Is This It? : The Strokes. Boys want to be them. Girls want to be with them. But for the guys themselves, living the rock dream is a whole lot more complicated.
‘I guess I’m confused,’ says Julian Casablancas, his head drooping towards the bar. ‘Confused between everything I thought when we started and everything I think now.’ Next to his left hand he has a can of Milwaukee Beer; next to his right hand a whiskey on the rocks. ‘I obviously have the same goals, the same ideals,the same everything…’. He is pretty drunk. ‘basically I feel like when we do something that’s good, no one gives a shit, and when we play the game it pays off.’ He’s rarely keen on talking like this, and has little faith in the purpose of such conversations.’All I know is that from the start I wanted to do something that was… cooler, and hopefully be successful by not doing the typical things.’ I take the seat next to him; the least I can do is hit the beer and the tequila… try to catch up… listen. ‘I don’t know, dude, I wish I understood it better myself.’ We are in New York, in the East Village, not far from where he shares one end of a dumbell-shaped apartment with his bandmate Albert Hammond Jr. “I guess we haven’t done it right or worked hard enough.’ He lowers his head so that his hair covers his face. ‘It tears me apart that you can’t do it in a really original way and be successful.’
You don’t need to spend much time around The Strokes, and especially around Julian Casablancas, to realise that behind the smirks and the swagger and the falling about, they couldn’t be more serious or ambitious about what they do and what they want to do. When it comes to explaining exactly what that is, the answers might sometimes seem a little inarticulate, or even banal, but perhaps that is just because they are young men talking about the kinds of things which words don’t readily express so well: about music, about doing something distinct, about making people feel.
But they couldn’t be more serious about it and though The Strokes have had success, they already feel frustrated that is has not been enough success, and that already many of the kinds of things they have ended up doing are not the things that they ever meant to do or wanted to do. Tonight Casablancas mentions a few of these things: being told that the video you didn’t want to make but which you’re proud of doesn’t work because there’s not enough of the same cheesy band posing everyone does; being forced to play radio station concerts when you’d rather be writing a new record because they won’t play your songs otherwise; the constant pressure to do things the way everyone else does them. Probably also having your photograph taken, answering questions,for articles like this. I’ve caught them at a delicate moment.
I point out that many people would imagine that right now he’d be having the time of his life.
‘Well, I would be having the time of my life if my only dream was to be a rockstar and get laid,’ he begins. “Which is cool – I mean, don’t get me wrong. But that’s not why I got into it. I got into it because I felt… when you feel serious pain and serious depression in your life, like “what can i do?” Your fists clench and you have to do something or you’re just going to kill yourself because you don’t understand. It’s so much frustration. But the only thing that you can do about it is work really hard on whatever is. I’m talking about slaving over shit. You focus on one thing. It becomes special. I would thing nothing but music. That’s all I can do.’
Why did you feel that kind of pain and depression to begin with?
‘I don’t know,’ he shrugs. ‘I mean, look around, dude. I guess I had a problem. Not a problem but I always just, maybe thought too much, whatever it is, in any situation, I was in… I’m not trying to complain about anything. The weird part is that I feel I’ve felt pain so many times in my life for different reasons and I don’t like to talk about it so much…’
He goes to the jukebox. He says he needs to put on ‘as much as I can of The Harder They Come soundtrack’. He does not return for some time.
What do people most misunderstand about The Strokes?
Fab Moretti [drums]: That we’re in this for anything other than the music. That we’re fashionistas. That we’re rich boys trying to steal the spotlight from someone else. When you try a hard as you can to just be yourself and make music, people like to start making things up.
Albert Hammond Jnr [guitar]: They don’t see our bigger picture, our bigger goal. The music gets put to the side and a lot of stuff gets talked about that doesn’t really mean anything. When the media first talked about us they talked about the way we looked, which is fine, but what a small thing to talk about: the hours you spend on music compared to the minutes you spend on what you’re going to wear.
Nikolai Fraiture [bass]: There’s a lot about us that people don’t know, so they make up suppositions. We’re pretty much five normal guys; we like to work and party and have fun.
Julian Casablancas [singer]: That we act like snobby assholes. As far as I know I’m pretty normal. Maybe when I get fucked up I act weird. When you mess with your brain a little bit, sometimes something positive comes out that’s more long-lasting than the negative effects of the next-day regrets.
Nick Valensi [guitar]: If we’re misunderstood, that’s good, because I never understood he bands I liked as a kid, I never knew that their motives were. I don’t think people should know too much about anything. It messes up the fun.
When they arrive at the photo studio where THE FACE will photograph them, The Strokes each grab a Heineken and wander out onto the roof to lie in the sun. Nick is wearing a white stripes T-shirt, which he keeps on for the photos. Julian is wearing a Nirvana Incesticide shirt, which he will change.
They hate having their photograph taken. When they first appeared, the fashion worlds in New York and London assumed that these gorgeously shabby, attitude-drenched New York indie kids would be flattered to be adopted as fashion’s latest pet rock stars; that The Strokes would be thrilled to preen and pose for them. They were very wrong.
