From a basement studio in Alphabet City, the rock band The Strokes, and producer Gordon Raphael, blasted a rocket two decades ago that still burns: “Is This It” (2001), the group’s debut album, which turns twenty this year and retains the great urgency and joyful abandon with which it was made.
A thirty-six minute song cycle of urban ennui and young desire, of painful parties and lovers slipping away, the record proved cathartic in the wake of 9/11 just as it does now as New York and the entire world faces the coronavirus. At the dawn of the new millennium, however, The Strokes — Julian Casablancas on vocals, Nick Valensi on guitar, Albert Hammond Jr. on guitar, Nikolai Fraiture on bass guitar, and Fabrizio Moretti on drums — along with Raphael were just trying to make intriguing music.
Raphael is a New York-born and Seattle-raised musician and producer who has worked with a multitude of artists over his long career, including Regina Spektor and The Libertines. He first saw The Strokes at the now-closed Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street in 2000, which was two years after the quintet of New York natives (except Hammond Jr.) formed and started playing small venues around the city.
Speaking by phone from his current home in England about that night, he says, “As a producer, I was always looking for new music to record in my studio. I thought that The Strokes were okay, that they looked kind of cool, and I was fascinated by their show but I wasn’t really a fan until they started working with me.” Shortly after the performance, Raphael recorded a demo with the group that would become “The Modern Age” (2001).
Comprising the titular track, the guitar-curled “Last Nite” and the punk-esque “Barely Legal,” the short release sounded, at once, familiar and radically new. It earned so much attention that the then-unsigned band traveled abroad, where they put on large shows and eventually caught the ear of RCA (which subsequently became their label). A first proper LP had yet to arrive, though, and after a brief time, the group returned to Raphael’s glittered, dimly lit space and began recording.
“We had already set a precedent with the sound of the EP and with how hard we needed to work to do the songs, and that just continued for seven weeks at that pace,” Raphael says of the sessions for what grew into “Is This It.” “There was just incredible interaction and effort. It was labor-intensive for everyone involved. No one slacked off, no one relaxed. Everybody just put their minds and their bodies into it.”
The resulting record was a blitzkrieg in the musical consciousness. At a time when some said that rock was dead and other genres were much more popular, “Is This It” tore through the wall and stood defiantly. While echoing the fuzzy experimentation of The Velvet Underground or the quick pop of The Ramones, the album thrillingly fashions the sound of years past into its own gutter-rock.
Including not only the three tracks off the previous EP but such now-revered songs as “Soma” and the mad-drummed “Hard to Explain,” the album intrigues because it is immediate and fierce, lead singer Casablancas bellowing his blues from down below. The debut has a wide reach, having sold millions of copies in cities around the world, but it is very particular to the almost sacred angst of New York - sacred because the pain can be transcended. It is the yell in a tiny bathroom, the huff at a cruel social gathering, the cry of spotting a girlfriend with someone else in a taxi.
The vinyl release of “Is This It” fell on 9/11 and, as Raphael says of himself and the band at that time, “It made everyone pause for thought about what was going on. They weren’t unscathed by the events, that’s for sure.” In fact, The Strokes replaced their song, “New York City Cops” for another song as the wider release came just a few weeks later.
Even though the track, with its mention of police officers who are “not so smart,” was deemed inappropriate in the aftermath of 9/11, The Strokes only wanted to honor the NYPD for their valiance during 9/11. “Is This It,” as a whole, is the communal wail of New Yorkers in the decades that have followed the cataclysmic tragedy, a respite from the confusion and the chaos.
As New York and the world, at large, now confronts the coronavirus, the album similarly stands as a balm. With people staying at home more than ever and listening to their speakers, “Is This It” can “make them feel inspired and energetic,” as Raphael says, at a time when those sources of warmth are in dire need.
With Casablancas screaming “enough is enough” on album closer, “Take It or Leave It,” Moretti banging on his kit until his sticks break, and the guitars of Valensi, Hammond Jr. and Fraiture screeching towards the sky, freedom from agony at last blazes like a dynamo.