Rebirth The Cool
Once they were the hippest band on the planet; then it all went a bit quiet for the Strokes. They tell Laura Barton how they got over themselves
In 2001, the Strokes arrived more like a jolt in the night than a band, shaking awake a world grown drowsy with Hear’Says and Atomic Kittens and Daniel Bendingfields. From the opening note of their first single, The Modern Age, they were compelling. Lead singer Julian Casablancas half-sang, half-sneered his way through their debut album, Is This It, as if he could hardly be bothered to talk to you, wouldn’t even deign to look at you. They sounded so cool, they looked so cool, they were so very, very cool.
Every band in the world wanted to be them, and so up sprang a crop of imitators in skinny ties and skinny jeans, and it spread like a particularly virulent garden weed. It seemed the Strokes could not be uprooted. But in 2003, their second album, Room on Fire, received a tepid response. Weary of the hype, the debauchery, the Lou Reed references, the persistent digs that they were over-styled groupie-shagging pretty-boys, and the plain relentless pressure of being the coolest band on the planet, the band ducked out of view. Now the Strokes are poised to resurface with a new album, First Impressions of Earth. Musically, their characteristic leanness has filled out a little, the sound is less immediate, more labyrinthine, less recognizably Strokesian. It is perhaps more of a cerebral album, after the vigorous physicality of Is This It and Room on Fire, and, as a result, it hits your brain before your belly. Already they have served an aperitif, in the form of the single Juicebox, which carries a sinister bassline and Casablancas squalling: “Why won’t you come over here?/ We’ve got a city to love”.
It is a misty Monday afternoon in New York City, and from a suite high up in an East Village hotel one can barely make out the horizon through the layer of despondent cloud. Casablancas, Fabrizio Moretti, Albert Hammond Jr, Nikolai Fraiture and Nick Valensi are variously perched around the room on fluffy white stools, or jostling about on the bed. Hammond is busy chewing gum. “It looks like chewing tobacco,” he says with wonder, “but it’s gum!” They look healthier than they once did. Less pallid, less hungry, less knackered – much of which may well be attributed to the stability the intervening time has granted them. Casablancas got married and Fraiture became a father, while Moretti and Valensi are in long-term relationships with Drew Barrymore and Amanda de Cadenet respectively.
Today finds them at the beginning of the inevitable press onslaught, and underlying their joviality is a faint unease. The Strokes have reason to be wary of the press; they’ve suffered more than most at the hands of the media. Casablancas jokingly gets out his own tape recorder and places it on the table, where Valensi is engaged in rolling a large spliff. “I think,” explains Hammond delicately, “we know that something is headed our way. We can see it on the horizon and we’re not quite sure if it’s a canoe or an aircraft carrier. I for one pray that it is going to be positive and nice.”
Perhaps this is why, throughout the interview, Hammond remains subdued, yet talkative, and Fraiture nigh-on silent. Casablancas stares vaguely out at his misty city. He speaks drowsily, with an elasticated, gum-chewed twang, and rat-a-tat-tats a bored little rhythm on his thigh, like a schoolboy stuck in detention. Occasionally his attention drifts back to the conversation, with a slow, melancholy smile. Moretti and Valensi, meanwhile, work as an impeccable comedy double-act.
“Last week we did some press for Malaysia,” says Moretti, rocking back and forth on a stool. “I find the language barrier to be difficult a lot of the time. They ask what is, I suppose, a fair question, but it’s just phrased so bizarre, and in a weird accent, ‘You. Are. So. Coool. No?’ Whaddya say to that? I was like, ‘Yes. The Coolest!'” You can, they say, so easily fall into the rhythm of delivering set answers. “What’s your favourite colour?” Moretti asks. “Blue. Obviously.” “It has to be blue,” nods Valensi. “I actually only see blue,” volunteers Moretti, deadpan. “I have a problem with my vision where I can’t see any other colour. You all look like Smurfs to me.” They are, understandably, excited about the new album. “I just can’t wait for it to come out!” declares Moretti. “It feels like we’ve been sitting on it for fucking years!” Indeed, they took a positively luxurious nine months to record First Impressions, compared to two months for Room on Fire; the benefits, Moretti feels, are evident. “It’s a representation of our renewed sense of values and responsibility and fucking musicianship,” he says . “Not just sonically but the depth of the songs.”
