The Second Coming by Alex Needham
It’s now two years since The Strokes revolutionised rock with ‘Is This It’. Now they aim to do it again with a little help from methadone, margaritas and Madonna. NME brings you part one of their most intimate intervew ever
Fab Moretti bounds to greet us at the door of Chelsea Market, New York. It’s 10pm. Small, wiry and handsome, wearing black jeans, an orange T-shirt and a trucker cap, Fab’s going back to his apartment to get the definitive version of the track ‘Reptilia’. Last week, ‘Reptilia’ was known as ‘Room On Fire’. At the weekend, it was called ‘It’s Reptilian’. Now it’s ‘Reptilia’ again.
Fab disappears into a taxi, promising he’ll be back in ten minutes, and directs us up a ramp into the deserted indoor market, past a series of anti-drug posters, one with the slogan ‘Ecstasy is for dummies’. A quick right turn and it’s into the lift which we take to the sixth floor.
This is the home of Sterling Sounds studios. There’s a huge reception area festooned with gold and platinum discs, off which run half a dozen small studios. In one of them, Julian Casablancas stands pensively over a seated, middle-aged man. The man is Greg Calbi, who mastered Bruce Springsteen’s breakthrough 1975 album ‘Born To Run’. Mastering is the process where all the diverse tracks are finally assembled on one album and tweaked to make sure they sound right together. When Fab returns, ‘Reptilia’ can be added and ‘Room On Fire’, the second Strokes album, will be complete.
Run that past us again — this is the night the album gets finished? “God willing,” mutters Julian, who joins us in the lounge then minutes later with Fab, where there’s Manchester United on the TV and overflowing ashtrays and bottles of Beck’s on the table. Dressed in baggy, faded Levi’s, a yellow vintage Beach Boys shirt and — look away, fashionistas! — tatty brown sandals with lilac towelling socks, Julian looks tired but content. After one false start, two producers, five months of songwriting, three months of nocturnal recording and sessions lasting as long as 23 and a half hours at a stretch, The Strokes have almost doubled their recorded oeuvre from 12 songs (including B-side ‘When It Started’) to 23. They’ve followed up ‘Is This It’, the album that was the inspirational standard-setter for every cool guitar band — The White Stripes, The Vines, Yeah Yeah Yeahs — in its wake, the best debut this century, such a sleek, complete pop art statement that it seemed difficult to see how The Strokes could move on from it. But The Strokes have moved on. In fact, they’ve got even better. Just wait until you hear ‘Room On Fire’.
What are you most proud of about the new Strokes album?
Albert: “The fact that we finished it.”
Nikolai: “Just doing what we wanted to do in the beginning and not straying from the progression that was in our minds initially. That’s really hard to do. A lot of distractions presented themselves, that’s one thing we can say.”
Nick: “We’re all really excited… there’s some trepidation. When we were doing our first record we didn’t really think it would do what it did. I thought there was no chance in hell the ‘Is This It’ songs would be played on American radio, but they were, so now on this second record it’s hard not to view it as relative to the last one.
Fab: “We spent hours and hours making sure that every single part was right.”
Julian: “We were just trying to keep moving on. Hopefully it doesn’t sound like we’re copying ourselves. That’s the most important thing, I guess.”
‘Room On Fire’ doesn’t sound like The Strokes copying themselves. While you couldn’t mistake it for another band, the album is extraordinary for what it doesn’t do. Most bands get self-indulgent on their second album, unleashing that epic ballad and maybe chucking in an orchestra or two (“I hate that shit,” says Albert Hammond Jr), but The Strokes have done the opposite. The average song length is three minutes. There are no extra musicians — no backing vocals or horn sections, nothing that couldn’t be replicated live.
