The Strokes’ world-changing ‘Is This It’ at 20: “They had a ‘last gang in town’ mentality”

Sexy. Raw. Glamorous. The indie icons' debut inspired a generation to pick up guitars and cram themselves into skinny jeans – and the reverberations rippled far and wide, finds Rhian Daly

Main image credit: Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns

On July 30, 2001, The Strokes changed the world with the release of their debut album, ‘Is This It’. Read any account of alternative music from that time and, before that date, you’ll find despair, nu-metal and bland, uninspiring indie. With just one 36-minute record, the five New Yorkers upended everything and gave the world something to be excited about again. They sparked a whole new wave of bands you’d stake your colours to the mast for in the years following – The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys and more – and became the group to beat.

Back at the end of 2000, The Strokes were just five guys in a band: Julian Casablancas, Albert Hammond Jr., Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture and Fab Moretti. When producer Gordon Raphael went to see them at Manhattan’s Luna Lounge, he had no idea where things would end up. “There were two bands playing and I was mostly focused on two things – getting work for my studio, and I was looking at the parties they were playing because my band wanted a good promoter,” he recalls.

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He handed Hammond Jr. a business card at the gig and told him he could make cheap demos. A few days later, the curly-haired guitarist visited him at Transporterraum, his studio in a basement under a methadone clinic in New York’s East Village. This wasn’t your typical high-end studio – its walls were covered in purple and red glitter, its doors silver and oddities like lamps made out of old dolls and microscopes lying on bookshelves littered around the place. “It just looked like the kind of place where creative people might want to hang out and the band responded well to that environment,” Raphael says.

Happy with the space, the whole band later stopped by the studio and recorded three tracks: ‘The Modern Age’, ‘Last Nite’ and ‘Barely Legal’. Sometime after they were done, Raphael ran into Hammond Jr on St Mark’s Place in the East Village and was given the news the songs were being released in the UK as ‘The Modern Age’ EP. He immediately offered to have the band come back in and “fix them up”, but was told that their new label, Rough Trade, like them just the way they were. “I was incredulous,” Raphael laughs. “That was the first thing I’d recorded that would be heard by the public. I was like, ‘Well, maybe I’ll be famous!’”

James Endeacott was the band’s A&R at Rough Trade and remembers hearing those infamous demos. “Geoff Travis played me ‘The Modern Age’ one morning and it was like hearing all your favourite records in one,” he says now. “It was exhilarating.”

Part of the producer’s surprise that the demos were being released as they were was because of their sound – lo-fi, rough around the edges, not at all polished. They’d been made in three days and were free from the usual overdubs and extra layers you’ll find on most modern music. But Rough Trade was right – the simplicity and unpretentiousness of the tracks was part of their appeal, helping them stand out as the antithesis to everything else around at the time.

Before the UK label snapped them up, Raphael had thought The Strokes were destined to be disappointed. “The songs were incredible and I was really impressed, but then I got sad for them in my heart,” he says. “I was like, ‘Don’t they know no one in New York will listen to them? If they take this music to a label they’re gonna throw it in the trash can as soon as they hear guitars. They’re just born 20 years too late.’”

Thankfully, the producer was wrong and, after a brief trip to the UK, The Strokes called him up again when they were beginning work on what would become ‘Is This It’. By this time, they’d also signed to RCA Records in the US, who wanted the band to work with a more established producer and it was decided they would try out Gil Norton, who’d been behind the controls for Pixies and Foo Fighters. When that didn’t work out, they returned to Transporterraum and Raphael. “Can you imagine how high I jumped in the air?” he smiles now. “I got this phone call out of the blue from Julian like, ‘Do you still have that studio? Well, can you record our album?’”

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The sessions began more professionally, with the band and producer meeting to listen to the songs they had and discuss what they liked and where they wanted to go. Among their visions for the record were such gems as, “What if you went into the future and discovered a band from the past that you really liked – can we do that?” and, “You know what everyone’s doing in New York in the studio these days? That’s what we don’t want to do”.

“It was a very big thing at the time to make your studio look like a million dollars and see who could make the biggest production,” Raphael explains. “What they weren’t doing is taking a few microphones, have a bunch of boys go in a room and play their damn song. That’s how we came up with the original sound. But then Julian would come up with pearlers like, ‘When I listened to the drum sound you’ve got for Fab, it’s like the whole drum set is a yuppie and the hi-hat is the poor guy on the corner begging for spare change’.”

Although The Strokes’ persona might be one of scrappy, louche indie boys in leather jackets, they had a strong work ethic in the studio and were very particular about the songs they were making. It’s previously been reported that most of the songs on ‘Is This It’ were recorded only once, but Raphael contests that. “‘New York City Cops’ was played really perfectly the first time and then we did two more tries and went with the first take,” he says. “But that would happen rarely and sometimes things took an entire day, then they came back the next day to play it again.”

While Strokes-mania was starting to sweep the UK, the US were a little behind – particularly when it came to RCA. The label was unimpressed with the “unprofessional sound” of the recordings and gave the band’s manager Ryan Gentles a list of “big name producers” they’d prefer to be in charge. “I felt really threatened and really sad,” Raphael says, but a visit from Endeacott gave him more encouragement. “When he heard the original playback of what we’d done, he threw his hat up in the air. I thought, ‘He gets it, I’m not crazy.’”

