Action. Time. Vision
The other night, Julian Casablancas, lead singer and sole songwriter with The Strokes, sat down to watch a movie. Taking a break from the band’s 2pm-to-4am recording schedule for their long-awaited second album, he decided to check out Penelope Spheeris’ 1988 ‘rockumentary’, The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. An hilarious dissection of the late-’80s LA hair-metal scene, it features such legends such as Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Kiss and Ozzy Osbourne alongside fans, groupies and pop-metal buffoons Poison offering up their well-considered opinions on the rock lifestyle — booze, woman, drugs, groupies, fame and life on the road. It’s supposed to be funny. Julian Casablancas did not find it funny. In fact, he found it very depressing. You see, whether it was the ridiculous Brett Michaels of Poison saying that dealing with fame was “like being at the wheels of a speeding car” or a fucked-up Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P., languishing in his pool, pouring vodka down his throat and proclaiming, “If you tour one year it’ll take four years off your life”, whatever rock’n’roll maxim these ludicrous metal pompadours rolled out, Julian Casablancas found himself nodding sagely.
“The things they were saying,” he shudders, “about how you get fucked up on the road and, ‘Life in a rock band’, all that shit. It was so embarrassing because… it was all so stupid and… I could relate to it. I could relate to it all.”
Knocking around an enormous designer wood-and-steel East Village photo studio, the lean, scrubbed-clean 2003-model Strokes appear very different from the band we met in the summer of 2002. Back then, a weary, beer-heavy quintet started out from magazine covers, the most scrutinised band on the planet looking like institutionalised zoo animals, still cute but a little deranged, like they’d been on show for too long. Interviews focused on a beaten-down Julian Casablancas, trapped in the middle of a Never Ending World Tour, desperate to make The Strokes work, convinced that he’d already failed, hoisted up and supported by the tour-scarred but emotionally strong quartet behind him. Today, taking a break from the pictures, Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti is attempting to lift himself onto the studio’s overhanging first floor landing, aided only by the superhuman strength in his upper arms and handicapped by the fact that guitarist Nick Valensi is holding onto the drummer’s ankles. Realising that Moretti cannot be stopped, Valensi tries the same ludicrous feat, eventually conceding defeat and falling back to the floor. As Moretti hoists himself onto the upper level, he breaks into a short rendition of The Theme From Fame. Valensi checks a grazed palm and glowers at MOJO with the realisation that, once again, some one is writing about him. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture, a picture of hungover Eastern European sang froid, sits reading an article from last month’s Glamour magazine entitled How To Tell Him What You Need In Bed, while guitarist Albert Hammond Jr looking sharp in white suit and his dad’s faded, off -grey Cat Stevens T-shirt (turned inside-out), chews on a breakfast slice of cold pepperoni pizza. It’s almost comic, just how cool they look: skinny, bright-eyes, casually ruffling each other’s hair like five best friends who just happen to be the hippest band around. Which, of course, is what they are. But it’s Casablancas who appears the most changed – drastically slimmed down from his on-tour weight, shaggy mop of hair now dyed jet black, stoner denim-look replaced by single breasted leather jacket, white shirt and half-mast black trousers. With the picture shoot barely over he’s keen to get his band back into the studio. “I can get there for eight,” suggest Nick Valensi. “If you can get there for eight,” says Casablancas, “why can’t you get there for seven?” “Soldier hours,” mutters Valensi. “We’re working soldier hours.”
“We’ll probably work ’til about four in the morning,” says Casablancas as we leave the studio, “maybe seven if we’re on a roll.”
In person, Casablancas is far less surly than he comes across on paper. OK, he’s a little brusque at times and tends to tell you exactly what he thinks (he’ll pull MOJO up on a question about The Strokes on-the-road hedonism with a pointed “C’mon, you can do better than that!”) but it’s all presented with a wry humour. And you know for a fact that he’s twice as tough on himself, as exacting as he’s been at every stage of The Strokes’ career. His working day means that he usually gets up at one in the afternoon, arrives in the studio for two and works until around four or five in the morning. Today, waiting for us in the studio, are five new Strokes songs for MOJO to hear. Yesterday, there were none.
“I took those tracks home to hear them out of the studio,” he explains. “I listened to them and I was thinking, What are we doing?! Our career is over! I’ve fucked it up! I mean, last night at about 4am was the first time in two weeks where I didn’t feel we were going to disappoint everybody.”
He walks off down the road, back into the Village, a little strut in his step, ready to go back to work. A shout goes up. “Hey, black leather jacket! Looking good! You got a smoke?” A middle-aged Puerto Rican gentleman, sitting on the steps of a brownstone building, would like a cigarette. Casablancas hands him a couple of Marlboro Lights and walks on. “Yeah!” the gentleman shouts back. “Looking good in your black leather jacket. A little tight around the waist maybe, but still looking good!”
The first ever recorded Strokes songs were sent out by the band a couple of concert bookers for New York’s ultra-hip Mercury Lounge at the end of 2000. One of the bookers, 22-year-old Ryan Gentles, first saw The Strokes play the Mercury on August 31, 2000. “They were amazing,” he remembers. “All five of them did something to make it work. I’d get bands coming in and it would be one dude that did it all and the four would be in three other bands. With The Strokes each member was involved in some way. And they rehearsed for 10 hours a day.”
For Gentles, so many bands in New York in 2000 still seemed hung up on the idea of 1975 doper cool, sealing that big record deal on the back of the bohemian work-ethic — looking good, hanging out and being ‘artistic’. Not so The Strokes.
