I’m down on the ave and I’ve got the stuff. The buzzer is broken, so I have to call up first.
“Hey,” says the voice on the other end. “Are you here?”
“Yeah. It’s me.”
I’m buzzed in. I run up the three flights, find the number, and ring the bell. The hollow metal door vibrates faintly but nobody answers. I punch the button again and finally hear some shuffling feet. I get that weird feeling like I’m being checked out through the peephole. I fidget.
I’d really like my fix. Don’t want to be rude. But it’s early Sunday morning, and I’m getting sick.
“Hey, come in.”
He eyes my delivery as I slap the greasy paper bag on a countertop.
“Oh, yeah, this is exactly what I need,” he says with a greedy smile as he reaches in.
Then Julian Casablancas, leader of the Strokes and the former voice of dissolute, skinny-tied New York City romance for those who lived it and for those in Nebraska or Rio or Moscow who wanted to live it, pulls out a black decaf coffee and an iced bear claw the size of a universal remote. I grab my regular with milk and toasted bagel, and quickly, sloppily, we sort ourselves out.
Casablancas is newly wed, newly smoke-free, newly sober (more or less). His clothes (white wife-beater, faded jeans, tan cord jacket, Vans instead of Converse) and hair (shoulder-length and brown) are clean. This one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, with its sorority-friendly decor—band posters (his own, Guided by Voices), beaded curtain, guitar and electric piano in the tiny sitting room, candles, vacation photos taped to the fridge, stacked DVDs (My Cousin Vinny, a full season of Sex and the City)—is immaculately kept. As his wife, Juliet, sleeps in the bedroom, Casablancas and I huddle over our baked goods in the cute breakfast nook. It’s the kind of baby-step love nest you make after graduating…from something. When I inquire about the Sex and the City DVDs, he answers, “I don’t enjoy it. Juliet likes it. I think that’s what matters. Men tend to be controlling assholes.” This is a revealing statement from a man notorious for his micromanagement, suffering over virtually every band decision, big or small: how to play, when to rehearse, when to tour, what to play on each date of these tours, whom to talk to in the media, how much silence should separate each track on an album. And now, with his initial brush with success (and failure) behind him, he is finally opening up to other possibilities.
To paraphrase the Velvet Underground, the archetype of dissolute voices of New York City romance: These are different times. Drastic lifestyle changes are appropriate, both to Casablancas’ age (which is 27) and the state of his career (kind of unhealthy in recent years). Besides, you can save rock’n’roll only once. After it’s up and about, you have to do a little work on yourself.
“Julian’s a control freak,” guitarist Nick Valensi confided over lunch two days earlier. “He used to get so anal about every note, commenting on the guitar solos. He’s let go a little bit.” An optimist would say Casablancas is finally confident enough in his creative vision that he no longer sees outside influence as a threat or any one decision as a potential career snuffer. The Strokes’ third album, First Impressions of Earth, may not be the one that old fans expect or will even want. The lo-fi sparseness and jerky new-wave hooks that made early singles like “Hard to Explain” and “Last Nite” so lovable are now gone, replaced by some muscular but brooding Sunset Strip rock that occasionally (and strangely) recalls mid-’80s Iggy Pop (especially on “Heart in a Cage”). It still retains too much oddly extemporaneous wit (“Ask Me Anything”) and princely ennui (“On the Other Side”) to be the kind of unanimously popular and creatively unshakable third album you can build a multidecade legacy on (à la Springsteen’s Born to Run, the Clash’s London Calling, or Radiohead’s OK Computer). But, crucially, it’s the album the Strokes wanted to make, when and how they wanted to make it, and that seems to be the catalyst for the kind of mental state that doesn’t need much numbing. The band has, in some private way, already succeeded.
In fall 2003 I had the opportunity, if you want to call it that, to stay up all night with Casablancas, shortly before the release of the Strokes’ rabidly anticipated second album, Room on Fire. He was unsober, unkempt, and carrying himself around my apartment with the demeanor of Seans Penn and Combs immediately before their executions in Dead Man Walking and Monster’s Ball. As he hunched over my battered red boom box and played the new songs, he seemed convinced that he’d fucked up somehow. At one point he ejected my promo disc, put on Talking Heads’ “Don’t Worry About the Government,” and closed his eyes hard, as if failing to capture some comparable sonic quality or inspiration was physically painful to him. I tried to reassure him that people would love Room on Fire. That it was exactly what the band should be releasing as a follow-up to Is This It. The kind of thing you say to a despondent rock-star houseguest at 5 am, before the cops break the door down.