“I went to New York for a few days when they were recording the album,” Endeacott recalls. “The first thing I heard was New York City Cops. I screamed with joy when I heard it. Gordon was the right person for the job and the band knew what they were doing.”

When ‘Is This It’ was released, it became even clearer that it wasn’t Raphael who had the problem when it came to The Strokes’ sound. The album immediately raced to the Number Two in the Official UK Albums Chart and their booking at Reading & Leeds 2001 on the Evening Sessions stage was upgraded to the main stage after it was thought too many people would be trying to get into the 8,000-capacity tent.

The momentum kept on building. Appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Letterman Show followed, and another trip to the UK saw them picking up their first awards. At the 2002 NME Awards, they collected our distinctive middle-finger-shaped gongs for Best New Act, Band Of The Year and Album Of The Year, while at the BRITs they took home Best International Newcomer. The latter made the changing of the guard in alternative music clear: Linkin Park were also nominated, but nu-metal had some new competition now.

A victory lap around the UK followed, culminating in two headline shows at London’s Brixton Academy. “By that point, the album had got even bigger and there was so much anticipation,” recalls Apple Music 1 host Matt Wilkinson, who was present at one of the shows. “I’ve never really seen Brixton go as mad for a new band before. Because they didn’t really have any other material, they had to play everything from ‘Is This It’, although I think they shuffled up the order. They were great – they had a real ‘last gang in town’ mentality about them.”

After that tour, things didn’t stop growing. Months later, The Strokes were back in the UK to play Reading & Leeds again, this time headlining the main stage and still with only one 36-minute album out in the world. The sets were nothing short of iconic, with a birthday singalong for Casablancas, a guest appearance on ‘New York City Cops’ by The White StripesJack White and a golden performance from the best new band in the world.

Raphael has a theory as to just why ‘Is This It’ provoked such a huge response and resonated with so many people upon its release. “It gave a new vision and a new face to rock music,” he explains. “People tell me all over the world that when that record came out, they stopped listening to DJ music and bought a guitar and formed a band. For the first time, they heard guitar music that changed their minds – it could be cool if you wear those skinny jeans and play those amazing chords and do it like The Strokes.”

“People tell me that when that record came out, they stopped listening to DJ music and formed a band” – producer Gordon Raphael

For Wilkinson, their power came from being the opposite to the big bands who had come before them, like Oasis and Radiohead. “The difference with The Strokes were the songs were a lot quicker, which we really needed because Oasis had ushered in that thing of eight-minute songs, and they were shorter, sharper and referenced different people. No one was talking about The Velvet Underground and the Ramones before The Strokes came along – even The Clash weren’t a cool band to reference, weirdly. So suddenly you had this new book of references to go and discover and you also had this 10 out of 10 incredible album that just didn’t give a shit about anything else in the ‘90s.”

Even 20 years on, ‘Is This It’ and The Strokes are still having a big impact on young music fans and artists alike all around the world. Clairo and Billie Eilish have both given a nod to the New Yorkers in recent months through covers and interview comments, while the band’s influence on acts in their home city is still palpable.

Emir Mohseni, frontman of Brooklyn glam-psych group The Muckers, first discovered Thee Strokes as a 13-year-old watching TV at home in Tehran. The video for ‘Last Nite’ came on the channel he was watching with his brother and immediately blew him away. “I was a little shocked – there’s just five dudes playing guitar solos,” he remembers. “I thought rock’n’roll was dead! It was kind of old-school, that video, and I just thought, ‘This is very cool.’”

“every young musician playing rock’n’roll in Iran dreamt of being like The Strokes” – The Muckers’ frontman Emir Mohseni

In Iran, rock music isn’t as free to thrive because it’s un-Islamic. But Mohseni says anyone who as playing guitar and wanted to be in a band were into Casablancas and co. “There wasn’t a big fanbase because there’s no rock music there, but every young musician playing rock’n’roll was dreaming of being like The Strokes,” he explains.

Now a resident of New York, the musician moved to the city with big dreams of playing the Lower East Side’s Mercury Lounge – a favoured venue of The Strokes back in the day. “There were stories coming that The Strokes played this venue in New York City, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs played there and all these bands,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Wow, this sounds like a good place!’”

Even though the band’s old haunts might not be the cool spots anymore, their sound, presence and energy still looms large across New York. “They belong to the city so much,” Mohseni nods. “Every fucking corner. And there’s a depth to that first album that everyone can relate to it – the words, or the beautiful guitars from Albert and Nick, Julian’s songwriting and the way he put down the lyrics. It’s still around and still alive.”

The Strokes
The Strokes CREDIT: KMazur/WireImage

Raphael agrees that Casablancas’ songwriting is one of the reasons why ‘Is This It’ is still such a prominent force two decades on. “Nobody writes lyrics like that,” he says. “It’s so weird, and yet it resonates with you – you understand what he’s painting, but nobody else would say those actual things except for him.” Unique, enigmatic and really fucking cool – no wonder why we still can’t get enough of The Strokes’ era-defining and game-changing debut album.

– Tune in to Apple Music Hits from 9pm BST to listen live for free to Essential Albums: The Strokes’ Is This It, presented by Matt Wilkinson: apple.co/Matt . Matt also hosts The Matt Wilkinson Show, airing weekdays 12pm-2pm BST on Apple Music 1.

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