Interviews – NME August 2001
America’s Most Wanted by Ted Kessler
Picking a path through the parties, the girls and the complete craziness of it all, NME parks itself poolside for 24hrs with The Strokes.
Julian Casablancas pulls a pack of Malboro Lights from his white suit jacket pocket and sparks up under the spotlights. Here in smoke Free Los Angeles that’s the kind of behaviour that can get a guy arrested, but Julian’s not one to worry about that. He exhales. Girls scream. “Fucking A!” he laughs.
Fucking A, indeed.
It’s 11.40pm. Half an hour ago, he and the rest of The Strokes were pacing in their dressing room above The Troubadour as the long sold-out venue filled to burst with 800 of the city’s luckiest (including a guestlist comprising Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Keanu Reeves, Joe Strummer, Hole and Blondie).. It may be the band’s first headline LA show, but they knew they had to deliver or die.
They did not die. In fact, one veteran LA journalist enthuses to NME afterwards that he cannot recall a more rapturously received debut show in this city, although that’s no real surprise. The Strokes are the most exciting young rock group on Earth.
That’s not hyperbole. That’s fact. Those who cannot yet bear witness to this actuality will be able to soon do so, first at the Carling Weekend and then a week later with the release of ‘Is This It’, the best debut album since Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’.
In the meantime, look at that stage. As the flash bulbs from the city’s press pop around the podium during the pounding street hassle of opener ‘The Modern Age’, The Strokes’ live dynamics are momentarily freeze-framed.
From the left: Nikolai Fraiture’s gentle features are curtained by his flapping fringe as he plucks insouciantly at his bass. Lanky guitarist Nick Valensi arcs away from his instrument, Johnny Thunders reincarnated with some of Keith Richards’ discarded genes. Fab Moretti hunches powerfully over his kit, the band’s heartbeat once again reinstated after breaking his wrist on their UK tour. In the far corner, Albert Hammond Jr tugs his guitar close to his chest and turns his recently tamed ‘fro ecstatically towards Moretti.
And up front, Casablancas leans over the lovestruck front row bellowing into his mic and tugging at his collar, the only 22-year-old alive who can make a fight white suit jacket, red You Am I T-shirt and ripped jeans look de rigeur. Only the blind could fail to understand in that flash why this band have connected with so many so quickly.
Click! The exposure shuts and suddenly even the blind are hit loudly with that same news. The Strokes have written 11 fiercely affecting garage-pop anthems and tonight, as every night, they play them as if plea-bargaining for their lives. When they leave the stage the hall explodes. More is what LA badly wants, but The Strokes have played all the songs they know. The house lights rise and the stunned, bruised burghers of the City Of Angels file out into the carbon monoxide-filled night air.
Only one voice remains loudly pleading for more as the band’s crew start unplugging instruments. “Encore!. screams the tall, glamorous blonde to the right of the stage. ‘Encore!” Nick Valensi walks from backstage, strides across the club and puts his arm around her shoulder. ‘Mom,” he says, ” we don’t know any more. Let me introduce you to some people.”
“I bet Bono never introduced you to his mother,” says Nick, engineering a handshake between NME and Mrs Valensi in the group’s deserted dressing room. Mrs Valensi politely, but forcefully, requests that only fair things are written of our time with her son, yawns and announces it’s time for bed. Nick agrees. He’s off for an early night after his exhausting show.
“I’m just kidding,” he laughs, one hand on the door frame, one hand guiding his mom downstairs. “See you at the party.”
Imagine a cliched LA rock party from any era, extinguish all the cigarettes and you’re at The Strokes’ aftershow. As the best looking best new band in the world in aeons, each night of The Strokes’ short lives is ever more intense and extraordinary. Tonight, Los Angeles opens its battle scarred arms wide in a hedonistic embrace that will convince the five young New Yorkers that things just got a notch weirder.
