By Teddy Obrecht
Not even a minute into their first ever photo shoot on the streets of the Lower East side, the up-and-coming NYC rockers The Strokes started a fist fight. A pack of teens had shouted at the band, “hey motherfuckers, you’re blocking the whole sidewalk.” Nick Valensi, the band’s lead guitarist, made an obscene gesture, and asked them to “fuck off.” The shoot quickly devolved as both parties started throwing punches. As the police broke the fight apart, frontman Julian Casablancas turned to an onlooking journalist and smiled before saying, “Welcome to New York.”
Covering the mayhem in their 2001 summer issue, the British music magazine NME set the tone for the hype that would soon chase The Strokes over the course of their career. They titled their article, “WHY NEW YORK’S FINEST WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE – FOREVER!” Yes, in all caps.
Thirteen years later, fans found themselves asking what happened to these brash rockers. Casablancas normally tours with his bandmates. But on March 14, 2014, he took his new band, the eponymous Julian Casablancas and the Voidz, to the South By Southwest festival. He kicked off their two sets with the blaring, hazy “Johan van Bronx” – a shock to a crowd of Strokes fans expecting Julian’s brand of lyrically-focused pop-rock. The new material he played consisted of songs that would be released later that year, on their debut album Tyranny. The audience knew they weren’t getting The Strokes from Julian, but instead had anticipated material from his 2009 solo debut Phrazes For The Young. What they got was a bombshell divergence from the sugary finesse of Phrazes. Critics of Julian’s new solo outfit wondered how, just thirteen years later, the former icon found himself so far removed from The Strokes’ debut, Is This It.
Is This It garnered unprecedented hype from music media. The NME cover article sparked a wave of magazine coverage in the upcoming months. Not just in music magazines either: The Strokes had an extensive following in style and fashion publications. With Y2K and the grunge-heavy 90’s a faded memory, rock felt stuck in an identity crisis. Record labels pushed everything from pop punk to alternative metal. Subgenres fought for relevancy by increasingly using novel studio technology.
The Strokes were regarded as messiahs upon their arrival. They were immediately hailed by NME as the “saviours of rock n’ roll.” It was a perfect moment for a band like The Strokes, who were propelled to instant fame by their accessible and pop-oriented melodies. With their debut album Is This It,five skinny boys from New York found themselves unwittingly taking the face of rock’s revival movement.
Is This It exuded cool. Casablancas conversationally walks the listener through the quotidian trivialities of New York life. Is This It exemplified the image the band’s members put on; The Strokes were the five handsome, leather-bound, skinny-jeaned rockers who had single-handedly saved Converse from bankruptcy. In late 2001, the band’s drummer Fabrizio Moretti modestly undersold the band’s music as only something they created that “sounded cool.” NME gave The Strokes’ music significantly more credit, dubbing Is This It as the album that “defined a generation.” The Strokes were trapped. Critics’ praises made it all too apparent that from early on, The Strokes had nowhere they could go but out of style. Julian understood this nature of his band’s music, foreshadowing what was to come he told one interviewer “people might think it’s perfect right now, but next week, they’re going to want to hear something else. I want to provide that something else.”
Elvis Costello once said, “you have a lifetime to write your first album, and a year to write your second.” While Is This It developed over four years, The Strokes began writing their second record, Room on Fire, while on the road during their hectic world tour. Following the tour, they rushed into the studio to record it, releasing the new record in October of 2003. The album was packed with more of the same – crunchy guitar riffs and mesmerizing solos laid over Casablancas’s lackadaisical attitude – and it brought less of the glowing success as their debut. Critics couldn’t ignore how Room on Fire simply felt like a “part two,” a second side to their debut album. Many detractors lamented a lack of the same “pop sparkle” when holding it against their more cheerful debut. People expected The Strokes to do something different; but they decided to stick to their already proven formula than to change it in any way.
