What Goes On: The importance of being The Strokes… Isn’t all that important. Three years into its tenure as the hot new band, the group still finds some things hard to explain.
“Here’s my advice to… you: Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs, and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything, but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget it.”- Bill Murray in Rushmore
And so the Strokes, nobody’s underdogs, wander into our sights. I mean, just look at these prep-school fancy boys getting all the breaks: the hit records, the magazine covers, the really good-looking girls, the endless supply of designer hydroponic weed that’ll numb your face for four hours. Aren’t you bored with them yet? Aren’t the Strokes the perfect alternative-rock band for the George W. Bush era, a time where rich white boys get richer and invade some area that was already invaded years ago? Aren’t you waiting to see this band’s privilege revoked?
Let’s not even start on the individual band members with the $50 names attached, which are just irking some: Julian Casablancas (vocals, 25, son of a modeling-agency boss and a Miss Denmark runner-up). Nikolai Fraiture (bass, 25, speaks French). Albert Hammond, Jr. (guitar, 24, son and namesake of the “It Never Rains in Southern California” singer/songwriter). Fabrizio Moretti (drums, 23, actress girlfriend, paints in his spare time). Nick Valensi (guitar, 23, epicure, another actress girlfriend, high cheekbones).
It’s hard to see where, exactly, the Strokes struggled in their climb to somewhere near the top – it seems like there’s polish where the grit should be. But the question isn’t whether we should root for the Strokes or even if there’s a pathologically human desire to knock the popular kids off their pedestals. The question is: How petty and mean and jealous do you need to be about a rock band, and a rather good one at that? As we begin our regularly scheduled Strokes cover story – and they have appeared at intervals since the release of Room On Fire (RCA), the band’s second album: first Mojo, then Rolling Stone and so on down the pecking order – we don’t ask that you love the Strokes. Only that you learn to stop worrying.
I’m on the back nine with Julian Casablancas, and the wind is gusting from the northeast at 11 mph. Casablancas tees off, launching his ball in a perfect, slow arc over the fairway and onto the green. My shot doesn’t do quite as well. I use the wrong club and overcompensate for the wind, hooking my ball into a sand trap about 30 yards from the pin. I’d like to mulligan the shot – there is, after all, a sum of $5 riding on this game – but the rules of our gentlemen’s match won’t allow it.
“You can’t know what people are like from spending an hour or two with them,” says Casablancas, fishing a Marlboro Light from his pack and surveying the 18th hole. “You just can’t. Sometimes [the interview] goes awful, and they write what a great guy you are. Other times, you have a really good time, and then you get slammed.”
Game over. The final score on the screen of the Golden Tee arcade game reveals Casablancas finished at 11 under par, MAGNET a pitiful 24 over. After some polite protest on Casablancas’ part, he pockets a $5 bill, but we both know today’s lopsided match isn’t fair. We’re on Casablancas’ home turf at the offices of Wiz Kid Management, a long and narrow storefront space in New York’s East Village. Wiz Kid has one client – the Strokes – and, as such, it’s the center of operations for every band-related detail.
A box arrives containing assorted items shipped from the Strokes’ recent tour of Australia. The first object pulled from the box is a black bra, which was apparently thrown onstage by an audience member. It looks like a D-cup. Wiz Kid employee Juliet Joslin scrolls through her e-mail, showing Casablancas some prospective T-shirt designs sent in by fans through a contest on the band’s Web site. There’s the Strokes rendered as characters from The Simpsons and South Park, the Strokes drawn as the Beatles on the cover of Revolver, an alarm clock that reads “12:51,” a skinny tie-and-lapel-pin design based on the once-popular tuxedo T-shirt and many literal interpretations of Room On Fire (houses with flames coming out of upstairs windows). Wiz Kid is also a repository for NME award statuettes, gold and platinum records, magazines with the Strokes on the cover and a yellow T-shirt that reads “Who Farted?” on the front and “Fab Did” on the back.
Casablancas knows he’ll be interviewed after our round of Golden Tee. He says he’s going out for coffee – even though he just finished a grande cup – then comes back 30 seconds later, saying he changed his mind. He shuffles to the far end of the office and fiddles with the iPod hooked up to the stereo. He cranks Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen” at a near-deafening volume, then switches over the Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer,” singing along and claiming both are huge musical influences. After realizing he’s expending more energy avoiding the interview than actually being interviewed, he lowers the volume on the iPod, plops down on a couch and… nothing really happens.