At the end of August 2000, the band had been playing live in New York for 11 months, 26 live gigs under their belt. They were always hanging out together at the same bars, distributing flyers. They looked good. But they also worked at it. From the beginning Casablancas had been the band’s leader and songwriter, spending 1999 and 2000 welding such varied influences as The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys, Freddie King, The Cars, ’80s chart pop and Bob Marley to that whole edgy ’70s New York vibe evoked by Nikolai’s wary bass, Fab’s skittery train-rhythm drumming and Valensi and Hammond’s nervy, double guitar helix. They would work all night, all week, in a dank, $300-a-month rehearsal space in midtown’s Manhattan’s Music Building. Gentles asked whether they had a manager. He wanted to help them out, plus he knew he was onto a good thing. His phone soon started to ring more for the band than for bookings at the Mercury. If Gentles hadn’t quit, he’d have been fired. By then one of The Strokes’ demos had reached Geoff Travis at Rough Trade Records. “Matt Hickey, the senior booker at the Mercury, originally played me the demo down the phone,” remembers Travis. “Ryan was another Mercury worker. Matt then sent me the recordings that became The Modern Age EP. Or maybe he arranged for Ryan to send it.”
The demo was released as The Modern Age EP, on Rough Trade on January 22, 2001. Initially, press clamour was based solely around the music. In the eternal wet Wednesday that was the UK music scene — chart pop, too many DJs, all those post-Radiohead, post-Jeff-Buckley bleatings from Muse and Starsailor — came three tracks of cranked-up, febrile, rough-edged rock’n’roll joy; part New York 1977, part Manchester ’85, wrapped up in a pure, new-wave pop sensibility. But, as the band features filtered out and photo-shoots mounted up, Britain and the world became strangely beguiled by this exotic pop group with a name that conjured up sex, violence, art, and death, and those grand surnames shining a light on our damp, David Gray world.
Fascinating private lives began to surface. By the end of August 2001 and the release of the band’s debut album, Is This It, fashion, society and rock’n’roll types — Kate Moss, Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, the Gallaghers, Joe Strummer — had claimed them for their own. Gig tickets were being flogged for £150 and band features read like Maximum Rock’n’Roll in the society pages of Harpers And Queen, gloriously diamante-speckled tales of European education, spike-edged rock’n’roll, hugs, kissed and private school. Some began to think that this was not the rock’n’roll revolution they’d asked for.
“The hugs and kisses were always embellished by the British press,” says Nick Valensi, “because the music press loves homoeroticism. They made us out to be like some fucking Melville novel.”
“How about Nobu? Just let me call Nobu.” Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr, has the numbers of New York’s top restaurants programmed into his mobile phone. It’s an early June evening, in the heart of Manhattan’s SoHo, the night of MOJO’s arrival in New York, and Hammond, a carelessly debonair gent of jitter and charm who sometimes speaks a little too fast for the words to catch up, is cultural attaché for his studio-bound band. Unfortunately, at just one hour’s notice, the best Japanese restaurant in New York has no table for Hammond. He opts for a rather fancy Italian place nearby.
Hammond Jr met Casablancas back in 1992. The 15-year-old Casablancas had been skulking in Le Rosey, the only American boy in the oldest private school in Switzerland, when Albert showed up. “I was this friendly, cute little thing until I was 14,” remembers Albert, “I liked computer games and Bugs Bunny. Then my dad said, ‘You have to know that life is hard.’ He’d tell me, ‘You’re not doing that right, you’re not good enough.'”
A disciplined school, with a strict code of conduct, Le Rosey’s promise was to instill “the Rosean spirit” into its students. Placed there on the insistence of his father, John Casablancas, founder of the Elite Modelling Agency, Casablancas had already been to some of the world’s ‘best’ schools by the time he met Hammond. He’d befriended Nikolai Fraiture (French father, Franco-Russian mother) at Le Lycée Français de New York, when the two were just six years old. Then, at Dwight School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, 13-year-old Julian hooked up with two Upper East Side kids, Fabrizio Moretti (Italian father, Brazilian mother) and Nick Valensi (Tunisian father, French mother), the three of them bonding over a hatred of the other students and a love of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Bob Marley. Hammond came from an equally exotic family, the son of British-born singer-songwriter Albert Hammond and Argentinean model, Claudia Fernandez.
“My first guitar cost 200 bucks,” says Hammond Jr. “My dad was like, ‘If I get you that $800 guitar you’ll never learn to play and you can learn on anything.’ He was good at making me understand.” Hammond moved to New York in 1998 to attend film school. Somewhat magically, his apartment was directly across the street from where Casablancas worked.
Hammond dropped out of college, joined The Strokes. “I couldn’t play guitar until I was 15,” he remembers,” and I didn’t even know how to play solo until I came to New York and was taught by JP [Nick Valensi’s guitar teacher and subsequent band ‘guru’ JP Bowersock]. Nick could play Johnny B. Goode when he was 10 but he’s never going to sit down and teach you. When you’re in the band you learn so much faster because you worry you’re going to get kicked out. ‘That guy can’t even play that part yet!’ Everyone has that fear. Even Julian’s scared of not keeping up with The Strokes.”
While we wait for our table, Albert politely enquires as to whether MOJO can get him some Heinz Baked Beans sent over. He is a fan. Hearing this, an English ex-pat at the bar introduces himself. He has lived in New York for the past 25 years and is keen to talk about exactly how “fucked-up” it is at the moment. His main gripe is with the new mayor, Michael Bloomberg. “This used to be a great city,” he barks. “It was fucked up, and dirty, but it had soul. Now we’ve got a mayor who’s taxing everything to pay off the debt.”
New York 2003 is a strangely hand-slapped city suffering from sales-tax hikes, higher parking fines and a new and unwelcome band on smoking in bars and restaurants, with cigarettes, plus tax, now at $7.50 per pack. The mayor’s approval rating is at a record low. New Yorkers don’t like to be told how to behave. It all seems very far way from the mid-’70s rock’n’roll New York of Patti Smith and The Ramones, CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Ever since the late ’70s this blue-jean, blue-collar rock’n’roll movement has attained a mythic status, something to cling to against rising real-estate prices and Mayor Giuliani’s and Mike’s tourist-friendly clear-up. As a result, when The Strokes went overground in 2001, New York initially bristled. This was Giuliani punk-rock, and spiteful scenesters. Rumours began: the band had hired a publicist before they’d rehearsed; they’d been formed by Julian’s dad and were buying their songs with inheritances. Fanzines spat out at “genetically modified” NY punk acts and championed such passed-over next-big-things as The Star Spangles, whose lead singer, Ian Wilson, wasted little time in knocking “simple rich kids doing rock’n’roll for the fashion, wasting time until their parents buy them houses in Connecticut”.
