Was That It: The Rise and Fall of the Strokes

The Strokes
Comedown Machine

A rumor spread across my college campus in the fall of 2001 almost as quickly as the album and band it concerned. It was the blue, halcyon September before September 11th, and each of us arrived at college toting cardboard boxes of CDs, hundreds and thousands of petroleum cases containing our musical lives. Some of the cooler among us had acquired a burned copy or the import original of The Strokes’ Is This It, released at the end of that July in Australia and in late August in the UK. The record circulated our small college campus that September with the viral vigor of an engaging secret. The music was passed with a rumor: “I heard they recorded it for less than $10,000,” we murmured and repeated. It was absurd and apocryphal, but we spread this too as we burned the music onto CDs and into our computers.

Is This It wouldn’t officially arrive in U.S. record stores until that October with a new puritanical album cover and the replacement of “New York City Cops” with “When It Started” in the wake of September 11, but the music was already rippling outwards at our school, connected to our weird rumor of its supposed “cheapness”. It was an exciting vulgarity, an invocation of a new age of free and freedom: $10,000 was nothing for a mainstream band. We knew just little enough to believe in its truth. The Strokes represented the laconic and edgy rock from downtown New York, a place of cheap or expensive thrills — a place few of us knew then — and $10,000; it seemed like a shockingly small sum of money in these last decadent years of the music industry.

This was how so many adolescents and post-adolescents heard the Strokes for the first time, a lent and burned CD of Is This It, then lent again, the organic beginnings of new ways of interacting with recorded music. Even with limited options for sharing and acquiring music, the world was changing anyhow. Napster suffered a court injunction shutdown in July 2001, and the iTunes Music Store, the first of many mainstream digital outlets, was still two years away from making owning music officially invisible. The rarity of high-speed Internet meant most albums were still passed hand-to-hand or on burned CD-Rs, a technology that seemed itself too good to be true. Clutched in grubby adolescent fingers, we passed our CD cases up and down freshman hallways, ripping entire collections into our brand new Mac laptops, a device that carried something far more generation-defining and transformative than any band: the iTunes music organizer. The Strokes’ debut album emerged as the sound and physical pillar of our growing collections, the intersection of this new music and this way of sharing music. This was the birth of a new cool.

We stood unwittingly on the edge of history, feet planted firmly in the era behind us and in the terrifying uncertainty of the one to come, petit monarchs in the age of Enlightenment. It was the first time many of us stole music with such regularity and carelessness. It didn’t feel particularly wrong, like passing along a good book. The fact that borrower could make an exact duplicate and then lend it to others was ancillary, or unintended collateral damage in the pursuit of new music and bands that would have otherwise remained a mystery to us. Our snow-globe universe began to expand. Time moved on and we used our high-speed college networks to take music from classmates we knew and didn’t via our colleges’ intranets. Peer-to-peer software might have been banned as a global model, but it was alive and well inside the walls of college campuses, the incubator of the next wave. As the music industry changed under our feet — after all we were helping to change it — the Strokes spun in our iTunes and through the speakers of our coveted Aiwa mini-systems.

The Strokes emerged the perfect band to ride this tectonic shift from musical feudalism to a more democratic marketplace, a system that would prove as destructive as it was creative. It had been the Age of Nickleback and Three Doors Down; Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment” flirted with ubiquity that summer and fall of 2001. Even in modern rock circles, the alleged “alternative” to mainstream radio, it was a world of Incubus, Staind, Korn, Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, and Creed, each one aimed at an arena and awash in ProTools flourishes, churning guitars and a sense that $17.99 was exactly what music like this must cost. These were the great alienating bands of the late 1990s. The Strokes were different, representing a new paradigm; the very title of their record, even minus any punctuation as they intended, indicated a shrugging and half-impressed interrogative, “Is This It?” or the excited corollary response, “This is it.”