He robotically answers the questions that have been asked by other journalists for months now. Does it feel like the stakes are higher for your second record? “The stakes have always been high, you know what I mean? If we didn’t do well with the first record, where would we be? Working some job, I don’t know.” Tell me about the Strokes’ work ethic these days. “If we didn’t practice, we would be bad. It’s like anything, like a sports team or something: If they didn’t practice, they’d probably suck.”
Attempts to steer the conversation toward less obvious territory result in dead ends.
MAGNET: Some of the lyrics on Room On Fire are written as conversations between two people. Is that an attractive perspective for you to write from?
Casablancas: Sometimes dialogue is nice.
MAGNET: Most songwriters write from just the one perspective: My girl left me, my dog died, I’m gonna drink a beer or whatever. You use both sides of that story.
Casablancas: Yeah, sure. I don’t know. I like doing that sometimes.
The conversation stalls. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” wafts from the iPod in the background, which seems about right.
“Do you want to have a staring contest?” asks Casablancas.
Instead, we watch the video for “Reptilia,” the second single from Room On Fire, on the office TV. Filmed the previous week, it features tight shots of the Strokes’ faces, feet and instruments as they perform the song. In the video, Casablancas’ closeups portray an intense, wild-eyed young man screaming “I said please don’t slow-me-dooowwwnn.” It’s hard to reconcile the animated Casablancas on screen with the lethargic Casablancas on the couch, so I start at the one on TV. We all do.
Nick Valensi strolls into Wiz Kid the next evening with a beautiful, dark-haired girl who slobbers and snorfles and licks everybody’s face. She is Lizzie, Valensi’s French bulldog. A moment later, there’s a knock on the door and three teenage girls peer in the office windows. Valensi peeks his head out, and they ask him, “Do you know Julian?” He gets that a lot.
Casablancas soon arrives with Albert Hammond, Jr., and both are either in high spirits, have been imbibing spirits or are just plain high. They take turns making out with Lizzie; Hammond trills a melody from Tchaikovcky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” and Casablancas picks up a guitar and starts belting out “Viva Las Vegas.”
“Each of us individually has sort of been pegged,” says Valensi, discussing the way journalists write about the Strokes. “We’ve each got our character, our role that we play. We’re like a hipster version of the Monkees. And that is largely false. It doesn’t really work that way, in terms of how we really are day-to-day and how we relate to each other.”
Hammond decides to weigh in on the topic, but he seems to be speaking in code: “One big magazine says something about each person, and you’re just that one thing. It is what it is. What else is it? We’re killing mystique, right now as we speak.”
Casablancas approaches the conversation, but when he notices the tape recorder, he makes a bee-line to the other end of the office.
“You’re not looking for someone with nothing to say in your story,” says Valensi, speaking for all the Strokes. “You’re looking for Iggy Pop. You’re looking for Thom Yorke. We don’t fit into that equation. We’re getting more and more used to it, though. People do assign meaning to what their favorite rock star says. When I was a kid, Kurt Cobain’s words were gold to me. In retrospect, he had very little idea what the hell he was talking about in the first place. I find myself now trying to know what the hell I’m talking about, and I know that I don’t.”
Valensi drops Lizzie back at his apartment and returns a few minutes later to pick me up in his sister’s car, a blue Dodge Neon. He drives it like a boardwalk go-kart, zooming aggressively across traffic lanes while explaining that, in Manhattan, you have to drive like a cabbie if you expect to get anywhere. “I just recently got my license,” he says proudly.
Like Casablancas, Valensi can be cagey when talking about the Strokes; when the questions about the band get too reductive or repetitive, he starts giving answers like “I don’t know.” He will, however, chat at length about rich food and fine wine. He is of gourmand stock: His mother owns a french restaurant on the Upper East Side and his grandfather has a small vineyard in France. While the improbably skinny Valensi raves about foie gras, we’re on our way to a bar across town for another of his favorite dishes: a bacon cheeseburger and fries.
