I Want A Fight by Paul Elliot
Stalked by supermodels, lauded by Joe Strummer and ready to ruck, The Strokes wear the mantle of “cool” like a bespoke suit. But why is Courtney Love writing songs about them? And haven’t their girlfriends had enough? “Things are getting weird,” they tell Paul Elliot.
Julian Casablancas is very, very drunk. Backstage at Birdy’s a 500-capacity club in a quiet Indianapolis neighbourhood. The Strokes’ singer flops heavily into a plastic and bangs his head on a wooden shelf. “Fuck!” he slurs and slumps to the floor, before trying – and failing – to light a cigarette.
Rising shakily, he lurches to a pool table where the group’s drummer Fabrizio Moretti is about to break. Casablancas runs a hand into the back of balls, sending four or five into pockets. “Hey!” Moretti scolds him, but Casablancas is already stumbling through a door toward a throng of excited fans.
“I want a fight!” he yells to no-one in particular, but he won’t find one with these fans and, oblivious, the excited throng struggle to engage him in meaningful conversation as he scrawls messily on their CDs. He won’t find one with Moretti either, who waits until the singer is out of earshot before grumbling, “Cocksucker” under his breath.
Earlier, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr had played down The Strokes’ reputation for violence. “We don’t fight,” he insisted. “I’ve tried to get rid of that rumour. It’s not a good one to have. If you punch someone, nothing changes.” If Casablancas – his belly full of shots and beer – is currently making a mockery of Hammond’s pacifist stance, Moretti assures Q that The Strokes do not, at least, fight amongst themselves.
“I’ve been friends with Julian since I was 13 years old,” he shrugs. “We’ve had a lot of time to work things out.” Moretti continues to sulk over his pool game, distractedly throwing a sponge ball at a miniature basketball hoop and cursing with lessening ferocity as his anger cools. The reason why Moretti avoids a confrontation with Casablancas are three-fold: one, there is no reasoning with the singer in his present condition. Two, Moretti is too pleasant a young man to be of any use in a punch-up. And three, he stresses, as do all five Strokes, that no personal issues should be allowed to fuck up what each refers to as the “perfect” band.
“I’m doing what I really wanted to do all my life and it’s being executed perfectly,” Moretti says with a faint air of incredulity. “We talk about it all the time. It’s almost too good to be true.”
Tonight’s show confirms The Strokes as the world’s most exhilarating rock’n’roll group. With a mean age of 21, they possess the youthful arrogance to toss away Last Nite – their Lust For Life-inspired hit single – as the second song of a brisk 40-minute set in which nervy punk rock energy is combined with a certain New York cool that has drawn repeated comparison with The Velvet Underground and Talking Heads.
The play the whole of their debut album, Is This It (no question mark: “Aesthetically, it didn’t look right,” Hammond explains) plus one new song, Meet Me In The Bathroom, written four days previously. “I think it’s good,” Casablancas informs the audience, adding nonchalantly, “That’s my opinion, anyway.”
Drily, Casablancas dedicates a song to long-forgotten, scientifically precise thrash metal band Anacrusis (“The best heavy metal band ever – they’ll change your fucking life”), then jumps off the stage to sing Hard To Explain while being playfully buffeted by pogoing teens. During the last song he takes the camera from Q’s photographer. Seemingly unsure whether to take a picture of the crowd or smash the camera against a wall, he pauses for a few seconds before gently placing it on a backline speaker cabinet.
At the finish, Fab Moretti performs an expert stagedive then hurries back stage for a beer as Bob Marley’s Rastaman Live Up airs over the PA: Marley is The Strokes’ favourite artist.
“Every time we play I feel like kissing everyone in the crowd and going home and partying with them,” Moretti beams. “There’s just a vibe in the room, an energy.”
It’s this energy, coupled with a shrewd pop nous, which has elicited praise from A-list celebrity admirers like Noel Gallagher, Joe Strummer and Courtney Love (more of whom later), making The Strokes the most talked-about rock band of the past 12 months. Is This It has been acclaimed the best debut album since Definitely Maybe, but dissenting voices have been raised: The Strokes, they say, have been hyped by a UK media so desperate for new rock’n’roll heroes that they’ve mistaken style for substance. If the wry title of The Strokes’ album has failed to deflate the hype, the band offer their own sense of perspective.
“I think any fuss over anything is always a little much,” Albert Hammond reasons. “I would hate us too if I had just read about us.”
“It’s more of a problem in England,” Julian Casablancas sniffs. “Here in America, there’s a different perception of us. In England it’s blown out of proportion, but I think the music will outlast the hype, so it doesn’t really worry me if people buy into it or not.”
