Trial by fire by Alex Needham
As they complete their new album ‘Room On Fire’ The Strokes reveal how they survived jealousy, excess and Courtney Love after success changed their lives forever
The 2003 version of The Strokes is a different band from the one that emerged at the beginning of 2001. Older, less tactile but more tightly bonded, they’re determined not to repeat the mistakes they made last time around. “I never thought I would have such a tough time being on tour,” says Nick. “we agreed to do more than we could handle. We thought we’d be fine to do six shows a week for two years but as it turns out people can’t do that, man.”
A year ago, a combination of constant touring and hard partying took The Strokes to burn out. They cancelled dates in Japan, punched record company personnel in France and nearly split up through exhaustion in Hawaii. Julian also seriously injured his knee, meaning that he had to take to the stage on crutches.
“The stress really gets to you,” confirms Albert. “That’s where the other stuff comes in because you’re so fuckin’ stressed out. I can’t imagine not having at least a couple of beers a day when I’m on tour. It’s fun though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun.
“My body could handle it,” he continues, “I’m 23. I could take a shitload more than I do now. Mentally it’s just hard. You miss things. Sometimes you get sad. You’re still growing, trying to figure out life and at the same time you’re in the middle of, fuckin’…like, ‘Slow down, I just want to have a day and think about things.’ Add a hangover to that and you’re, like, ‘Man, this fuckin’ sucks.”
“I wanted to get enough songs to do the next record and that was freaking me out more than being physically tired,” confirmed Julian. “Like, ‘Can I be left alone for five minutes so I can sustain a career?’ instead of, ‘Let’s just ride this rollercoaster and never look back.’ I didn’t want to sabotage our career by over-indulging.”
Julian is the precise opposite of the rock’n’roll cliché of the songwriter who has to get wasted to create, finding it impossible to write on drink, on drugs or on tour. “Almost all of it is written dead sober,” he says. “Maybe have a beer or two when you’re playing guitar but if I’m wasted I wouldn’t be able to do anything, really.”
The constant temptation to get wrecked, of course, lies in wait for all touring bands, and The Strokes were certainly no different. “It’s just the intensity of playing in front of all those people,” Julian says about why bands succumb, “and when you’re done the intense emotions you feel aggressively push you towards being over-indulgent. I think we’ve found a good balance of not sustaining it too long. Because then we’re all happy when we have the new songs and finally feel we’re moving on instead of, ‘Play now,’ ‘Yes, OK.'”
Some things The Strokes will never do…
Albert: “We’ll never pose in bathing suits.”
Fab: “I don’t think we’ll make movies, or have our own show one night on TV celebrating our music.”
Julian: “We’ll never get in a helicopter…”
Albert: “…because that’s how musicians die.”
Nick: “We’ll never paint our faces black and pretend to be African.”
Fab: “I’ll never do a drum solo onstage.”
Albert: “We’ll never continue without a band member.”
Julian: “If a member left we’d change the name because it wouldn’t be The Strokes.”
Nick: “We’ll never ride on a bicycle made for five.”
Fab: “I will never do a commercial.”
Nick: “(Laughing) It depends on what they’re trying to sell. I’m not gonna show up for Right Guard deodorant.”
Another on-the-road peril The Strokes encountered was their immersion into world of celebrity. Sometimes, this was good. Fab met Drew Barrymore. Julian was delighted to meet Joe Strummer backstage at a gig in LA, where the late Clash frontman told him how much he loved The Strokes. Julian also made friends with Jack White, The Strokes performing two shows with The White Stripes in Detroit and New York last year, although he says they didn’t give each other advice: “It was more just friends laughing at record company people and the games you’ve got to play to even get someone to hear you. Like radio stations blackmail you — if you don’t do this thing they just won’t play the record.”
Sometimes it was bad. “There was a point where I thought the attention we were getting was working against us because it was making us seem like a typical cheesy rock band,” snorts Nick. Albert gets quite emotional talking about the hostility The Strokes received from some of their peers, which he attributes to a mixture of jealousy and inaccurate press, concentrating, as Nick puts it, on “boys making out with each other…prep school and money.”
