The Band Who Fell To Earth
The Strokes’ singer has his penis out. Having relieved himself over the rear wheel arch of his band’s hired Ford Triton van, Julian Casablancas adjusts his skinny trousers and falls sideways on to the back seat of the vehicle. From the horizontal position, he asks his oldest friend – bass player and designated band driver Nicolai Fraiture – to find some “classical shit” on the van radio, declares himself “wasted”, and passes out across a female fan who has followed him, doe-eyed, into the vehicle. Nicolai smiles, starts the van and drives off into the Manhattan night.
Tonight, The Strokes have been celebrating. Five hours earlier, shortly after midnight, the group gathered upstairs at 2A – their favourite bar in New York’s Lower East Side – to hear their just-completed debut album Is This It for the first time. Albert Hammond Jnr, the band’s fantastically haired guitarist, made it as far as the door of the bar, before discovering himself to be too full of sushi and marijuana to be in any way useful. The rest of the group – Julian, Nicolai, drummer Fabrizio Moretti, guitarist Nick Valensi, plus manager Ryan Gentles – are high with anticipation. Everyone stands around the bar stereo.
Thirty-five minutes and 11 songs of blitzkrieg bop later, Is This It is declared a triumph. Vodka shots are ordered, high fives are exchanged. The album is played again, start to finish, another six times in succession. Julian slouches on a bar stool and reviews each song, over and over, with the wisdom of the truly sloshed: “It’s awesome, man. This shit scares me…This one’s like me doing Lou Reed doing Little Richard…Like Frank Sinatra said: “It’s like the past in the future, the future in the past”.
Eventually, one middle-aged customer decides she’s had enough. She doesn’t care for the music. It’s too loud. “Hey!” snaps Julian, Simon Le Bon hair plastered over his face, Marlboro Medium aloft. “Where’s your band, buddy? Eh? Let’s hear them!”
The Strokes are having the time of their lives. They are coolness itself and they know it. They’ve the youth, arrogance, good looks, great clothes, greatest-hits record collections, songs and chemistry to make every ther guitar band look like Alfie. No number of TV talent searches or pop Svengali designs could do better.
They’re young enough to look dandy on a non-stop diet of Budweiser, cheese steaks and late nights (at 22, Julian is the oldest). They’re dumb enough to think that grappling for each other’s crotches is still funny (the way they do it, it sort of is). They’re bright enough to argue over their favourite part of Waiting For Godot (“but,” they advise, “existentialism shouldn’t be taught to the under-nines”). They’re naive enough to be impressed by the whole experience (“Man, our single is in Tower Records! Next to Stereolab!”). And they’re wise enough to want to get it completely right (the US version of their single was sent to the printers of Marlboro packets, so they could get an exact match for the red and white sleeve).
If The Strokes’ music (singles so far: ‘The Modern Age’ and this month’s ‘Hard To Explain’/’New York City Cops’) – has drawn comparisons with the switchblade garage punk of New York No Wave 1976. Is This It sees them slide casually into place behind a lineage of classic three-minute guitarpop groups. Yes, it has flashes of the retarded genius of The Ramones, but it also nods to the angular pop of Wire (‘Alone Together’), the weary romanticism of The Smiths (‘Someday’), and the wonky rhythms of Talking Heads (‘Soma’). Not since the good years of Britpop (Suede, Blur, Elastica) have we had style-and-content pop stars you’ll want to take to your hearts and pin to your wall.
Eating lunch with The Strokes, Odessa Diner, East Village “Our songs are not gay,” Albert is explaining, in his stained, too-short brown suit, blue Dr Martens and bad socks. ‘They’ve got balls. There’s melody, but we have melody that rocks,’ he says. “I love melody, but I don’t want our songs to sound like a fruitcake.”
What do you each bring to The Strokes?
Nick: I think we all bring a certain sort of energy. Nicolai brings a certain sense of stoicism. Albert brings a good taste in music. What Julian brings is just obvious
Julian: What’s that? I want to hear you say it, baby
Nick: Julian’s just got overall charm and wittiness. He’s the attitude of the band. And I bring skepticism. I bring cynicism to the band
Fabrizio: (appalled): No, man! Nick brings a style of his own, like…a rock’n’roll edge to the band
Nick: (doubly appalled) A rock’n’roll edge? That’s my answer to that question?
