Music » Music Feature

Is This It?

It's been ages since America produced a flat-out, no-frills rock 'n' roll band, which is why New York City rockers The Strokes are this year's "it" group

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If you don't have tickets yet for the upcoming Strokes show at the Cat's Cradle, forget it--it's been sold out for weeks. For a band that's only released an EP (their demos, actually) and one full-length--Is This It--the hype's been incredible. Whether it's because of their classic New York City rocker-circa-'78 look, their no-frills, exuberant guitar rock, or the fact that they're playing rock (rather than rap, hip hop, techno, nu-metal, post-rock, indie or any of the other genres that seem to get invented daily), The Strokes have captured the imagination of the press and public. And while Britain's got its Oasis, Blur, Radiohead, Spiritualized, et al., when is the last time America's really had a straight-up rock 'n' roll band--y'know, with the whole bad boy, skinny rocker, stovepipe pants, subway tan thing going--to get behind? And with New York City pulling itself out of the rubble, dusting itself off like the can-do badasses the rest of us statesiders always knew they were, who better to get excited about than a band that epitomizes everything we love about the NYC attitude?

Of course, The Strokes weren't exactly gutter rats. Singer Julian Casablancas, the oldest at age 22, may look like Richard Hell's feisty punk-ass nephew, but he's the scion of John Casablancas, founder of Elite modeling agency (who left Elite in February with a few good parting shots about how "difficult" certain supa'models could be). His roommate, Albert Hammond Jr., is the son of Albert Hammond, the folkie-turned-songwriter who's written massive hits for the likes of Whitney Houston and Julio Iglesias. The two had met briefly in Swiss boarding school as youths and were reunited by sheer chance on a New York street after L.A.-native Hammond moved to NYC in '98. The band members, who all have groovy Euro-style names and speak a few languages, have got all the bases covered, personality or "type"-wise: There's the mercurial lead singer (Julian), the savvy music biz guitarist with a massive record collection (Albert), the hot-headed good-looking guitar player (Nick), an affable chick-magnet drummer (Fab--he's Brazilian) and a bassist (Nickolai) that looks like a Prada model.

Do they sound like Television and The Velvet Underground and all the other classic late-'70s NYC bands they constantly get compared to? Not really. But there are nods to The Modern Lovers, a few Lou Reed-ish/Velvets moments--even a dash of The Cars. And while the U.S. release doesn't have the rave-up "New York City Cops" (it's not really an anti-cop song at all, but these are sensitive times), it's still a meaty debut and a return to classic American (rock) values.

The Indy catches up with the band before their Detroit gig. Guitarist Albert Hammond calls from the band's tour bus: "It's a little gaudy; the inside looks kind of like a titty bar, but it's really cool," he says, just waking up (it's 3 p.m.). He's enthusiastic, sincere and full-on into the touring lifestyle. The Strokes' philosophy? Keep moving forward.

The Independent: If anyone would have told you two years ago you'd be where you are right now ...

Hammond: I would have told 'em they're full of shit--no way in hell that's going to happen to us, right? It's too much.

Having your dream already sort of accomplished, now what?

It's funny. You never really ... it always grows, like baby steps. At first, our dream was just to be able to finish a song together as a band. And when we got that, it's like, "Let's play venues," and then sell out venues, and sell out bigger venues. It just changes as you grow.

Any jealousy from other bands?

Back in New York, I think it was while we were making our record in April--it's not that long ago, but it feels like a long time [laughs]--there was this band that came up to us, and there were a couple of incidents, but then they'd realize that we're nice people. We hope that we can help other people out--hopefully talk labels into going to check out bands in the city, 'cause there are plenty of good bands in New York City. It's not our fault that we did something and they didn't.

You're originally from L.A., right? You met Julian at Swiss boarding school?

Yeah, I was really young, though. We were friends--I was 13 and he was 15--it was a big gap at that time. I totally forgot about him, and I moved to New York. And by sheer accident, I moved across the street from where he worked--I think he was interning at Elite, actually. And I ran into him on the street: "Dude, I went to school with you seven years ago--you look nothing like you did before." We were just talking about music and he said he needed a guitarist; I said I wanted to play guitar, and that was that.

What common bands were you guys into? Did you have the same vision of what you wanted to do?

