Band of the Year: The Strokes

WRITTEN BY
SPIN Staff

Boasting a hit album, a brilliant live act, a cadre of squealinggroupies (and that's just Drew Barrymore and Winona Ryder), and anopening spot on the Rolling Stones tour, the Strokes are without adoubt the Band of the Year--whether they like it or not. Theskinny-tied fab five are heralding a new era of sexy, coolrock'n'roll. And despite the pressures of constant touring, theylook remarkably sharp.

"Is it okay to let the girls in?" Smoggy asks.

The Strokes' amiable, ruddy-faced security man, dressed in crisp English sporting gear, ducks into the dressing room of Portland, Maine's once-grand State Theatre to see if singer Julian Casablancas is ready to meet some jailbait.

It's been 15 minutes since the band burned through the opening night of their fall 2002 Wyckyd Sceptre tour. As usual, there was no encore. Just a confident march backstage, a brief analysis, and another strange after-party.

"I don't care," replies Casablancas, shrugging, a bottle of red wine in his hand. "I have a girlfriend." Indeed, he is faithful to New York-based painter Colleen Barry, even if he doesn't much resemble a responsible gent--or a rock star. In fact, you'd probably give him a money game if he wandered into a pool hall dressed the way he is now--yellow polyester shirt; appalling blue-and-white-striped tie; tailored suit pants with the right cuff ripped open; tattered red Chuck Taylor Converse All Stars. Then you'd wonder if he was a hustler when your bank disappeared.

For all the angst and confusion in his lyrics, Casablancas is brimming with confidence tonight. He's a billiards buff, and opponents go down one by one while he strikes Tom Cruise-in-The Color of Money poses. "You are about to get fucked in the ass, my friend," he tells me before gracefully sinking another game-ending eight ball. The guy owns his own cue, and one gets the feeling he doesn't lose much. Not these days.

"Nick Cave is not party music!" proclaims guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. as he enters, an inside-out Journey tour jersey clinging to his skinny torso. All kinky hair and sleepy eyes, he immediately frets over the sequence of his home-burned CD mix. "Change it," he begs. Nikolai Fraiture, the largest but least imposing Stroke, ambles in and takes his regular post, an empty corner. As the room fills with Marlboro smoke, rangy guitarist Nick Valensi (taking snapshots) and drummer Fabrizio Moretti (grinning, fresh off a stage dive) wander over.

Smoggy finally opens the door, and a dozen 16-year-old girls surge forward clutching paper for autographs. Their hometown may smell of New England chimney smoke, but these girls have their Lower Manhattan ensembles down--thrift-store tees, leather jackets, tight vintage cords. They're too young to drink or shag or do anything, really, except gawk at the politely indifferent, chain-smoking, pool-shooting, beer-drinking, new princes of rock'n'roll. And they are thrilled.

Reclining in the black T-shirt, stick-tapered trousers, and high-top Adidases that he will wear for the next five nights, Valensi starts to protest Spin's choice for Band of the Year. "The White Stripes are Band of the Year," he insists, lamenting that he missed Jack and Meg White's free afternoon show in New York City's Union Square today. You sense that he's not just being humble. He really believes the White Stripes deserve the honor.

But he's wrong.

PACKING TWO GUITARS, a bass, drums, five pairs of Converse All Stars, and miles of streetwise New York style, the Strokes are 2002's Band of the Year. Like the White Stripes, they are a great rock group that seems to get better with every show. But during the past 18 months, on the strength of a debut, Is This It, which has sold around 750,000 copies in the U.S. (and more than 1.4 million worldwide), it was the Strokes who led the movement to recast the way rock looks, sounds, and sells.

"They're the ones who made that positive change," says comedian David Cross (the Strokes tour is named in honor of the ultra-stoked gay metal band Cross cocreated with Bob Odenkirk on their HBO sketch comedy program, Mr. Show With Bob and David). "They paved the way for bands like the White Stripes. They were just way better than nü metal. It got to a point where those douche-bag assholes lacked anything to say, so they just got more piercings and played louder."

Says Casablancas simply: "From the beginning, our goal was to make something that was less popular but that would be appreciated later."

"Our music didn't fit in between Puddle of Mudd and Staind," says Valensi. "Record-company people, radio people, journalists, they all told us, 'The recording quality isn't good enough to have any mass appeal,'" Fraiture remembers.

