Q Seconds Out… Round Two…by John Harris
Julian Casablancas is sound asleep. In the reception area of Sterling Sound, a mastering studio in the Chelsea district of New York — the walls of which are covered in platinum discs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Lenny Kravitz and Rod Stewart — he has crashed out on a sofa while the four other Strokes sit nervously in a pine-scented suite, supervising the final nips and tucks to their new album. As with Is This It, the process is being steered by a grey-haired, methodical bloke called Greg Calbi, who worked the same wonders on Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run. The band’s respectful demeanour suggests his assistance is quite a big deal.
Across town, at the tiny offices of The Strokes’ management company, there is one vigilantly guarded work-in-progress copy of the album. Untitled (though it will soon be named Room On Fire) and unsequenced, it has been repeatedly played for those visitors with the requisite credentials. Thankfully, this includes the party from Q — so we are privileged enough to be treated to three plays over two days.
It quickly becomes clear that, though the staccato attack and minimal aesthetics of 2001’s Is This It — along with the vocal effect that makes Casablancas sound like a man sending his thoughts down a phone-line — have been retained, The Strokes’ sound has been pumped full of a new sense of confidence. Words like “spindly” no longer apply: the new album is both looser and larger, characterised by an admirable boost in musical breadth and simple power. It is all very good; much of it is great.
So, yes, The Strokes have done it. And there, back at Sterling Sound, lies Julian Casablancas, motionless and unconscious. Perhaps it’s the beer. Maybe it’s a matter of sheer relief.
Seven hours before, The Strokes begin their working day at a photo studio downtown in SoHo. Fab Moretti (drums, constant air of hyperactive curiosity) shows up wearing a torn V-necked T-shirt and puzzling over the similarity between the sensation produced by stretching when you wake up and the human orgasm. Soon after, he puts on a Leonard Cohen CD, grabs me and begins slow-dancing round the room.
Guitarist Nick Valensi, who wears jeans of a tightness that is rare these days, and speaks with an upmarket accent and sardonic detachment that give him the air of a man plucked from a weekend party in the Hamptons, arrives carrying a DVD of ’80s sci-fi film Tron. Albert Hammond Jr (guitar, Casablancas’s flatmate) enters at around the same time, casually though immaculately dressed, and ready to display the reflex action whereby, at the first snap of a flashbulb, his hands enter his front trouser pockets. Nikolai Fraiture (bass, self-cut hair), meanwhile, is an early arrival, maintaining a characteristically restrained presence in his Run DMC T-shirt.
Casablancas is the last to make an appearance, greeting Moretti with a kiss on the lips and asking where the beer is. His attire is a little strange: a garishly patterned nylon shirt, half-mast slacks, a ragged blouson that looked like it cost 50 cents in a charity shop, and leather sandals, one of which features a length of yellow masking tape. He duly takes his place in among his colleagues and intriguingly shuffles around at the back unless instructed to do otherwise. When the five are instructed to move closer together, he breaks into a grin. “Is this,” Casablancas elegantly asks, “for the cover of Fag?”
The Strokes have been back in their home city since September 2002 when, after nearly two years being ferried around the planet, they began to adjust to days devoid of soundchecks, bunk beds and interviews. As if to prove that they had been on their last legs, Casablancas had spent their last few performances — which finished with consecutive shows at Reading, Leeds and Glasgow — on crutches. Quite apart from that, however, his experiences of burnout was pretty clear: dishevelled, puffy-eyed and in possession of noticable extra pounds (now pretty much lost), he had spent much of the previous year looking knackered.
Moretti says that, once back at home, it took a while to adjust to sleeping in a bed that remained still, as opposed to a bunk that rocked with the motion of the tourbus. Hammond celebrated his sudden freedom by spending 10 days on the Caribbean island of Anguilla in the company of his girlfriend Catherine, one half of a sisterly singer-songwriter duo called The Pierces.
Valensi will not be drawn on the subject, but one can only assume that he spent at least some time with Amanda de Cadenet, the former presenter of The Word, now a photographer based in Los Angeles. Fraiture rejoiced in being back the apartment he shares with his brother in the uptown enclave of Yorkville. Casablancas, meanwhile, began belatedly writing The Strokes’ second album. “I didn’t want a vacation,” he says, a little dismissively. “The thing is, I don’t need time off; I like to have time to work. For me, working on music is not a chore.”
Then comes the interesting part. “It’s really all I want to do,” he says. “It’s all I enjoy doing.”
No wonder he seems slightly troubled. “I was home, and I started thinking about songs, and how we could develop and get better.”
