Different Strokes

The Strokes have become as famous for their celebrity girlfriends and privileged backgrounds as for their music. But now they’re back with a punchier attitude. Craig MacLean meets them in New York

Another working lunchtime at the offices of Wiz Kid Management in downtown New York. The full-size arcade games flash silently, forlornly unplayed. The giant, wall-mounted TV shows a chatshow on mute. A bored black cat noses round the bags of cat litter stacked by the door. A not-quite-lifesize cardboard cut-out of Chewbacca is on sentry duty in the first-floor window, casting his protective gaze over this quiet East Village street.

On the bare brick wall, opposite a clever collage photograph personally signed by Spike Jonze, a whiteboard details the week’s activities, photoshoots and interviews. What isn’t pictured are last-minute changes to song titles and album track listing, final approval of sleeve artwork, and the rush to beat the deadline for the completion of a pop video. Here in Strokes HQ this crisp autumn afternoon, all eyes are on computer screens, and on the future.

The band are limbering up to release their third album, First Impressions Of Earth, and a strategy is being hewn out of the last-minute chaos. Everything is being taken to the wire to coordinate a big international push from one of the world’s most lusted-after rock bands. I had been able to hear only eight of the new songs before I got to New York, and must listen to the other six (once) in the Wiz Kid office. Ask their manager and “sixth Stroke” Ryan Gentles when we might be allowed to take home a copy of the full album for a proper listen and he whimpers “don’t ask me that. You’re stepping on a sensitive nerve.”

The Strokes have just come back from a warm-up tour of South America. They are massive in Brazil and Argentina – as they were in many places after the release of their 2001 debut Is This It made them the world’s sexiest pop act – but until now had never had time to perform there. They are about to head out on a whistle-stop tour of the Far East and Europe, playing one-off “secret” shows in different countries, interspersed with the other promo activities required of jobbing bands.

The Strokes are back and – they will all chorus with conviction – this time they mean business.

It won’t be like last time, they say. The 2003 model Strokes, burned out by their hotter-than-hot status, didn’t do much to support Room On Fire. They had limped straight into the recording and releasing of that second album, after almost two years of touring following the huge success of Is This It. Everything to do with Room On Fire – which Rolling Stone had dubbed “the most hotly anticipated rock album since [Nirvana’s Nevermind follow-up] 1993’s In Utero – suffered as a result. The songs were dismissed as Is This It part two (only not as good). The tired band barely toured in support of it. At their last British show, headlining the T In The Park festival in summer 2004 (one of only a handful of UK gigs they committed to), singer Julian Casablancas appeared so drunk he could barely stand up.

“Sure, I remember T In The Park,” says Casablancas, 27, not entirely convincingly. Yeah, he was drunk, “but not the mean drunk. Just the two pints of beer and still in a good mood.” Well, he was smiling.

“The Room On Fire tour was us parodying ourselves,” confesses drummer Fabrizio Moretti, 25. “It was almost comical when I look back at it. We were really living off the fruits of our hard work and self-destructing.”

Of course, bands are meant to say they’re back and firing on all cylinders. Especially when they’re deemed to have cocked-up last time. But if you’ve heard The Strokes’ new single “Juicebox” roaring out of the radio, you’ll know there’s truth in what they say. It begins with a Peter Gunn-style twang, shifts into the Batman TV theme, before exploding into a huge, swaggering anthem. As comebacks go, “Juicebox” is a monster.

“You sorta have to make a statement with your first single,” says guitarist Nick Valensi, 24. “Juicebox is an unavoidable kinda song, you’re either gonna love it or hate it but you’re bound to have an opinion on it. We wanted to come out and say something. It’s slowly evolved into a heavy metal tune,” he adds approvingly. “It’s the most aggressive thing we’ve ever done, I think.”

The rest of the new album is just as wild. Forget the urgent, simple, classicist rock’n’roll economy that made The Strokes’ name. There’s an awful lot to take in over First Impressions Of Earth’s 14 tracks. It’s bigger: instead of Blondie-meets-Sex-Pistols spiky pop there are elaborate songs featuring mellotron (“Ask Me Anything”), prog-rock guitar solos (“Heart In A Cage”) and club-friendly rhythms (“Red Light”). It’s bolder: it veers from AC/DC-style guitar solos to the artful chamber pop of The Magnetic Fields. It’s longer: at 56 minutes it’s almost twice the length of both Is This It and Room On Fire.

