Spin Gang Of Five by Chuck Klosterman
Today we are going to learn about the Strokes. We are going to learn who the Strokes are — or at least who they are supposed to be. But this will not be easy: There will be holes. There will be misdirection. And it will be up to you to fill in the gaps.
And this is intentional.
“The one thing I’ve never understood about the media is this whole idea of the public’s ‘right to know.’ Just because people want to know something does not mean they have a right to that information.”
Julian Casablancas is sitting in a diner in lower Manhattan, drinking a glass of water and considering how much he needs a cigarette. Ostensibly, he’s telling me his thoughts on journalism; however, he’s actually trying to explain why he won’t directly answer my questions. This is a game, and I think he is winning.
“Reporters will ask me a question and say, ‘People have the right to know this,'” Casablancas says. “And my response is usually, ‘Actually, they don’t.’ Why does having a tape recorder give you the right to make life less interesting for everyone involved? I could care less if people want to know something. People always want to know things. But just because some guy wants to know what your fucking asshole smells like, are you going to let him smell it?”
This is not exactly the world’s most appealing metaphor for privacy, nor does it seem like a particularly trenchant argument. But this point is critical: Casablancas’ unflinching demand to remain mysterious is how the Strokes remain “the Strokes,” which is to say, how they remain Five Guys Who Always Seem Like One Guy.
Not since Guns N’ Roses in 1987 (and maybe not since the Rolling Stones in ’67) has a major rock band so deftly mastered the concept of the celebrity collective; the Strokes seem like a gang. They’re almost like the Ramones. No one says, “Julian Casablancas was at a party” or “I ran into Fabrizio Moretti at the airport” or “I spotted Albert Hammond Jr. in a discotheque.” All of these situations would be described with the same declaration: “I think I saw a Stroke.” The magic of this band is not just their music. Their magic is an indefinable quality of togetherness they never seem to surrender. They are five close friends with five exotic names, and this is the only group that any of them have ever joined. The Strokes sold 2 million copies of Is This It worldwide and were the most talked-about band of 2001 — yet two years later, Casablancas and Hammond still share a two-bedroom apartment (and their rent is less than you might think). Their uniqueness is not a product of their influences or their musical motives — it’s an extension of their interlocking personalities. No singular element is dominant. The vocals always sound like they’re being sung through a telephone, the guitar playing never seems masturbatory, and the rhythm section never has to get out and push. It’s akin to a Robert Altman film — five people can talk at the same time, but it always feels like one voice. This is a real band.
With the release of Room On Fire, the Strokes are trying to unleash the album of the year…again. The rest of us are still trying to understand what makes them so compelling to begin with. And in order to do that, we can’t look at the whole machine; we need to rip apart the chassis and examine all the parts by hand. So here’s the truth, one Stroke at a time.
Albert Stroke (“the Unshaven One”)
Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. meets me at a Japanese restaurant near Grammercy Park, and he looks like someone who just woke up; this is because he just did. It’s 1:30 P.M. He’s wearing a brown suit jacket, with two pins on the lapel: Clint Eastwood from Dirty Harry and a cartoon kitten. I warn him that these are dangerous things to wear to an interview, since journalists might try to turn those images into a metaphor for the Strokes. “Well, actually, that kind of would be our band,” he replies. “I like to think of our music as beautiful anger.”
Like his four coworkers, Hammond is ridiculously good-looking; his Argentine mother used to be a model, so maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. A former film student (he adores Stanley Kubrick) and a serious Beatles fan (he prefers John to Paul), Hammond was the last to join the band, but he might have been the catalyst for the group’s gutter-glam appearance: On the first day of practice, he wore a suit. This didn’t cause the other guys to start wearing suits, but it did create a look. It made the Strokes realize they shouldn’t come across as five musicians who got dressed accidentally.
“I think each of us looks like members of five different bands, and that’s why we look good together,” the 23-year-old guitarist says as he eats his sushi. “We definitely spoke about things like that when we started. I mean, we definitely talked about the music more than about how we would dress, but yeah, we had conversations like, ‘This looks cool, that looks cool, that doesn’t look cool,’ that sort of thing. Since I was 15, I’ve had a motto that you should always look like you’re onstage.”