“I won’t deny that we went to good schools,” says Hammond, “but what’s that to do with the songs? People carry on like we all had Ferraris, never went to school, and just threw parties.”
These days no one except tourists and romantics hang out at CBGB’s, which, in the words of Strokes bassist Nikolai Fraiture has just reverted back to the “crappy bar” it was before Tom Verlaine convinced the boss to let him play there on Sunday evenings in the mid-’70s. The Strokes first played the club on December 12, 1999, and audition night, sandwiched between a rap act and a heavy metal group. The second, and last, appearance was February 9, 2000. The previous band ran so late that the plug was pulled on The Strokes and the soundmen kicked them off. “The evening ended,” remembers Ryan Gentles “with Nick [Valensi] shouting that everyone should boycott the place. That’s what CBGB’s means to The Strokes.”
Nikolai Fraiture sits at the end of a long, dark bar on Orchard and Houston. He’s drinking Heineken but will later move on to Bombay Sapphire gin’n’tonics. “It’s the only gun I can drink,” he says, in a cautious whisper, like he’s translating his answers first, from French or Russian. When he gets excited his voice gets just that little louder. He might raise his eyebrows.
Fraiture is very New York. However, it’s less the NYC attitude of copping a dime bag on 53rd and 3rd than visiting Central Park every day and knowing about a little bar on West 84th dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe. Unlike other band members who are in process of spending the Is This It millions on moving into bigger and better New York apartments, he still lives with his brother in their parents’ old apartment on 84th Street, amid his mother’s old records [George Brassens, Bob Marley], and apartment walls decorated by his brother in the style of 20th century Flemish surrealist, Paul Delvaux. Nikolai grew up closely with his brother. In a playground a block away from the flat the young Fraiture boys were unbeatable at two-on-two basketball — hanging out from morning to sundown, taking on all-comers. A popular cosmopolitan kid, at the Dwight School at the age of 13 — as old friend Casablancas started hanging out with new friends Fab Moretti and Nick Valensi – Fraiture found himself left back a grade. “My friends moved on,” he remembers. “That was the year you could go out for lunch and I was left in the grade where you had to stay in. I become introverted, started to read more.”
The most voracious reader in the band, a fan of Poe, Emerson, and Dostoevsky, currently working his way through the band’s favourite book, Alexander Dumas’ The Count Of Monte Cristo, rock’n’roll came late to Nikolai Fraiture. When he was a kid his elder brother bought him a Sonic Youth album and a Velvet Underground ‘Best Of’ for Christmas. Then there were his mum’s records, and like everyone else his age, in 1991 he got into Nirvana and Pearl Jam. When he graduated from high school his grandfather bought him a bass guitar. He wasn’t that good, so he donated it to his friends, Julian, Nick and Fan. Then, one summer…
“I went to New Orleans in 1999, and when I came back I fell ill. I had to stop school, everything. I got so weak. I’d been staying in a youth hostel and caught Rocky Mountain Fever. It makes you weak and you hallucinate and I had nothing else in 1999 — my girlfriend had dumped me — nothing but my bass guitar. It sounds cheesy but that’s how I got into music. The fever goes away, but the whole mental thing stayed for a while.” These days, as a member of The Strokes, he says it’s scary but there’s nothing to worry about. He even gets recognised on the street. “I get recognised if I wear tight pants,” he says. “It’s really strange. If I wear normal jeans and go to the park and hang out, not so much. But even in my neighbourhood, if I wear tight pants its like, ‘Oh there’s that guy.'”
The interview over, Nikolai has one final thing to say. “The only way to understand The Strokes,” he stresses, “is to hang out with us. Keep up with us.” So, for the record, Nikolai sat drinking with friends until around 5.30am before wending his gracefully drunk way home where he sat up until 9am, sipping Bombay Sapphire with a beautiful young girl, teaching her to play chess.
Back in July of 2001 Julian Casablancas told an American magazine that he didn’t know what all this fuss was about touring. “Being on the road is like a vacation,” he said, “you see different towns, and you get to play shows. It’s like a dream come true!” Is This It, The Strokes’ debut album, was released in the UK on August 27, 2001. Ten days earlier the band had cancelled two dates at the Summer Sonic Festival at Osaka and Tokyo in Japan. The reason: complete exhaustion. Apart from some time out in April, where they recorded the album, the band had been on the road since January, promoting The Modern Age EP and later singles Last Nite and Hard To Explain. They’d gone into it wide-eyed, believing the only way to counter the huge hype surrounding them was to be on the road, in view, promoting all the time. It may have been a mistake.
“The lowest we ever got was at the end of that world tour, out in Hawaii,” remembers Albert Hammond. “Thank God we were able to talk to each other and express anger without running away. We sat in a room for a couple of hours, and it was close to breaking up. I mean, who better to take your anger out on than someone next to you in the band?” Out in Hawaii, the had, “[sunk] into it too deep. You’re hungover instead of normal. The shows got weird. It didn’t last that long but we had a talk and it was like, if we don’t change the we are then we’re no longer going to be a band. We were getting bigger and then September 11 happened and we had to pull New York City Cops from the album and Julian was saying, ‘When am I going to write?’ We’re not good at writing on the road. For a whole year we wanted to put out another record but had no time. Maybe one day we’ll learn.”
“No one was having fun,” admits Casablancas, “[But] it’s not about having fun it’s about not hating each other. When you get pissed off with each other it puts everything in jeopardy.”
“It was the band’s fault, the band and me. 50/50,” claims Ryan Gentles. “They’d never toured before, I’d never managed a band before. They were just ambitious. ‘Let’s do it all.’ They went around the world before they’d even released an album. Then they were meant to have a little break in Hawaii and they’d had it. No band could go through what they did and not need to stop. They were being touted as the best band in the world on the basis of a three-track demo. They couldn’t afford to stop proving they were the best. You couldn’t have them disappear.”
