NEW YORK — "I don't want my record to sound like a demo," Strokes singer Julian Casablancas says. "I mean, I like the demo, I like the vibe and all, but it's [been] done."
At the moment Casablancas is staring into a beer in the garden of an East Village restaurant, trying desperately hard to stay awake. He's been up for three days straight, mastering the Strokes' new record, Room on Fire, working out the kinks in tone and feel that will make it, he hopes, "move people in general."
"If you're in a bar and a certain song comes on and the vibe is just different, it evokes the kinds of things that you want to feel, and if music can do that it's a very special thing," he says. "It's those sorts of feelings that we kind of play with, but there's a lot of chance of failing."
Pressure on the band is heavy to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. The bandmembers are wrangling with their label and with each other over singles, mixes and artwork, because this time expectations are even higher.
When the Strokes released their debut in 2001, they were met by a swell of critical praise and hype matched only by the disgruntled backlash that characterized them as privileged bon vivants undeserving of their opportunities and their fans. (T-shirts bearing a Strokes logo that reads "The Socialites" are popular in the same East Village that spawned the band.) Somewhere in between all that bluster — both pro- and anti-Strokes — were five fans of guitar rock still bowled over by the fact that they're getting the opportunity to make records.
"For us it's important not to f--- up what other generations have given to us," Casablancas says. "The whole point is doing something with what we've got, and I don't think we play with that lightly. We're normal people, we're not super serious artists, but we take what we do very seriously."
Based on a listen to Room on Fire, all that hard work is paying off. The exceptionally catchy disc takes the well-known Strokes sound — a retro-bang of twisting guitars, precision drum and bass and epic heartbreak vocals — and spins it in less than obvious directions. Like the Cars, Tom Petty and the Pixies before them, the Strokes play with the dynamics of guitar pop by layering track over track in a wall of braided sound only to strip it all back to the barest melodies at crucial moments.
Some songs, like "Reptilia" and "12:51," which the Strokes are shooting a video for with Roman Coppola, have an almost futuristic feel that makes it clear why they first tapped Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich for Room on Fire (the band eventually split with Godrich to reteam with Is This It producer Gordon Raphael). Guitars are toned down to mimic keyboards, and live drums hit with such clean precision they sound almost like loops — so convincingly so that I mistook them as such and was smartly corrected by Casablancas and bassist Nikolai Fraiture.
Other songs, like "You Talk Way Too Much" and "The End Has No End," are virtual throwbacks to the modish rock and roll that got the Strokes noticed in the first place. There are slow, plaintive songs, like "Under Control," and well-designed toe-tap hooks, found on tracks like "What Ever Happened?"
In short, it is a record that is as exciting to listen to as the Strokes' first EP and holds the same promise. Now someone just needs to convince the Strokes of that. "One of the big songwriting things for me has always been: always think what you do sucks," says Casablancas. "Because the second you stop believing that, you suck. And that's a fact."
Room on Fire track list:
- "What Ever Happened?"
- "Automatic Stop"
- "You Talk Way Too Much"
- "Between Love and Hate"
- "Meet Me in the Bathroom"
- "Under Control"
- "The End Has No End"
- "The Way It Is"
- "I Can't Win"