But it was the small ideas, the smallness of Is This It that revolutionized rock music and mainstream alternative for the coming decade and onwards. Cultural contrarians, the Strokes repeatedly said the recording of their debut EP The Modern Age would be about doing the opposite of everything they saw and heard around them. While Nickleback wouldn’t have to pack their things and head back to the Red States where they would remain popular into infinity, the Strokes crafted a third way between what was then acceptable on Modern Rock radio and the titanic but obscure indie rockers of the 1990s: Malkmus, Martsch, and Brock. Mainstreaming and commercializing the margins became the new project of modernity.

This was how the Strokes carved out a new cool and a new way of being. Gritty rock music, something that sounded cheap and dirty, like singer Julian Casablancas wailing into a wax-paper microphone, something that sounded at the time almost intentionally shitty, could still chart on Billboard. Casablancas called this “a raw efficiency,” in a May 2001 interview with NME, reflecting a desire to record without unnecessary takes and production. It amounted to a marketing of the heretofore unmarketable. The walls came down. If a basement band from the Lower East Side could ride into the top 50 on the Billboard charts and into the top 10 at Modern Rock Radio, the business landscape was trending toward the everyman, a democratization of culture and production that would destroy the CDs we passed to each other and destroy the music world as we understood it; Casablancas, Hammond, Moretti, Fraiture, and Valensi were the five horsemen riding on the horizon. This was the sound of the Age of Do It Yourself.

Of course, the Strokes were no DIY band at the time of the release of Is This It — they had the backing of RCA and their Lord Fauntleroy background as prep school silver-spooners was well documented — but they still came to represent the new avatar of a musical free-for-all. The band launched a thousand other guitar bands, groups of guys and girls who figured music didn’t need to sound perfect to be perfect. Downtown became cool again, and really, downtown could be anywhere; The Strokes were an attitude, not a place. The White Stripes continued this revolution with their mainstream popularity during 2002 when 2001’s White Blood Cells gained traction, but Jack White’s authenticity was daunting. Too many bands, Jet, most notably, would die trying to follow towards the summit of his legitimate weirdness and cool. Casablancas and the Strokes, perhaps for their very artifice in crafting their music and image or perhaps because they were prep school kids in Wayfarers and thrift store t-shirts, seemed better dealers of the commercialization of a rock revival, to sound DIY without actually needing to be DIY. Triple drivers, the business and cultural climates shifted with the spread of the Strokes’ music.

The original and untrue rumor of the band making Is This It for a low, five-figure sum began to look prophetic. Before 2001, mainstream music was supposed to be expensive, polished, and elite. Power was held in offices on Fifth Avenue, and labels selected bands out of regional markets and then pushed their music to radio, directing what bands the kids would choose their rebellion from. Within years, music would be effectively and troublingly free. Bands would control much more of their marketing, sales, and image-making on the Internet. Label money, ironically some of the same RCA money that allowed for the recording of Is This It, would begin drying up.

Casablancas and his crew represented the new era, even while they benefitted from the last great days of the recording industry empire. RCA signed the Strokes to a five-album deal in 2001, an almost inconceivably generous offer more than a decade later as the band finally completed the last record of the contract with its fifth LP, Comedown Machine. More importantly than the finances, the band created the sound, the shabby confidence and individualism that described the shifting cultural and business geography beneath their feet. They were right, this was The Modern Age. Unwittingly, though, this sound and these new modalities contained the recipe for the band’s undoing.

The band with the one small idea that changed what cool looked and sounded like in 2001 is now seemingly out of ideas.

Thrift store t-shirts and tight jeans weren’t too far behind the success of the Strokes, growing the commercial center of downtown cool outwards, another trend the band didn’t invent but nonetheless popularized and mainstreamed. By the time another Apple product, Garage Band, made its debut in 2004, bedroom, basement, and garage records came from all parts of the country. Music and culture drove each other, a race to the bottom in cheapness, quickness, and breadth; the rise of the guitar band in the early 2000s mirrored the rise of hipster signifiers that could be cheaply accessed by almost anyone. Bands achieved mercurial fame on the Internet without the classic paying of dues in local club scenes and small media markets. Even the Strokes had spent four years playing to almost no one, even high school birthday parties, before the Mercury Lounge began to change their visibility and their lives in 2000. After the release of Room on Fire in 2003, both the publicity and coverage of music and cool were moving faster, and the ascendency of music blogs and web publishing harnessed the power of the same democratization trends in media. The Strokes had benefitted from this, to be sure, but they were cultural grandfathers, OGs of a new era now beset by too many imitators, troubled by their own success, the architects of a revolution that began to transcend itself.

