All The Young Dudes By John Callaghan
The crown of the ‘next big thing’ or the ‘saviours of rock’n’roll’ is one that is dragged out, scrubbed clean and placed squarely on the shoulders of a bunch of teens or twenty-somethings on a cyclical basis. For those crowned, this coronation leads to an avalanche of column inches and sold out, celebrity packed shows as well as (hopefully) increased record sales. Among the downsides is people who’ve never heard a note you played bitching you off, an fear that it’s all going to end tomorrow, just as your band gets good.
Right now, the mantle of being the coolest band on the planet definitely belongs to New York’s finest, The Strokes. With the oldest of them just 22, have been lauded from Oxford Street to the Orient as the band that are going to change your life.
They certainly look the part: stylishly disheveled just-got-out-of-bed barnets, their informal policy of always dressing as if they’re about to play a show, with a penchant for suits or leather jackets and ties. The whippet-thin fivesome of Julian Casablancas (vocals), Nick Valensi (guitar), Albert Hammond Jr. (guitar), Nikolai Fraiture (bass) and Fabrizio Moretti (drums) have definitely managed to wow more than their fair share of style mags in 2001.
‘We’ve been moving pretty fast this year,’ agrees Hammond as the band departs San Francisco for a gig in Portland, Oregon. I don’t think about it too much. If I did I would get scared. But everything else apart from the music doesn’t matter. If we don’t keep making and playing music, then we’re not a band.’
They say the eye of the storm is the calmest place to be, and it certainly feels like it,’ chips in Valensi, tearing himself away from the passing views of San Francisco Bay and enquiring as to whether they’re going to stop at a Denny’s en route. ‘People always ask me about how we’re dealing with all this buzz and this hype, but I feel pretty normal. We’re doing a lot of traveling, photo shoots and interviews, and that’s cool – but it’s less cool than playing it, which is what I’ve always wanted to do.’
A sold-out tour of the UK earlier this year and a top 20 single (double a-side Hard To Explain/New York City Cops) has primed everyone nicely for their debut album Is This It – no, there isn’t supposed to be a question mark at the end – which justifies all the hype and delivers in just over 35 minutes some of the most flamboyant punk rock you’re ever likely to hear. Recorded as if someone just sneaked a microphone into their practice room, distorted razor sharp guitar salvos hurtle into foaming basslines and relentless tubthumping.
‘I think guitars should be aggressive,’ declares Valensi. ‘Especially in our music, where we have often have these really beautiful melodies on top of everything. To have mean, don’t-give-a-fuck guitar parts is important. Our music is all about tension, tension, tension, and then release.’
Angular power riff and alternating-note frenzy abounds on tracks like Alone Together – and you could do the killer dance steps ’70s glamsters Mud used to do as you listened to Soma. Many listeners have commented on The Strokes’ apparent lineage to the great US punk and new-wave bands of yesteryear. Although flattered to be put among such exalted company, Hammond and Valensi seek to swerve most of the comparisons.
‘I don’t really think we sound like The Stooges,’ states Valensi dismissively. They were more experimental. Raw Power was a weird record; some tracks you could dance to and other things had six-minute guitar solos. I can’t relate our music to that.’
But the hypnotic chugging on tracks like The Modern Age surely casts an appreciative nod to Velvet Underground’s I’m Waitin ‘ For My Man? ‘Well at the time Julian wrote that song we were listening to a lot of Velvet Underground,’ Valensi concedes. ‘Sterling Morrison is one of my favourite guitar players. It sounded like he just didn’t give a fuck. He had that rawness and didn’t care where something was off, or he hit a wrong note. He just concentrated on what sounded right.
‘But you listen to something, learn from it and move on. We wanted to come up with something completely new, not just do a good job of bringing back the past. In some ways I don’t know what our songs sound like anymore, because people have told us so many different interpretations.’
