As The Strokes’ debut celebrates its 20th birthday, here is a classic interview with the band's frontman and songwriter taking stock of the influential record
On the 27 August, 2001 The Strokes released their debut album Is This It on Rough Trade Records – the label who had discovered them. It not only changed the New York five-piece’s lives but it reinvigorated 2000s music (a little earlier in Australia where the album came out 30 July 2001… with The Vines soon to follow) right across the board – I once had a very interesting interview with Kanye West about the drums on The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand’s records. In fact such was the enjoyment and influence of Is This It, that nine years later when NME came to chart its albums of the decade it won the vote (which included writers, musicians and more) by a country mile. I edited that countdown and had the pleasure of interviewing frontman Julian Casablancas about Is This It for the issue. Here is our chat from the morning of 12 November 2009 for the first time in full…
Congratulations, Is This It is the album of the decade.
“It’s totally crazy! I had no such in thoughts towards it. I have no such thoughts in that way. I don’t know what that means. Does it mean it’s a good musical decade or a bad musical decade? I don’t know, I’m such a bad judge of my own stuff. But I thought it was great when I heard. Wow and The Libertines’ [Up The Bracket] are at Number Two? That’s crazy. Geoff [Travis, Rough Trade Records co-founder] should frame the list!”
What do remember about recording the album?
“Now you’re really testing my memory. I know it took about 30 days – about a month – but I don’t know what month [laughs]. It was fun, it was stressing, it was exciting. I think if I was to know then I’d be having this conversation I couldn’t be more pleased, that’s what you dream while you’re doing it. I’m restraining myself now, I don’t want to get carried away, but I’m pretty damn pysched with myself, mental high five!”
“It makes me happy because usually ten years after something [happens] it’s in limbo, it’s too soon. So the fact that people are still liking it [the album] is crazy. I think it’s rad, I don’t argue with it, I embrace it. I can’t tell what it is, I’m too close it. If you want my honest opinion… mmm… I can’t judge it. Maybe I judge it against other decades and it doesn’t stack up. I don’t want to represent the decade and have it be like a bummer. [But] I’m jumping with excitement but I don’t to gush about myself or us because that will turn people off and changed people’s mind.”
Do you have any memories of what you wanted to achieve with Is This It?
“We wanted it to sound like we just walked into a room, recorded it and didn’t care, but there was always work behind it. Some of it was recorded live, but some of it we had time to hone. We played around a few months before recording and we played that exact setlist live. We knew what worked, what was cool. We had time to test it.”
What were those ‘test’ shows like?
“When you were doing a song, if a part of it didn’t work you’d notice it and then that’s what we’d work on. Sometimes that’s the best way to understand where things are at, when you play it for someone else. You may think a song is great, but then when have to play it for someone else you instantly know, before they even hear it, you know ‘Oh, it’s not as great as I thought in my imagination’ and sometimes if you know if it’s good you have that pride when you play it, ‘Yep check it out, mind blowing commencing now!’ [laughs]. Overall with those songs we all felt confident they were good. But then all bands think their songs are good so I don’t think that was a unique thing.”
You used the bar opposite your studio, 2A, to try out recordings once you’d done them, didn’t you? Playing them for people just drinking in there?
“Yeah, pretty much. It was cool. After it was done they play it in the bar loads and when people would ask what it was they’d sign them up to our mailing list. That was the vibe, record then go there and listen to it. It was exciting and super fun. We’d celebrate our day’s work.”
Were you aware of a New York scene amongst musicians at that point?
“I would say no. Amongst us there was a good feeling but it didn’t feel like a city-wide movement. Everything was fun and exciting, but we could have put out the record and it could have flopped/ I didn’t feel like we’d make it because of a scene, or anything. You thought it might be successful but it didn’t register as to how successful it was going to be. I was just hoping we could have some kind of local success.”
Were you surprised then when a British indie label, Rough Trade, called up your manager wanting to sign you?
