How the Strokes — and the Early-Aughts New York Rock Boom — Went Bust
Cover : Fabrizio Moretti at Radio City Music Hall in 2002.
In 1998, five New York friends — Julian Casablancas, Albert Hammond Jr., Fabrizio Moretti, Nick Valensi, and Nikolai Fraiture — formed a band called the Strokes. They released a debut album, Is This It, in 2001. In 2009, NME named it Album the Decade; Rolling Stone ranked it No. 2, behind Radiohead’s Kid A. This is an account what happened in between, starting in 2002.
Ryan Adams (musician): One night I was hanging with the Strokes guys and Ryan Gentles, the band’s manager]. We were really stoned because we were basically always smoking pot. It was very late. Fab would always play me a song that he had written, some beautiful, romantic song. So one night, jokingly, I’m almost certain, Fabby said, “Dude, what if John Mayer was playing that guitar right now?” And I said, “I can make that happen.” Now, I lived down the block from John Mayer, and he’d been talking to me about his new song for a while. So I texted him, because he was always up late back then. I said, “Come to this apartment. Bring an acoustic guitar. I really want to hear your new song.” I didn’t tell them that I’d done it. So everyone is sitting there and I was like, “Let’s all take bong hits.” I really wanted it to get crazy. We smoked some bong hits; I probably did some blow. The doorbell buzzer rings, and I open the door, and John Mayer walks in with his fucking acoustic guitar, and they were all slack-jawed. John sat down and played the fucking acoustic guitar — three or four songs that probably have gone on to be huge — while those guys just sat there staring at me like, Oh my God, you’re a witch.
Gideon Yago (journalist): Ryan Adams, he was one those guys where I just remember being like, I just don’t know. I didn’t take to him very well. I mean, that to me was the beginning the end.
Fabrizio Moretti (drummer, the Strokes): He would come over to our apartment a lot.
Albert Hammond Jr. (guitarist, the Strokes): When he shows you a song, he doesn’t stop for hours. You’re like, “Oh, that reminds me a song I wrote.” And you play a G chord and he’s like, “I know what you’re talking about,” and he grabs the guitar back. There’s no way to play music with him. It’s the Ryan show, always.
Ryan Gentles (manager, the Strokes): I introduced Jim Barber and Ryan Adams. Courtney Love] was dating Jim at the time.
James Barber (former A&R executive): Courtney thought the Strokes were a positive cultural influence. She was doing this MTV special. She wanted them on.
Marc Spitz (journalist): She was like their Yoda. Their coke Yoda. I’m not saying she gave them cocaine. I mean, most everyone was on cocaine, but it seemed like as soon as they really made it, she was all over them. And she was not in the best shape at the time. Maybe not the Jedi you want whispering in your ear about how to be a rock star.
Ryan Gentles: I was friends with Courtney; she would call me at random hours to give me advice. Then she did this overnight-broadcast thing for MTV.
Marc Spitz: It was called 24 Hours Love, and the premise was that she would take over the MTV soundstage, the one in Times Square, for 24 hours.
Albert Hammond Jr.: When you’re fucked up and the idea is funny, you just do it. You’re like, Oh, yeah. We’ll go up there and hang out with Courtney Love. By the time you’re in a taxi and you’re in traffic, you’re like, Wait, what are we doing here?
Ryan Gentles: She was all strung out and drunk; it was almost embarrassing. She was running up and down the hallways naked.
Albert Hammond Jr.: Oh, she was fucked up.
Ryan Gentles: I actually adore her in a way. She’s so smart. But I don’t know her. I don’t think anybody knows her.
Jenny Eliscu (journalist): Gentles briefly managed Ryan Adams during that era, which seemed to not go great.
Ryan Gentles: Ryan and I were buds. And went down to New Orleans and made Love Is Hell. Then I had to quit, because the Strokes exercised a clause in their contract that said I wasn’t allowed to manage other artists.
Albert Hammond Jr.: Julian had a very clear thing, and we liked to do things a certain way. I think a lot things they blame Ryan for is stuff the band just doesn’t want to do.
