Ted Kessler’s article from The Guardian isn’t anything earth-shatteringly new, but you know you like to read about how they watch porn videos on the tour bus to relax.
Great white hopes
Twelve months ago they were an unheard of indie band. Today, they’re being compared to The Rolling Stones. Ted Kessler goes on the road in America with The Strokes
Sunday December 16, 2001
The verdict on The Strokes being relayed down from rock’s upper house is still inconclusive. Best band in the world, says Noel Gallagher. Too retrogressive, sniffs Elton John. Pretty cute, leers Courtney Love. But out in the American heartland, where the bloodiest battles for rock’n’roll immortality are traditionally fought, young hearts and minds are being won by the five New Yorkers.
It is 1am on a Thursday morning in downtown Philadelphia. The Strokes exited stage left over an hour ago and have been drinking beer, smoking grass and talking trash in their dressing room ever since. Nevertheless, the ardour of the throng milling around the entrance of the Theatre of Living Arts on South Street remains unquenched. This bunch of teenagers, predatory rock chicks and lone males in mod suits, know there is but one way out of the venue. And The Strokes are going to have to leave sooner or later.
Philly has seen this kind of gathering outside gigs before, of course, but it’s been many years since elegantly dishevelled young men clutching antique guitars, particular young American men clutching guitars, have provoked the kind of mania The Strokes are currently stoking. The kind that finds hip teenagers trying to look like Lower East Side junkies. That draws supermodels and fashion designers to venues as exotic as Colchester and Oxford, that pitches Noel Gallagher into the audience of their shows to give TV interviews about how they represent youth’s only hope of musical salvation.
The chatter and buzz surrounding The Strokes has been deafening since they flew into orbit a year ago, and yet the band look bored and confused by it in photos or as they hammer out their messages on stage, stationary save for a few ecstatic twitches and tantrums. Why all the fuss about the way we look and act, they ask moodily in the press, it’s all about the songs, man. And they’re right, that’s a lot of the appeal, but it’s about much more than that, too. They’re cool kids in great clothes playing intense new music on old-fashioned instruments: the very definition of a classic rock’n’roll band. There hasn’t been one of those for years.
It only takes a second to clock the ancestral lineage: The Rolling Stones in 1963, The Stooges in ’67, or Oasis in ’93. What one recognises is the knowing, magnetic aura of a young and very gifted band at the start of what could be a magnificent, possibly perilous adventure. Watching them play their frantic, passionate music it seems so simple, so good and so obvious you wonder why nobody else has thought of doing it for so long.
Yet beyond being a damn handsome gang, they also have a songwriter in singer Julian Casablancas capable thus far only of writing songs that sound both unusual and like immediate hit singles. His songs are concise yet original, while his lyrics are romantic and mysteriously autobiographical. And he sings these stories with what Rolling Stone describes as ‘a pleading tear in his voice’, buzzing his message through what seems like an intercom: insistent, desperate, leering, imploring.
It’s music that offers respite from the dominant, macho rap-metal of the age and many are seeking refuge with The Strokes in the way that The Smiths offered shelter from the musical wasteland that was the early ’80s. They provoke the kind of devotion that allows fans to imagine that if they get close enough then maybe some of that magic Strokes spirit will rub off.
That’s what the manic, boggle-eyed mob outside the Theatre of Living Arts are hoping for. Julian Casablancas, 23, and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr, 21, are the first out into the mild November air and two committees of fans immediately divide the duo, drilling them with requests. Sign this. Touch that. Have you ever heard this? Do you like that? Can I take a photo of you with? Where are you going after? Do you have a spare? Have you ever tried…?
At first, Casablancas is so busy pulling faces and throwing heavy metal salutes for the fans’ cameras that he doesn’t notice the young blonde girl with braces sneaking up beside him. He’s signing T-shirts and copies of his album, Is This It , shaking hands with trembling boys and magic-marking his initials between the bra straps of a girl in a Strokes vest. He turns, pen in hand, and is frozen by what he sees.
