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Monday, August 13, 2001

The Strokes Just Wanna Play Music

Neumu's Jenny Tatone writes from Portland, Ore.: It's been a long time since a new band has gotten quite as much pre-release attention as New York punks The Strokes. One three-song EP, "The Modern Age," and some transcendent live performances generated a cover spread in England's New Musical Express and features in The Face and Q. Meanwhile, a recent Australian tour helped their album, Is This It (already out in Australia) debut at #5 in that country's weekly album chart. The rock cognoscenti have been buzzing about The Strokes for many months, and MP3s of live versions of some of their songs are being passed from fan to fan.

The band is trying to stay focused on its music, not the hype. "We're not worried about not making the next cover of whatever magazine," bassist Nikolai Fraiture said during a recent interview.

Is This It, out Aug. 21 on RCA Records, sounds like an 11-song expanded version of "The Modern Age" — which is just what the band wanted. "The specific goal was to make it sound like 'The Modern Age,' but better quality," Fraiture said. "I think we progressed and made the songs better. I'm very excited, very happy, very satisfied [with it]."

With distorted, Lou Reed-style vocals over intense, sparse, guitar-driven music, the album is angst-filled, infectious rock 'n' roll that shifts slyly from '80s synth-rock ("Hard To Explain") to edgy garage-punk ("New York City Cops") while consistently maintaining dig-able appeal.

"We have so many influences — too many to list," Fraiture said. "We've influenced each other with the music that we each listen to, but it ranges so much. Albert [Hammond Jr., guitarist] comes from L.A. and introduced us [the rest are from Manhattan] to a lot of different stuff, and we introduced him to a lot of stuff."

The Strokes formed in 1998. Their manager, Ryan Gentles, sent a three-song demo to Rough Trade records owner Geoff Travis last year. "We had dinner with our manager one night and he said, 'There's this guy Geoff Travis who's interested in releasing your E.P.' and he [Travis] wanted to fly us over to England," Fraiture said.

"Once we were in England — when we had to stop school and stop working — we knew we wanted to take it more seriously. I was apprehensive, like 'Who is this Geoff Travis? I won't believe it. I won't believe it until I have my ticket' — making sure this is true and we weren't kidding ourselves." Rough Trade released the three-song demo as "The Modern Age" EP in March of this year; as The Face put it, "it came to pass that this year The Strokes found themselves in the curious position of playing small but sold-out shows in London, while being pretty much ignored in New York."

Doused in seedy '70s New York flavor, the swaggering punk-rock five-piece — vocalist Julian Casablancas, guitarist Nick Valensi, drummer Fabrizio Moretti, Hammond Jr. and Fraiture — find themselves frequently compared to such icons as the Velvet Underground, Wire, Television and The Stooges. Their occasionally lo-fi sound is by turns cool and distant, hot and impassioned. "You could say, in a sense, that we sound like those bands — I guess they throw us in the mix," Fraiture said. "We are very honored to be compared to bands that had so much energy and presence."

Like their punk forebears, The Strokes have an emotionally moving stage presence. Stumbling distraught about the Roseland Grill stage on Friday night, young (he's 22 — the other band members are even younger) lead vocalist/songwriter Julian Casablancas pulled at his hair, drank from a bottle of beer, smoked incessantly and generally displayed the star power that has helped bring the group international attention.

All eyes were on Casablancas. Looking a bit like a young Pete Townshend, but with the intense, dilated eyes of Jim Morrison, the singer stared into the crowd as he belted out such ferociously emotive instant classics as "The Modern Age" and "Barely Legal."

As I watched The Strokes play, I kept thinking: "I will never be able to see this band in a venue this small and intimate again — the next time I see them they'll be as small as ants." Their Portland performance was amazing, one of the best I've ever seen. Others who have caught the group during their current club tour have been equally impressed.

When I spoke to him, Fraiture told me the group just wants everyone who sees them to have fun. "To have a really good time — that's what we hope to do [live]," Fraiture said. "Sometimes it doesn't work out (and) we don't fake it. We don't fake that we're playing well or that we're having a good time. We'll clearly be upset. The main thing is energy — a really honest show, having a good time with the crowd and with ourselves, with everybody."

With Is This It about to be released, the group has already played sold-out tours in Australia, England and the U.S. this year. In a week they depart for Japanese and European tour dates.

Are The Strokes worried about living up to the hype? If so, they're not talking about it. And based on the album and their Portland show, they have nothing to worry about. "The only thing I'll ever worry about is ourselves and making sure everybody is healthy and happy," Fraiture said. "As long as we can be a respected band and play music that musicians can like and that kids can like ... The music is more important than anything else. We're five of us, we play music and that's just what we do. There's really nothing else."

The InsiderOne Daily Report appears weekdays at 9 AM PST, except when it doesn't.

by Michael Goldberg

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