As if to prove the point, 2002 continued in the same manner, another vast tour of 100-plus dates, selling out such venues as Brixton Academy, Dublin Olympia and New York’s Roseland Ballroom. By July, the band had started cancelling shows again and, after badly injuring his knee, Casablancas appeared at the band’s August 24 headline date at the Reading Festival still hobbling on crutches. Despite the fact that they’d once again arrived at a point of physical and mental exhaustion, for The Strokes, Reading remains a career highpoint.
“It stopped raining for a couple of minutes,” remembers Fab. “The whole day had been fucking terrible and then all those kids were singing along and it didn’t feel like 60,000 people, it felt really private, like something between us and the crowd.” With the winter of 2002 came the perhaps ironically titled ‘Wyckyd Sceptre’ tour of America, a far more joyous run from August to November — including two Rolling Stones support slots — before settling down to finally record that second album. “I’m glad we don’t have to tour like when we first came out,” says Hammond. “Now we’ll just tour for eight months but back at the start it was like we thought we couldn’t turn down a single date. Then we realised that touring can kill you.”
In January 2003, their world tour over, The Strokes make the news again when a New York Post gossip columnist announced that Fabrizio Moretti was to wed Drew Barrymore. “Barrymore is said to be considering a bid, traditional wedding,” piped the paper, “possibly at ER star George Clooney’s Italian villa. Moretti, 22, met 26-year-old Barrymore backstage after a Strokes gig in California last April.”
Moretti is up on the roof terrace of his new apartment on 13th Street, prising open St. Poli Girl beer bottles with his teeth, smoking legally and feeling very happy. He likes it up here, looking out over the New York skyline. He points to the wooden spire of a nearby church, which, he announces, is the centre of his superhero activities. “I have no specialist skills,” he says, “I merely observe.”
He’s good at observing is Fab Moretti. An accomplished artist, he often spends his dead tour days drawing the band, and contributes to the books put out by an LA artists’ collective, The Broken Wrist Project. “Every cover is a portrait, one impaired eye and one functional eye so you have this distinct relationship between having to look within yourself and still be rooted in reality.”
This is how Fab Moretti talks, taking away little pieces of living advice from everything he does, talking like he’s about to fill up at the whole richness of the world. His father, Stephano, a chemical engineer, once told him that if you were to take a cup of wine and throw it in the ocean and then come back the next day and take out a scoop out of the ocean there’d still be a molecule of that wine in your cup. “It grounds you,” he says. “The grandioseness of the ocean but also the influence of a little wine. You have an effect but there’s a keen balance between that and the environment’s influences on you.”
If there’s one thing that gets him down, it’s not being good enough. He practises every day, taking little practice drum pads with his wherever he travels. It was Moretti’s elder brother Leonardo who got him into rock’n’roll. “He bought a guitar when he was 13 and I was 10. Every day after school he sat for hours playing his guitar, listening to Hendrix and Guns N’Roses. I broke away from him when I was first introduced to The Velvet Underground with Julian and Nikolai, when I was 14.” Currently working his way through the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he recently polished off all of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels.
“It’s funny,” he says, “I recently had dinner with him. When Clive Davis became president of RCA we went to one of his parties and I had a copy of Cat’s Cradle in my back pocket. Clive was like, ‘Yeah, I’m friends with Vonnegut.’ So I got a chance to meet him. A couple of days later he invited me to dinner and, I swear to God, it was inspiring. He told me how we’re not supposed to be living according to the names we’re given but to who we feel attuned to. He said about The Strokes, ‘It’s a good thing you have this family going because this is who’ll keep you the strongest. This is the family you’ve chosen, the family you should cultivate.'”
If things hadn’t worked out for The Strokes he’d still be trying to make music with the same folks, trying to get better. He claims that, despite who he is, he doesn’t get recognised. “Well, I’m just the drummer so nobody knows who I am. Not in New York. And it’s like there’s a certain amount of respect in New York that’s unspoken. You just let things go. The fact that that I’m not recognised? That’s a blessing! Especially since I’ve seen what it’s like to be someone who is.”
Well, your girlfriend…
“Oh, let’s not talk about that.”
But that’s true.
“Yeah. There’s something incredibly charming about anonymity.”
The interview over, Fab offers to take MOJO for “the best burger in New York”. But first he has to drop something off at his new flat. As he walks in, he picks up a pair of sunglasses from a little shelf by the door. “My girlfriend’s,” he whispers, kissing them lightly on the bridge. A little later, as Fab Moretti sits in the corner of the minimalist Blue 9 Burger establishment on Third Avenue, three teenage girls walk in and, quite blatantly, stand staring at Moretti as he eats, one of the girls mouthing small pouty kissing gestures. As we leave, Fab informs us of an interesting poster about a block and a half down the road. We should check it out. As the cab passes, MOJO looks right to see a 30ft high Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle poster of Drew Barrymore riding a motorbike. As the man said, there’s something incredibly charming about anonymity.
Talk of a new Strokes album began some time around January 2002, thanks, largely, to the appearance of two new live songs in the band’s set, the illicit, machine-driven Meet Me In The Bathroom and an oddly funky track, entitled either Ze Newie or I Never Needed Anybody. In June 2002 Casablancas said of the album, “It’s not gonna be like, Oh, now that we’re successful, we’re gonna work with all these super-producer guys that are going to make us a top-selling hit. That’s never been out goal. We still want that edge.”
Sitting in a beer garden at 3pm on a sunny New York afternoon, drinking cold Heineken, Casablancas looks decidedly uncomfortable. Right now, he should be in the studio, finishing off that album. Plus, he’s tensing just that little bit more thanks to the presence of the MOJO tape recorder. “Just like that, huh?” he snaps, as I press down the record button. “No small-talk?” He doesn’t enjoy interviews.
“In my mind, I love it,” he says, “I used to practise in the shower, when I was younger. Really. But when it’s recorded, what you want to say comes out crooked. And I used to curse way too much because when I did interviews I was fucked up — see I did it there! — or wasted. My first interviews were just some kind of curse parade.”
