A Year Of Living Famously

The past 12 months has seen The Strokes catapulted from obscurity to international fame. But don’t fret, they’re taking it all in their impeccably-attired stride.

“I feel really good about tonight,” he says. It’s five o’clock and Julian Casablancas is peering out of the tourbus and looking across a Cleveland, Ohio parking lot. He’s just finished three hours of video baseball and is ready to get stoned and play another perfect show. Inside the tourbus, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr is sitting on two amps. His pants have lifted, revealing striped socks and Converse. He has a cigarette balanced perfectly in his mouth and his vintage corduroy jacket appears to be hand-tailored.

Drummer Fabrizio Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture are laying on couches at the back of the bus watching tapes of cult US comedy Mr Show. Guitarist Nick Valensi is still asleep. The first thing you notice when you see this band start their day is how utterly comfortable they are as the world’s favourite new rock stars.

In the past year The Strokes have gone from a cutie indie-rock band that only you knew about to a ‘buzzworthy’ MTV video and Rolling Stone magazine’s “first big rock’n’roll thrill of the year”. Now, they’re not just BIG (big in Britain), they’re about to become the biggest new band in America.

The most phenomenal thing about all this success is not that media hype, the celebrity sycophants, the maniacal fans or any of that shit, it’s how oblivious the band is to all of it. Either these five post-adolescent rich kids are the chosen ones and God is into rhythm and blues-based rock’n’roll, or rock stars are such useless twats these days that when someone good comes along we can’t help but be mesmerised.

The number of rockers that couldn’t handle stardom are too numerous to mention. There are lecherous managers, too many drugs, the headfuck of infinite sex, wads of cash and constant ego boosts to contend with. Even the Stones couldn’t deal with it. Keith Richards and Charlie Watts fell into heroin. Bill Wyman lost his mind on the pussy train and Mick got so drunk with money lust he’s still trying to go solo.

The Strokes have successfully avoided all this bullshit and come out smiling. There have been drugs but, despite copious amounts of heroin and cocaine floating around them every night, the band tend to settle for seven beers and a pre-show joint. The groupies are obsessive and scary but rarely get further than the occasional blowjob. The band’s dating patterns are the same as your own.

Even the celebrity circus that follows them everywhere isn’t able to make a dent. When Courtney Love took Julian aside at a recent LA famous person party, she failed to make an impression. She told him that he needed to have the ‘Bono talk’ if he really wanted to make it. Julian told her he thought U2 were shitty and wasn’t interested in hearing what they had to say. She tried to continue her lecture but Julian walked away, past the other celebrities over to the rest of the band. They left the party early and went bowling. Courtney finished the conversation on her own by writing a song called ‘But Julian I’m Little Older Than You’.

The Strokes are exactly what you want them to be. They are a bunch of kids that like to play rock’n’roll and break things. Not old bald guys with hats on pretending not to be bald. They aren’t blinded by money and fame because they grew up surrounded by it. They have inside jokes and punch each other hard if one of them burps without saying ‘safety’ immediately after.

They are compared to ’70s punk bands like Television but they’re too young to know anything about it. They’re just really nice kids who play rock the way it was supposed to be done – with arrogant naivete.

“They’re almost too perfect,” says David Cross, Mr Show‘s co-creator, who’s begun opening for the band doing stand-up at gigs. “When I first met them I thought there must be a catch. They were, like, Stepford Wives nice. Then I just realised I was talking to a totally unpretentious band that liked good jokes.”

And then there’s the music. Like Andrew WK, Casablancas is a classically trained musician who gives intense care to every facet of every part of every song. Most bands today sound laboured and busy. Ronnie James Dio said that “a good band has to be a benevolent dictatorship”, and The Strokes are one of the few groups around that have on focused vision for every song.

They’re the band of the year, no question.

It’s 5.30pm, and the band are ready to eat. Which is easier said than done. Cleveland is a post-industrial ghost town like Detroit, where rock’n’roll thrives and classy restaurants don’t. Luckily, Albert thinks he knows somewhere and 20 minutes later we’re ensconced in a place with leather seats and waiters with elaborate moustaches.

As a sign of their increasing stardom, the moment our waiter rolls up, he immediately recognises the band and tries to blag some tickets for tonight’s show. The band duly oblige. Albert, meanwhile, has just found the wine list.

“They have this great bottle of wine here from the south of France,” he enthuses. “It’s called Languedoc. We’ll get a bottle…”

Albert Hammond Jr is the son of Albert Hammond Sr, the songwriter who penned classics like ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before’. He’s used to eating in nice restaurants and going on tour. In fact, the whole band – despite being dressed in rags – seem totally at home in the most expensive restaurant in Cleveland. Then again, they’re the type of band who you feel could take anything in their stride.

You want an example? Well, just as we’re about to start interviewing them, their manager Ryan Gentles gets a phone call. The Strokes’ album ‘Is This It’ has just gone platinum in the UK.

