Interviews – Q Magazine April 2002
Hello, French polishers? It’s just possibly you could save this band!” Twelve months on from their first lo-fi demo, The Strokes are now the all-singing, all-dancing, all-rutting rock beats – with a platinum album to boot. Make way then for the envious schoolfriends and creeping self-doubt. “We can imagine why people perceive us as assholes,” they tell Danny Eccleston.
It is 5 June 2001 and obscure New York band The Strokes are on their second visit to London plugging their second UK single , Hard To Explain. Dandyish but dishevelled, they prance and wobble like toddlers denied Ritalin. They hug, they harmonise on R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly and show off their pubic hair to strangers. If you were to compare them to another band it would not be Talking Heads or The Velvet Underground, despite their influence on The Strokes’ wiry, breakneck sound – it would be The Banana Splits.
Most hyper are guitarist Nick Valensi and drummer Fabrizio Moretti. Co-guitarist Albert Hammond Jr is friendly is friendly but hungover and bassist Nikolai Fraiture is practically silent. Singer Julian Casablancas – equal parts wary suspicion and big-eyed, flirtatious candour – is describing his bandmates in a handful of adjectives.
“For Albert the words would be risky… flamboyant, happy generous. Nikolai… is rugged… tough, sincere subtle, humble… er, beautiful?”
There is a debate as to whether the lantern-jawed bassist is “beautiful”. He says not. The band decide – on a majority – that he is.
What about Moretti? “Direct, energetic…”
“I am not coked-up!”
“He’s just naturally coked-up!”
“I’m not coked-up at all. Put that in your piece.”
And Nick Valensi?
Valensi is unhappy (“You guys’ve made me out to be the evil guy!”) so a pow-wow is called. Valensi is lightened up for public consumption. It’s decided that he’s “honest, handsome, cocky and courageous”. Now it’s Casablancas’ turn. As one the band emit a low whoop and start rubbing their hands.
Valensi: “I’m giving Julian talented, moody, indecisive. Sometimes cocky and sometimes insecure, but it balances itself out perfectly.”
Moretti: “What’s the word that means you’re self-taught, but it seems like you’ve been taught by the masters?”
Moretti: “That’s it!” “That, or fucked up in the head.”
If they’re lucky, declare The Strokes, they could eventually be as big as Guided By Voices.
Less than eight months later, and almost everything has changed. The Strokes have vomited before stepping onstage at the Reading Festival. On 19 January they played Saturday Night Live, building up reserves of stress that, Hammond claims, affected them for weeks. Hammond has been strip-searched by Canadian customs. (“They looked under my ball-bad – did they think they’d find reefers?”). Along the way, 1.6 million copies of their album Is This It have been sold – just under 4000,000 of those in Britain. If their astonishing tale began with hype, it has entered a second, infinitely more substantial chapter.
Today the band are billeted at London’s Trafalgar Hotel – a step up from the Jury’s Inns and Holiday Inn Express of their first UK tour and conveniently situated for lightning visits to “Micky D’s” (ie McDonald’s) and the National Gallery. Whereas last year it wasn’t unusual to find a Stroke flaked out in a hotel room with a member of Mo Solid Gold, these days Nick Valensi shares his berth with ex Mrs Duran, Amanda De Cadenet.
“If I’d had a proper day off today,” Valensi languidly relates, “I would have laid in bed and had sex with my girlfriend all day [belches]. I’m getting into the mode of going on the road and not being naughty. If you’ve got a girlfriend, you’ve got a girlfriend, y’know?”
If any Stroke has visibly changed since June 2001, it is Valensi. Formerly stylish but rumpled, today he looks like an ID magazine fashion plate, the hair artfully teased la salon punk. Revealed by the high cuff of his paint-on trousers, he daringly sports Miss Kitty socks from Top Shop, Oxford Circus. He claims, believably, to have never made his own bed. Are The Strokes prepared to be rock stars?