Everybody’s drinking in this darkly lit bar above the club, but nobody’s drunk – except for the band who are, very. But that’s mainly because 70 per cent of those present are young women trying to sleep with the band, and there are only limited tickets being sold to that gig.
Over by the bar, an Amazonian 6’3′ bleached blonde LA rock chick with her shirt open to her waist and a gravity-defying bosom has Nikolai pinned to his seat. He doesn’t know where to look, so she directs his gaze to her ill concealed breasts. He laughs and looks afraid.
Suddenly, Julian lurches across the room. He trips over on his way and slams hard into the back of Albert who’s sitting on a bar stool surmounting the handful of downers that have just kicked into his bloodstream. Albert spins round ready for a fight, sees that it’s Julian and the pair immediately kiss. Julian pushes himself off the bar and bounces into NME.
“Hey,” he says, hoisting a drenched armpit around our neck, “have you got BO? Come here, you bastard! Let me kiss you!”
He licks NMEs ear and stumbles off to introduce himself to a group of women by throwing his arms around one and kissing another hard on the mouth. This is deemed highly fitting, and the pair lead Julian off to a couch to continue their negotiations.
There they meet Valensi, whose own dealings with a pair of blondes seem somewhat more advanced. Julian flops down on the seat opposite and slips back into the leatherette. His talks with his new friend seem to be going well for the first few seconds, so he tries to kiss her again. She’s not sure. Why can’t they talk some more? Julian rolls his eyes and sinks deeper into the couch.
Julian came to the party to party, not talk, so when the band’s tour manager enters the bar a short while later and announces he’s heading back to the band’s hotel with the van, Julian decides to join him. NME hops in too.
Back at the Roosevelt Hotel, NME heads to Ryan Gentles’ (The Strokes’ manager) room for a party. Those present are ourselves, the Australian soundman, their British publicist and Jules, Ryan’s assistant. It’s not much of a party.
Suddenly, there’s an urgent rap at the door, which opens to reveal Julian, standing legs wide apart, collar up. He’s scowling and doesn’t want to come in.
“Fuck you,” he says seriously. Everyone laughs. “Fuck you!” he repeats, raising a middle digit. “Hey, Julian,” calls his publicist, “come and have a joint.” “Fuck you!” yells Julian, keening forward in an unconscious impersonation of Sid Vicious. “Jules, come here. Please!” He wraps an arm around his friend’s shoulder and they stumble off outside towards the hotel’s hot tub. NME follows, abruptly aware of the moodswings we’d been told that Julian can experience when pissed. Outside, we discover that much of the aftershow has decamped to the Roosevelt.
It’s 3am. Various bodies are strewn across sun loungers positioned around the pool upon which 50-odd rooms are backed. And in the pool Fab is doing a series of bracing, if wonky, laps alongside the NME photographer.
NME heads to Valensi’s room where the eye of the party continues to rage pretty hard. It’s like a harem in here, with Valensi surrounded by a gaggle of young women. He’s pleased to see some fresh male faces, if only because it means he can clear his chamber of nearly all its occupants.
“I want everyone to leave now”, he says good-naturedly, “except for you.”
He’s pointing to the young lady lying on the bed next to him. This is a decision that she’s pleased about, too. NME heads quickly to bed before anyone can follow.
As we head to our room we run into Matt Romano, the resident of New Jersey who filled the drummer’s chair for the few weeks that Fab was absent recovering from his injury. He’s improved his upper body strength and had the best time of his life playing with The Strokes (so much so that he’s doing their lights on the West Coast leg of their tour). Tonight, though, he’s had enough too.
“I’m off to bed with my old best buddy,” he says, making the wanking sign with his wrist.
For the bona fide members of the band, the night marches on, however: in the pool, in the hot tub, in various cabanas around the pool. And in the parking lot of The Troubadour, too, where Albert is climbing into a strange car, suddenly and inappropriately the designated driver.
