The first thing you don't need to know about The Strokes is that they are handsome. All five of them--singer Julian Casablancas, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., drummer Fabrizio Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture. We're talking Gap-ad good-looking, with the right haircuts and the right wardrobe and enough style to pull it all off without trying too hard. They are a modeling agency's idea of a rock band, shrink-wrapped in leather and denim and skinny ties. But you don't really need to know that.
The second thing you don't need to know about The Strokes is that they are young men of privilege, the products of rich-kid boarding and prep schools. Casablancas met Hammond during a brief stay at a Swiss boarding school and hooked up with Moretti and Valensi at Dwight School, a private grammar and high school catering to wealthy New Yorkers. Or, as they told Playboy in a recent interview, "a school for rich fuck-ups." Casablancas has been friends with Fraiture since they were kids, and Fraiture became part of the gang while he was attending Le Lycée Français on Manhattan's Upper East Side. But none of that matters either.
The last thing you don't need to know about The Strokes is that Casablancas is the son of Elite Models founder John Casablancas. This is, perhaps, the least important fact about the band and the most mentioned--cynics and critics always bring it up with a sneer, like some childhood arrest they discovered in Casablancas' past, a crime he thought he had gotten away with. Not so fast, they say. We're onto you. That he didn't grow up with his father and the two don't seem especially close is beside the point. But you might as well forget that too.
See, except for the 11 songs on Is This It, the young band's just-released debut for RCA Records, everything about The Strokes is irrelevant. No, it doesn't matter if they have a good story or handsome faces (they do, and they do) or if there is enough truth to the myths music journalists have already devoted thousands of copy inches to. No, it doesn't matter that none of them is older than 23, or that this is the first band for all of them. No, it doesn't matter that England's NME (which should probably be called NBT, for Next Big Thing) called the group "the coolest motherfuckers around right now." That only gives publicists something to work with. And they've had plenty to work with: The Strokes have been in more magazines than staples for the better part of a year, from Playboy to Spin to Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly to The Face and so on, a life lived in Q&As and photo shoots.
Fact is, Is This It could have been recorded by five ugly, overweight, introverted D&D geeks from Ohio and it would still kick ass and take names, one of the few rock albums released in the last couple of years that needs no hyphen, no explanation. But because it wasn't, because all of those things you don't need to know have gotten in the way, mere mention of The Strokes elicits the same response: I want to hate them. That is, until you hear the songs on Is This It. Then it becomes, I want to hate them...but I can't.
"Yeah, that's pretty much what everybody says," guitarist Nick Valensi says, from a tour bus, parked in a parking lot, somewhere in Boulder, Colorado. (Valensi is happy to be here because he's "never really been to the middle of America like this, you know? And also, they have really good grass here.") "I don't know--I feel like that's what I would have said too, you know. If I wasn't in this band, and I was just, like, some kid, and I don't know, if I was, like, an avid magazine reader, you know? And sort of read about these guys constantly, and read, like, all these sort of bullshit things people write about 'New York '70s punk,' I would hate us too without ever having heard us. Just because people choose to write sort of silly things sometimes. But, I don't know. It's not like we're striving to be like magazine stars or anything, really. I think when people hear our record, when people hear our music, they can sort of, I don't know. Even if they don't like it as a whole--like, the entire album might not be the thing for everybody--but I think most people can, like, sort of acknowledge the fact that it's good music, you know? That it's of a superior quality to most of the stuff that gets played on the radio today."
When quotes like that appear in print, the members of The Strokes might come off as cocky, the kind of musicians people love to hate, brash young men who sound as though they not only expected this kind of success, but feel entitled to it. Yet listening to the 20-year-old Valensi say it, you don't get the same impression. He doesn't sound like one of the Gallagher brothers, declaring that Oasis is the biggest band in the world in between pints of Guinness. He sounds like exactly who he is: a kid who's been making music with his friends for years, waiting until they finally got it right before they let anyone in on their little secret. Valensi and The Strokes aren't as brash as you might expect them to be; they're proud of what they've done so far, sure, but humble enough to know this doesn't happen to everyone. To them, they are, and always will be, five guys playing rock and roll because they love it. The rest of it, well, that was never their idea.