All of this begs the question of the comparative quietude as the Strokes prepare the release their fifth long-player, Comedown Machine. The band has demurred on whether they will tour the record and its radio single, “All The Time” will not be in heavy rotation at either Modern Rock or Alternative radio formats. For the band uniquely prepared to soundtrack and explain the terrifying, loose modernism of the first decades of the 21st century, it is a new position, almost forgotten, vaguely disappointing, with their last uniformly acclaimed record, Room on Fire, now a decade old. This popular disinterest is reflected at least partially in the music press placing a great deal more energy and hype in the coming albums from the National and Vampire Weekend, two very different sounding bands who nonetheless would not be nearly as successful or famous without the example and trailblazing cultural designs of the Strokes in 2001. While their iconic historical position no longer debated as it once was — Pitchfork began the 2001 review of Is This It with a one-word sentence, “Hype.” — the Strokes now battle themselves not for memory, but for relevance.

How did we get here? How did they get here? The band with the one small idea that changed what cool looked and sounded like in 2001 is now seemingly out of ideas. Even just a few years ago, all seemed unwell with the Strokes for an entirely different set of reasons. The band’s affairs spiraled outward in a multitude of directions, hijacked by the democracy they unwittingly helped unleash in music and culture at large. Taking an extended hiatus after 2006’s ambitious and bloated, First Impressions of Earth, Casablancas, Albert Hammond, and drummer Fabrizo Moretti each experimented with solo careers. None of the band reportedly ever attended one of Hammond’s shows over the course of his two solo records in between 2006’s First Impressions and 2011’s Angles. It was a new normal for Hammond who had once scoffed at the possibility of breaking up the band in an October 2001 interview with Guitar Magazine, saying, “Solo album! You know what my solo album would be like? It would sound just like the Strokes, because it would be like ‘Hey Julian! Do you want to sing on my album? Fab, would you play drums. Nikolai, is bass OK? Nick, how about playing some guitar?’” The spiraling power of “me” and “my ideas” slid sideways on the Strokes; it was ripping the band apart.

Casablancas reportedly offered material for a possible fourth group record in 2008 and was resoundingly rebuffed. It didn’t sound enough like the Strokes, his bandmates said, though it was getting less and less clear “what sounding like the Strokes” would mean. Instead, Casablancas made a solo record, Phrazes for the Young. The wedge grew deeper. By the time the band reunited — and this was strictly figurative — for 2011’s Angles, band members refused to join one another in the studio. Casablancas sent in song ideas and vocal tracks remotely and, unsurprisingly, tried to approach the writing process from a more collaborative and democratic, if passive aggressive, methodology. He later called this process, “Operation Make Everyone Happy.”

Angles was no disaster: It featured four strong opening songs, but the second half sounded uninspiring and brief, the work of great artists fleetingly trying to remember what their greatness sounded like. Only 34 minutes and nine songs long, Angles left listeners thinking, “Is that it?,” a cruel recasting of the brevity and power of the band’s debut record. Is This It was also less than 40 minutes long and was lauded for its sawing power and succinctness. The one-idea band, a notion they embraced with great power on Room on Fire and tried to transcend on First Impressions of Earth, now represented a parody, a band playing songs that sound like what the band sounds like. The Strokes had lived just long enough to see the world they built transcend and begin to forget them.

All of this history helps bring the band into the present and a new record, the last of their five album arc for RCA and quite possibly their last as a creative entity. Comedown Machine — and all their records seem to carry titles that are revealing about the process and temperature of the band — is exactly that: the device that will finally land the band down out of any critically rarified air. The biggest surprise in the progress toward the release was the relative silence it was greeted with from the media and casual fans alike. In an unscientific study of people I know, many of them enormous fans of the band’s early work, not one person has initiated a conversation about Comedown Machine since its announcement, leak, and sanctioned stream. A band that made itself on rumor, on hype, now isn’t even worth retelling.

