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The Strokes: Elegantly Wasted

Page 2 of 3

At 2A, the East Village bar across the street from the basement studio where the Strokes recorded their first EP, Gasablancas runs into an old friend, a large Puerto Rican with dreadlocks named Nestor.

"You probably don't remember how we met," says Nestor.

Casablancas responds in the negative.

"We were at Spa and all of a sudden Julian comes up to me and says, 'If you were a girl I'd kiss you,'" Nestor recalls. "I backed off. And then he told me that his band the Strokes were playing at Mercury Lounge, and if I came he'd be my best friend forever. No one knew who they were then. So I went, and it was really hot. The air conditioning was broken, so I left after three songs. Then I saw him later at the Cherry Tavern and told him I'd seen the show, and he bought me a drink."

An elderly Asian woman walks past selling bootleg CDs: Radiohead, Beck, Nirvana.

"How much?" Casablancas asks.

They are five dollars.

"I'll give you a buck."

She doesn't even entertain the offer.

Casablancas owns only three CDs: the two discs that haven't disappeared from his Bob Marley box set (Confrontation and Uprising) and The Essential Johnny Cash.

"I would've bought that Radiohead CD for three bucks," Casablancas says after the saleswoman leaves. "But then you might write about it, and I'd run into them backstage and they'd say something about it."

Casablancas is afflicted by something called the press. Every so often, he imagines his words blown up in big type in magazines and tries to take them back. After putting down Neil Young's voice, he backpedals, "Not that I hate Neil Young or anything." I ask him if he is always like this. "You know how bands have to decide what to wear onstage?" he says. "We just decided that we would wear what we wanted to wear onstage all the time, so we wouldn't have to think about it. So that's what I do when I speak now. No matter who I'm talking to, I always talk like I'm doing an interview."

Over time and beer, however, his disclaimers stop, his conversation loosens and his jokes get sharper. Casablancas is blessed with a quick wit, and if you listen close enough, you hear him delivering off-the-cuff comments that, when spoken in his slow, slurred voice, seem twice as funny.

Out of earshot of two girls who have attached themselves to his side tonight, he explains that he didn't go to a strip club until recently, and he doesn't like them: His first experience with a heavygrinding lap dance so scarred him that as soon as he got home, he had to beat off twice.

At SXSW, the Strokes Play Fast, Hard, and Without Frills

As he tells this story, the jukebox fills the room with the strains of Sam Cooke's soul-stirring "A Change Is Gonna Come," and the girls gather round. All time stops for Casablancas. "When I hear 'A Change Is Gonna Come,'" he says, "it frustrates me."

Why? "No matter how hard I try, I can never be that good," he answers.

One of the girls asks if he's ever considered singing lessons.

The following afternoon, I meet Hammond at Tower Records in the East Village. He is sporting several days of stubble and a pinstriped secondhand snort coat over an inside-out T-shirt. He too will be in the same uniform every night I see him. His CD collection was stolen when his apartment was burglarized last year, and he is replacing the inventory– Ziggy Stardust, by David Bowie, 69 Love Songs, by the Magnetic Fields, and three CDs by Guided by Voices, a band that, according to Fraiture, the Strokes aspire to be like: semipopular, making enough money to survive and staying in the game long enough to release more than a dozen albums.

Hammond is excited to go home and listen to his new CDs. "It's like buying a bunch of pornos and waiting to jerk off," he says sagely.

On display in the next record store, Other Music, is a CD by the young Australian garage-rock band Jet. "They make me not want to play music," Hammond says. He finds their look contrived, their music empty, their songs too same-y and their CD overhyped. These happen to be the exact criticisms that people have leveled against the Strokes in the past.

"In the end, I know why people make fun of us," Hammond says. "I think in interviews we come across as weird, pompous people. Then when they meet us, they realize we're nice. I like being nice. I want to be nice for people."

Actually, what people don't realize about the Strokes is just how serious and hardworking they are, particularly Casablancas and Hammond. (In the early days, Hammond booked shows and harassed record executives, claiming to be the band's manager and using the pseudonym Paul Spencer, taken from an old fake ID.) Hammond's passive, grinning, soft-spoken exterior belies a sense of gamesmanship and ambition.

The Strokes' so-called fashion sense can largely be attributed to him. Before he was in a band, he dressed like he was in one and enjoyed the kick of getting into concerts for free by pretending that he was in the group playing that night. He also once got into a sold-out Weezer concert by arguing with the box-office attendant for twenty minutes that he had ordered seats through Ticketmaster, though of course he hadn't. He is a wolf in thrift-shop sheepskin. And right now, he's hungry.

"I only eat two things for lunch," he says. "Breakfast or sushi."

