Close to a half decade on it’s hard to remember, let alone imagine, the impact the Strokes had on rock music. The excitement surrounding their debut EP and LP was incredible. Genuinely great records that succeeded in not only heralding the arrival of a major act but helped spark a whole new interest in post punk style music. But many reacted against the hype, and the passionate debates polarized music lovers. Indeed, not many bands stir as much feeling as the Strokes.
In certain circles to say you’re a fan is like slapping someone across the face with a leather glove. Are they original? Is it just fashion rock? Is Josef K better? (The fact that people were discussing Josef K is surely a victory for all.) The merits of the second album Room on Fire got lost in the backlash. Now they’re set to release their third – First Impressions of Earth. I have no idea if it’s any good – the record label only gave out a portion of it to listen to for a very limited time. My first impressions, it wasn’t as immediate as ‘Modern Age’. But then not much is. But I’ve made a conscious decision to give it a go.
On meeting guitarist Nick Valensi I’m struck by how tall he is – 6′ 4″ or 5″ and whippet thin. For some reason I thought they were all midgets like the Stones.
A new Strokes LP is coming out – you can almost hear the knives around the world being sharpened, are you sharpening yours too?
Not really. I think some people are eagerly anticipating it in a positive way. But some people are just ready to slam us no matter what we do. It’s always been like that I think – ever since we got put into a position early on of just having more acclaim than we deserved right at the point when we started. Ever since then there’s been a pretty large group of haters.
The one thing you do know is that this record is going to split opinion
Yeah, I do feel like that. I felt like that when we were putting out our second record (Room on Fire) as well. There’s going to be a lot of people who love it and a lot of people who hate no matter what it sounds like. But this time around we’re fortunate enough to have a little bit of the attention off of us. When we were doing Room on Fire it really felt like the Rock World was focused on what we were going to do next and that made it difficult to concentrate. This time we really took our time with this record and it really felt like people cared less than they did two or three years ago which was really beneficial for us.
It’s not often that people say that, or are in a position to say that.
Yeah, well, it’s unfortunate.
Are you an opinionated person yourself?
Yeah. I have opinions on pretty much everything. It’s when I choose to let it out, you know. You sort of have to pick your battles wisely in life I guess.
So you can understand how people can be very opinionated about your band?
I don’t mind. I don’t mind if people don’t like the band. There’s a weird perception of us a lot of the time. People see us in a weird way which is not necessarily true. It’s just been what’s reported at a certain time and a lot of people can’t see past that. But I’ve always felt that the people who like us are generally people who are real music fans and not people who are into a certain kind of music to be part of a scene. Or be a certain way.
Are you used to being attacked? Were you teased or ridiculed growing up?
Yeah, a little bit but it never got to me that much I don’t think. I wasn’t so much teased as bullied. Yes I was bullied a bit as a youth, I was. I got to a point when I was 11, 12, 13 years old where I didn’t care, made myself an outsider to avoid that – stopped trying to be one of the guys – sort of said, ‘fuck you, if you guys don’t want me then I don’t want you either.’ And that’s when things started to work out for me as a kid. That’s when I found out who I was as a person.
So, as an adult you’ve found yourself under attack
Not really, I mean it depends. Sometimes when we’re on tour especially in the UK and you go to the north of the UK – Manchester and Glasgow and stuff and the fans are really outspoken. The Strokes are pretty popular over there but if I leave the hotel there’s bound to be some kid who’s got something to say to me. The fans over there are very outspoken but when I’m at home in New York I don’t really feel under attack at all. Not at all, I feel pretty good. It’s a funny question.
What’s one piece of criticism you’ve consciously taken on board?
I guess it’s just the same criticism that we would have of ourselves. The criticism that the band has taken is more just stuff that we’ve brought up with each other. ‘We shouldn’t do this again’ or ‘we shouldn’t do a song like that’ or ‘we should sound more like this’. That kind of stuff. But not the kind of criticism you’d read in a magazine article, no.
From the outside the Strokes look like a five headed monster. Inside is it a democratic band? Do you have a very strong voice in the direction you go in?
It’s not really a democratic process, no. It’s more like Julian (Casablancas, singer) is basically the chief guy and whatever I do has to get filtered through him. I’ll write guitar parts for a song and then get the approval from him. That’s kind of how it goes which is a bit of a drag.
That must be a frustration for you?
It’s only frustrating when you disagree. That’s the only time it’s frustrating which is thankfully not too often but, naturally, that happens. Sometimes my ideas get vetoed which is frustrating, definitely.
Have you got a shoebox of songs under your bed?