“I like to feast and sleep,” he says. “The best thing in life, for me, is to eat a big meal and get really full and maybe have something to drink. It makes me feel like a viking.”
After the paper boats of fries have been looted and the lager swilled, a sated Valensi eases into a monologue about the business of being the Strokes.
“We sell out to the point where we can get our records into kids’ hands,” he says. “And after that, it’s not our territory. We play the game. We’re not doing press just to be famous. You made a record, you’re really proud of it and you want everybody in the world to be able to buy it if they want to. And this is the kind of ass-kissing you have to do to make that happen. It’s a choice we made as a band a couple years ago: Are we gonna do this or aren’t we gonna do it? Instead of 50 people at our show, we’ve got an opportunity to play for maybe 50,000 people. For some people, it really is a choice: to make great records and stay small-time for the rest of their lives. I’m guessing the reason they make that choice is that they don’t wanna play the game, they don’t wanna play ball, they don’t wanna suck cock, they don’t wanna kiss ass. The fact of the matter is within the band, we made a decision to do that to the extent that we needed to do it. And we find ourselves here. Regular people eating burgers – with a tape recorder, mind you. Regular people don’t record their conversations.”
After we leave the bar, Valensi leads the way to Magnolia, a nearby late-night bakery where he waits for a fresh batch of cupcakes to come out of the oven. He buys three and says he’s bringing them home for his girlfriend, actress Amanda De Cadanet, but I have a vision of a really skinny guy driving dangerously around Manhattan with one hand on the wheel and one hand rummaging in a box of cupcakes.
There’s a semi-derogatory term for groups that are fortunate (or talented) enough to release a debut album on, say, RCA, without having to slug it out for years in dingy clubs and shabby recording studios: major-label baby band. That’s what the Strokes are. Never mind the 10-hour rehearsals in the beginning, the 23-hour day at the studio last year or the ingenious product of all that practicing and fine-tuning. That stuff can’t be illustrated as easily as the dumb luck, the fortunate sons and the fast-track success.
“There are bands who’ve been playing locally in the East Village for the past 10 years,” agrees Valensi, who can recall the gigs where the group was mistakenly billed as “The Storks.” “We just sort of flew right by them.”
The thing about most baby bands, however, is that they’re built to implode after two albums or four years, whichever comes first. For whatever reason – the band members aren’t really friends, the label is trying to mold them into something easily marketable, their manager is pushing them to burnout mode – they have a cruelly short shelf life. There’s reason to believe the Strokes, however, won’t be squeezed dry by their handlers or corporate radio or MTV.
“[MTV is] not very willing to compromise,” says Fraiture. “I don’t know how much I can talk about it. It’s just different things, where they’ll come to us with an idea and we’re just kind of like, ‘That’s cheesy.’ At the [Video Music Awards] one year, they wanted us to play with the Vines and the Hives, and we would be on center stage. And that’s how they want to group us together. They see the rap industry, the rock industry, the new rock industry… They use you until they can’t anymore, and then it’s like, ‘Why are you?'”
The Strokes have surrounded themselves with people they’ve known since, like, the ’90s. Significantly, there’s manager Ryan Gentles, a human shield who deflects the idiotic promotional requests; producer Gordon Raphael, whose eccentric ideas about what a rock band should sound like match those of Casablancas; and JP Bowersock, a guitar teacher and adviser who can cut through the bullshit with a thoughtful remark.
Says Hammond, “I would like all our records to be with Gordon and JP. I’d like to be on our sixth record with those guys and say, ‘Look where we took this family: the five of us, this kid who booked the Mercury Lounge as our manager, this guy who hadn’t produced anyone that no one even knows and this fuckin’ guitar teacher.’ With that alone, we could survive our whole career.”
Fraiture adds that, were the Strokes ever to split from the Gentles/Raphael/Bowersock triumvirate, it would be like “Mike Tyson going to Don King.” Of course, the Strokes also lean heavily on immediate family members. You never heard a bunch of cool-ass rock stars talk so much about their mothers.