The Strokes’ underwhelming sophomore release found itself soon overshadowed by the subsequent debuts of their contemporaries. Strokes-inspired bands like Kings of Leon, Franz Ferdinand, and the Killers dropped records each outselling previous ones. “Mr. Brightside,” the Killers’ radio-ready first single, spent longer and reached higher on the charts than any previous Strokes output. Room on Fire hadn’t sold as well as hoped. As a result, The Strokes found themselves fighting for relevancy amidst a scene now more crowded. Moretti admitted how disappointed the band felt with Room on Fire and described the importance of their next planned release as “our second second album. It’s our chance to be born again.” With significantly more weight surrounding the success of their third record, The Strokes felt the pressure to establish themselves as more than just a passing fad.
But months before its official planned release, The Strokes’ song “Juicebox” leaked onto the internet to a largely negative reaction. Intended to be the new album’s first single, their label rushed the song to an official release. Six years later, Julian Casablancas commented on the song and the events surrounding its release, calling the whole situation “ugly.” Newer sensational rock powerhouses had already endeared themselves to the public; The Strokes’ misguided attempt at keeping up manifested itself in the grinding bassline of “Juicebox.” The band’s third album First Impressions of Earth came out in January of 2006 to even more negative reviews than Room On Fire. The album wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t fun. As the band’s guitarist Albert Hammond Jr, described it, First Impressions felt “heavy.” Five years before, poppy guitars and tight solos had fueled an energetic romp on “The Modern Age,” as Julian sang about being “in the sun / sun having fun.” First Impressions of Earth found Julian angrily crooning “I hate them all / I hate myself for hating them / so I’ll drink some more,” which understandably left many with a bitter aftertaste. After they finished their tour in the summer of 2006, the bandmates took a break. Their unsuccessful third album, hampered by impossibly high expectations, had split them apart with frequent internal tension. Casablancas blamed touring, calling it a “great way to break up a band.”
Casablancas took the band’s separation as an excuse to disappear, adding only a few guest verses over the years. It wasn’t until the middle of 2009 thathe resurfaced, announcing Phrazes for the Young, his solo debut. He’d written practically all of Is This It and Room on Fire. With First Impressions, Casablancas had loosened his creative control with his other bandmates receiving a handful of writing credits. Even so, he wound up writing over half the album himself. The high expectations for his solo debut were well-warranted.
Phrazes for the Young was conceived as a way for Casablancas to experiment. Having been confined to a more limited range of sound on earlier Strokes’ records – which had consisted of only a guitar, bass, drum, and keyboard setup until now – his venture as a solo artist allowed him to take whatever direction he desired, whereas he notes it’s “hard to experiment when you’re in a formal band.” The album floats from space-pop “Glass,” all the way to the country-inspired “Ludlow St.” Horn sections and sleigh bells abound on the album. Phrazes can best be characterized by the “weirdly futuristic” synths that Casablancas explored throughout the rest of his songs to varying degrees. In his interview with The Spin, while he described the release as a way to experiment, he notes, “I would’ve gone weirder with the music, but I wanted to be smart. I didn’t want people to say, ‘Okay, this is his weird abstract thing,’ and dismiss the album.”
When he wrapped up his tour supporting Phrazes, Casablancas returned to the studio and finished recording a new album with his original bandmates. That album’s creation was collaborative, with each song receiving input from at least one other band member. Casablancas dubbed the record as part of “Operation Make Everyone Satisfied.” Angles came out in 2011 to mixed reviews; it was apparent that making “everyone” satisfied only applied to the bandmates, as the album only further alienated the band’s fans. The album’s first single achieved a modicum of success, but the rest of the album had little to offer to core fans. It became all too apparent that in an attempt to experiment with their sound, Angles came out fragmented, a product of five different band members who each had a separate opinion. The band toyed around with all sorts of ideas: implementing synths on some pieces, removing all guitar work from one song, and choosing to take out drums on another. Lacking swagger and confidence on their new record, The Strokes evidently struggle on Angles to find a new foothold, one separate and distinct from their old formula. The band went on another world tour, but by November of 2011, they were gone again, out of the public’s eye.