I interview Casablancas in an Italian restaurant opposite the Lower East Side offices of Whiz Kids, the company run by The Strokes’ 25-year-old manager Ryan Gentles. It’s taken a while to track him down: having crashed out in Sterling Sound, he went on to spend the evening at the apartment of Matt Romano, The Strokes’ friend-cum employee who temporarily replaced Moretti as the band’s drummer in summer 2001. We meet at 4.30pm, and Casablancas has been up for an hour. Wearing the same clothes as at the photo shoot, he looks understandably fatigued. His white G-Shock watch is an hour fast, and it says, “Sunday”. Today is Saturday. It’s also his 25th birthday.
Many of his contributions to our conversation suggest the broken syntax of Keith Richards being applied to one of those motivational videos they show to middle managers. In the midst of such verbal tics as “y’know”, sentences punctuated by long pauses, and at least on occasion when he rolls his head along the wall next to our table, certain words and phrases endlessly recur. Perhaps uniquely among rock musicians, he frequently uses the word “goals”. He talks about the need to “focus”, makes reference to “meaningful objectives”, and is in the habit of ending sentences with things like “You have to just do what you set out to do”.
With the possible exception of Hammond, all of The Strokes are fond of answering direct questions with such generalities. Every now and again, however, one or more of them breaks through the fog and tumbles into something a little more candid — as happens when they are recounting the few weeks they spent with long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. In the spring of 2003, the two parties spent time in a couple New York studios. They brought three tracks — The Way It Is, Between Love And Hate and What Ever Happened? — to near-completion, before the band took CDs home and decided that they fell some distance behind their hopes.
For Casablancas, the problems struck deep.
“It was, like, you’d hear the songs, and you didn’t know why, but it wouldn’t move you,” the singer falteringly explains. “How did that make me feel? Oh, intense panic. I started not trusting the songs, and I thought our career was over. The songs, all of a sudden became meaningless to me. It was very scary. Your livelihood at stake.
“I don’t know exactly what everyone felt. I’m sure everyone was a little… you know… uncomfortable at the prospect of us sounding like shit [laughs]. But the intensity of it was maybe more of a thing in my mind than other people’s. But I think we all felt the same way. We al felt… a communal yikes [laughs]. It’s a feeling, honestly, that I will not miss. You don’t sleep, you don’t eat. I don’t sleep anymore. Maybe now I will. I didn’t realise how mentally damaging it would be at the time.”
Though Casablancas has apparently yet to fully recover, things eventually improved — thanks chiefly to The Strokes’ reunion with Gordon Raphael, the producer of Is This It. “This record is like a cousin of the first one,” considers Moretti, who elects to be interviewed in a shabby warehouse doorway while drinking Heineken from a bottle wrapped in the obligatory brown bag. “They’re from the same gene pool. This guy happens to be a little bit more experienced and a little older. But you can completely see in their mannerisms that they’re from the same family.”
Twenty-something months ago — 10 June 2001, to be precise — The Strokes began their first proper British tour. In retrospect, this trip marked the start of the Hard Day’s Night-esque experience that defined the next year and a half: being chased around the world by an ever-increasing number of fans, along with a crowd that, at various times, included Kate Moss, Thom Yorke, Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, David Bowie, Ewan McGregor and at least a dozen music journalists with far to much time on their hands.
“It was great, it was intense, it was hard to believe,” says Casablancas. “I don’t know… Once you’re in the situation, you force yourself to make it normal so that you can function. Before we went on, we’d all look at each other and say, [smirking] This is fucking crazy, what are we doing here? Do I know how to sing? Do we have songs to play to these people, or is this a weird dream? That happened at almost every show.”
This period also saw the spread of that quintessentially British syndrome whereby whenever they went, The Strokes were in danger of begin punched. “People just wanted to fuck with us,” says Valensi, who commits his thoughts to tape in Tompkins Square Park, mere yards from a crowd of the local “crazies”. “Especially up north. It’s a weird section of the youth in England. And Scotland. It doesn’t happen here at all. In America, you get people who are nice to your face and talk shit about you behind your back. In England, you have people who buy your record, and then when they meet you, they want to fucking throwdown.”
“It was confusing,” says Hammond (interview location: the same Italian where I meet Casablancas). “This thing happened with another band, who were on the same fucking label as us [he will not be drawn on their identity]. We were at the Columbia Hotel in London, all drinking, all partying. Everyone was so drunk, and I decided to walk on the end of the couches, going over everyone’s heads, and I went over the last guy — the singer — and he fucking grabbed me in the nuts. It wasn’t like the first or second squeeze, where they’re joking; it was the I-want-to-hurt-you squeeze. He wouldn’t let go. Maybe they were jealous, and we didn’t realise the waves we were making. you have to understand that when it first happened we were like, England like us? Really? Rough Trade want to put our record out? Are they trying to scam us?”