Eventually, they straggle inside. Julian and Fab sit on a trolley and Julian slides his hands up the back of Fab’s maroon T-shirt, just because. One of the first things you notice around the Strokes is that the casual intimacy they assume with each other is often playfully physical. Julian leans behind Fab and bites his back. “Ah! Ah! Ah! Dude! Slow! Stop!’ shouts Fab.
Albert sits on a sofa and makes a ring out of a $1 bill, meticulously folded, creased and tucked back on itself. It’s a trick someone once showed him when he was wasted, and he was so surprised to remember it the next day that he started doing it himself. He mentions that he once proposed to a girl with one of these rings; she said maybe.
Fab draws a five pointed star in felt pen on the inside of Albert’s left wrist and carefully shades it in.
Julian stands in front of the mirror. He pours a little bit of his Heineken bottle into his hands and applies it into his hair. Ruffles it a little. That’ll do. As he is being photographed, he cradles a Heineken in his lap. ‘My friend, the beer…’ he mutters wryly. He doesn’t seem comfortable with any direction from the photographer. ‘Looking relaxed makes me feel weird,’ he explains.
At the photographer’s request, the five of them pose together, arms around each other. In a break Fab and Albert dance cheek to cheek, ‘I’m jealous of your slow dance,’ teases Julian. ‘I’m going to kill you both in a jealous rage.’ Nick leaps around Julian’s waist, his legs wrapped high behind Julian’s torso, his head tucked in below Julian’s chin. ‘My monkey child!’, Julian shouts. ‘Somebody have my monkey child.’
These are the Strokes, being as they are, as they do a little more of what they don’t like to do.
Why are you called the Strokes?
Julian: Because it means a lot of things that are artistic and strong. We all do interesting things in different ways and the words means interesting things in different ways. It just made so much sense that you can’t deny it.
Fab: We’d rejected a bunch of names. Nikolai said that made us laugh for days: ‘de Niros’ as in ‘the Niros’. I used to think of what the word actually meant: a stroke [holds his heart in an inaccurate medical mime], a stroke… blow to the face… a stroke in a painting. The one I think of the most is the brushstroke. But now I just of five dudes standing around.
Nikolai: There were so many different meanings to it, it could never pin us down. So many people have said ‘stroke of luck’, ‘stroke this’… there’s never one thing they can focus on. There’s when you have a stroke, cerebral congestion; there’s a stroke when you play guitar; then there’s the obvious sexual undertones.
Nick: When it first came up, it was like, ‘Oh, The Strokes, like a wank.’ Then a person said ‘No, it’s The Strokes like a heart attack’. Then another person said,’…like a caress’. It rolled off the tongue really well – sort of violent and sort of sexual and it just sounded cool to everybody.
Albert: We’d come in with all these bad names – the de Niros, the Rubber Bands, the Motels, Flattop Freddie and the Purple Canoes – and no one would agree. One day we’re in the studio after practice and Julian said ‘The Strokes’. And everyone was like ‘that sounds great!’. It was that easy; five guys agreeing. it doesn’t really mean anything. We thought it was a cool rock and roll name. When I first heard it, it sounded so old, like someone would have already taken it but no one did. Then I looked it up in the dictionary and ‘a powerful blow to the face, chest or body’ was the first thing. Perfect. That’s exactly what our music is. It’s like a powerful blow to the face.
Julian is back from the jukebox and there are new drinks lined up. He’s chosen three dollars of music: some from The Harder They Come, some not. ‘Some Johnny Cash, some Patsy Cline,’ he says. ‘I’m in a country mood tonight. A let’s-get-drunk-and-remember-the-good-old-days mood.’
He is being wry. He insists that he remembers almost nothing of his early life. ‘I have a really vague memory’, he murmurs. His parents had met in Paris, his mother was a model from Denmark; his Spanish father was setting up a modeling agency. They moved to New York where his father started the Elite model agency and a single son was born.
When he was about 7, his parents’ marriage fell apart. This is what he says about it: ‘Basically, when my parents got divorced… I don’t know… everything was, I don’t know… I’m not trying to say that’s like why… it’s just, they got divorced. My mum was fucking miserable and I just lived with her crying every day and that was my life, so I fucking didn’t hate my dad but – I don’t want to say that now because I get along with him now fine, but I did, I did.’
Did you see your father much?
‘No. I would see him sometimes, but I didn’t like the whole vibe of it because my mum was in hell. And I was living with my mum. And you know, walk into the bathroom and your mum’s fucking crying and you start crying and it just fucking sucks you know. Whatever…’
He offers other occasional flashes of his youth. When he was 11 or 12, at school in New York, he realised that his role as the class clown didn’t work for him: ‘being the clown meant that girls just wanted to be my friend’. So he changed. ‘I remember all of a sudden just being really serious and all of a sudden girls would like me. It was strange.’ He was doing badly in school and his father suggested he went to the posh Swiss boarding school his father had attended and loved. His father was European and loved sports; Julian grew up in New York. ‘It was a total clash’, Julian says. ‘He didn’t know. He doesn’t like New York that much. See, I love New York. Hanging out in the street, that’s what I wanted to do.’
He hated Switzerland. The weekends were the worst. ‘All these kids would go out to town and I guess my parents didn’t give me pocket change or whatever these other kids had, and the whole weekend was me sitting in my room by myself’, he remembers. ‘I was just fucking depressed, you know. I’d walk around. Sometimes I’d play basketball by myself. I did that a lot’.
