The first thing you notice is that The Strokes look different. Five years ago their colourful T-shirts, pastel sports jackets and white belts made them the perfect poster boys for a generation of young bands. The look was just as much a factor in their success as their breathtaking debut, ‘Is This It?’. Now the sartorial tone is sombre. Black is in. Singer Julian Casablancas has re-grown his hair and is well on his way to achieving a stoner rock mop. Guitarist Nick Valensi has gone several inches better and wears a black waistcoat in an ensemble suggestive of ’70s metal. Then there’s drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s leather jacket and biker moustache and guitarist Albert Hammond Jnr’s surly demeanour. In the past bassist Nikolai Fraiture was the odd-man-out because of his semi-gothic appearance, but he finally seems to belong. The Strokes look heavier.
It’s mid-afternoon on a crisp November Tuesday and the band have just arrived at the offices of Wiz Kid Management on East 10th Street in New York’s East Village. They’ve just returned from a tour of South America, the first leg in a two-month live campaign prior to the release of their third album, ‘First Impressions Of Earth’. They’re back in New York for a week to do some press before heading to Europe to play a string of clandestine shows.
The secrecy surrounding ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ has been intense. None of the assembled journalists has been given access to the full album before travelling to New York. Some have heard an eight-track sampler, others only the first single, ‘Juicebox’. Even so, it’s clear to everyone present that not only do The Strokes look heavier, they sound heavier, too. The band that reinvented indie has been superseded by something altogether darker.
The Wiz Kid office thrums with quiet activity. No one plays the two arcade-size video games. Hammond Jnr paces up and down murmuring into his mobile and Fraiture lurks in the meeting room. The other three watch a Paul McCartney DVD on a huge plasma screen while grazing on some salad. The conversation turns to the record.
“The first people I played ‘Juicebox’ to thought I was joking.”
“Can I ask you a favour?” says Valensi. “Can we stop talking about the Kaiser Chiefs?
“Yeah, I guess it is more aggressive than anything we’ve done before,” agrees Casablancas disinterestedly. The Strokes front man is famed for being away with the fairies. When he isn’t actually drunk during interviews, he gives the impression that he is. It’s difficult tell which he is right now. After rambling extensively he proves unable to throw much light on the band’s new direction. He does say that his bandmates were surprised.
“The first people I played ‘Juicebox’ to thought I was joking,” he says. “It was still on tour. I was like, ‘Yeah, what do you think?’ Nick was like, ‘Alright, you’re insane’. I just liked the way the notes sounded. It was weird and I thought it might sound a little ugly to some people, especially the first riff.”
But he doesn’t know where it came from.
“It’s hard to pinpoint the inspiration for songs, especially the music part of it,” he says with a thousand-yard stare.
Albert Hammond Jnr, grumpy Stroke, and Nick Valensi, the most photogenic and talkative Stroke, seem to have more of a handle on the new record’s origins.
“What do we want to achieve with this album?” wonders Hammond Jnr to himself. “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.”
“I really never stopped listening to my Guns N’ Roses records,” says Valensi. “I’ve always liked pulling out old Metallica records from when I was a kid. I was happy to get a little bit more aggressive on the guitar, y’know.”
“At the beginning of the year Nirvana resurged within us,” adds Fabrizio Moretti. Where other members of the band are self-contained and self-possessed, he and Valensi riff off each other excitedly. “We’ve always loved Nirvana,” he continues. “It’s cool to listen back to what Dave Grohl did and realise how musical he is as well as how powerful and aggressive.”
“Recently I really got into System Of A Down,” enthuses Valensi. “I’m very impressed with what they do.”
“They’re probably one of the most important bands of our time,” agrees Moretti.
Valensi: “My girl friend hates it when I listen to them.”
Moretti: “Me too!”
Valensi: “I blast it in the car and she hates it!”
Moretti: “Me too! We were in LA, dude. My girlfriend (Hollywood actress Drew Barrymore) was driving, I was in the passenger seat and her friends Chris and Robin were in the back. They’re both older. I decide to blast ‘Chop Suey’ by System Of A Down. One of our friends happens to be a gay man and we were going down West Hollywood where the gay Mecca of LA is. And he - seriously - ducked so no one would see him ’cause we were in a convertible. He was so upset!”
Valensi: “There’s hardly any kind of music left that kids can play and their parents are going to not want them to listen to it. System Of A Down are the last of that breed. I really like that.”