“At first I didn’t think we were going to be rock stars,” says Fab Moretti, all teeth and curls. “We were just hungry for anyone to recognise us. Now I’ve started to realise that certain things are happening that are very rock star-ish: the way people are reacting to us and the offers that are made by girls… But I’m not really ready to be a rock star yet.”
Moretti tours with a regulation two pairs of underpants, a practice pad for perfecting those paradiddles, (he and drum tech – and sometimes stand-in – Matt Romano have purchased identical Penguin Classics editions of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo) and a sketch book. Unlike Charlie Watts, he’s a compulsive doodler. Unlike Chris Watts, he’s very good. A pencil self-portrait with the artist’s eyes eerily replaced with a silver cut from a Polaroid suggest that Moretti may be 1) quite talented and 2) somewhat freaked out.
Moretti nods in agreement. “There was a point recently when we looked at each other and went. What the fuck is happening to us?”
Suddenly, people around The Strokes are using the word “burnout”. They utter it under their breath, like people say the word “cancer”.
“We don’t want to burn them out,” says Steve Ralbovsky, their A&R man at US label RCA (like Oasis, The Strokes are an “indie” band with major muscle almost from the start). “We don’t want to spend two years on the road with no new songs. That way you get an age between albums because of exhaustion, and then you’re starting from scratch.”
Yet the temptation to work The Strokes ’til their pips squeak has been strong. With unpredicted speed, America has become a tangible prize and, since Saturday Night Live, says Ralbovsky, sales of Is This It have “skyrocketed”, taking it to a Billboard peak in the low 30s. This couldn’t have happened if the song Last Nite hadn’t turned received wisdom at Modern Rock Radio on its head.
“Six months prior the naysayers were saying. This won’t play next to Linkin Park and Puddle Of Mudd,” recalls Ralbovsky, a veteran of previous New York hipster scenes, having formerly managed Tom Verlaine. “They perceived Last Nite to be this lo-fi thing and UK hype wasn’t helping at all. But we got the key programmers out to the shows and they realised The Strokes were selling out 3800-seater shows in their territories without a stitch of radio play.”
Late autumn, playlisting at stations including KROQ in LA and WBCN in Boston followed, as did enthusiastic listener feedback. Suddenly The Strokes were fixtures in the rock airplay Top 10.
“Modern rock radio is the holy grail because it has an active buying audience,” Ralbovsky explains. “If you do well there, MTV’s gonna be your friend, retail will be your friend. Suddenly we’re seeing The White Stripes coming in on the back of what The Strokes are doing and The Hives maybe on the back of The White Stripes. It’s the beginning of a whole new sound being embraced by a previously very rigid radio format.”
A double-edged sword for The Strokes: more fans, but more touring. And although two non-Is This It tunes have emerged from rehearsal days and soundchecks (Meet Me In The Bathroom is switchblade pop based on a mad jazz chord chart in Mickey Baker’s guitar instruction book; “The Newie” is artfully diverse with a ripping Casablancas chorus), they’d like to be writing more. Touring Japan in February saw the peak of their frazzlement. Fainting fans were dragged from their shows. The earthy, freewheeling Hammond went AWOL with an Australian stripper (“We hung out, she got me fucked up and we went to a Buddhist temple at 5.30am to watch the monks pray”).
“There was definitely a time when I thought that this was the road to typical shit,” sighs Julian Casablancas, “that we were just going to break up. We were so stressed about stupid shit all the time. Frustrated. And it was just so silly, cos we’d been given such a chance to do something good.”
The squabbling Strokes put their own train back on the rails in the way they say they always do, with a series of no-holds-barred band meetings (“With me lately it’s become almost like therapy,” says Nick Valensi. “It’s like I’ve started to think like a fuckin’ psychologist. That made you happy? Why did that make you happy? You’re upset? What about me made you upset? It’s like marriage guidance”.
