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B16 said in Marzo 14th, 2011 at 15:31

This Is It: Ten Years of the Strokes
by Jonathan Garrett, posted March 7, 2011

When they first entered the public consciousness in 2001, the Strokes would’ve been the last band anyone would’ve pegged for longevity. Even in his otherwise highly complimentary review of the debut LP, Is This It, Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber conceded that the Strokes had “nowhere to go but out of style.” Indeed, merits of the music aside, there was a nagging sense that this band– with their vintage tees, leather jackets, and perfectly disheveled publicity shots– was something of a passing fad. Fortunately for Julian Casablancas, Albert Hammond Jr., Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture, and Fab Moretti, backlash isn’t always fatal. Sometimes it’s the only way for the music to get a fair shake.

Over the past year and a half, the notoriously insular, guarded band gave Pitchfork rare access, granting interviews with key members within its inner circle. They provided a first-hand take on their oft-mythologized history as well as a window into the dicey creative process behind their new album, Angles. As we learned, just because the Strokes have gotten this far doesn’t mean things are getting easier. Talking about the making of Angles, Valensi admitted, “I won’t do the next album we make like this. No way. It was awful– just awful.”

The Beginning and The Modern Age EP (1998-January 2001)

One of the most commonly held misconceptions about the Strokes is that they were an overnight success. A persistent early rumor purported that the band was opportunistically assembled by John Casablancas, Julian’s father and the founder of Elite Model Management. The truth is decidedly less salacious. Casablancas, Moretti, and Valensi were informally collaborating since they were high-school age, playing together in a short-lived band called Just Pipe prior to Hammond and Fraiture’s involvement. The Strokes’ lineup fell into place in 1998 when Hammond– a former Swiss boarding schoolmate of Julian’s– moved to New York City to attend NYU and, rather serendipitously, recognized the name of John Casablancas’ modeling agency. All these years later, Hammond still can’t believe his luck. “What are the odds? I move to New York and wind up living across the street from Elite, where Julian was working. I had no friends, so I thought I should go over and speak to him. Two weeks later, we were living together.”

However, attention for the newly christened Strokes was anything but immediate. In fact, the band struggled to get anyone to take notice for the better part of two years. “We were playing to nobody every two weeks in New York City,” says Valensi, who estimates the band did up to 100 shows with fewer than 100 people in attendance.

“They got rejections from Matador and Hollywood. Albert would frame and hang them on his wall.” –manager Ryan Gentles

Part of the problem, aside from the fact that the band was still coming into its own as a live entity, was they had no recorded material. The Strokes made a couple of attempts to commit songs to tape, but each session left the band frustrated with their inability to properly capture their sound. They had halfheartedly sent these early demos out to a few labels, but most didn’t bother to reply. Manager Ryan Gentles recalls that Hammond kept a small collection of rejection letters. “They got rejections from Matador and Hollywood. Albert would frame and hang them on his wall.”

By the time the band showed up at Gordon Raphael’s Transporterraum studio in the East Village in October 2000, pessimism had set in. “Julian let me know up front that they never had good luck with recording and didn’t like the process,” says Raphael. “I asked if he had any special requests and he said, ‘Yeah, make it sound like nothing that’s going on right now.’ Everyone was using Pro Tools and digital technology, tripling the snare drum and adding samples to make things 25 stories tall. So I thought: ‘What could be the opposite of that? How about I record the band playing together in one room?'”

Photo by Frank Ockenfels 3

Raphael remembers the session running smoothly, though he doesn’t recall thinking the results were anything extraordinary. “When I finished, I put their three songs in a folder with another 200-300 songs I had recorded that year,” he says. “I was on to the next thing.” It’s possible the three-track recording might’ve slipped into obscurity if not for Rough Trade Records founder Geoff Travis. Gentles, who was then booking the Lower East Side’s Mercury Lounge and had hosted the band as headliners on several occasions, agreed to assist the Strokes in sending out the demo to labels. At the suggestion of his boss, Gentles sent a copy to Travis, who had scouted and worked with the Smiths and the Jesus and Mary Chain, among many others. “Geoff called me two days later with the CD playing the background. He wanted to bring them to England and make them an offer based on the demo.”