“Jealousy’s so dirty, it’s like the worst thing to be mad at someone for,” says Albert. “All it will do is eat you up and the other person will be like, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ If you don’t like the music, I’m totally cool with that. Don’t be a dick to me, though. I’m still a human being. I don’t want you to think that I’m walking down the street and people are throwing shit at me,” he continues. “I get much more love than I do weirdness. But when people are dicks, that’s something that really bothers me.”
And sometimes, fame proved to be just plain weird. By a bizarre coincidence, a week after ‘Room On Fire’ is released, Courtney Love puts out her long-awaited solo album ‘America’s Sweetheart’. It includes the song ‘But Julian, I’m A Little Bit Older Than You’, written after she met him backstage at one of their gigs in LA and ordered him to have ‘the Bono talk’ (apparently the U2 star makes a habit of dispensing paternal advice to young rock stars). “I was not in the mood to get in depth with Courtney Love about ‘the Bono talk’ as she called it,” remembers Julian. “But I would listen to him. I would listen to anybody, really.”
Do you know the chorus of ‘But Julian…’ goes “I see Paris/I see France/I can see your underpants”?
Julian: [Laughs] “I don’t know what to say.”
Well, did she see your underpants?
“I don’t think so,” he demurs. “Maybe if I bent over or something.”
The last time The Strokes were in Britain it was to headline the 2002 Carling Weekend. “That was one of the highlights of my life, man,” raves Albert. “Fuckin’ A!” They were joined onstage by Jack White and Bob Pollard from their heroes Guided By Voices, with whom they played their first (and so far only) cover version, GBV’s ‘A Salty Salute’.
It was a fitting farewell. The UK is where The Strokes were first signed, by Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, and where they’ve sold a large proportion of copes of ‘Is This It’ (700,000 of 2.5 million).
When asked why the UK fell so hard for The Strokes, the band all have the same answer. “I think the UK has an easier time being alone in their rooms listening to music they really enjoy instead of being told what to like,” theorises Fab. “Every time we go to Britain we feel so welcome, like you guys discovered us, you know? In the UK, it seems like word of mouth travels faster, and coupled with this sort of security in music you guys have, it allows for less poppy music to be not only successful but celebrated.”
The Strokes also became hugely influential. Thanks to their shockingly fresh music and iconic visual appeal, they subsequently inspired everyone from Kings Of Leon (the music and sartorial flair) to Avril Lavigne (the ties and Converse). Even Sum 41 paid barbed homage in their video to ‘Still Waiting’, in which they were renamed The Sums and forced to perform on a set modelled on the ‘Hard To Explain’ video. (“We met them in Japan and had a blast talking about that,” smiles Fab.)
“The one thing we wanted when we started out,” says Nikolai, “was not to create a scene, but just to have a good music vibe where you could go downtown and find a bunch of bands that you know and that are good and not pretentious.” It’s something they’ve failed to find in New York, where they’re still treated with suspicion. (“People wouldn’t even lend us a drum stool,” laments Nikolai.)
Nick and Julian both play their influence down. “Its not like we’ve opened the floodgates here,” says Nick. “We’ve made a crack in a window that’s let in some cool things and that’s also let in some terrible things. The cool comes with the cheesy, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of a Pandora’s box.”
“I’d agree with that,” adds Julian. “But there’s also bands that were doing their own thing — I don’t know if we helped them or not. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs would have made it on their own anyway.”
Spotting his footwear (black boots), NME innocently — well, OK, not that innocently — asks Julian if he’s bored of wearing Converse.
“Bored of seeing them on other people,” he retorts. “No, I’m kidding. Shit, I know you’re gonna write that now.”
As befits a band with a terror of complacency. The Strokes are nervous about ‘Room On fire’. “This record might fuckin’ flop,” frets Albert. “You never know, dude.” Whatever happens (and a flop seems about as likely as Ann Widdecombe taking up pole dancing), their immediate plans are to go on says Julian, what drives The Strokes is simply “hope of accomplishment, just doing something positive. That’s a tricky thing to do so it makes the people around you fell better.
“A lot of things excite me,” he continues, preparing for another stint at the TMF Studios mixing desk. “New adventures, new developments. Hopefully getting better, still, and surprising people in a good way. “That,” he says finally,” makes me hopeful about music.”