On and on it went. Having the UK, the group tumbled around Scandinavia before heading south. It is one particular two-day experience, beginning on Friday 6 July 2001, that sticks in Hammond’s mind.
“I was in Norway, in a little town called Kristiansand. I played a festival, fell in love with this girl, she took me running off through the hills, we made love late at night, then we got on this private turbo-prop Indiana Jones plane in the morning so we could make T In The Park, got off the plane, onto a bus, drove for an hour, off the bus, straight on the stage, played in front of 15,000 people, went back on the bus, on a plane, flew to Majorca, swam in the pool, and we rented motorcycles. That was a 36-hour period. I would give everything to go and relive that kind of stuff.”
There followed 11 dates in Australia, one day off, a short US tour and a stop-off in Hawaii where The Strokes decided they had al had enough. Apparently propelled into bleary dysfunction by both their workload and enthusiastic pursuit of the rock life, they have since hinted that they were close to breaking up. A two-hour band meeting was called at which they resolved to stay together. They further agreed to cancel their appearances on two Japanese festivals, return to Manhattan and become acquainted with the word “No”.
Casablancas is not keen to go into the details. “We over-did it,” he shrugs. “It got to the point where it was tough to get going.”
“It was funny,” says Moretti, “cos we were in the most beautiful setting, but we all felt [face forms ironic expression] a little off. So we had to negotiate whether to have a good time and relax, or seriously have a nervous breakdown. It was like, Please — let’s not lose ourselves. Inherently, through and through, we are the best of friends. Let’s not let anything get in the way. That’s what it was about — preserving this incredible friendship that we would never want to lose, at any expense.”
During a 90-minute conversation in the deserted cafe at Sterling Sound, Fraiture, whose bond with Julian Casablancas was formed when they bet at six years of age (tellingly, he is the Stroke despatched to rouse the singer from his slumbers), acknowledges that his oldest friend felt The Strokes’ woes especially keenly. And no wonder: though he was well aware that the band needed new material, Casablancas had discovered that he found it all but impossible to write while on the road.
“It was particularly hard for Julian,” says Fraiture. “Just the pressure of everything — being the lead singer, writing the songs. Also, it was a time when we didn’t understand how things worked. We were getting advice from different places and he didn’t know where to turn his head. It affected him a lot — no sleep, too much going out and messing around. All of that combined, plus the stress, will get to you.”
It is while we are on the subject of the Hawaiian crisis that I ask Casablancas the following question: If he met the person he was in the summer of 2002, would he be worried?
“Worried about what?”
Oh, you know — your state of mind, exhaustion. That kind of thing.
“Well, I tend to push my body to the limit, so… I don’t know… I would say, I trust you. [Laughs] And, You look so youthful. What happened to me?”
He then smiles his wry smile. “Just kidding,” he adds.
By way of shining light on their no-less frazzled experience of 2002, three of The Strokes agree to play a game whereby, presented with a random selection of their engagements, they recount the first thing that flies into their head. It proceeds as follows:
Tokyo Zepp, 16 February.
“I got this scar there,” says Moretti, pulling back his hair to reveal a two-inch lesion on his neck. “Can you see that? My bass drum ripped, which should never happen. At the end of the show, Albert and I looked at each other — it was during Take It Or Leave It — and he was like, Break that fucking kit. And I was like, Fuck, yeah! I’ve already got it in mind.
“So I picked it up, above my head, and threw it down as far as I could. The problem was, the spikes that held the bass drum down entered my neck. I heard the sound of [rips paper]. I walked off stage with my neck very stiff, and wandered around [tries to stifle giggles] asking the band members, Hey man, does it look OK? And they were like, Yeah… it looks fine. Until I got to Ryan [Gentles], and he said, Oh God! He couldn’t look at it. They rushed me to the hospital. It was late at night, they couldn’t speak any English, and my interpreter couldn’t stand to watch them sew me back up. I had to use hand signals to try and figure out what they were doing. the doctor stuck me with a needle this long [indicates at least three inches], twice, because the anesthetics didn’t work the first time. It was crazy.”
Round two: Cologne E-Werk, 27 February.