Ryan Gentles: Do you know how many times I begged the Strokes to do some shit and they just said no and it was idiotic and everyone in the world knows they should do it?
Amanda De Cadenet (photographer): They’re the band that turned down a million dollars for some Heineken ad. That’s dumb.
Dave Gottlieb (former VP marketing, RCA): We got a request from Heineken for … it was either “Hard to Explain” or “Last Nite.” I think it was “Last Nite.” It was $600,000.
Ryan Gentles: When they were making Room on Fire they said they felt my attention wasn’t all theirs. They said, “You have to stop managing Ryan Adams.” It sucked. He’s super-talented, and I was ambitious, and I liked his music a lot, and I still do. How did he take it? Real bad.
Catherine Pierce (musician): Julian thought Ryan Adams] was a bad influence on Albert.
Albert Hammond Jr.: Ryan would always come and wake me at two in the morning and have drugs, so I’d just do the drugs and kind numb out. I knew I would shoot up drugs from a very young age. I’d been wanting to do heroin since I was 14 years old.
Catherine Pierce: Albert] used to say, “I love drugs. I’m not an addict, I love drugs!”
Albert Hammond Jr.: In that Room on Fire time, I definitely got into a lot pills and the beginning opiates. That OxyContin kind thing.
Catherine Pierce: Albert and Julian really loved each other and were kind dependent on each other. Julian’s acceptance was really important to Albert, and I think Albert’s opinion was really important to Julian.
Albert Hammond Jr.: When Julian and I stopped living together, that’s kind when it changed.
Catherine Pierce: It was such a weird time, because everybody was simultaneously psyched about “Oh, we’re all becoming famous, this is awesome, let’s all hang out.” But it was also like, “Wait, Ryan’s a bad influence.”
Albert Hammond Jr.: I remember Julian threatening to beat Ryan Adams] up if he hung out with me, as a protective thing. He’d heard that Ryan would come and give me heroin, so he was just like, “If you come to my apartment again with heroin, I’m going to kick your ass.” I hadn’t really been doing it in baggie form until Ryan showed up. He was definitely a bad influence.
Ryan Adams: That’s so sad, because Albert and I were friends. If anything, I really felt like I had an eye on him in a way that they never did. I was around and we actually spent time together. He would show me his songs. It was like, “No one ever listens to my music, but do you want to hear it?” I would be like, “Fuck yeah!” I loved him so deeply. I would never ever have given him a bag heroin. I remember being incredibly worried about him, even after I continued to do speedballs.
Julian Casablancas (front man, the Strokes): Did I specifically tell Ryan to stay away from Albert? I can’t remember the details, to be honest. I think heroin just kind crosses a line. It can take a person’s soul away. So it’s like if someone is trying to give your friend a lobotomy — you’re gonna step in.
Ryan Adams: I didn’t do drugs socially, and I don’t remember doing drugs with Albert ever. I wanted to smoke cigarettes and drink, like, dark red wine or vodka and write all night.
James Endeacott (former A&R executive): Albert getting into smack was just ridiculous.
Albert Hammond Jr.: For me, the drug stuff was a release. I don’t know how to explain it. Success depressed me.
Ryan Adams: It was very dramatic, the way it all went down. I was asked to meet one single person in a bar and I got there and it was the whole band and Ryan. I was more or less given a lecture, a hypocritical lecture, and then they told me that I was not going to be part their scene anymore. It was very weird. It was easy to brand me as the problem. I would suspect that they soon learned that I was not the problem.
Andy Greenwald (journalist): One thing about the 2000s is that everything happened too fast. The time that passed between Nirvana and Candlebox probably was two or three years. The time between the Strokes and Longwave was like 18 months. And there were diminishing returns. The Strokes weren’t really that big. Everyone needed them to be that big and desperately wanted them to be big, but they kind weren’t.
