Julian Casablancas confirmed this week that The Strokes are working on new material, with plans to hit the studio and follow up 2013’s ‘Comedown Machine’ in motion. Can hardly wait? Us neither. To help pass the time till the New Yorkers’ eventual return, here’s a blast from the past – well, 2011 to be precise. Creative differences were out of control when the band were last interviewed for the cover of NME. The frontman was missing from the studio. If the rumours were to be believed, The Strokes were teetering at the abyss. Then, five years after their last LP, ‘Angles’ was announced. NME’s Hamish MacBain met the band in New York to discover the true state of The Strokes…
The day before ‘Under Cover Of Darkness’ goes live, and in the East Village offices of Wiz Kid Management things are very much, as the proprietor puts it, “getting back into gear”. While his dog, Xavi, jumps all over him, Ryan Gentles fields calls about upcoming tourdates, looks at emails of artwork, and switches around final(ish) mastered versions of the 10 tracks on ‘Angles’ for NME’s playback (don’t worry, we’ll get there in a sec). So hot off the press are these, in fact, that he elects to sit in while we listen, making more notes, raising an eyebrow, for example, when a backing vocal on ‘Games’ jumps out more than it should.
All around him in his modest NYC digs are the trappings of a successful rock’n’roll band, the reminders of what he and The Strokes have achieved. The gold and platinum discs from all over the world; the giant, framed magazine covers, with those five famous figures hugging, kissing each other, living out theirs and every kid’s rock and roll fantasy; the four NME Awards (“Much sturdier than the MTV ones,” Albert will tell us later); and the numerous box files marked ‘STROKES PRESS’ to which we will today add one long overdue world exclusive, for which the plan is this: we sit in a back room, and one by one the five Strokes come in to be interrogated. Albert Hammond Jnr, followed by Fab Moretti, then Nickolai Fraiture, then Julian Casablancas, and finally Nick Valensi (who decides we should hit a bar instead).
When their paths do cross – Fab’s with Albert’s, Nick’s with Julian’s – there are big hugs, un-fakeable ear-to-ear grins and plans to meet up later on. “See you onstage in a couple of months!” Julian grins to Nick as he leaves – a joke very much for the benefit of NME. Because, frankly, the mood of positivity (and relief) in The Strokes camp is palpable.
It is a day that will end with Nick, only one drink down in Black & White’s (or as Fab calls it,”the bar that taught The Strokes to drink!”), saying his band currently feel the same as they did going in to ‘Is This It’, as though this is “the beginning of the second act of The Strokes.” That will begin with Albert responding to the quote his fellow guitar player gave in an interview only last week, claiming there are “undertones of hostility and resentment” to the mood in The Strokes camp.
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“Nick brought that up to me, over dinner the very next night,” he notes. “He said, ‘If you hear about this, I apologise: it came out wrong.’ He was pissed that it came out like that.”
In between, the worst it gets is Nikolai admitting relations got “pretty dire” at one point during the last five years (but also that it’s now “all great”). Fab will more diplomatically say that it was “a matter of circumstances that we had to navigate through”, and Julian will animatedly declare that he “honestly doesn’t care if people think we have troubles, because we all get along great. Our friendships are a lot more stable.” To a man, press The Strokes on who the problems started with, and they will smile, laugh and not budge. Water most definitely under the bridge by the looks of things. To a man, they’ll all of course say they think ‘Angles’ is the best Strokes album yet, and that things are better and more exciting than ever, and that this is far from the last Strokes album. To a man, they are all pretty darn convincing.
Bottom line? If there are any cracks, The Strokes are doing one hell of a job of hiding them.
Anyway, let’s get to – finally! – this fourth Strokes album. Five years, as you’ll be aware, in the making. Written for the first time by all five of them. Thirty eight minutes long, recorded at Albert’s house with live soundman Gus Osberg at the controls, following those aborted sessions at NYC’s Avatar studios. It is to be played to NME, twice, through Ryan Gentles’ very-recently- purchased iPad (just a twinkle in Billy Gates’ eye when writing and recording began for it).