Hammond: If anything, we sound like The Ramones, guitar-wise. We have that mean guitar sound. But I got influenced by a bunch of weird people – Buddy Holly, I really like the way George Harrison plays leads, Elliot Easton from The Cars… I really hate naming names, but I’d rather name names than have people say we sound like Television.
Valensi: I’d never heard Television until people said we sounded like them and when I heard them I didn’t like them. They’ve got no balls in their playing. But I do like the idea of two guitars dancing around each other, though.’
That is something The Strokes duo have sought to adapt to their own more testosterone-fuelled forays. For those who wish to individually evaluate the pair themselves, Valensi is the man who brought you the descending, almost to the point of collapsing, solo on The Modern Age while Hammond rears up some raucous disjointed blues over all the swamp fuzz and ratchet rhythms of Last Nite.
‘I like the idea of my shit collapsing,’ nods Valensi. I feel like that when I’m playing! In the middle of a lead part I often have the urge to take my hands off the fretboard, or just grab all the strings at the same time for no reason, just ‘cos I think it sounds cool.’
Hammond: ‘We both like doing solos, but we also love playing rhythm. Playing a strong sturdy rhythm is just as cool as playing a crazy solo… Having said that, that descending scale shit Nick does on The Modern Age, that’s fuckin’ hard!’
Both enigmatically claim to have very different playing styles but are reluctant to indulge in any naval-gazing about them. They do, however, have obviously diverse playing backgrounds; while Valensi got his first acoustic by the age of five or six and has been strumming ever since, Hammond first took up the instrument in his mid-teens, and claims to have only been playing guitar seriously for the past couple of years. ‘Nick is a really good guitar player,’ praises Hammond. ‘He can play anything, and he learns things real fast.’
‘Am I cocky?’ retorts Valensi in mock outrage. ‘Well, I guess it depends on what day you get me… and how much I’ve had to drink!’ Hammond: ‘I didn’t really start playing until I joined the band. I could do barr? chords and stuff, but I’d never really played with people before. You’ve got to be a bit more professional’.
‘It’s cool now, but I got kicked in the ass a lot by the others,’ he admits, candidly. ‘You know: “You gotta practice more, you’re not good enough yet…” And that hurt, man, but healthy criticism was what made this band tight. If someone criticises you, the only answer is to get better, because if you do that, then there’s no arguments.’
Though Hammond first met singer and songwriter Casablancas when they were kids, unlike the others, he grew up in Los Angeles rather than New York. It was shortly after he returned to the Big Apple that meeting a weirdo on the street was to change his guitar playing and his guitars for ever.
‘I didn’t really know many people, and I was walking around with this Rickenbacker 360 that I had, that I was trying to get fixed, this guy came up to me and asked: “Do you use handmade strings on that guitar? I sell them.”
‘He looked a little shady, but I took a friend and went to this guy’s apartment. And though I never see that guy now, he put me in touch with Richie Baxt, who put me in touch with JP.’
Baxt is a retired New York police officer who runs a guitar shop from his apartment and is the man who fixes up The Strokes’ guitars. JP Bowersock, who has officially been installed as band ‘guru’, is the man Hammond, followed by Casablancas and, briefly, Valensi turned to for guitar tutelage and lessons in the history of music.
‘JP helped me discover what it was that I wanted to discover about music, things like how to discover empty spaces,’ explains Hammond. It wasn’t this strict teacher thing. We’d just go over there and have an hour’s lesson and then hang out for a couple of hours, talk about music and drink beer.
‘He showed me Freddie King – his ’60s/’70s stuff was amazing – Link Wray for the balls, Elmore James… I’m still gonna get lessons from JP when I get home.’
Though Valensi also values JP’s advice, he’s less open about any technical knowledge he’s acquired over the years. During the interview he starts to describe his love of the tri-tone, how ‘you can be laying these bluesy minor pentatonic things, and then you hit a tri-tone in there and it adds a major to things. It sounds so off, but it’s so right…’ Valensi interrupts himself mid-sentence and wears a look of horror and disbelief. I can’t believe I’m talking about scales! I dunno, man, it makes me feel like a musical dork.’