However, he’s always tortured himself over The Strokes and how they can improve, as he had quite a rigid work ethic instilled in him from the start. He has a bad memory of his childhood, but he can easily pinpoint the moment when, as he puts it, “I stopped having fun and tried to understand what was going on. I was more like funny guy in really younger classes and then at the other school [the Dwight School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side] it took this dark turn of not really talking to anyone and that was when I started meeting other members of the band.” Changing schools, not really looking for friends, Casablancas started to believe that he saw how the whole world turned. “I started to understand when I was 13, 14,” he says, “how the whole thing worked. We were meant to wait out our time, get good grades and for what? To do what? So, I’m not meant to think about a damn thing? So I started to look for stuff elsewhere, and I started getting some of those answers from my stepdad. It opened up a whole new world.”
During a year of summer-time talk, Casablancas’s stepdad, Ghanaian artist Sam Adoquei, (currently a lecturer at the New York National Academy Of Design), pointed out to the young teen how everything in the world was connected. “It was what you look for in your teachers,” says Casablancas, “but my teachers all had this lame ass outlook only half fitting one kind of person. I was 14 and Sam told me that you should look for the whole universal aspect. He’d bring home biographies, documentaries. We’d study how someone lived but the key, no matter how much they tried to overdramatise it, was that that artist worked harder than any other. That’s pretty much all he told me. The people that really changed things, the only thing that set them apart was how hard they worked. When you [realise] that you can wither work two or three hours a day and suck, or make a sacrifice. I remember interviews with gymnasts on TV saying, ‘Well, you just work hard.’ And I’d think, bullshit! But now I understand. It’s more fun for me to sit down and learn a scale than to go see a movie. You have to be tough on yourself. It makes sense if I torture myself a little bit and worry that this all sucks.”
As a result, watching Casablancas talk about the songwriting process for the new album — his downcast eyes, his repeated withdrawal of answers because they’re “rubbish” — is not an entirely comfortable experience. “It’s all about challenging ourselves,” he says. “Every song had to be a step forward. There were about a hundred song parts that died a slow death for this album. But that’s the same philosophy we’ve always had. When you think you know how to write songs, that’s when you’re fooling yourself.”
It doesn’t sound like too much fun.
“No, fun is OK. But it’s more about reaching for something better than you’ve ever heard but you don’t really know what it sounds like. And it’s found in the trenches of working odd hours.”
In March 2003, seemingly going back on their June 2002 anti-‘super-producer’ declaration, it was announced that The Strokes would be going into the studio with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. Then, two months later, manager Gentles announced that the band would now be working with Gordon Raphael, producer on Is This It. “All parties involved had a lovely experience and Nigel and the band really did get on famously,” Gentles told Billboard. “It just wasn’t meant to be in the studio.”
“Gordon was the first to know we were working with Nigel,” says Casablancas. “I didn’t want him to feel we were being traitors. I said, We’re probably going to do it with you but I just have to do this. He understands, because I’ve had arguments where I owe everything to Gordon because of our first record, the demo. I was bartending at the time and thought maybe music wasn’t going to work out. I didn’t know how to make it sound right and Gordon made it sound cool. But I needed to do this because maybe with Nigel it could be the best shit we’ve ever heard in our lives. There’s a chance, not a big one but we’ve tried it. It sounded good but it just didn’t have enough personality. We work too… differently. I was saying, This is not sounding right and he was, like, ‘Who’s the producer?’ Who knew? Maybe we were a band like Radiohead that could just play the live thing but I guess we just need more… mothering.”
“The thing about Gordon,” says Nikolai Fraiture, “is not just that he’s part of the family but he puts up lights and decorations in the studio because if you don’t feel comfortable recording you can’t do it well. When we worked with Gil Norton early on, on the first album it was so tense. Nerve-wracking. I threw my back out because I was so nervous. With Gordon it’s just so calm. There’s something about him that you just want to do well for him.”
“A Wednesday,” states Raphael emphatically. “We were supposed to start on Wednesday, May 29th and I was to get to New York a week early, decorate the studio, make it a really great environment. And they liked the vibe and I said, Oh I like your songs, they sound great. What wonderful writing! This is a great progression. I’m so happy.”
Raphael is sitting in a swivel chair in the mixing room of TMF Studios on East 12th Street, the location for the recording of the second Strokes album. A charmingly camp mantis of a man, he emphasises every single word with a clarity and politeness that suggests he is speaking to a very dear but deaf grandmother. The mixing room itself is like any other mixing room in any other studio in any other city — mixing desk, speakers, glass partition, chairs. All, mostly, in black. There are, however, some telling signs of personal habitation by The Strokes. First off, there are some videos — labelled ‘The Mahavishnu Orchestra’ ‘P.J. Harvey’ and ‘Devo’ — and a CD of The Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions. Against a speaker someone has affixed a cut-out newspaper picture of Harrison Ford over which someone else (it looks like Fab’s handwriting) has written the simple legend “Harrison!” There is also a drum skin on which someone else has written 11 ‘provisional’ song titles and drawn a rather crude cartoon of a naked girl. The working song titles are — The Way It Is; The Raga; Not Good Enough; Can’t Win; You Talk Way Too Much; Supernova; Never Needed Nobody; Really All True, Under Control; Meet Me In The Bathroom and Nightmare. The band are not here today. Julian, for one, was too nervous to be present while people out of the loop listened to the band’s new songs for the first time. Instead, we have Gordon, Strokes ‘guru’ and guitar teach JP Bowersock, Rough Trade label representative James Endeacott and, new addition to the production team, engineer Toshi Yoshioka. They have strict instructions from Julian to play five tracks — Supernova, Under Control, Meet Me In The Bathroom, Reptilia [an instrumental awaiting vocals] and The Raga; in that particular order and at a certain designated volume. Toshi cues up the CD.
“There are couple of tracks left that need vocals,” says the endearingly ursine JP, “and a couple that are still getting mixed. Julian’s still looking for the sonic characters of each song. Our job is to chase down what he wants. He won’t even sing until he knows what his tone is. There’ve been periods of banging our heads against the wall, cries of ‘This sounds shit!’ You see, Julian can hear less than an EQ in each song. It needs to be meticulous to sound this spontaneous.”
