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The Strokes: Elegantly Wasted

Join our heroes on a quest to make the world safe for rock & roll as they prowl the streets of New York in the hours before dawn looking for beer

November 13, 2003
The Strokes: Elegantly Wasted
Photograph by Max Vadukul for RollingStone.com

He is supposed to arrive at 9 p.m. When he shows up, it is well after midnight. But he will make up for it by spending the next seven hours and forty-five minutes with me. Not because he likes me or doesn't like me. Just because that is what he does. His name is Julian Casablancas, and if he weren't a rock star, he'd be the neighborhood drunk with a heart of gold.

The lead singer of the Strokes, New York's finest purveyors of coolly detached retro-rock boogie, is blessed with the ability to talk shit. He can hold forth all night, run around in verbal circles for fifteen minutes, lose his place and then start all over again. He doesn't seem to have anywhere to be. He is in the moment. He doesn't even own a cell phone, a computer or a watch. But his intentions are the noblest.

"Doing heroin is like walking around with a terrorist as your friend," he tells a buddy who has started sniffing the dust. Casablancas' cautionary monologue lasts twenty rambling, heartfelt minutes, slurred with his lips two inches away from his friend's. "It's like taking a terrorist around to parties," he continues. "You never know when it's going to blow up on you."

Casablancas is wearing a green work shirt with the words U.S. GARBAGE COMPANY over the pocket, and faded black pants. The shirt is the property of his roommate, Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. On his wrist, there are three fraying colored wristbands that he has not bothered to remove–one from a Kings of Leon concert a week ago, another from a Stooges show two weeks ago and a third from a Vines show from who knows when. I will see Casablancas nearly every day for the next week: His clothes and bracelets will not change, though he claims his underwear and socks do. He will end every night in the company of a girl he does not sleep with. And he will talk about everything from strip clubs to night terrors to his hatred of Pringles potato chips. But when it comes time for a formal sit-down, he will give me the worst interview I have ever experienced. It will last seven minutes.

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The Strokes are more than just a band. Whether they like it or not, they stand for something. Just as Nirvana became the face of grunge in the early Nineties, the Strokes have become the face of the so-called new garage-rock scene. And, like Nirvana, the Strokes have been embraced by the designers of runway fashion, the death knell of anything sincere.

Of course, the Strokes don't technically belong to a scene, because they were never even acquaintances with their compatriots. According to Fabrizio Moretti, the band's drummer, artist and deep thinker, the Strokes originally tried to form a scene of New York bands that would hang out, drink and go to one another's shows, but "at the time in New York, it was so competitive that bands were not open to it."

As far as garage rock goes, the Strokes don't once mention bands like the Stooges or the Troggs when discussing their second CD, Room On Fire. Instead, Hammond credits the reggae-sounding guitars in "Automatic Stop" to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"; Casablancas blames the high-pitched guitar tone of "The End Has No End" on Guns n' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine"; and guitarist Nick Valensi pledges allegiance to goth. "There are some bass lines on our first album that were 100 percent ripped off from the Cure," he says. "We were worried about putting out the album, because we thought we'd get busted."

As for the famous Strokes boogie beat, Valensi says, "When we were first startins out, we wanted to have songs you could do cheesy dances to — like the Carlton dance from The Fresh Prince or the Pretty in Pink dance."

The actual seed for the Strokes was planted when Pierre, the brother of Strokes bassist Nikolai Fraiture, gave Casablancas a Velvet Underground CD for Christmas while he was in high school. The music was an epiphany for friends Fraiture, Casablancas, Valensi and Moretti. The dream when they formed the Strokes, according to Casablancas, "revolved around taking the Velvet Underground and thinking, 'If only they were really famous.' And the goal was to be really cool and nonmainstream, and be really popular.

"Why does everything that has to be big and popular suck?" he adds. "I got a problem with that, so I'm trying to do something about it."

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