It was his stepdad, a painter called Sam Adoquei, who showed him the way he would go. He hadn’t been much interested in music, though there was one moment the previous summer when Nikolai played him a Pearl Jam song, ‘Yellow Ledbetter’.
‘I was like, “Wow, that’s pretty and it makes me feel something special that I don’t usually feel that I like to feel”,’ he recalls. ‘It made me feel stronger’. His stepdad gave him a CD: The Best of the Doors. One weekend he lay on his bed, listening, and he felt like he understood it: ‘There was so much different shit – cool instrumental shit, cool lyrical shit, there was some cool singing stuff. I said “fuck that’s what I want to do”‘.
Back in New York, released from his Swiss exile, his stepdad would talk to him about art, and about what makes you a great artist, and about how hard you had to work. He got more into Pearl Jam, and into Nirvana. ‘Everything to do with my life’, he says. ‘teenage… angst. I’m using the usual word. I was just totally alone. Totally alone. So many people had friends or were hanging out, and I would like talk to some people but it was a very alone experience, and hearing Nirvana and Pearl Jam made me feel… positive about shit. Because beautiful music with lyrics about the truth of how things can be not great is a powerful thing… It made me feel like, if I put my mind to it, I could make myself happy. Like I had some help. I hate music where it’s, like, “it all sucks, fuck this, we’re gonna die, fuck you, kill yourself”, and I hate shit where it’s “it’s gonna be alright, everything is just fine”. The most powerful aspect of music is that it can open your eyes to the frustration of everything and give you the adrenaline and faith to go on with the ideal that you can make it better if you do your thing.’
By then he’d also met Nick, who played guitar, and taken some guitar lessons himself. The first song Julian could play, just the bass notes, was Nirvana’s ‘Polly’. He went through a phase of interviewing himself while he was in the shower, as though he was famous. ‘I think everyone does that, don’t they?’ he says. He would pretend he was making some kind of political speech. One was about the price of cigarettes.
In the world outside the bathroom, he ran into some problems. The first time he got drunk was when he was 11, swiping fruity alcohol residues off the table at his father’s house with a friend. (‘I think I liked it’, he recalls, and adds, ‘I got all my sins from my dad: drinking, cheating on women…’ Any others? ‘Yeah I dont know. Let’s not talk about that.’) At school in New York he would ask friends who had access to their parents alcohol to bring him drinks, and he would get wasted in the mornings. ‘I got caught drinking whiskey or tequila at 9 am’, he remembers. ‘Two days a week after school I had to go to some kind of rehab type place. It was called Phoenix House. You know, rise from the ashes. It was stupid. They’d give me urine tests and stuff.’
At school, he also started studying music. ‘I took it so fucking seriously, ridiculously seriously’, he says. ‘The only class i got an A in was music.’ He got a scholarship to music college by writing a short classical piece; he asked this Korean guy he knew to play violin and he borrowed a keyboard from an electronics chain during a ‘return it within a month if you don’t like it’ promotion. ‘People don’t understand,’ he says ‘how hard I worked. Really hard, you know what I mean?’ He studied classical composition. ‘I always felt that you need to learn the rules before you could break them. It wasn’t like it helped me in rock at all, but it made me realise what was cheesy, what was typical, what typical chords and scales were, it gave me a foundation where my original thoughts could actually be original… The one thing that made us good now is that I realised my whole life I sucked. Always. Everything I did, it sucked. That was the motto of everything: I suck, I gotta do better. I gotta work harder. That was the motto of music.’
Aside from a one-show band with Fab, Nick and himself called Half Pipe, The Strokes was his first group. He now dismisses the early Strokes songs exchanged by over-eager pop archaeologists on the internet as ‘garbage’. The first song he wrote which he thought didn’t suck was ‘Soma’. So far there have been a little over a dozen of them. But he’s not exactly satisfied with these. ‘Never’, he says. ‘That’s never going to happen. It’s like an exponential curve. You’ll get close to it but you’ll never do it.’
Though he writes all of the Strokes songs, he shares all the money from them five ways. ‘It wouldn’t work any other way’, he says, ‘I just want to write great songs, and if they’re great songs I want them to be played great, and I think that we can do it, the five of us, better than anyone else.’
How equal are The Strokes?
Nick: Completely. Obviously when we’re doing musical stuff Julian has the definitive last say but that doesn’t mean it’s a dictatorship. We all listen, we all contribute and we all hve the same goal, and when something’s good we all agree that it’s good. We disagree about small, stupid, irrelevant things – whether we should fly or drive to Chicago for a show, shit like that.
Fab: There’s an understanding between us. There are times when we step back and let one person make a decision. Different people for different stuff, but a lot of the time it’s Julian, I guess. I’d be an ignorant fool if I didn’t realize that Julian is primus inter parus. First among equals. We are all equal, and Julian is probably the one who most recognises that because he’s the one we all look to.
Albert: Obviously, as of now, Julian writes the songs, and it’s probably the most important thing. I wouldn’t want to say how equal we are apart from that though, because that’s between us. When you see us as a band, as an image, you see all of us and you know all of us; that’s very important.
Nikolai: It’s like the toy Voltron – a big robot that turns into five animals.