The girl steps towards him. She is holding a large picture frame with an expanse of white border. Two identical colour photos dominate the frame, which is wider than the girl’s body. Julian Casablancas stares at the two lifesize Julian Casablancas staring back at him, his double gaze filled with yearning ennui from beneath the glass. ‘Oh my God,’ he laughs, pen still poised in mid-air. ‘You really did that. That’s… great.’
His face tells another story. He looks bemused, frightened and, perhaps, a little sad. He signs both of his framed faces, his personal madometer cranked up yet one more notch. No amount of teenage dreaming in bedrooms can prepare the freshman rock star for moments such as these, and Casablancas is probably worse prepared than most. It’s all happened so quickly.
One year ago, he was working in a bar in Manhattan and in his spare time putting the finishing touches to the first demo tape that The Strokes actually liked. Up until this point, it was agreed within the band that they were not very good. These three songs definitely sounded much better, though. Now, thought Casablancas, we’ll get to play some cooler venues.
Their manager was a 23-year-old called Ryan Gentles. He was the band booker at the Mercury Lounge club in NYC and was only really managing The Strokes because he liked their music and knew a little bit more about the music business than they did. It was, however, the decision of one of Gentles’s colleagues at the Mercury Lounge to play the tape down the phone to a caller from London that proved pivotal. The caller was Geoff Travis, owner of Rough Trade Records and the man behind Pulp and The Smiths.
‘After about 15 seconds, I agreed to release it,’ says Travis. ‘What I heard in The Strokes were the song-writing skills of a first-class 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.’
Not all feedback has been quite so poetic since, but the general public’s response has been equally overwhelming – particularly in Britain. The demo went on to sell 30,000 copies here, while their second single, featuring the left-field pop of ‘Hard to Explain’ and the abrasive ‘New York City Cops’, surprised everyone by entering the charts at number 16. Bands signed to indies like Rough Trade Records do not generally enter the top 20.
The media finally had the band they’d been desperate for since Britpop and covers of Time Out and New Musical Express (twice) were claimed before the band had even released an album. No matter how genuinely felt, the hysteria made The Strokes as many enemies as friends. The band, however, weren’t authors of their hype. They’d simply recorded a demo and sent it to a few local venues.
But those sceptics willing the band to hatch a dud debut LP were confounded when to a chorus of universal critical acclaim Is This It entered the British charts at number two in August. It’s currently selling at a rate of at least 15,000 a week in the States.
None of this was foreseen, however, when Casablancas proudly handed their new demo in to the Mercury Lounge. He thought it might at best land them a tour support slot with a decent-sized indie band. Instead, their world exploded as a thousand impossible dreams came true.
‘Each day has been like an amplified version of the day before,’ is how drummer Fabrizo Moretti, 21, describes his mind-bending year. Nothing in their world has remained the same during the 12 months since they completed that tape, not even their simple home truths: during their only two weeks off this year in September, they were booked to rehearse in downtown Manhattan the day that two aircraft slammed into the World Trade Center.
And so while Julian Casablancas has come to expect the unexpected, signing framed duplicate photos of himself still takes some getting used to. He throws his arm around the endearingly nerdy Gentles and stage-whispers into his ear, ‘This is so freaky, Ryan. Have you seen what she’s done to my face?!’
‘I know,’ replies Gentles, his hand cupped over his lips. ‘I know.’ Casablancas spins him round and together they march through the crowd towards a cab parked by the sidewalk.
‘Let’s get wasted,’ says Julian climbing into the cab, his voice a mixture of lusty appetite for destruction and resigned weariness. As is usual with such pronouncements, he’s true to his word.
At 5am he climbs into his 6ft by 3ft sealed bunk on the bus and falls asleep to the sounds of a full-throttle porn movie – Dr Jeckle and Mrs Hyde – being played at top volume in the bus lounge area by members of his crew, as his bunk negotiates the contours and bumps of the highway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This is his domestic routine on the road. Small wonder he’s homesick.
Shame it’s the first night of the tour.
There are many things you should know about The Strokes before setting off on the road with them. First, that they are as close and as fiercely loyal as brothers. They constantly hug, hold, touch and kiss each other. Sometimes they French-kiss each other. Hang around them long enough and they’ll do the same to you.
‘Don’t you know about the importance of The Hug,’ Nick Valensi, the band’s tall, tough and hedonistic 20-year-old guitarist asked me in a parking lot during an earlier encounter this summer. ‘The band that hugs together stays together.’
