The Strokes Is This It oral history
Photo: Colin Lane

'The Ascent Was Just Wild' – The Oral History of The Strokes' 'Is This It'

On the 20th anniversary of modern rock's most seminal album, VICE spoke to its producer, publicist, journalists and the guy who shot the "arse cover".

Whether it was bloated nu metal or tuneless indie strumming, 2001’s alternative music scene felt stagnant and colourless. Enter: The Strokes. Five guys from New York with immaculately dishevelled haircuts and names like Fabrizio Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture who, in 2001, released their seminal debut album Is This It and blew everything out of the water. Its impact was cataclysmic. As Geoff Travis, the head of Rough Trade Records, put it in Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom: “The Strokes’ arrival was a bomb in the middle of a plastic pool.” 

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But this was not an overnight success. The band struggled to get anyone to take notice for the better part of two years. Famously, the tide changed when Travis agreed to release their scuzzy debut EP The Modern Age, after listening to it for just 15 seconds down a transatlantic telephone line. 

From then on, the brakes were off – the hype breathless and frantic. This was a band who were here to save rock’n’roll, dressed in ripped jeans and Converse. They appeared on the cover of NME twice in the three months leading up to the release of Is This It, with the frenzy growing every day.

After a series of exhilaratingly wild live shows and six weeks in producer Gordon Raphael’s Transporterraum studio (which Casablancas said “sucked out my soul…”), Is This It appeared in Australia on the 30th of July, before dropping in the UK on the 27th of August.

Immediately, it was greeted as the perfect record. In fact, it was so good it had two different covers – the iconic UK version of a leather gloved hand; and the US version, depicting subatomic particles. Despite all the hype, the album only entered the UK charts at number two – but it’s no exaggeration to say it left an indelible mark on the music scene and culture in general.  

Two decades later, Is This It’s 36 minutes still sound thrillingly flawless – ragged yet taut, the swagger of its question mark-less title mirrored by the cocksure 11 songs. In Meet Me In The Bathroom, which tells the story of the New York scene from 2001 to 2011, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy says “Is This It was my record of the decade. Whenever people pooh-pooh it, I’m like, ‘You’re saying that now, but I guarantee you, you’re going to have a barbecue in ten years, play that shit, and say, ‘I love this record.’” 

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20 years on from its release, I spoke to the people around the album: the producer, the record label, their UK press, journalists and the man who took that cover shot, to reflect on the hysteria around the release, how the album came together and its longstanding indie rock legacy. 

HOW MUSIC SOUNDED AND LOOKED BEFORE THE STROKES

The Strokes in New York

Photo: Colin Lane

Tim Jonze (NME journalist between 2003 and 2008): The indie scene seemed quite dead. It was the turn of the millennium and there were all these acoustic bands like Turin Brakes and Starsailor making incredibly whiny, tuneless records.  

Jakub Blackman (UK PR for Is This It): Let's face it, that time was pretty lame. The bands that were big looked like they worked for IT companies, or were coming over to do some plumbing round your house. 

Kim Taylor Bennett (first journalist to interview the band face-to-face in the UK): As much as I think Turin Brakes or Coldplay had some hummable songs, they weren't sexy and exciting. They were a little grey, damp UK. Indie rock fans were bored.

Blackman: It was a pretty desperate time in British music.

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Jonze: There was a band called Arnold, which tells you a lot about the lack of effort involved. A lot of these bands wore ill-fitting jeans and baggy t-shirts and generally looked like some random table from the student union bar. 

Taylor Bennett: Nu-Metal was happening back then, and pop was huge. But if you weren't super into JLo, or Britney, or Limp Bizkit, there wasn't a lot for you.

Jonze: It’s not like there weren’t any good bands around. And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead were incredible live and Godspeed! You Black Emperor felt monumental. But 13 minute instrumentals about the apocalypse aren’t the sound of frenetic youth culture. It didn’t feel like there was any unifying scene for young indie fans to call their own.

