Cover Story: Strokes of Genius

With The Strokes' debut album not even released yet, the quintessential New York rockers deal with hype, controversy and the destruction in their own back yard

The Strokes

Whatever vaporous qualities define the Band of the Moment, The Strokes possess all of them. For the moment.

The New York City quintet has totally infiltrated the minds of fans, critics and industry watchdogs. In doing so, the group has become the "It" band of 2001, the hot commodity to be gauged and assessed and examined and, if the industry has its way, replicated and exploited.

The Strokes' debut album, Is This It, has been released to the rest of the world, where it and the band have already been wildly received. The album clearly is one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year here in the States, and its Oct. 9 street date is being counted down by not only their New York fans but converts they've made in the last year opening for limited tours from Guided By Voices and The Doves.

Except for their sound — which is steeped in the hallowed traditions of Velvet Underground and Television and splashed with touches of vintage CBGB sonic décor — everything about The Strokes is new.

The band has been playing out less than two years, this is the only group any of them have ever been a part of and none of them are older than 23. And even as they touch eras of New York Rock that predate their births by a decade, they show an uncanny ability to synthesize those familiar sounds into their own unique invention and transcend the names that have come before.

"We just want to play our music," says exhausted Stroke Nikolai Fraiture, the band's stoic bassist, delivering a statement that addresses all of the band's wishes at once — to be able play without deference to someone's idea of their influences, to have the opportunity to play on a wide scale across America and to return to some semblance of normalcy after the nightmare events of Sept. 11 in their hometown.

Fraiture's exhaustion is the result of The Strokes having spent the entire day shooting the video for "Last Nite," and he and the band are more than ready for a little downtime. Rest will be fleeting from here on out, though, as the band leaves the following day for a seven-week tour, with a couple weeks off for good behavior, something with which the band is only marginally acquainted.

The Strokes began as frequent high school jams between vocalist/songwriter Julian Casablancas, guitarist Nick Valensi and drummer Fabrizio Moretti, all of whom were enrolled at Dwight School in Central Park West. Fraiture attended the same high school and had known Casablancas in grammar school but didn't become part of the group until after school. Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., whose father had a huge 1970s hit with "It Never Rains in Southern California," relocated from Los Angeles to New York to attend film school in 1998 and ran into Casablancas, whom he had originally met when both were attending a Swiss boarding school.

Casablancas told Hammond that his band had stalled in its attempts to progress any further and that they were considering adding a second guitarist. Hammond revealed that he was a guitarist and accepted Casablancas' offer to visit their rehearsal space and jam with the band, which at that point hadn't yet been named. The chemistry among the five was immediate, and The Strokes were born.

"With Albert, we decided we were a band," Fraiture says. "We were all comfortable with our instruments, we were all ready to progress and get better. We thought, 'This is it.' We'd been playing together for a long time and all we wanted to do was get better, and we didn't know how yet. He brought so many different musical tastes to the table that it opened our eyes. And we opened his eyes to other stuff. It was really constructive unity."

With the last piece of the puzzle in place, The Strokes began the arduous process of writing and rehearsing for a year before they started getting gigs around New York. The band's songwriting process isn't particularly unique in the annals of Rock & Roll, but it's a method they employ with each song. While the band ultimately gets a crack at arranging and contributing to every song, Casablancas is credited as The Strokes' sole songwriter.

"Julian will bring a guitar and vocal melody, or a guitar and bass, or just a part that he was working on at home," Fraiture says. "From there, he'll bring that into the studio and we'll get together, us five, and work on it to try to find different parts to fit and match and really, in the end, to finish the song."

Although the band started slowly, with only a handful of friends at the earliest gigs, word of mouth started drawing in more and more bodies. They continuously worked toward playing bigger and more varied clubs around New York, ultimately resulting in a residency last December at the Mercury Lounge. After selling out their last two nights at the Mercury — no mean feat in the dead of winter when club attendance is traditionally down — The Strokes accomplished a similar feat by selling out its last two shows at the Bowery Ballroom earlier this year.

The New York press had already begun sniffing around for the story, and the scrutiny intensified quickly with the band's exposure in some of New York City's bastions of historical cool, including CBGB's and Irving Plaza.

The Strokes' driving work ethic — punctuated by rehearsals that routinely begin at 10 p.m. and last until 8 a.m. — and determination in securing gigs around New York for a year while they honed their skills paid off when it came time to record. The band sent a copy of their demo to Rough Trade Records owner Geoff Travis, who was duly astonished and released a three-song EP, The Modern Age, in England in January. The following month The Strokes embarked on a club tour of the UK that reinforced the band's path, as they found themselves selling out show after show and playing in front of increasingly more agitated fans.

Once The Modern Age hit the street, there was nothing for The Strokes to do but watch the mailbox and wait for the offers to arrive. Although a number of major and indie labels expressed a great deal of interest and promised a lot of money, RCA eventually walked away with the contract.

"RCA was the closest we could get to a major label understanding a small Rock group," Fraiture says. "We talked to a lot of them and they told us, 'We'll give you all the money you want, and we'll do this and that.' RCA was one of the only ones that was willing to understand us as a group and wanted to do what we wanted to do. We were pretty confident that it would work. At the same time, we listened to them if they had suggestions. For us, it was an ideal situation. We were aiming more for creative control. We liked what we did and we just wanted to continue that. Sort of like an independent way to look at it with major label backing."

One of The Strokes' big breaks came with the invitation earlier this year to open the initial limited tour for Guided By Voices as they previewed their new album, Isolation Drills.

