PENTHOUSE, NOVEMBER 2001
By Jim DeRogatis
Buzz—it’s the elusive whir that makes the rock world run, and the Strokes have it in abundance. Distinct from its all-too-common cousin, Hype, it’s an electric noise that can’t be manufactured, a sort of unspoken consensus that here is a band that matters. It fills the room in March when the Strokes take the stage in Austin, Texas at the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference, the music industry’s largest annual gathering, and the place where Buzz is often either amplified or officially drowned out.
Impossibly cool and unrealistically handsome in their black leather, ’70s shag haircuts, and dark, Mediterranean complexions, the five New York twentysomethings tear through their set with sweaty exuberance as the capacity crowd of journalists, radio insiders, and record company weasels are swept up by the energy of the snarling melodies and breakneck rhythms. The Strokes are living up to the promise of The Modern Age, the debut E.P. they released on England’s Rough Trade Records in January, and they know it. But the fact that they’ve got almost all of this jaded crowd pogoing in place isn’t quite enough to satisfy them. They want to convince everyone.
Singer Julian Casablancas can see the disinterested middle-aged executive standing in the center of the throng. This guy has got places to go, other acts to see, an expense account to abuse, and a ponytail to flaunt. When he impatiently looks at his Rolex and scans the evening’s schedule for the third or fourth time in a row, Casablancas finally lets him have it.
"Don’t you fucking look at your watch while I’m singing!" the frontman shouts, then returns to the tune without missing a beat. Behind him, the band doubles the intensity of its attack, and Mr. Ponytail quietly slithers from the room. When the Strokes leave Texas, the Buzz has grown from a quiet but steady hum into an absolute roar.
* * *
In the mid-’70s, New York City was home to one of the most influential rock scenes that America has ever produced. Exploding out of downtown clubs such as C.B.G.B. and Max’s Kansas City, bands like the Ramones, Blondie, the Talking Heads, and Television revitalized a music that had grown soft and stodgy with the pretensions of graying singer-songwriters and the bombast of bloated art-rockers. But it’s been a long time since Manhattan produced rock ’n’ roll of such merit.
To find the last New York band that generated any real national excitement, you have to go back to the early ’80s and avant-garde noise-rockers Sonic Youth or frat-party rappers the Beastie Boys. Since then, the city has mostly given us a procession of empty major-label hypes—acts like Jonathan Fire*Eater, which debuted a few years back with a flurry of corporate dollars before being quickly and justifiably forgotten. Through the ’90s and into the new millennium, cleaner and sleepier burgs like Seattle, Chicago, and San Diego have consistently given us more galvanizing rock music than the biggest, baddest city in America. How can that be?
Part of the problem is the intense media pressure-cooker that is New York—it’s hard for an artist to develop something original under the glare of a million spotlights. There are also the harsh realities of real estate. Just as modern-day Bohemians were steadily priced out of Soho, then the East Village, and finally off the island of Manhattan, aspiring musicians have found it increasingly difficult if not impossible to create in a place where it takes every bit of your energy just to pay the rent. It’s hard to be a garage band in a city where renting a parking space can cost $1,400 a month.
The Strokes entered this rat race with a distinct advantage. All but one of the five musicians are children of privilege, the offspring of first-generation immigrants who came to New York from Europe and South America and scored big. Most famously, there’s Julian’s dad, John Casablancas, the founder of a chain of modeling schools and head of one of the city’s most successful modeling agencies. Father and son aren’t especially close—Julian was raised by his mother under a different roof, and he denies the rumors that he did some modeling for his dad. But the elder Casablancas did pay for the part of his son’s music-school tuition that a two-year scholarship didn’t cover.
The band’s roots can be traced back even before that, to the Dwight School, a private grammar and high school that has been educating affluent New Yorkers at 89th Street and Central Park West since 1880. According to its official propaganda, Dwight offers "a classical core of academic subjects, which incorporates transdisciplinary studies, community service, social education, goal setting, environmental awareness, and a knowledge of human achievement and potential." The Strokes simply call it "a school for rich fuck-ups." Among its distinguished alumni are Fiorello LaGuardia, Robert Moses, Roy Lichtenstein, Henry Morgenthau, and three-fifths of the band.
Casablancas, Nick Valensi, and Fabrizio Moretti met and became fast friends at Dwight during their high school years in the mid-’90s, bonding over a mutual obsession with music. Unlike most of their classmates, whom they describe as a bunch of "wanna-be homies" and soon-to-be Eminem fans, they were never drawn to gangsta rap. Instead, they listened to the then-current alternative bands—Nirvana and Pearl Jam—as well the sounds passed down by parents and older siblings, including everything from ’70s punk to Bob Marley. Coupled with a natural rebelliousness, this set them apart from the in-crowd, and it drew them closer together.
"I don’t know if we were the outsiders, but there was definitely a group of popular kids, and it wasn’t us," Valensi says. "We were just into playing music."