Brian Long (former A&R executive): Bands like the Strokes, they sucked on the proverbial major-label tit, drank the last gulp milk that was there. They were the handf from one era to another era. I remember when their second record came out, we really liked them and were championing them, but we were all wondering if they could develop in a way that would make an interesting career. The analogy we used to make was, will they end up making a London Calling? Could they be that? Or is it going to be just cutting different colors from the same swath fabric? And that’s kind what’s happened.
Dave Gottlieb: Room on Fire is as good as Is This It; the problem was the band did not sell it. You’d ask, “What’s your vision? What are your goals?” They didn’t really have an answer.
Jim Merlis (publicist, the Strokes): When the reviews started coming in, they all said that it sounds exactly like the first record.
Albert Hammond Jr.: With Room on Fire 2003], people were giving us shit because they said we were sounding too much the same. With the third album, we were getting shit that we don’t sound like Room on Fire. We got fucked by the same thing twice!
Dave Gottlieb: If the Strokes had happened five years earlier, they would have sold 2 or 3 million records, not 1 million, because the internet.
Moby (musician): The Strokes were the first band that era that went beyond just being PR darlings, and suddenly people were buying the records. It’s interesting, in their case, because they never sold that many records, but they made really good records. The reach, the awareness them was so much greater than the record sales.
Dean Wareham (front man, Luna): It’s hard to make something perfect. They made a perfect record, and that’s hard to do again.
Jenny Eliscu: It’s important to zoom out and look at what happens when a genuinely so-fucking-good-it’s-insane band happens — it’s always disappointing on the commercial scale. The Stooges were never a commercial success. And yeah, the internet culture today accelerates the pace at which you’re looking for the next example the thing, and we get bored with the thing, because everyone knew about it so quickly and disseminated it so quickly. Hipsters get over shit so quickly. But it’s important to state that there’s a difference between the underground and hipsters. The underground is real and permanent. It’s more art than it is commerce. The Killers … and Kings Leon were never part the underground. Fuck no.
Nick Valensi (guitarist, the Strokes): We had conversations that went along the lines “Gosh, I think our songs are better than ‘Mr. Brightside’ by the Killers, but how come that’s the one everyone is listening to? They did it a different way. They recorded it in a different way. They promoted it in a different way. We could be that big.”
Jim Merlis: There was bad stuff going on with the band — a lot fighting, arguing, and the shows were bad. They were really, really drunk, everything was becoming a bummer, they didn’t want to tour. They didn’t want to do anything. It was just not fun to be around them anymore.
Marc Spitz: They seemed a lot older. A lot older. And it had only been, like, two years. And they seemed defeated in a weird way. And impatient, like they just wanted it to be over, you know? They were not deluded that maybe it was over, their moment was over.
Albert Hammond Jr.: That’s probably the first time I noticed it had stopped being fun, the recording First Impressions Earth, 2006]. That’s when things started getting into the gap: Friends, girlfriends, strangers would all start coming in, being like, “You should be a bigger band,” and I was like, “Yeah, we should be a bigger band …” For as strong as we were and as close as we were, we weren’t close or strong enough to fight that.
Fabrizio Moretti: That’s the house cards that is being in the Strokes. There were a lot emotions that were kept secret but were so evident. We didn’t know how to process them, (a) because we were children and, (b) because it’s hard to process subliminal subconscious volcanic emotions. We were kids that wanted to conquer the world, but we had no idea that we were going to be given the chance.
Marc Spitz: Even when Spin made the Strokes Band the Year for 2002] after the Is This It tour, it was already starting. I mean, they played like they believed onstage. They went out there to kill, every fucking night. I still haven’t seen a better band. I didn’t see the Clash, but it was like what you imagine they were like. They came out and punched the audience in the fucking mouth every night. But I remember Nick saying, even then, “Man, this is all bullshit. Like, we’re not even Band the Year. We shouldn’t be here. The White Stripes are Band the Year.” They didn’t want to own it, you know?
Julian Casablancas: My biggest regret in general is that I drank so much. I warded f any kind intense introspection.
Marc Spitz: Julian was a perfectionist. And you saw Jack White was too, but something about the whole thing sat better with Jack. He acted more like a rock star. He crashed his car, he dated Renée Zellweger, he punched out that guy from the Von Bondies. He seemed more suited to that role. His vision seems pretty strong. And Jack didn’t have the burden New York City.