Unlike the others, Hammond is not a native New Yorker; he’s originally from Los Angeles (in fact, he went to the high school Bret Easton Ellis wrote about in Less Than Zero). He met Casablancas as a 13-year-old — they both briefly attended boarding school in Switzerland — and the pair reconnected when Hammond moved to Manhattan to enroll at the New York Film Academy. Hammond is the most candid of the Strokes and the least nervous about discussing his personal life: Without much prompting, he tells a story about taking a vacation to Bermuda and finding himself suspected of cocaine possession. “It was terrible,” he says. “My girlfriend and I landed there, and they searched us, which they always do. I never bring anything like that on vacation, ever since I saw Midnight Express. But they start swabbing my stuff, and they were like, ‘We found traces of coke in your bag.’ Then they started swabbing my girlfriend’s purse. It took them an hour and a half to do all this, and they even had the drug dog come out and sniff us. They tested all my shampoo. They actually thought I had some. But why would I bring coke on a holiday? Grass, maybe. But coke on a holiday? That would be terrible.”
It’s well-known that Hammond comes from a musical family. His father cowrote the Hollie’s hit “The Air That I Breathe,” whose chorus was lifted by Radiohead on the song “Creep.” What’s less known is that Hammond’s mother had a partial miscarriage four months into her pregnancy with Albert Jr.; had this not happened, he would have had a twin. And this is mildly ironic, because — ever since the release of Is This It — about 10,000 New York City goofballs aspire to look exactly like him.
Fab Stroke (“the Romantic One”)
Fabrizio Moretti dates Drew Barrymore, which is absolutely the last thing he would want me to write in this story. But I only bring it up for this reason: Drew needs to by her boyfriend a Zippo for Christmas. In the course of our 90-minute interview, Moretti smokes six cigarettes, and he has to ask strangers for a light every single time. He manages to get some matches from a waitress, but then he has to give them back. It’s a struggle for all involved.
Dressed in a Rolling Stones T-shirt and looking five years younger than he is (23), Moretti has interests that run the cultural gamut: Immediately after discussing Patrick Süskind’s dark German novel Perfume, we briefly speculate on the whereabouts of ex-Guns N’ Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin. And then I ask him how he feels when people erroneously accuse the Strokes of using a drum machine in the studio — simultaneously the most flattering compliment and the most damning insult that anyone can throw in the face of a percussionist.
“I think that’s a good thing, actually,” Moretti says. “If you can be precise and if your playing is appropriate for the overall sounds and if the drums come off as a singular instrument and less of a mere rhythm-maker, that becomes really identifiable. I think the most incredible sounds ever recorded — like the drum part on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” when you hear that boom-tack, boom-tack — are situations where you just immediately know it’s that song. And then it becomes exalted.”
Moretti’s word choice is vital; the Strokes clearly want to be exalted. And thus far, they don’t feel as though that’s happened. They feel like they’ve sold enough records to have a good life, but they still haven’t made the kind of mark that validates their place in the modern pantheon of rock. All five Strokes stress that they want to make something that will last. At the moment, they mostly feel as if they’ve lost their privacy before gaining a legacy. This is especially true for Moretti, whose romance with Barrymore prompted The New York Observer to print both the location and the $657,000 price tag of his recently purchased condo.
“Insignificant pieces of my life are known now,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean anyone really knows who I am. This media bullshit, the whole thing about me falling in love with a girl, it’s so unnecessary. It was so innocent when we first started dating. To me, she’s not ‘Drew Barrymore.’ That changed so quickly. She was just a good person and such a sweet human being and so gentle and genuine and giving. She nurtures and she cradles you, and you really see deep down into her soul. And that’s what is beautiful about her, and that’s what made me fall in love with her. And I can’t believe you got me to talk about this.”
Nick Stroke (“the Snarky One”)
“I get the impression that you already know what you’re going to write about the Strokes,” Nick Valensi says five minutes into our interview. “My quotes will just kind of be filler to reinforce your point. I haven’t read a lot of innovative things written about the Strokes. People never take a cool stance. It’s usually pretty typical.”