It was only March of 2013, a quick two year turnaround from Angles’ debut, when The Strokes released their fifth record amidst a media blackout – there were to be no interviews or tour to accompany the release. Just as “Last Nite,” their most successful hit off Is This It, began to start getting airplay on more classic rock oriented radio stations, The Strokes released their fifth album, Comedown Machine, a funkier, more subdued effort, having all but abandoned their garage roots. Comedown Machine led many to question if The Strokes deserved to keep their title as a “real” rock band. Even the nostalgia-riddled music video accompanying the lead single “All The Time” couldn’t help it seem like anything more than an awkwardly hammered out Is This It throwback. However with the exception of “All The Time,” Comedown Machine largely succeeds in its varied genre experimentation, from Casablancas’s falsetto riding on top of the synth heavy 80’s title track, to the funkier falsetto-heavy “Tap Out.”
With no live performances to accompany their fifth record, Casablancas took the time off to form a new group, Julian Casablancas + the Voidz, a call-back to Richard Hell and his influential punk-band Richard Hell and the Voidoids. But Casablancas’s new group held little allegiance to punk outside from their name. After three initial sets in early March 2014, notably their two poorly received performances at SXSW, it wasn’t until the fall of 2014 that Casablancas gave out more information about his new band’s record in a series of interviews. In one interview, he described their songs as “jazz and punk” or simply consisting of “amazing melodic things.” Critics took a different tone once the band released Tyranny in September. Casablancas addressed the evolution in sound from Phrazes, calling it a “foolish [decision] to go with what I thought people wanted more.”
Tyranny represented Casablancas’s “weird abstract thing,” where he finally got to express his experimental urges and abandon any hint of pop sentiment. Released through his own record label, Cult Records, he had the freedom to put out his new record in whatever form he felt most appropriate. Critics felt strongly about the release; Rolling Stone criticized Tyranny as “the sound of a man shedding his skin,” nowhere near Casablancas’s initial comparison to “jazz or punk.” It is a layered production, often industrial. The album’s magnum opus, the Mozart inspired, “Human Sadness,” is an eleven-minute stretch of distortion and palpable agony. The album is a self-described “protest record,”; however, the album’s lyrics are more aptly described as political. From the topics explored in it’s lyrics to the “skin-shedding” instrumentation, Julian Casablancas + The Voidz proudly released a distinctly and intentionally unsexy debut album.
After a handful of festival appearances together over the past few years, The Strokes finally regrouped to release an EP in June of 2016 through Cult Records. Entitled Future Present Past, the band’s EP contains three songs and one remix. If the EP’s title is any indication, the band’s future sounds distinctly more like The Voidz than anything else. With lyrics focusing on Wall Street, two tracks “Oblivious” and “Drag Queen” are distinctly Voidz-style songs, only differentiating themselves through more pop-friendly melodies, which lack the layered textures of noise created through the Voidz. “Threat of Joy,” is lighter fare, though it only serves as a reminder that Casablancas can still write the same tunes that made him famous. If we interpret “Threat of Joy” as the “Past” in the EP’s title, it’s apparent that he doesn’t want to write those type of songs anymore. If The Strokes are only going to continue to sound more and more like Julian Casablancas side projects, why continue to produce songs under that moniker? Other than to make money? In 2011, following anextended hiatus, former members of the same garage rock scene, The White Stripes, broke up in order to “to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band.” It’s becoming increasingly obvious that The Strokes should consider doing the same. As much as we may crave the poppy cascading melodies and choruses they were once known for, Casablancas and his bandmates have had different intentions in recent years. The five friends deserve happiness where they may find it, but only if they allow The Strokes’ good name to be preserved while it still can.