And it’s clearer: Julian Casablancas’s vocal style is oft compared to someone mumbling at you through an intercom, but now you can actually make out what he’s saying. This won’t help your understanding of the songs. His lyrics are as infamously opaque as Casablancas is in person. But at least the new songs have him sounding as if the recalcitrant frontman is actually in the same room as you.

This time, says Moretti, they didn’t work “with a gun to our head”. First, they built their own studio, a Hell’s Kitchen bolthole officially dubbed Red Carpet Studios (although Moretti prefers to call it The Bunker). Ditching the long-term buddy who’d produced most of their previous material, they hooked up with David Kahne, an industry veteran with shiny, big-selling things like Bangles and Paul McCartney records to his name. Whereas up till now Casablancas had written all the songs (although all five of these close friends shared publishing royalties), now they would write as a band. And they would take their time. Almost a year, in fact. The Strokes began work on their third album last November. They finished the final tweak on it this November, just in time for a release smack-bang at the top of the new year.

Now, “we’re really geared up, especially to come to the UK,” says Nick Valensi. It’s a mark of the band’s newfound enthusiasm that the guitarist is talking at all; previously he’s been the most aloof – or even completely absent – Stroke, oozing a manifest distaste for the encumbrance of doing interviews.

Valensi isn’t just, as they say, blowing smoke up our ass. He knows The Strokes owe a lot to Britain: they were first signed here, by Geoff Travis of venerable indie label Rough Trade, and the instant British acclaim afforded their debut EP, The Modern Age, released in January 2001, generated a wave that took The Strokes rocking, carousing, wobbling around the world. “We were really neglectful [of the UK] last time,” Valensi continues, probably more alert to UK cultural sensibilities than his bandmates on account of his English girlfriend, former Word presenter-turned-photographer Amanda de Cadenet. “So we’re ready to come to the UK and do a proper tour of all the little port towns and go up north and just be all over,” he says eagerly.

“South America was great, and now we’re just excited,” chips in Nikolai Fraiture (bass, 26). “We have new music and we’re just ready to play our balls off, like we did on Is This It.”

“What do we want to achieve with this album?” ponders guitarist Albert Hammond Jnr, 25. He answers in his singular jive-talking manner. “Well, first album we didn’t know what we were doing so it went fast. Second one, went even faster and still didn’t know that much. This time we kinda put the breaks on – and in that, change happened.”

They roll in, one by one, to the Wiz Kid offices. Not just a handshake but a firm hug from each, to each.

These days they lead increasingly different lives: last year Casablancas married Juliet, who works for their management. Fraiture and his wife Illy had a baby earlier this year. After finishing the main recording on First Impressions in June, Valensi left New York and spent much of the summer in LA, where de Cadenet lives. Moretti is also “bi-coastal”, because his girlfriend is busy Hollywood actor and producer Drew Barrymore. Hammond Jnr’s girlfriend is Catherine Pierce, half of country sister duo The Pierces.

Yes, tensions crept in during the frenetic five years since the release of The Modern Age. The band came close to imploding on tour in Hawaii and Japan. Valensi says they only recently learned lessons from those sticky moments. “Now we’re trying to be more communicative with each other and more open. The problem that we used to have was a lot of resentments being harboured. Then we couldn’t really be on the road so much because that’s sort of a place for those resentments to fester.”

But, at core, The Strokes seem solid, with personal bonds that go way back. They’re like Radiohead, Franz Ferdinand or the Arctic Monkeys: mates and equals first, a band second. “It’s good to know that you’re with people you can trust,” says Fraiture, “which is important in this business. I can go to sleep comfortably knowing that my band members won’t try to dick me over in the morning.”

Casablancas and Fraiture have known each other since they were six, at school in New York. Casablancas and Hammond Jnr met in their teens at an expensive Swiss school called Le Rosey. Casablancas had been sent there by his dad, who was the founder of Elite Models; Hammond Jnr by his dad, the English-born co-writer of The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” and Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You”. Later, moving from his hometown of LA to study film in New York in 1998, Hammond Jnr bumped into Casablancas in the street. The singer knew his old school friend was a good guitarist and asked him to join his new band with Fraiture (of French-Russian parentage), Rio de Janeiro-born Moretti and strikingly good looking and natural-born guitar player Valensi. The Strokes were born.

