To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld:
What is the deal with The Strokes?
All signs point to them being scam artists, modern-day snake oil salesmen who hawk tasty guitar licks instead of magic elixirs and cure-alls. Men whose wordy alliterations promise not a life of glowing skin and healthy gums, but one of drunken nights and unkempt puffs of hair.
Is it possible that this troupe of über-hip 20-somethings, with their retro clothes and untamed rock star attitudes, is really one of the most popular rock bands in the world?
The Strokes just seem too good to be true.
Formed in 1998 in New York, The Strokes' run at world domination wouldn't start taking shape for about a year. Singer Julian Casablancas, bassist Nikolai Fraiture, guitarist Nick Valensi and drummer Fabrizio Moretti began piecing songs together on a whim, without many prospects for the future. It wasn't until they added Secret Ingredient X that the band found their way to success.
"Yeah, as soon as Albert [Hammond Jr.] joined, it just made sense, you know?" says the statuesque Fraiture. "Before, we were kind of just dicking around with stuff.
"Julian was playing guitar at the time and then he put it down."
Hammond brought with him a bevy of musical knowledge, including bands like Built to Spill and Guided by Voices, introducing these core indie-rock outfits into bandmates' CD players. He also brought a killer eye for fashion, leading the ornamental leg of the Strokes' coup d'etat on alternative nation.
The Strokes' taut, seamless rhythms and newly honed aesthetics caught the attention of Rough Trade Records and the band released their pivotal Modern Age EP to the delight of the hype-hungry British press. Based on the reception the band got overseas, they up and headed to Europe where they would be hailed as not only the saviors of garage rock, but also the new faces of rock 'n' roll.
Fraiture (the "quiet one," to use the boy-band vernacular) seems genuinely unspoiled by his band's sudden rise to rock's top shelf. He speaks with a soft monotone, both amused by and removed from the fact that he and his buddies have become one of the most imitated and lauded bands in the world-particularly in England.
"In the U.K., it's kind of hard to deny [our celebrity]," he says. "As humble as you want to be, the way they've dealt with our status is kinda crazy and weird."
Luck with the British press and a frenzied live show definitely put The Strokes on the map, but their popularity still seems somewhat of a mystery. Their music isn't anything that Television or the Velvet Underground hadn't already riffed within an inch of its life in the mid-'70s, so why are The Strokes so popular in the 21st century?
When the band signed with RCA and released Is This It in 2001, the gloss of popular music was starting to fade. Bands like the White Stripes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were slowly emerging from the Underground, retooling the ghosts of rock stars past for a new generation of over-popped plebeians yearning for a musical edge they could hold onto.
The Strokes hit the modern music scene during popular music's perfect storm. Not only were audiences tired of pop dominating the airwaves (as happens every couple of years), but rock and retro-chic joined forces to create a grunge for the new millennium-and The Strokes have it down to a science. Last year's equally engaging sophomore release, Room On Fire, simply reiterated the band's magnetism and solidified their place in contemporary music.
But what does the band think of their success? Surely there must be some reason beyond the clothes, riffs and Drew Barrymore (who dates drummer Moretti) that can validate the band's ascension to the top of the modern garage-rock cannon. Particularly since other bands like The Hives and The (International) Noise Conspiracy were all contending for the same thing.
"We got signed first to a major label," Fraiture proposes. "I think that's the only logical explanation I can give. All these bands existed probably even before we were a band. I think, in terms of attention, it's just a major-label thing. It plays an important part."
So, has the world been duped by some brilliant, faceless rock 'n' roll strategist who knew exactly when and how to strike with The Strokes? Is the music industry so predictable that a band's success can be weighted more on their timing than their music? Has anybody seen Lou Pearlman?
Or maybe it is just that The Strokes are that good-bobbing and weaving their way into our CD players with an incredible ear for melody and a street-savvy attitude toward life and music.
I'd like to believe the latter-but I've got my eye on you, Pearlman.
AThe Strokes play with The Sounds at Soma, 7 p.m. on March 30. The show is sold out.