THE STROKES – WHY NEW YORK’S FINEST WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE – FOREVER!
The first punch is throw 30 seconds into The Strokes’ first NME photo session. Their five skinny, leather-clad frames are milling about on a street corner in the heart of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, when someone yells out: “Hey motherfuckers, you’re blocking the whole sidewalk.”
Everyone turns around. There are three kids in hoods, obviously wired up on something, facing the band. A few seconds earlier, they randomly tried to attack a school bus driving down the street. Now they’re staring at us, so guitarist Nick Valensi opts for a spot of diplomacy. He flicks them his middle finger and mutters, “Fuck you, man”.
Everything happens at once. A fist swings through the air and catches him in the chest. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti and singer Julian Casablancas enter the fray immediately, quickly joined by bassist Nikolai Fraiture and guitarist Albert Hammond. There’s shoving and stray punches fly all over the place. Fabrizio catches one square between his shoulders. People strolling down the sidewalk grind to a halt and form a ring around the scuffle. Before anyone’s had time to work out what’s happening, police sirens blare out, and the NYPD hits the scene.
Then the pandemonium really breaks out. Everyone starts shouting and swearing and jabbing their fingers into each other. The police pull the two groups apart and, after quizzing a handful of passers-by, decide that The Strokes are the injured party. Do they want to press charges? Nick, rubbing his jaw, sighs, “Forget it. I just want to get some ice.” The melee breaks up, and the band head off down the street. Julian turns to NME and smiles, “Welcome to New York…”
It’s been said before, and we’re guessing it’s going to be said again: The Strokes are so New York, it hurts. They look New York (skinny ties, black leather, subway tans, that classic late-’70s punk look in full), they sound New York (The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Television) and they sure as hell act New York (when we ask Nick whether they get into many fights, he turns and grins: “Oh no, that was the first one… for about a week”. A few days after we leave, they start another one in Philadelphia.)
In the five months since their first EP, The Modern Age’, arrived at NME, they’ve become the most talked-about rock band since Oasis. That’s partly because the clipped, pulsating swagger of that first single marked it out as the best debut for about a million years, and partly because the last time they were in England, their gigs were a revelation. Here was a band that had everything – the look, the sound, the attitude, the whole thing. Since then, of course, everything’s gone crazy. They’ve been besieged by major record companies (eventually signing to Rough Trade in Britain and RCA in the rest of the world), they’ve recorded a magnificent debut album (“Is This It”) and it’s rumoured that Oasis want them as a support band. Now they’re on the verge of returning to the scene of their triumph.
This month sees them undertaking an already sold out 16-date tour, climaxing at London’s 1200 capacity Heaven nightclub. At the same time they release their second single, a double A-side featuring the metronomic new wave howl of ‘Hard To Explain’ and the raw feedback abandon of ‘New York City Cops’. It’s a genius record, and one that’s destined to be their first Top 40 hit.
Now it’s midnight on Friday evening, roughly ten hours after our impromptu street brawl. We’re on Second and Avenue A at The Strokes’ favourite bar – 2A. All of the band are here, apart from Julian, who, Albert explains, is suffering from “a cold”. Their Transporter Raum Studio is just across the road, and after a couple of beers they suggest that we head over to hear what they’ve been doing for the last two months.
Thirty seconds later, we’re slipping through a graffiti-smeared door and heading down a corridor piled high with rusting radiators. Through another door and then down a steep flight of stairs to the basement. This is where The Strokes hang out. The room’s dingy, lit by a few perfunctory lights and bare apart from a red velvet sofa with an enormous split down the middle. There’s a chandelier hanging lifelessly from the ceiling, and through the glass partition we can make out three figures (one of whom is Julian, (who’s currently got his head in his hands).
Julian gets up to greet us and introduces the other two. Under a haystack of greasy curls, there’s Gordon Raphael, the band’s producer, and to his left, there’s JP. A bear of a man in his late-’30s with an unruly moustache and a beer clutched to his chest, he’s the band’s “guru” (we later discover that he started off as Julian and Nick’s guitar teacher). Tonight they’ve been working on finishing the album and Julian in particular looks exhausted.
“I’ve been sleeping four hours a night just to finish this motherfucker,” he groans by way of explanation. “Recording sucks your soul. I swear to God I’ve never wanted a vacation as much as I do now. I mean, it’s fun… but the pressure is insurmountable.”
So you’re co-producing then? “Man, that sounds so pretentious,” he snaps back. “When I used to look at CDs when I was a kid, it was like, ‘Producers? Why the fuck do I give a shit who produced it?’ If you see the band have co-produced it, you start imagining them in technical situations, and who needs that? I want to picture the band coming in, recording the song once and then leaving. I like the idea of that raw efficiency.”
That’s good attention to detail. “It’s anti-image. I don’t want to be some brainiac band. I just want us to do what we do: ROCK YOUR FUCKING BALLS OFF.” .