I was wrong.
Although it contains some of the Strokes’ finest songs (including “Reptilia” and “Under Control”), Room on Fire—produced, as was 2001’s Is This It, by Gordon Raphael—was perceived by many as an anticlimax: Is This It Part 2, but without the pounded-Red Bull rush of cultural revolution that the debut delivered. “The Strokes could have put out a huge, supersuccessful record,” says John Leland, author of Hip: The History. “They would have grown with the hipsters. That route was available to them, but [Room on Fire] just wasn’t it. You don’t need a strategy for overcoming early success as much as you need a second round of inspiration.”
After their debut hit, the Strokes seemed genuinely distracted by all of the invasive media attention and the inevitable deconstruction of their style, music, and meaning. “The [first] record was half an hour long.” Valensi says, still somewhat astonished. “Eleven songs. We were rock’s saviors based on these 11 songs?”
“It really seemed effortless with the first record,” says Leland. “And it was lushly romantic, which is hard to do when you’re in the public eye. I also don’t think they behaved themselves in terribly likable ways. I just saw them from a distance, but they seemed to be bratty people amused by their own success.”
Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. doesn’t disagree. “Looking back on it, Room on Fire just felt like a bunch of guys that were a little too cocky but at the same time really shy,” he laments over pints and burnt popcorn at 2A, one of the few Lower East Side bars where the Strokes still occasionally hang out. “That’s a bad balance.”
A brief U.S. tour did little to boost Room‘s sales here. The record debuted high (No. 4) but sold only half as many copies as its predecessor, which eventually went platinum. By fall 2004, less than a year after its release, the Strokes seemed to have nothing more to give. At a tribute for the late punk legend Johnny Ramone that October, they sleepwalked through a short, shambolic set like five ’69 Brian Joneses after a roast turkey and Mandrax binge.
They were surely stunned by the indifference the album was met with and the schadenfreude at which Leland hints. “I thought it was going to be really big,” Hammond, 26, says with a shrug. “I think we thought, ‘This is when we go double platinum.’” Also, the Strokes were just exhausted, as a group, as old friends, as partiers. Perhaps they saw the wall drawing near. They hit it anyway.
“We thought we knew a lot about how the world was just because we’d all traveled as kids,” Valensi, 25, says of the Is This It days. “We felt more cultured than other people our age. We had no fucking clue. We had the mentality of, ‘Put us on the road for two and a half years. I can do 250 shows. I don’t mind not seeing my family.’ It was just too much.”
Casablancas admits they changed their approach for Room on Fire. “I think if we would have toured as much and done all the stuff that [the band’s label, RCA] wanted us to do, we would’ve probably been bigger,” he says. “At the time, we thought, ‘We did that for our first record.’ And we toured Is This It so much that the writing [on Room on Fire] suffered. My biggest regret is that some people thought we didn’t care enough to play their town. It’s not true.”
The morning after Casablancas and I talk, the Strokes will leave for Japan. Then they’ll be off to Australia and Europe for a small club tour. Not only is Casablancas not fretting about how the new material will go over, he doesn’t seem overly bothered about what to pack. The decisions, great and small, no longer torture him.
“You don’t seem so full of prerelease dread this time,” I observe.
“No,” he says, grinning. “I’m excited.”
A few listens to Earth and one might assume he poured all his negative emotions concerning his life and career into the lyrics; their hope-to-despair ratio easily dips into the Morrissey zone. “I try not to go too far in either direction,” Casablancas says. “I’m just trying to find a balance so I can pedal forward.”
Some artists—David Bowie, say, or U2—go to Berlin to reinvent themselves. The Strokes went to Midtown.
“This is like our second second album. It’s our chance to be born again,” Fabrizio Moretti, their spry 25-year-old drummer, says a few hours later that night at the studio/rehearsal space they call “Red Carpet,” where they recorded Earth. In their downtime they shunned the bar and club scene and instead played poker; they even had chips emblazoned with their band name, a gift from their lawyer. The hipsters had become somewhat square.
