- 24 Apr 20
New York nugget merchants, The Strokes, have returned at last to the fray with The New Abnormal. To mark the occasion, bassist Nikolai Fraiture waxes eloquent on the band’s origins, supporting Bernie Saunders, Electric Picnic, the failure of the Trump administration on Covid-19 – and lots more besides. “It’s about finding that balance,” he tells Pat Carty.
Every band prays for it, but The Strokes had it: the kind of impact that happens only very rarely. When their debut album, Is This It, was released in 2001, its effect was explosive. Bands formed in their wake – The Libertines, Vampire Weekend, Artic Monkeys, Kings Of Leon among them – and they were a boon to skinny jeans salesmen the world over. Their sound was part Velvet Underground, part CBGBs circa 1977, and their look was what one might imagine would have happened if the other lads in Blondie decided they no longer needed the services of Debbie Harry. The album remains a classic; a permanent feature of those best albums ever lists. It was also at least partly responsible for the death of nu-metal, a debt we can never hope to repay. Follow-ups, Room On Fire (2003) and First Impressions Of Earth (2005), were strong works too, containing some of their greatest songs in the forms of ‘The End Has No End’ and ‘You Only Live Once’. If they had less of an impact, it’s only because The Strokes already existed. Fans had to wait a good half a decade for the next release, Angles, which was followed relatively quickly by Comedown Machine in 2013. Then things went quiet. Apart from the Future Present Past EP in 2016, there was nothing. Until now, that is. The Strokes have finally returned with The New Abnormal. Containing future classics like ‘Bad Decisions’ and ‘Eternal Summer’, the album has been met, for the most part, with positive reviews, but the question remains, what took so long? Luckily for those of us who wish to know, Hot Press has tracked down bass player Nikolai Fraiture in his New York home. It wasn’t, as it turns out, a case of the band sitting around, looking out the window. "We've had these songs recorded for quite a long time," Fraiture explains down the line. “We recorded at Shangri-La in 2017 with Rick Rubin.” Shangri-La being Rubin’s famed recording studio located near Zuma Beach in Malibu, California. Rubin himself scarcely needs any introduction, but, if you’re unsure, he’s the man who founded Def Jam Records back in the early Eighties, and went on to sit in the producer’s chair for everyone from AC/DC to U2, amongst many, many others. “They've been bouncing around for a couple of years,” he continues. “I think Julian was working on vocals intermittently during his other stuff, so we let it take its natural course. We didn’t try to force it and put it out right away. As with all our albums, we never have this grand plan, we just feel how it goes. To us, the music is the most important part of our what we do. It’s just a matter of when it feels right to put something out, and when it feels right for all of us, based on what we're all doing in our lives.” As recently as last New Year’s Eve, at a show in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, front man Julian Casablancas declared, “The 2010s, whatever the fuck they’re called, we took ‘em off.” Fraiture is quick to counter this. “I think he took the 2010s off,” Fraiture offers. “I think he’s speaking more for himself, maybe. As a musician, it never feels like you take time off. You create and you make music all the time, and wherever that goes is where the energy ends up.”
Take It Or Leave It
In contrast to previous records by The Strokes, this time around the music – separate from the lyrics which are Casablancas' alone – is credited to the band as a whole. This shift came about thanks to prompting from Rubin to just get in a room and play. “I think the idea Rick Rubin had for this album was to return to form in terms of us being a band,” Nikolai explains. “Weirdly, it felt the most like the first album because it was a very open place for ideas. Usually, we came in an hour before Rick arrived and jammed together, which we hadn't done like that in probably twenty years. There was no intention with the ideas, except to just feel the energy in the room. He would then come in and kind of go over what we did the day before. It was nice to have somebody at the helm who was over seeing things rather than being down in the trenches.”
The aforementioned ‘Bad Decisions’ and ‘Eternal Summer’ both borrow from external sources; Generation X and Billy Idol’s 'Dancing With Myself’ for the former, and Psychedelic Fur’s ‘The Ghost In You’ in the latter. To their credit, The Strokes haven’t tried to hide this and those Eighties heroes’ names are there in the sleeve notes. These starting points came out of the jamming process. “Yeah, pretty much,” he acknowledges with a shrug. “'Eternal Summer’ was probably the most ‘jammy’, and I think it feels like it too for listeners. We played music all the time in the studio, just riffing on anything, and sometimes an idea sticks. You try a thousand different things and there's no other way: it just works the way it is. I think in this case, sometimes it's hard to throw away what you have, so you have to credit someone else. You don’t want to rip off blatantly, you always approach the person and feel it out.” 'At The Door’ was the first song from the sessions to see the light of day, in February of this year. It was a departure of sorts – keyboard-heavy and drum-free – and a deliberate one at that. “Originally that was more of a guitar song actually. It ended up just working better on the album with keyboards, although Nick (Valensi) is playing this kind of keyboard/synth guitar crazy pedal,” Nikolai reveals. “It was more guitar-driven in its infancy and then, with some direction from Rick, we went more into the feel of it. I think we wanted to come out with something different, not the typical hot-rocking licks single.” Given the current Coronavirus-shaped climate, it would hardly have been a surprise if the album’s launch had been put back, like lots of other high-profile releases. But Fraiture is pleased that the album’s unleashing went ahead as planned. “The idea definitely was entertained because everybody was doing it at the time, but personally, I'm glad we put it out now because it gives people new music to listen to during this period. I also feel that a lot of those albums were delayed because they weren't commercially well positioned. We didn't really want to do that: we just wanted to put our music out.” In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Casablancas answered a question about not being able to tour to promote the record, "People are like, 'Oh man, you're not able to tour!' I'm like, 'That's a bad thing?'" Fraiture takes a different point of view. “I have accepted it, but I was very disappointed because the funnest part of our job is sharing the music with people,” he observes. "We can make music, but what we do can’t really exist without fans, so to not be able to have the touring experience was a little frustrating. But of course we understand: we're just waiting until it all blows over.”
