The Strokes Won’t Be Shaken Or Stirred By Critics’ Praise

New York quintet readies next single, 'Hard to Explain.'

The Strokes volleyed a power-packed opening salvo with “Last Nite,” the first single from their debut album, Is This It. The song’s cocksure strut and disheartened lyrics are a welcome change from the mainstream’s fixation with formulaically mediocre nü-metal and rap-rock, a distinction that helped land the tune on radio and video playlists nationwide. But if the band’s follow-up single, “Hard to Explain,” fails to stir the tastemakers’ tea, the New York quintet won’t stop brewing its brand of loosely structured punk rock.

“We haven’t paid attention to anything but the music,” drummer Fabrizio Moretti explained. “So if people stop noticing — of course we’ll be like, ’Oh damn, that was a good run’ — but we’ll still definitely f—in’ keep going. There’s no chance that we stop this, because we did this originally ourselves.”

Moretti referred to the double-edged aspect that dogged the band several months before Is This It was even released: media- and hipster-created hype. While their musical merit continues to be the impetus for many heated music-geek furors (musical innovators or derivative con artists?), the fact is that while press and downtown word of mouth may have served as an introductory catalyst for the Strokes (the latest is that Is This Is was deemed the second best album of 2001 in a poll of 622 music journalists by New York’s Village Voice), music fans are liking what they’re hearing.

Following the band’s “Saturday Night Live” performance in January, sales of Is This It doubled, though they’ve since fallen back in line with their weekly average of more than 20,000 in sales. Even still, the album is approaching gold status, having sold more than 390,000 copies, according to SoundScan, since its release in September — none too shabby considering the Strokes didn’t emerge as some established rocker’s protégé band, they weren’t affixed to a spectacular tour as openers and they didn’t have a song considered “comforting” in the wake of September 11 (it was just the opposite, in fact, as “New York City Cops,” which contains the line, “They ain’t too smart,” was removed from the album at the 11th hour).

“The only way to look at it is to try to find the good in it and try to steer clear from any dangerous aspects,” Moretti said of dancing on hype’s edge without being cut. “The hype got people to recognize us, and we appreciate that, but we don’t invest much attention or credit to the hype. Because when we do, at any moment, whoever is giving that hype can take it away just as easily … and then we’re lost.”

While keeping their buzz in check, the band, which also includes singer Julian Casablancas, bassist Nikolai Fraiture and guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., doesn’t mind letting it all hang out under the limelight. From initially appearing as sheepish onstage, a trait that seemed to intensify in proportion to the industry and/or hipster facet associated with the show, the group has been embracing the attention and visibly having fun with it. During a pair of year-end shows at New York’s Apollo Theatre — where they debuted two new songs, “Meet Me in the Bathroom” and an as-yet-untitled number — Casablancas oozed frontman charisma, goading the crowd with pouts, struts and other rockstar gestures you’d expect from Mick Jagger and not a shy 23-year-old who wore a deer-in-the-headlights glaze at most other gigs.

The band also exuded confidence during its performance at MTV2’s “$2 Bill” concert, which took place in Los Angeles on February 2. The show yielded a second, live video for “Last Nite,” which, like the original version, was directed by Roman (older brother of Sofia, son of Francis Ford) Coppola.

But no matter how stuffed with self-pride, the Strokes won’t let their laurels drive them to complacency or cloud their ultimate vision.

“If we start thinking that way, we’ll start getting comfortable,” Moretti said. “And being comfortable is a bad place to be if you want to get better and always progress. So while we appreciate it, we want to succeed more. We want to do more with our music.

“We don’t have the big-band mentality,” he continued. “We never wanted to become a big band. [But] we never hated the idea that maybe one day we’d get recognition — and we appreciate that. We just try not to get big heads.”

The Strokes are on tour in Japan and Europe until April 2. On February 20, they’ll perform in London at the ceremony for the Brit Awards 2002, where they’re nominated for three awards: Best International Newcomer, Best International Album and Best International Group.

For a full-length feature on the Strokes, check out “The Strokes: Huge In England.”