Hailed as leaders of the recent renegade rock revivalist movement coming out of the Big Apple, The Strokes formed in New York City sometime in 1998 when singer-songwriter-mastermind Julian Casablancas pulled two high school pals — drummer Fabrizio Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture — together with guitarist Nick Valensi. California native Albert Hammond, Jr. completed the lineup as lead guitarist.
The Strokes play their first-ever Charleston gig this Thursday in support of their latest album, First Impressions of Earth, at the The Plex as one of the venue’s featured events during its fifth anniversary celebration this season.
“This is our first time in Charleston,” says Hammond, speaking from New York. “This year, we wanted to play cities we’ve never played before, so it’s pretty exciting. If we only pull a few dozen people this time, we’ll have to come back and try again!”
With their infectious blend of classic guitar-pop, soul-rock, and Bowery punk, The Strokes got on with playing the N.Y.C. scene and steadily climbed the ladder from dive bars to music halls without distraction.
As anyone who paid attention to the New Music Express, Mojo, CMJ, The Face, or any other “cool” music rags around 2001 could attest, The Strokes were the shit … the “it” alternative band of the year … the scruffy snot-nosers who could wrap a melody around a four-chord pop anthem and belt it out with a sneer … the denim-clad, anti-commercial rockers who just happened to be signed to a major and accidentally (and perhaps reluctantly) earned the highest degree of international success and envy.
By 2000, the band had their loose-but-cool-headed stage act together (and a quick, 40-minute set of original tunes) and began headlining major music venues around N.Y.C. They landed gigs at the Bowery Ballroom, played a series of Wednesdays at the Mercury Lounge, and built it up slowly from venue to venue. In January 2001, The Strokes released a no-frills three-song EP on Rough Trade titled The Modern Age. Within a month, the European music press went apeshit over the stuff and the band received a series of over-the-top accolades. During the summer, they toured the States, Europe, the U.K., and Australia — all before their debut LP even hit the stores.
In 2001, the 11-song collection Is This It (produced in lo-fi style by producer Gordon Raphael) finally came out on RCA. It was impressive work: a little Velvets and Blondie here, a bit of Motown there, some ripping solos and some steady ‘n’ stiff drumming, a dash of snobbiness and sex talk … and some downright sultry vocal stuff from frontman Casablancas.
Through ’02, the band steadily rose from under-the-radar indie phenomenon to fully-fledged international pop stars. The NME‘s Carling Awards awarded them with Best New Act, Band of the Year, and Album of the Year. Thousands flocked to see them headline the summer festivals at Reading and Leeds. They opened for the Rolling Stones by year’s end.
By early 2003, the band began working on the follow-up album, Room on Fire, with Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck). Many of the new songs have sharp hooks and clever melodies. As individual players, though, they’ve technically stepped things up quite a bit and challenged themselves to play some difficult parts — a feature that many fans and critics did not expect.
“Well, you know, we really wanted to have the time to play in our own studio — the time to spend working on arrangements and song ideas, and our own instrumental parts,” says Hammond. “A lot of this never would have happened if we had not been in there for nine hours a day for several weeks, fiddling around. It was very intense. And when we were done, we like, ‘Shit! Now we gotta play these songs live’ [laughs].”
Hammond is the the son of London-born, ’70s pop singer/songwriter Albert Hammond — known best perhaps for co-writing the monster hit for Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias in “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” as well as his own solo A.M. radio hits, “It Never Rains in Southern California” and “99 Miles From L.A.”
“We’ve always tried to find a new way of doing stuff,” Hammond Jr. says. “One of the of main things is Nick is bringing in this much more aggressive style and working it into the songs that are happening. That has pushed Julian and myself into doing different things. It’s hard to pinpoint it exactly, but someone usually brings an idea in, noodles around, and things happen naturally.
“When we started, that guitar interplay under the vocals was what we wanted,” he adds. “That’s what we were always going for. That’s the reason I came into the band — we wanted rhythms and melodies for the vocalist to sing over … without the guitarists having to be Jimi Hendrix [laughs].”