Albert Hammond, Jr. doesn’t know his “Obstacle 1” from his “Obstacle 2.” At a bar around the corner from Wiz Kid he frets over the jukebox, trying to determine which is the title of the Interpol song he wants to hear. He mistakenly programs “Obstacle 2” – twice – before realizing it’s not the one with the “stabbing yourself in the neck” lyrics and also picks out “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose 2003 record he’s just starting to get into. This pretty much puts the lie to the popular media construct that there’s a secret-handshake fraternity of New York rockers. It’s not that the bands aren’t friendly with one another; the Strokes have simply been too bust lately – touring, recording, being interviewed – to keep hometown tabs. Early on, the young Strokes figured out their stage was much larger than just New York.
“When we finished recording [2000’s The Modern Age] EP with Gordon,” says Hammond, “we didn’t have anything to sell or send to clubs, so we thought, ‘Perfect. This will get us better shows.’ There were 120 people at the release party for that EP, which was like, ‘Wow.’ And then things started hapening very differently than before. Every couple of days, Ryan had better news. And then it was every day, then it was twice a day. All of a sudden, we were in England. It just kept going.”
Hammond racks up a game of pool and attempts to give the impression that each successive Strokes achievement (a gold record here, a festival appearance there) remains a thrill, but it comes off like so much positive thinking. “There’s still stuff that’s very exciting,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to take away the charm. This American tour we’re doing now is very exciting. We’ve got two albums’ worth of material that we play really well, and I want to show that to people.”
Of the Strokes, Hammond is most well-equipped to play the part of entertainer, the kind of person who wants to make sure everyone in the room is having a goo dtime. Maybe it’s in his blood (his father’s songs have been chart-toppers for the likes of Willie Nelson/Julio Iglesias, the Hollies and Chicago) or in his upbringing (he attended the same California prep school as the Hilton sisters and Matthew Perry, among others). Or it may even be in his closet. Before he was in a band, Hammond liked to dress the part, hoping he’d be notices. “When I was 16 or 17, I used to love dressing up and going to breakfast on Sunday morning,” he says. “I wouldn’t comb my hair – I’d just wake up and put on a suit.”
Hammond is wearing a suit right now, in fact. It’s made of pinstriped burgundy velvet, and it’s several sizes too small for his frame. There’s at least a full inch of sock showing when he walks down the street, and it isn’t certain whether the jacket is roomy enough to close the buttons. It should also be mentioned that I encounter Hammond on three different days during teh course of this story, and he’s wearing the same suit every time.
I begin a nice run at the pool table but miss an easy shot on the side pocket and apologize for the lack of stiff competition. “Its good to feel embarrassed sometimes,” says Hammond. “Every once in a while, I really embarrass myself – badly. And I like it. It’s a good way for getting yourself in check.”
Hammond wins three games in a row, despite my having a clear shot on the eight ball each time.
“Some days I feel unstoppable,” says Hammond. “Sometimes I’m onstage and I can’t believe that I’m just playing with these guys and it’s become what we do and I feel really happy. I want to sit down and talk to all these thousands of people. And some days I want to run off stage. I don’t want to go up there, you know?”
Sometimes the architect gets famous, too. This usually only happens when his buildings are successful – that is, they are aesthetically pleasing and, in some cases, redefine all other structures around them. Gordon Raphael, who built the Strokes’ sound from Casablancas’ rough sketches, is famous. In England, anyway.
“Right now, I’m working with Ian Astbury from the Cult – he’s in the Doors now,” says Raphael from the Silver Transporterraum, his London studio. In a way, Raphael and the Strokes owe each other their careers, and when Raphael is recognized on the street in London, he feels particularly grateful. “I recorded four bands last week,” he says.
In truth, Raphael maintained a busy work schedule even when he was an unknown producer in New York and the Strokes walked into his cramped basement studio to record The Modern Age.
Says Raphael, “When they came in and played their first two tracks, I was like, ‘I’ve been listening to Raw Power all my life. I know how to handle this kind of music.’ The first thing Julian said to me was, ‘We want to make a record that doesn’t sound like it was made today.'”
With its muffled, behind-closed-doors vocals and trebly guitars, the Strokes’ music often doesn’t even sound like it’s playing in the same room. According to Raphael, the band’s decision to defy modern-rock radio production standards was completely intentional.