“That was the big moment. It all turned around. We were having fun going around playing the record, but we all had day jobs and I was actually wondering what I could do. I was starting to think ‘Ah shit, do I have to have a Plan B? What the hell am I going to end up doing if this fails?’ I was bartending at the time so I didn’t have any long term goals. After England other record labels started to come and we knew we were going to get paid!”
What are your favourite songs from from Is This It now?
“I definitely miss the pre-internet, pre known thing, when we’d play a show in those days and we’d play two new songs having worked on them all week. I remember playing Barely Legal and it had no lyrics, I would make stuff up and people would be like ‘the lyrics are so good’ and I’d be like ‘Oh! Er, thanks…’ We could do that now but people would be analysing them online before we’d even recorded them. We played a lot of songs [at that time] that didn’t make it, that were not good. We gave them a shot and then dropped them from the set. That was fun testing songs out. I feel like we were one of the last not internet band, but kind of effected by it.”
The album has two covers, the US and European sleeves, which is your favourite?
“I just like the American one. I found the picture in a book and thought it was cool. Particles, movement, that stuff is scientific but it looks like art, it worked on a lot of levels for me. ‘I was like ok can we do this for the album cover’ and they said no because the UK album came out first and we’d already done it. So we changed it for the US, it wasn’t that crazy. The butt or whatever, I have nothing against it, it’s ok. It was a picture in the book of a photographer we were working with [Colin Lane]. It’s cool, it is what it is. I have no favourites.”
You credited JP Bowerstock in your as a guru on the LP, what did he do?
“I’m playing with him now actually in my solo band. We didn’t call him the guru, we just needed a name for him, he was a guitar teacher, friend, general knowledgible person. He can talk about anything, you could say to him ‘what is this table? Is it mahogany’ and he say ‘Well they used to make tables out of oak in the middle ages…’.”
How does it feel to be in the band when everyone starts going wild for your album?
“It was always very steep, but very gradual. It was definitely accelerated and it felt fast, but it was never playing in an empty bar and then playing for 70,000 people. It started with three people we knew, then ten, 12, 20, then all of a sudden you’ve sold out in New York. Then you go to England, it’s 200, 300, 500 it’s going crazy and by the time we got to festivals we got bumped from the smaller stage to the bigger stage and then the next year we headlined. It was always crazy and exciting and thrilling but it was never a gigantic leap. It was intense but it was never ‘we were playing the bar then two week later we headlined Reading.'”
You did get bumped up from the tent to the main stage at Reading just as Is This It was released in the UK though.
“Festivals were always a bit foreign to us anyway, we felt like we’d been playing them for years. We just assumed ‘this is what they do in England, they gather 100,000 people and then you play in front of them’ [laughs]. It was overwhelming positive but there were undercurrents. It happened in New York too, you’re underground, people don’t know you and only the cool people know you and love you, but then when you release the record it’s changed for everyone whose secret you were, they think you’re all Hollywood now or whatever. But we played for years, we wanted to be good before we started playing out, so we worked a lot before we started doing gigs.”
Did you enjoy it all in 2001?
“Yeah! I enjoyed the hell out of it. I enjoyed too much in fact. I enjoyed it so much I can’t remember most of it.! It was a lot of intense work and a lot of intense celebration.”
What advice would you give your 2001 self?
“That tough because you’re messing with all these laws of 80s time travel movies. On The Back To The Future principles I probably wouldn’t say anything because I’m happy where I am now. I don’t think I could have got through to the 2001 me anyway.”
Finally, why did you call your debut album Is This It?
“To be honest, how it came about is that we had the song and it was done without a chorus, so I was like ‘I’ll wing it, I’ll figure something out’ and one day I sung that over the chorus and that song was done. When we were trying to find titles for the record it could have been called Take It Or Leave It or after any of the songs – well probably not Last Nite. We had a few options but I thought it sounded it cool in more ways then one. It’s deep without being pretentious.”
Paul Stokes spoke to Julian Casablancas for the NME in 2009