By bringing style, fun, and catchy songwriting back to rock music, the Strokes became one of the most influential bands of the early 21st century. Their direct, hooky sound — equally inspired by classic tunesmiths like Buddy Holly and the brash attitude of fellow New Yorkers the Velvet Underground and Ramones — set trends even as it looked back on rock history. With their acclaimed 2001 debut, Is This It, the Strokes reinvigorated a rock scene that had spent years focused on post-grunge and nu-metal. Along with the White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they helped shape the sound and look of alternative rock in the 2000s, with Kings of Leon, the Killers, and the Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, and Arctic Monkeys reflecting their impact in the U.S. and the U.K., respectively. As the decade unfolded, the Strokes embellished on their back-to-basics style, adding new wave and synth pop elements to 2003′s Room on Fire and 2006′s ambitious First Impressions of Earth, a trend they continued with later releases like 2013′s Comedown Machine. Though they spent much of the 2010s working on individual projects, they returned with some of their most passionate-sounding music on 2020′s The New Abnormal.
The Strokes’ roots go back to the late ’90s. Singer/songwriter Julian Casablancas (the son of Elite Model Agency Group kingpin John Casablancas), drummer Fabrizio Moretti (who began playing drums at age five), and guitarist Nick Valensi started playing together in 1997 while they attended the Dwight School, a private prep school in Manhattan. Soon thereafter, they met bassist Nikolai Fraiture, who attended the Upper East Side’s Lycée Français, and added him to their ranks. At the time, the then-unnamed band’s musical influences included the Doors, Bob Marley, the Velvet Underground, and Jane's Addiction. In 1998, guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. (the son of singer/songwriter Albert Hammond, whose songs include “It Never Rains in Southern California,” “When I Need You,” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”) came from Los Angeles to attend film school at NYU and was invited into the band by Casablancas; the two had met at L’Institut le Rosey in Switzerland when they were kids.
With the addition of Hammond, Jr., the band’s style coalesced into a punk-, new wave-, and garage-inspired sound, and Casablancas officially christened the quintet the Strokes in 1999. The group spent most of that year writing and rehearsing material in New York City’s Music Building. They played their first gig at the Spiral, and word of mouth about the Strokes’ incendiary live show propelled them to gigs at venues like Under the Acme and Lower East Side clubs such as Arlene Grocery, Baby Jupiter, and Luna. The Strokes’ December 2000 dates at the Mercury Lounge and the Bowery Ballroom not only gained them a manager (Ryan Gentles, who booked them at those clubs) but also helped Strokes mania reach critical mass in New York.
To record their three-song demo, the Strokes enlisted Gordon Raphael, starting a long-running creative partnership. Rough Trade released the group’s three-song demo as The Modern Age EP in January 2001, which sparked a bidding war from which RCA emerged as the victor. Meanwhile, the Strokes’ acclaim reached the U.K. and grew to massive proportions over the course of the year, with singles like “Hard to Explain” (which debuted at number 16 in the U.K. charts) winning them a rabid British following. A side-stage slot at the NME Carling Weekender was changed to a main-stage performance for fear of people trampling each other to see the band.
When the Strokes began work on their debut album, the initial sessions included Gil Norton, but creative differences with the Pixies producer led the band to reunite with Raphael. Working in the East Village’s Transporterraum studio, Raphael and the Strokes recorded Is This It over the course of March and April 2001, adopting a compressed, back-to-basics sound that borrowed production techniques used by the Velvet Underground and Ramones. Released in Australia in July 2001 and in the U.K. that August, Is This It originally featured a Helmut Newton-esque photo of a woman’s nude behind and hip with a leather-gloved hand resting on it; the U.K. chains Woolworths and HMV objected to its controversial nature, but continued to sell the album.
The North American version of Is This It appeared in October 2001 with a few changes: The Strokes opted for a picture of particle collisions in the Big European Bubble Chamber on the cover and removed the track “New York City Cops,” feeling the song was inappropriate in the wake of the terrorist attacks that struck New York prior to the album’s release; the planned B-side, “When It Started,” took its place. Is This It earned widespread critical acclaim and strong sales, reaching number two on the U.K. Albums Chart and number 33 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart in the U.S. Over time, it achieved platinum status in countries including the U.S., the U.K., Japan, Canada, and Australia. The album also spawned the hit singles “Last Nite” and “Someday.”