“We were going to make a record on our terms without hearing the fucking pennies falling into a bucket every second. It was on our terms in our studio.”
As Moretti and Valensi talk about the mood in the studio while making ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ the lights dim momentarily. “Hey, it’s almost like we had someone do that, huh?” says Moretti. “But joking aside, the mood was this. We were going to make a record on our terms without hearing the fucking pennies falling into a bucket every second. It was on our terms in our studio. We wanted to explore details that it’s not possible to when you feel a gun in the back of your head held by someone saying: ‘You better finish up’.”
The Strokes started recording ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ in November 2004 and they finished almost exactly a year later. As Moretti points out, record companies aren’t keen on paying for such protracted recording sessions, which is why the band built their own recording facility, Red Carpet Studios, in the Midtown Manhattan Music Building in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Then they started looking for a producer to replace Gordon Raphael, who had overseen the first two albums. They chose David Kahne (The Bangles, Paul McCartney). Finally, they decided that all five members, not just Casablancas, should contribute to the songwriting process. More than anything ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ is the sound of The Strokes taking control of their destiny.
They needed to. ‘Is This It?’ was the best debut album since ‘The Stone Roses’, but the follow-up, 2003’s ‘Room On Fire’, failed to live up to expectation just as The Stones Roses’ ‘The Second Coming’ did. Upon its release the critical consensus said that ‘Room On Fire’ was ‘Is This It? Part Two’, though with blunted hooks. In retrospect that seems a little harsh, but the sense of disappointment has clung to the band. The celebrity girlfriends - as mentioned previously, Moretti goes out with Drew Barrymore while Valensi dates former Word presenter and It-Girl Amanda de Cadenet - plus a taste for A-list partying gave the impression that they were living the rock star life and didn’t care. A string of below par dates on the ‘Room On Fire’ tour didn’t help either.
“The ‘Room On Fire’ tour was us parodying ourselves,” admits Moretti. “It was almost comical when I look back at it. We were really living off the fruits of our hard work and self-destructing.”
“A few years ago the focus was: ‘Where’s the party?’” agrees Valensi.
From the opening bars of ‘You Only Live Once’, track one on ‘First Impressions Of Earth’, it’s clear that The Strokes are determined not to make the same mistakes again. The song is built around the kind of guitar riff that made ‘Is This It?’ such a sensation; but somehow it’s tougher. “There’s delay on it,” says Casablancas. “I never liked it, but now it’s sort of everywhere on the record. Not crazy ’80s reverb, just enough to give a lot of the instruments space so it sounds fuller, bigger and louder. What I used to call ‘more professional’. That ‘more professional’ sound is what we tried when we worked with Nigel Godrich on the first sessions for ‘Room On Fire’, but it wasn’t right, y’know. Which is why we went back to Gordon Raphael. Here we did it but we still felt it still sounded gritty and like us.”
Valensi takes up this theme. “When you listen to our first two records, it seems like every instrument is in the same frequency,” he says. “So it sort of sounds small, like it’s coming out of a box. When you put on our new record it’s sort of like stuff is popping out from all over the place. When I listen to it in my car I just feel like the air is completely filled by the sound. I don’t get that from listening to our old records.”
“We were really living off the fruits of our hard work and self-destructing.”
‘Is This It?’ and ‘Room On Fire’ were all about not letting the recording process get in the way of the melody, hence the lo-fi aesthetic. Nothing exemplifies how far the band has come more than first single ‘Juicebox’. It opens with chunky, distorted bass, malevolent guitar riff and Casablancas howling so hard his already imperfect voice cracks repeatedly under the pressure. Not only is it the hardest song they’ve recorded to date, it’s also one of their best - not in spite of the studio trickery but because it gives the song extra punch. The droning ‘Heart In A Cage’, fast-slow, soft-hard ‘Vision Of Division’ and choppy melodies of ‘Ize Of The World’ are further vindication for a more sophisticated approach to recording.
“But there are some songs on this album that are more mellow and sweeter than anything we’ve ever done,” points out Valensi. “It wasn’t just going for something hard and heavy.”
He’s talking about tracks like ‘Ask Me Anything’, a torch song built around a floaty mellotron melody, ‘Fear Of Sleep’s narcotic breakdowns, the stripped back ‘Evening Sun’ and the beginning of ‘15 Minutes’ on which, weirdly, Casablanca sounds a bit like Shane McGowan.