“I try to anticipate how it will fuck up,” says Raphael.
On first listen the tracks retain all of the spindly edge, staccato pop hooks and punk cool of Is This It but sound bigger, darker, more twisted, with Casablancas picaresque lyrics of city boredom and heartbreak now all the more compelling, given that he appears to be singing with a tour-polished voice of depth and soul. Raphael, for one, seems happy.
“The first two things I noticed about these songs,” he emphasises, “were they were so much more powerful and imaginative! And I noticed that Julian was in a great mood and full of energy, and which are both so different from the first album. Then he was very apprehensive.” One of the possible reasons that Casablancas went back to work with Raphael is because he’s the only producer who can understand what Julian is on about in the studio.
“Julian is all about getting the tones right,” explains Raphael. “He’ll say, ‘Oh Gordon, the hi-hat and the guitar sound like they’re each dancing in different rooms.’ Or, ‘Why does the entire drum set seem like a rich man except for the hi-hat who’s completely out of work?’ Or sometimes he’ll just look at me and say, (withering face) ‘This sounds awful! This is terrible! What are we going to do!’ It’s a process of working things towards their destination.”
Raphael does not believe that the band would have got this treatment working with a producer with a sound, like Nigel Godrich.
“It’s Julian’s vision,” he says. “So I was relieved when he said he wanted to have a vibe like the first album but… better. It’s going really well. There’s also been times when we’ve been on a drum riff for two days, on every level of volume, on every set of speakers. Weird science. Sometimes it gets heavy when everyone’s trying to spout ideas at once, but it never gets conflictory or arguative [sic]. A lot of the smarter souls go and play chess or leave and don’t come back for a few days. Then they can peek in with a fresh perspective and say, ‘That’s horrible, what are you thinking about?’
The other day, Raphael attempted to cheer up Casablancas by asking him how it feels to know that something he wrote changed the way people dress and listen to music in New York and London. “He says, ‘I can’t think about that now!” says Raphael a little crestfallen. “‘I’ve got six more songs to write and I’m just hoping they’re going to be as better than the last and that people like them.’ Wow! If I was him I’d be like, ‘Fuck yeah! Party! Look what we did!’ But he was all, ‘What are those harmonies? What rhythm works with these notes?’ What a way to work.”
The fairy lights are on in TMF. It’s 1am in the morning and The Strokes are rehearsing the final song for inclusion on their album. In the mixing room, you can see them play but it’s impossible to hear them. The song is called Nightmare. Without sound it’s a flail of shapes, jagged arm movements across guitars and thudding Sesame Street drumming. It looks loud. In the recording studio, Rough Trade’s James Endeacott re-listens to this afternoon’s five tracks. As we slip into the romantic stoner lope of Under Control, through the glass MOJO is to witness a silent studio argument, Valensi standing in front of Casablancas, jabbing with his finger and silently shouting about something or other. Hammond mediates. The rehearsal breaks up. In the kitchen outside the studio, a genial Valensi announces that he’s taking himself home, “before I make a complete dickhead of myself.”
“It’s been a long process,” explains Fraiture. “The Nigel Godrich situation helped to bring us closer together because now, we’ve all got involved. With a bigger producer, that’s it. You play your part, you get out of the room, they fuck with it, you go back. Now the studio’s a little dingier and we’re all in the same radius, we all see each other.”
It seems to be going well.
“What you said was really important. It seems to be doing unearthly well. It’s not a treasure, it’s not an odyssey of pain but it’s work. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
“The most difficult thing has been getting it to sound right on a normal stereo,” says Hammond. “Jules always says stuff like, ‘Make it sound old but like it’s from 2010.’ For anyone else apart from Gordon it could be frustrating. Fortunately, there’s also JP, the only one who could find the words to translate our ideas. One song we spent seven hours finding a bass drum sound. Most people don’t want to do that but at the end everyone was happy because it sounded so cool. It’s worth it. Julian has brought in songs with particular hi-hat sounds on them, that need to pop out in a certain way. It’s all in his head.”
“Do you play chess?” asks Casablancas. It’s even later in the evening. So late, in fact, that it’s early in the morning. The decision to go on to a late night bar has been nixed because the late night bar has closed. MOJO wants to ask some more questions about the album. This could be the perfect opportunity. I make my first chess move. E4. Nikolai Fraiture, looking on, sucks a thoughtful tooth. MOJO hesitates. “Move!” demands Casablancas, getting impatient. “This,” warns Nikolai, “is tactics. Julian’s game includes everything around the game.”
“What did you think of it?” asks Casablancas, seeking MOJO’s opinion on the new tracks. “It sounded a little bit different, right? But not weird different?”
Pretty good, I tell him, trying not to crawl.
“I’m relieved,” he says. “I was secretly worried you’d come here, shake my hand, talk to me, get back and on the cover of MOJO it’s ‘Letdown! Why the most promising band fucked it up. Well, Julian is now drinking every night and…'” He pauses. “I stopped drinking. I used to drink a lot and just get fucked up, in a lots of different way. It never used to affect the music but as soon as I sensed it was affecting me a little bit I pretty much stopped, five months ago. I’m just so relieved about last night and today. Sometimes it’s a complete mystery, what we’re doing. They call the studio TMF but written on the door is ‘All American Alchemy’. Science and wizardry. That’s what it’s like.”
Ever since The Strokes started, Casablancas has always had a great fear of blowing it, making a record that sucks, that no one wants to hear, where all of a sudden you’re a has-been at the age of 24. He doesn’t feel secure. “The only way I’d feel secure is if we’d fooled people and it sucked, and people said, ‘Oh yeah, The Strokes are great.’ That might make you feel secure. But making a living off that would just be depressing.”
