Off the Charts

The Strokes: Indie Rock from The Big Apple

Plenty of major groups have made their name in New York City, but not many are actually made up of New Yorkers. Four of The Strokes’ five members grew up in the city. Through their exploration of garage and post-punk sounds, they helped bring about an indie rock renaissance in the Big Apple.

Singer/songwriter Julian Casablancas, guitarist Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti were local guys who found each other at school. Although Casablancas first met guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. in Switzerland, they started playing together seriously when Hammond moved from his native California to Manhattan to attend NYU and became Casablancas’ roommate. In 1998 the five men formed The Strokes and started gigging in popular New York clubs like the Mercury Lounge, where the manager was so impressed that he agreed to manage the band.

An immediate hit among edgy rock aficionados, The Strokes put out a promo EP, The Modern Age, and soon received competing offers for a recording contract. In 2000 they signed with RCA. Their 2001 debut album was Is This It, which came out in Europe first and was scheduled for a September drop in America. Yeah…September, 2001. Along with everything else in American life, Is This It changed because of 9-11. The release was delayed by a month, allowing the sarcastic “New York City Cops” to be replaced by the song “When It Started.”

With Casablancas as sole songwriter, the band chose an unadorned sound for this album, in hopes of establishing their distinctive musical identity. Producer Gordon Raphael, who had also worked on the EP, recorded them his basement studio, Transporterraum NYC. On “When It Started,” you get a good sense of the complicated interplay of the two guitars with Casablancas’ bright-timbred voice.

 

Although “New York City Cops” was removed from the CD release, the vinyl had already come out on the 11th, so the original track remained. This song shows a heavier side to their sound. That opening wave of distortion is a hint at how their interest in electronica would grow during the coming years.

 

Trying to up their game, the band hired Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for their second album. It didn’t take long for them to fire him, however – either for his lack of musical soul or for his overly controlling personality, depending who you ask. So they brought Raphael back, and in 2003 they released Room on Fire. It did very well for a non-mainstream album, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard 200.

Once again, all the songs are by Casablancas. “The Way It Is” relies on a repeating riff of hard-driving chords, pushed along by Moretti’s stick work. It’s a break-up song, but furious, not sad.

 

Next up was First Impressions of Earth (2005). The biggest single from this album was “Juicebox,” which hit the No. 9 spot on the US Modern Rock chart. Raphael started out as producer, but Casablancas was determined to hire David Kahne, known for working with Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney. The styles of the two producers weren’t compatible, and Raphael left.

Kahne’s presence did bring about some sonic changes. On “Fear of Sleep” you’ll notice a less frantic vibe, with the various instruments blended into a wall of sound, to borrow a phrase. Casablancas’ voice is grittier, too, and he’s singing more sustained notes than usual, a style reminiscent of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

 

Another new aspect to this album is the way Casablancas has started to collaborate on the songwriting. (It’s likely this was always the case, but now his colleagues are receiving credit.) Moretti co-wrote “Evening Sun,” a melancholy lyric with an interesting, changeable melody and some nice, tight cymbal work by Moretti.

 

After touring their third album, The Strokes took a break for a few years. They regrouped in 2009, but things did not go smoothly in the studio. For one thing, Casablancas had decided to delay joining them, too busy finishing and promoting his first solo album. Yet he was still the lead singer and main songwriter, even if he recorded some the vocals remotely.

The band was also unhappy with their new producer, Joe Chicarelli. They brought in Gus Oberg to replace him, plus did some of the production work themselves. Making the situation trickier was Hammond’s drug problems, which landed him in rehab and out of commission. Somehow, despite all these troubles, they released the album Angles in 2011.

The biggest difference from the earlier records is the intensified use of electronic keyboard effects and MIDI. “Metabolism” not only enhances and underpins the guitar lines with synth, but also distorts Casablancas’ voice.

 

Critics praised the next album, Comedown Machine (2013), again produced by Oberg, for finally blending the synthesized effects with the powerful guitar sounds of Valensi and Hammond. The band also took an unusual approach to marketing. In lieu of traditional album promotions like TV appearances, they offered the single “One Way Trigger” as a free download on many platforms. It was a fairly successful experiment.

One of the album’s tracks is “Slow Animals,” credited to Casablancas, Hammond, and Valensi. The slick R&B style of the verses is a new sound for the band, maybe chosen because the lyrics deal with a girl’s sexuality, offset by her parents’ discomfort and worry. The Japanese version of the album included an up-tempo version of the same song, called “Fast Animals.” Here’s the slower one:

 

The Strokes then took a break to pursue individual projects, returning to occasional live performances in 2014. In 2016 they gradually started laying down some new tracks. Their latest album, their sixth, came out in April of 2020. It’s called The New Abnormal. And to think they came up with that title in 2019, before they knew just how abnormal things would get!

The album is produced by Rick Rubin, founder of American Records and co-founder of Def Jam Records, who’s been a powerhouse in the rock and hip-hop scene for decades. Under his guidance, the band has doubled down on their redefined existence as an electronica band with post-punk leanings. “Why Are Sundays So Depressing” ironically blurs and twists the relationship between guitar and synth until the blipping sounds of chiptune (an electronica style inspired by 1980s video games) seem to be created manually by picks against guitar strings.

 

It will be interesting to hear what’s next in The Strokes’ development.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Roger Woolman.