However, there’s nothing drab or austere about ‘Room On Fire’. If on ‘Is This It’, every track could have been a single, on ‘Room On Fire’ the Strokes have made an album on which every track could — should — be a Number One. By now you’ll have fallen in love with the new wave trash classic ’12:51′. And if you’re into that, you’re going to freak when you hear ‘Automatic Stop”s irresistible chorus, the reggae-tinged sleaze of ‘Between Love And Hate’, ‘The End Has No End”s jaunty resignation, the thrumming ‘You Talk Way Too Much’ and, well, everything else. Then there’s ‘Under Control’. Three minutes and two seconds of sleepy-eyed soul, it’s the albums biggest stylistic departure and the best thing they’ve ever done. “It’s a song to chill out and get stoned to,” says Nick Valensi, “and we’ve never really had a song like that, so it makes me happy.”
We catch The Strokes at a pivotal time. The day after the record is finished, The Strokes record a video for ’12:51′ in Queens. A Tron-themed, Roman Coppola-directed extravaganza, it’s a live performance rather than just a mime to the record. The next day, ’12:51′ gets its radio debut. In America, its first play is on influential “alternative” station K-ROQ; in the UK, Zane Lowe plays it on Radio 1. Because it’s so good, Zane Lowe says, he plays it twice in a row. When he hears about this, Nick Valensi jokes that the song is so short (2:26) that two plays adds up to a normal-sized record anyway, but Julian drops his usual sang-froid to scream, “Whaaat?”, clap his hands, laugh and hoot, “Wow, that’s crazy. That’s great!”
What has making the album done for you?
Julian: “It’s made me feel like I can still do it. The fear of losing it is always nearby, so it’s about as far away as I can push it for the time being, which is a nice feeling.”
Why do artists go off the boil?
“I’ve asked myself that for a while, to try not to fall into it. The best thing I can come up with is it’s after a point where you’re so established and you can’t help but believe how good you are — and that’s when it starts hurting you. As soon as you really think, ‘I’m the fuckin’ man, I’m the shit,’ I think you’re potentially setting yourself up for trouble.”
Do you think you possess the secret of pop music?
“No. I think you can never get there, you just try and get as close as you can.”
The first few times NME interviewed The Strokes, we naturally met them en masse. These days, things are different. Of the time we spend hanging around with them in New York, the only time we see them together is at the photoshoot. Instead, we interview The Strokes separately for an hour or so each, The reason, says Albert Hammond Jr, is because “when we’re separate we can say it much cleaner and better. You get a better perspective of us all, and it’s cool (for us) reading the articles — ‘this is what this person said’.”
First, at 4pm, is Nikolai Fraiture, who we meet in the Odessa diner in the East Village round the corner from The Strokes’ management office. Having cycled from his uptown apartment (he’s the only Strokes not to live in the East Village) Nikolai orders a grilled cheese sandwich. He wears a white T-shirt, blue jeans and brown boots, and is softly spoken, low key and serious. The first record he ever bought was Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Ritual De Lo Habitual’. He’s currently reading hip-hop favourite, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
Nigel Godrich was sacked as ‘Room On Fire”s producer. How do the tracks on the finished album differ from his versions?
Nikolai: “You know, the obvious — production-wise.”
Did he put all those ambient sounds on everything, the way he does with Radiohead and Travis?
Nikolai: “Yeah, he did try it. It was a different way of looking at it. But we’ve never trusted the ‘we’ll fix it in the mix’ attitude. It’s phase by phase: first we get a sounds, then we get all the sounds of all the instruments and we see how they sound all together and ten we record. With Nigel you’d just lay down your track and then have a seat in the lounge and come back and listen to what they’d done, and we’re just not used to working that way. We did that with Gil Norton a long time ago and those recordings were… disregarded as well.”
Six and a half hours later, we speak to Fab in the lounge at Sterling Sounds. He’s friendly and open, drinking bottles of Beck’s and smoking Marlboro Reds. He’s fervently emotional about the bond between The Strokes, saying it’s rooted in “comfort and love” and that they’re closer than family. Like the rest of The Strokes, he didn’t get the chance to buy Julian a birthday present (he celebrated his 25th the Saturday before by having a party in a private room in a hotel) “but I’m going to get him a bowling ball engraved ‘Jules’ because we like to bowl together.”
