Slowly Stroke Them
On the very morning of this interview with Albert Hammond Jr., one of the two guitarists in the Strokes, there appeared in The New York Times a review of that band's March 1 performance at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. The Times' music critic Kelefa Sanneh opened the piece by suggesting that in the wake of the other recent alt-rock reunions--the Pixies, Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr., Gang of Four--it was "inevitable" that the Strokes, too, would get back together, especially for a triumphant series of sold-out shows in the band's hometown. "Actually, close perusal of the band's Web site indicates that the Strokes never broke up at all, so perhaps this isn't a reunion tour per se," Sanneh wrote, with a deafening henh-henh-henh. "Still, the concert brought a roomful of fans back to 2001, the year the Strokes released their debut album, Is This It." Hammond, who claims to only read the newspaper in dressing rooms on the road, laughs when informed of the observation that this tour offers something akin to a blast from the distant past.
"That is so funny, man," he says over what sounds like a guitar either being tuned or barbecued. "That's hilarious. Because my impression of the show is that it was calmer than when I was in the U.K. It was fun--all my friends and family were there, they loved it, and they thought we played really well. That's the only way I can judge it. When you're onstage, you can be going through thousands of emotions, and it just depends. At first you're there and it's so exciting that sometimes you just want to get out of there. Then you love it. Then you're thinking, 'Is my zipper down?'"
But Hammond gets what Sanneh's writing. It's just the critic's clever way of saying that the Strokes have returned to the spotlight after a few years wandering in the darkness of acclaim that sours into aversion. It's his way of taking a jab at the band and its second album, 2003's troubled Room on Fire, which was dismissed as a knockoff of its predecessor and damned as negligible even by apologists. And it's Sanneh's way of suggesting that the Strokes--one of those rare bands hailed as both saviors and poseurs, as both fantastic and fad at the very moment of their ascension--are no longer a magazine-cover whim but contenders built to last. Perhaps Rob Sheffield put it best in his Rolling Stone review of the band's latest, when he opened his love letter by declaring, "The Strokes making a third album? That wasn't supposed to happen."
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The band's latest album, First Impressions of Earth, was released at the beginning of the year--a bad sign to skeptics who would claim that if the thing were any good, RCA Records would have made it a stocking stuffer. Produced by an outsider (David Kahane, hit-maker with, among others, the Bangles) and prone to funky breakdowns ("Razorblade," with its "Brickhouse" drum roll intro courtesy Fab Moretti) and Pogues rips ("Evening Sun," on which singer Julian Casablancas channels Shane McGowen's broken-teeth drone) and "Peter Gunn"-downs ("Juicebox"), the new disc suggests a band conscious of proving itself more than fashion-spread rockers modeling the latest in New York City retro-wear courtesy of Lou Reed's closet.
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Hammond would not deny such an observation, either; he acknowledges that for the first time in the band's brief career, the Strokes worked on one song, often over and over, before recording the next. There was no rush to record before the heat cooled, as there had been when they tore through Room on Fire at the label's behest, forcing them to ditch producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Paul McCartney) in favor of old fave Gordon Raphael. They took their time this time, stretched before hitting the gym and returned to the bins with something different enough to suggest there's more to the band than torn jeans, empty bourbon bottles, overflowing ashtrays and famous girlfriends.
"It sounds silly, but we just try hard to please ourselves--just, very simply, to please ourselves," Hammond says. "So it's funny when people sort of think of it as, 'Are they gone, or is this the comeback kind of thing?' For Room on Fire we didn't tour the album as much, and the way we were treated after that was, basically..." He trails off and begins again. "It's hard to do 300 interviews when they're all saying the same thing, and it's all not positive, and they say, 'Oh, it sounds like the same thing.' And we're just like, 'Oh, man, I don't care. Fine, it sounds the same.' Then you kind of see what they're saying, and you so wish you could go back and just spend another month and just be, like, 'No, look, we really tried to do this. The songs are good, listen to the songs.' But they're so stuck in the production, and they wouldn't just listen to the songs and the beats and the riffs and the patterns and the words. It just gets frustrating, and you're just, like, 'Oh, whatever, fine, you're right.'"
As Sheffield noted in Rolling Stone, echoing perhaps every story written about the band since its very first gig, the Strokes "tightened the trousers of an entire generation," and it is no easy thing to be taken so seriously so quickly--to be hailed as messiahs while still in diapers. Hammond says it all happened so rapidly that it was too much too soon; he recalls touring for The Modern Age EP in England in 2000 and getting cheered before even plugging in their guitars and mikes. In a moment, he recalls, "everyone went from being bored to really excited," though soon it would morph into that sick, wonderful feeling of being totally, absolutely overwhelmed.
"I mean, you don't grow up thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to grow up and do interviews and photo shoots,'" Hammond says. "You just wanna play music."
But that moment has passed, and other bands have taken their place as The Next Big Thing--bands that you hear today and perhaps forget tomorrow, at least till they make their "comeback" record five years in. At some point, the Strokes learned how to reconcile the expectations and demands of others with just trying to, like, please themselves.
"It's kind of like a bigger version of playing a show where no one knows you and you're getting a response from the audience and seeing, 'Oh, this is good' or 'This isn't working so well,'" Hammond says. "It's not just, 'I like it, and I don't care if no one else likes it.' If that's the case, well, then don't put it out. I have to say, I was surprised by the new record in a good way. I think we really wanted to try to get that feeling of when we finished our first record, like you were so happy with it that you had an amazing shield, like nothing could hurt you because you knew what you had was good. I did not walk into the studio thinking, 'This is where we are going,' but there is the feeling that you're on a journey, definitely."
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