Under Control

Two years later, the Strokes are still on Fire

The five young men in the band had to deal with more bullshit than a cattle drive, but they never seemed to mind. All they cared about was the music, so if everyone wanted to talk about their clothes or their lifestyle, screw 'em, whatever. Let them have their fun. They were certainly having their own.

These kids drank like Prohibition were lurking around the corner, and the girls they dated would have ended up in magazines even if they didn't have famous boyfriends. They had the kind of obvious good time that jealousy thrives on, a roving party that tends to obscure the reason they're able to have it in the first place. They made the papers just by showing up somewhere. Still, all they cared about was the music. Making it, being fans of it, everything and then some.

When it came to their songs, they were thieves, sure, but they were honest ones, owning up to every nicked riff, every burglarized idea, every plundered influence. Accuse these young guys of musical larceny, and they'd show you all the stuff you missed. Yeah, they'd say, you didn't even know about that, did you? They knew the future was built on the past, even if everyone else pretended otherwise, and that alone made them better than the rest.

In the 1960s, you knew these five musicians collectively as the Rolling Stones. Since 2001, they've gone by a new moniker: the Strokes. The more things change, and all of that.

See, music journalists threw out the same set of references when the group released its debut, Is This It, two years ago: Television, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, maybe. But we missed the most obvious parallel. It's all there. The charismatic front man (Julian Casablancas). The stylish guitarist (Albert Hammond Jr.). The genius guitarist (Nick Valensi). The solid, quiet bassist (Nikolai Fraiture). The solider, quieter drummer (Fab Moretti).

But the Strokes have something the Stones never did: friendship. Theirs is the kind of camaraderie that doesn't just emerge when the tape recorder is turned on, when the flashbulbs start popping. If you think it doesn't count, your group is about to break up. Again.

"It's pretty much like being married to four other people, you know?" Fraiture says with a quiet laugh, like he's enjoying a private joke. He's in Seattle, entering the home stretch of the Strokes' first tour supporting Room on Fire, the follow-up to Is This It that was released October 28. "It's kind of like newlyweds right now. There are times when it's tough, of course, when you're close to anybody for too long. Something chemical or something. For us, we all know what our goal is, and anything that gets in the way of that is just, uh, self-destructive and pointless. So we deal with it and get over it.

"Basically, we're all very close," he continues. "And playing music just makes that stronger. You know, it's something we actually think about a lot and we're very happy for. All the complicated bullshit stuff, like egos and that kind of thing, we dealt with before any kind of notoriety or success or anything at all. So we had a one-up on that already."

He's right, of course. If the Strokes hadn't already figured out how they fit together, the two years between Is This It and Room on Fire could have torn them apart. Not since Nirvana has a group been so scrutinized, held so responsible for sea changes in music, fashion and the culture in general. Even before their debut was released, they'd become a genre instead of a band, a lifestyle choice, a haircut, a T-shirt at Urban Outfitters. And not just at home. They have three fan sites in Brazil alone.

"It's definitely strange," Fraiture says. "It's also very relative. You can go to the U.K. and easily think you're the most amazing thing in the world. Or you can go to somewhere south of North America and just realize that nobody really gives a shit. It just depends on where you are and what you want to believe."

They're well-prepared for believing in what they think instead of listening to others, coming up as a band in NYC, playing to crowds filled with fellow musicians. "I mean, that's where that expression comes from: If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. It's because everybody's doing something, so they're very ready to put down whatever you're doing as soon as it comes out. So when you can win over a crowd like that...Malcolm X said the hardest to convert are your best followers. That's pretty much been the case in New York."

Sometimes, it doesn't matter where you are, because this is what follows you: tours, phone interviews, photo shoots, television appearances, magazine covers, endless hours in the studio, the pressure to do it again, fame, infamy, money, people who want your money. It all sounds fun when you talk about it after rehearsal. Not so much when it's your life. There's a reason why Behind the Music doesn't run out of material.

But the members of the Strokes decided long ago that it was all worth it, back when they were just five friends instead of The Band That Will Save Rock and Roll. So when it came time to make Room on Fire, they were the same people they were before. Not characters in a magazine profile, not a blind item on Page 6 of the New York Post. If anything, those two years made them stronger in this resolve.

"I think going into it the second time we had a little more experience, you know, in terms of music, in terms of being friends," Fraiture says. "And I think life in general. And Gordon [Raphael], our producer, as well: We'd played a lot of shows after recording with him, and he got a lot of jobs producing. So he got a lot better for the second album. It was kind of, in essence, the same process, but just with a lot of added things like that, like experience and things like that."

Which is why Room on Fire isn't so much a progression as it is a refinement. The songs are shorter and tighter, lean as an NFL wideout. The influences are updated, skipping from the mean streets of 1970s New York to the friendlier confines of early MTV (check the handclaps and Valensi's synth-like guitar leads on lead single "12:51"). They're growing as a band, but not into a different one. They still rely on Casablancas' last-call leering ("Meet Me in the Bathroom"), Moretti's drum-machine rhythms ("The Way It Is"), Fraiture's R&B bounce ("Automatic Stop") and guitarists who stab as much as strum (pretty much everywhere, but especially on "I Can't Win"). You could point out the lifts here and there (is the opening riff from Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen" or Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger?"--discuss), but there's no point. They belong to the Strokes now. Is this it again? Yes. In fact, it's even better.

It sounds almost effortless, but it wasn't. Not by a long shot. At times, the group spent 23 hours a day in the studio, tinkering with minute details. But this life is exactly what they wanted, as Fraiture says. This is the reason they put up with all the rest of it.

"I think the thing is we're just very excited about what we do and, you know, we have ideas in our heads and the way we feel we want our songs to sound. And as soon as we start getting into that, we just want to hear a finished product as soon as we can. Not for a deadline or anything. Just because we really want to. If we could, we'd work on music all the time. We'd love to write albums all the time, but the other part of that is touring and promotion that we have to do. They were rough hours, of course, but we enjoy the bonus afterwards."

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