Long before the press declared The Strokes the "next this" and "saviors of that," the band was entrenched in the D.I.Y. ethic, doing what most determined indie rock bands do, trying to create its own buzz.
They flyered. They chatted up people. They wrote. They played. And from the band's very first live show, September 14, 1999, at the now-defunct Spiral in New York City, to their current tour of the U.S., Mexico, and then of Japan, Europe and the U.K., that's really what The Strokes are about, sharing their music with people who care.
Sitting in a dressing room at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern, bassist Nikolai Fraiture talked about each stage of The Strokes' rise. Each step reveals that they've chosen to work with the people who dig what they do and let them do it.
After The Strokes' debut at the Spiral ("attended by four or five friends and some of our girlfriends," recalled Fraiture), the band, including lead singer/songwriter Julian Casablancas, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti hit as many local clubs as they could. The local press hadn't caught on yet.
"Early on, you get a write up in the back, a listing of the venue," Fraiture said. "It's tough to break in New York and it was tough for us. A lot of bands can buckle and we just ... kept going. Our friends invited their friends. It was word of mouth.
"We played as much as we were allowed in New York because some clubs won't book you if you have another show two weeks before. Sometimes, we'd sneak into Brooklyn and play a show and, one night, we played two shows, one in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan. We played as much as we could."
With each step, they collected fans, one of whom would become their manager. Local "band helper" Kerri Sweeney gave Ryan Gentles, then junior talent booker at the Mercury Lounge, The Strokes' "old shitty demo recorded at the fancy studio" Quad in New York.
"I knew she had good taste in music," Gentles recalled. "I took it home and listened to it for weeks," he said of the CD that contained different versions of "New York City Cops," "Soma" and "Alone, Together," the latter two of which appear on the band's RCA debut, Is This It.
Gentles booked The Strokes at the Mercury August 31, 2000. Suddenly, his dream of becoming a promoter was eclipsed.
February 11, 2002
"It was life-altering, the band you had waited to hear all your life. I didn't know I wanted to be a manager but I knew this was the band I wanted to get involved in," he enthused.
The band was against circulating the "shitty" demo and had plans to record another three songs with Gordon Raphael who, like others who encountered The Strokes, wanted to be involved somehow.
"He saw us play live and liked our music and wanted to capture us live onto tape," Fraiture said.
The new demo was ready to go in October and contained the destined killer hit "Last Nite" as well as "The Modern Age" and "Barely Legal."
The Strokes never actually shopped for a deal; they just sent a CD to Geoff Travis, the head of A&R at U.K. label Rough Trade. In October he flew to New Jersey to catch the band live, Fraiture recalled.
"We played a terrible show, but he liked it anyways."
Travis agreed to release the demo as the EP The Modern Age in January 2001. Meanwhile, Gentles, familiar with most of the agents from booking the Mercury, started getting calls about The Strokes.
"To me, Marsha was always the best," he said of the decision to go with Marsha Vlasic at MVO Ltd. for North America. She started booking The Strokes' weekend dates out of town in November and December.
"They hadn't played outside New York City," Gentles explained. "I wanted to get them playing more out of town. I didn't care where. I wanted to get them in front of a live audience and tighter."
In the new year, The Strokes backed up the EP with a sold-out club tour in the U.K. booked by Russell Warby at The Agency Group, which handles the group outside North America. Through Gentles' friend, Guided By Voices manager David Newgarden, The Strokes had five East Coast dates opening for GBV lined up when they returned to the U.S. (Gentles would quit the Mercury in February). And while in the U.K., the Doves' management also offered the band a three-week North American tour.
It was at the Doves show at Toronto's Opera House that RCA A&R execs Steve Rabowski and Jack Rovner flew up to see the band. While The Strokes proceeded to meet with record labels, they weren't taking offers. In March, they showcased at SxSW in Austin, enabling the majority of A&R reps to see them. They returned to NYC and got the ball rolling on the RCA deal.
"The other companies would say, 'We'll give you money, whatever you want. We'll release the album, whatever you want.' Too good to be true," Fraiture explained. "RCA was like, 'We think what you do is cool and we don't want to mess with that. We'll help you along the way,' which is exactly how it's happened so far."
They started recording Is This It in April with Raphael and the deal was secured in May.
Vlasic booked The Strokes on some small club tours prior to the album's release and Warby got them on some European and U.K. festivals and over to Australia supporting You Am I. In late September/October, the band headlined its own tour of North America.
The Strokes have no plans for 2002 except "just to tour," Fraiture said.