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The Strokes - A burning desire to better themselves


Story: Jack Foley

"THE motto of everything is: I suck, I gotta do better, I gotta work harder" - Julian Casablancas, anytime, anyday.

Many groups believe less is more when it comes to making music, but no band can ever have pursued the policy as rigorously or as effectively as The Strokes.

On October 20, 2003, the band release Room On Fire, their second album ,and the follow-up to 2001's million-selling debut Is This It.

It contains 11 songs and, like its predecessor, is so tautly and perfectly constructed that there is not one excessive note or lyric anywhere in its 33 minute and 15 second duration. Tense, fierce and emotionally complex, it's a masterpiece that refines and advances everything that made the band so unique in the first place.

Recorded at TMF Studios, on East 12th Street, in New York, between the months of May and September 2003, it was produced, once again, by Gordon Raphael.

A product of both The Strokes' obsessive work ethic and what Raphael refers to the band's 'weird science', it's described as 'a record of precision spontaneity and primal sophistication that effortlessly hurdles the band's greatest fear - that of ever releasing a song that sucks'.

The first time The Strokes ever sent out a CD to anyone in the outside world was at the end of 2000.

The CD was dispatched by Ryan Gentles - a booker at New York's Mercury Lounge and, subsequently, the band's manager.

He'd first caught them play on August 31 of that year, at what was their 27th gig.

The demo was sent to Geoff Travis, at the Rough Trade label, in London. He liked it so much, he released it.

Featuring three propulsive and brilliant songs (The Modern Age, Last Nite and Barely Legal), it was dubbed The Modern Age EP and came out in the UK on January 22, 2001, in a simple, geometric, pop art sleeve.

At this point, the band - already playing their first set of dates in Britain - were visually introduced to the world via an iconic black and white photograph of them drinking a beer in a New York bar. In many ways, this was all it took.

The EP went on to sell 30,000 copies in the UK alone. The band signed a worldwide deal with RCA - apart from in the UK, where they signed with Rough Trade.

The first time any of The Strokes met was some 17 years earlier, in 1984, when Julian Casablancas bumped into and befriended his future bassist, Nikolai Fraiture, at school in New York.

They were six, and it took a little longer for the rest of the band to coalesce.

Seven years later, in 1991, Julian hooked up with Fabrizio Moretti (drums) and Nick Valensi (guitar) at another high school on Manhattan's Upper West Side, but it wasn't until the following year - in Switzerland - that he finally completed their line-up by meeting Albert Hammond Jr (guitar).

 

By June 2001, The Strokes - a band they once hoped might become as big as a prolific US underground group they loved, called Guided By Voices - had become what so few bands ever become, namely a phenomenon.

Their second single arrived in another pop art sleeve (this time featuring a glass chair) and contained two new songs - the metronomic Hard To Explain and the feedback yelp of New York City Cops. It reached Number 16 in the UK charts and saw the band appear on Top Of The Pops for the first time, as well as receiving their first smattering of international magazine covers.

If you look carefully at the sleeve to Hard To Explain, you can see that the band chose to write THANK YOU! on the inside cover. For them, it was still all rather unbelievable.

While the rest of the world scoured their thesauruses for superlatives, the band themselves were concentrating.

Prior to that second UK visit, they were hunkered down in the basement of the Transporter Raum studio, at the intersection of Second and Avenue A in New York, intensely constructing what is perceived by many to be one of the greatest debut LPs ever made.

Flanked by producer, Gordon Raphael, and their guru (and in some cases guitar teacher), JP Bowersock, they were putting in 22 hour days, seven days a week.

The result was Is This It, an 11-song album that lasts for 36 minutes and 30 seconds.

Is This It was released on August 27, 2001 - a couple of days after the band had played a triumphant set on the Main Stage at Reading Festival. It debuted at Number 2, narrowly missing out on the Number 1 slot due to Slipknot's Iowa LP. This, it subsequently transpired, was a short-term setback.

From here, events snowballed. Last Nite effortlessly became the band's second Top 20 UK hit in November and, by February the following year, the group found themselves not only appearing and performing at the Brit Awards, but actually receiving an award too (they won Best International Newcomer).

There was no respite. Touring continued throughout the year (including a brace of incredible shows with The White Stripes) and on August 24, 2002, despite the fact that singer Julian Casablancas was on crutches after sustaining a knee injury, the band headlined Reading Festival.

Shortly afterwards, Some Day became their third UK hit. To keep up the good work, they spent until November 2002 in America doing the 'Wyckyd Sceptre' tour. Then - finally - they stopped. Which takes us back to where we started.

On Oct 20 2003, The Strokes will release their second album Room On Fire.

Recently the band noted: "As soon as you think, 'I'm the fuckin' man, I'm the shit', you're setting yourself up for trouble."

The Strokes never do that. The Strokes are driven by a ceaseless desire for perfection.

And unlike any other contemporary group, The Strokes don't release a song until it actually IS perfect. That's why Room On Fire - their second album - is rated, by many, as another masterpiece and it's why this group never, ever suck.

 

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