These past couple months, the Strokes have proven that they’re still the masters of creating hype in the Internet age, something they practically invented. It’s a skill they’ve been cultivating since 2001, when “Last Nite” arrived as a free mp3 download via NME, inciting monster buzz for both their debut EP, The Modern Age, and their now-seminal full-length debut, Is This It.
For their latest EP, Future Present Past—which dropped in early June—the Strokes applied a now-standard strategy to the rollout process. First there were whispers, then a song, then a video, but people were still gasping for its release. Today it remains at the fore of our sonic purviews, rejuvenated most recently in a veteran-cool performance of “Threat of Joy” on Jimmy Kimmel Live last week. The new record may sound more electronic and a bit more lustrous than the band’s 2001 debut, but it’s still largely the Strokes—that bastion of ramshackle garage rock we’ve known and loved for 15 years. And that revival is worth revisiting, especially considering their latest EP’s meaning: The Strokes are Future Present Past. Always consistent. Ever enduring. Simultaneously forward-looking and retro leaning. So let’s take their lead and look ahead to past, 15 years ago when The Strokes asked Is This It for the first time and changed the sound of popular and independent music.
Though they’re a New York band, The Strokes’ roots lie across the Atlantic. At age 14, frontman to-be Julian Casablancas, a class clown, was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland to improve his academic performance. There he met guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., planting a seed that would bear fruit in New York City’s Lower East Side a few years later. Casablancas was already connected with guitarist Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti when Hammond Jr. arrived in the city in 1998. Hammond recognized the Casablancas name outside Julian’s father’s modeling agency, went inside and asked for his friend. Not long after guitarist moved in with Casablancas, joined the band, and kindled the emotional and musical evolution that would send The Strokes off into the firmament.
The quintet played a handful of low profile gigs in New York, quickly impressing a bevy of industry ears. One of them, Ryan Gentles—the booking manager for the still-important launching pad for budding artists, Mercury Lounge—booked The Strokes four times in one month before quitting his job and signing on to be the group’s manager. After Gentles joined, The Strokes soon released a lauded three-track EP, The Modern Age, which led to a record label bidding war, won by RCA, and the cover of the ninth issue of The FADER.
In the weeks that followed the EP’s release, the band reworked those three tracks and built out what would be their debut full-length. Their goal was to examine the current music landscape and use it as a springboard from which they could leap in an entirely different direction. Casablancas, according to Sound on Sound, wanted the record to sound like “a band from the past that took a time trip into the future to make their record.”
And that’s exactly what they did. There were no gimmicks. No tricks. Through a series of live recording sessions and very little post-production, to the dismay of their label (they used only distortion and reverb echo), The Strokes generally adhered to the technology that would have been available in their imagined yesteryear. The result was an eleven-song collection of straight-ahead garage rock that helped spark the new millennium’s garage rock revival, one that’s still flourishing and still indebted to The Strokes’ first record.
With Is This It, the five-some reintroduced a rock & roll template to the music landscape, saving disillusioned music fans from the (mostly) pop-filled, boy band-esque Top 40 and nu-metal that was permeating the airwaves at the time. The Strokes weren’t simply derivative of the first garage rock era, though, despite frequent criticisms. The garage rock sound, at that point, had experienced a 30-year gestation period during which countless other sounds had been introduced to our ears. The Strokes, then, enlivened their music by invoking various other contemporary and historical influences, like The Velvet Underground, Bob Marley, and Jane’s Addiction. They ultimately gave garage rock a more colorful appearance than it had ever had before. “Our music was, like, [the Doors’], but trying to be classical,” Moretti told Rolling Stone in a 2002 piece no longer archived online. “We all took music classes and tried writing songs, and when we put them together they were this crazy amalgam of insane ideas that we thought was really cool.”
Is This It was also contemporized through Casablanca’s modern malaise. Like so many before him, his lyrics were inspired by observations of life in New York City, a still-untamed metropolis that affords people windows into uniquely urban human psyches and all of its stranger brews. It’s a microcosm of the world on a single eight-mile-long island, and the absurdity and poignancy it affords.
“Soma,” my personal favorite track, takes a page from the bible of psychedelia, Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic, Brave New World: “Tried it once and they liked it, then tried to hide it / Says, I’ve been doing this 25 years.” “Last Nite” remains an anthemic ode to fed-up love. And the album is filled with numerous other tunes that remain salient in the band’s now extensive discography. “Someday”‘s halcyon daydreaming. “Take It or Leave It”‘s coarse honesty. “Hard to Explain”‘s frazzled attempt at adequacy. But even though there’s an intention in mind with each track, we should heed Moretti’s thoughts that he gave biographer Martin Roach in regard to the risqué song, “Barely Legal”: “It should be taken the way you interpret it. The lyrics mean different things to different people.”
With that in mind, the lyrics that resonate most with me are those from the title track, the song that everyone heard first when they stuck the CD in their bedroom’s state-of-the-art, six-disc Sony stereo back in October, 2001. “Oh dear, can’t you see? It’s them it’s not me /
We’re not enemies, we just disagree.” And later, “Is this it? Can’t you see I’m trying?…I can’t think ’cause I’m just way too tired.”
In the context of my experience living in New York City after September 11–which happened just weeks before Is This It arrived and actually delayed its release and prevented the inclusion of the song “New York City Cops”–these words speak to a certain shared baseline for living in this city. Is this it, we ask, is this what life is? Boring. Disappointing. Exciting. Violent. Some taxing, indifferent rigmarole that doesn’t actually care that you actually are trying? Is this it? Maybe. Of course, life is much more complex than a litany of question , but it can be much more rewarding when observed with some perspective and, if we learned anything from the Strokes, some time.
Image: RCA Records