With Travis’ support, it was full-speed ahead. Gentles quit his job at the Mercury to officially manage the Strokes, and they all immediately prepared for an all-expenses-paid trip to England to promote The Modern Age EP, which was nothing more than a repackaged version of the Raphael demos. The shock is still palpable as Valensi recounts the tale today. “It took us two years to get as big as we had gotten in New York– countless shows and so much hard work and sacrifice in other areas of our lives. And Geoff was able move us way past that just by releasing our demo and getting an article in a fucking magazine. The entire tour was sold out before we even arrived in England.”

That “fucking magazine” was UK weekly NME, which was quick to anoint the Strokes as rock’s next big thing. While NME is known for enthusiastic endorsements, its championing of the Strokes still seemed unusually forceful. The band appeared on the cover of the magazine twice in the span of three months leading up to the release of their debut album. Then deputy editor James Oldham was one of the first to hear The Modern Age EP. “Tim Vignon, a press officer, came in to play us a new group he was managing called the Music. When he finished playing them, he said, ‘We’re doing press for this other band called the Strokes.’ We got the CD off him, went into the office and played those three songs. The reaction was pretty much unanimous.”

“It was very hard to fill the paper each week… Even on an optimistic day, you were saying, ‘OK, they’ve got a couple of good tunes, but they’re boring, have no personality, and they look bad.’ There was a real yearning for a savior.” –former NME editor James Oldham

Oldham believes that unanimity and eagerness at NME had as much to do with the dire state of rock as it did with the quality of the band’s songs. “It was very hard to fill the paper each week. The two dominant trends were nu-metal– Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park– and British sensitive singer-songwritery groups like Travis, Embrace, and Starsailor. Even on an optimistic day, you were saying, ‘OK, they’ve got a couple of good tunes, but they’re boring, have no personality, and they look bad.’ There was a real yearning for a savior.”

Is This It (July 2001)

When the band returned to the States following the frenzy in the UK, they found a far more receptive U.S. record industry. According to Gentles, the Strokes met with every major label in the States and a handful of independents, though many of the indies may not have bothered because “they realized they couldn’t afford them.” Raphael believes the breathless UK press clips and sold-out shows were in fact the only thing stoking the major labels’ sudden love affair with the group. “Without that hype, the EP would have been in the fucking trash can within 25 seconds [at any American record company]. They liked the Prodigy and Nine Inch Nails. They would’ve said it was out of fashion.”

Indeed, even the man who ultimately signed the band was a grudging convert. A senior vice president of A&R at RCA Records who had worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and would later go on to help guide Kings of Leon, Steve Ralbovsky was initially tipped on the Strokes by an intern and had his interest further piqued by an enthusiastic write-up in Time Out New York. He saw two early shows at the Mercury Lounge but left fairly nonplussed both times. “They weren’t the sharpest performances, and the look hearkened back to a certain period before they were even born. They reminded me very much of the bands I would see at Max’s Kansas City in the late 70s.”

Photo by Leslie Lyons

Oddly, it was his final, failed attempt to see the band that convinced him to pursue them. “I had gotten bad set time information and they were already onstage [at the Bowery Ballroom] when I got there, and there was a line down the block. If I had waited, I would’ve missed the set, and I didn’t want to do the whole ‘I’m on the guest list, I need to get in’ thing. But there was a window right near the steps to the subway and you could hear the music pumping out. So I just stood there for two or three songs. Even though I was just standing outside the club, it gave me a better impression than I had a month prior when I saw them at the Mercury Lounge.” As the band was about to embark on a tour with Manchester band Doves, Ralbovsky met the band outside of New York, where he could converse with them at length. The strategy paid off: The Strokes announced their signing to RCA shortly after wrapping the tour.