Fab is the most poetic and artistic Stroke. His drawings for arts collective The Broken Wrist Project are always of people with one blind eye — “a literal way of describing how we’ve got to keep one eye open in reality but still be in tune with what’s going on within yourself.” The last two books he read were AM Holmes’ The Safety of Objects and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. His favorite record of the year is Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love’ — “a fucking excellent track, it’s so intelligent and well organised.” He is, as you may know, going out with Drew Barrymore and was furious to find out a picture of the apartment they share had been printed in the UK press.
Do you fell sympathy for Chris Martin when he attacked that photographer’s car?
Fab: (Pauses) I feel very compassionate towards him, you know what I mean? I hope he’s doing OK. But I don’t think it’s gotten to that point with me and I hope that it never does.”
You seem much more laidback than him, though.
“I’ve worked to be laidback. I think that every kid starts off as a spaz and has to learn his way, you know. Excitement and anger and all human emotions — you learn when to take them out and when to keep them in your pocket.
Around midnight, Albert Hammond Jr appears, looking sharp in brown cords, blue socks, a yellow polo shirt and yellow Converse (Albert also used to have a yellow motorbike nicknamed The Mighty Chicken). The most affable Strokes, he takes NME to a Latino-run bar on Avenue A, were he orders a margarita. In the taxi on the way there, he talks about the very last thing to be decided about ‘Room On Fire’: how long to make the gaps between the songs (they end up being relatively lengthy, around four seconds each). His phone plays ‘The Blue Danube’ when it rings. Later, after getting “nervous” at the sight of some policemen, Albert takes us to another bar. He challenges two men to a game of pool, loses two $20 bets on the outcome of first two (thanks to the fact that he’s playing doubles with hapless NME), then wins it all back on the third with a $60 stake. In the course of the evening, he’s recognised twice, the first time by a bloke who exhorts him to “Keep it underground! Don’t make it MTV commercial!”, the second time by a girl who has her picture taken with him. He’s shared a flat with Julian for the past five years.
Are you happy with your reputation as The Strokes’ resident style guru?
Albert: “I enjoy looking good, most people do. But I think about more about music than the clothes I’m gonna wear (laughs). I haven’t been shopping in, like, three years. I can’t stand shopping, it really annoys me.”
Your white suit’s good.
“I like that suit. You try to copy something but it’s always a little different because I’m wearing it, not the person. I really like the John Lennon ‘Abbey Road’ white suit. Mine was way different from his, but it’s still that whole vibe.”
Julian says your belt always matches your shoes.
“That’s so funny. Sometimes I guess I wear all black with white shoes and a white belt.”
When did you start dressing like that?
“When I was 15 I just decided to be decked out all the time, so people would go, ‘Oh, that guy looks like he’s in a band.’ You’re not, but you dream about it, so you want that perception, it’s fun. So many people dress down now. Big businessmen don’t even wear a tie to work! When I’m dressed well, people just give me a little more respect in certain establishment. It’s just nice.”
A couple afternoons later, The Strokes having shot the video for ’12:51′, we hook up with Nick Valensi. He takes us to Tompkins Square Park in the east Village, where he says he likes to interact with the city, hanging with the “methadone crazies” that seem to be the park’s main users. Nick claims never to get recognised in New York, saying, “I like it that way. I’ve got my quiet little apartment down the Lower East Side where all the freaks live so no-one really bothers me.”
This is contradicted five minutes later when a woman sails past calling, “I love your band!” And even if he wasn’t famous, Nick would stand out a mile. Over six feet tall with size 11 and a half feet, wearing a battered suit jacket, ripped jeans, a white T-shirt stained with coffee and scratches on his neck made (we surmise) by one of his three dogs, he looks like a total superstar. He’s also the most irascible Stroke, at least to journalists. “I’m really fuckin’ fed up with reading about fuckin’ boys like hugging each other and making out with each other,” he huffs, adding later that such a big deal has been made of The Strokes’ physical affection towards each other that they’ve stopped doing it out of sheer self-consciousness.
