Are They It?
The first thing you don't need to know about The Strokes is that they are handsome. All five of them -- singer Julian Casablancas, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., drummer Fabrizio Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture. We're talking Gap-ad good-looking, with the right haircuts and the right wardrobe and enough style to pull it all off without trying too hard. They're a modeling agency's idea of a rock band, shrink-wrapped in leather and denim and skinny ties. But you don't really need to know that.
The second thing you don't need to know about The Strokes is that they are young men of privilege, the products of rich-kid boarding and prep schools. Casablancas met Hammond during a brief stay at a Swiss boarding school and hooked up with Moretti and Valensi at Dwight School, a private grammar and high school catering to wealthy New Yorkers. Or, as they told Playboy in a recent interview, "a school for rich fuck-ups." Casablancas has been friends with Fraiture since they were kids, and Fraiture became part of the gang while he was attending Le Lycée Français on Manhattan's Upper East Side. But none of that matters either.
The last thing you don't need to know about The Strokes is that Casablancas is the son of Elite Models founder John Casablancas. This is, perhaps, the least important fact about the band and the most mentioned -- cynics and critics always bring it up with a sneer, like some childhood arrest they discovered in Casablancas' past, a crime he thought he had gotten away with. Not so fast, they say. We're onto you. The fact that he didn't grow up with his father and the two don't seem especially close is beside the point. But you might as well forget that, too.
See, except for the 11 songs on Is This It, the young band's just-released debut for RCA Records, everything about The Strokes is irrelevant. No, it doesn't matter if they have a good story or handsome faces (they do, and they do) or if there is enough truth to the myths music journalists have already devoted thousands of copy inches to. No, it doesn't matter that none of them is older than 23, or that this is the first band for all of them. No, it doesn't matter that England's NME (which should probably be called NBT, for Next Big Thing) called the group "the coolest motherfuckers around right now." That only gives publicists something to work with. And they've had plenty to work with: The Strokes have been in more magazines than staples for the better part of a year, from Playboy to Spin to Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly to The Face and so on, a life lived in Q&As and photo shoots.
Fact is, Is This It could have been recorded by five ugly, overweight, introverted D&D geeks from Ohio and it would still kick ass and take names, one of the few rock albums released in the last couple of years that needs no hyphen, no explanation. But because it wasn't, because all of those things you don't need to know have gotten in the way, mere mention of The Strokes elicits the same response: I want to hate them. That is, until you hear the songs on Is This It. Then it becomes, I want to hate them . . . but I can't.
"Yeah, that's pretty much what everybody says," guitarist Nick Valensi says, from a tour bus, parked in a parking lot, somewhere in Boulder, Colorado. (Valensi is happy to be here because he's "never really been to the middle of America like this, you know? And also, they have really good grass here.") "I don't know -- I feel like that's what I would have said too, you know. If I wasn't in this band, and I was just, like, some kid, and I don't know, if I was, like, an avid magazine reader, you know? And sort of read about these guys constantly, and read, like, all these sort of bullshit things people write about 'New York '70s punk,' I would hate us, too, without ever having heard us. Just because people choose to write sort of silly things sometimes.
"But, I don't know. It's not like we're striving to be like magazine stars or anything, really. I think when people hear our record, when people hear our music, they can sort of, I don't know. Even if they don't like it as a whole -- like, the entire album might not be the thing for everybody -- but I think most people can, like, sort of acknowledge the fact that it's good music, you know? That it's of a superior quality to most of the stuff that gets played on the radio today."
When quotes like that appear in print, the members of The Strokes might come off as cocky, the kind of musicians people love to hate, brash young men who sound as though they not only expected this kind of success, but feel entitled to it. Yet listening to the 20-year-old Valensi say it, you don't get the same impression. He doesn't sound like one of the Gallagher brothers, declaring that Oasis is the biggest band in the world, between pints of Guinness. He sounds like who he is: a kid who's been making music with his friends for years, waiting until they finally got it right before they let anyone in on their little secret.
Valensi and The Strokes aren't as brash as you might expect them to be; they're proud of what they've done so far, sure, but humble enough to know this doesn't happen to everyone. To them, they are, and always will be, five guys playing rock 'n' roll because they love it. The rest of it, well, that was never their idea.
It's easy to get lost in the confusion. For all that's been written about them, The Strokes' story isn't much different from that of any other band -- at least the first chapter. For a couple of years, they practiced all night in a cramped rehearsal studio in Manhattan's Music Building, and it's probably smaller than you can imagine, since they were paying $300 a month in rent; in New York, $300 doesn't even buy a parking space for a few days. They played whatever shows they could get and got people in the door by handing out fliers in the streets. Eventually, they were mainstays at hip clubs like the Mercury Lounge, and their shows were must-sees.
Here's where the story changes. Ryan Gentles, the Mercury Lounge's booking agent, was so taken with The Strokes that he quit his job and signed on as the band's manager. The connection paid off almost immediately. Besides using his contacts to score The Strokes opening slots for bands such as Guided by Voices and Doves, one of Gentles' friends at the Mercury played a tape of the group for Rough Trade Records founder Geoff Travis. He decided to release the three-song The Modern Age EP before the first song had even finished. And that's when it becomes a different story altogether.