Julian: We’re all equal; five different guys. As friends we argue and fight, but when it comes down to it we all want to be on the same page. Sure I write all the songs. I try to push some ideas that I feel strongly about. But I don’t think there would be a time where they’d be ‘you’re wrong, Julian’ and I’d just be like ‘no, this is how it is’. It just doesn’t happen that way. You try to agree on the same best thing and at the end of the day you’re all way stronger.
Today, The Strokes are playing a one-day festival organised by one of America’s most important radio stations K-ROCK: around half an hour of music each from a dozen of America’s hottest bands at an outdoor stage at Jones Beach, about an hour from New York. The Strokes are seventh on the bill, beneath System of a Down, Korn, Papa Roach, Incubus, P.O.D., and Jimmy Eat World, which reflects where they stand over here in naked commercial terms. Though they make a little effort to disguise the fact, they didn’t want to play this event, but within the American record industry few bands can snub the most important radio stations without being punished. ‘Sometimes you gotta do certain things’, says Albert,’There’s no point in making cool music if no ones going to hear it. It’s all about politics.’
They gather in a trailer on a parking lot round the side of the stage. (The real backstage dressing rooms are taken by more important bands.) Julian works on today’s set list. It includes two unreleased songs, ‘The way it is’ and ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’. After he opens a bottle of red wine and wanders off, Fab and Nick come in and study the print out.
‘It’s 11 out of 15’, Fab notes. It takes me awhile to realise what he means, which is this: the Strokes musical career involves just 15 active songs. There is are the 11 on Is this It? CD, the song ‘When It Started’ on the American release after the September 11, and three new songs (the third of which is still simply known to them as “Ze Newie”)
It’s nearly time to perform. Julian says something about needing to puke, but he doesn’t. He often used to, before they played. The last time was at Reading last year. ‘Extreme fear’, he explains it to me, ‘of us being terrible and sucking.’
I stand in the audience as they take the stage in the bright afternoon sunlight. ‘You guys are gay,’ shouts someone from behind me. A large bouncy ball is being thrown around, back and forth, above the audience’s heads, and many of them seem more interested in this than in the Strokes. They sound great, but this is not the place to hear them; even with a sympathetic audience I’m not certain that their music, all frustration and tension and release, would make sense here, by the sea in the sunshine. Applause ripples between the songs and there is more of it by the end than there was in the beginning, but they don’t seem to make a huge impression. Afterwards, a plane circles overhead, trailing a banner advertising the forthcoming Strokes/White Stripes concert at Radio City Music Hall.
‘I guess we all feel a little bit shitty and disappointed by ourselves’, Albert says afterwards. He says it’s difficult playing to people who barely respond. ‘The craziest people in the world to go play a show in front of,’ he notes, are in Glasgow’.
Backstage awhile later, I find Fab and Albert punching each other, pretty hard. ‘It’s a whole thing explains Fabrizio between blows and yelps, ‘It’s love, right?’ ‘No its not,’ retorts Albert, ‘It’s violence!’
The band is gathered in the trailer when I walk in there. There is barely room to stand, and nowhere to sit. Julian suggests I sit on his lap. I demur but he is insistent. It’s comfy enough there, though after awhile, being considerably heavier than he is, I inquire how his leg is coping. ‘My third leg?’ he says, ‘It’s getting pretty hard.’
They’re now enjoying a pleasantly drunken sunny afternoon. ‘How much more fun have we been having since we got offstage,’ laughs Julian. He asks how they seem to me, but doesn’t wait for me to answer. ‘Pretty rich boy homos’, he says. ‘Yeah, their musical is basically Seventies rip-off stuff by vain, spoiled assholes. Rich and Vain: The Story of the Strokes. Someone wrote all their songs for them.’
Afternoon slips to evening. I overhear Fab talking about Kierkegaard, and about how he used the tale Abraham and Isaac as an analogy about Christians in general; he is relating this to the rock audience and the way they are spoon fed certain kinds of bands. ‘His name was Soren,’ says Fabrizio, ‘Soren Kirkengaard. He had a strange love for thought’. He is mortified when he realises I have heard this. ‘You can’t write that,’ he pleads, ‘Say Nick said it.’
All of the band except Julian and Fab take the first bus back to Manhattan when it gets dark. I find myself in System of a Down’s dressing room talking to Fab, Mike from Incubus, System of a Down’s singer and Jack Osbourne. When there is a ‘who has the best afro hair competition?’ Jack Osbourne passes round his wallet which shows a ninth grade photo of him with a huge afro; he threatens to grow it back.
Everyone dozes on the way back into town, until Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ comes on the radio. Julian stirs, ‘Can you make it much louder?’ he asks the driver, ‘Painfully loud’. The driver refuses, and they row about it. Julian sighs when he spots me writing this down, the shuts his eyes.
Earlier in the day Julian had taken my notebook from me and written a greeting in large, wild capital letters. ‘I’LL MISS YOUR CREEPY, IN THE SHADOWS, MAD SCRIBBLING,’ he wrote. ‘EXPOSE US FOR THE FRAUDULENT POSEURS WE ARE.’
Who is the best kisser in The Strokes?