Nick Valensi:(Adopting his best surfer dude voice) We just went platinum!”

Albert Hammond Jr: “Party!”

Nick: “Let’s have a party, man. We can make a party tape. I’ve got the new Wicked Scepter party tape (a reference to an obscure David Cross skit from Mr Show).”

Two seconds later, the band have totally forgotten all about this and have moved onto the next topic. Fabrizio is fielding a call from a girl he ran into at the NMEphoto shoot earlier on. He decides hanging out with her is better than eating with us so he leaves. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture follows him. The band indicates that Fraiture may be moving in on the girl’s friend, but NME suspects Lyme disease. The illness has plagued Nikolai throughout his current tour, making him sluggish and fatigued and occasionally unable to play. Still, as with the platinum record phone call, the band are unphased by the departures and quickly get back to commanding fine food. We decide to dive in, while we’ve got the chance.

NME: What happened at that photo shoot today? One minute we’re watching you have your pictures taken and the next thing we know these two blonde, ’70s-looking girls are writhing around like they’re on E or something.

Julian: “They said, ‘It’s The Strokes’, but instead of coming over to us – they didn’t want to wreck the shot or something – they started trying to fuck the photographer. Right as he was taking pictures. I saw one of them licking his ear and trying to grab him and then he sort of shook her off onto his assistant.”

Nick: “Then she started biting that dude on the ear and wrapping her legs around him. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Like a bad porno. A totally badly acted porno.”

Was that the same girl that’s been stalking the band since England?

Julian: “No, that’s a whole other story.”

Albert: “That girl has been showing up in every city on this part of the American tour. She even had to stop in at one point in Manchester I think it was, to tell her husband she was following us here. She was telling me about it – about how mad the guy is, like I would be flattered to hear it, but its just freaked me out.

Is this a typical day with The Strokes? Is this what the tour has been like so far?

Julian: “Well, it’s not like the Poison days, let me put it that way, but it’s not like high school either. There was this girl at the hotel last night but it’s not like that every night. I’d like to fuck right now but I can’t just snap my fingers. I guess it lies somewhere between high school and the glam days. It’s not an impossible pain in the ass to get laid but you’re not exactly drowning in it either. Usually you wake up at the venue at 2pm, do an interview and then go do soundcheck. Play video games.”

Nick: “My favourite thing to do is always get stoned before the soundcheck. Then you get something to eat and do a photo shoot or just fuck around. The photo shoots can be a bummer sometimes. Especially when you have to go to a studio and pose. They’ll have certain expressions they want you to make and sometimes it’s hell.”

Albert: “The best part of the night is after the show. You get this natural high from playing in front of all those people. We’ve been playing these songs for so long now that there’s rarely something that makes me unhappy. It almost always goes well and you’re on this high that’s hard to explain. It’s a powerful high like heroin or something and it stays with you until you go to bed. From midnight to five in the morning is the best part of the day.”

As we talk, The Strokes are getting drunk. They aren’t slurring their words yet but they have taken on that Richard Harris/Peter O’Toole vibe where glasses are thrust towards the waiter to be filled and fish is forked over to the other end of the table so that someone else can have a bite, no matter what gets knocked over. To see the band like this, you can’t avoid the similarities to Oasis. They don’t give a shit what you think.

In the past 12 months you’ve gone from a cute New York band to a legendary rock’n’roll band. Can you handle it?

Julian: “The first shows I was really nervous. I literally puked before our first show at Mercury Lounge (Lower East Side bar in New York City). I puked at the first few shows actually but once you get onstage it goes away instantly. As soon as the first chord of the first song comes in you just get into it and the puking feeling is over. Then I realised this isn’t so hard. It’s just playing music after all. Once you get over the new size of the crowds you put everything in perspective. I mean, we’re still a moderately unknown band.”

So you’re not overwhelmed?

Julian: “Sometimes I think it’s pretty bizarre but other times it seems like nothing. Maybe I’ll get to this point where I realise how huge we are and be overwhelmed but I’m just not there yet. There’s no time to think. You want people to hear your music and you want to get it to as many people as possible so you have to put up with the interviews and the MTV and the photo shoots, and it can be a bummer sometimes, but that’s the price you pay. Ideally I’d like to get this tour over with so we can get back in the studio and make some more music. There’s been so much push on the band and the songs we have now that we haven’t had a chance to make any more music.”

Albert: “It’s not like we have panic attacks, or there’s a secret world of drugs and hatred that you’ll find out about later. It’s just really satisfying and fun. I laugh my head off all the time at shit and the music we play is really satisfying. I couldn’t imagine anything I’d rather do or any other people I’d rather do it with. I mean, on the one hand I can’t believe how perfect everything is and assume it can’t get better, but on the other hand I know I can handle it and I know it’s only going to get better.”