Unlike some of his bandmates, Fraiture still lives in New York. The world is getting sadly used to seeing reports of the city as America’s Covid-19 epicentre. Nickolai paints a slightly more hopeful picture. “You do your best to keep your distance,” he says. "I think most people have managed to do that, although you still see some people who don't quite get the message. But it’s bad for those who work in nursing. We’re grateful to the hospitals and the nurses that are dealing with the epicentre, but it's not like bedlam in the streets. It’s still pretty tame. There's police around to make sure everyone respects the social distance codes.” Like the rest of us, Fraiture has found himself with more time on his hands. “What's funny is it's not that different from when I'm not on tour,” he laughs. “I basically just play music, read, write and hang out with my family. We haven't lost our minds yet and, when the weather's nice, we can go out for a walk, get some fresh air. It's been alright. I think if everyone could just continue not going crazy, we'll be able to manage. Netflix has been a big help as well! What else have I been doing? Just playing songs and music. What have I been reading? I've been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy. That’s been very helpful!” Fraiture has used previous downtime, afforded to him when The Strokes were on hiatus, to write and record with side projects Nickel Eye and, more recently, Summer Moon. This enforced break should see new material from both parties. “Yeah, Summer Moon have an EP, half an album, that's kind of finished. The whole band are really excited about it,” he gushes, with obvious enthusiasm. “I have some Nickel Eye demos that are floating around that I was thinking of just releasing at some point. I'm always working, I'm always playing.”
Hard To Explain
Given that The Strokes were very public in their support, playing a benefit at the University of New Hampshire in February, Fraiture was saddened to see Bernie Sanders drop out of the campaign to secure the Democratic Presidential nomination for this year’s election. “That was very disappointing,” says Nickolai. “I was hoping that America could at least see some part of the value of the message he was trying to convey to people. I feel he was able to draw a lot more passion with his message than the other candidates, and I think that's what you need to bring people out and get people excited about their political situation." It might be over-simplifying things, but one wonders if his association with that dread word ‘Socialism’ was what did for him. “I think people can’t understand the difference between socialism and democratic socialism,” Fraiture reasons. “I think with the internet and social media, people just jump on whatever term they want to believe in, and they'll give you a long list of every bad thing that happened with that, which I think is a shame. I think his viewpoint was open and inclusive and, in this climate, it's very hard to hear that.” Once he had made his decision, Sanders was quick to offer his support to former Vice-President Joe Biden. “Yeah, I think a move like that would possibly have helped earlier,” Fraiture continues. “I feel that people may have been a little bit scared of Sander’s resoluteness at not playing the game, which is what is so admirable about him. There is a game that is being played, and maybe more delegates would have backed him if he was more of a game player.” The current administration’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has been the butt of much criticism, certainly in the international media. Fraiture is in agreement with the damning verdicts. “From the information that gets to me, it seems like it's a total joke,” he states. “It seems that there are other hidden agendas, rather than actually taking care of people. It's hard to watch those petty rivalries play out on the political forum when people are getting really sick and dying. It’s disheartening – but it also encourages us to make a change.” The Modern Age
Before I let Fraiture get back to his own new abnormal, I try to gauge the effect that The Strokes’ huge initial splash had on the man himself. In her justifiably acclaimed book Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Rollin New York City 2001-2011, Lizzy Goodman reckoned The Strokes were “as influential to their era as the Velvet Underground or the Ramones were to theirs.” “The way I take it is, I'm grateful and honoured if people say that,” is his measured response. “Musically, you really don’t want to get stuck in any time period. It’s amazing that we're still able to make music together as a band after so long. For me, it's about looking forward and making new music, not stagnating in any era, or looking back.” The Strokes played a blistering set at 2019’s Electric Picnic, throwing out the hits in fine style, while also sending every-so-slightly fair weather fans, like myself, back to records that we might have missed. Given that the band are approaching their twentieth-anniversary, is that pressure there – the pressure that all bands suffer under – to constantly ‘play the hits’? “Especially at a festival like Electric Picnic, we play more songs like that because you understand what people want to come and see. If you play deep cuts at Festivals that no one has ever heard, real fans are excited, but the majority of festival goers want to see a lot of different music – and they've been standing in line all day in the sun and they’re tired, so a slow deep cut, you know... But, you also want to feel creatively satisfied. We try to find that delicate balance, in terms of making people happy – and making ourselves happy.” Fraiture offers a final word to further clarify where he – and The Strokes – are coming from. “In anything creative, it feels like people are drawn to you if you're doing something for yourself that you believe in. I think if you go too much into trying to make people happy, it becomes pretty transparent and it doesn’t feel good. People get tired of that quite quickly. If you go too much one way, you alienate people, and if you go too much the other, it becomes over-saturation Whenever we're thinking about doing things, it's about finding that balance.”
• The New Abnormal is out now on RCA/Sony.