Interviews – The Times April 2020

The Strokes on the chaotic life of a band and their new album, The New Abnormal by Will Hodgkinson.

Being cool in your early twenties is a wonderful thing. Just ask the Strokes. Five good-looking New Yorkers from wealthy backgrounds with an apparent ability to look impossibly stylish in whatever clothes were lying on the floor next to their beds, the band arrived in 2001 with a debut album, Is This It, that was so fresh, so vital, that it made clever but primitive, simple yet sophisticated Lou Reed-style rock’n’roll relevant all over again. They were the gang everybody wanted to join, sleep with or at least buy a round of drinks for.

Being cool in your thirties isn’t quite so impressive, however, particularly if it isn’t backed up by anything meaningful, and for the past decade it has seemed as though the Strokes have been a case of diminishing returns. Now, unexpectedly, all that has changed.

In February they played a febrile gig at the Roundhouse in London that captured the old magic once more. They have just made an album with the super-producer Rick Rubin that reclaims their status as the great 21st-century guitar band, returning to the neat pop songs in a fuzzy garage rock style that made them so exciting in the first place. And perhaps most unexpectedly, they have got political. A band whose biggest concern once seemed to be worrying about what sunglasses to wear to the photoshoot have been out on the American presidential campaign trail with Bernie Sanders.

“We all agreed on Bernie. That was a very bonding phone call we had about supporting him,” says the guitarist Albert Hammond Jr, who is sitting in a chintzy drawing room in the Covent Garden Hotel in central London with the band’s singer, main songwriter and erstwhile leader, Julian Casablancas. Hammond looks rather preppy in a short-sleeved, buttoned-up shirt and neatly pressed trousers. Casablancas, in a brown leather overcoat and what appears to be half a haircut, looks altogether more eccentric.

Sanders has now dropped out of the race, but at the time was lagging behind Joe Biden, having been the favourite to take on Donald Trump. I ask the pair if they think America could really make a 78-year-old socialist its next president. “Socialism and capitalism are meaningless words at this point,” Casablancas declaims in place of a mere yes. “The war now is corporate brainwashing versus circumventing corporate brainwashing, not how much tax you pay or what benefits you have.

“Added to the fact that it is always a minuscule slice of undecided voters that sway elections in the US, we’re not in a real democracy any more. There was a sweet spot for democracy after World War Two, which is what Trump was talking about with Make America Great Again, but his trick was to use it for evil.”

All of this is poured into The New Abnormal, the Strokes’ first album since the messy Comedown Machine in 2013 and their best since the Noughties glory days of Is This It and First Impressions of Earth. “The fires burnt down most of Malibu and the governor of California talked about the ‘new abnormal’,” Casablancas says of the modern, pre-coronavirus America the album addresses. “It was hard to not think about it.”

You could have knocked me down with a leather-bound copy of Das Kapital. The Strokes have a reputation for being surly and disengaged, but it seems things have changed since the days when Casablancas would respond to an innocent question about music by saying “f*** music” before leaning across the table and turning off the journalist’s recoording device (from a 2003 interview with Neil Strauss, as recounted in his book Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead).

When the Strokes got big they were kids, friends from school pinballing around New York, pretending at being rock stars and making it up as they went along. Then, seemingly overnight, they had to deal with the ego confusion fame brings, from being written about constantly, to having the supermodel Kate Moss turning up in the dressing room at their debut London gig.

“We always felt like an underground band,” Casablancas says of that period. “In New York there were moments that were big for us, like going from playing in front of 30 people to 60 people, but then we got signed in England [to Rough Trade] and we didn’t understand the culture. We didn’t understand the NME. We didn’t know what festivals were. And very quickly it was like everything was happening around us.

“You’re young, you don’t know anything, you get in the van, you do crazy tours, there are press days and then you’re crying in bed, going, ‘What is happening to me?’ It was surreal, particularly because I was drinking so heavily at the time. Everyone around us was so excited and we didn’t know why. It felt like it could all be taken away in a minute.”

In a sense, it was. The Strokes were a huge influence on a new wave of Noughties indie rockers that included the Killers, Kings of Leon and Arctic Monkeys, but while those bands went on to fill stadiums, the Strokes found themselves in an uneasy middle ground: too big for the underground, too underground for the mainstream, too young to cope with it all.

