The ghost of rock ‘n’ roll’s King, Elvis Presley, lingers in the air at the legendary Madison Square Garden Theatre, New York – the venue he once made his own. Now, with two sell out gigs and a new album out, THE STROKES are here and ready to quash the spectre of Elvis once and for all. Jessica Stein was there to witness the crowning of the new kings of cool.
Three weeks into their US tour and that infamous gang of five (frontman Julian Casablancas, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr, bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti) The stokes show minimal enthusiasm to promote their long-awaited second album, ‘Room on Fire’, the follow-up to 2001’s million selling debut, ‘Is This It?’.
This could be due to a conservation of energy. Maybe they don’t want to burn themselves out before heading over to the UK in December (where they first signed to Rough Trade, sold 2 million copies of debut album ‘Is This It?’ and won the best international newcomer award at the Brits 2002) for the beginning of the European leg of their tour.
Or it could be that Julian Casablancas, the Marlon Brando-esque, intense, brooding, sex ‘n’ scruff, Converse ‘n’ Vintage shirt wearing singer is worried about disappointing their hometown audience – although he’ll try his damned hardest not to show it.
Rolling Stone hailed ‘Room on Fire’ as: “The most hotly anticipated rock album since 1993’s ‘In Utero'; Nirvana’s follow-up to ‘Nevermind’.” No pressure there then…
“As soon as you think, ‘I’m the f***ing’ man, I’m the shit’, then you’re setting yourself up for trouble,” says Casablancas, who as the sole songwriter is also known for being a perfectionist. Torturing himself, thinking he’s fucked up and pushing himself to do better, he’s clearly terrified of making a song that sucks.
But with ‘Room on Fire’ the band can lay their fears to rest – for the moment, at least. It’s another complex rock ‘n’ roll masterpiece full of rigid beats, edgy guitar, and Casablanmcas’ raw raspy vocals crooning through city boredom and heartbreak (no, he’s not currently in a relationship and yes, he’s happy about it).
But Casablancas hopes that his subject matter goes beyond being dubbed ‘Sex and the City’. He says: ” You can’t sum it up as that, that’s awful.” Indeed not. Casablancas is known for being contrary, voraciously self-disciplined and highly analytical about the human condition. In a word he is complex. Thus this reflects in his songwriting, which is nothing less than complex and almost painfully full of heartfelt emotion toward whatever chosen cause.
His main concern with ‘Room on Fire’, however, was that the band was not copying themselves. “That’s the most important thing, I guess. Every song had to be a step forward. There were about a hundred song parts that died a slow death for this album. But that’s the same philosophy we’ve had. When you think you know how to write songs, that’s when you’re fooling yourself.”
Live, The Strokes have never been theatrical or contrived. It’s just not part of their chemistry, (“Weird science” as their two-time producer, Gordon Raphael, would call it).
The Strokes, for better or worse, are all about underrated cool. What you see is what you get. And it works magnetically. Just as the iconic black and white image of them drinking beer in a bar in New York did for their first EP cover ‘Modern Age’ in 2001.
The tight, no frills hour-long set was enough time for The Strokes to pretty much play nearly all the songs from both their albums. Even though ‘Room on Fire’ had just been released days before the New York concerts, the crowds were already gripped by new songs, the fast and dirty ‘Between Love & Hate’ and ‘Reptillia’, the melodic, ‘The End has No End’ and current single, ’12:51′ as much as they were by now Strokes sing-along classics, ‘Last Nite’, ‘New York City Cops’ and ‘Take it or Leave it’.
On the first night, true to his downbeat, honest style, Casablancas tried hard not to engage with the audience. You won’t find any cheerful banter between songs – Casablancas is straight to the point on and off stage. He will introduce the songs (if you are particularly favoured) and there are definitely no encores. Give’em just enough, and keep ’em wanting more. It’s almost as if he doesn’t care what the audience thinks. But oh, how he does.
On night two he lets loose and during the second song on stage dives into the crowd practically on top of our photographer. It’s as if they’re right back in 2000 when they first played Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge, fusing influences from The Velvet Underground, The Cars, The Beach Boys, and Bob Marley, to create a sound and energy previously unheard or seen.
It’s easy to see why this closely knit group of friends, (whom, bar Fraiture, all live round the corner from each other in Manhattan’s East Village, and where their manager Gentles’ office is also located in a vintage clothing shop, and where band discussions over a game of chess, doodling and beer, have had such an impact on the world and are currently the Jesus Christ Superstar’s of rock ‘n’ roll.
Casablancas, although never baptised, is somewhat spiritual. Perhaps this comes from having been through a drink problem, which led to rehab. Although it is safe to say that he now drinks in moderation, and for the five months when recording ‘Room on Fire’ did not drink at all. And most certainly, does not want the world to think of him as wasted. Far enough.
“I have a fear of doing interviews because I used to do them when I was fucked up and all my words came out crooked.” No more.
Of religion, he says: “I wish I was baptised. I definitely believe in something. I can’t imagine how all this (success of the band) could have happened by accident.”
He genuinely feels ‘blessed’ by the success of the band and thanks God everyday for it, although his prayers won’t make him rest. There goes that ‘must do better’ attitude again. “What I want is a spot in the world of music that isn’t relatively underground. When you look at The Velvet Underground and how they were in comparison to so many other bands from that era, it would have been an achievement if they had received more attention. Over the long term, their ideas would have been better for the culture. I find the current condition of popular culture pretty disappointing.”
It is charming to find such a deep 25 year old so disappointed with pop culture. And ironic as he, and his gang of five are the epitome of pop culture cool and continue to be hugely influential in that market right now.
Their style in terms of music and fashion is second to none. Their scruffy look (apart from Hammond Jr who favours suits and pinstripe jackets) is the stuff of cool celebrity. And like attracts like. In the dressing room after the first Madison Square Gardens night, a doting Drew Barrymore holding hands with drummer boyfriend, Moretti, whom she met backstage at a Strokes gig in California last April. They have been sweet on each other ever since, yet there is no sign of Valensi’s lady, former ‘The Word’ presenter-turned photographer, Amanda De Cadanet.
Another out of sight soul at both aftershows in fact was Julian’s biggest fan, Courtney Love. She wrote a song about him ‘Julian, I’m a Little Older than You’ after meeting him backstage at one of their LA gigs. Ironically, this is on her long-awaited solo album ‘America’s Sweatheart’ which was released a week after ‘Room on Fire’.
Casablancas isn’t into all that anyway. He never wants to lose his focus and prefers working to socialising with other stars, and has a work ethic instilled in him via his stepfather, a lecturer at the New York National Academy of Design. Together they studied how someone lived and discovered that it was the artist who worked hardest of all.
Until they arrive in London next month for another stop on the roundabout of critique, it looks as if the stress is over. The Strokes have taken New York, once again with both the live shows and: ‘Room on Fire’. Julian says: “It’s made me feel like I can still do it. The fear of losing it is always nearby, so it’s about as far away as I can push it for the time being, which is a nice feeling.”
Catch up with The Strokes