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Flashback: The Strokes’ First Impressions

Our 2006 feature story trails Julian Casablancas and Co. on a whirlwind promotional visit to Australia, ahead of the release of their third album ‘First Impressions of Earth’.

Julian Casablancas pinballs out of the elevator before the doors are completely open, sizes me up with a quick, oblique glance, almost says something and then decides to keep walking through the hotel lobby. The expression on his face and the set of his shoulders are watchful; as Bono once sang, “I don’t know you/And you don’t know the half of it.” With a sense of wayward motion common to the Strokes, the New York group’s shambolic singer is heading away from the conference room where his next interview is due to start in five minutes. Upstairs on the 18th floor, where a panoramic view of Melbourne unfolds from the huge windows, his absence has temporarily derailed proceedings. The only person talking is Rob, the band’s middle-aged British minder, who is on the phone to his family.

The Strokes are in Melbourne for little more than 36 hours, doing promotional interviews and playing their single, “Juicebox”, on Rove [Live]. Sydney is to get a similar grab of their time, with the addition of a brief live set of new material at the 800-capacity Gaelic Club. The equation is simple: 3 days, 25 interviews, one TV appearance and one gig, but maths is obviously not Casablancas’ strong point. He’s done a runner.

“I don’t know what to say,” remarks guitarist Nick Valensi to their record-label’s publicist as a search party is sent out. Valensi is tall, with razor-sharp cheekbones and Keith Richards circa ’72 hair splayed across his face. He looks quite unflappable. When calls to Casablancas’ room prove fruitless, Valensi wanders down the hall to do an interview for New Zealand TV with drummer Fabrnio Moretti, a genial ball of energy. The Strokes, like all great bands, run on their own clock, confident that the rest of the world will settle into orbit around them.

Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. and bassist Nikolai Fraiture have already departed, making the rounds of local radio stations. However, after a 40-minute delay, Casablancas eventually appears. He’s amenable but quiet, sitting in a chair and idly perusing the room­-service menu as Valensi and the enthusiastic Moretti riff off each other’s comments. When the frontman hears something that piques his interest, he looks up and gently interjects.

Unkempt to varying degrees but nonetheless looking healthy, sitting in with 60 per cent of the Strokes can be a freewheeling experience. They have an easy charm that’s tempered by a New York street swagger – Jim Carroll by way of Richard Hell – and a sense of banter that’s both playful and a test. They’re friendly, but vigilant; if you can keep up with their wisecracks and asides, they’ll talk to you. If you can’t, you’ll get rote answers as the clock winds down.

Julian, what exactly is it that bothers you about being interviewed?

Casablacas: Occasionally someone is rude, but generally what I don’t like is when you’re asked, “How did you feel about that?” It’s so vague; I feel like I have to BS my way through it.

Moretti: I had someone ask me to describe the album in one word.

Casablancas: Are you kidding? I love that. I would have said magnanimous.

Valensi: “How do you feel?” questions are easy for me. You can say scared or excited or angry. “How do you feel?” questions are one-word answers.

Casablancas: I wish that every interview was entirely composed of questions that required one word answers: ‘Julian, please describe all of time and mass in one word.”

I’ll see what I can do.

Moretti: Maybe that’s why Julian’s a lyricist and I’m not, because to me that’s hard.

Casablancas: I like summing it up, not digging around.

Valensi: That shows in the lyrics: You don’t dig around, you just sum it up. You’re basically going; “That’s what it is”; there’s nothing extraneous there. Not everyone would start a song with a line line, “I don’t feel good when I’m fucking around” (“Heart in a Cage”).

Valensi: That’s true. It is what it is.

For the first time in their brief but tumultuous career, the Strokes are taking the promotion of their new album seriously. If 2003’s Room on Fire was rushed out by an exhausted band barely ready to play live, let alone talk about it, then there’s a considered strategy behind the release of their third longplayer, First Impressions of Earth.