Yes. More like hundreds of hours of riffs on tapes, archived on tapes.
How has being a Stroke changed your personality?
The experiences I’ve been through over the past six, seven, eight years of just being in this band is sort of defining – especially being in a band from such an early age. I was 17 when we were first started doing shows. It’s a pretty life defining thing. It’s what I do for a living and it’s what takes up the majority of my life. It’s defining. Having said that I try not to be just a dude from the Strokes. I’m Nick whether I’m in the Strokes or not. I am who I am. It’s important to be grounded in your identity.
Is it really that important to be grounded? Trying to be grounded doesn’t sound like much fun.
It’s boring. But it’s sort of how I do things lately. In order to stay sane and happy I need to have both feet on the ground. More and more I find I need to have a clear head. I need to focus more. I’m getting old, you know, the late nights getting wasted and doing crazy things is a thing of the past. Well, not a thing of the past but they’re far and few between nowadays.
Does that mean religion is just around the corner?
Religion? I’m not a very religious person you know. I’m a somewhat spiritual person but not religious, no.
The indie kids want to know what’s going on with your Fred Astaire?
My frizzed hair? My Fred Astaire? That’s hair, oh. What’s going on with it? I’m growing it. I don’t want to cut my hair anymore. And if I could grow a beard I would. I want to grow a big, thick, full outlaw beard. Like Jim Morrison in his later days. I want a beard like that, and long hair. I tried for a couple of months but it came out looking French, sparse whiskers here and there. I don’t have enough testosterone running the system. I need to take some hormones or something.
From what I’ve heard of First Impressions ‘Ask Me Anything’ is the most different sounding track from your past recordings. It sounds like the Magnetic Fields.
Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? I mean I love the Magnetic Fields. I think Julian at the time was listening to that 69 Love Songs record. I know he really likes the Magnetic Fields. That’s partly why he was drawn to recording it that way. It’s different mainly because there’s no guitars, or drums, or bass on it. So, yes, it’s vastly different from anything we’ve ever done. Initially we were going to work the song out and do it with guitars and drums and work it out with the whole band. But it was written on that instrument, we wrote it on that instrument. Right after we wrote it, we recorded it and we liked it so much that we never got around to re-recording it. We still have not got around to playing it as a band.
It’s the Strokes ‘Yesterday’
Yeah, I guess. He doesn’t play it by himself though. We haven’t done it live, I don’t know if we will. I’m not a gifted piano player. It took me a long time to record that. If we do it live it’s going to take a lot of practice.
What’s the track on the LP that you brought the most to? As in changed from its original intent by your influence?
‘Ask Me Anything’ was one of those. Also ‘Juicebox’. Just the general aggression on the album, the heavy guitars on the album, that was sort of me listening to heavy music at the time. There’s all these strange little guitar parts on ‘Vision of Division’. A bunch of things. We all had a bunch of things. When I listen to the record and I hear this bass thing coming through I think, ‘of course, because Nikolai was listening to that weird avant garde jazz stuff at the time’ so there’s some weird bass line popping through. And Fab with certain fills I can really hear where he’s been. Sometimes he sounds a little bit Motowny, sometimes a bit Dave Grohl, sometimes he sounds just like a robot. I can hear people’s personalities and influences come through on the record. Mine included.
What’s the song you’re most excited about?
I like them all. I really like ‘Ize of the World’ and ‘Vision of Division’, and ‘Ask Me Anything’ I really like. ‘Razorblade’ ‘Juicebox’
Can you still listen to your debut EP?
I haven’t in years. I don’t really listen to the old records. We play them all the time live. I don’t feel the need to go back and listen to them. I hear them pretty much everyday. I think they sound better live anyway. We always sound huge when we play live. Those first two records can sound quite tinny.
Your girlfriend Amanda de Cadenet is a photographer among other things. How do you feel about photos of your private life ending up in a book or a gallery?
They have (in book called Rare Birds). It’s my girlfriend of four years so I feel incredibly comfortable with her taking her my picture. If it was anybody else I would say, ‘would you fuckin’ stop’. I’m happy to have her do that. And I think the pictures always look great. It’s never embarrassing. She’s not going to publish nude photos of me right after I got out of a freezing cold swimming pool or anything.
When were you last proud to be an American?
When was I last proud to be an American? God. That’s a funny question. The American pride thing hits more, like, when you walk through Nashville or something you think ‘this is amazing’ and you sort of feel proud of that but when think about what’s going on today pride is not really the right word, you know. Especially when you travel a lot around the world it’s more like embarrassment. You show your American passport and you go, ‘yeah, I’m one of them, one of the morons’.