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Friday, 14 January 2011

“Why are you wearing your sweater?" The Strokes, November 2005

It is, of course, tempting to dwell on the surly supersized adolescent who deliberately mumbles inaudible answers and then affects to have forgotten them when asked to repeat himself. Lest we do Julian Casablancas a disservice, we should start by remembering the good times. The way his face momentarily softens when you tell him that you think The Strokes have just recorded an album full of potential singles – enough, indeed, to reply, “I like your talk.” The way he ambles into the room and enquires “Is that a strumpet?” Such comic timing, delivered with requisite New York understatement is not hard to warm to. Needless to say, no strumpets have been delivered to The Strokes’ room at the Metropolitan (maybe four years ago, it would have been a different story). The Strokes’ drummer Fab Moretti picks up the tray – containing biscuits, by the way – and extends his arm in Casablanca’s direction. “I think you mean crumpets,” he tells his frontman. “But these are neither.”

“It gets a little confusing,” explains guitarist Albert Hammond Jr, whose friendship with Casablancas goes back to Le Rosey – the prestigious Swiss school where the two were sent in 1992. “Your biscuits are our cookies. Our muffins are your cakes. And our biscuits are… well…” “Sort of a savoury bread,” interjects the drummer, born to Brazilian and Italian parents, “Kind of a flaky, southern kind of food. The sort of thing an old lady in St Augustine would serve you. Right now though, the Metropolitan’s biscuits are helping my hangover.”

Casablancas absents himself from the room – his interview isn’t due to begin for another half an hour – it’s left to Moretti and Hammond to conduct a postmortem of The Strokes’ first UK show in two years – a reminder, if one were needed, that on the eve of their third album, the New York quintet can still elicit feverish devotion in their fans. I tell Moretti about the queues – 800 fans four days previously, snaking around the block at ULU for the chance to get in; then, a couple of hundred more on the night before the show, camped in the hope that extra tickets might be released on the day of the concert. Though still only 25, Moretti has that easy, solicitous air that will probably make a great father of him one day. He says he feels a responsibility to them. He worries that no Strokes show might be worth that sort of hardship. “But at the same time, I’m respectful of their choice. Because there are bands I would have done that for. Which ones? Guns ’N Roses, Nirvana, The Beatles. I would do it for The Beatles right now.”

And those fans lucky enough to get in would have had ample chance to digest The Strokes’ third album – First Impressions On Earth – because for the first half hour or so, that’s all they played. Such confidence in the ability of new material to hold the attention seems to tally with the diffident self-belief that radiated around the band even in 2001, when their repertoire barely extended beyond the ten songs on their debut album Is This It? If that record – and its successor Room On Fire – portrayed a band holed up in a damp New York basement in retreat from pop’s encroaching tendrils, First Impressions… is a development. The sense of airless claustrophobia is still there. But pop – albeit pop of a warped, febrile variety – has, one way or another, found them. Which means that once new single Juicebox has fallen from the charts, big tunes like Electricityscape, On The Other Side and Razorblade – the one with an amusingly similar chorus to Manilow/Westlife monster Mandy – should make light work of following it.

As Moretti and Hammond bowl down towards the bar to join Nikolai Fraiture (bass) and Nick Valensi (lead guitar), this seems a natural juncture for a returning Casablancas to make sense of the previous evening’s hysteria. He didn’t see the queue either, although he says that any fans who found him and told him they had been up all night had their names taken down. “They definitely got in the show,” he says, “But then I saw another girl later that day who said she was also in line. But she didn’t ask me, so I didn’t say, ‘Do you want to [go]?’’ He pauses. “If she reads this, I guess she’ll be kicking herself.”

Nonetheless, despite the “unreasonably high expectations” he has of himself, Casablancas enjoyed himself. It seems necessary to ask because, where The Strokes’ 27 year-old frontman is concerned, it’s not always so easy to tell: the impassive stature, the ever-present cop-shades which sit on the bridge of his nose in a barely-lit venue – all the better to focus on individual audience members without the burden of communicating? It’s a gentle line of enquiry – small talk, really – but the drop in the air pressure is enough to make the dogs across the road in Hyde Park start barking, “Um, no. No. No, no. Definitely no thought behind it.”

It wasn’t my intention to spend any great length of time talking to Julian Casablancas about his sunglasses. Still, as if to retreat from any unintended psychoanalytic slight, I suggest that it was purely a cosmetic choice. Which, in turn, prompts the retort, “Why are you wearing your sweater? I dunno… it’s as cosmetic as your sweater is.”

Though I point out that my motives vis a vis the sweater are mainly thermal, I also don’t want to be having a weird argument about sweaters and sunglasses. And, if the ensuing, piercing silence is anything to go by, neither does he. So we try again. First Impressions Of Earth is The Strokes’ first since Casablancas married his girlfriend Juliet in January. First Impressions Of Earth was so named because, when Casablancas surveyed the track listing, he wondered what an alien unfamiliar with our world would make of it. An alien would, I venture, hear songs like You Only Live Once or the vertiginious urgency of Heart In A Cage and deduce that our ambivalence towards love isn’t enough to stop us falling in it. It’s nice to hear The Strokes’ singer swapping skinny-tied insouciance for something more vulnerable. “Ummmm… sure,” ponders the singer, smiling to himself. “I dunno… whatever you think, man.”

Rewind fifteen minutes and Casablancas’ drummer is sitting in the chair now occupied by the singer. “There are so many love songs on this album,” coos an empathetic Moretti – whose own partner Drew Barrymore found herself “papped” as she helped Casablancas’ partner shop for a wedding dress. “It’s great for him, especially given that the person he married was a very close friend of ours for a really long time, so the love was always there between them. It was just kind of… a secret love. We had known her for six years, which is kind of a long time for us young kids.”

Back in the present, Casablancas is still deriving some peculiar amusement from the word “vulnerable”: “Umm, sure. Urm, I dunno. Whatever you think, man, I dunno.” Another pause. “To me, [songs] are loosely based on specific things, but meant to be delivered in a way that, urm… won’t only... um… have an emotional response…” Then comes the inaudible murmur, from which there is no apparent return. I ask him to repeat what he just said.

“It’s not just… it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s… uh… yeah, whatever I said. I can’t remember.” Perhaps realizing that this catatonic state won’t sustain him for the remainder of our allotted time, Casablancas tries to rally. He contends, “meanings of songs have only been destroyed” when he discovers what they’re about. Sometimes, I tell him, the reverse is true. An interview with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke yielded the minor revelation that Everything In Its Right Place from Kid A was inspired by his love of order and tidiness. The song’s dreamlike, spooky sense of euphoria goes well with the compulsive-obsessive overtones of the lyric.

The Strokes’ frontman remains unconvinced. He mutters something else barely audible about the Radiohead song only having one line. That it doesn’t, seems barely a point worth arguing at this stage. His publicist walks in and tells us we have five minutes. I tell him I don’t need them. For the first time since I told Casablancas I liked his record, he registers something other than profound indifference. A smidgen of surprise, perhaps, that maybe that should have been as unpleasant for me as it was for him. “Thanks,” he says. It was nothing, I assure him.

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