Nikolai soon follows him, entering a black Cadillac convertible alongside his Amazonian rocker. Who knows what terrible delights await the gentle bassist back in his room at the Roosevelt on this still Los Angeles morning. She’s just told him that she’s a member of Nashville Pussy.
It’s 11am on a sunny morning in Hollywood, and one by one, The Strokes emerge from their slumber.
Albert’s up first, marching across the pool area in shirt, tie, suit jacket, strides and extremely cool leather shoes. It doesn’t matter if it’s mid-winter or 90 degrees in the shade, The Strokes always dress as The Strokes and are always inappropriately attired for the climate.
“I took a load of downers and drove back to the hotel,” Albert muses, rubbing his face. “I can’t remember getting back to my room at all.”
He takes a sip from his breakfast pina colada, narrowly avoiding his eye with the straw umbrella.
“Mmm. Hey! Have any of you seen Bridget Jones’s Diary? he asks. I watched that this morning in my room. That is a great movie! There isn’t a bad moment in it. Have I got time to run to my tailor’s? I need to pick up my alterations.”
“Sure,” sighs Ryan Gentles, tugging on Albert’s trousers. “But be quick you have a photo shoot in half an hour.”
“Don’t touch,’ says Albert. “My clothes are vintage and delicate. I fart and blow a hole in my pants.”
Soon after he’s gone, Nikolai sheepishly slips into a lounger by the pool wearing his army jacket, black trousers, boots and brown tie. A book about Greek mythology out from his jacket pocket.
“What have I done?” he mutters to himself smiling. “Hey, Nikolai, what happened to you last night?” asks Nick Valensi, as he arrives poolside in beige shirt tie, leather jacket, Sta-Prest and bare feet.
Nikolai covers his eyes. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Partaaaay!” comes the call from the other side of the pool. It’s Julian. He’s standing by the edge of the pool throwing the heavy metal finger salute and wearing nothing more than a red bathing suit and a huge smile. His mood has improved since last night. He flops into the water.
“Ahh,” he grins. “This is so nice!” He offers his hand to Nick, who slaps it.
“Man, how awesome was last night?” asks Julian. “Ryan, on a scale of one to ten, one being not too awesome and ten being outstandingly awesome, what would you give last night?”
“Nine point six,” says Ryan.
Julian dunks under the water and pops back up with his hair matted across his brow. “Nine point eight. It was seismic.”
A few hours, two US photo shoots and several trips to the local In And Out (a burger bar whose moniker accurately describes its product’s digestive attributes) later, The Strokes are driving in their van up towards the Hollywood Hills for the NME photos. Driving up to the hills in the van is practical, but risky. Their trailer with all their instruments is attached to its rear.
“I’m not sure this was a good idea,” says Albert as we pull away from their tour manager running alongside desperately trying to flag us down. “It could turn into a really expensive photo shoot if we fuck our instruments up.”
Albert returns to his magazine. He’s brought two along for the journey: Playboy, for the article on Nirvana, and Penthouse, for the porn. Julian is reading Penthouse.
“Wow,” he says, poring over shots of penetrative sex. “Penthouse has evolved since I was a kid. This is kinds sexy.”
The band arrive at a scenic spot with panoramic views of LA faintly aroused, still quite pissed from fast night and looking very much like The Strokes. They do not fit in with their new environment. This is a spot where very rich Californians come to power walk and run with their dogs. Those that aren’t musclebound and tanned are doing their best to catch up.
Then one middle-aged but lean bank manager type with an immaculate grey husky does a double take and jogs down to the cliff edge upon which the group are perched. He makes out like he’s enjoying the view too and lets his dog handle the initial diplomatic breakthrough. “This is a cool dog,” says Julian, as the husky performs a series of dog tricks for the band.
“Oh, he is,” agrees the old guy. “Hey, you’re The Strokes, right? I tried so hard to get a ticket for last night. I don’t go to many shows but I heard your record and I had to try.”