Hammond already has the phone numbers for every restaurant under consideration programmed into the speed dial of his cell phone. "Every time I call 411, I put the number into speed dial," he says. "It's, like, a dollar every time you call information." He settles on sushi at Blue Ribbon. As he sits down to the meal, his phone rings. It's his mother. He doesn't answer it.

"I'm a bad son," he says. "I don't call her enough. She'll just keep me on the phone and tell me that she loves me. And I'll be like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mom, I gotta go.' The last thing you want to do when you're home after a tour and your girlfriend's over is call your mom."

Baptized Episcopalian, Hammond informally converted to Judaism, he says, a year and a half ago, so that Valensi wouldn't be the only Jew in the band. "The first time I told a guy I was Jewish was in L.A.," Hammond recalls. "He pulled me into the corner, and I discovered this whole secret world. He even got me laid that night."

After eating, we walk to the luxury hotel 60 Thompson, where the Strokes are doing interviews with the international press in the penthouse suite. At the moment, a German reporter is asking Moretti and Fraiture questions such as "What's the difference between your first album and this one?" Midquestion, Moretti wanders away, leaving Fraiture with the reporter. "That douche bag," Moretti says.

Outside, Moretti sits on a stoop and pensively responds to questions. We have until 11:30 P.M. to hang out, at which point he wants to watch his girlfriend, Drew Barrymore, on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Throughout the conversation, he drums his fingers incessantly against his leg and explains that it's an obsessive-compulsive habit–beating out the cadences of his thoughts and speech. "We have cadence in everything that we do," he says. He then points to the feet of people passing by. "Look, they're creating beats walking down the street. One, two. One, two. And their heartbeat is in a certain rhythm. Their fucking step is in a certain rhythm."

He admits that not everyone likes it when he taps his fingers all the time. "It annoyed friends, girlfriends, parents," he says. "'Stop that incessant tapping, you son of a bitch.'" In fact, Casablancas says the first thing he thought when he met the then-hyperactive Moretti in high school was that the kid was "a little annoying." He point-blank asked Moretti not to talk around him. But now, Moretti has become the group's soft-spoken intellectual.

Afterward, Moretti heads to the Strokes' office in the East Village to watch Leno. Fraiture, shy, happy-go-lucky and wearing a Ricky Skaggs shirt, arrives in the office and collapses on the couch, not far from the two office video games–Galaga and Golden Tee. Casablancas met his bandmates over the years at various private schools–elementary, boarding and high school. When the band got serious, Fraiture decided that it was time to begin learning the bass his grandfather had bought him for Christmas, playing along with songs by Blur and the Jackson 5. Unlike his classmates, Fraiture grew up crammed into a two-room apartment with his parents, his brother, his brother's girlfriend and his adopted sister. He still lives in the apartment, but only with his brother now. His father was the manager of security at Macy's and suffered the ensuing shame when, one day, he caught his very own Nikolai stealing a Luke Skywalker doll from the department store.

The Return of the Strokes: Inside the Fractious Sessions for Their Fourth Album

Moretti settles on the couch, flips on Leno and cranks up the sound. One of the hardest things about dating Barrymore, he says, is seeing her kiss someone onscreen. The couple met backstage at a concert more than a year ago and recently bought an apartment together in the East Village. When she comes on TV Moretti stares at her rapt, clearly smitten. "Her mom gave her that bracelet," he says. "I gave her the necklace."

A car pulls up outside. The driver is here to take Moretti to the airport to pick up Barrymore, but Moretti wants to finish watching her on TV first. Barrymore shows Leno some photos she has taken, two of which are of Moretti. She mentions his name, but not his band. Moretti is unsure about the whole thing, worrying that discussing him seems cheesy or boring.

"She's just like that in person," Moretti says. "She is always so positive and energetic. That's the first thing I noticed about her when we met."

After Moretti takes off for the airport, I meet Hammond and Casablancas at 2A. It's a rough night for Casablancas, who's complaining about how he dislikes Pringles again. Hammond, who is dating Catherine Pierce (one-half of the countrified-pop sister duo the Pierces), is hanging out with the boys tonight. I last see him at the bottom of the stairs, asking where his shoes are. He is wearing them. (Says Casablancas, "For the record, none of us do drugs. Hi, Mom.")

At 5:30 A.M., an hour after I've left the bar, Hammond calls to ask where everyone is. He's still considering going out. The next afternoon, at 12:20 P.M., he calls again.

Hammond: Did you call me this morning?

Me: Um, no. You called me. Don't you remember?

Hammond: OK, sure. How are you feeling?

Me: OK. And you?

Hammond: It's been a while since I went out like that. I needed that.

Me: Yeah, good times.

Hammond: Yeah. I partied so much that my ears hurt.

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