Before long, The Strokes were on the cover of NME and rock writers on both sides of the Atlantic were tripping over their tongues trying to make the right over-the-top comparisons, just stopping short of likening The Strokes' arrival to the second coming of Christ. (Some writers hit the brakes just in time.) All of which led up to The Strokes' performance at this year's South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, where the group was first on most people's lists of bands to see, outranking even critical darlings such as The White Stripes and Stephen Malkmus.
"That was fucking crazy," Valensi says. "That was very overwhelming. That was sort of at a point where, like, I don't know, we sort of felt like we were still this like small, like local, like New York City band, you know? And then we went to South by Southwest, and it was just, like, a huge reception. And it turned out that a lot of people who were there at that festival were coming to see us. And we had no idea. We didn't really feel like the It Band at the time. So it was sort of shocking, but very cool at the same time."
Suddenly, unsurprisingly, The Strokes were out-of-nowhere stars, an overnight success, which isn't technically true, though Valensi understands why that particular phrase gets thrown around. After all, that's when the band got to the point where they were happy with what they were doing, when the music matched the ideas. The band may have begun years earlier, back in that tiny rehearsal room, but it's fair to say The Strokes started with The Modern Age EP.
"For a long, long time, we played music together and recorded things and we had songs, but we just never really released them, because we felt like . . . we weren't as proud of what we were doing as we felt we should have been," Valensi says. "We had all these songs, sure, but they never really went anywhere, because we didn't like them as much as we thought we should. Once we recorded that Modern Age EP, that three-song thing, like, that was sort of the point in all of our lives when we were like, 'Wow. This is really, really good.' And we were all really, really proud of it, you know?
"When it was finished, hearing it back, we just all loved it, and were really, really proud of it, and thought, we just wanted the world to hear it. And we figured, like, let's release this. Let's try to do something with this. Let's send this to a bunch of people. And, I mean, it was our demo tape, initially. Now, I think, it's sold 40,000, 50,000 copies in England. And it's a demo tape. So that's pretty cool."
On The Modern Age, which includes rough versions of three songs that later turned up on Is This It ("The Modern Age," "Last Nite" and "Barely Legal"), The Strokes have the same thing the young Rolling Stones did when they started writing all their own songs, around 1966's Aftermath. You can still hear the influences if you listen for them, but all you really hear are five young men having fun playing music together. Critics did their best to shoehorn The Strokes' songs into the late-'70s New York scene that produced Television and Talking Heads, and some were even lazier, trotting out the sounds-like-Velvet Underground tag that has saddled pretty much every band from New York since The Velvet Underground and Nico. But The Strokes sound like none of those bands -- and all of them, in a way. They're connected to their hometown only by the throbbing energy riding shotgun on every song.
Those comparisons ring even less true on Is This It. If anything, and if you feel absolutely compelled to find a label for it, the disc has more in common with a few bands out of Boston. You could say it owes its quirky pop melodies to The Modern Lovers ("When It Started," a late addition to the album) and some of its guitar sounds to the Pixies (the opening guitar line of the title track is copped from "Where Is My Mind?").
More than anything, however, Is This It stands on its own, sounding old only because not enough bands play this kind of unapologetic rock anymore. It's not a desperate gasp for the past, but rather a struggle for the future, wedging straight-up rock-and-roll into a place that no longer has much room for it. Listen to "Hard to Explain" and you can hear it all: the drum machine intro gives way to a twin-guitar melody and bass line that sounds like fingers on the same hand, which makes room for a chorus that sticks in your head like autopsy photos. It doesn't really matter what you call it, but here's a good starting place: great.
Valensi and the band don't want to get too caught up in that kind of praise. Only now are they beginning to find their way in the chaos that has surrounded them since the release of The Modern Age. Only now are they returning to normal, though normal now has a new meaning. It's been a difficult process, progressing from kids handing out fliers in front of venues to musicians handing out their time to starry-eyed journalists. But they're still the same five friends they were when this all started. As Valensi says, nothing's changed. And everything's changed.
"As far as our relationships with each other, and like, the way we communicate with each other, it's all very, very much the same, and it hasn't, like, changed at all. I think especially for Julian, in terms of being creative and stuff, and writing new songs, and as a band, working on new shit and being creative together, that's sort of taken a toll, due to the excessive touring and excessive talking to journalists." He laughs, knowing what that sounds like during an interview.
"I think we're still new to this. We're just sort of, like, falling into place now, and realizing what works for us. How we can sort of, like, still feel normal while we're on the road and, like, playing for people, you know? I mean, like, at first, we thought we could just sort of . . . we were of the opinion of, 'Yeah, we can play, like, 21 shows in a row. Like, sure, no problem.' And still, like, do interviews every day, and take photos every day. But it turns out that that's just impossible.
"At a point, it was taking [a] toll on us creatively; we didn't have a new song for, like, a couple of months there. And that hadn't happened for years. Right now, we're just sort of in the process of, like, cutting down a lot on press, because it sucks at your soul." He waits a beat. "No offense."
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