Similarly, the band that hugs together fights together. Their year has also been characterised by freewheeling brawls with any strangers who try to antagonise them or divide them. Their British press officer says he rarely spends any time with them without having to mediate some kind of physical dispute: with street urchins in New York, with jealous boyfriends, and, sometimes, with members of their own audience.
Albert Hammond Jr had no idea what he was letting himself in for when he moved to New York from Los Angeles in the autumn of 1998. Fresh out of high school, he was taking a year off before starting at New York University and didn’t want to waste his time lounging in LA. He’d been kicked out of his hometown band because ‘the singer thought I wouldn’t be able to perform on stage’, and, meanwhile, his friends were getting lost along the path to chemical discovery. ‘I like drugs,’ he says, ‘but perhaps not as a full-time career.’
So Albert’s plan was to move to New York early, enrol in a film course, get to know the city and spend time practising his guitar without social distractions. Leaving his new apartment one day, he ran into an old school friend exiting his own building opposite.
Julian Casablancas had formed a friendly with Hammond at L’Institute Le Rosey in Switzerland, because they were the only Americans present. Julian’s not entirely sure what he was doing at a boarding school in Switzerland, although his dad, the founder of Elite Modelling, John Casablancas, probably figured it would repoint his son along the straight and narrow. A disruptive, unruly presence at his school in New York, Julian had been forced to attend a spell in state detox to curb his binge-drinking. Switzerland was the last resort.
‘It was just this terrible, snobby, private school in Europe that my dad had been to,’ he recalls, laconically. ‘It was a total nightmare. What can I say?’
Ironically, it wasn’t John Casablancas who set Julian on a course of inner growth, nor even John’s ex-wife and Julian’s mother, a former Miss Denmark, with whom Julian lived in New York. It was his stepfather, an art teacher who one day sent a rescue package to Switzerland.
‘My stepdad sent me this tape of The Best of The Doors,’ he remembers. ‘That night I stayed in my room and just played it over and over again. I listened really intensely to every instrument, to every word, to the way the choruses fit and then – poof! – all of a sudden it was like The Matrix . It all fell into place. Sounds kind of corny, I realise, but I knew then how music was built.’
Once back at school in New York, Julian set about this training regime. He hooked up with the only two other kids in his school who loved music and ‘didn’t think they were homeboys’, and formed a prototype Strokes.
Fab Moretti and Nick Valensi may’ve been several years below Julian but at least they shared a passion for good rock music (namely Nirvana, eventually The Velvet Underground) and were obsessive about their instruments. Julian invited his oldest friend, Nikolai Fraiture, to join them on bass. But the ensemble was not an immediate success.
‘Before Albert joined, we sucked,’ agrees Valensi. ‘We sucked . It wasn’t easy. My mom was strict and didn’t want me to spend all my time playing music. Plus, we needed a second guitarist. Julian is a great guitarist but not too interested in singing and playing. I was kind of pessimistic we’d ever find the right dude.
But then, by complete fluke, Julian ran into the right dude outside his apartment. Julian asked Albert to come and play with the group.
‘Albert arrived in the group like a crazy rocket,’ says Moretti. ‘He’s like this ball of energy and ideas, and he has these great clothes. I wouldn’t say he’s our style guru, but he definitely made the way we present ourselves more important. I mean, the guy’s belts match his shoes.’
The improvement in the band’s fortunes did not materialise overnight, however.
‘We still sucked for at least a year after Albert came in,’ remembers Valensi. ‘But then it slowly became something decent. Then it became something good. And now it’s on its way to being something great, I think, without wishing to come off like a cocky bastard.’
Zooming through Pittsburgh the next afternoon in a people-carrier looking for photo locations, the two Strokes who saw in the dawn from the back of the tour bus recount their breakfast TV for those who were unavailable to join them.
‘It was no-holds barred action all the way,’ Fab tells Julian. ‘It was frightening, dude.’
‘Totally shocking,’ agrees Albert. ‘His cock was so big, it took two girls to suck him off. He was a physical freak. And you know, because we got surround sound going on on the bus, every time she came the noise was so loud I thought we would almost spin out of control. You can check it out tonight.’