Jack White (front man, the White Stripes): Sometimes being thrust out there pushes you to hurry up and figure yourself out and do away with years fumbling. That happened to the Strokes; they had to get it together fast. Meg White] and I had three albums out and an almost too realistic view that nobody was ever going to care about our music. We were assuming we had a life playing in bars for 30 people in our future. The extra time to get our things together was good for us mentally. It still shocks me that the mainstream accepted that music; it doesn’t add up.
Austin Scaggs (journalist): I saw the Strokes’ bubble burst when I went to South America and Brazil for a bunch shows with Kings Leon and Arcade Fire and the Strokes. I was like, “Ryan, I’ll take the video camera, I’ll document this trip, I’ll just shoot everything and you can have whatever you want. I’ll pay for my own ticket.” Honestly, I was thinking it was going to be like Led Zeppelin, like you walk into the room and there’s a bed full women. I thought it was going to be a giant debaucherous orgy booze and drugs. It was the absolute opposite. To be super-blunt about it, the Strokes were crumbling right in front my eyes, right in front the camera. There was a lot resentment and there was a lot tension. When I got home I was like, “Wow, that was not what I expected.” I didn’t see one naked girl the whole time.
Albert Hammond Jr.: During the recording our third record, I was just sad.
Ryan Gentles: They were never broken up. They never talked about not making another record. It was just Albert wanted to release some music, and Julian wanted to release some music, and Nikolai wanted to release some, and Fab did some … It wasn’t really planned to go that long, it was just “I need a few more months.” “Now I want to put out a record.” It was all ill timed, and they would disagree on when they’d get back together.
Albert Hammond Jr.: I went through a downward spiral. We met up to start writing Angles in 2009, and then I just hit the lowest point in June, July, and August. Everyone came out to record at my house upstate and I was fucked. Everyone knew, “Oh, Albert’s definitely high,” and then two days later they came up and said, “You have to go.” Not all them; Julian didn’t come up. But my mom was there, and so the choice was that basically everyone would forgive me if I went to the three months rehab, so I did.
Catherine Pierce: We are good friends now, but it took a few years. There was a moment when we hated each other.
Albert Hammond Jr.: I’m sorry I killed everyone’s dreams. I don’t know if they’re still mad at me.
Laura Young (blogger): To me, the Strokes’ first album is one the greatest albums ever. But they represent such a moment in time that it’s hard to break out unless you really reinvent yourself. Unless you’re the Beatles and you make Sgt. Pepper, you’re not going to break out that mold “Oh, this is that band that came out the early 2000s and defined a moment.” Nothing they do will ever be as cool as that first album.
Albert Hammond Jr.: There was this amazing time, before we had to record the first record, we’d play to 80 people or something like that, but no one really knew us. We could just walk around town and think, I’m in this band, we can bring people to shows, and that was by far the best time. Everything was so innocent. Somehow you lose the innocence through time and through doing too much, then you spend a lot time chasing that same innocence.
James Murphy (front man, LCD Soundsystem): Is This It was my record the decade. Whenever people pooh-pooh it, I’m like, “You’re saying that now, but I guarantee you you’re going to have a barbecue in ten years, play that shit, and say, ‘I love this record.’ ”
Suroosh Alvi (co-founder, Vice Media): For all the talk about the Strokes, how they fucked it up, that their records suck now, there is still no one cooler. They are still the last imprint that particular brand rock cool. They are the last real rock stars. And live, they’re still so spectacular. They don’t do anything, they just stand up there and kill it. I saw them at Coachella right before that MSG show and Julian was like, “I just flew in, I don’t know what the fuck is going on, I just got on my gold-plated jet.” Such a bored rock star. And then he gets onstage and doesn’t do anything but kill it.
Excerpted from Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City, 2001–2011, by Lizzy Goodman (Dey Street Books/HarperCollins). Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Goodman.
*This article appears in the May 15, 2017, issue New York Magazine.