“It was our intention to push things in every direction,” nods Valensi.
There’s some archived video footage of the Arctic Monkeys on Los Angeles-based radio station KCRW’s website. They play a seven-song session. The DJ stops them halfway through for an interview. He asks why they formed a band. Singer Alex Turner says: “We started playing in the summer of 2002. None of us had played before. The Strokes were just coming out in England. On MTV we’d be seeing that sort of thing and hearing them on the radio. That rubbed off on us so we had a bash at doing a couple of their songs. We decided to have a crack at this band lark.”
The hottest band of 2006 have their roots in the hottest band of 2001. It doesn’t stop there. The whole explosion of new British bands in 2005 can be traced directly back to The Strokes and ‘Is This It?’ As well as Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand and The Kaiser Chiefs are indebted to them. The Strokes are important. They mean something.
“It’s awesome that we inspired so many bands to form,” says Valensi. “It makes me think of that song by TLC,” adds Casablancas. “‘Crazy, Sexy, Cool’.”
“I’m happy that we’re out of that whole nu metal thing,” continues Valensi. “That’s the huge relief to me. It was really dire. For a couple of years there the state of rock was such a shambles. I think we did our small part in helping to eradicate that. I feel proud of that. That’s definitely a good feeling to know that you had a small hand in helping to rid the world of some terrible music.”
But he sees dark clouds on the horizon.
“There’s so much great music and so many great bands, especially in the UK,” he says. “But I feel like this resurgence of bands is at its peak right now. The people who have trouble with original thought are bound to follow. I can see it happening already. Like at the beginning of the ’90s when you had Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Then by ‘96 you had Stone Temple Pilots and Bush. It was like, ‘What happened here?’ But having said that, I’d rather listen to The Kaiser Chiefs on the radio than Puddle Of Mudd and Staind.”
The Kaiser Chiefs are an apposite name to crop up. In a recent interview, the band’s drummer and main songwriter Nick Hodgson said that before they were successful they used to make music for themselves and if anyone else liked it they considered it a bonus. He added that success came when they made music for other people and that now they considered it a bonus if they liked it. He was joking (mostly). Still, this is exactly the game The Strokes have refused to play.
“I understand what he’s saying there,” says Valensi. “But I would really hate to be making music that if I liked it, it was a bonus for me. It’s not really where I want to be.”
“It’s like the telltale heart, you know,” says Moretti. “You can feel the heartbeat of every compromise, like in the cellar - you know what I mean? It’s like murdering somebody.”
“In our short career there’s so many compromises that we could have made,” continues Valensi. “We’ve been handed so many opportunities to conform. If we had done that, I’m sure we would have been bigger or richer or more famous. When you’re writing music you can go down two different paths. You can go down the path that says, ‘That’s going to be a hit’. It sounds really poppy and it’s got a hook. But it’s sort of cheesy and we don’t really feel it as much as going this other path that’s more unconventional and weirder and less chance for a hit.”
The first thing you notice is that The Strokes look different
“For a couple of years there the state of rock was such a shambles. I think we did our small part in helping to eradicate that. I feel proud of that.”
Presumably, this is what Casablancas is referring to when he sings the lines “We could drag it out/But that’s for other bands to do” on ‘Ask Me Anything’.
“That whole song is like where we confess that we’re just going to do our thing and we’re going to be a band and live by our own integrity and never compromise,” says Moretti. “The music industry is like any other business. It’s about trade-offs. And very often when you don’t give what people are expecting of you - you know, the powers that be that decide how successful you’re going to be - they’ll fuck you in the ass. I’m not going to name any names but a lot of times we haven’t done things because we feel like we’d be embarrassed to do them and that’s cut off our road with certain people.”
How do they feel about bands that do make those kind of compromises? Bands like The Kaiser Chiefs?
“Can I ask you a favour?” says Valensi. “Can we stop talking about the Kaiser Chiefs? I feel like we’ve been talking about them for 15 minutes and I’m just like: This is a Strokes story, not a Kaiser Chiefs story.”
The only other time The Strokes get annoyed is when their reputation as band made up of rich boys comes up. The basis of this reputation - a myth as they see it - is largely down to Casablancas and Hammond Jnr’s education. They met when they were pupils at an expensive private school in Switzerland called Le Rosey. Casablancas especially is from a privileged background - his father founded the Elite Models agency.
Perhaps because he feels it’s his fault, Casablancas confines himself to a single comment on the subject. “It’s not accurate,” he says.
