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Is this it again?

By: Marc SpitzTo the untrained eye, it would appear that Fabrizio Moretti isvegging out happily, watching VH1 Classic in the comfy East Villagestorefront office of Wiz Kid Management. But the 23-year-old isactually haunted by a dark insecurity. He’s reaching out forapproval, acceptance, some kind of relief. Finally, he can hold itin no longer, and with the gravest of expressions, he asks, “Do youlike these pants?” I carefully examine the dark-blue jeansstretched over his skinny legs. He braces himself. “Are they new?”I ask. “Yeah,” he answers. “They’re new.”

Moretti is the drummer of the Strokes, arguably the coolest band inAmerica, Europe, Japan–everywhere, really. He is in a serious relationshipwith Drew Barrymore. He just bought his own apartment after rooming and renting for years. But he cannot decide whether his new pants are lame, and it’s killing him. “They’re really cool, Fab,” I assure him. Suddenly, he can breathe again. “I know!” he says, smiling. “Right?”

Such is the predicament of the Strokes, midsummer 2003. They have everything. Worldwide, they’ve sold more than two million copies of their 2001 debut album, Is This It (it’s still about 200,000 shy of platinum in the U.S.). Their fan base remains obsessive, as does the press, which tracks the band’s every party crawl. The new-rock Beatles to the White Stripes’ new-rock Stones, the Strokes have come to define a sort of global downtown culture, and in the process, they’ve earned the respect of many critics who initially dismissedthem as a gang of riffstealing rich kids. Their rumpled but mod style is still seen all over: in fashion spreads and on dozens of other new bands, from the Libertines to Rooney. But until the question of the new pants–and a little matter of 11 intensely anticipated new songs–has been resolved, they can enjoy nothing.

No one is more aware of this than Julian Casablancas, the Strokes’ 25-year-old lead singer and chief songwriter. He will not be joining Moretti and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. tonight for the premiere of Barrymore’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle; there’s one composition (“The End Has No End”) left “to be wrestled with,” and he’s upset. Instead, he and bassistNikolai Fraiture are heading to a Long Island beach with nothing but a suitcase and a guitar (guitarist Nick Valensi is not around). Though it’s strictly a brief getaway, it’s likely that he won’t rest until the song is pinned. Thankfully, he is in fighting shape, a reaction to the work still before him. A former champion drinker, he has, for the time being, given up booze. “I just don’t have any use for it at the moment,” he says, sipping coffee at a Manhattan restaurant. As a result, he’s dropped about ten pounds. “Just in time for the photo shoots,” he cracks.

The new Strokes album, Room on Fire (due October 21 on RCA), sounds a lot like the old Strokes album–that is to say, it sounds pretty great. The band hit on something with Is This It, marrying the wry, jerky energy of British new wave to the sweet, classic pop structure of early Motown. It’s not emo. There’s no metal involved. No electro conceits. Though widely imitated by a new class of Strokes-alikes, the sound remains quintessentially their own–and they intend to keep showcasing it on a U.S. tour beginning in October and at a Tuesday-night residency on Late Night With Conan O’Brien the following month.

After a brief stint recording with British producer Nigel Godrich–whose credits include Beck’s acclaimed Sea Change and the last four Radiohead albums–failed to yield a desired “layer of filth” (as Casablancas describes it), the band began working with Gordon Raphael, who produced Is This It in the Lower East Side basement studio Transporter Raum. This time, they’re in the swankier TMF Studios, a bit farther uptown, spending more money to make the album sound as if it were recorded in a Lower East Side basement. “It’sthis struggle, where you’re trying to remember how you did it the first time,” Casablancas says. “But then you don’t want to duplicate it.”

This isn’t to suggest that the Strokes will deliver Is This It: Part Deux.Two years of constant touring have made them better musicians, and it shows. “Far be it from me to predict the future,” says Steve Ralbovsky, senior vice president of A&R at RCA, “but a record that has depth, with song after song being strong and unique, usually [means] a lot of people will buy it over a long period of time. I think that both the Strokes’ and the White Stripes’ previous records laid the groundwork for an aesthetic shift to occur.””The rough tempo changes in ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’ and ‘I Can’t Win’–both of which came together, along with ‘You Talk Way Too Much’ and ‘Between Love & Hate,’ as they were performed on the 2002 tour–are now fluid and insistent. “On the road, sometimes you have to slow it down,” Casablancas says. “Or maybe we played the whole thing too fast some nights. But when we recorded [the songs], we got to do it the exact way we wanted, which was the loosey-goosey version.” The songs that weren’t road-tested are even more confident. Casablancas chants the title of ‘The End Has No End’ until it takes on a psychedelic profundity. His vocal on ‘What Ever Happened?’ is almost Lennonesque, with soul and anger to burn. There’s even a ballad (“Under Control”). All in all, the 11 songs are unpredictable and multifaceted without sounding like, well, Radiohead.

“There’s a lot you can do with guitars,” Casablancas says. “Maybeonce you do two records, then you can start messing a bit with that kind of [experimental] stuff. But it’s not like we need to throw in a new instrument just to make it sound different. Between the five of us, there’s already this weird medley [of influences]–whether it’s Guided by Voices or Cyndi Lauper.” Or Sonic Youth. On “12:51,” the catchiest new track and the first single, Casablancas cribs some of his phrasing from Kim Gordon (on Sonic Youth’s 1994 modern-rock hit “Bull in the Heather”), but it’s giving him nightmares. “When we were recording it, I said to Gordon [Raphael], ‘Do you think it sounds too much like that Sonic Youth song? Because I’m totally ripping it off,'” Casablancas says. “I think musicians are allowed to do that, but only if it is a little thing like a drum sound or a guitar sound or phrasing. I think that’s what it’s all about. That’s why people make music–to pass it on to the next [generation].

“Like with [Is This It‘s] ‘Last Nite,'” Casablancas continues. “People would say, ‘You know that song ‘American Girl’ by Tom Petty? Don’t you think it sounds a little like that?’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, we ripped it off. Where you been?’ I don’t want to make it sound now like I’m ripping everything off. I remember a Smurfs episode where there was some guy–I can’t remember if he was a Smurf or a human–who said, ‘Listen to this song that I wrote.’ And when he played it for everyone, one of the Smurfs was like, ‘Hey, that’s a little part of my song!’ And another one was like, ‘Hey, that’s a part of my song, too!’ I always have that nightmare that it’s going to happen to us, and people will say, ‘They were frauds all along–every single thing was ripped off.’ Please don’t write that. Naw, I don’t mind actually. I think it’s funny.”

And with that comes his first smile of the day.