Nevertheless, people bought into Is This Is, pushing the LP into the UK Top 10 in its first week of release. And while chart success could be attributed to constant media attention, it’s apparent that press hype can be ineffective if the music doesn’t come up to scratch, as Mick Jagger and The White Stripes will have discovered in recent months. Fortunately, The Strokes have been at hand to answer their critics with an exhilarating debut album. And being one of the most exciting live acts around has helped, as Joe Strummer will testify.
“He just said it was the first time in a long time he’s seen a show and smiled the whole way through,” Casablancas shrugs. “The Clash have a lot of great songs, it was really flattering. But it freaks me out a little bit. Part of me liked it and part of me went, Wow, this is really weird!”
In truth, much of Julian Casablancas’ young life might be described as a little weird. As the son of John Casablancas, founder of the Elite model agency, Julian was born into money but has intimated that he and his father were never close. Julian enjoyed a privileged education. At 13 he attended the Dwight School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (celebrated Dwight alumni include pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and author Truman Capote). It was at Dwight that Casablancas met Fabrizio Moretti and Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi, and it was at Le Rosey, the oldest private school in Switzerland, that he first encountered Albert Hammond Jr, the other American student in his year. Le Rosey’s “clear code of discipline” made scant impression on Casablancas, who reportedly entered rehab in his late teens.
“Where did you here that?” he frowns before confessing. “I was doing early morning hard liquor drinking. It’s not worth talking about.”
He is equally dismissive of John Lydon’s assertion that rock’n’roll is a working-class pursuit. “I guess it depends on what style of music and what you’re saying. If you’re playing music like the Sex Pistols, I guess he’s got a point.”
Now 22, Julian Casablancas’ life keeps getting weirder. Eighteen months ago The Strokes were regularly playing to crowds of 20 in New York clubs. Now they are touted as leaders of a new rock underground. The Strokes’ ascent has been dizzying: on 31 January 2001 they played their first gig supporting …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead at Portsmouth’s humble Wedgwood Rooms; by 24 August they were sharing the main stage at the Reading Festival with Travis Iggy Pop and Green Day.
“I puked before Reading,” Casablancas laughs. “It was pretty nerve-racking.”
Weirdest of all, Courtney Love has written a song about Julian Casablancas. The title – But Julian, I’m A Little Older Than You – has led to speculation that Casablancas tried it on with the scariest woman in rock.
“No, not at all,” he counters. “That was kind of weird for me too, but she was pretty normal, I guess, for somebody like Courtney Love. I’ve only heard about the song secondhand, something like, I’m older than you. I think it’s because we had this talk. She was just giving me advice, I think.”
Did you fancy her?
He pauses, then smiles. “I have a girlfriend at the moment.”
Where is she?
“She’s in New York. I don’t think she’d want to come on the road.”
Nor would she be invited, for the band have a firm “no girlfriends” policy while on tour.
“They distract you,” explains bassist Nikolai Fraiture, a quiet lad of Franco-Russian descent. “They make you think of other things than music. You can have girlfriends at home, but on tour it creates a weird atmosphere.”
“This rule is a collective idea,” adds Nick Valensi. “We’re on a bus now, and when you have strangers coming in and out, girls hanging out from city to city, it’s too much like Almost Famous. Girls, sure! But when it’s time to go, you’ve gotta say good bye.”
The Strokes have a reputation for pleasing the ladies and Fabrizio Moretti is best placed to assess his bandmates’ pulling credentials. With a girlfriend of three years standing, Moretti merely observes the action and “makes bets”. Is there competition among the band?
“We’re very diplomatic about it,” Moretti smiles. “We judge the situation and see who has the most chance and it goes from there.”
After the gig in Indianapolis, half a dozen teenage girls circle the dressing room, sipping beer and chatting conspiratorially. One fiddles endlessly with her bum-length blonde hair, perched on a bar stool beside the gregarious Albert Hammond. The others appear preoccupied with Nick Valensi, the prettiest Stroke, who accepts a spliff from a local rock DJ and flings a handful of cheese-encrusted pasta across the room. A dollop attaches itself to Fraiture’s mop of hair. The bassist merely shrugs. Anything, it seems, to avoid an argument.
Clearly, Fraiture will struggle to impress the girls with pasta in his hair, but as Hammond admits, there are occasions when even the sexiest rock’n’roll band in America fail to achieve, er, gratification.
“There are definitely nights when you can’t get laid,” he says, “and there are nights when you have too many options. I usually hold off until I’m at least sure that she wouldn’t mind making out with me. You can feel that. Some girls are very obvious, you just grab their hand. Just by saying hello you’re in.”