Three days in Sydney and Melbourne is just one of a series of notches on a whistle-stop promotional tour that moves through Asia, across Europe and then heads back to North America. The formula – engage the media, announce the album and play a high-octane club gig – is the same in each territory, even if Moretti insists that the sole criteria for where they appeared was to visit every country that had cars driving on the left-hand side of the road.

‘We volunteered for this,” stresses Valensi, making clear that it was not a matter of a reluctant band having their arms twisted by their record company. For the Strokes, it was a case of giving an album they’ve all invested much time and effort in the necessary impetus to establish itself. They won’t allow First Impressions of Earth to get lost in the international media’s overflow of pop-culture product.

‘We just wanted to give ourselves the same chance that other bands in this situation do,” says Casablancas. “In the past, after we’d made a record we would have to regroup. This time we were able to get everything together and be prepared.”

There is a slight air of sheepishness around the Strokes, in regards to bowing to the perceived wisdom of the music business. In the past, there have been clashes – their American label, RCA (now part of the Sony BMG conglomerate), rejected the video the band crafted for “Hard to Explain”, a single off their 2001 debut, Is This It, because the band’s members didn’t feature prominently. Then, the group objected to the unofficial American practice of having to appear at a commercial radio station’s live festival to guarantee subsequent airplay.

As much as they’re cloaked in an ineffable aura of cool, the Strokes are ambitious. They were disappointed at the poor critical and commercial reception for Room on Fire and intend to claw back the lost ground with their new album. They’re out to win back uncertain fans and make fresh converts.

“I don’t have a problem doing all of this,” insists Casablancas. “However, if we’d tried to do it for Room on Fire, it would have been a nightmare.”

While the relentless touring of Room on Fire got particularly ragged towards the end – Moretti says the band were in the process of becoming a self-parody – the record itself still holds together, finding an unlikely halfway point between keeping the youthful spirit of Is This It and finding a new foothold. But coming after the events of 2001 and 2002, when the New York quintet

were the most hyped band in the world (albeit with a deeply impressive album to back it up), they were in an unenviable position. “There were going to be a bunch of people who loved that record no matter what, and a bunch of people who hated that record no matter what,” says Valensi. “But it didn’t completely feel like we were walking into our own execution.”

Some of the band’s frustration with the expectations placed on them can be clearly discerned in the video clip for “Juicebox”, where their potent blend of a B-movie riff and an engulfing chorus is unleashed on a commercial radio station, at which the DJ – played by Arrested Development star and stand-up comic David Cross – is big on patter but lacking certain basic pieces of knowledge. “We’re here, live, in the studio, with special guests, Stroke. You guys are huge, huge in Europe, right? Are you hoping that some of that success will translate back here in the States?” burbles Cross as the witless DJ, Woody. The band stand around, clearly bemused and lost for words, before the radio jock declares, “Please welcome Stroke with ‘Juicy Juice’.”

“In the original treatment, that wasn’t there, we’d just be playing a radio station,” notes Moretti. “But playing at a radio station is synonymous with meeting guys like that.”

“[Cross] has a piece in his stand-up show about going to do morning radio and the kind of people you meet hosting those shows,” adds Valensi.

“And we’ve met all those same people,” sighs Moretti.

Cross came to be in the video clip in a typically Strokes-like way – he lives in the same apartment building in New York as Hammond Jr. It’s the kind of personal connection the five-piece to prefer to work by, which is the complete opposite of bands who assiduously plot which film star cameo will bring them favour with MTV.

Airplay on American MTV has never been a given for the Strokes. They are, they’ve come to realise, bigger everywhere else in the world than in their homeland. In South America and Europe they are huge stars, and they’re close to this level of fame in Australia. At home, however, they’re a cult favourite. Their management company, Wiz Kid, has offices downtown in the East Village, eschewing a brass plaque and a plush suite of rooms at a mid­town high-rise. They’ve never matched the expectation of multi-Platinum success that’s plagued them from early on. They’ve had 10 times the media exposure of Matchbox Twenty, for example, but sold a 10th of the records that Rob Thomas’ blankly professional outfit has shifted across the U.S.

