The Strokes want it understood that despite their global fame, they are still a young band capable of the occasional misstep.
“If we sold no records the first time, we obviously wouldn’t be in this situation,” frontman Julian Casablancas says. “We’ll make some mistakes along the way. But you know, apparently people seem to like what we do.”
Indeed, the group’s 2001 debut, “Is This It,” has sold more than 900,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. Global sales are at 2 million copies, according to RCA. The album spent 58 weeks on The Billboard 200, spawned three hits on the Modern Rock Tracks chart and put the Strokes at the epicenter of a much-trumpeted wave of new American rock bands.
As a result, the quartet’s new album, “Room on Fire,” is perhaps the most anticipated sophomore rock album in recent memory and certainly one of RCA’s biggest releases of the year. It arrives Oct. 28 in the U.S. and was launched Oct. 20 in other markets.
If the reaction to the new wave-influenced single “12:51” is any indication, fans like what they hear. The song is No. 20 in its sixth week on the Modern Rock Tracks tally and has also been a top seller at Apple’s iTunes Music Store, where it was launched in September.
In the U.K., where the rabid praise of journalists was instrumental in launching “Is This It,” the cut debuted at a career-best No. 7 on the singles chart. International outlets were also serviced first with a promotional clip for “12:51,” featuring in-studio footage shot by director Roman Coppola. The actual video, directed by Coppola and inspired by 1980s sci-fi film “Tron,” debuted Oct. 10 on AOL’s First View program.
“With their first album, the Strokes set a pace for themselves at the core of the rock/alternative music community,” RCA Music Group chairman/CEO Clive Davis tells Billboard. “Now they’re back and have taken their songwriting to another level, while preserving the hip, cutting-edge aesthetic that you would expect from them.”
The extensive international touring the Strokes undertook in support of “Is This It” complicated the business of making “Room on Fire.” The band had already debuted several new songs, including “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” “Between Love & Hate” and “The Way It Is,” by the time it got off the road late last fall. THe next few months were spent honing the eight other cuts earmarked for the new set.
Over coffee at a diner in downtown Manhattan, Casablancas concedes that the band felt some pressure to speed up the process, in the interest of not “making people wait too long.
“In the middle of doing the record, you’d meet people in the street who’d ask, ‘When’s the record coming out?’ It’s like, ‘Soon! I’m trying. I’m trying my best!'” he says.
But the album hit an early roadblock, when a trial session with producer Nigel Godrich (Beck, Radiohead) was aborted in May. “There was no blowup at all,” guitarist Nick Valensi says. “It was just that the end result was something we felt we could improve on. Things sounded a little bit too clean. We like stuff to sound pretty vicious and dirty.”
The band, which also includes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti, quickly started afresh with producer Gordon Raphael, who was behind the boards for “Is This It.”
Casablancas says working with a familiar face and at a more relaxed pace was just what the band needed to nudge “Room on Fire” to completion. “It was definitely a little bit of a soul-sucking experience,” he says of the Godrich sessions. “I was a little worried for a while that maybe the songs just weren’t good enough. But now those fears are laid to rest-at least for me.”
Certainly, the new album showcases a band Casablancas insists is “always consciously trying to move away from anything we’ve done.” While rip-roaring rockers like “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” “Reptilia” and “I Can’t Win” clearly evolved from the tracks on “Is This It,” the slower, sexy “Under Control” and “Between Love & Hate” find the Strokes in uncharted territory.
Valensi proudly says the former is “really the first Strokes song that is mellow, where you could sit back and get stoned, as opposed to jumping around the room. All the songs on our first record were all really tight and rushed.”
The band also paid more attention to perfecting tones and effects, as evidenced by the prominent keyboard-mimicking guitars on “12:51” and “The End Has No End” and the heavily processed drum sound on “The Way It Is.”
Of “The Way It Is,” which sports astounding stickwork from Moretti, Casablancas says, “It does sound a little machine-like, but it’s actually him playing.”
Valensi adds, “The rhythms on the album are overwhelming in a good way.”
With tunes ranging from blunt assessments of relationships (“The Way It Is,” “Between Love & Hate”) to what Casablancas describes as “romantic walks down memory lane” (“12:51,” “Meet Me in the Bathroom”), it’s tough to ascribe an overall theme to “Room on Fire.”
“Every single aspect of what you do in music or in life has two extremes,” he says. “You need to have a little bit of both but have a general attitude sort of in the middle. I think that’s what all good artists do. They have a little bit of intricacy and a little bit of simplicity. The middle ground is really the hardest place to be in.”
The group has been on the road in North America with RCA labelmate Kings of Leon since Oct. 9. The trip includes Oct. 29-30 hometown shows at the Theater at Madison Square Garden and wraps Nov. 9 in Atlanta.
The Strokes will appear on NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” every Tuesday in November, performing a different song from “Room on Fire.”
“A big part of my enjoyment is playing for people,” Casablancas says, adding that he is prepared to be on the road for quite a while. “Maybe when we first started, we toured with not enough breaks to write stuff, but I think we’ve got a handle on that problem now.”
After North America, the Strokes will play a short run of European shows beginning Dec. 1 in Glasgow, Scotland, and in mid-January jump aboard the five-date Big Day Out tour of Australia and New Zealand.
Excerpted from the Nov. 1, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com Premium Services section.
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