The Strokes: Behind the Comeback
A decade after Is This It, the Strokes return after a four-year break, but they almost didn't. Here's why.
The Strokes are together again! All it took was some soul-searching, fence-mending, and a liberal definition of the word “together.”Sloane Crosley gets the skinny on their cathartic new album. [Magazine Excerpt]
Somewhere between Otisville Correctional Facility and Albert Hammond Jr.’s house in Port Jervis, New York, I see a deer explode on the side of the highway. She makes a go of crossing, a car slams into her, and that’s that. I gasp and look around, but there is no one on this train but me.
Because Hammond, one-fifth of the band credited with nothing less than rescuing rock and defining postmillennial downtown cool a decade ago, has gone country. Port Jervis is the last stop.
“I just saw a dead deer on the train,” are my first words to Hammond when he picks me up in his snow-beaten late-model BMW. Gus Oberg, the silent and Swedish producer who worked on the Strokes’ fourth album, Angles, rides shotgun.
“It was on the train?” mocks Hammond, 31, making a citizen’s arrest on behalf of the grammar police. “Was it wearing a trench coat and reading the paper? Just giving you that deer-caught-in-the-headlights-look, like: ‘What do you want?’?”
Oberg laughs Swedishly.
A lot has happened in the five years since First Impressions of Earth. In addition to the Strokes’ spawn (one for singer Julian Casablancas, two for bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and twins for guitarist Nick Valensi), Hammond, Casablancas, Fraiture, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti released albums of their own. They were kids when they broke through, which makes them elder statesmen now, at just the other side of 30. Still, if half the guys I know could bottle the band up and spray themselves with eau de Is This It, they would.
“The most violent part, in the beginning, was going to bars and people saying, ‘I fucking hate you,’?” Hammond recalls with his mouth full of baguette, sitting at his oversized French tiled kitchen table. “?’What do you stand for, man?’ What do I stand for? Two hours later, they’d be like, ‘You know, you’re a pretty nice guy.’ All right. Well, you’re still a douchebag.”
The cool kids and douchebags alike want their Strokes back. Too bad: After years of stops and starts, what they’ll get is a different Strokes (sorry) born from a new, effective if not necessarily convenient, way of working together. For many bands re-forming after a tumultuous layoff, the question is often whether audiences will still care passionately. Not the case here — the Strokes headlined Lollapalooza last year, will do Coachella and Bonnaroo this year, as well as an intimate hometown gig at Madison Square Garden for good measure. The question is, do they still care passionately? How do they reconcile becoming a professional concern when the world awaits the aspirationally hip band of brothers they were a decade ago?
Yeah, they don’t know either.
Hammond is comfortable up here, away from the fray in the East Village, where he still has an apartment. His friend, comedian David Cross (see page 62!) lives in the area, and in 2008 showed the land to Hammond, who then had the house built, right around the time of his split with then-fiancÃ©e British model Agyness Deyn. The house is simple but beautiful — classic-country exterior, contemporary interior, wraparound porch, gleaming cherry wood floors, giant fireplace, white bearskin rug. It’s the sanctuary Hammond needed after the past few years, which included what he calls a “hardcore” drug rehab that proved to be not the smallest, but definitely not the only, obstacle impeding the Strokes’ return.
“People can’t believe I did that,” he says of getting back to work on the album just a month after finishing treatment in December 2009. “I wasn’t on any chemicals. It was hard — you have two good years of post-acute withdrawal. I was nervous and couldn’t remember things. It’s like having a stroke, no pun intended. You always do the crazy-rock-star thing, of course, but I’d rather be left with music from someone I admire than their funny stories of all the fucked-up shit they did.”
Hammond and I, with Oberg in tow, walk out to the converted barn where the Strokes recorded the new album. Most of the Strokes, anyway.
“Everyone was here except Julian,” Hammond says with a shrug. “I can describe one day where you’d wonder how the record got made and a day where you would think it’s the greatest thing that ever happened. You have five huge personalities and five egos, but we’re different…you’ll see.”
(Interviewing a Stroke a day has a real Christmas Carol feel to it. Except it’s five ghosts, not three. And they are not dead.)