Fab: I don’t know. We might have all kissed in a drunken stupor, but I don’t remember. I may not have kissed Nikolai. It’s not a regular thing. But we’re that comfortable with each other, we’re that close to each other; the boundaries that society have set saying ‘this is what a friend does and this is what a lover does’ is a little skewed when it comes to The Strokes. We’re not homosexual; we understand what the love between the band is worth and we like to express that to each other. It’s also being able to not feel uncomfrotable as individuals touching each other, because we’re brothers. Imagine you were looking at a five year-old and a six year-old playing in a pool where they had no inhibitions and they’re just having a fun time, no real boundaries.
Albert: Julian kisses like me – the problem is, I don’t like his breath sometimes. We have really big lips. Fab and Nick kind of kiss the same; Fab has the stubble, it itches. I can’t believe I’m telling you this. It’s ridiculous. It’s hilarious. I’ve never kissed Nikolai so I don’t know – he’s the only one that doesn’t allow that. The best kisses is my girlfriend. But it’s always been a running joke in the band. To go and promote ourselves we’d get pretty wasted because we were tired of going to all these places and seeing the same assholes who’d say ‘fuck you’ when we gave them a flyer. And we loved fucking with people. Everyone thought we were gay or something. It always fucks with people’s heads.
Julian: Everyone’s a pretty good kisser. Albert’s pretty nice. It’s not like we’re getting turned on. It’s sort of a joke. Nikolai likes it the least. It’s when we fuck around and get fucked up but it’s not an important tradition with us or anything. It’s just something that people catch us doing every now and then and make a big deal out of. You know, we just act like idiots sometimes. We’re friends and we don’t care. We’re five very headstrong, different people with one extreme blessing, which is that we all want the same thing. We all want to do something that’s cool and interesting , so all the small pretexts get wiped under the rug, and let’s just act like it is together because that’s pretty much all we are.
Nick: [long pause, exhale] That’s a ridiculous question. I’ve kissed most of them, it’s true. I’ve never thought about gauging how good my friends kiss. They’re all not bad. When they kiss me it’s a bit different to when they kiss their girlfriend. We don’t go around kissing each other all the time – people see a snippet of something and they assume that we’re hanging out after a show in a hotel room having make-out sessions. We’re all pretty secure with each other and we find it funny. Watching Julian dry-hump Fab is funny. Whether we’re in public or in our rehearsal studio by ourselves, I just think it’s funny. And I don’t care why.
Nikolai: It’s not that I”m less keen, I’m just not as full-on about it as the others. I’ve probably kissed all of them, back in the day, when it was more innocent affection and much less thought about, showing true affection. We’re good friends; we don’t care. With guys open affection is almost frowned upon, we’re five guys that are close and it goes beyond sexual; it makes people weird. In the environment we’re in there’s so much outer pressure that it’s good to know there’s five people who don’t have to hide anything; it’s just comforting inside.
‘I got to piss badly,’ says Julian,’ Whiskey on the rocks’, he requests.
It is later on the night of our long, New York bar conversation.
When Julian comes back, he brings with him some regrets about having discussed his life. ‘I feel bad I talked about it,’ he says, ‘I just feel like it sounds so cheesy.’ He doesn’t like stuff when it’s pinned down. ‘You read Crime and Punishment? How did you feel after you read that book? Probably totally differently than I felt. So what are you going to say?’ He says we don’t need to know what Dostoevsky was thinking about. ‘Because of what was in his mind and if he was being interviewed by a rock journalist – that would make any kind of a difference?’ he says.
Isn’t it a pity that Dostoevsy never did an NME interview?
‘Well dude, thank God. That’s why he’s so good. If he did then people would be “Oh, OK, I’ve figured him out, he’s about this and that”. Well it’s not about this and that, it’s about everything.’
He says how much he hates it when The Strokes are dismissed as rich kids, not because his family never had any money (though most of it was his father’s, and not within his orbit) but because it somehow casts doubt on his sincerity, and on how hard he worked. ‘I think that if I knew me, and then saw the music we played, I would think it was cool,’ he says. ‘If I read stuff that they wrote about me then I would think I’m full of shit’.
Some more of his chosen reggae comes on the jukebox. Julian is particularly crazy about Bob Marley. It annoys him that, because The Strokes don’t play reggae or country or whatever, people don’t notice the way all of that, and so much else, has influenced what The Strokes do. ‘Journalists know so little about music sometimes,’ he says, ‘If they can’t explain it in one sentence they won’t write about it.’ I ask him what the pat journalist sentence about The Strokes is and he says, ‘I don’t know… Velvet Underground Seventies New York punk…’ and shrugs. ‘I read a funny quote that I thought was good from Frank Zappa: ‘rock journalism is people that can’t write interviewing people that can’t talk for people who can’t read.’ It’s true. And shit like this Johnny Cash song, ‘…Ira Hayes…’ – he gestures toward the jukebox – ‘It’s a good song, no one knows about it.’ He has a theory, ‘If you replaced Elvis fans with Johnny Cash fans and Rolling Stones fans with Velvet Underground fans the world would be a better place. They’d have a more realistic view of how things can be.’