The Strokes’ profile continued to rise for the remainder of 2001 and into 2002. Is This It and the band were lauded in many ways, ranging from This Isn’t It, an EP of instrumental versions of some of the album’s songs performed by a mystery band called the Diff'rent Strokes to 2001 NME Carling Awards for Best New Act, Band of the Year, and Album of the Year. The band also won a Brit Award for Best International Newcomer and were nominated for the Best International Group Award. They toured extensively throughout 2002, including a series of dates that summer in New York and Detroit with the White Stripes and summer festivals at Reading and Leeds. During these shows and their dates opening for the Rolling Stones, the Strokes debuted songs they’d been writing, including “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” “You Talk Way Too Much,” and “The Way It Is.”
After finishing their touring commitments in 2002, the Strokes started work on their second album. At first, they worked with renowned producer Nigel Godrich before reuniting with Raphael in May 2003. Recorded in three months, Room on Fire arrived in October 2003 with a slightly smoother sound that brought out the new wave elements of the Strokes’ music. The album built on Is This It’s success, reaching number four on the Billboard 200 and number two on the U.K. Album Charts. In the U.S., it achieved gold status and went platinum in the U.K. and Australia.
The Strokes toured for much of 2004 and returned to the studio for album number three in early 2005. They began the sessions with Raphael, but eventually completed the album with Grammy-winning producer David Kahne. Preceded by the grunge-influenced single “Juicebox,” which became a Top Ten hit in the U.S. and U.K., First Impressions of Earth appeared in January 2006. A more experimental and eclectic effort than the Strokes’ first two albums, it became the band’s first chart-topping album in the U.K. and made the Top Five of the album charts in Canada and the U.S.
Once the First Impressions of Earth tour was finished, the Strokes went on hiatus, with each member working on other projects. Albert Hammond, Jr. was the first to venture into the solo fray with Yours to Keep, which was released in late 2006 in the U.K. and in early 2007 in the U.S.; he followed it with 2008′s Como Te Llama? Fabrizio Moretti played with the indie pop band Little Joy, whose self-titled album arrived in late 2008. Nikolai Fraiture embarked on the folky solo project Nickel Eye, and released the debut Time of the Assassins in early 2009. During this time, Casablancas collaborated with other artists, playing Casio guitar on “Sick, Sick, Sick” from Queens of the Stone Age’s 2007 album Era Vulgaris and collaborating with Santigold and Pharrell on the song “My Drive Thru” for a 2008 Converse Shoes ad campaign. He also recorded with the Lonely Island, Danger Mouse, and Sparklehorse.
At the beginning of 2009, Casablancas and Valensi began work on the Strokes’ fourth album. Progress was slow, however, and Casablancas released his debut solo album, Phrazes for the Young, in October of that year. In 2010, the band collaborated with producer Joe Chiccarelli on some tracks, but they ultimately worked with producer and engineer Gus Oberg at Hammond, Jr.’s home studio on the majority of what would become Angles. Arriving in March 2011, the album took cues from MGMT, Crystal Castles, and other synth-heavy bands, and, for the first time on a Strokes album, featured backing vocals. Angles was a Top Five hit in the U.S. and U.K., and became the band’s first album to hit number one in Australia. The record’s lead single “Under Cover of Darkness” reached number 12 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart.
In contrast to Angles’ lengthy creative process, the Strokes started making their fifth album in 2012. Working once again with Oberg, this time at Manhattan’s Electric Lady studio, the group also continued Angles’ collaborative songwriting on March 2013′s Comedown Machine, a more streamlined, subdued affair that reunited the band with Angles producer Gus Oberg. The members of the Strokes then spent a couple of years pursuing individual projects: Casablancas formed the Voidz, whose politically minded debut album, Tyranny, arrived in 2014. That year, Valensi contributed to Brody Dalle’s album Diploid Love, and Hammond, Jr. released his third solo album, Momentary Masters, in 2015. The group reunited in 2016 for a string of shows and Future Present Past, their first EP in 15 years and their first on Casablancas’ Cult Records. New Skin, the debut album from Valensi’s band CRX, also appeared that year.
Along with playing several festivals, the Strokes started mapping out their sixth album with producer Rick Rubin in 2017. As they worked on material for it, Casablancas and his other band the Voidz issued the album Virtue in 2018, while Hammond, Jr. released the Oberg-produced Francis Trouble. Preceded by shows including a 2019 New Year’s Eve concert in Brooklyn and a February 2020 rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, The New Abnormal arrived in 2020 and introduced a more thoughtful and confessional level to the Strokes’ sound and songwriting. Recorded in California and Hawaii, the album was a critical and commercial success, becoming a Top Ten hit in several countries including the U.S. and the U.K. In 2021, The New Abnormal won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards. In February 2023, the Strokes issued The Singles, Vol. 1, a collection of singles and B-sides from the band’s first three albums. ~ Heather Phares