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The Strokes not as you'd expect

Published: 6:50PM Tuesday February 07, 2006 Source: Reuters

Julian Casablancas could be forgiven for acting like a rock star.

He's the lead singer and songwriter for the New York band The Strokes, which has a critically acclaimed new record and is coming off a performance on Saturday Night Live, perhaps the most coveted rock gig on television.

Yet the Julian Casablancas at his publicist's Soho office hardly matches that of his aloof image. He's polite and engaging, quick with a joke, and he exchanges schoolboy humour with two of his bandmates, Fab Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture.

Casablancas said he would continue as a musician regardless of record sales - their new record is falling on the charts after a strong debut - and he gave the impression he would be happy playing small dives in New York City's Lower East Side, where the band got its start.

"There are so many little places I want to play, sometimes weird places I think would be fun to play...a bar that's half full," Casablancas told Reuters in an interview.

"Then I call up my manager and ask him if we can play there and he says, 'No.'"

Once hailed as a saviour of rock for a sound one critic called a "new wave, garage rock revival," The Strokes have yet to achieve the stardom that might have been expected of them after their debut album in 2001, Is This It.

Their latest release on RCA, First Impressions of Earth started at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart of all US album sales. It then slipped to 18 and then 32.

When asked about his accomplishments like appearing on Saturday Night Live or having The Strokes' new record debut at No. 1 on the charts in Britain, Casablancas raises and pumps his fist, as if success were new to him.

Industry experts say it has yet to be determined whether The Strokes will become a career band or simply remembered for their first album, which set high expectations that have yet to be met.

In any case the singer has become more responsible of late. No more all-night parties. Casablancas married a member of his management team and quit drinking, he said, when it began to affect his music.

"It was the hangover where I had to drink to not be hung over. And I think the hangover lasted about a year," he said.

Elusive stardom

The Strokes have the cachet of being one of New York's hippest groups and the kind of sex appeal that has drummer Moretti dating movie star Drew Barrymore.

Casablancas, Moretti, bassist Fraiture and guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., all aged 25 to 27, have that careless rock swagger. They dress in thrift shop chic, with mismatching ties and sneakers.

"They're the definition of hipster cool," said Rolling Stone magazine senior editor Nathan Brackett.

"They made rock cool again for younger kids, especially in the urban centres, and they inspired a lot of bands. At the same time they have never lived up to their commercial potential," Brackett said.

The band sold out 18 shows on tour of Britain and Ireland, which will continue until February 21, and their homecoming show in New York's Hammerstein Ballroom sold out so quickly that they added a second show.

For some reason, The Strokes have been better appreciated in Britain than the United States - a distinction shared by Jimi Hendrix and Public Enemy early in their careers.

"I guess I'm of two minds about (that)," Casablancas said. "One half accepts it, I'm grateful for anything I can get. And the other half, the motivated part of me wants to have the same thing going here in the United States."

True success has evaded them. Is This It sold over a million copies in the United States and went gold in several countries. Then their 2003 follow-up Room on Fire flopped with many critics and has yet to crack sales of 600,000.

"First Impressions of Earth" could be a make-or-break record for The Strokes.

"I think it's sort of a scary thing you don't really want to face. I definitely feel like we had to do something special (with the new record) or people potentially really wouldn't care about us," Casablancas said.

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