At that point, the band was in a somewhat unique situation, having already recorded a significant portion of what would comprise its, debut album. Raphael, who was again handling production duties, claims that Ralbovsky was not pleased when he was finally invited in to hear what the band had been working on. “The next day, Ryan told me Steve gave him a list of producers and mixers and said he was willing to pay extra if the band used one of them,” says Raphael. “They didn’t really want to go with a different producer but, after many meetings that I didn’t know anything about, they said, ‘The only way we can get the label off our backs is if we let [Steve] come in and show us what he has in mind.'”

Ralbovsky hints at disagreements with his signings but is somewhat vague in describing his objections, saying only: “We talked about a couple of different things, but, ultimately, I decided to support the band’s vision of what the record should sound like. Julian had a very specific point of view.”

Raphael, however, doesn’t recall such a cordial exchange and remembers the argument over the sound of the record spilling over into the mastering phase. “When we finished Is This It, we had to go to Sterling Mastering Labs to master ‘Hard to Explain’ and the B-side for the first single release in England. I pushed play and, to my surprise my little 8-track basement computer recording sounded absolutely stunning. At that moment, Steve stood up with the head mastering engineer from Sterling and said, ‘Guys, this is some of the most unprofessional sounding music I have ever heard. This is not going to sell, and you are really doing damage to your career by trying to release music that sounds this way.’ My heart just sank because I had just celebrated the fact that it sounded exactly the way I wanted it to. I wanted to cry. Then the mastering guy, Greg Calbi, stood up and said, ‘That’s right. They’re not going to understand your music in Kansas anyway. Why make it more difficult by having that distortion on your voice? Be sensible.’ I picked up my computer, said I disagreed, and left the building carrying the thing.”

“It’s the easy way out to blame everything around you. At the end of the day, though, it’s important to be really happy with the music you’re making because that’s the part you can control.” –Albert Hammond Jr.

Whether Raphael’s recollection is accurate or not, it’s hard to argue with either side. No one would ever describe sound of Is This It as professional; likewise, the decision to stick with the decayed production and vocal effect was clearly an artistic one. One thing’s certain: Those qualities ensured Is This It would stand out upon its release. In the context of major label albums, it’s hard to overstate how much of an anomaly Is This It was when it arrived in fall 2001. While not exactly lo-fi, the production had a similarly distressed veneer. The Strokes frequently expressed admiration for Guided by Voices, and Is This It’s no-frills aesthetic owed quite a bit to the Ohio band’s mid-period works. (The two bands would go on to face off against one on “Family Feud” in the “Someday” video.)

Still, despite the album’s non-radio-friendly production, the initial burst of excitement around its release– auspicious album reviews and “Last Nite”‘s rise to No. 5 on Billboard’s modern rock chart– created high hopes. Is This It exceeded expectations in England but stalled out in the U.S. when its subsequent singles failed to eclipse “Last Nite”‘s popularity. The album reached gold status, but the feeling that it didn’t achieve what it could have in the States remains. Hammond admits that he hoped Is This It would be more widely embraced but doesn’t know how the band could have made that happen without compromising their identity. “I tend not to blame anyone but myself,” he says. “It’s the easy way out to blame everything around you. At the end of the day, though, it’s important to be really happy with the music you’re making because that’s the part you can control.”

In hindsight, Gentles wonders if some of the band’s promotional decisions affected the album’s commercial fate. Like how they refused to play the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards because the network insisted on having them share the stage with the Hives and the Vines, with each getting a minute-and-a-half to play. “No one says no to the MTV Video Music Awards– the producers actually made me get Julian on the phone to explain why he would not play on the stage [with those bands]. ‘It’s nothing against them,’ he said. ‘I don’t think we’re in the same genre and I’m not going to do a band-off with them.’ That was pretty much the last time we were played on MTV.”

