"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 NME called 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.
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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.
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.
By virtue of the fact that they're from New York, the Strokes were quickly hailed as the latest in a great line of gritty, urban, rock and roll bands from the Big Apple. "I didn't realize how New York we sounded to people outside of there," says Casablancas. "We're trying to be universal. But I think there are just subconscious influences in New York. The city is a very intense place."
Although they are marked as new representatives of streetwise rock, there's been plenty of speculation as to how much time the Strokes have actually spent "on the streets" -- especially given the band members' prep-school backgrounds, their lack of prior experience (this is the first band for all five of them), and the fact that they're barely old enough to patronize the clubs they play. With such dings in their street cred, it's no wonder cynics have pointed to Casablancas's pedigree as a primary rationale for their quick success.
Whatever got them noticed, the band's EP backed up the hype, and soon the major labels took notice. The Strokes inked a deal with RCA records last spring and were hustled into the studio to record Is This It to capitalize on the buzz.
Now with major-label backing, the Strokes don't worry about losing the ultrahip indie cred that defined their brief -- and white-hot -- ascent. "We never set out to have that," says Hammond. "We weren't trying to be indie, and we weren't trying to be mainstream, either. We were just making our music and trying to get it to as many people who were interested."
On this particular night, however, the band is happy just to wind down the night with the case of beer, which has turned certain members mush-brained and mischievous. The clock creeps past 2:00 a.m., and soon their handlers will hustle them all off to bed. The following night they're scheduled to play a sold-out show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.
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The Troubadour show is the hottest ticket in Tinseltown, having sold out weeks in advance. Crowds of eager music hounds gather on the sidewalk outside the Santa Monica Boulevard club before the show, hoping to score a way in. Onstage the Strokes rip through a fast-moving set with the skill of a band obviously tightened by months on the road. Casablancas paces the stage with loutish swagger and leaps into the crowd more than once to knock around and greet his new legion of fans.
The crowd loves him for it. After all, L.A.'s hippest have a long tradition of heralding New York's hottest bands -- the Throbs, NY Loose, D Generation, the Toilet Boys. The Strokes clearly are the next in line: Adoring fans clamor to meet the bright young musicians at the after-party in the VIP area, and the music celebs making the scene include Joe Strummer, Morrissey, Hole's Eric Erlandson, Blondie's Clem Burke, the Romantics' Coz Canler, and director-couple Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola. The star power is electric, but the band seems unfazed.
"Buzz doesn't mean anything," says Hammond. "We don't let the attention get to us. We're doing what we've been doing, and we're not going to change that. It's what keeps us steady."