"Albert, Nick and Julian went to see them at Irving Plaza, and they threw one of our demos on stage," Fraiture remembers. "After we opened for them, they told us that (demo) was one of the only ones they kept. We really love Guided By Voices, and that's your dream, to tour with a band you love."

The GBV gig also afforded The Strokes the opportunity to observe a band at the next level, a level to which they aspired. So even as the band was having a great time touring with one of their musical heroes, they were also taking notes on presentation and set pacing.

With the material well-rehearsed and the band's skills becoming increasingly sharp, The Strokes entered Sterling Sound in April to begin work on Is This It, their major label debut, taking a relatively quick six weeks to complete the album's 11 tracks. On the basis of the EP and the buzz surrounding the sessions for the full album, the press surrounding The Strokes increased exponentially.

One of the constants concerning press coverage of The Strokes is the almost universal desire to align the band with every great New York musical entity that city has ever known. Some of the comparisons have made sense, while others have left band members scratching their heads.

"Musically, we can agree and disagree with some of it," Fraiture says. "For us, it's an honor to be compared with really cool, energetic bands that performed well. That's our goal — not to copy it, but to do what they did, to perform the music that we make energetically and to have a fun time with the crowd. That's why we do it."

When The Strokes began their march to conquer the European market with the early release of Is This It, some of the band's good fortune began to go slightly sour. Just prior to their Australian jaunt, drummer Moretti tumbled out of the band's van and into the street, breaking his hand.

Luckily for the band, their friend (and former Selzers drummer) Matt Romano took Moretti's place behind the kit. Although Moretti accompanied the band on much of the Australian tour, it was clear his hand wasn't healing properly, and he was forced to return home to recuperate. The band cancelled only a handful of UK dates before picking up where they left off this winter, wowing hyper English fans packing clubs to the rafters.

The Strokes have been poised for great things here at home for months. They might well have stormed their way straight through the American music industry's paper defenses on their way to fame and glory had it not been for the horrific events of Sept. 11 and the toll they've taken on Manhattan, home to four of the band's five members. Like all of America, Fraiture remembers vividly his place in the terrible passion play we all performed against our will on Sept. 11.

"I was just starting to wake up, and my step-grandmother called me and asked if I was alright," Fraiture says. "She told me what had happened, and I turned on my TV. It just seemed so unreal. All I could do was call everybody I know who lives downtown just to make sure that everyone was OK. All you could do was what everyone in New York was doing — looking either out their windows or at their TVs in utter disbelief.

"For a few days afterward, New York was very strange. There was this bizarre uncertainty. All anybody could do was just wait it out. You stayed with people you knew and tried to help anybody you could."

One of the inadvertent casualties of the calamity was The Strokes' debut album, due to be released on Sept. 25. It was quickly pushed to Oct. 9 in order to delete a controversial song from the track list, "New York City Cops." The Stooges-like two-chord swaggerfest offers the refrain, "New York City cops they ain't too smart," which, in light of the Abner Louima and Amidou Diallo cases, might well be true. But the police force's bravery in the face of the World Trade Center disaster makes it distinctly uncool to point out those cases in the current climate.

It should be duly noted at this juncture that the decision to replace the track with the less inciteful "When It Started" was entirely the band's. According to everyone involved, there was no pressure exerted on them from the label or any other force to make the move. (Earlier this year, the band also made the decision to change the cover of the domestic release of Is This It, replacing the import version's Spinal Tap-ish naked hip/Leather glove shot with a less controversial sleeve.)

"We weren't sure if we wanted to take 'New York City Cops' off or not," Fraiture says. "It's a very controversial time, so we went into the studio and had a back-up song just in case. We liked the finished product a lot. So we decided to replace it. We've taken it out of the set list in New York City for sure. It's just too sensitive a subject right now. And in the rest of the country, probably.

"We still don't know how people feel about it. For us, it's really just a narration, and it has nothing to do with actual New York City cops and much, much less to do with what happened. It's just an unfortunate concurrence of circumstances."

Although they're still considering returning "New York City Cops" to their set list, the national mood might ultimately dictate that The Strokes leave the song out of their live presentation altogether until emotions subside and are less close to the surface. What makes the decision to cut the song somewhat difficult is that there's little room for adjustment in the set list, since The Strokes do only their own material and at this point have just the songs from the first album and a couple of extras.

"We've never done covers, really," Fraiture says. "Our outlook on that is, if you can't cover a song better than the way it was played, you're better off not doing it, because you're just sabotaging it in a way. It's not really honoring the artist if you can't do it better. Like Jimi Hendrix. He covered Bob Dylan, and he covered him so well. If we could find a good song that we could do better, we'd do it. But that's where we stand now."

And now, all that remains for The Strokes is to take their stripped-down Rock & Roll circus across America. Their spot on the Guided By Voices tour was limited by the small number of cities covered by the tour, and their similar position on The Doves tour was limited by the number of people who actually knew who The Doves were.

So The Strokes are ready to see what Middle America thinks of its big-city, smart-ass Rock, to the extent that when Fraiture speaks of seeking acceptance in America he almost sounds like a member of a band from another country.

"America's really where we want it to happen," he says. "After New York, it just happened in England and in Europe and the rest of the world. So we're just really happy playing America and doing our own shows."

Perhaps even more telling is Fraiture's final observation at the end of a long day for The Strokes, a long day that comes at the end of a long couple of weeks, and a long couple of weeks that come at the end of a long tour that's taken him and his bandmates through Europe and across Australia.

"We just feel lucky to still be friends, to have been friends, and even luckier to play music together," Fraiture says. "We're very excited."

THE STROKES play the Southgate House on Oct. 4.

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