He giggles like a pubescent kid. “I think your record is so cool!” The Strokes look at each other, aghast. This keeps happening. All they did was write a bunch of songs, practice a lot and play some shows. Now everyday gets a little more insane because everybody who hears them or sees them falls in love with them and their music. it’s like a real-life fairy tale, but one with a moral: be wary of what you wish for, because it may come true.
After years of noodling about they finally made a demo of three songs that they were proud of -’The Modern Age’, ‘Barely legal’ and ‘Last Nits’ – so they sent it to England. The demo went on to sell 30,000 copies. They came to England to play some shows and wound up in the eye of a media hurricane. They wore some nice thrift shop threads and found out that they’re cool New York fashion icons. They try to do something a little differently from other groups and discover that they’re pioneering a new wave of US punk in the grand tradition of The Stooges, The Velvet Underground and Television (a group they’ve never heard).
None of this was in the plan, man. They release a second single and imagine that the initial fuss will calm down a drop. Bang! ‘Hard To Explain’/'New York City Cops’ goes straight into the UK charts at Number 16. They go on Top Of The Pops. They undertake a mad, bone-breaking, celebrity sucking sold-out tour of the UK. They fly right around the world and play four shows in two continents in five days.
And all this madness is going on while in the back of their minds they’re thinking, ‘But nobody’s heard our album’. A band who chronologically should be looking forward to their first NME feature if not On piece, are contemplating their second cover story in months. And all they wanted was some positive feedback on their three-song demo.
The madness has only just started, though. ‘Is This It’ (no question mark about it) fills the hole that’s been gnawing away in the record-buying community’s gut for the best part of a decade. It delivers 11 fresh, exciting, dynamic, smart, sexy, weird and tuneful songs in 36 minutes and will end the careers of so many lame groups while spawning a legion of imitators. It is extremely good, left-field rock’n'roll. Each song tells a brilliant story (about which they will not talk: they don’t want to kill the mystery) in raw and imaginative pop language. It is THE classic debut of our times.
At 1am in The Formosa Bar in West Hollywood, the five bamboozled young men – Julian’s the eldest at 22, Valensi has to borrow Fab’s ID to get into the bar – try to piece together all this over bottles of beer.
“Every day is like an amplified version of the day before,” says Fab in hushed, awestruck tones.
“It’s fucking crazy,” agrees Julian. “Every night is a new high point. last night was unreal, to get that reaction from your first LA headline… To have Joe Strummer say were the first group that have made him smile in years?!”
Do you feel in control of it?
“No,” says Albert. “it’s like driving a sports car. But as long as we’re still all having sex together it’s really no problem.”
Julian: “The sports car analogy is pretty true, man. I feel like we’re driving a car really fast and we could get pulled over by the cops or we could get to the end of the journey and say, ‘That was fun’.”
Nick: “I don’t mind being pulled over by the cops, I don’t want to crash. Crashing is bad. We’re getting to our destination really, really fast.”
Julian: ‘Throughout your life you try and maintain a balance so that when things are going too well you’re prepared for the bad stuff waiting to happen. Things are going pretty well for us, so I’m pretty scared.”
But what’s the worst that could happen? “Any of the cliches” says Valensi immediately. “Get addicted to drugs, go bankrupt, band breaking up because we don’t get along, or making bad follow-up records. We’re trying hard to avoid any of those typical rock band cliches. But even if we weren’t playing music I couldn’t imagine another group of people to be, like, my only group of friends.”
“Really?” asks Julian, touched.
Nick: “Yeah! We were friends before we were in a band. We partied before we were in a band. Who else would you want to travel around with?”
“David Bowie?” suggests Albert. It would be a bad choice. David Bowie will not be touring in support of an album as strong as ‘Is This It’ ever again. Getting The Strokes, however, to analyze their work is tough in this early stage of their career (and lives).
