The Strokes and NME go back – way back. They were the first band to really excite us – and many others – after the turn of the millennium. Sexy, chaotic, unpredictable and really fucking fun, here was a band who seemed to remember exactly what rock was supposed to be about.
A week before they released their debut EP ‘The Modern Age’ (an early snapshot of the greatness to come) in late January 2001, NME.com played host to a free download of ‘Last Nite’, a blistering song destined to be bellowed in sticky indie clubs across the country for decades to come. Six months later, the New Yorkers appeared on the magazine’s cover for the first time, described as “five skinny, leather-clad frames milling about on a street corner in the heart of Manhattan’s Lower East Side”. The feature inside proclaimed: “They look and sound like a band who are going to save rock.”
Over the intervening years, the band have racked up another 18 cover features, our writers following them all over the world to tell their story. It’s been nine years since our last conversation with them as The Strokes (side projects and solo albums have taken the focus of late) but, finally, they’re back.
Although it’s good fun, our first interview in nearly a decade isn’t quite the easy reunion you might hope for when reconnecting with a long lost friend. Frontman Julian Casablancas seems convinced that there’s an ulterior motive behind the conversation, warily answering NME’s questions as if he’s waiting for the ‘gotcha!’ moment. Perhaps that’s understandable. After all, even with the best intentions, writers are – to quote Joan Didion – always selling someone out.
Things start off well enough. Casablancas and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr are on the line from their respective Los Angeles lockdowns ready to talk about ‘The New Abnormal’, their first album in seven years. The mood around the record, released in April, has been positive. The band actually seem to want to spend time talking about it and – at the start of the year, before world events intervened – playing it on tour (neither 2011’s ‘Angles’ nor 2013’s ‘Comedown Machine’ had as much of a push). It helps that it’s really, really good – “proof that they’re still the best riff-makers around”, as the glowing NME review put it.
It’s typical, then, that the first time the band have felt inspired to promote an album in a decade, their plans are derailed by a global pandemic. The pair laugh at the observation. They’re no strangers to releasing music in times of chaos. ‘Is This It’ was released on vinyl on September 11, 2001 – the same day the Twin Towers were struck by two hijacked planes. The US CD version of the album was pushed back and ‘New York City Cops’ (“… they ain’t too smart”, according to the lyrics) was removed from the tracklist.
“Our album is called ‘The New Abnormal’; it seemed appropriately timed” – Julian Casablancas
But, this time, the album arrived as planned. They didn’t repeat their actions of two decades past and delay the release, Casablancas says, because “it’s called ‘The New Abnormal’; it seemed appropriately timed. If it was a book or something more physical…”
His bandmate interjects as Casablancas’ voice trails off. “It was only three weeks away when the idea came up to put it out later,” Hammond Jr says. “We had all this build-up for it to come out and it seemed so close. To change it then, it would have almost seemed unreal.”
“We would have to change the name to ‘Glad That’s Over’,” Casablancas quips.
The light-hearted spirit of the pair’s back-and-forths works its way into bits of the Rick Rubin-produced record, which rifles through ’80s synths and big, shiny hooks for one of the best albums of the year so far. But other parts feel more vulnerable and introspective than you might expect of The Strokes. Casablancas’ vocal delivery often feels unguarded, that typically nonchalant air dropped, while lyrically he lays things out in ways that feel out of step with previous releases. “I’m an ugly boy / Holding out the night / Lonely after light,” he sighs on the brooding, delicate ‘At The Door’, while on ‘Selfless’ he makes plain his yearning for a lover to return.
“I disagree a little bit,” Casablancas says slowly, carefully weighing up the observation put to him. He starts and stops new sentences several times, until he settles on what he wants to say. “I’ve been obsessed lately with the way people emotionally compute things and how it distorts scientific, statistical realities,” he begins. To disregard the question and hone in on something more complex – but still adjacent – is quintessential Casablancas. “If you’d have said, ‘It sounds like the vocals are louder in volume’, I would have said, ‘Sure’. But then that translates to, ‘You were clearly wounded when you made this song’, and I think I would have said, ‘No, the vocals are just a little louder’.”
He pauses and when his voice reappears down the line, the weary sincerity has morphed into something more teasing. “If you slow down one of our party jams, you would see that this clown is crying on the inside,” he jokes.
Respectful disagreement becomes the theme of our conversation. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture mentioned in the first episode of the band’s ‘Five Guys Talking About Things They Know Nothing About’ Zoom series that’s available to watch on YouTube – it’s a visual pirate radio show and feels like you’ve crashed a band meeting – that he had been nervous to play ideas for Rick Rubin during the making of the record. Nervous and self-conscious? That doesn’t sound like The Strokes, a band more commonly affiliated with insouciance than insecurity. “Really?” Hammond Jr replies slightly incredulously.
“When you’re playing music in front of people, you’re conscious of it always,” Casablancas says. “Maybe there are different levels depending on who you’re playing stuff for, but it can be anyone – like someone who’s, I don’t know, delivering pizza or something. If anyone comes in the room, I’m aware.”