JP Bowersock, who gave Hammond and Casablancas guitar lessons and was credited as the band’s “guru” in the liner notes to Is This It, believes the condition of the industry may also have been to blame. In fall 2001, major labels were just beginning to understand the enormity of the threat posed by illegal downloading and their tightening budgets may have disproportionately impacted unproven artists like the Strokes. “When the music industry goes into that kind of period, where do you think they’re going to put their money: On an up-and-comer or the new R. Kelly record? When times are tough and profits are down, you focus on your moneymakers. And moving less than a million units is not a moneymaker.”

Room on Fire (October 2003)

For Is This It, the Strokes had the luxury of crafting songs in concert over a protracted period. And while a few of its songs were holdovers from the Is This It era, Room on Fire wasn’t road-tested anywhere near to the same extent as the material on the first record. The band started arranging and recording almost immediately after touring obligations for Is This It wrapped in 2002, beginning with renowned Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. They ultimately scraped those sessions and returned to Gordon Raphael. “They entered the studio the first day and played the album for me straight through. And I said, ‘Holy shit, Nick, when did you learn to play the guitar like that?’,” says Raphael. “He was doing the craziest solos, and Julian was making really difficult rhythmic shifts with his songwriting. They had become a monstrously well-prepared, tight band.”

“[Nick] was doing the craziest solos, and Julian was making really difficult rhythmic shifts with his songwriting. They had become a monstrously well-prepared, tight band.” –producer Gordon Raphael

The Strokes booked exactly three months of studio time, and Valensi recalls feeling under the gun. “I remember being in the studio on that last day and just staying up 24 hours straight trying to work out all these last little kinks. I think the album would’ve ended up a lot better if we’d had another couple of weeks.” Though he is quick to add: “I think it’s our most listenable album start to finish, possibly even better than our first.”

The rap on Room on Fire upon its release was that it was too similar to Is This It. In his review for Rolling Stone, David Fricke claimed that “in most of the ways that matter, it is exactly like their first.” The sub-head for the SPIN review read: “The Strokes don’t fix what ain’t broke.” Rob Mitchum’s review for this site went so far as to brand Room on Fire as Is This It’s “identical twin.”

While there are unmistakable sonic similarities between the two records, Room on Fire mostly does what second albums are designed to do: further define the band’s sound while simultaneously exploring its boundaries. Yes, the tinny production and callbox vocals remain, but it’s hard to imagine how Valensi’s synth-mimicking guitar lines on “12:51” or the smooth Motown shuffle of “Under Control” would’ve fit on Is This It. Room on Fire is varied yet always careful never to stray too far from the territory the Strokes had already staked out as their own. It mostly sounds like a natural progression.

Photo by Frank Ockenfels 3

But the intensity of the Room on Fire’s recording sessions may have started to expose some of underlying tensions that would fully surface during the making of their next record. Bowersock, who sat in on the studio sessions for both Is This It and Room on Fire, recalls the second record being “the beginning of the other guys starting to voice their opinions on the music as forcefully as Julian would voice his.” Fraiture remembers some palpable discomfort on tour as well. “We were all up for working on music and playing, but [Julian] would want to wait to get back to New York and get settled [before writing]. It was a little bit frustrating. Around then he started withdrawing, maybe because he stopped drinking as well. A large part of our relationship was based on that– being at a bar and drinking.”

First Impressions of Earth (January 2006)

“I’ll be right back” is the final lyric on Room on Fire, but it would take the Strokes close to two and a half years to produce its follow-up. Raphael, who helped the band construct a new studio for the sessions, sensed that they were looking to shake things up for album number three. Peers the White Stripes had already gone platinum in the U.S. and newcomers like the Killers and Franz Ferdinand– groups that didn’t even exist when Is This It was released in 2001– were threatening to pass them by. “I believe they saw all the bands that came in the door behind the first record that were selling three times more than them and were wondering if it was a production thing,” says Raphael. “At the time, they were getting married and having children and wondering how they could go higher than they did.”

