The Strokes began working on ‘Is This It’ with Gil Norton (who had previously worked with Pixies) in 2001. Although they got on well, the band weren’t happy with the sound. After three weeks, they turned to producer Gordon Raphael, who had also produced their EP ‘The Modern Age’.
Raphael first saw the band live at the Luna Lounge in NYC in August 2000. Although he had been more interested in working with a different band he saw that night, Come On, Albert and Nick ended up stopping by the studio afterwards, instead.
“I learned a lot about them during that process,” Raphael says of working with Julian to record the EP. He says the singer especially surprised him “because I formed a bit of an opinion about him being the quietest, most background member, who maybe didn’t know much about the music.”
Before they began recording ‘Is This It’, the producer and the band had a listening session, where Albert and Julian brought things for him to listen to, emphasizing the tones and energy they were after.
Julian Casablancas is said to have instructed Raphael to make them sound like “a band from the past that took a time trip into the future to make their record.”
The band spent six weeks recording the album with Raphael at his Transporterraum in Manhattan. The basement studio was limited to the basic tools to record the EP, but the producer rented a second 888 interface for the album recording sessions. “I thought that if I could put a bottom mic on the snare, my life would be better,” he’s said.
Raphael recalls that in the six or seven months in between recording the demo and the album, the band had made a lot of progress as musicians, especially Fab.
Raphael recalls that at the very beginning of the album sessions, Julian told him: ‘We have the time to do this album right. We still want to keep the live feel, but I don’t want to hear one moment on this record where I’m speeding up or slowing down. I just don’t want to hear it, and I want you to help me with that.’”
So to do that, they spent “as many hours or days as was necessary to do a live take of a song where everybody played amazingly well,” according to Rapahel.
The band wanted most of the album to sound like they were playing live, while they wanted a few to sound like they included an in-studio production drum machine (even though there was no drum machine).
To do this, Raphael sculpted and processed the drums so they sounded like a machine – this is most notable in ‘Hard To Explain’ and ‘Soma’.
The band’s producer had a background in industrial music, so he was able to transfer those skills of, as he describes it, “destroying sounds – taking sounds, disintegrating them and bringing them back” to the recording of ‘Is This It’.
Raphael made his decisions based on the band’s physical reactions to elements of the tracks. “They couldn’t tell me that they wanted the voice brighter and it wasn’t making them happy. They would just have big frowns on their faces and I would start turning the knobs on every piece of equipment until the frowns began turning into smiles. That was technique of working with The Strokes.”
To record the guitars, Albert and Nick placed Fender DeVille amps on opposite sides of the room, and a microphone was placed on each one. The sound went straight through to a preamp without equalization.
The band played to a click track, while Julian sang through a Peavey
The woman in the photograph on the original album cover, taken by Colin Lane, was later revealed to be Lane’s girlfriend at the time. The shoot was spontaneous, and was inspired after she came out of the shower naked and Lane spotted a leather glove left in his apartment by a stylist. “We did about 10 shots. There was no real inspiration,” he says. “I was just trying to take a sexy picture.”
The band left the question mark off of the title of the album because they didn’t think it looked right.
The album artwork was changed for the American market, as well as the October 2001 release, to a microscopic view of particle collisions. It’s believed that this decision was made to broaden the market, as some might have been opposed to the nudity on the original cover.
After the 9/11 attacks, the track ‘New York City Cops’ was taken off of the album in America, as some thought it was inappropriate at the time and disrespected NYC’s cops. This song was replaced by ‘When it Started’.
Upon its release, ‘Is This It’ entered the UK Albums Chart at number two, with 48,393 sales in its first week. In 2009, NME ranked it as the best record of the noughties.