He talks about drugs (‘Stuff that I guess is rightfully frowned upon for health reasons and mental reasons but at the same time I always felt like there’s this different part of the brain that was always fun to fuck around with’) and fighting. ‘I don’t like fighting,’ he says, ‘but at the same time, anyone that fucks with you, then I don’t give a fuck, I’ll fuck them up, you know what I mean?’
I ask him about the story that he’d thumped representative of one of their European record companies a few months ago in Paris.
‘That was different,’ he says. ‘Different situation – you get to a point sometimes when you’re on tour, you get pushed around so much it’s like your career is on the verge of being over, you break up, or everything you do can sometimes be broken by a business-minded person. Being on the road and doing stuff all the time – it’s already delicate as it is. To make it work the way it does now, the way you see we all get along and stuff, that’s not just that we’re getting along people, that’s the attitude of don’t-make-us-fucking-hate-each-other. Even Kurt Cobain, a lot of the time, I think that’s why he killed himself, – honestly, sometimes I think it’s because they didn’t tour right. I want to learn from their mistakes. If you think of it in terms of just,like, someone’s organizing your day and stuff, it’s ridiculous, obviously. But reality-wise, when you’re constantly doing shit like that, to get along and be creative, is hard.’
So what should Nirvana have done?
‘I don’t know what they should have done. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Doing whatever a record company tells you to do – basically it’s not good.’
And that’s what happened in France? ‘No. They lied to us.’
It gets later. ‘You believe in God?’ Julian asks and then he details his own convoluted but clearly heartfelt faith.
What do you think God thinks of the Strokes?
‘That’s a good question,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I wonder if he wants us to be like a martyr for like rich fuck who don’t do anything but then inspire someone else to do something else, you know.’ He half-laughs, he doesn’t want to mean that at all. ‘I just feel like I’m not supposed to know. Maybe later…’
Do the rest of the band believe in God?
‘I don’t know. I don’t really speak to them about it. If they heard me say this they would probably think I was crazy.’
Though the words themselves are making sense, his sentences are becoming more and more slurred. ‘I’m only 23 years old, man,’ he says. ‘I’m getting started. I don’t have shit figured out.’ He peers at the tape recorder perched on the bar in front of him, then up at me, his eyes both drooping and pleading. ‘Can we stop this shit?’
How close have the Strokes come to splitting up?
Nikolai: Very close. There’s two ways to look at this. Looking back on it we know that it’s pressure from touring, and this and that. That’s kind of the real reason. But if you look at it more precisely there’s a bunch of things that go between bands, between friends, that have happened. Definitely when you’re drawn into this environment at our age, mistakes like partying too much and not concentrating on why you’re actually here, which is the music and us as friends. I would always say: excess in moderation.
Albert: We’ve never come close to splitting up. The boat has never sunk, but there’s definitely been fights. Especially in the early days when we did two world tours, so unorganized… sometimes it took its toll. But we’re our on psychiatrists.
Fab: Once, I felt it might be over. It was definitely the influence of success. I was scared, because it’s just been so much fun. But then there’d be nights where I’d think if it is over, this has provided me with the most spectacular time in my life so we’re just going to have to deal with it. We all said, this is what we love to do. There were times when we got caught up with the rock and roll life and we had to sort that out, we had to bring back the people who were sort of on the moon, bring them back to earth. Now everything’s sorted out. It was heavy enough that we realised, as friends, and I don’t think we’re ready to make the same mistake twice.
Nick: Not close at all. Even if we did stop playing music, as long as they were still my friends, as long as I still hung out with them, I wouldn’t give a fuck. And I’ve told them that too. Our relationships with each other to me is so much more important than our band. It’s not that I don’t care about the music – it’s my entire life- but I would still be happy if I was friends with those guys. If the friendship thing went out away but we were still playing music together I would be miserable.
Julian: It’s easy to stay as a band and not get along – the thing that’s really hard is to stay way you were when you started out. That’s what I want to do. And doing that means pissing some people off. The record company, whatever. We got to the point where it was about to be no fun. We were about to not have time to write new songs, not have time to get along, see each other too much. It’s been on the verge and that’s not our fault. So we just said fuck that. And maybe we’ll be less famous but at least we’ll write cool songs.
I follow the band to Los Angeles. On the day I arrive, I find three Strokes swimming in the Sunset Marquis hotel pool there, while Fab reads Alexandre Dumas’s The Count Of Monte Cristo. Julian is nowhere to be seen. After the others dry off, they order lunch. I sit with Nick as eats a grilled cheese sandwich, sips a pina colada and, at my request, talks about the book he’s reading. William Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury and then about the other authors he favors: James Joyce, Charles Bukowski, Celine, Kurt Vonnegut. He is wearing a T-Shirt commemorating the sleeve of Duran Duran’s second album Rio. He mentions that ‘none of us have ever stepped foot in a fucking gym or on a piece of exercise equipment ever.’ He says that all he ever wanted to do was to play guitar and not have to do anything else and that it has happened for him. ‘I guess it’s like the typical fucking dream story that you write about every day probably,’ he says, ‘but when it happens to you yourself it’s pretty fucking cool.’
