In a second-floor studio on East Twelfth Street in Manhattan, the Strokes are rehearsing a dark drone, a dirty, swinging vamp that sounds fairly un-Strokes-like and clearly fabulous. It is a Friday evening, eight weeks into recording for the band’s second album, and eleven songs are in various states of completion. This new one they started on just the day before, and like the rest of what they preview this evening, it shows a band with greater dexterity and power, testing its own limits.
Work began in April with British producer Nigel Godrich, known for the albums he’s made with Radiohead, Beck and Pavement. Three songs were quickly completed, then just as quickly scrapped. “We got along really, really well,” says guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. of the Godrich sessions, “but we just had different ways of working. We’ll spend days getting the right drum sound. We don’t want to hear, ‘We’ll fix it in the mix.'”
So this studio–a windowless loft that resembles nothing so much as a very comfortable bunker–was booked, and the Strokes turned to Gordon Raphael, producer of Is This It. Their approach to writing, arranging and recording was driven by an almost scientific passion. “We spent a lot of time looking for specific sounds,” drummer Fabrizio Moretti says simply. In fact, these sounds jump out of some of the new songs on first listen, from the awesome live snap of Moretti’s snare in “Under Control” to the processed whip-crack percussion of a track currently titled “Nightmare.” “That’s probably one of my favorite drum sounds right there,” says Hammond with a tired smile. “It’s kind of ‘Billie Jean’-ish. We spend all this time to make it sound like a drum machine, but Fab still plays it.” “Supernova” (another working title) sails along on a bed of New Wave hand claps and is topped by a summer breeze of a guitar solo that sounds like a keyboard about to melt from pleasure overload. “That’s Nick Valensi,” says singer Julian Casablancas. “He blew up two amps getting that sound.”
One of the earliest songs cut was “Under Control” (“our first more mellow song,” says Hammond), a stunner of a soul ballad, which the band played live. “The neighbors on the seventh floor complained about the noise,” says Hammond. “It was four in the morning, and we had to pull the plug. And that was the take where we felt like we had it. But it was all right because we came in the next day and got it.”
Two songs, “Raga” and “Ze Newie” (a live staple from last year), incorporate reggae accents, but overall the mood, message and musical approach are summed up by another live staple, “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” with its quintessentially Strokes-like mix of drugs, sex and guitars. The October 21st release will be preceded by club dates and followed by a month-long Tuesday-night residency as the musical guests on Conan O’Brien in November. For now, a brief beer break is over, and it’s back to work on that dark drone. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture makes a quiet joke about the progress of the sessions, “So it’s back to square one? Back to the video store and college?” Not by a lone shot, Nikolai.
This story is from the August 21st, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.