"Overall, it was a pretty bad experience for all of us," Moretti says of Dwight. "Eventually, Julian quit, and Nick left around 10th or 11th grade. I was left there by myself, and it was horrendous. Julian dropped out because he felt like he wasn’t learning. It wasn’t like he was a bad-ass; he got into trouble and shit like that, but it was really because it was a bullshit school. We were really the only friends each other had."
The trio learned to play their instruments together, with Valensi devoting himself to the guitar that he first picked up at age 5, and Moretti mastering the drums by practicing in a soundproofed closet in his mother’s apartment. Eventually they were joined by bassist Nikolai Fraiture, a friend of Casablancas’ from grammar school, and Los Angeles-born second guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr., whom Casablancas met at age 13 during a short stint at a Swiss boarding school. (Julian’s dad sent him there thinking it would straighten him out, but instead it only intensified his desire to rock.)
From the beginning, Casablancas was the band’s leader and songwriter, chronicling the usual post-adolescent romantic woes ("It hurts to say, but I want you to stay!"), griping about New York City cops ("They ain’t too smart"), and pondering Life’s Big Questions ("Is this it?"). This he did in classic rock fashion—with maximum energy and undeniably strong hooks.
"He was writing cool songs before he even knew what he was doing, when he only knew how to play on one string," Valensi says. "He’s able to take some influences, listen to something, take what’s good from it, and leave behind what’s bad. He can listen to the Beach Boys and leave behind the pussy, wimpy stuff and only take these cool chord progressions or unheard-of melodies. He can listen to Freddy King and take all the balls and aggression that you get from it but leave behind the standard blues progressions."
On songs such as the title track, "Barely Legal," and "Someday" from their new album Is This It, the Strokes also incorporate unmistakable echoes of New York rock history. There are hints of the serpentine guitars of Television and Richard Hell and the Voidoids (Valensi and Hammond rarely play separate rhythm and lead parts), of the spirited, pogo-worthy rhythms of the punk and New Wave bands, and of the glamorous, sexy swagger of the New York Dolls. But mostly there’s the insistent pulse, droning riffs, subway train rhythms, and urgent, monotone vocals of the legendary group that preceded and inspired all of the above.
"When I was probably 13 or 14, my brother bought me a Velvet Underground CD, and I just loved it," Casablancas says, somewhat sheepishly. Adds Valensi: "The V.U. was hugely inspirational. It’s the one band that all five of us can unanimously say, ‘They were a great fucking band!’"
Critics have long scoffed at the notion of authenticity in rock: This is a music born of blatant thievery, everybody steals from everybody else, and if you’re gonna rip somebody off, you might as well turn to the best. Better the Strokes take a page from the Lou Reed songbook than be another in the long line of Korn and Limp Bizkit clones. Still, until recently, Casablancas was reluctant to admit the level of his Velvets fandom, for fear that it would somehow cheapen the accomplishments of his own songwriting. And all of the band members think that the "whole’70s New York rock thing" has been overemphasized by the press.
"I gotta tell ya, to be compared to the Velvet Underground and the Stooges and stuff like that is such an honor that I can’t complain," Moretti says. "But if you listen to the album, the influences are very wide, and there’s a lot of different influences. I can’t say that it’s always justified, the comparisons. I think it’s just that when you come from the city, there’s a certain vibe that comes across in your music. It’s not necessarily in the notes that you play and the lyrics that you sing; it’s just a little bit of the energy. You’ve got a bunch of people stacked all on top of each other here, so there’s gonna be that little taste of New York in the music."
"It wasn’t like we sat down and said, ‘Let’s shoot for this,’" Hammond adds. "It was the opposite—like, ‘Gimmicks don’t last. They’re great to boost you up fast, but then they go away.’ Pretty much it was just Julian trying to write good melodies, but with balls, and it just so happens that those songs remind people of the ’70s. Stuff like Limp Bizkit and Korn—that’s not balls to me. That’s fake, like putting steroids in your body."
Fake versus genuine—this is a question that plagues the Strokes in some corners of the New York rock scene, where other bands that are clearly jealous of the group’s rapid ascent can be heard mumbling about "spoiled rich kids" and the sort of unbelievably lucky breaks that just don’t happen for the rest of us. Ressentiment, Nietzsche called it—a spirit of revenge that festers in the weak, prompting them to seek vengeance against the strong, the noble, and the talented. As if Fred Durst is somehow more worthy of success than Julian Casablancas; as if much of the best music throughout rock history wasn’t made by upper-middle-class art-school students like Pete Townshend, John Lennon, and Joe Strummer.
In reality, the Strokes’ "overnight success" was at least three years in the making. It’s understandable why the musicians are a little defensive when stressing how hard they’ve worked: They spent countless all-nighters honing their material in a cramped and smelly rehearsal space in midtown Manhattan’s Music Building (rent: $300 a month), emerging with red eyes squinting in the morning sun as they stumbled to dead-end day jobs that they were only recently able to quit.