I think we grew together. They liked bands that I didn't really listen to, and I had a giant record collection that they didn't even know about. I moved in with Julian--he writes the songs--so I think a lot of records that I was listening to ... like, he'd never heard GBV [Guided By Voices] and he got into that, and Jonathan Richman ... I think he absorbed it in a way and just took off on it, y'know? It was really cool to watch ... I always thought it was meant for the five of us to be together 'cause as soon as I joined, things just happened. Then as soon as we got Ryan [Gentle, their manager and former booker at NYC's Mercury Lounge], more things just happened. You know, like energy--the force of people trying to do one thing, which is cool.

England is so fickle. NME loved you guys--do you worry they'll turn on you?

I know--build you up just to take you down. I don't worry about that, 'cause a lot of bands don't even get "shot" up--we got shot up. So you want to shoot us down? It's like, hey, take the good with the bad.

What's it like having all these musicians like Joe Strummer coming to see you, like when you recently played the Troubadour?

It's like ... almost like a dream; it's like a hazy memory. Strummer's walking down the stairs and says [puts on a Brit accent], "I loved your band; I thought it was great," and walked away. And it didn't even hit me--Joe Strummer--so intense, you know? Then I ran after him--he was gone, like the wind. I didn't get to talk to him. My mouth was open. It was cool.

What other people that you've been a fan of have checked out the band?

I still want Ric Ocasek to come out--he hasn't come out [laughs]. I live a block away from him. I ran into him twice, a long time ago, but I didn't want to stop him on the street. I tried to give him a flyer--I left it on his car; he probably just threw it away.

How come you left "New York City Cops" (a hit in England) off of the U.S. release?

We felt like it's a good song--it was just bad timing for it. America was very sensitive; they didn't want to hear excuses for the song. At the same time, the song says nothing bad about cops, really. It's not saying, "I hate you" or "fuck you." It's just saying, "You're not being too smart, 'cause all you're doing is harassing two people that are just in love.

Is your dad in the music biz?

He used to do a little folk singing in the '70s--he did a couple records--but then he just started writing music for other people. You know, uh, "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" and "One Moment in Time," by Whitney Houston? Yeah, he wrote some songs [chuckles at the understatement].

So you were surrounded by music since you were a kid?

Yeah, but you know what's funny? I didn't like it. I'm serious. When I was really little, I didn't like music. I'd be in the studio, and Roy Orbison, who's one of my gods now, would be there, and I didn't even care--I was playing video games. I was 9. I was so young; I just didn't see it. When I turned 12, I really saw it and regretted everything I hadn't done--I could have learned so much if I would have just hung out with them.

Goofy question: You always read how Julian's dad started Elite Modeling. When you guys are really famous, are you gonna date models, or are you gonna date smart chicks?

Date models! [laughing] I can't really imagine having a girlfriend at all, really. Every time I meet a girl, it just isn't ... it's not there. I don't think it matters so much if they're a model or whatever--just a certain kind of personality, that's all--somebody that makes me feel good when I wake up in the morning.

What are you listening to on the bus?

On the last tour we had GBV, Bob Marley, Modern Lovers, Beatles, Beach Boys, Cars, Elvis Costello, Velvet Underground, Built to Spill, MC5 ... I like Vanilla Fudge [he laughs sheepishly]. All they do is cover songs, but they do these two cover songs really well.

It's funny, all the bands we get referred to [in the press], we haven't really heard much, like Television and Blondie. I don't even know how they come up with this shit, to tell you the truth. I think there are bands from New York who really do sound like The Stooges; I don't think we're one of them. If we sound anything like that, we sound like Iggy Pop when he met David Bowie, and Iggy took his rage and put it in a pop song. We like doing weird shit, but at the same time we want to keep the weird shit in a context where people can understand it--not where only people who study music can understand it, but not where only dumbasses get it.

Do you have time to write songs on the road? What do you have coming up?

Well, we're playing a new song now, so we've got a 13-song set list, which is the most we've ever had! I think the December-through-January break will be really nice for some songwriting--we're going back out in February. On New Year's Eve, we're playing with GBV at the Apollo Theater, along with David Cross from Mr. Show. Isn't that cool?

Any recording plans?

Even though this record's just come out, it's not gonna be more than a year-and-a-half before the next one. That seems right. Nowadays, people wait like four years--it's way too long. You're gonna totally forget about the band: Who are these guys? EndBlock

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