The Strokes: THE BAND WHO FELL TO EARTH.
From the heights of hype to the troughs of disappointment, the Strokes have learnt that they sure have a lot to live up to. First Impressions of Earth fulfills expectations.
If anyone was going to record their first impressions of Earth, Julain Casablancas would be qualified to do it. With his band, The Strokes, the native New-yorker has spent the last few years touring the Earth – across the U.S., Japan, Europe, Australia, and most recently, South America. The global success of the group could be due to their international make-up – Casablancas met half the band’s members during a romp through boarding school in Switzerland as a teenager. More likely, their worldwide popularity is due to the raw, spiky quality of their music – a sound that popularised garage-rock and threw the Strokes into the mainstream. Their first album, 2001’s Is This It? was hailed as a post-punk wonder. However, the less impressive follow-up, 2003’s Room on Fire – which unashamedly recycled the winning formula of their debut – left fans and critics wondering if the question posed in the title of Is This It? Was all too prescient. Did the Strokes only have one great album in them?
Clearly the band don’t think so. Their third album, First Impressions of Earth, proves that the Strokes haven’t lost their inspired touch. We’ve already had a taste of things to come: A track called “Juicebox” from the upcoming album was leaked to a Seattle radio station in September and jumped to number one for three nights in a row on its Top 10 countdown. Thanks to the frenzy that ensued, the single was then rush-released by the record company. In a scramble to get the new music on the airwaves in Australia, sony BMG accidentally sent the wrong track to Triple J. As a result, Australians were treated to a new song they believed was “Juicebox”, but was actually an unheard album track. The unnamed song was only played a few times before it was retracted and replaced by the correct single.
While the online music barometer of all thing cool, Pitchfork, deemed the single “Juicebox” as even worse than Wheezer’s “Hashpipe,” the reaction by fans has been far more encouraging. Adding to the excitement and anticipation, the band then announced their exclusive Sydney showcase gig, at their smallest venue yet – the Annandale Hotel.
Creative inspiration isn’t the only new element to Casablancas’ life, however. Coming from celebrity blue-blood stock, he’s well-versed in the pitfalls of the star marriage. His father, supermodel super-agent John Casablancas, divorced Julian’s mother – ex-Miss Denmark 1965, Jeanette Christjansen – when he was just six years old. (‘he felt it very deeply,’ says John.)
With his own profile soaring thanks to the Strokes, Casablancas could have had his pick of any celebrity starlet. Instead, he married his manager’s assistant, longtime girlfriend Juliet Joslin, on February 5th at a small, private ceremony in New York. With the worldwide anticipation of First Impressions of Earth building, Casablancas talks to Rolling Stone about the bliss of married life, his dreams and, of course, alien abductions.
You built your own studio to record the new album. Why?
Julian: It wasn’t so much that we didn’t want the record company sitting on our shoulder the whole way, as a money issue. It costs so much fucking money. About US $2 million or something – at a real studio in New York! For this album we wanted the luxury of the time that buying our own gear and installing it ourselves would afford us. So we just rented a rehearsel room and moved our stuff in and, while we worked long hours, we took our time.
Looking back, was your second album, “Room on Fire,” a rush job?
Julian: Oh yeah, big time. Room on Fire was a mad dash all the way. It was such a shitty situation to be in. We were up 48 hours straight, working all through the night to get it to the mastering studio on time, saying stuff like, “It’s shit and it doesn’t sound right – but hey, it’s good enough.” Crazy stuff.
So you got some sleep on this one?
Julian: Well, I always have a little trouble sleeping. It’s not nightmares or bad dreams, just a perpetual state of R.E.M. when I’m stuck between being asleep and being awake. I can’t get any continuous motion after-hours.
I hear that one of the new songs, Ask Me Anything, came to you in a dream?
Julian: Yeah – although I’m still trying to sort this one out. See, the song in my dream was a little faster than the one that made the record. So much so that I thought it was a Scissor Sisters song. I remember thinking, “man, that’s such a cool song,” -it just really blew my mind. It took me a while to realise I’d made it up myself. The thing is, I could see the Scissor Sisters guy [Jake Shears] singing it, looking into the camera, saying, ‘I got nothing to say, I got nothing to say’ over and over. It really fucked with my head, but I liked it.
Do songs often find you? Or do you usually have to find them?
Julian: Song writing for me is like a game or freeze tag. Some times they will come easy and a song will be there, perfect. Other times it’s a labrynth, where you go in blind, praying you’ll come out somewhere good and not at a dead end.”
What sets these Strokes songs apart from the ones we’ve heard before?
Julian: If they’d been recorded the same way, I don’t think you’d even notice they were from another time. People would probably just think we’d done another Is This It. But we’ve always tried to make the band evolve, and I work really hard to try and make the songs different. I don’t ever want to make a song the same or similar to one we’ve done in the past. It’s got to be better and pushing in some new direction. So there’s that, mixed with a new sound, new production and new producer. It all works together to give us a new flavour. And who doesn’t like a new flavour?
You’ve likened that flavour to a ‘Seedless watermelon.’ Meaning…?
Julian: Anything is possible.
In terms of sound, you’ve dubbed the new record, “bigger, louder…more professional.” In what way?
Julian: I meant that if I wanted to record a song that sounded like Queen or if I wanted to sound like Lionel Ritchie, I’d be able to. And I was.