The Strokes have never had a reputation for being the easiest band in the world to interview. The noughties are littered with tales of Casablancas turning off journalists’ dictaphones mid-conversation, being too drunk to make much sense about anything and avoiding questions by smacking his lips on whichever journalist had been sent to duel with him that day (sometimes all in one interview). He’s sober now and the band are edging closer to middle age (all but guitarist Nick Valensi and drummer Fab Moretti are in their 40s). Recent articles suggest that they’ve become at least a little more tolerant of doing the dance required to promote a record in the press.
Today, they seem less willing to go through the motions. Casablancas might joke around a lot and is never rude, but he chooses his words cautiously, reticent to give away too much, lest they be used against him. The last decade of The Strokes’ existence seems to be a particularly sensitive subject, and one that he tries to avoid wading into. Fraiture recently said that of all the band’s records, the process of making ‘The New Abnormal’ felt the most similar to that of their debut. When NME puts the quote to him, Casablancas comes dangerously close to passing comment.
“I understand what he means,” he says. “I definitely think it was less stressful?” The singer walks himself through their back catalogue. “‘Room On Fire’ had this kind of ‘If we don’t put out a record quick our careers are over’ thing. ‘First Impressions’ – weird vibes. The last two…” He catches himself and hurriedly returns to his initial point. “Yeah, I think it was definitely the least stressful since that, I would say.”
“I would love nothing more than to make new music” – Albert Hammond Jr
“The last two” – 2011’s ‘Angles’ and 2013’s ‘Comedown Machine’ – are widely regarded as the band’s weakest albums, but writing them off completely feels unfair to the better songs that punctuate their tracklists. Take, respectively, the bright, hopping guitars of ‘Under Cover Of Darkness’ or the strutting ‘Welcome To Japan’. By the time those records were made, the tight-knit gang dynamic of a decade earlier seemed very distant indeed; The Strokes were drifting apart and not on good terms. Casablancas famously didn’t record the vocals on ‘Angles’ at the same time that his bandmates were recording their parts. How does he feel about those albums now? “It’s complicated.” In what way? “In a complicated way.” Silence falls until he calls on Hammond Jr to help him out.
“I’m only listening in my own curiosity too,” the guitarist cheerfully explains before doing his best to wrap the topic up diplomatically. “I don’t really sit there and judge them like that. I had a really good time making ‘Comedown Machine’ at Electric Lady [Studios in New York] with everyone. Some parts of that are some of my favourite stuff too.”
Way back in 2001, when the band rocketed out of the dive bars and rehearsal rooms of Manhattan and made their way across the Atlantic, they shook up a musical landscape filled with bland bores like Travis and Coldplay. With their pouting insouciance and don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, The Strokes stood in direct contrast to those artists. No wonder these dishevelled young Americans were widely credited with igniting, as NME put it at the time, the “new rock revolution”. “You’re welcome,” deadpans Casablancas.
Given what the frontman has just said about the pressures of their second album ‘Room On Fire’, it seems logical that the band might have felt some pressure from the hype. Do they still feel people’s expectations on them now? “I guess you hear that sometimes in interviews and with mega-fans,” he says, focusing as ever less on the question and more on the contextualisation around it. “It’s very flattering but inaccurate. Or, at least, I don’t care to think about it that way.”
“The five of us are talking more clearly now than ever” – Julian Casablancas
The Strokes will forever be linked with New York in a certain time – a world that now seems mythical and hugely romanticised. They hung out at the Lower East Side at the same time as a cluster of bands who went on to define an era in the city – Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio and more. A lot has changed in both music and the world in general since the early noughties, not least because of the internet. Do they think a scene like the one they came from could ever exist in New York again?
Casablancas brings out his stock answer of “I don’t know” again and sighs. “To me, the premise of these questions… I don’t even know if you believe them,” he says suspiciously. “I don’t know how people are at the NME these days but I know that the trend is always a journalist will kiss your ass to your face and talk shit when they’re writing the article. So I’m going to assume it’s still the same.”
Ouch! I try to assure him that my questions aren’t part of some elaborate ruse or stitch-up. “It’s fine – it’s your job,” he replies, admittedly with some disdain. “You work for the NME. It’s fascinating, that whole trend that happened with the internet. We trash things in the funniest [way], which sometimes I enjoy but I personally can’t relate [to]. I would only wanna report on things I like.”
I want to tell him that the reason I’m doing this interview is that I love the Strokes – but that would probably be kissing his ass. He finally answers the question, though in a typically roundabout way – not quite yes, not quite no: “I just think the quality of art, of humanity, has always been relatively similar and there’s always great, inspiring, boundary-pushing things happening at all times. And my dream, goal, hope is that things that are more important and powerful and meaningful become more popular in their own time than later. And other than that, I don’t really have an opinion on the trends of the day.”