“Julian had an idea that he wanted some of the instruments to sound smaller, to sound tinier in size,” says Raphael, who records the Strokes using a Macintosh G4. “In the late ’90s and early ’00s, everybody was using ProTools as a method of making things with 20 or 30 guitar tracks and 20 drum tracks so it would sound bigger than life… On top of that, I had a lot of strange ideas about production, such as, ‘Can you take the bass out of the bass?’ and ‘Why do the drums have to be so loud?’ [Other bands] always wanted me to make the bass sound 20 stories tall and the drums bigger than mountains.”
With The Modern Age and 2001’s Is This It, Raphael and the Strokes altered the skyline of modern rock. Tidal-wave guitars, booming bass and mixed-way-high vocals now sound so last-millennium, a relic of rap/metal and latter-day grunge. But the future, it seemed, lay with producer Nigel Godrich, whose work with Radiohead and Beck recalls the advanced sonic textures of Brian Eno imbued with a warm pop glow. According to the Strokes, the plan all along was to try two songs with Godrich. If they liked the results, the proper recording of the second album would commence.
This is the point where everyone – the Strokes, Bowersock, Raphael – either clams up or politely says, “It didn’t work out.” However, a source close to the band indicates that one of the main reasons the group didn’t go with Godrich is simple: He records to analog tape, and the Strokes sound “mellow and sinister – not like the Strokes” in that format.
Room On Fire production duties were handed over to Raphael, who was given the following instructions: Retain the character of Is This Is, but improve the sound slightly. Like Godrich, Raphael thought analog recording would be the answer. “We spent about four hours getting the sounds for the band for one particular track and ran it to tape,” explains Raphael. “Julian listened back to it one time, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he looked at me really puzzled and said, ‘What do you mean, what do I think? We just spent all that time getting the sounds we wanted, and the tape changed each sound. Why would anyone want to work in a medium like that?'”
On the second day of recording for Room On Fire, Raphael had his G4 ready. As for the versions of songs recorded with Godrich, those reels have been destroyed, never to be heard.
An afternoon with Nikolai Fraiture at the Museum of Modern Art’s private library is one of those very forced activities that writers like to concoct as two-dimensional cardboard backdrops for interview subjects. It’s meant to show you that someone who plays rock music to a 4/4 beat can make an insightful remark about painting or book. So let’s cut the crap: All the members of the Strokes are astute, critical thinkers capable of carrying on cocktail-party conversations about art, literature or cultural history. They went to private school. That’s the kind of stuff they teach you there.
But Fraiture has a special affection for books – the same way Hammond is a film buff and Moretti appreciates art – so it’s worth the pretense to note the museum staff shows us a careful of rare volumes, from surrealist newsletters to a collection of anti-Nazi poster prints from the 1930s. There’s also a book titled Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward. It’s a novel told through stark, almost gothic woodcuts – no text- and it illustrates the story of a starving artist who comes to possess an ancient, magical paintbrush. With the brush as his magic lamp, the artist sees all his dreams – fame, riches, love – realized, but the tale ends badly. A demonic figure eventually comes to claim his creation, and the artist is again cast into poverty and despair.
I figure now is a good time to ask Fraiture whether anyone has pointed out to him that the Strokes’ second album isn’t selling as well (less than half the amount) as their debut.
“No, you’re the first one,” he shrugs. “I’ve heard ‘I like the first one better.’ Which is fine.”
Fraiture, who’s as quiet and reserved as he is in other magazine articles, won’t be drawn into giving catchy quotes or swaggering proclamations. That’s kind of the best part about him. After the museum, we take a cab through Central ark and he points out the basketball courts where he and his brother Pierre used to run pickup games. They’d beat older kids in two-on-two, employing the kind of trick plays that only brothers can draw up together.
Fraiture tells a story about how he and Casablancas (who he’s known since age seven) sneaked out of Fraiture’s apartment one night when they were teenagers. They’d heard about a bar that’d serve minors, so they took the subway downtown with $10 to spend between them, expecting to drink about three beers each. Casablancas ordered two Coronas, and the bartender said, “That’ll be $10.” They each drank a beer and walked home.