What’s the best rumour you’ve head about The Strokes?
Fabrizio: That we’ve got cocks the size of elephants
Julian: That my dad’s our manager
Nick: I heard that something happened with Fabrizio and one of the Elastica girls
Fabrizio: That was in England…and it was actually Albert. Everyone just mistakes the curly hair
Nick: I heard a rumour that no one actually comes to our shows and that we only exist in magazines
Fabrizio: There’s a rumour that we sell out Madison Square Gardens. We packed the house in Boston on the rumour that everyone wanted to see us while we were ‘still small’
In the last two years, The Strokes reckon they have spent “a maximum” of two days apart from each other. They’ve been best friends since school. Albert and Julian share an apartment together. Fabrizio has been living with his mother, but plans to move in with his girlfriend and manager Ryan. Nick, meantime, has just moved out of his girlfriend’s house, after she dumped him for a member of Weezer (Fabrizio: “Did that sour the first album for you, dude?” Nick: “Man, you cannot not like Weezer. I still like Weezer”). Right now, he thinks he might crash with Nicolai.
The Strokes were born and raised in New York, except Albert who was born in LA, and Fabrizio who was born in Rio De Janeiro and moved to New York when he was three. Julian and Nicolai met aged five at a French school in the city (on account of their parents being French). At 13, Julian’s parents sent him away to L’Institut Le Rosey, a private boys’ school in Switzerland. Like Julian, Albert was also sent there for “discipline problems”. They all reunited at the Dwight School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Are The Strokes rich kids, slumming it? Julian’s dad John Casablancas might have founded the Elite model agency but, says Julian, “it’s not like we’re posh kids who drove fancy cars or anything. You’ve got to have money to live in Manhattan, but we all still hung out on the street and drank 40s.”
“Anyway,” says Nick, “it’s sort of irrelevant what our parents do, because it’s not like they help us play songs or help dress us up…or do anything!” They were all surrounded by music when they were kids: Fabrizio’s father played guitar on cruise ships to and from Brazil, Albert learned guitar from the age of nine, and Julian reckoned he knew that he was going to be a songwriter when he was “like, 14”.
The Strokes started playing together, performing Julian’s songs, in 1998. During 1999 they were booked to play some shows at the Mercury Lounge, a shoe-box club in the Lower East Side. The club’s booking agent, Ryan Gentles, became “like a buddy and a manager”. Last year Ryan sent The Strokes’ three-song demo tape to Geoff Travis at London’s Rough Trade records. According to Strokes’ lore, Travis called Gentles and offered to sign the band while the first song on the tape was still clattering away in the background. The same demo was released in the UK in March as their first single, the three-track EP ‘The Modern Age’. So it came to pass that this year The Strokes found themselves in the curious position of playing small but sold-out shows in London, while being pretty much ignored in New York.
For the last month, the band have been making the two-hour drive from New York to Philadelphia to play a Wednesday-night residency at 250-capacity bar The Kyber. It’s a journey that involves the band collecting their guitars, drums and amps from a rehearsal rooms in the rough Hell’s Kitchen district (Madonna used to rehearse there, her name is still graffitied on the wall, while Fabrizio was once mugged three times in the same night by a man holding his fist under his t-shirt, pretending it was a gun), loading up the van, unloading it in Philadelphia, playing the show at midnight, and then driving back. It’s starting to lose its appeal. “Man, I wish there was button we could press and all the kit would be loaded into the van,” sighs Nick. “It’s called money,” says Nicolai. “And roadies”.
We pass over the New Jersey Turnpike. “It smells of diarrhea,” notes Albert. Ryan has band business to talk about. During the band’s upcoming sold-out, 16-date UK tour, he reckons it would be a good idea if they signed copies of their single at a pre-advertised record shop event. The band aren’t so sure. “Geoff [Travis] says it will be for an hour and it’ll sell loads of CDs,” says Ryan. “I just think of Spinal Tap,” huffs Julian. “I feel uncomfortable doing that shit,” agrees Nick. “If Geoff says we should do it, we should probably do it,” says Fabrizio.