But there must be some new music that’s exciting them. Hammond Jr searches his memory and apologetically comes up blank, saying he’s always been a little behind the times and reliant on recommendations from friends. Casablancas, meanwhile, has some suggestions. “Black Midi is a cool band; Crack Cloud is a cool band,” he lists. “Mostly I’ve been listening to this cool radio station in Venice Beach that plays very strange, cool things. They play a lot of old African music and they’ll play punk songs, new wave, very underground stuff. They even have weird spoken-word things and movie scores and all kinds of wacky stuff. It’s the best, but once you drive away from Venice it turns into a pop station.”
“That’s deep on so many levels,” Hammond Jr muses.
If The Strokes don’t have much interest in current trends, they really don’t have much time for revelling in the past either. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of ‘Is This It’ and, seeing as they own the masters to the record, they are in complete control of any special edition re-releases or plans to celebrate it. It doesn’t seem very on-brand for The Strokes to pat themselves on the back for past achievements, though. As Julian told an audience at Roundhouse in London back in February: “I know what people wanna hear, and I hate giving it to them.”
Today he laughs: “I think after a certain age you don’t really like celebrating your birthday. Maybe we could wait until it passes a little. I realised, at least theoretically, that’s how I enjoy birthdays now. Having a party when you turn 40 – it’s depressing or embarrassing, or whatever the stupid human emotion is. But if you celebrate it two or three weeks later once you’ve digested it, then it’s a lot more fun.”
“Is that how you wanna celebrate my 40th?” quizzes his bandmate, who marked the milestone in April.
Casablancas laughs again. “Just me personally, I like to hide during the birthday, during the anniversary, then I’ll emerge once it’s old news.”
“Corporate power is the enemy now” – Julian Casablancas
You might not be able to count on him to show up to his own celebrations, but these days you can rely on the frontman to tackle politics. He has been a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders over the last few years and the band played at the former Democratic candidate’s rally in New Hampshire earlier this year. Two days before ‘The New Abnormal’ was released, Sanders dropped out of the race, leaving Joe Biden the de facto Democratic nominee.
There seemed to be similarities in his story with what happened with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Here was someone who presented a raft of policies that would actually benefit the majority, not just the one per cent. Corbyn seemed to be inspiring some kind of political awakening in swathes of voters, but couldn’t get the support of his own party and was criticised for trying to bring about too big of a change.
“Maybe on the surface [that’s what happened],” Casablancas says, seeming more comfortable on this topic. “But beneath the surface I would say it’s more the propaganda making people think that than the reality. The reason that’s the public perception is because the enemy now is not kings, it’s corporate power. Companies and billionaires are the new dukes and barons. They’re so connected to the media outlets that I think the narrative of what you would call truths and common sense and ‘what most people agree on’ is considered ‘left-wing radical’.”
Every member of The Strokes has said they’ll back Biden in November’s election – a better option than the alternative even if they’re not fully convinced by him. Casablancas is unsure whether Obama’s former Vice President can beat Trump at the moment. “I feel like if he rolled the dice and did something dramatic and chose Bernie as his VP, he would win easily,” he says. “But I don’t think he’s gonna do that. If he chooses someone boring, it’s probably not so good.”
For the frontman, Democrats and Republicans are much of a muchness, although the former is the lesser of two evils. “The reason you want Democrats to win is because they will have slightly less corrupt Supreme Court judges, who will have the final say over what’s law. But other than that, it’s two wings of a corporate party.”
Even without the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, predicting the results of the election would be difficult. In fact, all of life feels hard to speculate about right now, but Casablancas and Hammond Jr seem pretty positive about the future of The Strokes at least. The frontman recently told The Times that he was “finally enjoying being in the band in the way I always wanted to”.
“I don’t think I meant it the way that sounds,” Casablancas says, his innate contrariness rearing its head again. “We have a better operating system now and touring and working is just overall a lot easier. There’s not the stress of secret unsaid ego struggles and all that stuff that bad communication and drinking and popularity brings to the table.”
He’s confident that there won’t be another seven-year wait between albums. “I think it will be a little quicker now. I think we have a good thing going. We have a good relationship with Rick [Rubin]. In theory, knock on wood, we should be working faster. Hard to predict anything but that would be my guess… Albert?”
“Yeah, of course – I would want that too,” Hammond Jr replies. “A band is a funny thing. I was just thinking, it’s so positive that you can be together so long and this moment together is even better than before. It’s so easy, in time, to lose relationships with people in general. So the fact that you work together and there’s five people going in and out and you can feel better now – it’s just exciting to me. I personally feel very excited and I would love nothing more than to make new music, because what we have right now excites me so much.”
That connection between the band members continues to grow despite them not being able to see each other in person, explains Casablancas: “The irony about this time is that I feel like the five of us are just talking more clearly now than ever. I don’t know if that’s just everyone. Albert, would you agree?”
Hammond Jr concurs immediately. “But we’ve also been pretty lucky,” he adds. “If we’re on a corner somewhere together, we’ll end up talking. We. Will. Talk.”
“You know how to give the NME what they want,” Casablancas jests, putting on the kind of voice you hear in a movie trailer. “Just five dudes in leather talking on a New York City street corner. Cue ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ instrumental.” We might not agree on a lot over the rest of the conversation, but he’s got us bang to rights there.
The Strokes’ ‘The New Abnormal’ is out now.