A frenzy of hype continues to swarm around New York’s the Strokes, perhaps the most highly touted band to come out of the Big Apple in two decades. Even if all the fuss helped the group quickly sell out the 3,750-capacity Hammerstein Ballroom for a special Halloween show tonight (Oct. 31), guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. doesn’t really mind. Today, he’s just happy to be home after a spate of North American touring in support of the group’s RCA debut, “Is This It.”
He says the irregular meal schedule that’s often a necessary evil of the road has taken a toll on his stomach, and besides, “we like taking breaks in New York, because we can do more stuff there. Our studio is there for us 24-7.” Indeed, he adds that the group may even unveil a new song tentatively titled “Meet Me in the Bathroom” for the hometown crowd tonight.
The Strokes are a quintessentially New York band, from its members’ hipster clothes and haircuts to a retro-leaning, undeniably catchy sound that evokes the mid-’70s heyday of the downtown rock scene. Despite having been recorded by a quintet of musicians who weren’t even born back then, songs like “Barely Legal,” “Last Nite,” and “Hard to Explain” kick up a racket that pays equal homage to the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, and the Rolling Stones.
“I think that New York scene is probably 10% of our influence,” Hammond says, pointing out that he’s never even heard Television, one of the bands to whom the Strokes are often compared. “We have more of the attitude than the sound of New York, I think.”
The group’s members — Hammond, lead singer Julian Casablancas, guitarist Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti — had been acquainted with one another for several years but finally got down to the business of making music as the Strokes in 1999. The bulk of 2000 was spent writing songs and climbing the ladder of Manhattan clubs, and by the end of the year, the buzz was nearly inescapable.
Leading the charge was the U.K.’s Rough Trade Records, which issued the demo-quality “The Modern Age” EP in January. The ensuing U.S. bidding war (RCA emerged victorious) was still in progress when the Strokes began recording “Is This It” with producer Gordon Raphael in April. The set debuted at an astounding No. 2 in the U.K., and sits at No. 34 after nine weeks on the chart (it’s No. 84 on The Billboard 200 this week).
In the meantime, the group is trying hard not to get swept up by the press adulation, which has found journalists clamoring to classify the Strokes as nothing less than the saviors of rock’n’roll. Hammond says he was particularly amused by a news story recently run by U.K. music weekly N.M.E., which decried the choice of “Last Nite” as a single over “Someday,” and urged fans to write in and express similar views. Despite the magazine’s campaign, “Last Nite” proved to be the public’s favorite after all.
“Our whole goal was always to get better in writing songs and as musicians and players,” he says. “The press do what they do, you know?”
The Strokes have also been the unwitting source of controversy thanks to the song “New York City Cops,” which made it onto all non-U.S. pressings of “Is This It” but was pulled from the domestic version in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Hammond defends the track, which he says is “a love story between two people who are talking. All she’s saying is, you’re not being too smart. You’re trying to harass us when you should be doing other stuff.” The song remains in the group’s live set, but Hammond notes, “we probably won’t play it in New York yet.”
After a much-needed break, the Strokes return to the road in North America for two weeks of shows beginning Nov. 14 in Philadelphia. Dates in Europe and Japan are being planned for next spring, at which point Hammond says the group will likely begin work on a new album.
For now, he’s just enjoying the ride: “I’ve actually had a pretty good look at the inner workings of the world that I would never have gotten had I not been in a band.”