Interviews – Rock & Folk April 2011
Massive thanks to Lorène Pillin for the translation of this interview
It’s freezing in NY. 0 degree, not 1 more, not 1 less. Lowering our heads, we walk on Manhattan crowded sidewalks. Heading to Bowery, the legendary Lower East Side avenue. Not so long ago, drug addicts and alcoholics of all sorts haunted the place. Today, fashion designer John Varvatos and his $800 shoes replace the dead CBGB. Smashed hotels where junkies used to hide are now palaces where ambitious young New Yorkers gather. It’s in one of these hotels that we meet Nick Valensi.
Sat at a table, his long legs crossed, he welcomes us, a glass of Ricard (French alcoholic drink) in his hand. “My favorite drink” he says with a large smile. The youngest member of the band is French through his mother. “In bordeaux, my 88-year old grandfather is a Strokes fan. He’s very proud of me. He keeps telling me ‘If you play rock’n’roll, you’ve got to move on stage. And add back singers. And a brass section !’” He laughs “Can you imagine the Strokes with all that?”
The Strokes are back. And with them come many questions, a lot of gossip and a lot of good songs. No time to lose. Fans want to know what’s happening. And to better understand the Strokes, one has to go back to their roots.
Nick : “In 1994, we started a band, Julian, Fab and I. We worked a lot. When Nikolai joined us in 1997, we felt we were on the right path. And then in 1998, when Albert came from LA, we were ready. We rehearsed during 6 months, 3, 4, 5 times a week. When we started playing live shows, we were better than many other local bands. There were only 4 or 5 people a tour 1st show. Then they were 10 or 15, and then 30. It went fast. We worked really hard. But as soon as we got on stage it went real quick”
R&F : You were called ‘rich kids’
Nick : “To be honest, none of us had money. No one helped us financially. Maybe in the beginning, Albert’s parents helped us to pay the rent. But that’s all. Nikolai and I grew up in poverty. My mom was always broke. It was a false idea. And there’s always been a lot of jealousy. In 2000, Geoff Travis signed us. He listened to our demos on the phone and said he wanted to have 30 000 copies made. And it got the hype started. The NME cover, a sold out tour of England. It was the beginning of something crazy. Back then, we didn’t have the necessary tools to face it. I’ve never really understood why we were labelled as ‘rock’n’roll savors’. I understand the excitement, but going this far…”
The sacred clause
The rest belongs to rock’n’roll history. Is This It, The Strokes’ first album, is a rock’n’roll monument that influenced a whole generation. It was quickly followed by ROF, of which people said it was too similar to its elder brother. The hectic touring schedule the label planned almost brought the band to its end. The Strokes had to question themselves and start again. For the always difficult 3rd album, they had to do it fast and strong. Firing Gordon Raphael and calling David Kahne, heavyweight Producer from LA who worked with Paul McCartney. The sound is huge, the songs are good, but the album is way too long. Critics are icy, sales disappointing, but still concerts sold out.
Nick : “We never made this much money as for the FIOE tour. When we were recording, Albert tried to make us listen to some of his solo project. I think he was disappointed by our reaction and he never talked about it again. Nikolai kept his secret. For Little Joy, I was with Fab in LA when they were writing and recording the album. I played the drums for them”
R&F : Who had the idea to bring the band back together ?
Nick : “Me. I had been trying to do this for years. Before ‘Como te llama ?’ , I came to NY. We had a big meeting : ‘I’ve got songs I want to play with you, we have to play together again’. Albert said no, he wanted to release his album. It was frustrating. Everybody was ready. Even Julian. But Albert said : ‘Guys I love you, I want to keep on playing with the Strokes, but I have to do this record’. I think Julian got really angry. It was a very uncomfortable situation. There were weird tensions. This break was weird. We took a 4 or 5 year break but, during all these years, we met up several times to work on the new songs. The 5 of us. I wrote a lot and was very wilful, always asking the others to help me on my songs. And just as when we were ready to go for it, suddenly Julian tells us he wants to release his solo album. He had kept it secret and had waited for it to be done to tell us. We have 16 to 17 songs, and Julian wants to go on tour. He says : ‘Guys, while I’m at it, go in the studio and record it’. We said : ‘OK that’s exactly what we are going to do’ “
R&F : Is it hard to work without Julian ?
Nick : “Not hard, but actually it was a new experience. Kind of like some bands in which the singer is just… the singer. Picture Van Halen recording without David Lee Roth, and David Lee Roth comes by and do his thing. It was a bit like this. But it worked. It was really creative for me. And you know what ? Doing this record without Julian was fucking fun ! And we made a really good record. It’s like a new chapter for The Strokes”
R&F : Isn’t it strange for a band to have all these sessions without your singer?