Gordon Raphael (producer for Is This It): In New York, it seemed like guitar music was on the way out. It was mostly house, jungle, drum n bass, hip hop. I remember an article in the New York Times celebrating the death of rock and roll – “the old man”. That was the feeling in town.

Blackman: When The Strokes came along, they captured everyone's imagination; this band that were the whole package. 

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Taylor Bennett: They were the total opposite of safe, which was how guitar music felt at the time.

THE STROKES: THE EXTREMELY EARLY YEARS

The Strokes leaning against a building

Photo: Colin Lane

Raphael: I went to a show at Luna Lounge in New York and there were two new bands playing. The second band that played was The Strokes. Because I had my own studio, and I was a relatively fresh producer, I had a business card and I approached them after the show. The first band, which I actually liked a little better, didn't call me. But [Strokes guitarist] Albert [Hammond Jnr] came to look at my studio. 

As they're playing their music in the studio, I'm going, “Wait a minute, this is really good”. I didn't get that feeling when I saw them live. But in the studio it came together. “Whoa, how does that drummer keep such a steady beat? Aren't those chord changes interesting?” Then when Julian started singing: what a voice. 

James Endeacott (A&R at Rough Trade): It ticked every single box for me about great rock’n’roll. It sounded like The Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Television, Blondie. All the great music out of New York. [Their debut EP was] called The Modern Age, yet it was somehow retro, but also sounded like the future. And they had this weird production... 

Jonze: If you knew your rock history then it was familiar – Velvet Underground, Television – but it was also completely alien to what was around at the time. Bands hadn’t sounded so effortlessly cool and full of attitude since Oasis

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Raphael: They told me in very cryptic form what sound they wanted – like: “Imagine taking a trip into the future and finding a band from the past that you've never heard before. What would that sound like?” I drew a bit of a blank on that.

Taylor Bennett: It felt very stripped back and raw and weird. The vocals were like Julian was singing through a transistor radio.

Raphael: [When we were recording The Modern Age EP,] one of the band said: “You know what's happening in every studio in New York right now?” “Yeah.” “Well, that's what we don't want to do”. That gave me a clue, because we were just in the age of Pro Tools. So instead I put a mic in front of the guitar, a couple of mics in front of the drums, and they played. When they heard that sound, they said, “That's what we're talking about. That sounds cool.” 

Blackman: They were this New York City band that harked back to the Golden Age in the 70s, but they were largely completely blissfully unaware of most of those bands. I know they’d never heard Marquee Moon. They liked Guided By Voices and Pearl Jam. They had this thing thrust on them by the way they looked – and, I suppose, by the way they sounded, as well.

Raphael: When they left my studio with the EP done, I thought, “You know, nothing I've ever done has really made a mark and this is very unlikely to as well.” So I didn't think about it. I thought – I love it, but, “Oh, man, how sad that these young people are doing this already unpopular form of music”. Just 20 years too late, you know? 

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INTRODUCING: ‘THE COOLEST MOTHERFUCKERS YOU’VE SEEN IN YOUR LIFE’

Endeacott: There was a guy called Matt Hickey who worked at the Mercury Lounge and who Geoff Travis was really good friends with. He said, if you come across anything to send it over. I walked into the Rough Trade offices one day, Geoff was always in early and he said, “James, listen to this.” Geoff gets very excited about music anyway, but he seemed even more effervescent than normal. He put on The Modern Age and I was literally speechless. 

Raphael: When Albert told me Rough Trade were going to release these demos as an EP, my first impression was “Do you want to come back and fix them up? Shall we mix it properly?” “Oh, no, they like it this way.” Once I understood a label was going to put out the music, I realised, “Wow, something's happening here.” 

Endeacott: Everybody was intrigued, but when they saw the first picture – the band sat around in New York at a bar – it went off.

Blackman: It all started with a photo. At that time you didn't send links – you had to send the physical record out. So when I first got in touch with a few journalists ahead of the release of the EP, it was a case of emailing people saying the record’s coming out, with the photo attached. I contacted NME, The Face, Dazed and Sleaze Nation. Literally the minute I pressed send on the email, the phone started ringing off the hook.

