just had to talk about something else. Anything else.”
Even if the hype didn’t penetrate the quintet’s inner sanctum, unwelcome pressures were building upon the band. As they embarked on their first tour of the States last autumn, a storm gathered in the distance which would threaten the band’s very existence.
“We definitely jumped across that first bridge of whether or not we were gonna break up on the first proper tour,” says Julian, darkly. “You get to a point on the road sometimes where you need to decompress, just chill out. It’s hard to do that when you’ve got people on either side of you, poking you all the time.”
This anxiety led to the band demanding Gentles release them from the endless promotional duties they were enduring on the road.
“We didn’t know the game, we let any asshole with a pencil talk to us,” reasons Julian now, bristling with a freshly-earnt savvy.
Despite the aforementioned pressures, the band say their internal relationships are stronger than ever.
“We’re all very communicative,” says Nick. “You just gotta talk shit out. It’s like being married to four guys!”
“If any one person steps out of line, we have a very specific way of talking to that person,” elaborates Fab. “Putting them in front of a mirror and saying, ‘Dude, you’ve got to remember where we started from, what we’re doing this for; only for the music, not for the bullshit, not for the fame’. We’re doing this because when we were young and started playing our instruments together, we felt we were doing something magical. It was never about the hype or the fuckin’ money.”
Fab received one such talking-to last June, when a hand injury sustained by the drummer postponed a large chunk of their first full UK tour. Though the official story ran that Fab broke his hand falling down a staircase, it’s been widely alleged that a physical altercation was the true cause. He doesn’t shed much light on this rumour, but he tacitly affirms it.
“It was ultimately my fault,” he says, punching his open hand. “I felt I was missing out on something, on part of out growth. Never, ever will I put myself in that situation again. It was one of the biggest lessons in my life. It helped me mentally and spiritually. Even if your reasons are good, you gotta stay in line, fuckin’ control yourself. You know what I mean? Even if your motives are there and you’re fighting for something that’s worthy.”
If it’s been a crazy trip so far, there’s an unspoken understanding within the band that things are only gonna get crazier. That much was obvious at the recent Brit Awards ceremony.
“That was a bit of a rollercoaster,” marvels Fab, “because we were watching bands using fireworks and crazy stunts and shit, and we were just playing live. I was feeling a little insecure about the whole thing, like, ‘Should we even be doing this?’. And someone said to us, ‘If there is a battle being waged between good music and bad music, good music will never win if it doesn’t go into the bad music’s battlefield’.”
“The whole experience is a rollercoaster,” adds Albert, his usually garrulous demeanor darkening a little. “Sometimes you’ve got to know when to take yourself off the rollercoaster for a while, or build yourself a new rollercoaster that fits you better. These kinds of tours are probably the most intense things that ever happened in my life. Some of the greatest moments ever, then there are others when you’re so depressed you just wanna kill yourself.”
What makes you so depressed?
“A little bit of everythings, y’know?” he replies. “You’re away from home. If you’re at home and you have a bad day you can go to your room. Imagine days and days without that. And then there’s the stress of playing shows and live TV. It’s great, but the stress lasts. We played ‘Saturday Night Live’ and I was high – naturally high – for two weeks before I came down. It’s nerves. You don’t realise how much your body’s controlled by your nerves.”
The suggestion that the band might be leading crazy rock’n’roll lifestyles makes the guitarist chuckle.
“We’re making nowhere near as much as people think we are. I can’t afford crazy things like other rock stars can. But I don’t mind. If I could just pay my rent and eat and be able to live off playing music the same way I would working some nine-to-five job, I would be thrilled. I don’t need to have $10 trillion. There’s no better feeling than hearing a new song Julian’s written or if I’m playing something that’s really inspiring me, it doesn’t get better than that.”
If the band have any grandiose plans for the future, they’re keeping them to themselves. Their professed ambitions are simply to get better as a band, keep making records, keep enjoying things the way they have.
“We wanna make five or six albums,” says Albert, with conviction. “If we push too hard we’ll burn out and become one-hit wonders. We don’t want that.
A few hours later, the band stride across the Birmingham Academy stage. The low-key buzz that greeted the band’s first appearance on these shores is long gone: almost every member of the crowd is decked out in some semblance of the band’s casual thrift store cool – charity shop suit jackets, Converse sneakers – and any intimacy has been replaced by an overwhelming sense of devotion. It’s the complete antithesis of the Monarch show just a year earlier.
Or so you might think. Because despite everything that’s happened in-between, The Strokes are every bit as lean, hungry and incandescent as they were in that dingy hole 12 months previous, every one of their songs sounding like a classic you’ve loved for years and years. Sure, the venues may have gotten bigger, and the boys might’ve gotten (a little) richer, but listening to the closing ‘Take It Or Leave It’ (still their greatest song, with enough hooks for a lesser band’s entire album in its three minutes or so), it’s obvious why success has come so quickly for The Strokes, and so deservedly.
Like the band say, sometimes you’ve just got to forget all the other bullshit and trust in the music. Great rock’n’roll is a rare and precious thing, but it seems to come easy for The Strokes. Cherish them for it.