Making Peace with the Strokes

Re-visiting their first record, Is this It? And finding it timeless.

I just re-visited a great piece of music writing on the recording process behind the Strokes first record, Is this It?

I heard their first single in London before it came out in the US, enthusiastically procured on vinyl by a roommate — risque original cover and all. It was a different time, where we still waited patiently for record release days, and came home with a few singles from Poland street or the Oxford street HMV and played them on a little Japanese import portable turntable (we were studying abroad, after all).

When I got back to New York, Strokes mania had taken over.

For reasons that seemed obvious at the time, I hated their guts. They were East Village neighbors and personified NYC too cool for prep school/Jameson n Adderall rock n roll. You couldn’t go to a party in the neighborhood without rubbing elbows with Albert Hammond Jr. or a thick lidded, inebriated Julian Casablancas lurking around. In terms of musical allegiances, I found myself firmly in the DFA records camp, who stationed their incursion into New York nightlife out of the now-defunct Plant Bar, with loud, 4/4 disco drums and healthy dollops of studio nerdery. I was on team LCD and team Rapture. And also on team Sweeney.

But, several years on, the cynicism tempered. And credit is due: this album is totally timeless and has aged quite nicely.

Giving it another listen, I can’t get over the texture of the recording. It’s delightfully minimal, but in a way that you know a lot of thought went into the entire thing.

This Guardian piece about how they made the album is a great read, but the best bit is from the album’s producer, Gordon Raphael:

“I recorded Is This It with one microphone for the voice and one for the snare drum: everything minimal. It wasn’t sonically perfect, but it had some magic and emotion that was missing in the big studio stuff other bands were doing. Julian had so many ideas — and a freakishly controlled concept of rhythm and timing. Even when he’d drunk 13 beers and was asleep on the couch, one eye would open and he’d go: “The hi-hat’s not right.” He was a master of the cryptic instruction. He’d say: “This song, can you loosen its tie a little?” He wanted his voice to sound “like your favourite blue jeans — not totally destroyed, but worn-in, comfortable”.

In stating his intention for the album, Julian Casablancas said:

“Imagine you took a time machine into the future and found a classic album from way in the past and really liked it.”

Turns out, that’s what they made. Loosened tie and all.