The Strokes

The Strokes
If the Strokes never released a second album, they'd still go down in for history having one of the all-time great debut albums. Ten years after its release, Is This It is still name-dropped on a regular basis, almost in the same respect as Nirvana's Nevermind, for having jumpstarted a similar new wave of rock'n'roll that seemed unconscious before their arrival. Subsequent albums like 2003's Room On Fire and 2006's First Impressions of Earth failed to ignite the same fanatical response as their debut, but nonetheless satiated their hardcore fan base. (It should be pointed out that Room On Fire was a fine sophomore album that deserved more praise than it got.) Now five years after their last, we have a new Strokes album in Angles. Like every release since Is This It, the first question everyone has been asking is, "Will it be a return to form? Y'know, like their first album?" Angles, more than any of their later albums, sounds completely unlike their debut, and resolutely confirms that Julian, Nick, Fab, Albert and Nikolai are not likely to ever go back to the scratchy garage rock they exploded on the scene with in 2001. Face it, the Strokes are on to bigger and, hopefully, better things.

Nick Valensi, guitarist and one of the main songwriters on Angles, caught up with Exclaim! while driving around Los Angeles (wearing a Bluetooth, of course), to fill us in on why the album took so long, what he was up to while his bandmates were pursuing side-projects and how all of this talk about the band's in-fighting not representative of how things really are in the Strokes camp.

The first three albums came roughly two years apart. How did Angles end up taking five?
Well, there was kind of a long break, man. For a number of reasons there were a couple of years the timing wasn't right to make another Strokes record. There were a lot of side-projects and solo projects, but once we got back together to start writing and recording, that process was slightly drawn out. Again, for a number of reasons [laughs].

When did you actually begin working on the record?
We started writing the record together, I think it was around the beginning of 2009. So, a while ago. That seems kind of crazy, it took a long time. But there were a lot of stops and starts. We started for about six to eight months writing in a room, and we wrote a lot. We wrote like 18 or 20 songs, and then when it came time to start recording there were a few setbacks. Julian's solo record was coming out right when we were about to start recording, which made it a little difficult. And Albert went away for a couple of months to get clean. That's become common public knowledge now. I used to not say that, but now I feel okay because he's talking about it too.

Why no solo project? What kept you busy?
I've kind of been busy with kids, just doing parental, paternal things. It sounds kind of weird, but I've been super active in my kids' lives. A couple of years into this hiatus the thought crossed my mind to also do a side-project because I had written a lot of material, probably 14 or 15 songs. And I just kind of felt like I had been writing the songs with the Strokes in mind and Julian's voice in mind, with Albert and I doing our dual guitar thing, and the drumbeats were fast, so they were very much Strokes songs to me. I felt that if I did my songs with the band, they'd come out better, more of the way I intended them to. Not only that, but they'd also get heard by millions more people. So for me it was more a question of doing the songs justice, and not just doing a solo project for the sake of doing it because everyone else was.

Did your songs make the album?
Yeah, a couple of them did. A couple are still on the backburner for the Strokes. A couple of them the guys didn't really like that much, which was kind of frustrating. And a couple of them made the record like "Taken For A Fool," "Maccu Pichu," parts of "Under Cover of Darkness," "Games" – those were all songs that started with demos I made.

Do you think all of the focus on the Strokes not getting along in the studio is just an angle (no pun intended) the press is taking? Or is there some validity to it?
There's validity to it, but there's a bit of both. Some of it is true. There were a couple of difficult moments, but it seems like mentioning that to the press, in particularly the British press, they just wanted to feed on that small bit of negativity and blow it out of proportion. I can't say that some of it isn't true, but the reality is that it seems like people really want to write about the difficult times and they're not interested in the fact that we had a lot of fun making this album. And that we all really like the album.

I'm ready to read something else about the Strokes.
Yeah, I am too. I am too. It's weird because there's a real contrast between the press that we've been getting and these videos we made in the studio while we were recording. When you watch the video we're having so much fun. And then the stuff people are writing about us is the trials and tribulations of getting the record done. The whole thing was a bit of both: the highs were really high and the lows were really low. It's not like the whole thing was miserable and depressing.

There were all of these claims that Angles would be a return to what people called the "classic Strokes" sound, which I think refers to the first album. First Impressions of Earth was a very ambitious album. How much of a starting point was looking back at that third album for the band?
Not at all. I don't think we look back to any of our albums. Personally, I was not really trying to go into the past with this record. These were the first batch of songs I had started by myself and I was just trying to stay true to what I thought was cool without thinking about the previous albums. Just keep looking forward. I think people would like to compare it to what we've already done, but I think this record sounds really new, I don't think it sounds like any record we've done. People keep throwing around the "return to form" or "old school Strokes" tags, but I don't think Angles sounds like that. And I don't think we were ever out of form! [laughs] I like all of the records we've made. First Impressions of Earth gets a bad rap, but I think it's a fucking great record. It's a little long, and we could have cut it by two, three or four songs, but it has some of our best songs.

Personally, I thought it was too long…
I can't disagree with that criticism, but the fact is we couldn't agree on which songs to cut. And that's why we just put them all on there.

Remove Julian's voice from "Games" and even "Call Me Back" and I never would have guessed it was the Strokes. Is that kind of musical progression something you want to do more of?
"Games" is an interesting song, but I don't know if I'd want to delve more into that electronic vibe. I think we all would like to evolve. It's a challenge sometimes because what comes naturally to us is to just do the two guitars, drums and bass, simple rock thing, which is great. It's kind of what we do best, I think. It's what is really special about us. But sometimes that gets a bit boring. I don't want to do the same thing our entire career. Having said that it's definitely a challenge because it doesn't come naturally.

More than ever I've focused on the guitars with this record. With those aforementioned songs it seems as though you and Albert were really into experimenting with tones and textures.
It didn't come easily. We knew we wanted to take our time with guitar tones and arrangements, but I can't say that it just happened. It was definitely a labour of love. Certain guitar parts just got recorded over and over again.

Was there a lot of material that was leftover?
There are a lot of songs floating around that didn't make the record or even get recorded because it felt like the arrangement wasn't quite there yet. There are still a lot of ideas that are on the backburner, which I'm hoping will get worked out and put together for the next record. Hopefully sooner than later.

Five and a half years ago, you told me that "C&C Music Factory and MC Hammer are going to be a cool retro thing in the next few years." Do you feel that prediction came true?
Absolutely. I'm being sarcastic. I was probably being sarcastic back then too. But that prediction wasn't accurate, no.