He slumps back into his seat, grins, and gestures for Gordon to play what they’ve completed so far. What rips out of the speakers over the next 30 minutes is incredible. This autumn. The Strokes will release a debut album on which every track is perfect. The songs they’ve recorded are raw and menacing, the perfect combination of noise and careering melodies. They’ve made a record which sounds like it could only have come from the city where they live. It’s got that tightly-strung mania about it, and as far as Julian is concerned, that’s no accident..
“Look,” he says, sucking on a cigarette, “we didn’t sit in the meeting room and say, ‘Let’s do this New York sound’. Little by little, though, I’ve realised that the music you make is totally influenced by your surroundings. The tension in New York definitely translates into what we’re doing..
“I mean, I love New York. The only thing is, when you’re here, you constantly feel like you’ve got to get out. Human evolution didn’t mean for people to be in a city like this all the time. You get so fucking aggressive about everything. You want to fight all the time, because you’re so pissed off with people living on top of you. That’s what happened when we were walking around earlier. We got into a fucking street fight. It was like attack of the killer midgets..
“New York riqht now reminds me of how it was about eight years ago, in the early-’90s. There was that same kind of tension in the streets then as well. New York is meant to be cleaned up, but it’s getting tenser again. Lately, when I’m walking around the street, I really feel it.”.
He might be right. Eight years of strict ‘zero tolerance’ under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani might have temporarily altered the complexion of the city, but right now you can feel it swinging back to the brash and sleazy place it always was under the surface. It’s surely no coincidence that the most popular T-shirt design of the moment reads, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck”, while outrageously sick magazines like Vice (Julian: “I love that magazine. They did a feature on what people look like on drugs. My friend was in it on hash and his wife on heroin. That was pretty cool. People we know in Vice, all fucked-up and strung out.”) are becoming ever more popular. New York’s reverting to type, and The Strokes are just the most obvious outward sign of it..
Right now, though, the band are checking their watches. Tomorrow, they’re playing a gig in Boston – a five-hour drive up the East Coast. It’s 3am, so we bid them goodnight and promise to be waiting for them outside our hotel the next morning. Julian yawns, and turns back to the mixing desk..
It’s hardly surprising that The Strokes have got the New York thing so well covered when three of them were born and bred there, and a fourth, Fabrizio, moved here from Rio De Janeiro soon after his birth. Only Albert hasn’t got the city in his blood. He’s from LA and relocated here in September 1998..
At their heart of their New York state of mind, though, is frontman Julian Casablancas. He writes the songs and supplies the attitude – something he may well have inherited from his father. That’s John Casablancas, the man who founded the pre-eminent Elite Modeling Agency back in 1971 and who quit in February last year, spewing vitriol about models in general and Naomi Campbell and Heidi Klum in particular (memorably describing the latter as “talentless German sausage”). Julian doesn’t talk about him much, and you get the impression that they aren’t particularly close. When asked whether his father was responsible for getting The Strokes played on the catwalks of Europe, Julian just shrugs and says, “I doubt it.”.
Whatever their relationship, there’s no doubt that Julian enjoyed a nomadic adolescence. At the age of 13, he was packed off to L’lnstitut Le Rosey in Switzerland, a private international school whose website warns of its “clear code of discipline”. As 11 of us squeeze into The Strokes’ tiny van and prepare to crawl our way out of Manhattan, Julian recalls his time there with disgust. “It was just this snobby school. My dad had gone there and I was fucking up in school and for some reason they thought going to Switzerland would help me. It was a bad experience – even if I did meet Albert there.” What was so bad about it? “It was just terrible,” he reiterates. “I was punished all the time. I had to wake up at six in the morning to jog around the school. I’d get caught for smoking or whatever. It sucked. There were a lot of Turkish people there. They were nice, but you know… they all wore Versace jeans. It was the biggest culture shock of my life.”.
Albert was there for six months, Julian for two years. It wasn’t until he got back and started attending the Dwight School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that his musical interests started to take shape. There, he met Nick and his friend Fabrizio, and later, Nikolai. Gradually, The Strokes drifted into existence..
They played their first gig in front of 15 girls at a party thrown by Nick’s older sister in 1996, but it wasn’t until Albert’s arrival in autumn ’98 that things started to get serious. They spent six months locked away in a rehearsal studio in the Hell’s Kitchen district of Manhattan, until September 14 1999, when they were ready to play their first public gig, at a club called Spiral. There were only six people there, but Julian, stricken with nerves, still puked just before he went onstage..
From there, their progress was steady, but not spectacular – only gaining real momentum when they started playing a downtown club called the Mercury Lounge (New York’s equivalent of London’s Camden Monarch) in the autumn of 2000. There they acquired a new manager (Ryan Gentles) who also happened to be the club’s booking agent. He began sending out their demo to record companies. That’s how Geoff Travis at Rough Trade got to hear it. He agreed to put it out. The Strokes came over to England and things just went off the scale. When they got back to America, the music industry was ready to pounce. A year ago they’d been playing to 50 people, now A&R execs were rumoured to be offering seven-figure cheques.