Perhaps this has to do with the declining emphasis on physical music since the release of Is This It, or perhaps it is something deeper, more pathological in the artistic failings of the Strokes. Music had become invisible, and so had the band. There would be no great excitement about owning or burning Comedown Machine outside of the band’s inner circle of admittedly loyal and enthusiastic fans. Comedown Machine wouldn’t inspire any great rumor, anything approaching a viral movement to spread the music or the band’s cultural ethos. Two weeks ago when the full record unofficially hit the Internet, the leak generated no extended conversation on social media. Reaction to the release of the single, “All The Time” had elicited a similarly muted response in the last weeks of February; the most glowing critical responses indicated the band was finally returning to portions of its downtown sound.

The final test of the band’s mounting irrelevance came when Pitchfork Media debuted a full stream of Comedown Machine last week under the website’s carefully curated Pitchfork Advance feature. Where fans clutched and grabbed at anything associated with the band in 2001, spreading Is This It illegally on thousands of golden-blue CD-Rs with permanent marker garnish, no great digital crowd flocked to Pitchfork to hear Comedown Machine. On March 18, Pitchfork announced the stream of Comedown Machine, the exclusive and official debut of the Strokes’ fifth studio album. It was the only legal place to hear it, and it was free. On Twitter, Pitchfork’s announcement of the stream was retweeted by less than 400 people. That same day, Pitchfork’s announcement of two new Vampire Weekend songs elicited about the same level response, an indication of where the Strokes sat against some of the bands they culturally helped create. Days later, when the same news outlet announced news of the sixth studio record from the National, almost a thousand people retweeted the news. These were the new modern metric versions of the plastic CDs we’d passed down hallways in 2001. The impact was anecdotal then, a viral story told hand-to-hand. We had better and more damning numbers now: A new Strokes album was worth two new Vampire Weekend songs and less than half the impact of the mere news of the next record from the National.

None of this is joyful, the grand cultural descent of a great artist, nor is it permanent. The Strokes too will be saved by time, a probable break up on the backside of the RCA deal and whatever tour or non-tour comes out of Comedown. They can pursue solo records for a time and reunite in eight years for Coachella; it will be the twentieth anniversary of Is This It. Some of the band’s poor creative decisions will be lost in the depth and breadth of their catalog, the Greatest Hits solution, in the same way that almost no one remembers the Who for “You Better You Bet”. The Strokes will have amassed a dense collection of hits, largely from their first two records, and will be credited, appropriately or not, with colluding with the White Stripes to save rock’n’roll as we know it. Like an old girlfriend or boyfriend, we will have successfully forgotten the misery and confusion of how it ended, remembering only the explosive creativity and luridness of the early days. Those were the times where the band forged their legacy and we helped them do it.

The Strokes were never the most original band musically, but they gave sound to a troubling modern age, most visibly helping turn the Lower East Side into an upscale neighborhood. Downtown was cool, and cool was marketable, a system made and broken in the same moment. A gelato shop now directly adjoins the Mercury Lounge, the tiny rock club where the band first came to fame. The surrounding block is overshadowed by a heroic luxury apartment building, the ominously titled, The Ludlow.

Two streets north, 2A, the band’s favorite bar with no sign, on the same block where they recorded Is This It, recently renovated its upstairs into a lounge with a DJ booth and neatly framed pictures on the wall. In a final act of gentrification, 2A’s proprietors spent $10,000 — and this figure is accurate — on a massive projector that shoots old-time movies from the inside of their second floor onto the wall of the brick building across 2nd Street. In addition to going to the bar where the Strokes drank in 2001, you can watch silent, blurry nostalgia projected three stories high on the edifice of the old East Village. Standing at street level the movies are a bizarre, outsized performance art as they flicker against the red brick. It is the striking power of modernity to harness new technology to enlarge and distort our past. Like the Strokes, these enormous, silent images are both monolith and monument of what is now, what used to be, and all that we have gained and lost in between.



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