The Strokes have had a lot to wrangle over of late. The day after the Brit Awards, where they nabbed a Best International Newcomer gong and performed a sluggish-by-their-standards Last Nite to 10 million TV viewers, sales of Is This It leapt by 158 per cent. It was an Oasis moment: subculture band goes overground in spectacular style. It seems the only five people in Britain right now who are unconvinced that this is a 24-carat Good Thing are The Strokes themselves.
“It was great for the record,” says Julian Casablancas, reclining on Moretti’s bed and – not for the first or last time today – dripping with sarcasm. “I feel I should have taped what everyone else said in their acceptance speeches and played it backed. ‘This is a-may-zing!’ Do they go to school to learn how to say that shit?”
Asked to play Last Nite when they’d have rather played “something more representative”, The Strokes entertained the idea of making an outrageous, unannounced lunge into Meet Me In The Bathroom (“That would have been a declaration of our independence,” reckons Moretti). Finally they capitulated. Even so, after all that worry, didn’t they find The Brits terribly glamorous?
“I wouldn’t say glamorous is the right word at all,” says Valensi. “I felt very out of my person all evening, like I was high on a drug I’d never taken before and that I didn’t really like.”
But last year you said your goal was to be the first musician to play in front of a trillion people.
“That,” says Valensi, summoning a “silly journalist” look, “was a joke.”
There’s something simultaneously miraculous and precarious about The Strokes. The beginning of it all is well enough documented. Albert Hammond Jr and Julian Casablancas briefly met at posh Swiss school, “‘Institut La Rosey, in their teens. Returning to New York, “numb” and “unhappy” thanks to a bizarre scholastic regime that involved 6am runs around the school grounds in the snow, and enrolling in the slightly less posh Dwight High School on New York’s Upper West Side, Casablancas encountered Moretti and Valensi, who were already playing music.
“I remember I was jamming with Nick in Vinnie’s Studio, 1994,” recalls Moretti. “We were, like, 13, and Julian came to visit. He just stayed and listened, didn’t even play, but it was a rare old time. He was eating Tacos I believe.”
Casablancas, yet to pick up an instrument, was entranced. A stint at music college at Five Towns in Long Island followed as did much wrestling with guitars and singing along to Pearl Jam records. Bassist Fraiture, a bass player who’d known Casablancas since they were six, was added to the mix. Meanwhile, Casablancas received a Velvet Underground CD for Christmas (“Their music is perfect”) and an early template was established.
Then Hammond – following a period spent in Los Angeles with his ’70s songwriter father – swept back into their lives encumbered with records by Tom Petty, The Cars and The Modern Lovers. According to Moretti it was Hammond who “taught us how to dress. He already had this whole style thing going down. He had that aura, that he’s ready to be looked at and listened to.”
“When I first came to New York,” marvels Hammond, resplendent in red and black winklepickers, “the way things happened to me, it was like there was someone… doing it. I moved into my apartment, it was directly across the street from where Julian worked. Like, what are the odds? I could literally see him from my window.”
Are The Strokes blessed?
“We’re blessed in that the five of us look like we fit each other. We look like a band of five guys who are in a band. We’re a band! A band means… it doesn’t mean Johnny Whatever & The Thumpets. You know when you get those pictures and there’s a guy all blurry in the background, you’re not sure what he does, maybe he plays the guitar or something? The Strokes ain’t like that. That’s how we’re blessed, we’re blessed that we met each other.”
Casablancas’s songs were coming, but before their celebrated three-track demo (The Modern Age, Barely Legal, Last Nite: the first UK EP) could make it’s way to Rough Trade, sparking all the subsequent madness, The Strokes had another obstacle to overcome: New York. The music scene, notoriously bitchy and inward-looking, hadn’t produced a breakout band since the late ’70s, and the club scene, battered by Rudy Guiliani as a by-product of his crusade against drugs and underage drinking, has struggled rather than soared. The last “next big thing” from New York, glam-rockers D Generation, fizzled after two mid-’90s albums and The Spiral on Houston – scene of The Strokes’ first show on 14 September 1999 – is already defunct. Elsewhere in New York, hip hop rules.