“Maybe the expectations are a little high for who we are, what we do and what we want to achieve,” says Valensi, “Over here [in Australia], we seem bigger than we are. In the States, we barely crack the mainstream – which is where we’re from and where we spend most of our time, so that’s what we see and experience. When we go anywhere else, it’s a pleasant surprise to see how popular we are.”

“We are,” declares Casablancas with perfect timing, “the Woody Allen of rock.”

And as with the bespectacled and diminutive director – like the band, a quintessential New Yorker – the Strokes are not about to change their ways. Don’t expect them to be recording any gushing sound bites for TV promo anytime soon.

“I don’t think that’s what people want in a rock band,” asserts Valensi. “We’re not actors, we’re not comics. What’s cool about a rock band is that when a kid reads an article about his favourite rock band, he’s reading about what that person is really like. He’s not watching Mel Gibson play Riggs in Lethal Weapon.”

Moretti: In Japan, they said to us, “Your first two records were so precise, but this one has order and chaos.” I like that idea, because it’s daunting to describe how we’ve changed our point of view. I like the idea of chaos influencing everything.

So if a butterfly in California flaps its wings, sales will rise in Brazil?

Casablancas: The Butterfly Effect was a good movie.

Valensi: No, man. Come on!

Moretti: My brother told me this crazy story about seeing it on a plane and it had this completely different ending.

Casablancas: I was kind of kidding. I didn’t think it was that bad, though.

Too late, that’s the hook the story.

Valensi: The headline will be “Julian hearts Ashton Kutcher.”

We’ll Photoshop him in with you.

Casablancas: Noooooooo!

strokes flashback live
Julian Casablancas. Credit: Linda Heller-Salvador.

‘Life,” Moretti quietly sings by way of an answer at one point, quoting John Lennon, “is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” It’s a sentiment that the Strokes can understand. Having grown up in the public eye – Casablancas is now 27, Fraiture 26, Hammond Jr. and Moretti 25, Valensi 24 – they also now have ties that bind outside the band. Casablancas ot married in early last year (his wife, Juliet Joslin, work.at Wiz Kid), while Fraiture and his wife had a baby daughter a few months later. Both Moretti and Talensi, who have high-profile partners –actress Drew Barrymore and former British television presenter Amanda De Cadenet, respectively – have enjoyed extended sojourns on the West Coast.

The Strokes don’t have the same freedom they enjoyed when they were first playing New York’s tiny Mercury Lounge in 2000, or when seminal independent label Rough Trade released The Modern Age EP in Britain at the beginning of 2001. Even as that detonated interest in the next big things from New York, Hammond Jr. and Casablancas were still sharing a ramshackle apartment.

While the personal bond between the five is as tight and intuitive as ever, it’s not always as easy as it once was to convene. There are varied schedules to compile – although, according to Valensi, that’s not an insurmountable problem. “Even if we were off in different places we’d organise something with each other,” the guitarist says. “When we’d work on something we’d really get to work on it and we’d commit to working on it every day. You can’t do too much other stuff when you’re making a record – you have to eliminate a lot of other things from your life and just do that.”

“I wish that every interview was entirely composed of questions that required one word answers: ‘Julian, please describe all of time and mass in one word.” — Julian Casablancas

The Strokes learnt this lesson when they tried to write and pre-produce Room on Fire while still touring Is This It. Writing songs in an empty venue during sound check is a romantic notion, but often an impractical one. As such, the Strokes approached First Impressions of Earth from a cohesive base. Touring was completed and the band were in good health when they started proceedings. They also had their own recording studio, situated in Hells Kitchen -– which is referred to by various members as Red Light Studios or The Bunker, while Valensi prefers to call it The Shit Factory.

“The record wouldn’t have come out as well if we hadn’t worked there,” Valensi explains. “We were being creative in a space that we’d created; we’d decided how the room would be set up, what the posters would be, what the lights would be like. We felt positive, with good energy, in there. It was conducive to creativity.”