Even Valensi will own up to being snubbed two days previously. “I don’t like to advocate groupies,” he says by way of damage limitation. “But we’re OK. We’re not lonely.”
“We have fun,” Casablancas says, “but we’re not ready to turn into a rock’n’roll cliché.”
As if to emphasise his point, The Strokes’ soundcheck at Birdy’s is extended for the benefit of a 15-year-old female fan unable to attend the show due to the venues age limit of 21; a sweet gesture which Julian Casablancas, mildly embarrassed, acknowledges with raised eyebrows and a muffled grunt. If Casablancas appears defensive (“Mr Journalist, my friend!” he says when pissed. “Oh, that’s not how it works!”), it is an accurate reflection of the additional pressure felt by any band’s singer. Moretti confirms that while dining with Q in the bizarrely-named Ruth’s Chris Steak House shortly before the gig.
Moretti is of Italian-Brazilian parentage, a smiling, eminently likeable character whose good humour is at odds with the popular perception of The Strokes as preening, brattish, over-privileged, offhandedly cool rock’n’roll stars. When Moretti, a Guns’N’Roses fan, exclaims, “England is a rockin’ place!”, it is more endearing than patronising.
“I’m very much appreciative of everything that’s happening,” he says, “but we can’t let it get to our heads. I’m not like, Wow! Look at me! I’m this drummer in this crazy rock band! Because we’re not a very famous band at all.”
If The Strokes give the impression that it’s easy being the coolest band on the planet, “That,” says Valensi, “is the whole point.” Yet it is, he concedes, hard work.
“Lots of bands with potential are just not devoted enough to drop everything else in their lives and be an amazing band. They’re scared of losing their day jobs or they’ve got wives; there’s something preventing them from devoting their lives to music, which is what we’ve done.
“We all dropped out of school, quit our jobs, pretty much sacrificed our social lives for a long time, cooping ourselves up in a rehearsal studio from eight at night till eight in the morning. We ate, slept, walked and talked music. We love it. That’s the way it should be.”
The Strokes learnt from the best. Besides Bob Marley, Valensi cites Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young as key influences – plus, tellingly, new wave stylists The Cars. “Ric Ocasek writes amazing songs. And as far as contemporary music goes, I like Supergrass.” Casablancas favours Lou Reed and The Cure.
“I think originality is more important than style, more important than anything,” Valensi says. “I always felt we had the potential to do something different and cool, with the right influences.”
“Nowadays there really is no melody you can hum to songs except in extreme pop,” Hammond adds. “We play melodious rock. And our beat and rhythm gives it balls.”
The Strokes have also learnt from the worst, as Fraiture explains. “We watched Spinal Tap and learned a lot,” he smiles. “It’s important to understand each person in the band to make sure we can continue to do what we’re doing.” (When reminded that the sleeve art of Is This It bears a marked resemblance to the concept for Spinal Tap’s Smell The Glove, Fraiture is quick to retort: “There’s no actual picture of Smell The Glove. But yeah, it’s funny. People saw girl and glove and freaked out.”)
Fabrizio Moretti believes a more valid lesson can be learned from Guns’N’Roses, who made a great first LP then fired drummer Steven Adler for taking too many drugs and promptly lost the last-gang-in-town mentality that had made them the most exciting ’80s hard rock band. In The Strokes everyone is of equal importance.
“If this had been a band formed through ads in the paper it wouldn’t have worked,” Moretti notes. “We were all very close friends from school before we were musicians.”
The sense of “brotherhood” Moretti refers to is what keeps The Strokes close even when they are back home in New York City, where their one significant break from touring in the past year was in September 2001, when, Fraiture says, “the city changed totally.”
“If we’re off tour in New York we maybe don’t see each other for a day or two,” Casablancas says, “but than usually we’ll hang out with one or another, we’ll see a movie, end up rehearsing and see each other every day.”
Casablancas is calmer as The Strokes prepare to board the bus for an 11-hour drive to the next date in Kansas City. He didn’t really want a fight. That was the drink. And as with any night on the piss, Casablancas ends up woozily philosophical.”
“I think it’s going pretty well,” he concludes. “The way they cheered tonight, I think they’re just happy to hear something that’s different.”
Fabrizio Moretti is smiling again. “This is all I ever wanted. I could die happy. It could always be better, but I don’t want to wish for anything because I don’t want to jinx myself.”
You’re not fearing a backlash after the hype?
“I hope we make an album so good everyone has to love it. No offence to you, my friend,” he says with a comforting pat on the knee, “but if people see the British press as this empire that builds and crushes bands, they’re wrong. They could tell us we’re the worst band in the world in a couple of months and it won’t faze me. We’re having a good time.”