The Kyber Bar is pretty uninspiring. The stage is at knee height. A torn blanket is gaffer-taped across the windows. Upcoming attractions include Cactus Patch, Woolly Mammoth and Nixon’s Head. The soundman has his work cut out tonight: he’s doing the sound for three bands, playing in one of them and celebrating his stag night. Nicolai writes “TONITE, NEXT WEDNESDAY – THE STROKES” on a poster and sets up a stall selling CDs by the door. By the time The Strokes go on, he’ll have sold 13 CDs at $5 each. Julian sits at the bar, chats to girls and argues with the barman. “I’m not paying for this shit,” he says, waving his sixth Budweiser, “I’m selling out your club.” The Strokes take to the stage the only way they can. By walking through the audience. “Welcome to The Strokes’ soundcheck,” says Julian by a way of a “Hello, Philadelphia.” “Hurry up with your New York arthouse bullshit,” comes a reply. The band explode. Fabrizio hits the drums so hard on “New York City Cops” one of them falls over. Albert plays his Fender Stratocaster at shoulder blade-level, thrashing harder and faster until he falls backwards against the wall. Julian does his junior Jagger strut, casting his microphone lead behind him, standing on the microphone stand until it buckles. They are fabulous.
“Overweight and underworked,” yells the voice. At which point Nick throws down his guitar, Fabrizio abandons his drums they both jump into the crowd and attack the heckler. “I never said nothing,” fibs the portly man with terror in his eyes. “You were saying a bunch of stupid shit,” spits Fabrizio. “I wouldn’t say that shit,” he squeals. “You guys rock!.”
On the drive back to New York, Nick and Julian sing the theme to National Lampoon’s Vacation.
At Albert and Julian’s apartment the next afternoon, Albert and Julian’s apartment smells. There’s a drumkit in Albert’s room, beer bottles all over Julian’s floor and a stray cat in the hallway. The fridge contains four bottles of cider and a jar of peanut butter. There’s an excellent oil painting of a reclining woman, painted by Fabrizio, hanging over Albert’s bed. Last night, Julian had a dream where he met N’Sync in the corridor of RCA Records and he made them sing a Strokes song. They did “New York City Cops” and did it pretty well. This morning he’s been watching MTV and it’s freaked him out a little. He thinks it was “like watching a weird trend factory”. The Strokes favourite TV program is Behind The Music, a show on VH1 that frequently profiles where-did-it-all-go-wrong? old bands.
What has Behind The Music taught The Strokes?
Julian: No girls on tour. Never board a plane if you think there’s something wrong with the engine
Albert: No small planes
Fabrizio: Make sure your business manager doesn’t look like a TV character
Nick: If half the band does drugs and the other half of the band doesn’t do drugs, you will break up in the next six months
Julian: So we all do drugs
What band got it completely right?
Julian: That’s hard. Bob Marley?
Albert: Well, The Wailers was more of a collective, not a band
What about The Jam?
Albert: But they split up
But they split up at their prime
Julian: “They split up at their prime? What’s that? That’s, like, a misnomer”
Fabrizio: (to whole band): I hate you!
Albert: That’s not a misnomer. That’s a moot point
Julian: That’s not a moot point. “Split up at their prime” is a negative point versus a positive point
Albert: Well, I think you just make music until you can’t make it any more.
A week later, back in Philadelphia, someone starts on Julian. Another fight breaks out. Noel Gallagher is there, apparently courting the band in the hope that they’ll support Oasis. His security step in and (how times have changed) diffuse the scuffle. A week after that, The Strokes arrive in the UK to start their tour. At a party at The Social bar in North London, someone says something funny to Julian. ‘Fuck you, buddy,’ says Julian, and flips him the finger. And there they all go again, out on the pavement, fighting drunk. That’s The Strokes. Five boys from New York having the time of their lives.