“The rumours that we’re all rich boys are just funny,” snorts Moretti.
“That’s the biggest misconception about this band,” agrees Valensi. “That we’re all filthy rich. Because certain people in the band had certain backgrounds, we are all labelled rich boys who had everything handed to them on a silver plate. I did not grow up that way. Whenever I feel like I’m being labelled that way it pisses me off. And that misconception has clung to the band.”
Moretti continues: “What’s upsetting is that no matter how many times we say this - and I’ve said it hundreds of times - I feel like it doesn’t matter. Out of the hundreds of times we’ve said that we aren’t rich boys only about four times has it been reported. But it doesn’t matter how many fucking times we say it or how many times it’s written. What matters is that we keep making good music. Eventually people will notice the music instead of the image.”
“A lot of times we haven’t done things because we feel like we’d be embarrassed to do them and that’s cut off our road with certain people.”
Three weeks later, The Strokes are playing a ’secret’ gig at the University Of London Union. It’s the first in a series of one-off hit-and-run concerts across Europe and the Far East intended to stimulate interest in ‘First Impressions Of Earth’. It hasn’t been widely publicised, but Radio 1 are webcasting the event and the UK’s media have been invited. It would seem the BBC press office have spent the afternoon on the phone drumming up some celebrities: in one 30-second period Stereophonics’ Kelly Jones, Noel Fielding, all of Razorlight and Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos all stroll in. The Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock and Duran Duran front man Simon Le Bon stand watchfully at the back. John Taylor, also Duran Duran, is chatting to Amanda de Cadenet. He has more than a passing interest in The Strokes. He is Valensi’s predecessor in de Cadenet’s affections.
There’s a palpable buzz in the room. When The Strokes walk on stage a roar goes up and the crowd surges forward. They launch into a crunching version of ‘Juicebox’. It’s a week before its release but the crowd already know the words and sing them back to the band. It’s a brilliant start. Then they test the audience’s patience by playing seven or eight new songs back to back. It’s only when they play ‘Reptilia’ from ‘Room On Fire’ that they re-engage with the crowd. “Christ! Even the second album sounds good,” remarks one well-known music journalist.
Not everyone wants to give The Strokes the freedom to experiment. Not everyone feels like letting them be a different band. It’s certainly not what many in the press signed up for when they declared ‘Is This It?’ as the most important rock record in years. No one does three minutes of guitar pop better. Why can’t they just hammer out those perfectly weighted riffs forever?
There’s no doubt that The Strokes are going to leave a lot of fans behind with ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ - the people who always want to remember the 2001 honeymoon. But they are far from a spent force. The band themselves are more fired up about music than they’ve ever been.
“I don’t think ‘Is This It?’ is something that we’re trying to live up, you know,” says Valensi. “I’m sure other people feel that way, but we’ve got so much more to offer. ‘Is This It?’ is not the standard I use in gauging how good something is. I think our tastes have changed sine then anyway. If we did our first record today, it would not sound like ‘Is This It?’”
“I don’t think anyone really fully understands why so many people liked ‘Is This It?’” says Casablancas. “I don’t. And I’m not trying to copy it or copy the perceived impact or whatever. I’m just trying to take it to the next level. I don’t feel like I’ve hit the limit, y’know. I’m still sort of trying to put together a lot of the theories and ideas I have about music. There’s still some uncharted territory between modern bizarro music and more classic sounding stuff. I think we’ve got closer to it on this record.”
“South America was great,” adds Fraiture. “And now we’re just excited. We have new music and we’re just ready to play our balls off, like we did on ‘Is This It?’”
“There’s still some uncharted territory between modern bizarro music and more classic sounding stuff. I think we’ve got closer to it on this record.”
The Strokes give the impression that they’re looking for a new start. It says a lot that the UK is back at the top of list of priorities. It was here that the touch-paper to their explosive career start was lit and it’s here that they’re planning to sell the world The Strokes Mark II. Two weeks after ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ is released they embark on a 19-date UK tour.
“I can’t wait,” says Casablancas. “It’s been a long time. That’s like the first place we toured. That was when it was real, y’know. I’m looking forward to going town to town. It’s been a while.”
And they are unapologetic.
“I hope people enjoy us,” says Moretti. “But if they don’t, they can go enjoy the Kaiser Chiefs.”
He pauses for a second before adding:
“We’ll keep making music the way we are.”