Now the Strokes are about to reenter a marketplace they essentially, albeit involuntarily, shaped. Bands that might never have been signed to major labels in a pre-Is This It universe, such as the Killers and Franz Ferdinand, have sold millions of albums. The Apple never did become another Seattle, but local modem rockers like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol have enjoyed exposure that never would have been possible had Is This It not strengthened the currency of NYC cool. Once the Lower Manhattan scene became marketable, superfan blogs were upgraded to must-read scouting reports for A&R execs. This is all perfectly ironic since the Strokes didn’t even fully utilize the domain name they purchased until their debut was already a phenomenon. “We passed out flyers,” bassist Nikolai Fraiture says over beers at a bar not far from Red Carpet, recalling the band’s early promotional efforts. “We had a mailing list. I don’t know much about the blog nation. My sister has a blog, but I don’t think it’s because of us. I mean, she blogs about me because I’m her brother.”
It’s clear that their attention to new promo opportunities is paying off. The early availability of Earth‘s Camaro-rockin’ first single, “Juicebox” (along with its winkingly perverse video, featuring puke, same-sex tonguing, and David Cross), on thestrokes.com, MySpace, and iTunes, helped it crack Billboard‘s Modern Rock Top 10 in November—a much-needed boost for the band.
“They’ve got a lifer in me,” says Laura Young, a.k.a. Miss Modernage, one of the first and most widely read music bloggers, who took her moniker from the title of their first U.K. EP (and track two of Is This It). When I ask her where these improbable godfathers now stand in a market they are just now learning how to master, she issues a mock groan. “I can’t even keep up with all the stuff that’s out there now,” she says. “Music spreads so much more rapidly than it did in ’01, and with things like MySpace. you can start a band on Friday and have tons of fans by the next Friday. It’s hard to be a U2 or a Coldplay and have that widespread impact. But I have a feeling that [the Strokes] don’t really care.”
Of the two next-level backlashes that may await the Strokes, one could hinge on their alleged sellout bid for the big rock prize. Megastars from Green Day to the Killers enjoy cross-format success on rock, modern rock, and pop radio, but unlike the Strokes, they didn’t do a virtual 180 to get there. Gordon Raphael, architect of the Strokes’ sound, was beginning production on Earth when Hammond suggested they bring in David Kahne, whom he had met through pal Sean Lennon, as a sort of guest collaborator. “They’d been making demos [with Gordon] and they were sounding like something they didn’t like,” says Kahne, the veteran producer behind smashes by the Bangles, Sublime, and Sugar Ray. “Julian is so detailed, you can end up working on a high-hat sound for four hours, which is maddening. So I think Gordon wanted help. We did a couple of songs together over about two months.” By the third song, Kahne says, Casablancas had made a decision: Raphael was out.
“[Originally, it was] ‘You’ll produce and he’ll engineer,’” says Raphael via telephone from Berlin, where he now lives. “I said to Albert, ‘I like the way I engineer.’ But if this will help some kid’s career, I’m not gonna say no. So I was very surprised when this veteran guy showed up in the studio and told me, ‘I was head of Columbia when they signed Jeff Buckley. I’ve been making hit records since 1968. I’ve worked with Paul McCartney—oh, that’s him on the phone.’ I thought, ‘God, this guy is something else.’” Raphael admits he was impressed by Kahne’s professionalism and skill, but soon found himself “sitting on the couch,” adding, “They wanted this record to be really serious and big and pro. They think that’s what held them back in America.”
“The thing with Room on Fire,” Casablancas says, “is that I thought it was bigger and better. But everyone was like, ‘It’s the same thing.’” The Strokes, reared on equal parts Pearl Jam and GNR, probably wanted to sound this way since 2001. But even when they’d had a bigger recording budget, they had no clue how to get there: In 2003, impressed by his work with Beck and Radiohead, the band hired producer Nigel Godrich for the Room on Fire sessions. Godrich recorded tracks like “Automatic Stop” and “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” but they were scrapped in favor of Raphael’s versions. “We wanted to sound sort of bigger—but still have our soul,” says Casablancas. “Nigel made it sound clean—but it was soulless.”
“I don’t really involve myself with the production stuff because already there’s a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen problem,” Valensi says. “So I record my parts and say, ‘Guys, I’m going to get stoned. See you later.’” On this record, he says, everyone’s opinions were altered. “It sucks when you’re supposedly this almost mainstream band, and K-Rock is playing your song, and you’re really excited, but then Foo Fighters come on and they sound massive and we sound tiny. There were many conversations along the lines of, I think our songs are better than ‘Mr. Brightside’ by the Killers, but how come that’s the one everybody’s listening to? They recorded it a different way. They promoted it a different way. We could be that big!”