“There’s a love-hate thing in New York with The Strokes,” contends John Holmstrom, founder of the city’s notorious Punk magazine and a scenester since the late-’70s heyday of The Ramones. “New York’s kinda blue collar, and a lot of bands resent the fact that The Strokes have rich parents. Everyone’s still baffled by their success. The Bullies, Charm School, The Star Spangles, Turbo ACs: these were the most-likely-tos. The Strokes were seen as these uptown kids… slumming basically. Someone told me they hired a publicist before they even rehearsed.”
The Strokes have had to get used to this sort of domestic slagging, but if it was only coming from the bands they left behind it would be easier to handle. “Serious and “ethical” Nikolai Fraiture went home at Christmas and found former friends to be suspicious and envious.
“It’s pretty lame,” he says evenly. “They’re going, Look at that guy, he changed so bad, almost like they want you to do the big rock star act. I’d understand that from people I don’t know very well – but people I went to school with…”
It isn’t too true that whole thing about us being privileged kids,” protests Moretti. “Nick, Nikolai and I, we all had to work for our spending cash. I guess rock’n'roll is gritty and you have to know suffering and happiness to rock out. But I think we do that. It doesn’t fuckin’ matter what our backgrounds are.”
That Julian Casablancas is considered particularly privileged – his father John founded the Elite Model Agency – is an irony not lost on the singer. A divorced dad who shacked up with model Stephanie Seymour is hardly something to add to a young man’s emotional credit column. In this tale of two dads, it is the stepfather (“or rather, my mother’s boyfriend”), Ghanaian painter and teacher Sam Adoquei, to whom he defers. When did the latter come into his life?
“He came in right when I left that high school from hell in Switzerland. My mom hadn’t seen anyone since that thing happened with my dad… Oh no, that’s not quite true, I don’t want to get into the details… [exasperated sigh, then pause] I was 14, 15 years old. I don’t know why that was such a difficult question…”
Adoquei introduced Casablancas to Bob Marley. Perhaps more importantly, he banged on about bad art, painters who’d tripped up and lost it, and about “work ethic”.
“He’d laugh if he heard me say it, but he’s the reason that I’m talking to you in this hotel room. He’s the reason why we’re successful. From the beginning he gave it all to me. Talking to me for hours about art. About lazy artists. About how hard you have to work, study, want it. There’s no way I can summarise four years of education. I learned zero at school and learned everything at home.”
Casablancas has big, slugger’s forearms, a curiously womanly arse and – alone among The Strokes – a faintly intimidating aura. Although he writes the songs, The Strokes – like U2 – split everything, including publishing, six ways (“sixth Stroke” is diminutive manager Ryan Gentles), and though Casablancas retains a casting vote when band decisions are deadlocked, he’s never had to use it. Today he rocks a bad biker jacket of indigo corduroy and an odd green shirt pocked with metal-rimmed eyeholes. Whenever he’s asked to rejoin Q’s photoshoot, he tugs angrily at his Rod-Stewart-meets-Johnny-Ramone coiffage and eyes the mirror with ponderous self-hatred. His demeanour is one of permanent exasperation. “It’s like a whirlwind of… crap, really,” he says.
Are you a skeptical person?
“[Irked] I’m not skeptical. I guess on a personal level I hope for the best and expect the worst.”
You’ve said that people take advantage of your honesty. Which people?
“Because of who my father is, we’re put in this category that we’re just rich kids. We don’t cover any of that up, but it gets out of hand sometimes. And if I read an interview where there were these rich white boys talking about Bob Marley, I’d think, Yeah they’re full of shit. But it’s not like my dad was friends with some record label guy and got us a deal. I was bartending, trying to book local shows, pretty much like everyone does. But I can imagine how people would perceive us as assholes.”