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Jonze: One day they didn’t exist. Then suddenly there’s this picture of the coolest motherfuckers you’ve ever seen in your life. You don’t need to hear their music to realise they’re going to change your life – they look sexy and dangerous and impossibly cool. The difference between this lot and what came before was so stark it was like the entire slate had just been wiped clean. 

Endeacott: I remember the photo went in NME and that afternoon the phone was ringing. People were saying they looked like models. Well, quite dishevelled models. Everybody was flipping their lid. 

Taylor Bennett: At the time, I was the rock music editor at the Sussex University paper. I was getting all these promo CDs with the printed out photos, which is such a funny thing to think about now. I got The Modern Age EP and I put it on my little hi-fi in Brighton and was just blown away.

Jonze: The Modern Age EP was just perfection – I’m sure most people who bought it were a little disappointed when the album came out and the versions were a little cleaner and slower. 

Endeacott: I remember for weeks afterwards, I had a CD Walkman I used to walk around London with and I used to go up to everyone: “Listen to this. Listen to this!” I was evangelical. 

Blackman: What was so special was that they had everything to back it up. You know, they had incredible music, an incredible EP. They looked great. And they were fucking shit hot live.

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THE BAND’S ELECTRIFYING FIRST LIVE SHOWS IN THE UK

The Strokes at a gig in Brighton

The Strokes at a gig in Brighton. Photo: Kim Taylor Bennett

Blackman: Their first UK show was supporting Trail of Dead... in Portsmouth at the Wedgewood Rooms – a very unglamorous show. But by the time they came to play Brighton the following night, it was crazy. Strokes fever had struck. There was a huge queue outside, not everyone could get in. 

Taylor Bennett: They’re playing in Brighton, at this tiny dive called The Lift, which is now defunct. It’s maybe 100 capacity and they were on this tiny… not even a stage, just like a step up from the crowd. Everyone was really squashed. It was fucking exciting. Julian was lunging into the crowd. It was full of students and we'd read a bunch of the press. At the start, we were like “Show us what you got,” but by the end it was “OK, this feels like something.”

Blackman: The Brighton show was a band in a room with no stage, packed to the rafters, the band literally being the best band you have ever seen. 

Taylor Bennett: I’m pretty sure I did the first face-to-face UK interview with them then. They were super inexperienced with interviews and I was inexperienced – they were probably my third interview ever. So I asked really bad questions and Fab and Albert were very accommodating, Nick and Julian a little more sardonic and too cool for school. I was so nervous that I forgot to turn on my dictaphone. So that's pretty cool! But then I ended up getting a ride with them to their show in Oxford, so I got to do more of a story.

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Blackman: I met them in Camden before their show at the Barfly. Fab was super nervous about the gig and if anyone would actually turn up – so much so that he had photocopied these gig posters, and insisted we plaster the venue to make sure somebody turned up. As much as I tried to convince them that “Guys, you don't need to worry, it’s going to be an absolutely full house”, Fab insisted. 

Endeacott: The band were very nervous before that show, especially Julian. Everybody was upstairs cos they were due on and I was sat downstairs with Julian and he had his hands on my knees, gripping them tightly and he said, “Talk to me.” He needed to get in the zone and I could see people were waiting. He went on the stage and was hugging the microphone and then he smashed it onto the floor and the whole place erupted. 

Blackman: They came on about 45 minutes late, and everyone was like, “Oh they’re just trying to be super cool New Yorkers”, but actually Julian was absolutely shitting himself. Of course, that was a super special show and pretty much half the media in London turned out for it. At that stage there weren’t loads of celebs there. I remember the bloke who played Norm in Cheers was there. But the celebrities and the models followed very quickly. It wasn't long before Kate Moss and Sadie Frost and all that lot were begging to get into their dressing room. 

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Taylor Bennett: They played a show in Oxford in June that year and Thom Yorke and Kate Moss were there – and, you know, they were these really cool rock stars, but they were also really wide-eyed and just like, “What is going on? Like, “Why is Kate Moss here?” “Oh my god, Thom Yorke is here.”