We talk about the influence it has on the way The Strokes are that each of them is from immigrant backgrounds. Julian’s father is Spanish, his mother is Danish. Fab’s father is Italian and his mother Brazilian. Nick’s father is Tunisian and his mother French. Both of Nikolai’s parents are French, though his mother’s family is Russian. Albert’s father is British, but raised in Gibraltar, his mother is Argentinean, but with Peruvian and Austrian roots. ‘We’re really priveledged in that we’re all well-traveled, you know, fucking cultured,’ Nick points out. ‘We’ve got fucking table manners you know. I’d like to think that we’re all fucking classy guys, you know, like sort of fucking gentlemen, and not some fucking crass American rock band.’
Nikolai (whose poolside reading of choice is Jung’s Dreams, Memories and Reflections) is sitting out in the hotel’s back garden; the calmest setting, the quietest Stroke. His voice is so low and gentle that the tape recorder struggles to record him. He has known Julian the longest, since elementary school. ‘Everything we went through for the first time we sort of went through together or shared together,’ he says. ‘Your first cigarette, your first drink. Everything you could think of.’
I chat with Fab in his room. An acoustic guitar leans against the wall. He talks about how New York’s, and the Stroke’s spirit echo each other. ‘In New York everything’s very tight and tense,’ he says. ‘New Yorkers act more like roaches crawling over each other, and time is of the essence.’ Fab is currently facing his own individual media circus: all the America gossip magazines have photos of him with Drew Barrymore. Sensibly, he chooses his words with care. ‘I would say that she and I share amazing moments, and that I don’t want to lose those amazing moments by tripping myself and saying the wrong things,’ he notes, ‘because she’s one of the most perfect people I’ve ever met.’
Albert announces that he’d like to go for a drive, so he and I head off in his hire car, weaving in loops through the back streets of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. He tells me about living with Julian. ‘We’re like the odd couple. I’m really neat, he’s really messy. But somehow it all works out. We both keep our doors open all the time. We’re really close. Even though we have two beds, a lot of times we end up sleeping in the same bed; passing out in his room or he’ll pass out in my room. Now his girlfriend lives with him a lot so that’s changed a bit, sleeping in his room, because he’s got his girlfriend in there, it’d be a little weird.’
Albert, who lived in Los Angeles until he was 15, and whose father, also Albert Hammond, is a noted songwriter, is usually credited with focusing the Strokes’ fashion sense. He says he’s always been drawn to that stuff. ‘I liked the whole tie thing, a little looser,’ he says, ‘almost like you’re going to work but you obviously look like no one would hire you.’ He says he encouraged the Strokes to ‘almost look like you’re on stage all the time.’
Driving back to the hotel, Albert thinks he spots someone in a Mercedes passing us in the opposite direction.
‘I think that was fucking Britney Spears!’ he exclaims. ‘Shall we go follow her?’ He does a U-turn. ‘Holy shitballs!’ he says, ‘it makes sense though, doesn’t it? A nice Mercedes…’ We pull alongside at some traffic lights. ‘That’s her, isn’t it?’ he says, then realises that for all her youth and blondness, the drive is not Britney. ‘It did look like her though, didn’t it?’ he sighs, turning back round. ‘I would’ve liked it to have been her…’
What drug would you never take?
Julian: I really try to stay away from heroin. Yeah, it’s fun, but do you want to have the band break up, play bad music, think you’re good when you suck, die…? There’s no positive aspect to it. You try shit when you’re a kid. That’s like an orgasm – it feels good but it lasts a short time. But for me music is more important. Some people do music to figure out what’s going on, then they do drugs and they figure nothing’s going on. But they only way I can figure how things are going on is through music. So if anything can take that way, it’s my enemy. I like to work really hard and I like to get fucked up sometimes, so I do shit. But I want to write music where people’s jaws drop and they go fuck. So fuck everything else. All that rock bullshit. All that cliche. It’s just so uninteresting. It’s fun as an individual who liked to get fucked up, and I’ll always do that, but it has nothing to do with what I wanted to do. I don’t give a fuck if people think I’m a dork. I write better fucking songs than them. And writing a song is so hard. It’s one of the hardest things in the world.
Albert: I don’t want to take any more hallucinogens. Not that I took a lot but I don’t think I could handle tripping right now. I would go bonkers, man. Once we were having a great time and my friend went into convulsions and I thought he was joking and he woke up and he was all pale and he threw up straight in the air and it landed on his face, and for 20 minutes I had the worst time of my life. He ate too many mushrooms.
Nikolai: In our environment, heroin. Just because of all the clichedness of it. In a rock ‘n’ roll environment of everything-is-so-easy, you-can-get-anything-you-want, it would definitely become a problem. For where we are, a moderately successful band, the record companies want to please you, people want to make you happy, countless people come up to you… it’s all definitely there. You just have to know what to stay away from and what not to do too much.
Nick: I don’t want to answer that. I don’t want to talk about drugs.
Fab: Heroin. Never ever. The whole idea that you could be a slave to something…
It is way past midnight when, a little drunk again, Julian agrees to sit at a table near the pool in LA and talk some more. The Strokes have spent the evening rehearsing, tightening up ‘Hard to Explain’, for a TV show appearance tomorrow, and have been working on his newest song, which is right now called ‘I Can’t Win’. ‘It could be good,’ he says,’ but right now it’s not.’ He explains that ‘a new song can only be a new song if it’s better than the other songs – that’s the criteria.’
