The Strokes: Band on Fire

Don’t hate them because the singer’s studied nonchalance is either effortless or a brilliant pose, an amalgam of a generation’s worth of sexy, surly frontmen.

Don’t hate them because they are beautiful. It’s tempting. Don’t hate them because the singer’s studied nonchalance is either effortless or a brilliant pose, an amalgam of a generation’s worth of sexy, surly frontmen. Don’t hate them because their breakout video, a live performance clip of “Last Night,” looked like an anachronistic bit of make-believe, the hipster Strokes playing on the set of an ersatz Mike Douglas Show. Because they seem to be the first band in decades that actually hangs out together. It’s not that hard to picture the Strokes living together in a single brownstone with five doors, a lá the Beatles in one of those quirky Richard Lester films.

In fact, most of the Strokes did at one time share an apartment. And three of the five attended boarding school together, a fact that has made many critics quick to dismiss the band as hobbyists or worse, trustafarians. A quick Google search for “the Strokes” reveals little middle ground on the band; critics either love them or hate them, either credit them for a revival of a downtown, guitar-based band scene or disregard their music as derivative, photocopied pastiches of the band’s collective influences. One post on the music industry Web site went so far as to label their fans “trucker hat-wearing trash.”

Part of the problem, admittedly, is the band’s relative inattention to the press. For example, a phone interview with drummer Fabrizio Moretti. He’s putting in an afternoon of hard time pimping the next leg of the Strokes’ U.S. tour, which deposits them in St. Louis on April 24. But like everything the Strokes do, the interview smacks of hit and run. Like the new album, Room on Fire, which clocks in at a barely LP-length 33 minutes and change, or the ten-minute chat with a very tired Fab.

Fab has just woken up, even though it’s three in the afternoon. And Fab never admits where he’s calling from; the background noise and the morning after the night before sound of his voice make it sound like an airport. “I get up pretty late,” Moretti says. “It depends on what hemisphere, what time zone I’m in.”

Perhaps more than any other member of the band besides frontman Julian Casablancas, Moretti has been a target of the press; part of that undoubtedly is his relationship with actress Drew Barrymore. He makes a conscious effort to deflect this criticism with a wit still sharp, despite whatever happened the night before. “What’s next for us? We’re thinking about starting a restaurant,” he says with a distinct smoker’s laugh.

But before he’ll delve into future plans, Moretti has a complaint. It’s probably because of the inevitable question, one thrown at the Strokes constantly over the last few months. The sophomore slump. “In this kind of romp that I’m doing with a bunch of magazines, the views aren’t so complimentary,” the Strokes’ drummer admits.

But it’s the obvious question. In the six weeks between the album’s release and the end of 2003, music publications went from calling Room a four-star triumph to one of the year’s biggest disappointments. It’s a lukewarm reception for an album that, depending on your point of view, is either a solid followup (say, Candy-O) or consigns the Strokes to the land of countless one-album wonders (see also Get the Knack).

Theorists who buy into the sophomore jinx point to Room’s tumultuous recording, where the band trashed sessions helmed by Radiohead producer Nigel Goodrich in order to work again with Is This It’s Gordon Raphael. But that’s where, according to the band, the similarities with the first record end. While critics take issue with the somewhat homogenous sounds of Room and its multiplatinum precursor, Moretti sees the return to producer Raphael not as a conservative move, but as consistent with the Strokes’ worldview. “You’re doing everything according to the way you want to do it and you have no external pressures. The pressure is internal. I want to progress. I want this band to be as good as it can be.”

It’s their insularity, a distinct all-for-one attitude, that provides a sense of the Strokes as fighting unit. Nowhere is that sense of continuity more apparent than in the band’s catalog of 23 recorded songs, all from the pen of songwriter and vocalist Casablancas. That effect is intentional, says Moretti. “[Julian] brings in really amazing seeds…[the band] is that second, third, fourth, and fifth filters, and then we arrange the song and make it into something we all kind of share.”
This summer, the band will head to Europe to co-headline festivals with David Bowie and the reunited Pixies, mostly for the chance to play with bands they admire. “That sold us, ” says Moretti.

As the Strokes prepare to hit the Midwest on the final leg of their stateside tour, Moretti hopes to reinforce the notion of the band as a singular entity. “I see myself very much as one of the voltron lions in the whole voltron robot that is the Strokes. And when I’m not playing music with these guys, I don’t feel like I’d be an appropriate drummer for anyone.” He speaks of future plans in a genuinely collective sense; the Midwest tour dates are consciously built around ballrooms and theaters instead of the arenas the band could undoubtedly fill.

Many reviews of Room on Fire suggest a Faustian bargain that permits the Strokes free designer duds, celebrity girlfriends, and the nearly simultaneous covers of both Spin and Rolling Stone. Moretti takes a more pragmatic, if jaundiced, view. “There are two factors [to our success]. One is just discipline and hard work, and the other is a complete disregard for press, and the whole mechanism,” he says. That hard work includes this, a return to the studio in New York, as well as this month’s swing through the Midwest; Moretti, for one, is thankful to be back on the road. “New York is our home, and we always convince ourselves that it’s going to be an easier time. But when the show actually begins and we do our thing, it’s all the same. The smaller shows have the best intensity,” Moretti says, before a publicist reminds him of another commitment. The last thing he says, “I’m sorry, but I have to get back to work.”


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