Blackman: One of the things I really remember about that first tour was the fights – there was a fight almost every single day. There were a lot of jealous people. I remember a few days after the Barfly show, we went to see their mates, Moldy Peaches. I was sat next to Fab in the venue and some guy made some comment like “You fucking New York wankers.” The next thing I knew, Fab had decked the guy. That happened all the time. There were literally fights breaking out everywhere. 

RECORDING THE ALBUM THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING

The Strokes stood next to a wall covered in cars and swimsuit models

Photo: Colin Lane

Raphael: When they stepped in the studio on day one of recording Is This It, it was like nothing I've ever done before: I could feel the world's ears and their hopes. For the band, there was this feeling: We’ve got this one chance. They were obsessed with details and not letting anything that wasn't planned into the sound. Every single member of the band was like that – and they also had JP [Bowersock], their guru in the studio [Editor’s note: Bowersock was the band's original guitar teacher and is credited as their "guru" and "sensei" on the first two albums]. 

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Endeacott: They did everything with a certain attitude. They were very cocky, but not in an arrogant way. Just very sure of themselves. Plus, the five of them were in each other's pockets 24/7, and that helped. There were a lot of high fives and lots of cuddles. The band was so tactile around that point. Everybody cuddled everybody.

Raphael: They felt the pressure. After the EP they were definitely thinking this was their sound, and hoping I could get it again, but they also expressed doubts. You know, “Maybe it was just an accident.” It came to my attention very quickly after they signed to RCA in the US that the record label did not believe in me as a producer. What they had heard was scaring them that their investment was not going to be able to come through. They basically told me that my production was ruining the chance of the band to have a career. Luckily, at the same time, we had James Endeacott from Rough Trade sitting in my studio...

Endeacott: I was in the Rough Trade Office. I remember saying to Geoff and Jeanette Lee: “Is anybody gonna go and see the band while they’re recording?” “No, I don’t think so.” I said, “Any chance I could go?” “Yeah, alright.” It was a dream come true.  

Raphael: When James heard “New York City Cops” in the studio, he jumped up and threw his hat in the air and started shouting. That’s when I felt less alone. For him to be excited gave me a lot of fortitude.

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Endeacott: I don’t think I’d heard “New York City Cops” before then and it was such an instant song. It's so in your face. It really got you. I remember the moment we got the final version at Rough Trade. Geoff and Jeanette and myself were going down to see Ultrasound in Portsmouth and we all sat in a car park in the pouring rain, looking out at the sea for an hour, listening to it over and over again, trying to work out the words. You just knew this band were going to tear it up and nothing was gonna stop them. 

Raphael: Recording took incredible stamina and concentration and dedication. There wasn't a moment where not everybody was firing on all cylinders. Some parts of songs took a couple of days of very intense concentration, almost to the point of being happy it's over and dizzy from the amount of doing something over and over and over again.

Endeacott: I got to the studio straight from the airport, and Julian was doing the vocals for “Hard To Explain”. He’d been doing them for hours. He’d just finished a version and the whole band were like “That's the one.” And he said “James, what do you think?” I thought I’ve got to be honest, I said: “I love that song and I think you can do it better” and I could see the rest of the band with their head in their hands – “For fuck’s sake James, you’ve literally just walked in off a plane, we’ve been here all day.” But Julian went back in and absolutely smashed it. That’s the version that’s on the album.

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THE FRENZY, CARNAGE AND HYPE BEGAN TO EXPLODE

Endeacott: One day when I was over in New York we drove in the van to Boston, where they were playing a gig for a friend who owned this art gallery. There was no stage and they played the whole album from start to finish to 40 to 50 slightly disinterested people. It was just ridiculous. At the end of the gig, Julian went up to the microphone and said “Hey guys, we're not going back to New York until tomorrow, if anything is happening?” All of a sudden there's a queue of 15 of the most beautiful people in the world saying “Stay with us.” We just partied all night. Little did we know, that this was one of the last times it would be that innocent because they got so big so quickly. 

