THE STROKES: Hard to Explain

In the span of a single year, the Strokes went from recording their first demo to headlining England's massive Reading Festival, getting tagged by the media as the "saviors of rock and roll" along the way.

Hype. The not-so-silent killer. Hype can pluck one band out of six billion out of a dead-end-bar-scene-trip-to-nowhere and make them global icons of cool. And, in this increasingly cynical age (The Modern Age, as the Strokes have coined it), it can also kill a band’s career in a relative heartbeat, turning them into yesterday’s news before they’ve even had a chance to explore their surroundings.Hype. The not-so-silent killer. Hype can pluck one band out of six billion out of a dead-end-bar-scene-trip-to-nowhere and make them global icons of cool. And, in this increasingly cynical age (The Modern Age, as the Strokes have coined it), it can also kill a band’s career in a relative heartbeat, turning them into yesterday’s news before they’ve even had a chance to explore their surroundings. Hype is like a wave that must inevitably recede; the bigger the wave, the stronger the backlash.

The Strokes are no strangers to the H word. In the span of a single year, they went from recording their first demo to headlining England’s massive Reading Festival, getting tagged by the media as the “saviors of rock and roll” along the way. The Strokes debut album, 2001’s Is This It, was hailed by critics and fans as an instant classic.

“The hype got people to recognize us,” admitted Fabrizio Moretti, The Strokes’ drummer, in a 2001 interview with MTV, “and we appreciate that, but we don’t invest much attention or credit to it. Because when we do, at any moment, whoever is giving that hype can take it away just as easily, and then we’re lost.”

Nasty rumors about the band began to circulate, that they’d hired a publicist before they’d even rehearsed, that they were secretly just unskilled pretty boys chosen for their looks and put together by Julian’s (Casablancas, lead singer) father, and that they’d stolen all their ideas from seminal punk bands like Television and The Velvet Underground.

By fall of 2003, The Strokes were on the wrong end of their wave; their second album, Room on Fire, would be tried and hung for the crime of sounding too much like their first. This was not exactly true, but the verdict was accepted as gospel. The backlash had begun in earnest.

Now, with a damaged reputation and the most anticipated rock album of 2006, the Strokes have offered For The Scrutiny of the World their third album, the oddly named First Impressions of Earth, on which the band has taken risks with both its sound and its songwriting. If it’s poorly received, this could very well be strike three for The Strokes. If it’s loved, then rock music will be saved for the seven millionth time.

Early reviews have been mixed, but early reviews have been wrong. What’s amazing is how well The Strokes have pulled it off.

Friday the 13th, January 2006. I’m sitting by the phone, waiting for my phone call from lead singer Julian Casablancas. I’ve been warned by the band’s PR person that Julian hates doing interviews, but that “he really wants to do it for you” (a publicist mind trick, I’m sure, but a benign one). The band is working overtime feeding their end of the hype machine, and ultimately, like their new song “15 Minutes,” 15 minutes is all I get. Some days, you just can’t get enough strokes.

Another rumor out there, that Casablancas is in actuality a nice, regular guy, turns out to be true. He’s personable and laughs often, but he sounds more than a little weary. He’s got the faraway cadence of a modern day Jim Morrison, and a (dare I say it) dreamy voice. Julian will answer your questions honestly, but by nature or design, is good at revealing very little. His overall thesis, “It’s hard to explain.”

It’s as if using words to explain his music feels pointless to him. Instead, he talks in circles, makes fun of his answers, pokes fun of your questions. The pressure of having to say something profound, to make sweeping statements and answer every question seems unbearable to him. Besides, that’s for other bands to do.

Congratulations on making such a daring third record. It must feel good to have it out there.

Yeah, it’s good, its weird, its good weird. I’ve been going around to stores, and I ask if they have it. Like to make sure it’s real. It’s weird. It’s cool. It’s great when they say ‘yes.’ I went to this store today and asked how much it was. It was $9.99. I thought that was cool. But yeah, it’s great. It’s, scary, mildly? [Laughter] But overall, I’m confident that it’s…good, I hope. [Laughter]

Were you trying to push your songwriting in new directions on this album, or did it happen naturally?

I think it did happen naturally. At the same time, I think you try purposefully to change naturally. So your mind, if you keep [it] busy, keep thinking, keep working on stuff, just keep trying to have your mind evolve, then yeah, eventually you see things in different ways. And maybe you can grow, maybe sort of, go with the flow. Sorry for rhyming.

No man, rhymes are good.

Rhymes are good, but hard to spell.

That’s true. Rhythm is hard to spell too.

“Rhythm and rhyme,” he repeats, stirring the words together like vodka and lime.

Julian has been described by his band mates as a recovering control freak. His mammoth work ethic drives the band, and he’s widely known to be hard on himself. He learned at 13, through studying the lives of people he admired, that the artist must always work hard to achieve any lasting success, and thus will devote hours to minor details, like getting the perfect snare drum sound on a track. Ideally, he likes to record from two in the afternoon to five in the morning.

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