There was also a reduction in fiscal anxiety. “Professional recording studios are not only sterile environments, they’re costly,” he adds. “When you don’t do much in a $5,000-a-day studio, you tend to get worried.”

From the nascent murmur of ideas to mastering, First Impressions of Earth took approximately a year to write, demo and record – a lengthy process that began in October 2004. The most significant procedural change was that Casablancas, who had effectively written the first two albums by himself, allowed his bandmates into the creative realm earlier on.

“This time,” the vocalist recalls, “instead of writing something to finish a song, I would stop myself and wait to see what happened between all of us. We had the time to understand what was happening in a song.”

“Julian is getting better at being open about the possibility of going in other directions,” says Valensi. “He’s basically being less of a control freak. That’s good for me. I think it’s just band evolution and him seeing the potential in others more. Maybe he wants his songs to take on a different dimension and has come to the point where he needs help with them.”

Fourteen songs long and with a running time of 56 minutes, First Impressions of Earth reflects the care invested in it by its creators. It takes the band’s stripped-­down aesthetic and sly worldview and recasts them in larger, but still personal, terms. It’s both passionate and precise, moving from the anthemic and urgent surge of “Juice box” and the cracking “Heart in a Cage” to the righteous intro that heralds “Vision of Division” and the melancholic “The Ize of the World”. First Impressions is, more than anything, absolutely thrilling.

“It’s borderline uplifting,” explains Valensi, “but it never really gets to the point where it’s Coldplay. We intentionally don’t get to that point.”

Some of the credit for the evolution in the Strokes’ sound lies with producer David Kahne. A fastidious technician with a reputation for performing micro-­surgery on tracks to better them, his credits include everyone from the easily digestible popsters Sugar Ray to Sir Paul McCartney. The Strokes probably wouldn’t have even considered Khane for the position, but the ever-sociable Hammond Jr. guest-starred on a friend’s record that Kahne was behind the desk for. Afterwards, Hammond Jr. told his bandmates, “I’ve just met this guy who has the broadest knowledge of music and the recording studio.”

The initial plan was for Kahne to be the engineering mastermind as the band and Gordon Raphael, who had handled their first two discs, co-produced. But after a few weeks Raphael gave notice, insisting that Kahne and the band were working together so smoothly that was superfluous to the process. “I’ll see you next time,” he told them and gracefully bowed out.

“I would record my parts sitting in the control room next to him,” says Valensi of Kahne. “He had a bevy of ideas about everything. Some of them took, some didn’t, but for the most part he’s just got really good ideas. He really pushed everybody too. He could be harsh. That’s good for me, because I respond to that. Sometimes I would take a pass at a guitar solo and he’d be like, ‘That’s so cheesy, you have to do it again.’ He could be brutal, but we trusted him. With Julian, he would want to change a melody – and Julian didn’t always like that, but he came to like his ideas. He also pushed Julian to sing out of his range and be upfront and centre and not bury himself beneath the guitars.”

The recording sessions were, according to the band, relaxed and open. They felt free to suggest ideas or take the songs in many different directions. “Razorblade”, for example, began with Casablancas bringing in a chord progression and a riff that Valensi had started working on. The following day, Fraiture improvised the bass line – “crazy Parliament-style stuff”, marvels Valensi – and Moretti then came up with intro, a flailing drum fill. “Our music was not previously known for its drum fills or soulful bass lines,” Valensi says with great understatement.

Towards the end of recording, the Strokes decamped to a larger studio in upstate New York to capture a bigger drum sound – “our little studio has a low roof”, explains Valensi – for four days of tracking. From the moment they arrived, Valensi was drawn to a Mellotron key, board, sitting in the corner of a side room. He was absentmindedly working on a tune when Casablancas walked in and, responding to what he heard, began to improvise a vocal melody. Within 24 hours, they’d finished the ballad, “Ask Me Anything”, and recorded it as a duo.