Valensi is wearing a pair of shredded jeans and Converse All Stars while drinking a glass of wine on a Chelsea pier along the Hudson River. He has just participated in a Spin photo shoot that he wasn’t particularly thrilled about, partially because he wasn’t given photo approval and partially because he’s afraid “it will make us look like fucking ‘N Sync.” This is not to suggest that he’s in a bad mood — he just isn’t putting up with any conversational bullshit this afternoon.
“I’m not interested in letting people get to know me,” Valensi says. “I’m just not. I’m the type of guy who has very few friends. I don’t trust people with too many friends and acquaintances. I’ve always been a little wary of people.” This overly cautious stance is confusing, particularly since the vast majority of Strokes press coverage has been overwhelmingly positive.
On the surface, 22-year-old Valensi is the band’s connection to punk rock. He’s rail-thin, underdressed, antiauthority, and a tad caustic. However, there’s also a refinement to his persona. Like Moretti, he dates an older woman, 21-year-old British photographer/actress Amanda de Cadenet and supplies much of the Strokes’ musical sophistication, having received his first guitar at the age of five. On songs like the single “12:51,” it sounds like the band are using keyboards. They are not. Valensi was “fucking around with weird jazz tones” when he realized that he could use distortion to make his ax bleat like a synthesizer. It sounds derivative, but it’s actually innovative. Like everything else with this band, there is a fine line between accidental and intentional. And Valensi is keenly aware of that relationship.
“That’s where the haters come from,” he says. “There’s a lot of other bands that came out the same time as us — well, I’m thinking of one in particular — who didn’t have the backlash that we did because they had indie releases before they got big.”
The band Valensi is referring to is, of course, the White Stripes, with whom the Strokes performed in New York City last summer. It’s inaccurate to define the Strokes and the Stripes as “rivals” — they have no animosity toward each other, they play to the same fan base, and they deliver the same general emotion both sound like “real rock’n’roll” from bygone eras). But there’s at least one major difference between the two: The White Strokes work hard to seem enigmatic, anti-trendy, and weird. That’s part of their iconography. Meanwhile, the Strokes always try to seem completely normal, even though they’re generally perceived as the five coolest guys in the world’s single coolest city.
“Dude, I’ve got such a quiet, simple, little life,” Valensi says. “I take my dog to the park — he’s a French bulldog — and I just run fuckin’ errands, like a normal fuckin’ person. Maybe at night, I check out HBO OnDemand. HBO OnDemand is fucking great. You get home at 5 a.m., and you’ve got all those episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Dude, my life is like any other cheesy hipster living on the Lower East Side.”
Well, sort of.
Nikolai Stroke (“the Normal One”)
After a long, hard day of standing around for pictures, the Strokes finally have a chance to relax. Three of them — Albert, Fab, and Nick — are having a debate about the most drunken bands in rock history (Guided by Voices and the Replacements seem to be getting the most props). Julian has momentarily gone missing, supposedly to talk with the band’s business manager.
Meanwhile, Nikolai Fraiture — the last Stroked member of the Strokes — is sitting on a couch, working diligently on the New York Times crossword puzzle. Not much is known of Mr. Fraiture. He is Casablancas’ closest and oldest friend: he’ll soon turn 25; he’s the band’s bassist (and sort of looks like John Paul Jones, circa The Song Remains the Same); he’s a good chess player; and he lives on the Upper East Side, apparently because he still likes to rent movies at the store where he used to work (Filmfest Video, in case you’re curious). He is the only member of the Strokes who wasn’t late for his interview, and he may be the shyest artist I’ve ever met. Before we start talking, Fraiture changes his shoes, which requires him to shake an avalanche of sand out of his boots. “How did you get all that sand in your shoes?” I inquire. “Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “Well, were you at the beach recently?” I ask. “Um, yeah, I guess I was,” he says.
It should be noted that the Strokes smoke incredible pot.
Fraiture has an accent, although it’s not clear what this accent is. It certainly sounds a little French (both of his parents are French and he attended Lycée Français, a French-language school in Manhattan) and a little New York, but it also sounds a little Russian and a little alien. He wastes no words. But when Fraiture does talk, he makes sense. Take, his answer to an admittedly vague question: How would you describe the Strokes to someone who had never even heard of them?