We talk about some of he weird flotsam and jetsam which recently floated The Strokes’ way. The Different Strokes EP for instance, where some anonymous English musicians covered The Strokes songs on toy organs. He says that he heard it for the first time when someone blasted it at the end of a Christmas party at Fab’s place. ‘It was definitely funny,’ he says. ‘At first I though it was an insult, that they were going to make fun of it, but they were actually just playing the songs on a keyboard. I guess people think in different ways.’
Then there is the popular ‘Stroke of Genius’ bootleg, melding the introduction of ‘Hard to Explain’ with the vocal from Christina Aguilera’s ‘Genie in a Bottle’. Julian says, ‘I was hoping for better. There’s one part where she goes ‘wo-wo-woah’, actual three different chords, but everything else is just one chord so I was a little disappointed.’
Did you like the sound of it?
He looks at me like I may be slightly disturbed. ‘No,’ he says, ‘I would never listen to it for fun, no.’
It is, I point out to him, quite a big deal in England now. ‘Well you know,’ he says dryly,’ a lot of things are big in England right now. A lot of things that are big in America. It doesn’t mean a shit.’
I ask him about something I’ve seen him do since the first day I spent with him. Sometimes he hangs his head low, lets his hair fall over his face, and simply sits there, motionless, hidden in plain sight. He snorts when I mention this. I ask what he’s thinking under there.
‘I don’t know. Different things. Sometimes I’m thinking about music. Sometimes I’m thinking about other stuff.’
When you do it you give the impression, I say, that you’d rather not be where you are that moment.
‘Well’, he says, ‘I’m sad I make it so obvious.’
What are the strangest rumours you’ve heard about The Strokes?
Fab: That we were on magazine before we had any songs. That we were put together by Julian’s father. [laughs] That I’m going out with Drew Barrymore.
Albert: That we get our parents’ money and we buy our songs. I mean, how come no one else does that? And the gay one’s a funny one, always.
Nikolai: That either Julian or Albert was the kid in that movie Big. Things like that.
Julian: Just stuff like that I was going out with Ryan our manager; that I as the bitch and he was the butch. Some are funnier than the others. I don’t really care about that stuff.
Nick: I don’t give a shit; I don’t care about anything aside from those four guys, my mother and my two sisters and our music.
The Tonight Show is an American institution, a TV show which has been running for far longer than any of The Strokes have been alive. Tonight they are to make their first appearance on it, playing their current single, ‘Hard to Explain’. On the soundstage, mid-morning, they run through the song. Julian’s voice quickly cracks. ‘Shit,’ he says and begins half singing in a lower register.
As they finish rehearsing, Jay Leno, the host, strides over to greet them, clapping his hands. ‘Thanks kids,’ he says. ‘Are you happy with everything?’ Albert tells him that he just fucked up. ‘Yeah, fuck up – it’s only TV,’ says Leno breezily and wanders back to his interviewing desk.
Back in the dressing room, Nick and Julian play a driving game on the Playstation. ‘I try to think of myself as Tom Cruise in Days Of Thunder,’ says Julian. ‘How would he drive the car? What would he do?’
‘I’m nervous, man,’ says Fab.
‘You’re nervous?’ says Julian. ‘How about me? I just fucking suck.’ He sits there. ‘Dude, I’m so nervous,’ he says. Then he shouts, very loudly, ‘IS ANYBODY NERVOUS?’ he half-laughs. ‘That’s my pseudo-vocal warm up.’
It takes me awhile to realise that, beneath all this play-acting about being nervous, he really is. He keeps talking about it. ‘Is anyone else freaking nervous,y’all?… Dude, I’m so freaking scared… Dude, it’s totally nuts what we’re doing here.’
The show begins on the monitor in the corner of the room, and Jay Leno announces that the Strokes will be playing later. ‘Did he just say our name?’ asks Julian. ‘That’s so great.’ He stands up, walks over to me, grabs my head and kisses me on the cheek. He and fab dance violently around the room, to ‘get the heart going’.
‘I can’t go on this,’ says Nikolai. ‘I just can’t.’
They go downstairs. When the curtain rises and Leno introduces them, Julian looks kind of pissed off, standing there, which is how he looks best, of course. It’s a fine performance, the first time today Julian sings it the way he can, and is punctuated by the screams of an unexpectedly large number of Strokes fans in the audience. Leno stands at the edge, hands in his pockets, vaguely shaking a leg by way of approval.
‘I was so worried I’d mess up,’ Julian says afterwards. ‘I was fucking it up so bad this afternoon.’
They watch a playback. ‘This is awesome,’ Julian commentates, then, as he watches himself swing a little bit wildly into the beginning of the second verse, says ‘not so good’. But they’re pleased. Julian and Fab dance together and chant, ‘Party! Pizza Party! Party! Pizza Party!…’
In the bus back to the hotel, various Strokes call their parents and suggest they watch later. ‘Last Nite’ comes on the radio, and they turn it up. When they turn down the nu-metal noise which follows it, Julian sings to himself, ‘Baby you and me/wouldn’t you agree/we’ve got a pretty groovy kind of love‘. He looks behind him to where I’m writing in my notebook, and he shakes his head one more time. ‘Scribblings of a madman’, he says. Its hard enough, all this, without having to worry about whether anyone will understand it.