When we get to Boston, eight grueling hours after we left New York City, everyone piles into a bar around the corner from tonight’s venue (the evocatively named TT: The Bear’s Place), and NME asks what the reaction to their success has been like in New York.
“Our friends have all been pretty cool,” nods Julian, nursing a neat (medicinal) whisky. “And people who don’t know us? Well, it’s amazing how jealous they are. We walk into places and people say, ‘Yeah, we’ve heard of The Strokes, they’re a bunch of fucking assholes.’ They’ll say it to your face and then they’ll want to hang out with you. Two days later, they’ll be round asking to hear the album. Fucking dipshits.”
“I was sitting in a bar the other day,” adds Nick, “and some girl said to me, ‘Do people actually come to your shows or is it just people from magazines?’ That was pretty funny.”
It’s certainly true that magazines have lost their minds for The Strokes. Not just NME, but style mags, fashion mags, guitar mags, everyone.
Julian: “It’s just the way we fucking dress, man. I remember having a conversation with Nick one day soon after we started playing shows. I used to get dressed up for shows, but it didn’t feel right. So Nick said, ‘What’s your problem? Just dress every day like you’re going to play a show.’ That became my motto. I get funny looks if I’m in a weird neighbourhood, but so what?”
You’re sex symbols in Britain now, too. “Yeah,” smiles Nick, a man fully aware of his own good looks. “Well, what people don’t realise is that we’re all homosexuals.” “That’s a joke, man,” laughs Julian. “It’s funny, though, because although we really like girls, it’s almost as if we like each other better. We’ll definitely go get laid, but we won’t hang out with the qirl and be like, ‘Oh I love you’, we’ll go straight back to the band.” He pauses.
“I’m kidding, by the way….Actually, I’m totally not.” “That’s so true,” nods a beaming Fabrizio. “Sorry to bang on about Behind The Music,” continues Julian, “but the one thing I hate about so many bands is that when you see them on that show you find out they didn’t get along. Even The Beatles hated each others’ guts. We work hard at getting along. We want to have fun and we want to be with each other much more than having fame and all the rest of that fucking bullshit.”
Stop it, you’re making me tearful. “Fuck you, man,” screeches Julian. “This is for the mushy part of your article,” says Nick sweetly.”It’s no surprise that Sting’s just come on the radio,” grins Fabrizio. Julian: “It’s totally fucking, fitting. Now let’s carry this on later. Aren’t we meant to be onstage?” Forty-five minutes later, it’s 11.30 and The Strokes stroll onto a sparsely-lit stage to survey a 400-capacity audience. Julian coughs into the microphone and turns his back, Fabrizio starts to pound his drumkit and the band career into a song called ‘Take It Or Leave It’. It’s amazing. Nick stands stage left, nose in the air, lips fixed in a pout, maniacally propelling the song forward, while Albert stands stage right sparking off his every move. Centre stage, Julian staggers about, clutching his leather jacket and stumbling over effects pedals. After four chaotic minutes everything suddenly shudders to a halt. There’s the tiniest of pauses and then deafening applause fills the venue.
The rest of the gig is equally spectacular. The Strokes are loud, thrilling and totally charismatic throughout. By the time they come off 45 minutes later, the place is so hot that the drumsticks are sliding out of Fabrizio’s hands and girls are screaming deliriously, whether they’re with their boyfriends or not. The band play their final note, fling their instruments to the floor and stride off into the darkness. They look and sound like the band who are going to save rock.
“That’s fucking ridiculous,” snaps Julian later on when we’re back at the hotel. “I’ll tell you straight up, there are a lot of much better bands than us. New bands? I’m not talking about that shit, but there’s a lot of good music out there. A lot of this hype is bullshit. I think we’re pretty good and I want us to be successful. That’s about it, though.” It’s been said that you’re the new Oasis. Julian: “That’s great, but we have to keep moving up. We have to get better songs. Just get better full stop. If we believe too much of this shit, we’re going to crash and burn so fucking fast. We need new songs. It’s a short life, man, you’ve got to pack it in.”
“As soon as you start believing what people are writing about you,” agrees Nick, “that’s when you start to suck.”
“I’m not full of shit,” rasps Julian, stabbing his finger in NMFs general direction. “If we don’t get better, I don’t want to do this any more. I don’t want to just hit some kind of fame. I just want to do something good. That’s the only way I’m going to be satisfied.”
Are you satisfied with what you’re doing at the moment? “No way,” he concludes. “Hell, no, baby. People might think it’s perfect right now, but next week, they’re going to want to hear something else. I want to provide that something else.”
He lights another cigarette and stares off into the distance. He needn’t worry. At this exact moment. The Strokes really are perfect. Without doubt the greatest band to emerge from New York for two decades. That they’re intent on getting better is a frightening prospect. By the time you read this, they’ll be back in Britain for one of the most fantastic tours you’ve seen in your life.
A band like The Strokes only comes along once in a lifetime. You should be grateful that they’ve come along in yours.