It comes as a small surprise to learn that night that Moretti and Fraiture were once altar boys. It comes as less of a surprise that both were kicked out for goofing around trying to impress girls during mass. And if you needed a clue to the group’s nature this is it: they are angels with dirty faces.
‘I see it more that we’re like a big bag of puppies,’ Hammond decides. ‘We’re like a big bag of puppies rolling all over each other, playing, fighting, having fun. We’re puppies, but like really dirty puppies.’
‘We’re extremely close,’ agrees Valensi. ‘And what we do together now is what we’ve always done in terms of drinking, getting high, doing drugs, looking for girls. We’re not totally whacked out, though. We like to party, but we like work, too. Every once in a while we like to be serious. But we usually like to do it together. Ever since I met them, there’s never been another group of people I’d rather hang out with.’
He reconsiders this statement and decides to qualify it. ‘Unless it involved an orgy.’
But despite all the larks, Julian Casa-blancas appears melancholic. He’s paler than when he first bound on to a British stage in January, far wearier and more sarcastic than the bright young soul I met earlier in the year. For someone having the time of his life, he seems a little depressed.
‘I miss New York,’ he says. ‘I miss the life that created this album. Everything that’s happened is greater than I could’ve ever imagined and I’m really grateful. But I never had the rock-star dream. I thought it would be cool to be a modern-day composer.’
For Julian, immortality can only be secured through the music they record. The lifestyle of a touring band is a justifiable means to the end of people hearing your music, but they fear that if they continue in the non-stop touring mode of this year then there may not be any new music for people to hear. Their last tour lasted three months and the rare days off were filled with promotional chores or air travel. As Albert says, ‘You can’t really say, ‘I had a nice relaxing day off on that 25-hour flight to Australia.”‘ They feel like they’re losing their minds.
‘I want to be one of those people,’ says Julian, ‘be they writers, poets, musicians, who leaves clues for the next generation. Please paraphrase me if I sound like an asshole, but the really good people leave clues that help feed the human race. That’s my aspiration.
‘The only thing that’s important is the songs that we write and record. That’s the only proof that we existed and were any good. Right now in my head it’s like living in a dirty room. Once it’s nice and clean again, I’ll be able to think straight, but it’s way short of being clean right now.’
For a brief moment, you almost feel sorry for him.
We leave The Strokes as we found them, chatting to fans after another explosive and rapturously received show. A show, incidentally, at which an excellently angular, four-day-old new song called ‘Meet Me in The Bathroom’ is premiered. Perhaps that creative crisis can be averted.
Julian’s in the foyer of Nick’s Fat City in Pittsburgh smoking pot with a group of bum-fluffed guys in baseball caps. Every now and then, a security guard wanders by, grabs a couple of the kids and throws them outside. They wheel themselves round to the unlocked other entrance and rejoin the session. Smoking pot with The Strokes is evidently worth the real danger of physical harm.
Over by the band’s bus opposite the venue, Nick and Fab are involved in a signing frenzy with a gaggle of awestruck fans pawing at their clothes.
Nikolai, meanwhile, is standing around on his own in the entrance. What are you doing later, Nikolai?
‘Oh, we’ll probably just go to a bar or something and…’ He stops for few seconds and stares into the distance, pushing his long fringe from his eyes, ‘… drink.’
Fab spots us, bounds over the road and enthusiastically starts hugging us. It’s been great to see us, really. Why don’t we stay on the road with them? We could go to Cleveland together, to Cincinnati, and on to Chicago. We could go drinking and shopping, get stoned together. It would be so awesome.
As he speaks, we watch Albert walk across the road towards the bus with the strange English girl who earlier followed the band into a restaurant and, without introducing herself, sat down at their table. She’s come over from Reading to follow them on four dates of the tour and has struck the jackpot on her very first night. They climb aboard the bus and close the door behind them.
‘Hey, come on, it’ll be fun,’ says Fab.
We decline that kind offer. The Strokes, meanwhile, head off into the night, making new friends and conquering virgin territory along their way. Cleveland beckons.
Also from those paranoid Brits, How to be Popular.