If, like Kiss did, The Strokes released simultaneous solo albums, what would they be like?
“I’d like to collaborate on them, but they probably wouldn’t let me near them. Fab’s would be kinda gothic, a lot of classical-type instrumentation – like low-pitched choirs in the background, keyboards, and his voice would have a lot of reverb on it. Albert would have the most Strokes-style solo record, with lots of funny disjointed riffs, and the theme would be love and relationships. Nick would have a Motley Crew-meets-Blur record with high-pitched [imitates Bruce Dickenson yowl] ‘Waaaaaah’ vocals. Nikolai would have an indie, chilled out, [laughs] bass-driven album.”
What’s your greatest fear?
“I have only one fear: that we let ourselves down by not fulfilling the promise of continuing progression. Because we’ve started well but I don’t think it’s worth anything yet. If we don’t make the cut, if we don’t get any better, if we start sucking, whether fame comes or not, still we’ve failed. That’s my fear. That we just [look of despair] fuck it up.”
Who do you turn to for advice?
“The only people I listen to are my mom, my stepdad and God.”
A cautionary tale from the annals of rock: Moby Grape – the brilliant harmony pop and folk-rock group signed to Columbia in 1967 – were the first ever band to be killed by hype. With a surefire debut album ready to go, their record label released five singles on the same day (only on, Omaha, charted at a lowly 88). They held a launch party where 700 bottles of wine were provided with special Moby Grape labels but, crucially, no corkscrews, and walked a purple-painted elephant down LA’s Sunset Boulevard. Never to recover from the overkill, guitarist Skip Spence hacked down the door of drummer Don Stevenson’s hotel room with an axe, believing him to be the Devil (drugs may have been involved) and singer/bassist Bob Mosley joined the Marines, because being in Vietnam was better than being in Moby Grape. Madness and penury were to follow.
The crucial question is: what’s to stop The Strokes going the same way? There has been hype, and since no one is predicting a new album until 2003, the debate concerning their long-term creative stamina won’t be even half-settled until then. There has been booze and -it stands to reason – there will have been drugs. The strains are huge and, lest we forget, the distractions are alluring, as Albert Hammond can attest…
“I must say about the few British girls I’ve slept with, as much as everyone says, Oh, they’re boring, if they’re boring, they’re very exciting behind closed doors,” he grins. “They change! It totally blew my mind. The stuff they do! I’m going, Wait a second! I thought you were gonna be calm!”
But The Strokes are learning fast. From Albert Hammond Sr, they’ve learned that it’s too early to buy a house (“You’ll worry about the mortgage rather than the music”). From experience, they realise that the way forward is to get the odd early night and be nice to one another. And from the beginning, it seems, The Strokes have sensed that being and remaining the perfect band is going to require immense attention to detail.
“It’s like when you’re sculpting something,” says Moretti – a one-time sculpture major and a fan of sophisticated metaphor. “When you have a piece of marble and you fuck it up in any way, you’ll lose a thumb, or at least the chance of refining the sculpture later on. You’ll fuck shit up if you’re not meticulous, but that’s the way it is with all things in this life. People just don’t recognise it.”
Two days after our meeting, The Strokes are onstage in Birmingham, having sold out the 2500-capacity Academy. Last Nite is locked on and The Strokes are brutally transcendent. In one year they’ve gone from the Camden Monarch to the Brits, and what was once an intense, promising, but avowedly mall-club live act is now a powerful, stage-filling rock band with no earthly impediments between them and a headline slot at, ooh say, Reading Festival. It’s as simple as this: even if it’s just in the way that they play these 14 songs, The Strokes are getting better all the time.
“Do you want to know why they’ll make it?” asks Steve Ralbovsky. “It may sound boring but in 20 years in the music business I’ve never met another band who rehearse on their day off…”
And you never heard anybody say that about The Banana Splits