As it turned out, Sean Lennon introduced Hammond to Dave Kahne, a producer who had worked with both Sublime and Sugar Ray. The band believed that throwing Kahne into the mix might help them find a new way to express and develop their sound. However, they were reluctant to let Raphael go. The initial plan was to see if both producers could coexist, but Raphael quickly felt marginalized. “I said, ‘Julian, I don’t really like this scene. I want to go.’ And he said, ‘Please stay.’ ‘Why? I’m not doing anything.’ ‘Well, because if you leave, we’re going to fire Dave Kahne because we don’t know how to talk to him. But we think he’s onto something with our sound, and we need you to stay in case we need you to explain what we mean.'”

Raphael wound up staying on for another month when he claims Casablancas again pulled him aside to let him know that they were able to communicate with Kahne without assistance and that he was free to go. But Raphael’s departure didn’t seem to do much to streamline the creative process. Valensi describes the year spent recording as full of fits and starts, with all band members rarely in the same place at the same time. “We’d write and arrange a song, call up the producer, and record it. Then he would leave for a couple of weeks and we’d start working on another song and call him back when we were ready to record again.”

Of all the Strokes, Valensi probably has the most positive memories of the sessions. Most of the others describe the recording process for First Impressions in varying degrees of joylessness. Moretti remembers it being “difficult to put on a smile everyday. It was a get-the-job-done kind of thing.” Fraiture concurs. “The certain thing that makes bands great– the communication, the focus– was starting to recede,” says the bassist. Hammond, meanwhile, checked out entirely. “Talk about not having fun– that’s the understatement of the year. I was balls-to-the-wall fucked up, so it’s hard for me to judge.”

As a general rule, the Strokes aren’t easily satisfied. Most of the band members are quick to criticize each of their studio albums, but First Impressions is a favorite punching bag. All but Casablancas now consider the 52-minute album to be too long. Gentles recalls almost succeeding in getting the album shortened prior to its release as “Julian agreed to [cut three songs] at one point. I told the label and they were happy about it, too, but [Julian] rang me up a couple of weeks later saying he couldn’t do it. He didn’t want the songs sitting around doing nothing.”

“My worry is that the album won’t age well…That’s the problem in going with state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology. The top of the line shit always gets dated because there’s another trick that comes out in a couple of years.” –Nick Valensi

But Hammond felt the issues went beyond mere numerical length. “It’s not just about the number of songs. It’s that, when you listen to it, it feels heavy. I had never felt that with us.” Meanwhile, Valensi’s concerns lie squarely with the production. “My worry is that the album won’t age well. You know how you listen to certain albums from the 90s and they just sound so 90s? That’s the problem in going with state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology. The top of the line shit always gets dated because there’s another trick that comes out in a couple of years.”

Unlike Room on Fire, the experimentation on First Impressions has a tendency to come across as a forced, misguided bid for relevance. It’s a frequently jarring listening experience. Some tracks, such as the marauding spy theme “Juicebox” and Barry Manilow-cribbing “Razorblade”, sound like they could’ve come from an entirely different band. Casablancas says he recently listened to First Impressions and was “overall pleasantly surprised,” but even he readily concedes that “some songs missed the mark. I think people missed the messed-up excitement of what we had. We could’ve stayed a little weirder and people would’ve come around to us, but we rushed to it by trying to sound slicker.”

Angles (March 2011)

The Strokes deliberately made no plans following the final tour for First Impressions. Management referred to the down time as a “much-needed break,” but fatigue doesn’t appear to have been a factor in the Strokes’ decision. Hammond released a solo album in late 2006 and, during the extended hiatus, Fraiture and Casablancas issued their own as well. Moretti, meanwhile, began contributing to a new band called Little Joy.

Valensi, the only member to not actively pursue another project, doesn’t mince words when asked what he thinks of these non-Strokes-related musical endeavors: “I’m not a huge supporter of side/solo stuff. I’m of the opinion that you’re in a band and that’s what you do. If there’s leftover material and time, then sure, by all means. But if you’re playing material that you haven’t even shown to your main band and you’re just sort of keeping it for yourself, I’m not a big fan of that.”