“That’s kind of like when you have a friend and you’re trying to describe that person to a different friend,” he says. “It’s hard. It would be like saying, ‘He’s kind of like this, but not really.’ Or, ‘She’s kind of like that, but not really.” Besides, we’re only interested in people who are interested in the music itself. That’s all that matters to us, but we’re not here to be in fashion magazines.”
This is the great paradox of the Strokes: They are supposed to be the band that represent the New York aesthetic, but their one unifying quality — earnestness — epitomizes everything that New York is not.
Julian Stroke (“Jules”)
Julian Casablancas is the lead singer of a popular rock band, but that doesn’t make him interesting; that just makes him famous. He’s also the Strokes’ main songwriter and the alchemist behind everything they do, but that doesn’t make him interesting, either; that just proves he’s talented. Yet Casablancas is interesting, and here’s why: He disagrees. He disagrees with everything. He is a full-on, full-time, unabashed contrarian. That’s why he may be the only person left in America who thinks the Strokes — endlessly acclaimed as “the Future of Rock” —are not truly successful. Oh, he’ll concede that they sell a few records, and he’ll admit that they get decent press coverage, and he’s aware that people occasionally recognize him on the street. But he still disagrees.
“I suppose we are successful, yes, and I feel blessed by that, and I thank God every day,” Casablancas says. “But what I want is a spot in the world of music that isn’t relatively underground. When you look at the Velvet Underground and how underrated they were in comparison to so many other bands from that era, it would have been an achievement if they had received more attention. Over the long term, their ideas would have been better for the culture. I find the current condition of popular culture pretty disappointing.”
In truth, the 25-year-old Casablancas is more than “disappointed” with the vapidity of pop culture — he pretty much hates it. This becomes clear later in our conversation, when we get into a heated argument over who did a better job reflecting the human condition: Bob Dylan or Bob Marley (Casablancas sides with the latter).
At this point it would be nice to relay the details of Casablancas’ pro-Marley arguments, but I can’t: he made them when my tape recorder was off, and I wasn’t taking notes. And this is not an accident. Casablancas is a completely different person the moment an interview ends. If you’re directly quoting him, everything he says is straightforward and innocuous. If you’re speaking casually, he is animated and freewheeling and intellectually unconventional. He asked me to meet him at a diner, but he didn’t order any food, and — for the duration of the “official” interview — he just drank water. Two minutes after we finished, he ordered a Corona.
Obviously, Casablancas is drinking alcohol again (he quit for five months to write and record Room On Fire). Thinner than he was a year ago and still wearing the paper wrist bracelet he got at a Stooges show 19 days earlier, he likes to keep things unclear. He thinks songs lose power if they’re overanalyzed in public. This is a person still figuring out how he feels about the nature of celebrity: Within the span of ten minutes, he says things like, “Fuck fame, and fuck the people obsessed with it,” only to follow up with a story about how cool it was to once see Tiger Woods on the subway. Mostly, he just seems a little nervous. “When I was in high school, I liked Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and they were certainly the bands that got me into doing what I do now,” he says. “But sometimes I think they played the game more than they wanted to, and it hurt them. Pearl Jam have slipped into oblivion. Kurt Cobain killed himself. And you can kind of see the problems they went through by what Cobain wrote in the liner notes for Incesticide. It’s not that I’m worried about the band becoming really big, but I want to make sure we do it the right way.”
Very often, the music of the Strokes seems consciously sloppy. There is a liveness to their sound that generates a specific vibe, and it’s the vibe of an overcrowded dive bar. Room On Fire is music for people who have just enough money to go out tonight, so that’s what they do. It’s the soundtrack for 3 A.M. cab rides, and it’s all a little decadent. However, one thing it isn’t is nihilistic. At least in Casablancas’ mind there are definitely things worth caring about, and this band is one of them. There is almost a religiosity to his perspective. He peppers his conversation with words like blessed and sinning and thanking God. I ask him if his parents were religious, and he says they were not (his father was a nonpracticing Catholic, his mother a nonpracticing Protestant). Yet you almost get the impression that he wishes they had been.
“I was never baptized,” he says. “You probably shouldn’t write that, because people will call me a heathen. I actually wish I was baptized, though. I definitely believe in something. I can’t imagine how all this could have happened by accident.”
So I guess that settles it: Jesus digs the Strokes.
And you just thought they were cool.