Potential backlash number two: The Strokes are no longer the Strokes. Part of this quintet’s appeal, as is part of every iconic band’s appeal, has been the assumption that they were a tight gang who drank, smoked, ingested, and quintuple-dated together. In truth, these days the nontouring Strokes are borderline estranged. It’s not quite a business obligation (although certainly a small corporation); they are more the Beatles of Let It Be than the Beatles of Hamburg. “Typically, we just get together for music-related things,” Valensi admits. “The whole going-out-getting-wasted-every-night thing, we’re sort of past that. At least some of us are. As much as I hate to say it, we’ve all grown up a bit.” They’re more focused on music, family, and responsibilities, he says. “Which is terrible for a rock band, I know.”
This is apparently a sore spot with Hammond, who still goes out. “When we first started, we went on the road, all we had was each other. Now we’re working,” he says. “Then we come home and have our own lives. It’s very sad.” He is engaged to Catherine Pierce of folk-rock sister act the Pierces. Valensi’s longtime girlfriend is photographer Amanda de Cadenet. Those who read the tabloids know whom Fabrizio is dating. In fall 2004, Fraiture and his wife, Ilona, had the first Stroke baby, a daughter named Elysia. “[The other members] haven’t had much interaction with her,” Fraiture, 27, says. “I think it’s been a bit weird for everyone, including myself. It took everybody by surprise.” When I ask if he feels increasingly less defined by the other four, he barely takes a moment to contemplate. “I don’t want my daughter to think of me as a Stroke. I want her to think of me as a father and eventually realize that that’s my job and I enjoy doing It. But it’s just something I do.”
Casablancas, who ran a tight ship even as a heroic drunk, may have loosened up in the studio, but his tolerance for the antics of those who overimbibe is not high. “Drunk people can get a lot more annoying, I can tell you that,” he says with a laugh. His fellow Strokes are overjoyed that he has cleaned up. “Whenever alcohol is involved in situations, it’s never like the most honest situation,” Moretti says carefully. “Now the guy I fell in love with is fucking salvaged.” Valensi adds: “That had to happen, otherwise this band was not going to stay together much longer. When he was drinking, saying that he was a nightmare to deal with is an understatement.”
Casablancas, unlike many drunks, never bottomed out, crashed a car, or punched a cop. He claims he quit for the sake of the band. “I’m not straight edge,” he clarifies. ‘I’ve always said I wouldn’t let drinking affect how I work. And then it did. So I had to stop.”
Juliet, who works on the band’s management team (and declined to be interviewed for this story), is largely credited with inspiring Casablancas to go straight—or at least straighter. On the subject of his wife, whom he’s known for five years, the singer will only say, “I just feel really lucky.” To the other Strokes (save Moretti, her former roommate), learning of the relationship was somewhat of a shock. “I was surprised,” Fraiture says. “He didn’t talk to me about it.”
“It feels natural,” Moretti says. “Like, who better than Juliet to fall in love with my friend and vice versa?” Only Valensi mentions any potential conflict of interest that might arise. “Obviously, you can’t stop two people from getting married, but she’s the assistant manager,” he says. “Everybody was willing to give it a try as long as Julian wasn’t going to be weird about the fact that we were going to ask his wife to do tasks for the band. And it hasn’t been weird; it’s actually been great.”
“We went to England, and staying in our hotel were Trail of Dead and that band with the two curly-haired guys [At the Drive-In].” Hammond is recounting a tale from the summer of 2001, when the Strokes, like Ramones 25 years previous, electrified the torpid London scene and gave rise to a generation of sexy, dirty, skinny-boy rock bands. “They were like the American wave coming over. Then we come over, and they were no longer the American wave. British music at the time was very acousticky. There were no 18- to 20-year-olds playing in bands, getting signed. I remember meeting Pete Doherty and Carl Barat [of the Libertines] on that trip. Pete gave me acid. I said no. Fucking threw away the acid. Six months later they were opening for us. They formed after us. That’s crazy, man.” Doherty is now the disheveled symbol of all that is cool and gritty in rock (in the U.K. at least).
Whether the Strokes will continue to slowly implode, and end their spring tour as estranged from one another as Doherty and Barat currently are, remains to be seen. “We’re going to tour all over the place—we got ‘all over the world’ on our schedule, and I think we’re totally ready for that again,” Casablancas says proudly. What is certain is that those 18- to 20-year-olds, now 22- to 24-year-olds, with their own difficult second albums, should probably start watching their backs. “Yeah,” Hammond says, as he drains his last pint before pulling up his hood and heading home to finish packing. “We’re coming to collect.”
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