Saturday 25 March 2017

Different Strokes: Ed Power talks to The Strokes ahead of Oxegen

The band, from left, Albert
Hammond Jr, Nick Valensi, Julian Casablancas,
Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti
The band, from left, Albert Hammond Jr, Nick Valensi, Julian Casablancas, Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti
Ed Power

Ed Power

Some questions refuse to go away. Is Lady Gaga really a man? Does Simon Cowell grow his eyebrows that way on purpose? Are The Strokes the most dysfunctional band in rock?

In the case of the leather-jacketed quintet from the Lower East Side, the answer is, it depends on what exactly you mean by 'dysfunctional'.

For sure, there have been no Gallagher-grade punch-ups or opportunistic dissing of one another in the press. You don't go to Swiss finishing school -- as two of the group did -- and not come away with a few pointers on how to conduct yourself in public.

Still, a distinct chill appears to have set in sometime around the recording of the group's underwhelming third LP First Impressions of Earth. In 2009, singer Julian Casablancas told Day & Night that being in The Strokes was a "good way to break up a friendship".

Speaking to this journalist several months ago, guitarist Nick Valensi observed that, while there was a lot of love in the ranks, sometimes they straight up detested each other too. "We're not unlike a family, a bunch of brothers," he said. "Occasionally brothers may get annoyed with each other. Sometimes they may say they hate each other."

The palpable reluctance with which the group got around to making new album Angles did little to discourage the perception that here was a bunch of musicians tied together by professional obligations as much as by friendship.

Especially when it emerged Casablancas, preferring to tour his solo LP, had absented himself from a fair chunk of the sessions, conducted at a studio in upstate New York. Looking in from the outside, you were reminded of one of those loveless marriages where a couple stays together for the sake of the kids (or, in this case, for the sake of the record label, press cheerleaders and gazillions of fans).

"It's hard to find an analogy to describe our relationship," muses rhythm guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. "We are close, but we've fought. We have our own lives. It's like anything in life, there are many aspects. We go through all sorts of things.

"I don't know... we are trying to figure it out right now. It's like all relationships, I suppose; it follows an arc. Of course, it gets more extreme with money and success. But whatever..."

If Casablancas' partial absence was one of the major flash-points attending the making of Angles, the other was Hammond Jr's decision to enter rehab at the very beginning of the sessions. Long a simmering problem, his drug and alcohol use had finally spiralled out of control.

How bad did it get? In a recent tete-a-tete with a UK magazine, he was quoted as describing himself as a junkie. Today he doesn't go quite so far. "I read that Q interview and I thought it was just the funniest thing," he says. "It's hilarious. It's like reading a script about a caricature of yourself."

He may have been inclined to laugh it off but his bandmates weren't of the same viewpoint. According to Valensi, it got to the stage where Hammond was spending most of his day in a stupor, too out if it to work, or too hungover to care.

A few weeks into the recording, The Strokes delivered an ultimatum: pull yourself together or deal with the consequences (the consequences, it was intimated, would not be to his liking). Hammond Jr packed his stuff and left for rehab the next morning.

"It's kind of complex, man," he says of the period. "Obviously I have an addictive personality. Or if I didn't, I definitely woke something that was dormant in my body. I think it's a cycle -- you are unhappy and then you have this stuff that takes the edge off your insecurities and your fears.

"Before long, it starts to get the better of you. It's a vicious circle. The two things -- your insecurities and your addiction -- almost join together and create a very strong force that is ultimately very negative."

The strangest thing about meeting The Strokes in the flesh is how profoundly uncool they seem. Casablancas is softly spoken and exquisitely polite, if given to odd giggling fits. Valensi is refreshingly normal, talking about the band's rollercoaster career with the gosh wow enthusiasm of someone who, 10 years in, can't believe this is actually happening for real.

Hammond Jr, for his part, is one of those guys who would probably come across as slightly stoned even if he'd never touched a joint in his life. Speaking in meandering sentences, he's constantly off on stream-of-consciousness tangents, unable to stay focused on any given subject for longer than a nanosecond. In their photoshoots, The Strokes suggest five variations on a guitar-slinging archetype. The reality is that, in some ways, they couldn't be less alike.

Hammond returned from rehab teetotal and eager to pitch in. By then, the band had sacked their producer and another source of contention had manifested: Casablancas was reportedly reluctant to let the rest of the band contribute to the songwriting. To be fair, says the guitarist, he could see where the singer was coming from. Consider that Casablancas wrote the bulk of the Strokes' first two albums.

Anyone who authored an LP as instantly iconic as their 2001 debut, Is This It, is entitled to defend his patch (in the end, things worked out -- Angles is the first Strokes record to feature writing from the entire group).

"When we started, Julian had an amazing vision," says Hammond Jr. "We were all a part of it, helping out in terms of arrangements and the overall tones. As time went on, there were more things we wanted to share.

"For me it seems very natural. The problem with The Strokes is that you can't necessarily change everything overnight. It's a big ship that moves slowly."

The standard rap against The Strokes is that they are trust-fund brats playing at being rock stars. They were certainly born into privilege. Casablancas' father set up the Elite Model agency; Hammond Jr is the son of '60s songwriter Albert Hammond (whose accomplishments include writing You're Such a Good Looking Woman for Joe Dolan). Though both are from New York, they met at private school in Europe, sent there by families hoping to curb their juvenile delinquent tendencies (at 15, Casablancas was already a seasoned boozer, Hammond Jr not far behind).

They formed The Strokes in 1999, building a loyal following in a Manhattan bar. However, it took Britain's giddy music press to turn them into stars.

At the dawn of the new century, rock music was in a squalid state, dominated by horrendous 'nu-metal' acts such as Limp Bizkit and Korn.

A changing of the guard was overdue and in these pouting, pretty boy New Yorkers, the media had unearthed the perfect replacements. Magazine cover followed magazine cover. By the time Is This It finally arrived in August 2001, the hype verged on histrionic. Ten years later, does Hammond Jr feel any nostalgia for those crazy early days?

"If anything, my response is, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm still on the rollercoaster. And that I'm totally used to it'. It gets bigger. We've played some of our largest shows recently. The way it's growing -- it feels nice. You have a sense of being slightly overwhelmed while never thinking the train is out of control.

"When I look back at the early years it feels like a movie. But, you know, the past is dangerous. You shouldn't stare at it too long. You look at it and try to understand it and then apply it to what you are doing now.

"Maybe my perspective will be different when I'm 65 and life has slowed down. Right now, my stance is, 'well, if you liked what we did back then -- wait until you see this'. You know... let's just go do it."

Angles is out now. The Strokes play Oxegen on Friday July 8

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