Before entering the studio to record the fourth album, Valensi expressed some skepticism the band would even be able to continue due to all the newly competing priorities. “I remember reading a review of First Impressions in SPIN and they mentioned in their review that it sounded like the last Strokes album. At the time, I took offense. But, in hindsight, they were so close to the truth. I’m not even sure we’re going to make a fourth album at this point.”

Of course, the Strokes were ultimately able to complete Angles, though perhaps not in the way Valensi would have wanted. A lot of the early press for Angles has focused on the fact that each of the Strokes contributed as songwriters, which is technically true. However, that storyline also implies a collaborative spirit that seems to have been largely absent from the sessions that birthed the album.

Moretti, Hammond, Valensi, and Fraiture initially started the recording process with producer Joe Chiccarelli in January 2010. Casablancas, still tied up with promotional obligations for his solo album, Phrazes for the Young, planned to join the group after initial tracking. However, that never materialized and the band instead wound up completely reworking the Chiccarelli sessions on their own in Hammond’s studio in upstate New York. Chiccarelli receives credit for only one track on Angles.

“I feel like we have a better album in us, and it’s going to come out soon.” –Nick Valensi

Still, Casablancas took a less hands-on approach with Angles. He recorded his vocals remotely– at Electric Lady Studios in New York– and sent his parts to the band as electronic files. Likewise, during the recording phase, most communication between Casablancas and the rest of the band took place via e-mail, and, according to Valensi, most of the singer’s ideas and suggestions were written “in really vague terms,” leaving the others without much to go on. Casablancas’ literal distance was quite deliberate, and to hear the singer tell it, the strategy was something he’d hoped to do from the beginning. “When I’m there, people might wait for me to say something. I think it took me being a little mute to force the initiative.”

While Casablancas’ disengagement may have been by design, Valensi found the whole experience deeply dissatisfying. “I won’t do the next album we make like this. No way. It was awful– just awful. Working in a fractured way, not having a singer there. I’d show up certain days and do guitar takes by myself, just me and the engineer. Some of the third album was done that way, but at least we were on the same page about what the arrangements and parts were. Seventy-five percent of this album felt like it was done together and the rest of it was left hanging, like some of us were picking up the scraps and trying to finish a puzzle together.”

Photos by Zach Vowell

Interestingly, although Casablancas and Valensi remain at odds on the merits of the process used to record Angles, both seem united in their desire to improve upon the album itself. With all members now acting as contributing songwriters, Valensi believes it could take some trial and error before the Strokes find an effective new way to establish quality control. “We’re all learning to work on each other’s songs and learning how to deal with emotional issues that come up in relation to the songs, when to let go and when to fight and compromise,” says the guitarist. “I feel like we have a better album in us, and it’s going to come out soon.”

Casablancas also expresses some reservations about Angles, even if he’s not as quick as Valensi to find the silver lining. Asked if he likes the finished album, he takes a long pause. “I mean… yes… It’s a tough question because I think the whole point was that I was going to let things go so there’s a bunch of stuff [on the record] I wouldn’t have done.”

For a band that drew strength from each other during the intense early scrutiny they experienced circa The Modern Age EP, priding itself on its us-against-the-world mentality, the communication breakdowns are an especially disconcerting development. Perhaps divergence is inevitable for any band together as long as the Strokes, no matter their shared history. While all the members believe the Strokes’ fifth album will happen (and they have enough leftover songs from Angles for a decent head start), most express that belief in cautiously optimistic terms. “Everyone’s putting the Strokes as a priority for at least the next little while,” says Valensi. “The best thing we can do right now is put out another one really quick.” Casablancas, in typically cagey, non-commital fashion, offers: “I definitely think there will be a fifth Strokes album. I mean, I hope so.”


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buzz said in Marzo 14th, 2011 at 16:00

visto che b16 ha riportato tutto,da spin o altro ,io metto qualche foto


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