“[The] 9/11 [terror attacks] happened on the day the vinyl of Is This It came out. We saw it happen from our apartment,” says Casablancas, who is clearly rather shy and far more sensitive than he lets on, with a sharp mind that jumps about and goes to places you don’t expect. “Then we felt we had to do the second record really quickly, and the second record didn’t do as well as the first. It was over before it began.”

“I have a copy of The Village Voice with a cover of the towers coming down, and then there’s a picture of us in the music section inside,” Hammond interjects. “Very quickly there was all this anxiety, mostly from people around us, but it affects you.”

At least the Strokes came of age before social media, when they could make their mistakes and engage in any attendant rock’n’roll behaviour in private. “Oh, we’d be ruined in an instant today,” Casablancas says. “Everyone has a camera now. They’d be filming it all.”

I ask if they felt the pressure of supporting the team that grew up around them once they did become a successful band. “No, because we’re completely selfish,” Casablancas says. “I’m kidding . . . Not at all.”

Hammond, always seemingly more at ease with himself than the singer he met at a boarding school in Switzerland aged 14, was the charming playboy of the Strokes. He counted Alexa Chung and Agyness Deyn among his string of glamorous girlfriends, but he also fell into serious heroin addiction. The bassist Nikolai Fraiture and the drummer Fabrizio Moretti were amiable enough, while the guitarist Nick Valensi faced his own demons after the death of his father when he was only nine.

By Angles in 2011 the Strokes seemed like a fractured entity, with Casablancas so alienated from his former gang that he recorded his vocals separately from everyone else, a process Valensi described as “just awful”. That year I saw the Strokes in a free concert at Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas. To witness them come off stage, only to be whisked away in separate cars without as much as a wave goodbye to each other, was a dispiriting moment.

“It was in our quiet periods that we had to face up to things,” Casablancas says. “You know in relationships, where you don’t deal with all the issues that build up? Being in a band is like that. It is also like being in a family where everyone takes a role. You go back for the holidays and you end up feeling just like you did before you left home. ‘Why am I feeling like this? I was so strong a moment ago!’ Only now is it easier and less stressful.”

“Perhaps we’ve grown up a bit,” adds Hammond, who has been drug-free since 2009 and living in Los Angeles with his Polish restaurateur wife. Casablancas lives in upstate New York with his two sons and his wife, the Strokes’s former assistant manager Juliet Joslin, and hasn’t drunk since 2009. “We are not trying to be 17-year-olds any more. Now we’re trying to be 21-year-olds.”

Then there is Rubin. Casablancas jokes that the bearded, Zen-like producer, famous for turning round the careers of Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and countless other iconic figures, wanted to work with the Strokes for a simple reason. “We had fallen far enough for him to be curious,” Casablancas says. “He was looking at the landscape and asking, ‘Who is lost and needs a shepherd?’”

“I enjoyed the simplicity of his approach,” Hammond says. “He came in, he would play stuff we worked on the previous evening, there were weekends off. It was a lot of fun. I felt like we were a band again, maybe because there was this figure to pull us together and tell us what to do. It was a bit like being a child in school.”

“He would say simple things and you would think, ‘Wow, you are in tune with the universe,’” Casablancas adds.

I ask if Rubin’s approach was like that of the jailed producer Phil Spector, famous for demanding total control over the artists he worked with.

“He didn’t bring a gun to the session, if that’s what you mean,” says Casablancas, who has a tendency towards facetious comments, like when I ask him about plans for the future and he says: “You mean psychic premonitions?” I suspect he makes them out of habit as much as anything, because you do sense a decent guy in there who wants to be nice; he’s just trying to remember what that involves.

The Strokes have made a great album for the first time in a decade. They have got over their differences enough to be on the same stage once more. They can’t mess it up. Casablancas knows it.

“I’m finally enjoying being in the Strokes in the way I always wanted to, but was always too tired, too hungover, too anxious to do so,” he concludes.

“That’s exciting to hear,” Hammond says, brightly.

The lead singer gives a resigned little chuckle. “Talk to me in six months.”

The New Abnormal by the Strokes is out on RCA Music