At 119, a dive around the corner from the Manhattan club Irving Plaza, light from the street creeps through horizontal blinds in the front room, where dusty red velour couches sit vacant near the door. There’s a pool table illuminated by a single hanging lamp, but no one’s playing. In the adjacent wood-paneled barroom, three of the five Strokes – along with their seven-person entourage – are crowded into a wooden booth surrounding a wobbly table full of empty beer bottles. If there’s anyone else in the bar, they surely don’t notice.
Someone hands bassist Nikolai Fraiture a package wrapped in newspaper – a gift for his twenty-third birthday. Shadowed by a pageboy mop, his long face cracks with a smile as he tears the paper to find a CD Walkman. Singer Julian Casablancas turns to his girlfriend, Colleen, and bites down on her ear like it’s a chew toy.
It’s midwinter, and the band’s members haven’t seen much of one another this week during a brief break from touring. There’s a call for another round of shots – Jack Daniel’s – followed by a smoke for everyone except drummer Fabrizio Moretti, who shook the habit a couple of years ago. Julian lurches forward and grabs Fab’s face affectionately. “Your hands are cold,” the drummer admonishes.
“You know what they say,” Julian counters. “Cold hands, cold heart.” The two pretend to smack each other hard across the face, performing a routine they’ve obviously done before.
Minutes later, the group sneaks through the backstage door at Irving Plaza to catch a set by Iggy Pop, whom the Strokes met while traveling the U.K. festival circuit last summer. The guys make a rush for the balcony, drawing stares as they go.
The Strokes get stared at a lot. A gaggle of tall, skinny dudes with exquisitely messy hair, ratty, threadbare jeans and thrift-store T-shirts, they are picture-perfect scruffy downtown rockers, each with his own distinct magnetism. Julian is the surly one, his candor apt to be mistaken for asshole bravado; Fab is all sweetness and hyperactivity; Nikolai speaks softly but carries a big wit; guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. is at once suave and jittery, a slightly neurotic ladies’ man; and guitarist Nick Valensi is the wide-eyed naif, sincerely polite even when he’s loaded.
These are the five childhood friends who have made some of the best music to come out of New York in more than a decade. Eleven songs of springy, swaggering Seventies-style punk rock, the Strokes’ debut, Is This It, sold more than 500,000 copies within five months of its release in October, igniting a boom for New York rock & roll. “You’ve kind of got to ignore something long enough for it to come back,” says Dream Works Records A&R exec Luke Wood, who signed Elliott Smith and Jimmy Eat World and was among those courting the Strokes in 2001. “Now people are looking again toward the underground for great music. The Strokes are the most commercially successful act to come from such a left place in a long time. Their success has been based on their vision.”
In the fall of 2000, the Strokes were still struggling to get gigs, working day jobs at frozen-yogurt shops or record stores to pay the rent on their Hell’s Kitchen rehearsal space. By early 2002, they had logged a gold record, an appearance on Saturday Night Live and sold-out tours in the States, Europe and Japan. “I always kind of thought in the back of my head that this kind of stuff was possible,” Nick says. “But I never would have said it out loud, because it would have seemed ridiculous.”
Spend much time around the Strokes and you will see them kiss each other. Hard. On the lips. “In our band,” Julian says, “it’s like a test of your manhood. Like, ‘C’mon, don’t be a pussy, gimme some tongue!'” The Strokes – all between twenty-one and twenty-three years old – display a loyalty fiercer than that of most lovers. Aside from the visible affection conveyed in hugs, sloppy kisses and semi-ironic high-fives, there is an intangible camaraderie that can make everyone else feel like they’re missing the punch line of an unspoken joke.
“With us, there’s a level of humor and intimacy I’ve never felt with any other friend,” Fab says. “I can slap those guys’ asses without feeling uncomfortable. That’s more than you can say for a lot of people in this world. It’s like we’re past the point of brothers; brothers wouldn’t even do this stuff to each other.”
Julian, Nicolai, Nick and Fab all grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side – all children of relatively well-to-do parents. Julian’s dad, John Casablancas, founded the Elite Modeling Agency, a fact that is frequently cited by those who feel the Strokes are uptown rich kids slumming it downtown. “Julian is a very humble guy, so he might not say this,” Fab says firmly, “but he never lived with John Casablancas. John Casablancas is a very cool guy. But Julian is a very self-sufficient person. He worked as a bartender, just like everyone else worked. We’re all very happy – very happy – being sons of people who have worked hard and given us opportunities that a lot of people haven’t had. But we’re not extra-super-privileged kids. When we got signed, I lent my parents money, because they were broke.”
The Strokes met while still schoolboys, starting with Julian and Nikolai when they were six years old. “We met at a French school, Le Lycee,” says Nikolai, deliberately cranking up the volume on a Leonard Cohen record loud enough that it drowns out his own voice. “When we were in fifth grade, there was a water main break on the avenue of our school. My parents were already on their way to work. I was walking home, and I told Julian I had nowhere to go. He said, ‘Well, I’m going home, come over.’ I stayed over, and we hung out for three days and became friends.”
Years later, while attending Manhattan’s private Dwight School, Julian met Nick and Fab. Nick had already been playing guitar for several years. With his older sister, he would sit in Central Park and strum Jimi Hendrix tunes. “I always thought I wanted to be able to play any song you could name,” says Nick. “But once I started playing with Julian, that’s when I really started to understand music.” The four lived near one another, and every day after school they would get together and practice.
“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.