In the closet with The Strokes

“I think you’re putting way more importance into [clothing] than we ever did,” insists Nick Valensi, guitarist for The Strokes. He’s on a cell phone in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which he describes as loud, windy and cold, and for some reason, he’s decided to do a phone interview with Xpress while walking along a busy street, which only adds to his apparent frustration.

Skinny jeans and all: If the Strokes make the cover of GQ, they don’t want to hear about it.

“There’s no pressure. Our label has never told us how to dress or anything,” maintains Valensi, who has lately been seen in sleeveless tees with long drapey scarves wrapped around his neck, much like Keith Richards, circa 1967 (that romantic — and now iconic — hippie-rock-god image largely engineered by former Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham).

“The fact that we had our own style and we’re kind of appealing-looking made us attractive to our label,” Valensi continues in that overly patient tone the utterly cool reserve for the hopelessly dorky. “We’ve never changed our look for an album.”

Okay, maybe. Though even small record labels have stylists who turn bands into not only who we want to hear but who we want to look like, talk like and be like. And while the Strokes are on major label RCA, maybe they’ve never taken fashion tips from anyone. But someone’s responsible for the return of white belts, white shoes and glute-sculpting, calf-squeezing skinny jeans — and this reporter suspects this quintet of style-savvy rockers is somehow behind the latest denim craze.

The clothes make the men

“I don’t know, I’m not the best authority on [skinny jeans],” Valensi — who, at least in press photos, wears the tight pants more than any of his band mates — opines. “It’s also nice to wear baggy jeans. I’ve never seen [guitarist] Albert [Hammond Jr.] wear jeans — he usually wears trousers.”

But we already knew that.

In the band’s five-year, three-album career, there’s little that hasn’t been written. The Strokes have enjoyed spreads in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Blender and pretty much every lesser music rag across the U.S. and U.K. Since they broadsided the world with their 2001 debut, This Is It, the Strokes have been hailed as the saviors of rock; old girlfriends have been dredged up, eager to tell their sordid tales; rock-star antics have been gleefully catalogued; and new relationships with starlets have received front-page tabloid and star-mag attention.

And then the band’s sophomore effort, Room on Fire, received an equally impressive amount of attention for its perceived failure (gasp — only half a million copies sold!), followed by relentless speculation by music writers as to whether or not the Strokes were already washed up.

In true Gen-Y style, they’ve managed to rise to the top, hit bottom and then sober up, settle down and make a comeback — all before the oldest member turned 30. Lead singer (and moody, press-hating songwriter) Julian Casablancas has recently — and perhaps disappointingly — overcome his self-destructive inclinations. And thus the ADD-flavored efficiency of the Strokes’ career makes it hard to care, let alone focus on, whether their latest album, First Impressions of Earth, returns them to critics’-darling status.

But their palpable effect on fashion? Just check out the darkly dramatic video for “Juicebox,” wherein a Strokes song is broadcast over the radio, resulting in a hedonistic orgy of same-sex makeout sessions. Lust, vomit and fetishistic floor-scrubbing aside, what the camera really loves is the vintage white boots, seedily grimy (and paired with narrow jeans), worn to a restroom rendezvous.

“There’s a lot in fashion that’s influenced by music, whether it’s rock or hip-hop,” Valensi concedes. “I think rock music influences fashion, but I don’t know any rock musicians I admire who are all into designer labels.”

Though fashion existed long before the advent of rock stars, pop music is intimately connected to style. Mop-tops, mod, country, hippie, grunge, punk … which came first, the clothing or the soundtrack? Emos are designated as much by their shaggy hair and hoodies as by their Conor Oberst CD collections; Madonna had us all wearing wristfuls of black rubber bracelets; and in the ’90s, it was reasonable to peg backwards-baseball-cap-wearing frat boys as Hootie fans.

What, this old thing?

So when the Strokes burst onto the New York scene in 2000 wearing expensively shabby hair cuts, skinny leather ties and low-slung trousers, is it possible the public looked first and listened later?

“[It] helps if you have connections in the industry, good fashion sense, already appealing ‘star’ names like Nick, Julian and Fab, full pouty lips, heavy eyelids and cheekbones that cut glass,” one reviewer mused on “It just speeds things along.”

“The people I knew who were really buzzing the Strokes last year were New York fashionista people — a few fashion/web designers, some writers at paper magazines and other connected freelance magazine writers, and their friends of friends in the fashion/mag industry,” wrote Shinygun in 2001. “It’s disturbing how all the fashionable press people here just unanimously decided they love the Strokes.”

So, is it calculated cool or true disinterest when the band in question just doesn’t care?

“I’ve never read an article about what the guys [in the band] wear,” Valensi reports, though he admits, “It’s kind of a normal thing: When you go to a concert, you’ll look at what the band is wearing.”

It’s not just the fans who are checking them out. “[They’re] largely responsible for the skinny tie and white belt fashion revival as well as the musical revalidation of the 1980s post-punk CBGB sound,” wrote Rhapsody, while New Zealand-based Thread noticed a resurgence in “old scuffed Converse One-star sneakers as worn by NY bands like the Strokes.”

And, three years ago, New York Post lamented a change on the Strokes fashion front, speculating that “they’re trying too hard and it shows.” Austin 360 also turned up its nose, pegging the band as “originators of the unoriginal who made it fashionable to pretend not to care about fashion (or music or nepotism or … ) while leading the way in fashion (and music and nepotism)” — referring to Albert’s father, hit songwriter Albert Hammond Sr. (Another nepotism note: Julian’s dad is model mogul John Casablancas.)

But maybe that’s unfair. Maybe they actually are just five guys who roll out of bed each morning and land in stylishly disheveled outfits without really giving it a second thought.

“We’ve always tried to look our best,” Valensi offers. “Especially since we know we’ll be scrutinized.”

But when he’s pressured to elaborate, the guitarist only broods, “I can’t really tell you how that feels. Sometimes, when you’re in the mood, it’s cool. The rest of the time it sucks.”

The Strokes play Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Friday, May 26. 8 p.m. $31. 259-5544.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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