Nick : “Yes it was, but I felt a freedom I had never had before. And it was great. One of the reasons I didn’t want to do my solo record is that even if I can write and sing my own songs, I have these questions : would the songs be better if Julian sang them ? if Fab was on the drums? If I had The Strokes with me ? And the answer was always : yes. The songs would be a 1000 times better. That’s why I didn’t want to do my record. That’s the truth. I’m proud of the band. We worked so hard. I love to play with them. It’s like a family”
R&F : A dysfunctional family…
Nick : “Yes dysfunctional. Just like when you go on holidays with your family, maybe you hate your brother, you don’t want to see your alcoholic uncle, but once the family’s gathered, there’s this energy, this love, this feeling you can never find elsewhere. That’s The Strokes. When the 5 of us are together, it’s this feeling of being whole, it’s unique, really special”
R&F : Can a member of The Strokes be replaced?
Nick : “It will never happen. It’s in our contract : if one of member leaves, the band is over. It’s a sacred clause. We’re tied by it”
R&F: Were there conditions to Julian’s return?
Nick: “Conditions? Why We’re all like brothers ! Fuckin’ brothers man ! We spent 6 months together writing 16 or 17 songs. Julian loves The Strokes at least as much as any other member. I don’t know what people think. We all want this band to last”
R&F: what happened with Joe Chiccarellli?
Nick: “We have problems with producers. When we recorded the 14 songs with him, the record was done. And when we listened to it, we weren’t sure about it”
R&F: Angles is very short : 10 songs, 35 minutes. Were you trying to bring back ITI efficiency?
Nick: “We didn’t want to do FIOE again. We all agreed it was too much. 14 songs ruin an album”
R&F: How did you choose the songs?
Nick: If Julian didn’t like a song, he wouldn’t sing it. And it all happened by email. He never came in the studio (laughs). It was weird but it worked. The record’s good. It was frustrating, but at the same time… OK he doesn’t want to sing this one? Let’s try to write a better one. 2 choruses instead of one, let’s change the drum beat. We worked a lot. And it wouldn’t have gone this way if Julian had been in the studio.
R&F: Taken for a fool is very electro, Giorgio Moroder style…
Nick: “I wrote Taken for a fool. There are not so many synths on it. But there are lots of them on Games. I wrote it with Julian. Actually, I couldn’t find the perfect guitar for it. I tried my hand on a few synths and then, Albert threw out all the guitars and kept all my synths. They all loved it. Except me. I didn’t want synths on a Strokes album ! I thought it was crazy ! But they convinced me. Let’s try this Yamaha, bring on this Juno! and the Moog! and the Mellotron! Now how are we going to do this live? Play backs, loops? Shit like that? I hate this idea”
R&F: DO you realize some of your fans will hate the synths part?
Nick: “You can’t make everyone happy. I’ve always liked the fun swing of Last Nite, Someday and UCOD but we have to grow too. It’s impossible to make every fan happy. The other members are my barometer. We’ve thought this way since the very first record”
R&F: Is it hard to have 2 guitarists in a band?
Nick: “There’s no competition but it’s not always easy. I do all the solos on Angles. We used to share them, but Albert didn’t want to do it on this record”
Nick: “I ate sushi this morning. I regret it…”
R&F: “From Last nite to UCOD, can you sum up the way into one word ?”
R&F : “We thought rollercoaster…”
Nick: Oh yeah it’s better. Forget about survival, let’s keep rollercoaster!
R&F: “Still, for ITI, you fired Gil Norton to work with Gordon Raphael. For ROF, you fired Nigel Godrich to go back with Raphael, and for FIOE you fired Raphael for David Kahne. We wouldn’t like to be your next Producer!”
Nick (bursts out laughing): “We certainly would have had better success with Joe’s production. More radio play for sure. But we did keep a few things. We went to Albert’s house, upstate NY, and reworked Joe’s songs. We kept one of them and partially reworked 2 others. He didn’t accept our décision really well but he understood it. We are very hard to please.”
R&F: Julian’s advertising for Azzaro fragrances…
Nick: “Yes I know. I wouldn’t have made the same choice. That being said, I’m sure he’s going to live in a nicer apartment than mine (laughs). And also that he will send his kids in a better school than mine”
A few months ago, Julian told R&F : ‘I don’t want to be the scapegoat anymore, the bad guy’ It’s true he was accused of every Strokes’ evils. Now the light is shed on the band’s long break. And it seems the singer wasn’t the only one responsible for it.