He’s also annoyed to hear that one of The Coral was going to talk to him at a gig they played at the Irving Plaza in New York but changed his mind when he saw that Nick was wearing flip flops. “If someone has a problem like that,” says Nick, “fuck ’em!”
However, he’s funny too, joking that The Strokes are “setting an example to the young fans” and sharing his philosophy on hangovers (“If the party was worth the hangover than (sic) I can enjoy feeling sick”).The last film he saw was the “terrible but very entertaining Freddie Vs Jason and he’s currently reading a history of Central Park.
Apart from guitar, what’s your role in The Strokes?
Nick: “I think we all have the same role which is to keep each other in check and not let any person get too out of hand with any clichéd rock’n’roll story. In our band, roles aren’t so clearly defined, like “this is the guy who programs the computer” and “this is the guy who takes to many drugs” and “this is the guy who goes off with girls after every show”. I’m the guitar player and that’s all I really care for.”
Finally, we meet Julian again at TMF studios, where ‘Room On Fire’ was recorded. We sit in the kitchen area, which is dark, messy and cosy, where Julian wolfs down a cheeseburger in three bites. It’s 5pm, and he’s not so much tired as catatonic. “I got home last night right after the video and fell asleep right away on the couch at 10.30, woke up at 2.30 and couldn’t get back to sleep until 8.30, so I feel like I’m jet-lagged,” he yawns.
Hands-on as ever, he’s back in the studio to oversee the mix on the video’s sound. “I used to not even want to do videos, Julian says. “Sometimes I fell it’s like the movie and the book. One makes you have these vivid thoughts, almost like a dream, and when you see it it’s spoonfed to you and you miss most of it. I think it helps bad songs be entertaining to watch and hurts good ones. But everyone seems to think I’m crazy, so…”
Today, Julian’s wearing a black leather jacket, grey T-shirt and jeans, his hair still dyed jet black (“it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time”). The sandals are gone, replaced with a black pair of boots.
He’s mortified about being quoted as saying “Fuck Madonna. She’s a celebrity” in a recent magazine article. “I guess she wouldn’t care — well, she wouldn’t find out,” he says wearily. “It’s just like, if I ever meet her… well, fuck me, huh? I’m influenced by some of her early stuff, even on this record, ‘Like A Virgin’ and stuff like that.”
Julian refuses to talk about the lyrics on ‘Room On Fire’, which are as downbeat as the music is euphoric. Though his sometimes ragged, sometimes pleading voice is often low in the mix most of the songs seem to deal with failing relationship. To pick two examples among many, ‘You Talk Way Too Much”s title is self-explanatory, while ‘The Way It Is’ goes “I’m sick of you/And that’s just the way it is.” Though it sounds like the people being sung about Julian has met in the past two years, he says the lyrics aren’t specific. “Sometimes it’s just random people you got to know and your imagination ran about them and others were situations.”
If that’s the case, situations have included depressing one night stands (‘The End Has No End’), relationship break-ups (‘Reptilia’), a dysfunctional love triangle (“She wanted him/He wanted me” — ‘Automatic Stop’) and moments of romantic bliss (‘Under Control’). However, if you press Julian for particulars — like why he changed the title of ‘Ze Newie’ to ‘Thin Love Between Love And Hate’, then to ‘Between Love And Hate’, neither of which phrases appear in the lyrics — he clams up. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he murmurs. “It’s personal stuff.”
Whose opinion do you really trust?
“A little but if everyone. Different people have different ways of looking at things. Their opinions normally form a good middle ground to bounce your ideas off.”
Who would you phone in the middle of the night if you had some songwriter’s dark night of the soul?
“I could talk to family or friends, but when you feel like that you just have to keep playing until something good comes out. So I guess I’d have to stick it out alone.”