Fab says that during his sabbatical away from the band with his injury he finally got to hear the album for what it is a fucking cool record. Albert says it’s like a cereal variety pack where each track has a distinct flavor. and you like them all for different reasons but that you recognize them all as cereal. And then. after much toing and froing, Julian (who writes the outline of the songs – although the group don’t like this to be made too much of a big deal) stumbles on why their songs are so good.
“When we first started playing we were like, ‘What’s going to be the new kind of cool music? I wonder if anything cool could still come out?’ We wanted to see if we could find out. With songs I like it’s always ‘Oh, I really like this’ but when they switch to this I’m like ‘Why?’ Or when they keep playing a part for two hours I’m like ‘Why?’ So for our songs we almost pretend it’s not our song. that way we can say ‘This is too long, this is not good.’ The final outcome is bizarre because it’s so short and m and weird. I think that’s what people are reacting to. They go, ‘Oh my god, this sounds really different to most shit that I hear, but it makes more sense’ . That’s what we strive for.”
What are you looking for next? “Love,” deadpans Julian. “In all the wrong places. Musically it’s really super-simple. We have to somehow figure out a way to get better. But what goes into that is way complicated. How to fuck with it so it still has the foundational things that make a song really good but at the same time original. How to make it good for people who know a lot about music and how to make it good for someone who doesn’t know a thing. And still be a step up. But you either preach it or you do it. We’re better at the latter.”
Albert left the table in a bit of a huff when NME started to quiz Julian – to no avail – about the songs’ genesis and as we leave the bar he approaches NME with the one thing he needs us to understand. He quickly nails 50 per cent of what marks The Strokes out as belonging to a lineage of truly great bands (the other half of the equation is that every song they write could be a single).
“We’re all as important as each other,” he says. “How many groups are there where you know the drummer’s name? Where you even care who in the group? We’re on this equally. That’s why people liked the Beatles and That’s why people like us.”
One for all, all for one. In the parking lot Fab stands very close to NME’s face and asks what we’ve learned about the band during our time with them.
Well we’ve learned that they have bad diets, constantly hug each other and are multilingual (French and Spanish). That Nick is the youngest, the tallest, claims to be the toughest, and is the band’s most natural and generous hedonist (when he leaves NME alone to perform promotional duties he makes sure we’ve got pot for company).
We’ve learnt that Nikolai seems bookish and retiring, but that the night holds no fear for him. We’ve learnt that Fab is a charming and earnest diplomat (and irreplaceable too). We’ve learnt that Albert has a sharp mind and tongue, is always well turned out and hates reading about himself.
And we’ve learnt that Julian sleeps late, is modest, unpredictable and very homesick. New York is where he writes and the band work, and he needs to get back there ‘to do my job”.
We also learn in the cab ride back to the hotel that there may be another reason, other than appearing on future editions of VH1′s Behind the Music, for Julian’s determination to curb the rock lifestyle cliches that could trip up a fun-loving group such as his. When he was a teenager his school forced him to attend rehab for eight months to curb his drinking. It wasn’t great fun.
“If you want to get wasted, that’s cool,” he says. “We all get wasted. We’ll probably get wasted tonight. But if that becomes your motive for being a musician that’s fucked up. We want to do this job as well as possible.”
Tonight’s a night off, though. Back at the Roosevelt, mini bars are raided and last nights success at The Troubadour is once more toasted. While all those around them salivate at the band’s unlimited possibilities, The Strokes remain more impressed with concrete, day-to-day success. They won’t be able to keep the victories small-scale for long, however.
The next day, as NME checks in at the airport, the prim airline employee allocating our seats asks what our business in LA has been. We tell her.
“Oh! My! God!” she says, practically throwing off her glasses, unclipping her ponytail and smashing her forehead on the counter. “I love The Strokes! I tried so hard to get a ticket to the show on Friday. That record is so cool!” This whole thing is getting out of control. Exciting isn’t it?