Later, at a Central Park West cafe called Edgar’s – built on the site where Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Raven” – Fraiture talks about the books he’s been reading: a biography of Arthur Rimbaud and Music And The Mind, a psychological text by Anthony Storr. Fraiture looks around the cafe and makes an insightful remark that shows what an astute critical thinker he is: “Poe said that, ‘If I’d known “The Raven” was going to be so popular, I’d have made it better.'”
The most common criticism of Room On Fire is that it sounds too much like Is This It, which is to say it sounds like the Strokes. Even doubters and haters have to admit this is a confusing, flimsy argument.
“I was never offended by that (criticism),” says Hammond. “I feel like people would’ve said something either way. Had it sounded the same, it’s, ‘Why’s it the same?’ And had it not sounded too much the same, it’s, ‘Why’s it not the same?’ You can’t win at that.”
At the Strokes’ level of success and popular acclaim, some expected the group to hand in their version of OK Computer or Kid A: a hard-won, meticulous mood shift of an album befitting their cutting-edge status. (The Radiohead comparisons weren’t so far-fetched, considering the tryout period withe Godrich for Room On Fire.) Maybe the Strokes are capable of such a sonic shift, but they simply didn’t have the time.
“In order to change your sound drastically, you have to be in the studio for a year and a half,” explains Hammond. “We had two months. The change will happen slowly. Maybe right now you can’t see it because it sounds similar, but on our fifth record, you’ll notice where we were going.”
“You can’t see the world in a certain way, then flip a switch and see it a different way,” adds Moretti. “[People will] see a change. I’m sure of it.”
Ignoring the similar production of the albums, the songwriting on Room On Fire creates an overall darker mood; the arrangements more often stray from the po-single formula. Instead, consider a valid criticism of Room On Fire: that its songs show up suitably wasted and with the right clothes on, but they forget to party. In foregoing the carefree, singalong rock of “Last Nite,” the band sets itself up for something more obtuse, more new wave than nu-rock. In this downtime between tours, the Strokes have begun work on a handful of new songs.
“It’s a little early to give you a quote about the next record,” says Valensi. “But a couple of the songs sound like they’re going in a weird direction. It’s a little more Devo-sounding, possibly. A little more mechanical-sounding.”
“When you go to art school, there’s sculpture class and there’s art-criticism class,” says Fabrizio Moretti. “And one is in one building and the other is way over on the other side of campus.” Moretti is trying to make a point about how the Strokes have garnered a lot of attention for the language they speak, which is music. Now he finds that language difficult to translate into English. “You work your ass off to be a musician, and then you’re tacked on with having to explain it.”
We’re on the roof of the Union Square apartment building where Moretti lives with girlfriend Drew Barrymore, eating chocolate donuts while watching the sun descend behind a horizon made of buildings. It occurs to me that if I were a 16-year-old girl, I’d be totally psyched at this not-unromantic scenario. If I were that stereotype of a teenage girl, I might now have much conscious choice in the matter: The Strokes would’ve been sold to me as a cool pinup band with white belts, celebrity girlfriends and a look that’s somewhere between Welcome Back, Kotter and the J. Gelis Band. (Not that I’d be old enough to know what either of those things are.) It’s not the band’s fault.
“We kind of hated all that ‘how new band’ shit,” says Moretti. “And you can only be the hot new band once. Some bands don’t even get that. If you actually read and listen to what they’re saying, you understand the heart of all that stuff is dependent on happening once. ‘Will they save rock ‘n’ roll, this new, young band?'”
The question floats above lower Manhattan as Moretti leans over a parapet and peers down about 20 stories. The question isn’t worth contemplating. I think about how young Valensi seemed, talking about Kurt Cobain; how calculated Casablancas is in hiding everything about himself; how accommodating Hammond is; how Fraiture hadn’t yet found a way to deal with all the questions; how Moretti is worried he’s boring.
“I can’t stress to you enough how normal everything is,” says Moretti. “But at moments, it is extraordinary. Rehearsing for a show is what millions of people do out there. They find their fellow musicians and they jam. I’m sure you can pick out anyone on the street down here, and probably one in four people say they play an instrument, and probably half of those play in a band. The extraordinary point is during a show, for example, playing the Theater At Madison Square Garden or some crazy festival, and it’s, ‘Wow, we get a chance to do this? Look at all these people.’ That came from hard work and discipline. I swear to god.”