He excuses himself to the bathroom and I wander around the barn, looking at mixing boards I’m scared to touch. What you will be hearing is, in a way, Angles 2.0: A version produced by Joe Chiccarelli was largely scrapped and re-recorded by the band members themselves, with much of Casablancas’ vocals done at Electric Lady studios in New York. Earlier attempts were marred by Hammond’s drug problem, which came to a head in September 2009. (“I guess you could say I wasn’t really there when we started it.”) I think about something he’d said earlier, remembering when his band was less of an enterprise and more of an entourage.
“We started as a gang, with that mentality. The greatest thing when we discovered each other was that conquer-the-world feeling — whatever fear and chaos might exist, I’ll be okay.”
“And now?” I ask when Hammond returns. “Would you say there’s an elephant in the room when you guys are all together?”
Oberg brushes a cymbal.
“I’m proud of everything we’ve done,” Hammond says, “but you have to confront things right away or else they get worse. Then, because you didn’t let out, your feelings will explode one day over nothing. Suddenly, everyone thinks a fight is about the most menial thing, but it’s a much richer issue no one’s bringing up. I don’t like the elephant in the room, I like the deer on the train, just hanging out.”
Fabrizio Moretti lasts about 60 seconds with me before he bolts for the door. I rip open a packet of sugar and turn around to see him running full speed past the window of this East Village cafÃ©, leather jacket flapping in the wind. I ask the barista if she knows where he went.
“Your friend cut me on line by accident,” answers a girl behind me, “so he insisted on buying my scone.”
This doesn’t explain why I’m now interviewing an NYU student instead of Drew Barrymore’s hipster-heartthrob ex-boyfriend.
“They couldn’t break a hundred,” he explains upon his return, putting change on the counter.
After hovering for a few minutes, we decide the coffee shop is (a) too crowded and (b) too this-is-Fab-doing-an-interview-in-a-coffee-shop. So we take a walk through the slushy streets and head into Wiz Kid, the Strokes’ management office.
“I have no discretion when it comes to airing things,” says Moretti, 30, as a large black lab mix named Xavi licks my recorder. “I just went to a psychiatrist and was like, ‘I’m going to keep this to myself,’ and then I told everybody, including you. I’m very grateful for being in this band, but there are only five people who know what it’s like to be in the Strokes. I’m part of ‘them,’ but I can see people trying to separate me out from the band’s reputation.”
That’s not to say he isn’t frank about wanting something for himself outside of the band. Little Joy, featuring his girlfriend Binki Shapiro and singer Rodrigo Amarante, released an album in 2008.
“I loved [the Strokes] so much, and because I believed in what we were doing so much, I would have been the fucking banjo player,” he says. “I think we’re capable of working out our problems. That or we’re all so stubborn, it’s a backhanded way of continuing: ‘I’m not going to break up the band so let’s go fucking make another record, you son of a bitch!’?” He reaches for his pocket. “Mentos?”
I accept. Moretti taps his feet. “I think this record will determine a lot about our future.”
“How would you describe the album?” I ask.
“Some type of gigolo or a prostitute or something that’s easy.”
I raise one eyebrow.
“I’d hope everyone has a night with this record,” he grins.
Then, almost as if to prove that he is in no way joking (“False modesty is bullshit”), he suggests we go through the album, track by track, so he can hear what I think. This sounds like a bad idea.
“You’re one of the few people who’s not a wife or a girlfriend or tied to the band that’s heard it. You seem like an honest person and I want to know what you think.”
Arm sufficiently twisted, I say I like everything. He doesn’t believe me. Fine: Most of the tracks, like “Machu Picchu,” “Taken for a Fool,” and lead single “Under Cover of Darkness,” are so instantly catchy that the couple songs that don’t measure up are like iodine in your throat.
“I feel the same fucking way,” he says, adding perfunctorily, “That’s off the record.”
“That’s not how ‘off the record’ works,” I explain, but he’s already plopped on a faded brown sofa, petting Xavi and commenting on the creepiness of the dog’s “penis that looks like it has a vagina at the end.”
Moretti goes for the fridge and asks me if I want a beer, taking one for himself as well. While his bandmates currently have varying relationships with sobriety (Casablancas got sober five years ago), he enjoys being the only Stroke without a curfew.
“When did you wake up this morning?” I ask.
“This morning? This afternoon. I go out every night. It’s something I’m trying to work through. Why do you think I’m going to see a psychiatrist?”
Read the complete feature in the April 2010 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.