Third Impressions of the Strokes

by Jason MacNeil


It’s a Friday afternoon in late January, one day before the Strokes take to the stage at NBC Studios as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. It’s been five years since I first saw the band in March 2001 at Toronto’s Opera House opening for the Doves. It was also the first and only time I walked out after the opening act, for nothing or nobody could have even come close to touching what they had done in that short period of time with no album out and just the first faint hint of a buzz around them. The second album didn’t quite measure up to the first, but when a bar is set that high, it’s hard to eclipse.

Now, with their third album First Impressions of Earth recently released, the band has changed things up somewhat, offering fuller, bigger, and at times richer sounds than found on Is This It? or Room on Fire. Guitarist Albert Hammond says the album’s creation started off very simply—getting their new studio in New York City up and running.

“I think at first it was a question of getting the studio equipment and setting the stuff up in the studio,” he says, a tad groggy between the occasional yawn. “With the studio we had the idea that we could redo stuff over and over again. So it was just figuring it out as we did it and went along.

“The songs sort of fell into making a record, into a pattern—songs we record and we could change,” he adds. “We basically would finish writing a song and then record it and go back and write another song and then record that one.”

As they went along, they also began to rely less on Gordon Raphael and more on David Kahne, who produced a majority of the songs on the album. Hammond says Kahne, who was working on another album at the time, was initially approached regarding technical questions.

“I was just over there with [Kahne] and I started talking to him about our equipment and what we needed to get our studio back up,” he says. “It felt like it was missing some equipment. I was talking to him and he was really knowledgeable about it, he helped figure out what we needed.

“So we just said, ‘Let’s bring him and see what it’s like.’ At first it was like, ‘Well, let’s have him in and engineer something.’ And then it was ‘Let’s have him in and co-produce.’”

Hammond also says that the group knew things were heading in the right direction after Kahne took three songs Raphael had worked on and filled them out, giving them more oomph or punch. But the band and Kahne didn’t always see eye to eye.

“I think there were times where we would understand each other, but I think there were other times where we wouldn’t understand each other,” Hammond says. “I think the one thing was that he liked the music a lot and really, in his heart, whether we agreed or disagreed, we were both on the same page as far as wanting it to be good.”

While some critics have panned the album simply for not being a carbon copy of earlier albums, there are some tunes that pack as much wallop as “The Modern Age” or “New York City Cops”. A great example of this is the bombastic, ballsy “Fear of Sleep” that evolves into this fine, majestic, almost Brit-rock romp.

“That one took a long time,” Hammond says with a laugh. “There were two parts to it that we added, the middle section and then the other part. We were just trying to figure out how to build it up.”

Hammond, who also cites “Vision of Division” and “You Only Live Once” as some of the songs that gelled quickly, says his personal favorites are “Ask Me Anything” and “Ize of the World.” He also feels that this album had a collaborative feeling not found on the first two.

“I think this time around the rest of the band definitely ... we worked a lot with Julian,” Hammond says.

With the new album comes a new batch of touring, one that will see the Strokes mount a smaller-venue North American tour from March 3 until May 17 that includes six Canadian dates. After that, there are the European summer festivals, something Hammond says the band is really looking forward to. Then Japan, Australia, Asia, North America again and Europe again—basically 13 to 14 months of touring that will wrap up in early 2007.

The Strokes were also one of the few bands not on one of the Live 8 stages last summer. Hammond says the band was approached but was in the middle of putting the studio as well as the album together so couldn’t really commit to performing.

The group mounted some surprise gigs late last year and four US club shows in early January, shows Hammond says turned out great while they still were testing the new material. He also says that despite having three albums to choose from, don’t expect them to extend their set length anytime soon.

“We’re always a band that doesn’t really like long sets,” Hammond says. “We’re not going to be playing for two hours or whatever but we’re playing an hour and 20 minutes, that’s usually as long as our attention span.”

Hammond’s responses are short and to the point, but at times he still seems uninformed about some things regarding the group.

“Oh, yes, it’s not that far away!” he says when asked about the proposed One Earth Concert originally set for late January at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. “We’re doing a show that night in Doncaster.”

Only through the questioning does he realize the show has been put on hold. “Oh, it’s been postponed? Okay, sure, yeah, I don’t know these things!”

One thing fans should know though is that a live album seems to be on the agenda, although there is no set timeframe.

“We could drop one in there while we’re recording the next one,” Hammond says. “So we could always do that.”

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