Blackman: It moved very quickly from that stage of worrying if anyone would actually turn up to their gigs, to being terrified things were moving too quickly. I remember having loads of arguments with Julian about it, because they actually did relatively few interviews, given the amount of profile and coverage they had. 

Taylor Bennett: We went to [London club night] Trash – it was early in the night and there weren't many people on the dance floor, and the DJ put on “Hard To Explain.” Julian said “Let's go to the dance floor.” He was like: “People don't know what to do.”

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Endeacott: I remember a point when the rest of the world started to realise what this band were. We were in our office in west London and it was just so quiet, but the rest of the world was going into a frenzy about this band. It was great.

Taylor Bennett: There was just a real crackle of energy anywhere they were, everybody was all eyes were on them, which was like a really fun thing to witness.

Blackman: I always remember Julian saying, “Look, I don't need all this attention. We look like dicks, everyone's writing about us”. All they really wanted was to have the same level of success as their favourite band – Guided By Voices.

Taylor Bennett: I was interning at the NME the week that they were on the cover, and they just looked like the coolest band ever.

Blackman: That trip with Penny for the first NME cover was pretty chaotic. We went out to do some photos on the streets in New York – sort of in the Lower East Side – and this group of guys said “Hey, you’re taking up the whole sidewalk”. Before I knew it, Julian had lamped one of them. Julian's a big bloke and at the time he had his arm in a cast. I remember him swinging at this bloke with this cast and just knocking him out. 

THE COOL SLEEVE WITH THE ARSE VERSUS THE OTHER ONE

The Strokes Is This Is album cover in the UK and the US

Left: UK cover. Right: US cover.

Endeacott: You know what? It's the perfect debut album. It's the perfect length. It’s 36 minutes. There's no filler at all. And it has a brilliant sleeve...

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Colin Lane (photographer of the UK cover): My first commission from The Face was to go photograph this unknown band to me. We did a bunch of pictures here in my house. Then we went on a little adventure and snuck up on the roof of a skyscraper. Later, I got a call saying the band wanted to know if I’d be available to do their press shoot for the album. I brought my portfolio with me, because I wanted them to see what I did. The ass shot, as it's called, was in there. I’d already shot that before I even met them: that was my ex. During lunch, Julian was going through the portfolio and was like: “That would be a good cover, would you mind?” 

Jonze: The cover was perfect for the band – it mirrored their name in that it had that seedy, East Village vibe that nodded to the Velvet’s “Venus In Furs” and all the great NY punk bands that sprung from there. 

Lane: I had all these clothes from a stylist in my apartment to be picked up the next morning. And I saw these Chanel leather gloves. So I wanted to take some pictures with my girlfriend – she was just out of the shower and I said “Let me take a pic” and she said “No, I’m tired”. But she let me take one pack of ten Polaroid pictures. 

Blackman: It was the perfect cover. Sexy, cool and – of course – in black and white. It was also a bit Spinal Tap, which I think was intentional. The sleeve was different in the US. It was horrendous with a kind of hippie, New Age vibe.

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Jonze: I can’t believe they used a different shot for the US album – that alternative cover just seemed like totally the wrong image for them.

Lane: I've never talked to Julian about this, but the story is that when he was in Australia, he found a book about the cosmos and he liked it better than my picture. Luckily, for me, it was already at the printing presses, so he was too late for the rest of the world. They said “You can have it for North America.” But I remember going into Virgin Records in Times Square and they had my shot as the big display. I was very excited.

THIS IS IT

Endeacott: You can't underestimate how exciting it was. I think that first 18 months hanging out with the band were some of the best 18 months I've ever spent in the music world. In years to come, it will be seen as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. 

Jonze: You can’t argue with the songwriting or the way it condensed four decades of arty New York punk music into 40 minutes of music. 

Blackman: Suffice to say, it will go down in history as a classic record. 

Taylor Bennett: It was the perfect record. It was 30 odd minutes, it got in, got out, kissed you roughly on the mouth and everybody had a good dance. 