We meet Albert at Wiz Kid Mgmt offices, in the heart of the East Village. Ryan Gentles, the band’s manager, is on his computer, planning a concert in Las Vegas and the band’s appearance on SNL the day after. Behind, Albert is there, shaggy, with a 5-day beard and AC/DC t-shirt.
R&F: Albert, tell us about your solo escape
Albert: “I started working on Yours To Keep after recording FIOE, and I kept working on it everytime we came back from touring. Strange times. Just my personal battle. I remember, and it’s undoubtedly because of the drngs, being angry and not communicative. Actually, you fight against yourself, you don’t tell anyone and you blame it on the others”
R&F: Which personal battle ?
Albert: “The joy of drugs and weird bitter feelings. When you start, it’s cocaine. I was 23, 24 years old. Then I’d take opium pills, and before recording Yours to Keep, I was on heroin. Mix it up with the rest… You don’t even realize it anymore”
R&F: After The Strokes last concert, you went on your own tour…
Albert: In 9 months, I must have played 120 shows. It’s only now that I feel the exhaustion. The drug abuse. I’ve been clean for a year and a half. I guess it’s not much compared to the long time I was on drugs. When you hit rock botton, 1 year and a half feels like an eternity.
R&F : In 2008, you release Como te Llama, your second album, even though The Strokes were ready to record.
Albert: “We were working together but I wasn’t ready. I didn’t feel I was a part of the band anymore”
R&F: Did you consider leaving the band ?
Albert: “It came to my mind… Leaving the band or being fired. A lot of insecurity. Fire me, I’m not good enough! You always think about this kind of things. But the positive in all this is that we got together, and we had very intense discussions. Every one said what they had to. After, we all needed a break. Then I remember when summer came, I told them we should go back to work, but I didn’t know Julian wanted to release his solo album. Which was totally right. To sum up, from January to August 2009, the 5 of us worked together. Including Julian. I went to rehab in september, Julian released his album and I came out in december. And in January 2010, we started recording with Joe. The 4 of us. Without Julian, because he was on tour. He was very clear on the fact he couldn’t give his opinion on things that were not tangible. This way, if he retreated from the creative process, we could establish some sort of communication between the 4 of us. Our goal is to work together. The whole thing created a lot of strengh in the band. The funniest part is that his absence finally made us stronger”
R&F: When did you hit rock bottom?
Albert : “Just before recording Angles in 2010. I had personal issues. I broke up with my girlfriend, I relapsed and when we were done with the songs, I was destroyed. It was crazy. The positive thing is that at such a time of one’s life, one has to make a choice. And I chose to get better. 3 months later, I was with Chiccarelli in the studio. My body was still painful”
R&F: How did it go with Joe?
Albert: “Not very well. That’s why we didn’t keep him. Because it wasn’t good. And we realized that the 5 of us together could reach our goal. We all dream of meeting George Martin one day. Every time we meet a producer, it’s only malign fights. And it was an expensive experience”
R&F: Was the rumour about RCA rejecting the album true?
Albert: “Not at all. It’s in our contract. They can’t reject it. We present them the songs, they can’t say no. We rejected it. We didn’t like it”
R&F : UCOD is 100% pure Strokes…
Albert : “It’s really funny that 2/4 became the Strokes’ sound. Classic Strokes. When I play it to my friends, they’re happy, they smile. It’s The Strokes calling : making people happy. It’s the comeback of happiness (laughs)”
3 out 5 Stars
Because they release their fourth record more than 5 years after FIOE, The Strokes are exposing themselves to the retaliations of rock’n’roll esthetes. Some will say rock revival is over, now The White Stripes split and Peter Doherty will play Alfred de Musset in a movie. Even if it’s not their best record, Angles still has an intoxicating new wave vibe.
Here’s a rock record that moves away from the genre’s rules. Always on the edge of an abyss, this record is one that hasn’t chosen its side : tech pleasure and vintage turns are deemed equals. Too many solos, too many digressions, too many nods to the past (UCOD, for its drum beat and broken melody that sound like what the listener thinks is The Strokes style).
In short, Angles is fascinating, because it sounds like the first record of Julian Casablancas and friends that ends with an interrogation mark. The initial unity disappeared and it’s the return of a permanent takeover. In this perspective, Angles conveys several propositions of rock’n’roll. To satisfy tension, there is some tribal pop between Radiohead and Liars (You’re so right). Then it’s a New Order melancholic dance melody (Games) that sets The Strokes in a cold club background. In the end, the most awaited rock album of the year sounds like the teaser for several future solo albums. The utopia of the rock’n’roll band vs the world disappeared and individualism won the battle. Now, no one knows if the future of rock will be cold or icy.