It all begins with a Moog crescendo that explodes into what Nikolai will describe as “our funkiest song yet”. The verses of ‘Machu Picchu’ recall – oh yes! – Men Of Work’s ‘Down Under’, while the chorus is powered by polished guitars. There are, as with all the songs here, a LOT of little twists and turns. First single ‘Under Cover Of Darkness’ follows and, with its entwining riffs, makes good on Julian’s proclamation a year or so ago of Thin Lizzy vibes. “It’s great that the record company picked that as the first single,” beams Nick Valensi, “because that was a song where literally all of us contributed to the writing. It made me think, ‘Wow, maybe we’ll do our best work when we put all our ideas together.’ Which is a great sign for the future of the band.”
Next comes ‘Two Kinds Of Happiness’, that begins as a full on, drivetime radio, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ type thing, then goes into a wildly off kilter chorus. Again, it a case of starting out simple, then going off in all kinds of complex directions. ‘You’re So Right’, meanwhile, is dark and droning, and features vocals fed through a vocoder. We think it sounds like a cross between Suicide, Stereolab and something off ‘Kid A’; Julian thinks it has “a kind of early REM vibe”.
‘Taken For A Fool’ is the closest thing here to what you might term the classic Strokes sound – recalling as it does ‘Alone, Together’ – and sets up ‘Angles’’ two most out-there moments. When Albert describes ‘Games’ as being “cold, strange, new, unique and fascinating”, he is not wrong: this is the most avant garde adventure The Strokes have yet been on, that starts with drums manipulated to sound like xylophones, drops to a minimal, naked bassline, then builds to a wall of wailing Moog lines. According to Julian, the ending actually originates from a piece of music The Strokes have had for well over 10 years (once titled ‘E Minor Madness’), and features Albert playing lines “inspired by Daft Punk’s ‘Veridis Quo’”. ‘Call Me Back’ is a drumless slowie, in the sense that there were drumless slowies on the third Velvets album. More unexpected twists and tempo changes make it the most downbeat, captivating song on here, and one of the best. “Someone in a band – I can’t remember who – said, ‘Do you have a palette cleanser on there?’” smiles Julian. “And I said, ‘No, but I’ll write one here.’ So that’s what that is.”
From there we’re back on more orthodox turf, with the brilliantly titled ‘Gratisfaction’ cheekily pilfering the feel of Steely Dan’s ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, and ‘Metabolism’ (Julian: “Another one I’ve had for a while”): a slowed down, gothic cousin of ‘Heart In A Cage’, complete with deep, baritone ‘aaaaaahs’ in the background. ‘Angles’ then comes to a close with ‘Life Is Simple In The Moonlight’ – a song that is singled out by more than one Stroke as something of a favourite – which begins sounding like Belle & Sebastian’s ‘Stars Of Track & Field’, then builds with classic, chugging Strokes guitars into yet another completely unexpected twist of a chorus. We heard one of the lines as “There’s no one I disapprove of more than myself”, but Julian corrects us to “There’s no one I disapprove of or route for more than myself”, and calls it “a ‘you-selfish-bastard slash you-can-do-it’ song.”
The overall sense here is of an endlessly slaved over record that is maybe not going to change the world (maybe not their job anymore anyway), but is going to successfully reboot, re-energise The Strokes and reposition them exactly where they want to be – that being all-about-the-music grown ups rather than the anointed saviours of rock and roll. Which is not to say that it is some MGMT-esque exercise in self-sabotage. Rather…
Nick: “There was a fear on my part that, having taken such a long time off, people would have forgotten about us. Not forgotten, but that all the work we’d done would have been all for nought, and we would have to start again at a lower level. But that hasn’t been the case at all.”
The only Stroke who didn’t do a side project, Nick Valensi was the most resistant to any break.
“The time off was really frustrating for me,” he says. “I didn’t want to take all that time off. I was pushing to make a record and do a tour a lot sooner. But despite all the frustrations I was feeling, having my band be dormant in a sense, it seems like the timing is right now, and that we’re working in a way in which everyone can express themselves creatively. So I think the break was a necessary thing for our longevity.”
Nikolai concurs: “We now know how to ride out the downs. All of us writing was great, but hard. Making compromise was the hardest part for all of us, the push and pull of having something go in a direction that you don’t really like, that was the hardest part for all of us.”
Were the differences really just down to disagreements over hi-hat sounds?