Hammond chips in: ‘What nobody tells you when you learn guitar lessons is that after you’ve learnt the basics, you hardly ever use the stuff after that. You take a month to learn something and you might only use it once. Some people think that you can’t do anything new with simple chords, but I hate that attitude. If you work hard enough you can find lots of new combinations. Buddy Holly showed what can be done, and you can go the extra step.’
Hammond’s admiration of Buddy Holly led him to purchase an ’85 Strat, a Fender Japan reissue of the ’72 model, fitted with 0.012 gauge strings for a fat, heavy sound. It also sounds so much better when you’re bending notes,’ he says. ‘You can really feel what you’re doing because it hurts so much!’
It turns out that in a bid to gain more protection for raw fingertips, Hammond has tried the ol’ Stevie Ray Vaughan trick of supergluing them onto his arm and then ripping the skin off his arm. ‘Yeah, it works – you can’t feel anything. But I wouldn’t recommend you do it, unless you have to do a gig and your fingertips are already so raw that you won’t be able to do the show.
‘You’d be better off just getting drunk though,’ adds Valensi. Fingertip tips aside, the genius of Hammond’s sound stems from the middle pickup of his Strat, which the curly-haired guitarist uses exclusively on every track, apart from the expressive Hammond-esque runs on the spiky swing of Take It Or Leave, where he just rolled all the tone down and used the bridge pickup. ‘That middle pickup is the one though man, it just matches with everything I want to do. Every now and again, I think about getting a new guitar and the others tell me that I can’t – and I have to agree.’
Valensi admits that he did pluck Hammond’s backup guitar, a Les Paul Junior, a couple of times on the album (‘Don’t ask me when, I was always drunk or stoned’). However, Valensi’s main squeeze is an early ’90s Epiphone Riviera, fitted with P90s. It’s the best guitar Gibson never made.’ he jokes. ‘Fender and Gibson never made a semi- hollow guitar with P90s. The Casino has ’em but that’s completely hollow and it feeds back too much.’
The pair may have different guitars but the rest of their setup is pretty much identical: Fender Hot Rod Deville 2×12″s for their ‘raunchiness’, an MXR Microamp as a tone/volume boost for solos, and a Jekyll and Hyde for distortion. I had the Jekyll and Nick had the MXR, and we thought that we could both get some great sounds out of both of them, so we went shopping together.’
As The Strokes’ battlebus speeds along to the next town and the next show, the band-as-gang mentality the five have – and need to survive the long campaign ahead of them – is clearly in evidence. Both Hammond and Valensi have been heckled mercilessly throughout the interview, interrupted only to comment on the passing vistas and argue about who gets to use the mobile phone and what the music is getting stuck on next. These chaps, though, would certainly prefer to think of themselves as burning down rock’n’roll cliches rather than proving their continuing validity.
‘That whole rock’n’roll thing is tired, like the lead guitarist is the one that does all the coke and Jack Daniels,’ Hammond spits, possibly having imbibed some fermented liquid himself earlier on. ‘And then you’ve got the rhythm section, where one of them is gay and the other one goes to bed early every night.’
What about the one where the guitarist makes solo album because he believes that he’s the real talent in the band? ‘Solo album!’ chokes out Hammond, as the rest of the bus collapse in laughter at the idiocy of the suggestion. ‘You know what my solo album would be like? It would sound just like The Strokes, because it would be like “Hey Julian! Do you want to sing on my album? Fab, would you play drums. Nikolai, is bass OK? Nick, how about playing some guitar? ‘Cos I don’t know any other musicians.
‘We ain’t changing right now – I’m not changing my equipment because I need every single thing and I haven’t done everything yet. We won’t wait five years to do the next album – I don’t like playing things more than a couple of times. We’re gonna keep moving, and we’re gonna keep moving together.