The chess game is not going well. Both players have lost their queens and MOJO is being hemmed in by Casablancas’s knights and bishops. Given how critical he is of his own output, his own game, it’s understandable that he finds it awkward talking about the new tracks. “We’re trying to set it up in a new direction,” he says, “keep the fucked-up vibe but make it sound a little smoother without losing the emotion, erm…” he reconsiders. “Music does a lot of things,” he says, “and [talking about] structure is not very interesting. [But] for me, a song like Supernova is about moving on. You know when you wanna have a good time but it’s the end of the shitty period of the evening right before you actually do it. It reminds me of the excitement when you were young, right before you go out. ‘Let’s go out, do 40s.’ The feeling is, Fuck all this bad shit.”
He’s still writing about relationships and the city but…
“I hope it’s not just that!” he bristles, “You can’t sum it up as relationships and the city. That’s awful. Sex and the city? I’ve never seen that show but it’s… horrible. You mind if I get a cigarette?”
When he comes back he looks even less inclined to carry on. He says that talking about these new songs feels like talking about a band when no one knows who you are. “I’m not going to sell you the band,” he says.
Do you feel under pressure to do that?
“I don’t feel the outside pressure as much as my own pressure. That’s a shit answer but true. I feel like I will break under the pressure that I put on myself [or] that it somehow fails in some detail that I’ve overlooked. That prevents me from sleeping. What if a critic, or the general consensus say, He really let us down this time? That would fuck with my head and hurt me. But if I knew it was true, that would hurt me 10 times more.”
So if you felt in your heart that you couldn’t have done any better then…
“Oh man! I don’t even want to think about that!” his head flops down, he ruffles his hair, hiding, half-laughing, half not “That’s horrible! That’s the pressure!”
Casablancas does not really have a favourite Strokes moment although he says it’s probably in the studio when he feels that all the work is going to pay off. Right now, he can’t imagine anyone listening to this new album, but it sounds cool to him. Is all this what he wanted?
“It’s going as well as I ever hoped,” he says. “I feel like we’re in a good spot to do something cool. What I hope is that it opens a channel that’s maybe a little more than just ‘stylish New York rock band’. It would be nice if it got a little bigger in terms of understanding but was actually interesting and not just pop entertainment. Justin Timberlake? Great entertainer.”
“If we’re up there with Britney or Justin that’s what it’s about,” says Albert Hammond, “that’s making it, [but] by sounding like us. If you don’t dream big, what’s the point? Cool and unique? Sure, but it’s about getting out to a mass audience, not just jerking off in a corner.”
“Checkmate in three,” whispers Nikolai Fraiture. Casablancas has won again. This is how a lot of band discussions have passed, over the chessboard. “It probably starts with me but doesn’t end with me,” says Casablancas. “What makes it touching in the end is five different guys jamming their temperament into a feeling that’s a little more universal than one faggy songwriter.”
I ask him whether he could describe what the other band members are like to work with. He says he’ll give it a try.
“I’ll have to be careful because I know that they’ll read this. Fab’s probably the most enthusiastic. He’ll either hate it or love it. So if he doesn’t like it then you gotta go back to the drawing board. Nikolai is the hardest one to please and he’s my oldest friend so I always listen to his wisdom. He’s like the anchor. Albert is the most middle of the road. He’ll weigh up the good and the bad and give you a balanced opinion. Nick will be very quick to make a judgement (sic) and he’ll voice it with severity. Either, ‘That rocks’, or ‘I hate that’. You’re not sure if he’s saying the first thing he thought, or if it’s really true. If for any reason God forbid, we break up or if any member wasn’t there it wouldn’t be the same. It’s not like, ‘He doesn’t want to do it any more? Well fuck him!’ That’s never going to happen. Well, maybe I’ll be gone and they might get a new singer…”
Nick Valensi, lead guitarist with The Strokes, is sitting on the steps of a brownstone building in the heart of the East Village. He has an actor’s face, simultaneously beautiful and elsewhere, blemish-free except for a small scar below his right eye. If they ever re-film The Picture Of Dorian Gray, here’s the star. The least open of all The Strokes, he says that he never trusts what he says in interviews. Consequently, he speaks like he’s his own thought police, carefully checking whether he’s telling you the right thing. He thinks this interview is going to suck.
Although The Strokes are a band — all for one, one for all and all that — talk to them long enough and Valensi’s name, and his guitar playing, will eventually get singled out for attention. On Is This It the sound was tight, rudimentary, united. Now that they’re taking things further Valensi’s casual, jabbing style is coming into it’s own.
Asked what he brings to the group, Valensi says, “I don’t take shit from people. I think that’s been helpful to the band and, in another way, detrimental. I’m sort of an asshole really, put in simpler terms. I’ll let you know what I think about you, and I won’t have any qualms about it.”
Valensi’s favourite childhood toy was his guitar. He didn’t really have too many other toys. “When I was five my parents put a guitar in my hands,” he says. “My father was a bass player. He thought it’d be cool to watch his little kid try to play guitar. That’s what I did, sit around, watch TV on mute and practise my guitar.”
By the time he was six he knew all the open chords. He could play Beatles and Dylan songs when he was seven. At 13 he felt he was good enough to stop taking lessons. He’s since taken them up again with JP Bowersock. “Not stuff I would use in The Strokes but weirder jazz things. It helps me to show off.” Pause. “I’m joking.”
Raised by his mother and elder sister, Valensi says that the best piece of advice he ever received was from his mum.
“Always respect people but never really trust them. If I need something done I try my best to go about it completely independently. Because I’ve learnt throughout my short life that people are not to be trusted. Plain and simple.”
He notices a look of mild alarm on MOJO’s face.
“Am I completely jaded?”
So there are no friends who you trust?
“No, I don’t mean that! But the few friends that I have — the band and a handful of others — are people I’ve known more than half my life. People who I’ve met since the band took off? I’m wary of each and every one of them.”
Nick Valensi’s favourite Strokes moment, like Fab’s, was the Reading Festival of 2002, but, he says, “Those grandiose feelings of, ‘I can’t believe it!’ are seldom now. With the last album I wanted to be involved with what Gordon was doing. This time I may be the only one who’s let go of that. Now I let the producers produce and the musicians musish. I can go into a room, do five takes of a guitar solo and then let them worry which one’s the best. I play guitar. That’s what I do. My ears get fed up of hearing myself play and I quickly get to the point of, Who the fuck cares?” He pauses. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this. The others might get upset.”