The group had been gigging regularly all over the city for a year and a half when it got its first real break, winning an influential fan in Ryan Gentles, the booker at the hipster haven, the Mercury Lounge. "I’d get a lot of the same kind of shit in there day and day out," Gentles says. "I was a musician, and I got that job because I wanted to help bands, but very few came along that you actually wanted to help! When I got the Strokes’ demo, I was just so floored—out of all the submissions that came in, 20 or 30 a day, nothing ever stuck out like that. I actually took their tape home with me and played it over and over again for weeks."
Only two or three years older than the Strokes, Gentles eventually quit his job to manage the band full-time. "Initially, I was just like, ‘Do you guys need some help?’" he says. "And as it escalated, my phone started to ring more for them than for booking the Mercury Lounge. If I didn’t quit, I would have been fired. Now, I know I say this as a manager, but this is a band with amazing songs, the right persona, the right character—everything they do is right. It’s not an accident that it works, because they work so hard at it. Julian in particular is his own worst critic. Every good piece of press he gets only makes him think, ‘Shit, I’ve got to work harder. I’ve got to write better.’ He’s always trying to outdo himself."
Before leaving the Merc, Gentles used his clout to land the band some high-profile gigs, including a weekly residency at the club and opening slots on national tours with Ohio’s underground heroes Guided By Voices and rising British favorites the Doves. The group made the most of these openings: Wherever it played, it won fans among listeners, club owners, and local promoters. The Buzz was building, and it could be heard as far away as London, where Geoff Travis was in the process of resurrecting his influential indie label, Rough Trade. One of Gentles’ pals at the Merc played Travis a Strokes tape over the phone, and the label head was hooked.
"After about 15 seconds, I agreed to release it," Travis says. "What I heard in the Strokes was the same thing that all the writers and the general public are now hearing: the songwriting skills of a first-rate writer and music that is a distillation of primal rock ’n’ roll mixed with the sophistication of today’s society—the primitive in the sophisticated, to paraphrase Jean Renoir. It also has an unmacho quality that embodies grace and love, and it touches me. I just felt it was the best record from a rock ’n’ roll band out of New York City that I had heard since the C.B.G.B.’s era."
Travis wasn’t the only Brit to fall for the band. Supporting The Modern Age E.P., the group played two sold-out tours of the U.K. The English music press tried to outdo itself with superlatives, and the Strokes landed on the cover of the weekly New Musical Express. "They like white boys who play rock ’n’ roll over there," Casablancas says dismissively by way of explanation. But by the time South By Southwest rolled around last March, even the notoriously clueless American major labels were taking notice. After entertaining several offers, the Strokes finally signed to RCA in the late spring because it was the one company that didn’t balk when the band said it would never make a video.
"The idea of lip-synching to songs on a film just seems retarded to me," Casablancas says, though he adds that the Strokes wouldn’t mind playing live in front of the TV cameras—say, on Saturday Night Live. "The whole Ed Sullivan thing is really cool."
The Strokes are a charmingly naïve and old-fashioned band in more significant ways than their fondness for Bay City Rollers haircuts and vintage 1975 guitar tones. The power of the group stems from the live interaction of five friends who know and love one another and who communicate best through loud music. Turn it up, drown out the rest of the world, and find catharsis through thrash—it’s a formula as old as rock ’n’ roll itself. When it came time to record Is This It, the challenge was to capture the power and immediacy of this approach for digital posterity.
"It was like a nightmare," Casablancas says. "I mean, I’ve seen interviews with musicians where they say that touring is hard. For me personally, being on the road is like a vacation—you get to see different towns, and on top of it you get to play shows. It’s like a dream come true! But recording was painful; it sucked out my soul. We only had a short period of time, and it was concentrating for 10 hours every day for a month and a half until 5 or 6 a.m., trying to focus on tones. I’ve never been so mentally fatigued as when I was finished with that album."
The band eventually hit its groove by alternating recording sessions with another club residency, this one in Philadelphia. Whatever the angst that went into its creation, the end result was a wonderfully raw and organic album that virtually explodes from the speakers. Is This It is indeed one of the best rock records out of New York in a decade; hell, in these pop and rap-rock dominated times, it’s one of the best rock records, period. But whether it will move units and connect with the Total Request Live masses is anybody’s guess. Gentles, Travis, and the rest of the Strokes’ support team cringe at the mere mention of Jonathan Fire*Eater.
To their credit, the Strokes remain blissfully unconcerned about questions of Business, just as they’ve mostly ignored the distractions of Buzz. "The art and the business side are very confused—they’re perceived to be the same thing, which they’re not," Casablancas says. "I really don’t worry about where we fit in the business. I think we’re somewhere in the middle—somewhere between hardcore and the cheesy, commercial, melodic stuff. And that’s somewhere I want to be—I think all the really good artists were like halfway between commercial and intellectual."
And here he pauses and laughs. "But you know, I really don’t like talkin’ about this stuff," he says. "I’d really rather sit down with you and have a beer."