Producer David Khane really has you front-and-centre on this record. How did the two of you discuss the approach to your vocals?
Julian: Well, initially, I’d sing songs that I thought were pretty much out of my range, and Dave was, “well, you just sang it. Why not again?” So I had to really practise hard to get up there and sing notes that in the past I mightn’t have thought appropriate. I just locked myself in the shower for days on end.
Is that why album song, “Razorblade” has traces of Barry Manilow’s Mandy in it?
Julian: *Laughs* That wasn’t purposeful. I was going for a more Built to Spuill kind of vibe.
So has Julian Casablancas finally found himself as a singer?
Julian: I think I’ll always be figuring out new ways to make me and the band sound more interesting. It’s been hard, though. Ever since the start, when we were handing out fliers on the streets for our gigs, I’ve really been bad at talking about or hyping the band, or saying much at all.
See, in the beginning, we just wanted to play these songs in front of people, and I wasn’t too interested in talking between tunes. I’ve always been, “come hear the songs and make up your own mind.” And then if you do, and you know us, I’ll have more of a chance to say my piece and and be myself. Maybe that’s silly…
The response to the comeback single has been pretty strong. Why was “Juicebox” chosen as the band’s first wave of attack?”
Julian: We just figured it was a fun song to kick off an album which has got some series conferences later on.
I understand it was originally titled, “Dracula’s Lunch?”
Julian: *Laughs* True. It was a tongue-in-cheek reference to blood-suckers, so when the image of people as juiceboxes [poppers] of blood came into the picture, it stuck.
The album’s title is a different one. What does it mean to you?
Julian: In the grand scope of time and history, it feels to me like this generation just got here and we’ve got a lot to learn from everything that’s happened before and everything that’s happening now. So it’s like, here are my notes, here are the things I’ve noticed. It’s a subconcious sonic representation, you know?
You’ve said in the past that the album’s title is about “how someone from outer space would objectively view things happening on earth.”
Julian: Well, that’s not to say that I’m an alien life form, or the album is a Sci-fi adventure. But it is an album about an alien soul – a very pansexual, non-threatening entity – checking out the broad scope of the world.
You haven’t been kidnapped by UFOs and anally probed, have you Julian?
Julian: *Laughs* Maybe! Or maybe I’ve just got an interviewer trying to mess with my head…
Indeed. Speaking of which, a new song which definately messed with my head was Vision of Division. My God! You’ve made the strokes sound like a Mariachi band on crystal-meth!
Julian: *Laughs* That song’s a Frankenstein, as you guessed. It was born – well – pieced together as a monster from some chord progressions I liked and some melodies we dug. Then we all rumbled with it and everyone added their own flavour to it, and it soon became this freak that we all embraced.
What’s the story behind another standout, “Heart in a Cage?”
Julian: That one is probably the oldest song on the record. It actually had a fighting chance of being on Room on Fire, but we didn’t have time to put it together and do it in a way that felt totally comfortable. In other words, we liked it too much to rush it, so we made sure it was one of the first tracks we recorded this time.
You’re playing the Big Day Out in 2006. How was the Strokes’ last BDO experience, in 2004?
Julian: Australia was a big epiphany for us. We had a really great time. For me, and I think for other guys in the band, it felt like we took a big step – in terms of being comfortable in front of a big crowd and having fun with what we do. Maybe it was because you guys are more laid-back, but the gigs all had this cool vibe. I think – well I know – that brought out the best in the band.
What has changed since you first toured here in 2001, supporting You Am I?
Julian: I don’t know. I really don’t know. Not that much, I think. Personally, I’m still on the same course I was laid out on then, I’m just a little further down the line. Maybe I’m just deeper immersed in a crucial phase – mind you, I make up what constitutes ‘crucial phase’ from one moment to the next.
Considering how disappointed you were with Room on Fire, how crucial a phase are the Strokes in now with a new record and touring to come?
Julian: I’m really excited by this record. It sounds just like it should and I’m proud we’ve shown we can keep getting better. That’s pretty cool. But playing live is still the coolest way of hearing music and road-testing songs, so hopefully a great album will fuel some great shows.
Word is you’re priming yourselves for ‘fatal touring?’
Julian: *Laughs* Well, touring is always the truest test for a band. We’ve toured hard and long in the past, but we’ve never let it tear us apart, not even close. But after months on end, it’s inevitable that personal relationships will suffer and creativity will be worn down to the bone. But we don’t ever want it to get to the stage where it’s like we just work together and we don’t talk, we just do shows. That’s the breaking point. We’ve always been too good friends to let it get that far.
And feel like you’re on honeymoon with four people you hate…
Julian: Right! Being in a band is like any relationship – you’ve gotta work at it. It’s about honesty, respect, and wanting to do the same thing. For us, it’s to do something positive and special and enjoy it together.
Your Dad recently called you a vert monogamus guy. So I have to ask: Hows married life treating you?
Julian: It’s great…so far. I haven’t even been married a year though, so I’m still figuring it out. I guess the best thing about marriage is the fact you’ve got the coolest partner you can imagine by your side for all the things you’re going to face in your life. So far, Juliet’s been there for me. She’s been good for my voice, good for my everything.
They say women weaken the legs…
Julian: Not this one.
Finally, what should we have on ice for when the strokes hit Australia?
Julian: A dead astronaut.