Pretty Punks

The Strokes misbehave their way into rock critics' hearts

"You learn how to play music so you don't have to talk to people," says Nick Valensi. "Then you do something good and everyone wants to talk to you about it."

It's a discussion the Strokes aren't quite in the mood to be having. They'd much rather be sitting poolside, soaking in L.A.'s pleasant early-August weather, than dissecting their considerable style or responding to questions from pesky journalists. But after taking in a few cases of beer, plenty of minibar liquor, several cigarettes and a couple of joints and, um, urinating in improper places, they are twice asked to remove themselves from the patio area of the Hollywood Roosevelt and then discharged from the lobby. If they're acting like a bunch of unmanageable juvenile delinquents, well, it's because they are.

The most talked-about band to come out of New York this year, the Strokes were pegged "the next big thing" on the strength of a three-song EP months before their debut album was even released. The growing buzz -- Britain's trend-jumping NMEcalled the quintet "photogenic Bowery bards," adding, "let's be blunt and say the Strokes are the coolest motherfuckers around right now" -- has had believers desperately trying to get in on the action ... and just as many skeptics questioning the band's credentials.

When RCA finally put out Is This It -- the scheduled release date was delayed from September 25 until October 9 so the band could remove the song "New York City Cops" in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks -- the CD won album-of-the-year nods from Rolling Stone, Time, Entertainment Weekly, and New York magazine.

Unlikely heirs: The Strokes say they're not interested in cultivating street cred
Unlikely heirs: The Strokes say they're not interested in cultivating street cred

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The critical consensus on the band has focused on its late-Seventies Bowery-scene sound, but the musicians themselves aren't sure how accurate that comparison is. "It's not like we think that was an uncool era," says frontman Julian Casablancas. "But the way they've been trying to pin us down and say we cop to that -- it makes me feel bad sometimes. I don't mind it, but I would never try to pretend to be a part of it."

While the Strokes' music follows squarely in the footsteps of East Coast legends such as the Velvet Underground, Television, the Ramones, and Blondie, it also merges with plucky inflections of British bands like the Jam and the Smiths. But Casablancas insists they weren't out to mimic a specific sound. "We wanted to put together something a little different," the singer says. "We wanted to be good, but we didn't realize what that was. I think we were all really surprised by what it sounded like."

In an effort to keep pace with high expectations, the Strokes have kept to an exhausting touring schedule, but they maintain the attitude of a band that clearly feels it has the world on a string. This particular outing becomes a journalist-meets-band exercise in interview avoidance on par with the movie Almost Famous, the title of which fits the Strokes well. As the band members settle into a hotel suite after a long evening of rehearsing, eating dinner, schmoozing, and now being kicked out of every area of their hotel except their own room, they finally seem ready to talk, and the main topic of discussion is the effect this whirlwind has had on what is now a very weary band. "We're dealing with it in a weird way," says guitarist Valensi. "It's way too hectic. It's really hard to sit down and write songs and be creative when you're moving around all the time and there's always people wanting to ask you questions."

Of course the main question is how the heck did a two-year-old band of kids -- no Stroke is older than age 23 -- get a free ride on music's overheated hype machine?


The easy route is nothing new to the members of the Strokes. Casablancas, the son of Elite Models founder John Casablancas, met Valensi and drummer Fabrizio Moretti while attending Manhattan's private Dwight School, and the three hooked up with bassist Nikolai Fraiture, a childhood friend of Casablancas, while he was attending Le Cest Français on the Upper East Side. Guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. -- whose father, Albert Hammond, Sr., wrote the pop classics "It Never Rains in California," "When I Need You," and "To All the Girls I Loved Before" --met Casablancas at a Swiss boarding school and then joined the band in 1999 after moving from Los Angeles to attend New York University's film school.

The Strokes began playing shows and promoting themselves to anyone who would take a flyer. "I felt like a dickhead going up to some person I don't know and asking them to come see me play," says Valensi. "But we forced ourselves to do it, and it worked." The band quickly achieved must-see status at venues such as the Mercury Lounge. "If you do a good show and [make] good music," adds Hammond, "people pay attention."

The fivesome recorded a three-song demo in September 2000. By January 2001 Rough Trade Records founder Geoff Travis had heard the demo and picked it up, releasing the three songs as an EP called The Modern Age. By February the Strokes were touring with indie darlings like Guided by Voices and the Doves. The word spread rapidly, assisted by a glowing feature in Rolling Stone and the aforementioned acclamation from NME.

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