But their music did get on the radio. And on MTV. And like Nirvana a decade ago, the Strokes sneaked into the mainstream, this time on a wave of Internet buzz and U.K. media frenzy heard across the Atlantic. "Last Nite," a smart, tough, punkish single oozing urban ennui, seemingly willed itself onto modern-rock playlists. Its follow-up, "Hard to Explain," became a cult classic when bootlegger the Freelance Hellraiser mashed it up with the vocal from RCA labelmate Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle." Heretofore obscure acts like the Hives, the Vines, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club became headliners, beloved by girls who had recently screamed for 'N Sync and by newly horny boys who realized they weren't gonna get laid at a Papa Roach show.

"We'd been stuck in a musical rut for a while," says Perry Watts-Russell, senior vice president of A&R at Warner Bros., "and this is the new movement--bands that are reminiscent of things that came before, but doing it in a different way. I've signed a band called the Sun, and I would say that was influenced by the fact that the Strokes and Vines have gone on to success."

At once modish and skanked-out, the Strokes unwittingly forged a new aesthetic out of nothing more than the unwashedclothes they picked up off their bedroom floors and threw on before a night at the local bar. "You're talking about jeans and a fucking T-shirt," Cross says. "I live in the East Village. People in the East Village dress like that." But what of the L.L. Bean-ers in Maine who now look like they're hanging out on Avenue B or the kids in England who are blowing a week's wages to look like they've just been foraging on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn?

"Our style happens to be one of not giving a shit," says Moretti, wearing the same worn Coca-Cola T-shirt and collarless denim jacket he'll keep on all week. Though Hammond insists that he's been dressing the same "since I was 18," everyone from Courtney Love to Avril Lavigne has adopted his new-wave skinny ties and badges (Love, ever quick to pick up on a zeitgeist shift, quickly wrote the song "But Julian, I'm a Little Older Than You" as a Strokes endorsement). And in the year following September 11, downtown New York City became a (rock) center of the world for an entirely different reason: The Strokes live there.

Hammond wore a Yeah Yeah Yeahs badge during a January Saturday Night Live performance, and a major-label bidding war ensued for the Brooklyn trio. Other New York bands like Liars, the Rapture, Interpol, and Strokes tour openers the Realistics started getting taken to lunch. "The guys can't acknowledge it," says Strokes manager Ryan Gentles, 25, a former booker for Lower East Side rock club Mercury Lounge. "But when I see CBGB T-shirts being sold at, like, Wal-Mart in Omaha, I know that's because of us."

In England, where the band's three-song The Modern Age EP (a demo released in January 2001) hit the charts, the Strokes could probably kick the Queen in the shins with their dirty Chucks and remain beloved. But some Americans seized on the theory that the son of a notorious playboy (Julian's father, Elite Model Management founder John Casablancas, has been divorced from Julian's mother for years) who was educated at Manhattan's private Dwight School and briefly at posh Swiss boarding school Le Rosey, couldn't possibly write a decent rock song.

"I never lived with my dad," Casablancas stresses. "Everything we got, we've worked for." It's clear from his tone of voice that he's uttered this disclaimer an awful lot.

"If you think you can't go to a good school and make good art, then you'd have to forget Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, John Lennon, Pete Townshend, and Joe Strummer," says Cross, who opened the Strokes' New Year's Eve 2001 show at Harlem's Apollo Theater. The fact that Hammond's dad, Albert Hammond Sr., is a singer/songwriter whose credits include the Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson kitschfest "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" wasn't exactly cred-building. But it hardly warranted the rumors that the bandmembers' parents hired songwriters for Is This It and called in favors to get them a deal with RCA.

"It's like the new-kid-in-class thing," says Casablancas. "The girls like him, but you immediately want to hate him. You're like, 'Who is that guy?'"

That "the girls" included celebrity rock-boy predators Drew Barrymore (who dated Moretti earlier this year) and Winona Ryder didn't help. In truth, there was privilege--four of the five Strokes grew up on Manhattan's tony Upper East Side--but stardom was not handed to the band as a graduation present.

Only a few family and friends witnessed the Strokes' first show at the Houston Street hole-in-the-wall the Spiral in September 1999. They rehearsed at a shared space in Hell's Kitchen, then showed up at local clubs like Don Hill's with fistfuls of gig flyers. Fraiture worked in a video store. Hammond worked in a record store. Casablancas tended bar. Even as their crowds tripled in New York, leading to a weekly residency at Mercury Lounge, they were unknown everywhere else.

