How The Strokes Made 'Is This It'

How The Strokes Made 'Is This It'

Producer Gordon Raphael on the iconic album...

The idea that rock ‘n roll isn’t supposed to be rocket science somehow escaped The Strokes, and the band weren’t at all prepared to accept mistakes, producer Gordon Raphael tells Clash. “They were more like, if something was wrong, it was never going to go on the recording.”  

The taste of early success following the release of ‘The Modern Age’ EP early 2001 would do more than merely increase The Strokes’ thirst to extend their sonic ambition and take the production of their debut album up a notch. While the three songs on the EP were done in three days, seven weeks were set aside to accomplish the eleven songs of the album, this allowed more time to consider what had been recorded and “either erase, improve or do it all again.”

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The band’s album ‘Is This It’ would see the five musicians play a historic part in redefining what rock ‘n roll would mean then, as much as now. 20 years on, the record remains as influential and timeless as when it first came out. To Gordon Raphael it is “testament to how some music goes into the heart of people and becomes alive in culture, and can go down generations. It's something that I'm extremely tickled and happy about, because after all, I was part of it.”

While more stereotypical definitions of rock ‘n roll often tend to focus on the idea of the spontaneous and raw, there can be a tendency to view minor mistakes as capturing the spirit of a given release, The Strokes’ wider level of ambition stands in stark contrast to conventional perceptions of the genre.

With an intense work ethic, a rare discipline and a keen eye for detail, there was nothing but dedication and determination as means to achieving perfection. The end result was tight, containing no full fat rock ‘n roll chords in a traditional sense. Instead, a strong emphasis was placed on a nuanced, multi-disciplinary approach to melody and a light touch of experimentation.

The close to electronic, machine-like delivery of beats combined with their immense musical ambition meant that in some ways they came closer to mimicking a group of classical musicians than the cool, hotly tipped guitar band in short leather jackets, blazers and Converse All Star Classic they were at the time.

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The New Yorkers had little interest in sounding like an average garage punk band, and they were keen to make something completely different to current trends at a time when nu-metal and traditional indie guitar sounds were prominent.

Having already established a professional relationship with the group through his work on ‘The Modern Age’, the band made their interest in continuing the collaboration with the Seattle-born musician and producer in his Transporterraum NYC Studio - formerly located on 154 East 2nd Street - known. Despite a relatively simple layout, the studio was soon to facilitate the recording of one of the most distinguished modern records.

“My studio was rather small and simple, but we had some very good equipment. We couldn't afford a tape deck or a big console, but we had the computer and a bunch of classic recording equipment. We could only record eight channels at a time, so it didn't matter what the setup was going to be, it didn’t take long to set up eight microphones, it only took an hour.”

He didn't know exactly what the band wanted to do, but he figured it wasn't going to be something that involved MIDI and lots of technology. “When I asked them, they gave me a very interesting answer, it was ‘whatever everybody else is doing right now, we wanna do the opposite.’ “

As it happens, everybody else was in the process of building gigantic productions, as computers allowed users to incorporate more tracks than ever before. “That was our 'big concept' that was so revolutionary,” reflects Raphael. “So when the album came out, people just thought it was a crazy sound.”

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Intrigued about how out of sync their reply was to what was happening musically, he felt the music they were playing was not resonant with what was culturally happening in New York or London. “I noticed that it sounded like the music I grew up listening to,” he smiles. “It puzzled me how these young kids would know that. Why were they invoking the spirit of this bygone era? The music they were referencing wasn't the most popular, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and Television were not super-popular bands. They were under the radar, and not part of mainstream culture.”

Having five youngsters walking in with the confidence and swagger of previous generations made a strong impression on the producer. “It was clear they could have a career, they played well,” he maintains. “They had a good friendly camaraderie, and they were relaxed with me in the studio. The vibe was good, it was just strange for me to hear a band that young playing rock ‘n roll.”

Imagining The Strokes playing a song a couple of times, having a few beers before heading outside for a cigarette, essentially leaving the producer to fix things up in the mix, is too easy. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. “It was incredible involvement and awareness at that age,” he says. “Even when they did drink a couple of beers, there was nobody falling down and slurring their speech. They were working like crazy. It was very eye-opening, when I saw how completely precise they wanted their music to be.”

As challenging and demanding as this intense dynamic is likely to have been for Raphael, it remained an absorbing experience. Each band member was fully engaged at all times. As an example, rather than Fabrizio Moretti just showing an interest in his own drum sounds, he would tell guitarist Albert Hammond that he had heard him do a specific guitar part better previously, and when.

Referring to his own approach to production as “zen”, he hesitates slightly before revealing that he “rarely told them to play something specific. I’d never say play a G chord, instead of a G sharp chord. I would usually say things like ‘wow that's a really cool song’ or ‘you guys played that well’, to which they would say, ‘no actually, we made four mistakes, and we need to play it again.’ I wasn't in an authoritative role, but it was a useful and creative role.”

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Raphael’s knowledge of recording, the use of microphones, preamps, compressors, and editing in Pro Tools made a big difference, although he maintains that all ideas relating to their sound was down to them. He had used compressors a couple of years prior to meeting The Strokes, and he had developed a method. Always working on his own music, at home or in garages with limited equipment, he was into anything with microphones, guitars, keyboards and synthesizers involved. “I had developed a lot of recording experience, especially getting strange sounds, exploring and experimenting. That was my forte.”

As things moved on, the band’s creative palette would naturally expand. Often described as “melodic” is somehow an understatement of proportion, and Raphael has in fact gone as far as to describe their music as “baroque”, while nurturing the idea that the strongest music he works on comes together when everybody’s playing a melody, which for The Strokes is close to being the norm.

While Julian Casablancas is singing a melody, there can be three different melodies and a melodic drum line playing at the same time. This is called harmony counterpoint style, and it goes back to Johann Sebastian Bach’s time. “It went out of fashion by the time Beethoven’s music became known, he was using big chords, it was a different way of working. Julian's vocal melodies are so striking, and that just gives the overall impression of this giant, melodic ark that’s so astounding, the way he does it. But then, if you look behind, there's a guitar playing a melody, there’s the bassline melody, and they're all different.”

The unrivalled, compelling melodic quality of the songs is one thing, the rhythmic exactness is also distinct. Recalling electronic music in respect of efficiency and precision, Raphael feels that it gave The Strokes an extra edge. “What gives them an electronic approach is that they play so tightly, they don't want to have anything that is drifting out. But they don't do it with computers, and there's not a lot of editing on that record.”

He pauses for a few seconds and thinks before interjecting: “As for Julian, I never tuned a single note of his in my life. He would just sing it until he was happy with it, and then that would be it.”

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'Is This It' was released in Australia on July 30th, 2001 - it's full UK release followed in the coming weeks.

Words: Susan Hansen
Photography: Colin Lane (via Sony)

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