The ups and downs of being the Strokes
Band deals with fickle public, critics
By Kevin Drew
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- A funny thing happened to the Strokes on the way to becoming anointed as rock 'n' roll's salvation: The same instant media buzz saw that uplifted them as rising stars became a vehicle for critics to try and tear them down.
The past three years have been a roller coaster for the band. Before its first album was even released, the group reached a level of fame that most veteran musicians only dream of. Almost as quickly, a backlash among critics and fans developed as their second album was released.
The band has understandably developed a tough, fatalistic skin.
"We don't even think about that kind of stuff; if it happens it'll happen, it'll always happen," said guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. in a recent interview.
As the band completes touring off its second album, "Room on Fire," which came out last October, it's preparing to go back to the studio and begin work on a third album, which band members say will stay grounded in their rock roots.
Take it or leave it, they say.
"The only way we can prevail through anything is to work on our music ... it got us here in the first place," Hammond said.
'Coolest band on Earth' to 'What's wrong?'
It's difficult for any band to continue to live up to the hype generated from the Strokes' first full album, the fall 2001 release "Is This It."
Hailed as a long-awaited rock 'n' roll antidote to the boy band and R&B-saturated pop music scene of the late 1990s, the group -- Hammond, lead singer Julian Casablancas, guitarist Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti -- immediately was embraced by many industry watchers as a fresh voice that tipped an inspirational hat to New Wave pioneers 20 years earlier.
"Is This It" drew comparisons to the Velvet Underground and rock acts of the late 1970s and early 1980s, helping launch a wave of retro-rock bands. By the time the band released "Room on Fire," an article in the mainstream music magazine Spin labeled them "arguably the coolest band on Earth."
"When that kind of stuff happens, especially when you've never had anything, you don't really even know what it is," Hammond said.
Any rock band that rises so far so fast will inevitably generate resentment, with some watching for a fall just as rapid. But the speed by which negative Internet postings about the Strokes appeared is not only a statement about today's instant cyberspace media, but also the strong feelings the group provokes.
"The only way we can prevail through anything is to work on our music," says guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.
By mid-2001, before their first album had released, the tone in Internet chat rooms and bulletin board discussing the band ranged from passionate cheerleading to criticism that questioned the accolades being placed on a group before its first album release. Even the group's musical skills were challenged.
The band members' upbringings didn't help. Casablancas is the son of model agency mogul John Casablancas. Hammond is the son of singer-songwriter Albert Hammond, who wrote "It Never Rains in Southern California" and other hits. All five band members are products of upper-class grooming, with prep-school educations. Some postings wondered out loud if such privileged lives gave them a boost in the entertainment industry.
"Is This It" peaked at No. 33 in Billboard's album sales charts, and the band members found themselves the objects of mass adulation and the celebrity whirl.
In November 2001, just a month after their first album release, an article appeared in Salon.com entitled "What's wrong with the Strokes?", which asked how such a young band could ignite such devotion or hatred.
"It's tough to answer," Hammond said. "All I know is we worked really hard to get ahead, and everything that people think we had, we didn't."
"It gets a little annoying and hard to deal with," Hammond continued, referring to criticism of their upbringing, "because, you know, it's something you can't pick, it's something you can't choose in life. We all love our parents, our families."
'It doesn't really matter what everyone says'
As the second album was completed and released, a decision was made by the band to not engage in saturation publicity, said manager Ryan Gentles.
"We were trying to do less media and fewer big things," Gentles said. "We could have done as much as the first album, but we just turned some down on purpose."
When "Room on Fire" was released, it was met with lukewarm reactions from music journalists who said it didn't match the intensity and whimsical fun of the first album. It peaked at No. 4 in the Billboard charts -- a better showing than "Is This It," but without the buzz.
Hammond makes no apologies for the second album, which has more complex material, with songs influenced by synthesizers, R&B and straightforward punk styles.
"As an album, I love it, I think it's fantastic. I'm very proud of it," he said.
"If we write something that is undeniably great, then in the long term it doesn't really matter what everyone says now," Hammond added.
And if the band has suffered from any so-called backlash, Gentles said, it hasn't shown, pointing to a tour this year of 35 sold-out concerts.
"This tour has gone great," he said. "It's quite an accomplishment, I think."
As for the future, the band is making plans to begin recording its third album later this year. It will stay true to the band's rock roots, Hammond said.
"Julian is the songwriter of the band," Gentles said. "He may want to go in different directions, but still sounding like The Strokes. I don't think you're going to hear a concept album."
"I don't think we're going to be the kind of band that start playing stadiums or arenas," Gentles added. "Even if we could sell that many tickets we really don't want to. We really like playing the venues of 2,000 to 5,000."
Hammond's future goals are just as straightforward: "I'd like to make many, many records. I'd like to be a band that has success but at the same time have respect for trying to work hard and write good music."
As the interview concludes, he has one last thought on any critics. "They can't believe that five guys who look good and play great music actually can make it," he said.