Well, I tell him, Julian did say he liked the fact that you say what you think. That’s one of the things he liked about working with you. “Really?” asks Valensi, genuinely touched. “Oh, that’s sweet. You’ll have to tell him I said thank you. I guess that’s the nature of guitars. You’re allowed to fuck up, be sloppy, be drunk when you play and that’s the whole point.”
Walking back to the nearby bar where he’s meeting some friends, Valensi tells me about the book he’s currently reading. Unlike the rest of the band, he is not working his way through the classics. “It’s a gay book,” he says. “A really girly book. It’s Safety Of Objects, a book of short stories by A.M. Holmes. I wouldn’t recommend them to the boys in the band. My girlfriend turned me on to her.”
Amanda? “I’d rather not talk about that,” he says. “My fault. I led you to it.” We walk into the bar. Sitting there waiting for him, is Nick’s girlfriend. He introduces me to Amanda De Cadanet, former Word presenter and aspiring Hollywood celebrity.
It’s 5am in the morning. Julian Casablancas, Fab Moretti, Nikolai Fraiture, Ryan Gentles and friends are sitting on the floor of Fab and Ryan’s old flat, drinking beer and getting emotional. Even Julian is on the Heineken. The flat will be handed back to the estate agents in five hours. This is the flat where The Strokes spent two Christmases together. For the next one, they’ll be in their new apartments. “Goodbye room!” shouts Fab and goes off to write a secret message somewhere, something for the next inhabitants to find. Gradually, inevitably, Casablancas holds court. The topics are many and various: from showing Olivier Stone’ JFK in schools — “so that they know what history’s really about” — to infiltrating the pop charts. Somehow we end up talking about Cyndi Lauper. “That was pop music!” says Casablancas. “Who else was doing pop music like that in the ’80s? Madonna? Fuck Madonna. She’s a celebrity. I’m talking about Cyndi Lauper. (to MOJO) Shall I tell you where that guitar part comes from in [new track] Raga? That little reggae bit? Cyndi Lauper! Girls Just Wanna Have Fun! Cyndi Lauper was real. Money Changes Everything? When You Were Mine? All Through The Night? This is pop music.”
Julian Casablancas arrives back at his apartment building at 9am. In the lobby is his neighbour, Ryan Adams, guitar in hand, trying out a batch of new songs. He asks Casablancas how the album is going, but elects to sing the questions, turning each and every one into yet another new Ryan Adams song until Casablancas has to shout, “Will you just put that fucking guitar down.” Even the hardest working boy in New York has to turn off at some point.
“It’s us, but a little cooler”
The Strokes have five new tracks they’d like you to hear. MOJO and Albert Hammond Jr listen in.
Supernova (working title)
Ushered in by a Guns N’Roses style guitar riff, the first track played to MOJO comes as something of a joyous surprise, quickly mutating into some ’80s Just What I Needed-esque Cars classic, all handclaps, key changes and Julian’s lazy drawl, the song building and building, faster and faster all seemingly based around a Nick Valensi guitar sound that sounds like some malevolent ’80s keyboard. Highlight: the coolly soulful point where Casablancas lazily implores “Let’s go out and get 40s” and subsequently, “Kiss me/now that I’m older.”
Albert: “I love the way the guitar sounds on that track, that middle part that Nick plays. It really sounds like a Cars song — that two-minute-30-second cool-song-with-weird-sounds thing. It’s us, but a little cooler. It’s got that, ‘Let’s fucking party!’ vibe.
Leading off with a line from Is This It’s final track, Take It Or Leave It, track two is even more of a shock, a stoned ballad with Led Zep-in a-locker-room drumming from Fab and a beautiful little Valensi ascending guitar solo, it’s a non-commital love song in which Casablancas sings, “I don’t wanna waste your time/I don’t wanna change your mind/I just wanna watch you go by.”
Albert: “One of my favourite songs. You can really kick back to it. It’s the first song we’ve made that you can fall asleep to. It’s all played live and just felt like, when the drums come in, it sounds like Led Zeppelin, and I don’t even like Led Zeppelin. When Julian sings, “We’re under control”, there’s something romantic there but it’s almost like he’s saying about the people making the music. It’s the sound of us coming together as a band. We have a slow one and we can play it well.”
Meet Me In The Bathroom
The oldest track here, sounding tougher, nastier than it ever did live — machine rhythm, punching chorus, “Meet me in the bathroom/That’s what she said/I don’t mind/It’s true.” Embarrassing, but at this point in the playback everyone in the room is on their feet, nervously bobbing about, desperately wishing that the other people weren’t there so that they could, you know, jump up and down a bit.
Albert: “That was the first new one. We wanted that real machine rhythm and the chord progression is very jazzy, this old jazz progression, Julian’s lyrics are like fragments of the last night that you remember the next morning. He connects with you and I get really touched by some of the stuff he says. Plus, it’s all a little off, a little cracked.”
The instrumental version of an as-yet-unnamed track awaiting vocals — stalking bass, Pixies punk drive, and a break-down into a quite stunning guitar jag from Albert Hammond where he appears to be playing two riffs at the same time.
Albert: “I had the hardest part to play in that thing on the chorus. I was so focused. That’s the tenth song we did, one of the last songs, and it’s so good. The singing’s awesome. It makes so much difference. It’s going to sound like a mixture of the Pixies with some angry Velvet Underground and some extra weird parts that are just us.”
The Raga (working title)
An appropriate working title for a track with that sets a distinctly ’80s Slits/Peter Tosh reggae rhythm opposite a tangled, Kinksesque relationship tale of strange time signatures melodic shifts and gender crisis — “So many fish in the sea,” sings a soulfully bored Casablancas, “she wanted him/He wanted me.”
Albert: “I love it. It’s like a plane taking off. It feels slow and yet it doesn’t feel slow. There are two songs going on in there. Well, it’s like nothing we’ve ever done.