"They went to Stamford, Connecticut, and played in front of five jocks and an old man," Gentles says. All the griping about the band's pedigree, along with the fact that they've been schoolmates or bandmates for nearly a decade (Casablancas and Fraiture's friendship is pushing 20 years), may account for the Strokes' aloof exterior. That insular quality has fueled more than a few "Strokes haters." But now, when the five virtual brothers exchange inside jokes and near-telepathic glances, hug and kiss one another (and tweak one another's nipples), it seems more necessary defense than secret handshake.

The past year and a half has been characterized by exciting, nerve-wracking firsts--first TV appearance; first huge outdoor show (England's Reading Festival, where they headlined over Weezer and Jane's Addiction to a crowd of 60,000); first taste of seriously surreal fame. "My best friend in L.A. gets calls from people he hardly knows asking for tickets," Hammond says. And as easy as the band's camaraderie is, more often than not, you can sense major group jitters.

"You never lose your nerves, you just disguise them better," says Hammond (who insists that he and his bandmates are "really shy"). "It still feels like we're walking into a bar full of strangers every night."

SOUND CHECK AT Boston's Fleet-Center is over, and it's time to get hazed. The Strokes are on a Harvard campus bus, speeding through midday traffic. This being a vehicle filled with rock stars, beers go round, smokes are lit up, and John Lennon's "How Do You Sleep" is cranked on the stereo. "Is Natalie Portman gonna be there?" Valensi asks. The band's formally attired collegiate escorts huddle together, force smiles, and apologize for Queen Amidala's absence, but the Strokes remain psyched--they're being made honorary members of Harvard's 127-year-old humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. They'll soon join the esteemed likes of Bill Cosby, Peter "Columbo" Falk, and last year's inductee, Elijah "Frodo" Wood. Bow Street is glutted with students as the bus pulls up in front of The Lampoon's office in "the Castle," a low-lit, Flemish structure furnished by onetime staffer William Randolph Hearst. The Strokes are ceremoniously led into the circular library.

"You're all so dressed up," Moretti exclaims. Firm handshakes and awkward, high-strung introductions from the clean-cut Lampoon brainiacs cause the band's security team to actually tense up. The disheveled but courteous Strokes head for the free booze, then to a common corner of the well-appointed study to sit on real thrones (!) and stave off the sensation that they've crashed a party in their honor. Well-lubricated, the band is finally led back out to the street.

Here, in the shadow of high academe, the Strokes will challenge "the Hives" for the dubious title Best Rock Group of the Millennium. The band is to choose its "form of competition," and a previously briefed Moretti grabs a bullhorn and shouts defiantly, "Go-carts!" A crowd of students cheers, and on cue, two go-carts whiz around the corner in front of the bemused, slightly freaked-out rockers. One is driven by a Lampoon-er done up in Hives drag--black shirt, white tie, etc. Moretti pulls on an old yellow football helmet and gets behind the wheel; Hammond climbs into the passenger seat. At the bullhorn signal, the two carts tear off, speedingthrough the Cambridge streets. When Hammond and Moretti finally return to the Castle with "the Hives" trailing, it's clear the fix was in. The Strokes are presented with their trophy--a plastic, baby carnival giraffe, stolen from an unlocked study hall.

"Thank you, my friends," Casablancas says through the bullhorn. "Now, do your homework."

Such are the new distractions, very different from the old distractions. According to Fraiture, the band's new unofficial motto is: Get your shit done, then have fun. Wyckyd Sceptre is their first big-venue tour as headliners, and it's got all the rock-god trappings: a traveling caterer adept at whipping up an array of sushi or a large Italian feast; a security/road-management team; drum and guitar techs; and a semi loaded with sound equipment, instruments, and lighting. Everything's timed to the minute, run very professionally. "Every night now, in my hotel room, I get a piece of paper slipped under my door telling me the whole deal," says Valensi. "It gets much easier when you've got a whole crew taking care of your shit. Making sure your fucking luggage doesn't get lost."