“In my opinion, yes,” says Julian. “I’m not saying all the problems were just musical, but I think that’s where it all starts, where it stems from. Once the record is out, I think there will be a huge tension relieved. At that point I think people will be a lot more relaxed, and it will lead to a much more casual atmosphere… (sighing) which I would like. We get along fine to work together, we don’t have any issues.”
All five Strokes will seperately acknowledge that there were problems, but none of them will say specifically who any disagreements were between.
Fab: “Everybody wants a story. For one Issue, you need the bells and whistles, the fireworks. But the fans, I think, don’t want that. The truth is, if anything, we’ve come out of a long hiatus stronger than ever. Far stronger than we were around ‘First Impressions…’, that’s for sure. I feel like I would like to be in this band for a couple more songs, you know?”
Ask Albert, meanwhile, if there was ever any danger that the record was not going to come out, and he gets mildly annoyed.
“It’s like, you’re just asking me that so you get, ‘Albert said there was one point…’” he says. “Of course, there’s points, and fears, in everything you do in life. I almost want to say who cares? It should be obvious, everyone has that. Even the most successful band in the world will be like, ‘This could be the end’…”
Perhaps true. But one of the strangest things for fans was to see The Strokes, in footage they themselves posted, recording at the beginning of 2010 in Avatar Studios without Julian.
“We just booked that time, because the four of us were fed up waiting,” Nikolai shrugs. “We just threw ourselves in there, to see what would happen. At the end of our third album, we did wait a long time for Julian to… come back to the process. After all the touring and all the pressure, he was very spent. So we finally just booked Avatar and went in with the four of us.”
How did Julian react when he was told his band were going to start without him?
Nikolai: “Initially, I was under the impression that he was going to be there. And so was our producer Joe Chicarelli. So initially it was kind of a shock: we were all going in and he stepped back. So there was a lot of adapting to do very quickly. That’s kind of what made the record.”
Julian is clear as to his reasons for not attending the Avatar sessions. “To get everyone to really collaborate and step in, it really takes me to step back from it all. Like, fully step back. I think I just wanted to wait until they’d done their thing, so that I could do mine. When (The Strokes) is described more negatively, it seems like I come in going, ‘This is how it is, and if you don’t like it, back off.’ But it’s never like that. I just want to have a creative, constructive, fun conversation. And I just think that for whatever reason, we never pulled that off and there was resentment… But I’m all about solving things and making things better. And I think it helped us.”
This new spirit of democracy within The Strokes, though, while necessary to make everyone feel more involved, is at the end of the day untested in terms of their public’s (and critics’) opinions.
As Nick will admit: “I feel an odd pressure that I didn’t feel before, because I wrote a lot of stuff on this record. And Julian wasn’t there in the studio, and I was, and me and the other guys in the band were making a lot more decisions. So it feels like it may come down more on us. Whereas Julian could just wash his hands of the whole project and go, ‘Well, that was an experiment…’
“It feels like it’s coming down on me – and us as a whole – a little bit more than the previous ones,” he concludes. “And that’s kind of scary…”
So the big question, really, is this: while The Strokes collectively are more happy and satisfied with the way things are currently working, is this a permutation of their band that the world wants in 2011? Who are friendly but don’t live in each others’ pockets anymore, and who convene to make “interesting”, collaborative records? Individually, they reflect on their youthful incarnation with the same fondness we all do (“Being in the whirlwind,” as more than one of them puts it). They all recognise that they came along at a time when music was stale, and reinvigorated rock and roll. They see that a big part of all that was the whole package: the clothes, the haircuts, the lifestyle, the attitude… but that, for a number of reasons (age, family, whatever), has changed.
“We were hanging out yesterday, actually, all five of us,” says Nikolai. “And talking about what people want from a band after ten years. And for us it’s funny that people still want us to be crashing on each others couches when we have kids and wives. We had a period when we were living all over each other all the time, which was great. But I think if we continued like that, we probably would not be a band anymore. We’ve learned to live with each other’s space. And the space was crucial to us moving forward.”
“The thing is, we had our own separate lives back then, too,” agrees Julian. “I think that was just the image that was projected. I used to work hard on building that image too. I understand that that’s what people want. But things have changed…”
‘Angles’ is certainly evidence of this. And if they are to be believed, is also but a first step in the second part of the Strokes story. A different band, maybe. But still a band that the world desperately needs.