When they emerged from the New York scene at the turn of the millennium, the scruffy, hip, Seventies-inflected Strokes seemed to embody the very nature of downtown cool — mixing Lou Reed vocals and as much sweaty, garage-rock mystique as you could pack into three-minute tunes — despite the fact that most of the band had grown up uptown. Thanks to a truckload of positive press and the terrific Modern Age EP, the Strokes were famous before they even put out a full-length album. When they released one, 2001's Is This It, the band backed up the buzz with killer hooks, making New York's Lower East Side sound cool again.
The son of modeling agent John Casablancas, singer Julian Casablancas attended a Swiss boarding school, where he began playing music with another scion of the well-known, Albert Hammond Jr. (whose namesake father had a number of early-Seventies hits such as "It Never Rains in Southern California"). Casablancas had already played in Manhattan, his hometown, with guitarist Nick Valensi and drummer Fabrizio Moretti; he'd also been a friend of future bassist Nikolai Fraiture. When Hammond moved to New York (he'd enrolled at NYU), he hooked up with Casablancas and the three others and started playing bars in the borough's Lower East Side in 1999. Ryan Gentles, the booker for small New York club the Mercury Lounge, quit his job to become the group's manager.
With a sound that evoked the flat rumble of late-Seventies New York rock but whose chewy tunes were rooted in the new wave candy of the Cars, the Strokes' appeal was immediate; they became the most popular club band in New York and when they issued their first EP, The Modern Age (2001), they became a press-fueled sensation in England, where their debut album, Is This It (Number 33, 2001), was released before America got it, with a slightly different album cover and track listing ("New York City Cops" — "they ain't too smart," Casablancas yowled — was deemed potentially offensive in the wake of 9/11 and was replaced by "When It Started"). Tight, lean, smart and almost subliminally catchy, It became one of the most acclaimed albums of its era, finishing second in the Village Voice's annual critics poll and setting a number of younger bands off in emulating their wiry sound.
The Strokes were lumped into the 2001-02 "rock is back" brigade — they were often said to lead it, in fact — but they were such a sensation (in press terms, not in mass numbers) that they seemed stuck in a rut. Their second full-length album, 2003's Room on Fire (Number Four) offered a more polished version of the Is This It template. Originally the Strokes were going to make their follow-up with producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead), but instead went back to the debut's decksman, Gordon Raphael. It was around this time that Moretti's relationship with movie star Drew Barrymore came to light, earning the band extra, if not quite welcome, press. In 2005, Casablancas married the band's assistant manager; the following year, Valensi wed photographer Amanda de Cadenet.
For First Impressions of Earth (Number Four, 2006), they expanded their sonic palette, at times almost willfully, casting some doubt as to their direction. Later in 2006, Hammond Jr. released his debut, Yours to Keep, in the U.K.; it saw U.S. issue a year later and his second solo album, ¿Cómo Te Llama? was released in July 2008, shortly after Casablancas' single with Pharrell and Santogold promoting Converse dropped.
As 2008 turned into 2009, the band continued to postpone the release of the next Strokes album and individual members continued to introduce their own material. Moretti formed Little Joy with Los Hermanos singer-guitarist Rodrigo Amarante and musician Binki Shapiro, releasing an LP in late 2008; Fraiture released a solo LP as Nickel Eye in early 2009 and Casablancas put out a solo record, Phrazes for the Young, later that year.
Messages on the band's official site throughout 2009 said the Strokes were working on an album with a 2010 release date in mind; in the fall, Casablancas confirmed the band had worked on new material. The Strokes were also announced as headliners for 2010's Isle of Wight festival — the band's first live gig since 2006. In early 2010, the Strokes' website confirmed the band was working on its fourth LP with producer Joe Chiccarelli (U2, the White Stripes, My Morning Jacket).
Erica Futterman contributed to this story.