This year, everybody wanted the Strokes. And so they played for everyone and nearly cracked up in the process. "There's only so much time you can be on the road before you lose your mind," says Hammond. "We were pushed everywhere. Different time zones, different languages. Jet lag. Finally, we were like, 'If you don't give us time back in New York, we're not gonna be a band anymore.'" The pressure culminated in Paris, where Casablancas scuffled with a record-company exec after objecting to the band's heavy European promo schedule. Later, he performed with a serious knee injury, singing from a stool.

"It seems like if you don't play the game, you get screwed," he says. "Like, if you don't play ball with radio stations and MTV, no one hears your music. Sometimes I think we should get some MTV director to do a video the way he wants to. I mean, I liked Nirvana growing up, but the way they did stuff, like videos, the way they toured, maybe that was their mistake, you know?" He stares deep into the cherry of his lit cigarette, as if searching for some misplaced clarity or much-needed energy.

Casablancas has been composing songs since he was 14. "I wrote really cheesy stuff," he says of his early rock years. "It's not like I picked up a guitar and was prolific, you know? It takes time. I started with figuring out how to play Nirvana songs on one string."

After years of studying and relentlessly pushing himself, Casablancas is becoming one of his generation's best songwriters. But he can't write on the road. He hasn't packed a notebook or a tape recorder. Nearly every song on Is This It, as well as the five new songs the band play on tour, was written in his apartment in New York City. The process is simply too lengthy and complex. "It's weeks of misery till the song is done," he says. "It's getting down to the deep, deep details. Like, what a bass can do with a certain part, and if that's okay, what the rhythm should be and then getting a guitar part to go with it. And, of course, you've gotta have a chorus that's kind of pretty." Frequently, he brings a fully arranged song to the band.

On tour, though, he barely has time to figure out the lyrics. "Some of these new songs we're playing, I'm just making shit up," he confesses. Many of the new songs, like "Meet Me in the Bathroom," address familiar second-album subjects, like how touring and fame are trying his mind. On "You Talk Way Too Much," Casablancas nearly screams, "Gimme some time! I just need a little time!"

"The responsibility has definitely changed," he says. "It's gone from, like, 'You don't have to worry about rent and stuff' to 'Now my job is to worry about the music.'" And everyone else's job is to worry about Julian, a heavy drinker since his teens who admits, "Nothing I do productive, I do sober." "That guy," Gentles says, "he's got a lotta fuckin' pressure on him. A lotta pressure."

Gentles, who could be mistaken for a sixth Stroke with his skinny ties and pegged Levi's, has the unenviable job of fielding every offer and relaying it to the band. "Anytime I pick up the phone, Julian's always ready to talk, but I know if I say anything he's going to dwell on it for 24 hours," says Gentles. "It's like 'Okay, Jules, I really want you to do this, but I don't want you to fucking die if you do this.'"

There are things the Strokes won't do on principle alone. While they altered Is This It's cover (an ironic black-and-white shot of a leather-gloved hand touching a woman's bottom in profile) and replaced "New York City Cops" with "When It Started" on the American version of the album after September 11, they declined a lucrative offer from the Gap. And they said no when MTV invited them to join the Hives and the Vines for the now-infamous "garage-rock battle of the bands" at this year's Video Music Awards. Instead, they invited Mos Def and the Realistics to play a party at Chelsea's Milk Studios.

But then there are the offers you can't refuse. Tomorrow they will travel to Landover, Maryland, to open for the Rolling Stones on two dates of the Stones' Forty Licks tour. Casablancas' newfound willingness to play the game is evidenced when he casually reveals that he doesn't really like "the world's greatest rock'n'roll band."

"I respect them," he says. "I was just never a fan, you know?"

THE ROLLING STONES have granted an audience to their support band at a quarter past the hour, but there are complications. "[I know] it's 7:15," Casablancas moans, "but I gotta shit." Worse, Hammond and Valensi appear to be totally Cheech and Chonged. Red-eyed, they shift in a corner of the cement bunker beneath the 80,000-seat FedEx Field, home to the Washington Redskins and, tonight, three generations of Stones fans.

"I don't wanna go in there," Valensi says, worried. "Don't spoil this for me," Moretti pleads. Gentles finally rounds up the entire band and ushers them in to meet the Stones. Ten minutes later, they emerge, all wearing sheepish smiles. No matter what the Strokes think of the classic-rock geezers, they've obviously been starstruck by Keith Richards' no-bullshit cool (Mick Jagger was somewhat distant). They even autographed a set list for Ron Wood's daughter, Leah.