One of the inevitable side effects of getting this huge this fast is that there’s going to be haters and biters and celebrity gossip.

Nick: “Obviously I understand if people hate hearing about us so much. I’d probably hate it too but in the end you have to listen to the album and watch us play. If it doesn’t sound good then don’t like it.”

What about all the celebrities you’ve been hanging out with (Winona Ryder etc)? Is there anyone that sticks out in your mind as bearable? Someone alright to hang out with?

Julian: “Not many. The celebrity side of all this popularity is pretty lame, I have to admit. I understand for bands that are trying really hard to be famous it would be interesting, but we just want to make music. The only bearable celebrity we’ve met so far would have to be Zack De La Rocha. He was just a guy. A good guy to talk to.”

What do you think the secret is to your songs? What’s the process you go through?

Julian: “I listen to something and it sticks in my head. It could be a chord or a chorus. It could be The Cure or Brian Wilson, Bob Marley, The Velvet Underground, Nirvana – even Tom Petty. I can’t think of a lot of new bands I would listen to. There’s so much shitty music around these days. Maybe Blonde Redhead have a few good songs. The song will sort of linger around and I’ll just play the same part until it sinks deeper and deeper into my head.

“Once it starts to become a song I’ll take it to the studio and try to come up with all the different parts. Then I’ll take it to the rest of the band and we’ll go over it and over it. The final song ends up sounding very different from the first version of it. The only thing that remains constant throughout is the lyrics.”

When you talk about ‘shitty music’, are you picturing Limp Bizkit in your head?

Julian: “Not them. I don’t think about them. They’re a brand – like Coca-Cola. They’re entertainment. I don’t really think of them at all. I don’t have a specific band in mind.”

Come on.

Julian: “Um – I was watching Behind The Music on VH-1 the other night and there was this thing on Creed. I probably shouldn’t be saying this. I don’t like to say bad shit about bands, I mean, good for them, you know? But it was so fucking funny seeing how serious these guys were being talking about their music. Like it was so important. I never laugh at people that don’t take themselves too seriously but this was ridiculous. Then they had the singer guy up there with The Doors and saying how much he sounded like Jim Morrison. It was really funny.”

Would you rather just do music and not have to worry about VH-1 and MTV?

Julian: “It would be cool if you didn’t have to worry about videos or KROQ FM or any of that shit but you have to. I don’t want us to disappear. We’re in a weird balance right now between small band playing shows and a big band in Rolling Stone articles. I don’t know which side it’s going to end up on. Hopefully it will land somewhere in the middle.”

Just as we’re about to ask out final question, we notice the band’s manager, Ryan Gentles, frantically pointing at his watch. It seems in all the excitement (ie alcohol), we’ve lost track of the time. The Strokes are due at the venue in 20 minutes. The bill’s rapidly paid and we’re all stuffed in the van. Albert, Julian and Nick are all comfortably drunk and lightly stuffed. It’s the way expensive food is supposed to make you feel. We decide to ask them one last question.

Do you feel like you’re part of something? Like New York music is back and you’re a part of that?

Julian: “Sure. There wasn’t anything happening for so long in New York. It was so shitty you felt like you had to invent your own music. Just to have something to listen to. Just to have somewhere to go. I guess everyone felt like that at the same time. I’d like to think we played a part in that.”

The band all smile contentedly.

When we get to the venue girls are either yelping or running to get their friends. A teenager in tight jeans, a T-shirt and a blazer runs over to ask the band if they’re going to go to Japan. “I think so,” Albert replies. The band gets rushed backstage to set up.

It’s shocking to see what was once an inconsequential New York band fill up Cleveland’s Agora Ballroom. There are at least 5,000 kids here. Some dress for the part in second-hand clothes that are two sizes too small and 20 years too old. The majority, however, could be Slipknot fans. There are baggy pants and pigtails. There are a few, older rock dudes with sideburns and corduroy jackets but there are thousands more kids.

When The Strokes finally come on, it’s sensational. Julian has perfectly mastered stumbling on to the stage. The rest of the band stand comfortably like oblivious worker bees as he runs on and off the stage occasionally bumping them aside.

The first song is ‘The Modern Age’ and Julian starts it off with Dean Martin-esque class. The lights are dim and it’s hard to see the band as he pulls the mic out, wraps the cord around his arm and drapes his other arm on the stand like a statuatte of himself. Then he pushes the stand over and spins around as it topples into the crowd. Every time a guitar solo gives him a break from singing he runs backstage and chugs a beer.

By the end of the show he resembles a drunk stepdad. You’re kind of scared of him but you respect him too. After 30 minutes tha band has played every song they know (including the fabulous new one ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’). Julian says good night and throws away his microphone. As the rest of the band casually puts away their instruments, 5,000 teenagers roar. It’s The Strokes’ first day as a legendary rock’n’roll band and it feels huge.