Endeacott: It was a rollercoaster, seeing them go from playing in that little place in Boston, to 18 months later being on the verge of almost being the biggest band in the world, with literally 12 songs. How something can catch fire like that and spread, proves it could happen.

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Taylor Bennett: The ascent was just wild to witness. They played at The Lift in Brighton, where it was just a sweaty debauched mess. Five months later, they headlined Heaven, and then two months after that they were bumped up to the main stage at Reading. By the time they dropped Is This It, everyone was so desperate for a full length. I had a burner of the LP in July and it was all I listened to that summer. Then, when the LP came out, I was so excited there was an extra opening song on there [at the very start of the record].

Blackman: When I was over in New York for their first NME cover, I remember going to Julian's flat and him playing a demo of “Is This It” on his little four-track. He said “I've just recorded a song, what do you think?” It’s incredible.

Raphael: We didn’t use tape during the process of making that record. But the engineer at the mastering lab said “Why don't we put it on tape and you see if you like what it does?” By the second or third song, Julian said “What's that sound? What are you doing?” “I'm rewinding the tape.” “Well, why don't you stick that on the first song of the album? That'd be a really interesting way to start the album.”

THE LEGACY

The Strokes next to a graffiti-covered building

Photo: Colin Lane

Raphael: 20 years later – 20 fucking years – that’s not a thing for rock music. Pink Floyd. Yeah, The Beatles. But this? It’s so special for me that I'm still working in studios because bands listened. Young kids are listening to Is This It and calling me and saying come work with us in Brazil, in Seattle. It's still creating excitement this much later.

Taylor Bennett: It made young kids want to be in bands again, made them want to be a gang, and it made them want to dress the same and look cool and cause trouble. It wasn't that sort of meatheaded nu-metal cause trouble. It was like, “I'm going to come into the bar and I'm going to steal your girlfriend and there's nothing you can do about it.”

Endeacott: It was everybody's dream. Five of the most beautiful looking men in the world, with 12 of the greatest songs ever written. Beyond cool. Everybody wanted to be them. 

Raphael: People that weren't interested in rock'n'roll – who, in fact, hated it, because it was their parent’s music – got into it. There were people that told me “We love techno. But as soon as we heard The Strokes, I got a leather jacket and a guitar - and now I have a band.”

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Endeacott: It only took a few months and then you realise that everybody starts to look like them. People were dressing like them, other bands began to sound like them.

Taylor Bennett It also came with the wave of all the amazing bands that were already gestating in New York. It really did feel like a movement. 

Jonze: They kickstarted a moribund indie scene and introduced the world to so many amazing New York groups like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and The Rapture.

Taylor Bennett: That reignited what was going on in the UK. I was never a fan of the Libertines, but them, Arctic Monkeys, and this huge wave of indie rock really exploded into the mainstream in the UK. 

Jonze: For a while, it felt like there was a great new band coming out every week while I was at NME. We got spoiled. When Arctic Monkeys came on the scene, I remember feeling like the supply would never run out. But that was exactly when it started to run out. By about 2006, some pretty ropey bands were doing the rounds. You realised guitar music was ready to die again. But five years is a pretty good stint. 

Endeacott: It's good to talk about it 20 years later, because it was a great moment in musical history. I don't really feel as though there's been anything similar. I mean, people could argue that the Arctic Monkeys are a big thing, but they wouldn’t have existed without The Strokes.

Jonze: It brought in a load of readers to NME and sparked interest in a new generation. It also meant the mag needed a load of new writers who weren’t jaded after listening to Arnold’s Barn Tapes for the last five years.

Jakub Blackman: It was difficult for them to follow up that record. It was so perfect. I know the second record was a really difficult one for them to write with all the pressure on their shoulders. 

Jonze: The Strokes were about the present. They were electric. If you were there, you’ll know exactly how exciting and game-changing that was.

Endeacott: I think you're still seeing their cultural impact 20 years later, which begs the question: do we need a new rock revolution?

@dethink2survive