The stadium is less than a quarter full when the Strokes walk out. A roadie informs them that it's okay to smoke onstage, provided they deposit their butts in the designated ashtrays. "Even Keith does that," he says cheerfully. All one can see from behind the stage is an expanse of blue and red lights emanating from novelty pens issued at the gate. When Moretti hits the jail-door drumbeats announcing "New York City Cops," the thwack travels so far across the canyonlike field that it echoes. Minus the video screens, backup singers, horn section, and pyrotechnics that the Stones wheel out, the Strokes are dwarfed. Only "Last Nite" is faintly recognized. Then it's over.

"The show sucked," Valensi says, laughing. "Rolling Stones fans don't know who the Strokes are. I felt like we were little kids at a grown-up party. People were looking at us like, 'Aw, look at these kids, doing their rock'n'roll. Bring on the real.'"

The following night at the smaller Hartford Civic Center goes much better. Preshow, the band hunker down in another locker room, this one littered with porno mags left over from a hockey practice. Casablancas has finally changed his clothes. He wears a maroon school blazer and a tie with a pink shirt. Record-label reps stand around, oblivious to the crew thumbing through glossy Barely Legals.

The arena is nearly full when the Strokes go on, and the cheers are the kind you'd expect for a headliner. Girls scream and shake their hips in the stands. Even the bearded acid casualties tap their sandaled toes. Buzzing afterward, the band gather to watch the Stones show in its entirety. Even the Stones are better tonight, and Jagger seems to know the Strokes are watching. He shimmies down the walkway toward them more than a dozen times, hip-shaking, whooping, and sweating.

Moretti, Hammond, and Fraiture beam like schoolkids. Casablancas keeps his head down, unimpressed, again very much in his own head. He cradles a bottle of red wine in one hand and once again stares deeply into his cigarette. For a minute, I think I see him exhale blue smoke, then cup it in his hands, and splash it back toward his cheeks like senses-reviving cold water.

THERE HAVE BEEN six teenage girls sitting outside Philadelphia's Electric Factory since ten in the morning, doing their homework and waiting for the doors to open so they can get as close to the stage as possible for tonight's Strokes concert.

Post-Stones, the Strokes are excited to be back on their own. Hammond and Moretti are fresh from a quick shopping spree on South Street. Danny, the security guy, drops off a pair of size 11 Converse All Star "flames" for Valensi (the box is scrawled with a fan's phone number). Moretti and Fraiture play foosball in the backstage rec room and blast Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels." Strokes pal Ryan Adams tinkles on a candy-striped piano in the corner.

"Let's get to the point!" bellows Casablancas, like a full-fledged Heartbreaker. "Let's roll another joint. You don't know how it feels--to be meee!"

The space is lined with posters from bands who've played the Factory over the years. Some went on to become significant stars (Radiohead), and some are now mere footnotes (Squirrel Nut Zippers). How it feels to be Casablancas right now is edgy and hopeful. The follow-up to Is This It will be recorded next year in New York City with the debut's producer, Gordon Raphael (onetime keyboardist for the Psychedelic Furs). The five songs already written are "Meet Me in the Bathroom," "The Way It Is," "I Can't Win," "You Talk Way Too Much," and "Ze Newie." Although "You Talk Way Too Much" is markedly aggressive and "Meet Me in the Bathroom" has a bass line funkier than anything on Is This It, they're both unmistakably Strokes-ish and fit seamlessly into the live set.

"So many times, when you hit on something, you want to expand on it so quickly," Casablancas says. "And I don't want to be like, 'We had success, let's get weirder' and call it art and be arrogant about it. If anything, I'd like to make it sound a little more modern, because I don't want people to hear the second record and think, 'Oh, it sounds like '60s garage punk.'" He lights another cigarette.

"We might find that no one gives a shit about the second record," says Moretti.

Whether the follow-up is the Strokes' own The Bends (Radiohead's artistic breakthrough) or their ...But the Little Girls Understand (the Knack's career-stopping follow-up to 1979's smash Get the Knack), one thing's for sure: People will certainly "give a shit." So much so that it will probably be the most anticipated rock album since, well, Nirvana's In Utero in 1993.

And no one knows that better than Casablancas, who has a lot of intense smoking, drinking, and worrying ahead of him.

"I'm the one anticipating it the most," he says, laughing.

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