The Strokes - Biography
By David Downs
New York city garage rock kingpins The Strokes never had to earn a dime. Vocalist Julian Casablancas, guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, drummer Fabrizio Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture were born into a world of private schools and family contacts in the media. Almost groomed to be rock stars by default, their EP “This Modern Age” (2001-Rough Trade) sparked into a major label bidding war for their first LP Is This It (2001-RCA/Rough Trade). The album positioned the leather-clad quartet as the natural inheritors to rock's legacy, with extremely tight, taut, popular sonic overtures combined with an edgy, underground swagger. The debut album finished second in The Village Voice's annual critics poll and Pitchfork.com gave it a rare 9.1. The album went on to hit number thirty-three on the Billboard 200 with prolific single “Last Nite” hitting five on the Modern Rock Tracks. Singles “Hard To Explain” and “Someday” climbed to twenty-seven and seventeen on the Modern Rock chart in 2002 and the album has sold over one million units in the U.S. as of January 2006. Room on Fire (2003-RCA/Rough Trade) repeated the garage rock formula, hitting number four on the Billboard 200 with singles “12:51”, ”Reptilia” and “The End Has No End” selling briskly. First Impressions of Earth (2006-RCA/Rough Trade) was their best album yet commercially and critically. Single "Juicebox" hit number nine on the Modern Rock Top 10, and "Heart In A Cage" made twenty-one. The album again climbed to number four on The Billboard 200 and after a fierce round of touring, the band took a break, with another album slated for 2009.
Privilege gilds the entire formation of The Strokes. Modeling agent John Casablancas' son Julian Casablancas was born in 1978 and went to private school until fourteen when he was sent to a Swiss boarding school for deviance and defiance. There he met Albert Hammond Jr. (born in '79) who's father hit big in the '70s with tracks like "It Never Rains in Southern California". The connection mirrored Casablancas' early Manhattan associations -- guitarist Nick Valensi (born '81) and drummer Fabrizio Moretti ('80) whom he met at the elite Dwight School in Manhattan. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture would later be included. Hammond moved to New York and enrolled at NYU and reconnected with with Casablancas and company. They made their debut at The Spiral in New York on September, 14 1999 and started playing bars in the borough's Lower East Side in 1999. Ryan Gentles, a local booker, quit his job to become the group's manager. All five members enrolled in college, but soon left to rock.
The hard-drinking, casually sexed gang quickly built a heavy reputation, and the band's demo ended up at UK label Rough Trade Records, who released it in January 2001 as a three-song EP called “The Modern Age”. Notably, all the songs were penned by Casablancas. A major label bidding war erupted for the US rights, and RCA Records won. Is This It (2001-RCA/Rough Trade) was recorded in a Manhattan basement instead of a professional studio with all songs written by a perpetually drunk and partying Casablancas. The UK's version came out in August with a woman's well-shaped hindquarters as its cover art. 9/11 happened and the album's U.S. release in October ditched the nudity as well as the track "New York City Cops" which the label deemed inappropriate for the time being. Single "Last Nite" became a monster, with the video directed by Francis Ford Coppola's son Roman. That spring the band toured for the Doves, Guided by Voices and ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. 2002 saw even more tour dates with the White Stripes and Weezer.
With critics heralding The Strokes as the return of rock, they returned to the studio with producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead) before going back to prior producer Gordon Raphael. Again Casablancas penned all the songs save “Automatic Stop”, including singles "Reptilia", "12:51". Room on Fire (2003-RCA/Rough Trade) was a more exacting version of Is This It and though the album has stood the test of time, other facets of the Strokes' output took center stage. From 2003 to 2007, Moretti dated movie star Drew Barrymore. In 2005, Casablancas married the band's assistant manager; and in 2006 Valensi wed photographer Amanda de Cadenet.
First Impressions of Earth (2006-RCA/Rough Trade) met critics five years after the crush of Is This It and they were prepared to be disappointed. Again Casablancas penned most of the songs on the record but Valensi and Hammond Jr. got more virtuosic parts. Single "You Only Live Once/Mercy Mercy Me" and "Juicebox" as well as “Heart In A Cage” did very well despite the overall downturn in record sales attributed to a robust new Internet distribution model.
The Strokes completed another US tour and Casablancas told fans an extensive break was in order. In May 2007, a new, alternate video to their single "You Only Live Once" directed by Warren Fu emerged. In late 2007, the song "You Talk Way Too Much" was used in a commercial for the Ford Sync. Later, Aleks Cisneros became The Strokes' new assistant manager. By mid-2008, the Strokes had announced they were rested and planned on releasing another album in 2009.
Not to be slowed down, in 2006, Hammond Jr. released debut, Yours to Keep, (2006-Rough Trade) in the U.K.; with the U.S version coming out in 2007, followed by his second solo album, ¿Cómo Te Llama? (2008-RCA/Rough Trade). Casablancas recorded a single with Pharrell and Santogold in 2008.
In closing, The Strokes had all the genetic and class-based advantages necessary to succeed in any trade, especially entertainment, but they still needed raw talent and an angle of attack. They found that in charming, gorgeous, laconic front man Casablancas, who wrote almost all their songs. Casablancas' tight, short, punchy, guitar-driven aesthetic offered a gripping counterpoint to his own drugged-out drawl-- as though Barry Manilow was serenading you through an apartment gate intercom. In 2011 the band released their 4th LP, Angles. A follow up is in development.