It was a depth initiated, he says, by a new maturity in Casablancas’s songwriting. “Not to dog anything, those two last records they’re like ex-girlfriends who you gotta respect and love because they got you to think the way you’re thinking now. But I think that this new love affair …” Valensi wades in: “Is this your current girlfriend, this album?” “Yeah,” rejoins Moretti. “This album is my new girlfriend. And she’s not only beautiful but smart. It has a little je ne sais quoi.”
They say the process of recording the new album has been more akin to recording Is This It, their first, than Room on Fire. “We did it slowly – a song, two songs per month,” says Hammond. “It was, ‘Here is the song, play around.’ We basked in it, ping-ponged it around, and only when it was done was it recorded.” “There’s another thing, too,” pipes up Moretti, “the David Khane aspect.”
Though a Strokes fan, Khane was perhaps an unusual choice for producer as he is known more for his work with artists such as Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett and Cher. “From the beginning,” says Casablancas, “the production, was the main difference.” Certainly, First Impressions sounds glossier, more obviously produced than their previous albums. “We had a boss on this record,” Moretti explains. “We had a guy who said, ‘That wasn’t good enough. Put your tail between your legs and go back to the studio.'” Valensi nods. “He was pretty brutal at times. I mean it really worked for me, but he could be really harsh. I would do a guitar solo or something, and he would look at me and say, ‘That was really cheesy. You need to rethink that.’ And I would be like, ‘What did you just say to me?'” Moretti grins broadly. “And he always referred to other session musicians who were perfect. Like the drummer from this band called Fishbone. I swear to God, if I ever meet that guy I feel like I should get on my knees and suck his dick ‘cos it was always, ‘If Johnny Fishbone were here he’d be able to do that part in a minute!'” One suspects that Khane’s attitude might have been hard to accept after several years of unrelenting sycophancy. “Yeah,” nods Moretti. “I don’t feel like it was, ‘Everything we do is great,'” protests Valensi. “Aw c’mon man,” says Moretti, “that’s bullshit.” Valensi shrugs. “Personally I experienced a lot of Strokes hatred. I find that walking down the street, people come up to me in bars and fucking antagonise me because of the band that I play in.” “But critically and shit like that it got a little annoying how we were this band who revitalised rock’n’roll,” says Moretti. Room on Fire, Valensi is quick to point out, wasn’t that critically acclaimed.
What is apparent is that Room on Fire has left a few scars on the Strokes. “We were cocky and insecure at the same time,” recalls Hammond. “It was like, ‘Oh, we’re naked.'” He speaks of the bands who rushed in to take their place, of the weirdness of watching bands dressed like them but singing like Limp Bizkit. “The pressure,” says Moretti, “wasn’t so big in the beginning.” “There was no pressure, we were nobodies,” agrees Valensi, “we were making it for ourselves. And we haven’t made this album for any other reason than to satisfy our drive to make original art and music. It’s pretty clear that we’re not doing this to be famous or rich or press darlings, or whatever you want to call it.” But the fact remains that they are famous and rich and press darlings, and it is notoriously difficult to recapture the growling hunger of a first album once you have wealth and comfort and beautiful girlfriends.
‘No, we’re not rich,” says Moretti firmly. “And we’re not famous either,” says Valensi. “I think the band is famous. I don’t feel famous personally.” Moretti is insistent. “The reason why I’m saying this is I want to set the record straight,” he says. ” ‘Cos I hate being these fucking pretty-boy darling kids who come from affluent backgrounds. It’s not true. We worked really hard to get what we have. We’re very respectful of what we have. We’re very proud of being in this band.”
He launches into a burst of Under Pressure. “Have you ever been scuba-diving?” asks Valensi. “That is some serious pressure. That’s more pressure than I’ve ever felt doing an album or anything like that. Forty feet under water, man? Serious fucking pressure.” Moretti grins. “I’ll tell you what pressure is: fucking sitting in Mr Samuels’s class, he picks on you to answer a question you don’t know and you need to take a dump. That’s pressure. Room on Fire was a very stressful period in our lives, now it seems like we’re back in a valley of pressure and what we do is important to get right for our sakes, and not for anybody else’s. We feel that we’ve accomplished that, and hopefully we’ll start our ascension up another hill. And hopefully it won’t be a pressure hill; hopefully it will be a hill of less bullshit and less fucking hype, a hill of just musical taste.”