"We would play in this little room in my house," Fab says, "and my parents would bang on the walls: 'Stop playing so loud!' " Julian's stepfather and Fab and Nikolai's older brothers introduced the boys to Bob Marley, Jane's Addiction, the Velvet Underground. "Our music was, like, Doors-y, but trying to be classical," Fab remembers. "We all took music classes and tried writing songs, and when we put them together they were this crazy amalgam of insane ideas that we thought was really cool."
Julian started writing music when he was fifteen by figuring out Nirvana songs on guitar, or by trying to improve on the vocal melodies of tunes he heard on the radio. "I wanted to get to the bottom of what makes a song really blow you away or hit you hard emotionally," he says. "I went through different stages where I'd listen and figure out the songs, and once I thought I'd absorbed everything from that particular artist, I'd move on. Nirvana. The Wall. Bob Marley. Velvet Underground. Beach Boys. Classical stuff. Stuff on the radio. Even songs I don't like, sometimes I can learn something from. I'd practice anytime I wasn't at school or doing homework. Well, I never did homework."
In 1993, at age fifteen, Julian was doing time in a Swiss boarding school called La Rosee, where he met Albert. After graduation, Albert lived in Los Angeles before moving to New York in 1998 to attend film school. He wound up joining the Strokes instead. A wiry gent with a mess of curly hair, Albert recalls his first night jamming with the band: "I had a 102 fever, and they got me drunk. I heard their stuff and really wanted to be a part of it. It's like I met them and all of a sudden I knew them very well."
Several nights a week, they'd hole up in their rehearsal space and practice for ten hours at a time. In the fall of 2000, their demo perked the ears of Ryan Gentles, then a talent booker at New York's Mercury Lounge. He scheduled the band for four shows in December of that year. A buzz began to swell, and Gentles quit his job to manage the band. In March 2001, after a protracted bidding war, the Strokes signed with RCA.
The time since has been a bit of a blur. Two tours of England, where the Strokes have a platinum record; frequent glowing notices (good songs!) and frequent denunciations (pretty boys!) at home; shows attended by the well known and well heeled: Kate Moss and Winona Ryder, Oasis' Gallagher brothers, Joe Strummer and Courtney Love, who has written a new song called "But Julian, I'm a Little Older Than You." And everywhere the band goes, groupie chicks skulk around, hoping to catch one of the boys' eyes. More than their eyes, really.
This month, the band finishes a second round of European dates. And then, hopefully, comes some rest and time to write new songs. "When we finish touring, we need to forget everything that's happened and go back to the way we were before," says Nick, staring plaintively out the front window of the band's double-decker tour bus as it cruises through northern England. "Back when it was just the five of us in our rehearsal space working on songs that we thought would sound better than the previous ones. That's all we ever wanted to do."
In the downstairs lounge of the bus, Julian is listening to music and smoking a cigarette. "What did you want to be," he asks me, "when you were a kid?"
"This?" I say with a shrug. "What about you?"
"I just wanted to write music that could touch people," he says. "A songwriter – you play a few chords and sing a melody that's been done a thousand times, and now you're a singer-songwriter. I think it takes a little more than that to do something that matters. And I wish I could write a song where all the parts work. When you hear a song like that, it's like finding a new friend. Maybe you've been fucking alone and looking for someone, and when you find them, it's like everything seems better. I feel like sometimes great artists – it won't politically affect anything, but it can make a crack in the ceiling and you can see a bit of light. You don't know what's gonna come, but you try. I think eighty-five percent of the fun is just going for it. And not going for it for your own gratification, but making personal sacrifices to do it right." Suddenly self-conscious about having waxed philosophical, he looks me in the eyes and laughs. "Or not."
This story is from the April 11th, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.
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