“That’s the show,” says Julian Casablancas, “where we coined the phrase, Pulling a Cologne. You play a show, then you walk out to the bus and drive away. That was the first time we did that. It was a good show, but the vibe was like, Let’s just play and leave. [Pause.] Maybe you shouldn’t write that, because of the people who live in Cologne.”
An obvious one. The Brit Awards, 20 February.
Moretti: “Oh, man, I was so fuckin’ nervous. I have this Pavlovian reaction to Where’s Your Head At, the Basement Jaxx song. I think it was a nominee for the award right before we went onstage, and we saw it on the monitors right next to us. And for some reason, in my nerves, the one time I looked over to screen, it was a little monkey playing the piano, and I was very, very nervous at that time. The image stuck in my head. Every time I see that video, it brings the nerves back.”
Round four: Prague, Palace Akropolis, 8 March.
Fraiture: “That was where we had death threats from the Pan-Islamic Front. We were a little scared. They comforted us by lying and saying that it had happened to Henry Rollins the week before. We found out that wasn’t true after the show. Also, coincidentally, one of our amps blew up onstage, once we had left. It went up in smoke [laughs].”
And to finish: Reading Festival, 23 August. The one they headlined.
“I couldn’t sleep the night before,” says Moretti. “I distinctly remember speaking to Albert on the phone, saying, Dude, what are you doing? He said, I just took a shower, dude. It was four in the morning at the Trafalgar Square hotel. I think I was reading… The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon.
“There’s a question we often get asked: What have been the best moments? And I’m almost positive Reading was the top. Four band members silhouetted by a mass of people, and it just felt comfortable. Night had fallen, everything seemed magical. It was incredible. People as far as your eyes could see, and then they faded into the night sky. It was beautiful.”
When asked how their material worlds have been transformed in the last three years, The Strokes allude to wildly different examples. Casablancas talks about no longer having to count his small change, and spending $600 on a new bed. Fraiture bashfully tells me that when The Strokes recently played in Japan, he flew his mother and sister out there with the band. Valensi, in line with his habit of answering questions with an almost absurd nonchalance, claims precious little has changed. though he will admit to recently buying an East Village apartment. Hammond, whose answer to this question arrives after he has had three glasses of white wine, confesses to now being a zealous gastronome. “I go out to dinner more. I think if I didn’t play music I’d be a chef. Or make movies. Or maybe both: a director making movies about chefs.”
And Moretti? He is currently in a relationship with Drew Barrymore. Though he has a policy of silence on the issue, he manages at least one on-the-record reference to his girlfriend. It comes in response to the question of whether he has been pleasantly surprised by any of the famous people who have flocked to The Strokes’ dressing rooms. “Yes,” he smiles. “More than pleasantly surprised. Who was that? Oh, someone beautiful. Someone incredibly generous, and soulful and intelligent, who I fell in love with. And that as far as I’ll go.”
Above the masthead of the latest New York Observer, there’s a trail for a story on page 12. “Drew’s Dude,” it says. “Strokes’ Fabrizio Moretti Buys in East Village.” Inside, the story reads as follows: “Strokes drummer Moretti has a new place to share with Drew Barrymore, now that he has closed on a one-bedroom apartment near Union Square. In May, Mr Moretti paid $657,000 for a 1049-square-foot condo.”
“I almost wish I hadn’t seen that,” he says. “I don’t know… Isn’t anything sacred anymore? It sucks, man. I can’t live privately any more.”
Your girlfriend must be used to stuff like that, I venture.
“Yeah, she is.”
Are you learning to accept it?
“No,” he says, squinting into the sun and suddenly looking noticably tense. “I’m not doing so well.” On the way back to Sterling Sound, he repeatedly looks towards he ground, and curses his estate agent, who apparently handed the paper the story. “Bitch,” he spits. “Fucking bitch.”
The following day, Moretti — back to his beatifically upbeat, eternally philosophical self — shows up at the restaurant where Casablancas is being interviewed. He sits drinking coffee with Matt Romano and a fellow Whiz Kid employee named Juliet. All three of them are readying themselves for a dinner to celebrate Casablancas’s birthday. Soon enough, Valensi drops by, accompanied by his tiny French bulldog. The sun is out and, because it’s Sunday, the usual hubbub of the East Village has been replaced by a serene calm. Strokes-world suddenly looks rather idyllic.
Out the back, Casablancas is finishing his interview. Its dying seconds are as follows…
Are you in a relationship at the moment?
Is that a good or bad thing?
“A good thing, I’d say.”
The Strokes are about to go back into the fray. How do you feel?
“Tense… but confident,” he says. And then Julian Casablancas goes for another lie-down.