Ryan Gentles, 26, first saw them play at a small venue called The Mercury Lounge, where he booked the bands, on 31 August 2000. “It was like watching a band play and perform the way that I was hoping all the other bands I booked would do,” he recalls. “They were cool, and not overdoing it, good songs, great performance, the energy. There were 60 kids there and everyone was going crazy. That sounds theatrical, or cheesy or dramatic, but that’s what it was like.”

Geoff Travis, played a demo over the phone, was instantly smitten. He raved about their “unmacho quality that embodies grace and love”, by which I think he meant that The Strokes might have been rock’n’roll but they weren’t boors or pigs. Certainly girls liked them, a lot, in part drawn by the handsome five’s effortlessly fashionable boho look.

All of this – the speed with which they became huge, the look, the privileged and exotic backgrounds – led to snarky comments aplenty. The Strokes were so hip it hurt. A fashion moment rather than a proper rock event.

“Yeah, but people are gonna think that [and] I don’t care,” shrugs Casablancas. “One way or another people are gonna get to know you. If it’s not true it won’t last. If it’s true, then that’s who I am, I’m an asshole, what can I do about it? If we stay who we are and hopefully get better people will realise that. The whole rock star thing is not for me where it’s at, at all.”

The critical orthodoxy is that Room On Fire was the point where the emperor’s new clothes were revealed. The Strokes were another faddish rock band whose time had been and gone, just as it was for the bands who came in their wake, The Hives (“The Swedish Strokes”) and The Vines (“The Australian Strokes”). But to these ears, it’s unfairly maligned. Listened to with two years’ distance, away from the hype, it’s a great album. Yes, it’s more of the same, but in the same way that Franz Ferdinand’s new album is the muscular sequel to its predecessor. When “the same” is so brilliantly exciting, who cares?

But Valensi understands the suspicion, and how that worked to the band’s disadvantage.

“We had garnered, I suppose, too much acclaim, more than we deserved. We were praised as rock’s saviours when all we had ever recorded was a half-hour record. So we felt rushed to get more stuff out there. So this time we didn’t want to have the same fire on our asses. We wanted to take as much time as we needed.”

As much as I can tell, from one exposure to the whole of First Impressions Of Earth, the new attitude has paid off. I’m not sure teen pop fans will fall for these intense, often complicated bursts of music as quickly as they did “the old Strokes”. But Casablancas loosening his grip on the writing and letting his bandmates chip in has certainly helped the songs. There’s more to them, and more in them. And that means there is, five years on, more to the Strokes than sharp threads and sharp riffs. They might be in for the long-haul after all.

What does Julian Casablancas make of his band’s new album? Is he feeling more relaxed, now that he’s sharing the songwriting burden? Was he really trying to echo Johnny Cash on the heartachey “The Other Side”, does “Razorblade” sound like some sort of ironic tribute to Barry Manilow’s “Mandy”, and is he aware that writing about how difficult it is being famous (in the song “15 Minutes”) is a bit of a cliche?

Well, it’s hard to tell. “Maybe” he feels less pressure. “Razorblade” is “one of my least favourites, but yeah, what can you do, I guess I sorta knew [Mandy],” he shrugs. “Maybe I sort of meant ’15 Minutes’ as a joke,” he says, sticking out a pendulous lower-lip.

That’s about as clear as he gets. The singer is notoriously hard to understand, literally. Words escape his mouth, but trying to marshall coherence out of them is like trying to corral sheep. It seems to be more out of shyness than affectation, and is so extreme it’s funny. But still.

Eventually, having declined to say what the suggestive “Juicebox” is really about (“it’s a metaphor for bloodsucking,” he lies) or to explain the album title (“it’s not extra-terrestrial”), Casablancas offers some sort of prognosis of where he, and his band, are at.

“The two first records seem like part one. And with this record maybe there’s a part two involved.” A sigh, a wince, a ruffling of the hair. “I’m not sure. And maybe after that, move on again? I dunno. That’s where I think I’m at. But,” he concludes, suddenly brightening, “who knows?”

Over to the hitherto remote Valensi, now revealed as the most loquacious Stroke. “As much of a cliche as it is, this feels like a new beginning. We think differently as a band and as individuals. As much as I hate to say it, everybody is a little more grown-up. We had a different approach to recording the album, we’ve got a different approach to going on tour now. Basically, we’ve got a different approach to everything.”

“It’s gonna make us a better band to see live too,” declares Hammond Jnr emphatically. “I think we’re about to play some of our best shows.”