”Julian and I have never even played it apart from when we recorded it,” notes Valensi. “I’m not a gifted piano player and there’s talk of us doing it live, so I’m going to have to practise.”

With the record under their belts, the Strokes look forward to touring again, having whetted their collective appetite with a series of festival appearances across South America last October and November. It was a low-key comeback – Casablancas didn’t even throw up before they went on, which is the band’s internal barometer of how important a show is. (Vomiting has preceded their first ever gig, their slot at England’s Reading Festival and their first live gig on American television.)

And while The Strokes’ bonhomie has rarely faltered in the public arena, there is an implicit sense of renewal to their actions. They’re in it for the long haul, they’ve come to realise. And in the making of First Impressions, the Strokes glimpsed the creative possibilities open to them.

“Things are good and we’re happy,” Valensi says. The guitarist’s attitude in itself is an example of where the Strokes are at, as 2006 kicks into gear. Having once been disdainful of the press – “I don’t care about anything aside from those four guys, my mother and my two sisters and our music,” he snapped at a journalist in 2002 – Valensi has become a spokesman of sorts, just as long as he can smoke while he’s being interviewed.

”I’m actually just trying to be more honest. This is the first time I’ve taken this approach to doing press and just telling it like it is or like it was,” he concedes. “I committed to the other guys in the band and management when they asked me. I felt like I could do this, as long as I was allowed to be myself.”

Some of the craziness that surrounded the Strokes has also dissipated. The media stampede – led by the hyperbolic British music press – that surrounded them with the success of Is This It, has moved on to fresh young bands that are undoubtedly just as unprepared for it. Courtney Love no longer writes songs about Casablancas (the sadly still-unreleased “But Julian, I’m So Much Older Than You”). And the rumour that Hammond Jr. played the adolescent Tom Hanks in Big has finally been shaken off.

“When things go by so fast and you’re experiencing so many new things at the same time, it’s all blurry,” reflects Valensi. “On top of that, when we started out we were young and a little more naive and a lot more inebriated. That doesn’t help.”

He pauses to light a cigarette. “Now,” Valensi says, ‘We’re ready.”

strokes flashback barrymore
Fabrizio Moretti with girlfriend Drew Barrymore.

On the 2004 Big Day Out tour, you seemed to be a lot happier playing the sideshows than appearing at the actual festival. Was that the case?

Moretti: It was awkward to play in front of an audience where half of the crowd were waiting for Metallica to come on.

Casablancas: There was one bad show.

Moretti: I think it was in Melbourne

Valensi: Why were we bad?

Casablancas: Sound-slash-vibe­-slash-everything.

Moretti: You have to understand that it’s very hard to go on before Metallica. Their fans are like the KISS Army used to be. Playing to them is awkward, especially when there are two stages – they were standing in front of us and looking off to the side, waiting for us to finish. We made that mistake so many times. We played this radio show in New York and at that specific show, if you’re the last band, then you’re playing to everyone packing up and going home for the day.

Valensi: And we were headlining above the Beastie Boys.

Moretti: And then to throw salt in our wounds, they were like, “Is it OK if Jay-Z comes out and joins you?” They might as well have said, “Do you mind if Prince comes out and jams with you?”

Valensi: Jay-Z wound up the crowd so much that it just couldn’t get any better.

Casablancas: He did “99 Problems”, which was just breaking on the radio at the time. So he surprises the crowd and does the biggest song in the country.

And then you had to go on?

Casablancas: I was like, “I don’t want to go out there … “

Valensi: The crowd was full of jocks.

Moretti: The one good thing about that show was that I remember the face of this one guy, who looked like he was about to beat up somebody and then go play lacrosse. But he was singing every fucking word to every fucking song we played. That was my little emotional trophy.

Have you got many of those?

Valensi: Are you kidding? He’s got an emotional trophy room.

Casablancas: It’s next to his heart.

This article originally featured in issue #650 (March, 2006).