Reporting Scott T. Sterling
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on New York garage-rock icons the Strokes’ sophomore album, Room on Fire, and how its’ fiercest competition came from the band’s own catalog.
It was late October of 2003 when the Strokes released the band’s second album, Room on Fire. The album was recorded over the summer of that year, after two solid years on the road supporting their wildly received debut, Is This It.
With that 2001 debut, the Strokes had vaulted to the front of the indie rock nation, the band’s denim and leather swagger all but personifying New York City cool at the dawn of the new millennium. The quintet’s road-honed chops from the Is This It tour were not lost on the band’s producer, Gordon Raphael.
“What was really awesome about [the Room on Fire sessions] was when they came in that first day, this was a band that had been on tour for two years straight, playing concert after concert,” Raphael recalled during an interview from a Seattle studio during a break while recording the band Red Martian. “The level of ability, tightness and power that they gained from that tour was unbelievably noticeable when they came back. They were not this fun, basement-y band anymore. They sounded more like Led Zeppelin than the Velvet Underground. It was so huge sounding. They still had the attitude and having fun, but they sounded like incredibly powerful and accomplished musicians.”
Raphael had a bird’s eye view of the Strokes’ rapid rise to indie rock notoriety, having produced the band’s initial rush of releases, from their debut 3-song The Modern Age EP through the first two studio albums, Is This It and the follow-up, Room on Fire. His relationship with the band is enduring, as emerging outfits consistently enlist his services hoping for just a touch of what he brought to those hallowed recordings.
“The day I arrived in the studio, they played me Room on Fire in its entirety, like, ‘here’s what we’re gonna do,’ and just ran through every song live right there,” the producer recalled. “So it wasn’t like three months of wondering what the parts were going to be or developing ideas. The songs were done, the parts were done, and Julian [Casablancas, the band's singer] just wanted three months of making every tone and every performance perfect.”
The recording got off to something of a rough start, with Raphael coming in to reprise his role manning the boards only after the band found itself unhappy with early sessions overseen by producer Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame.
“There was no weirdness from anybody. I took over Is This It from another producer, too,” Raphael laughed. “They started both records with different producers. We dealt with it in the moment, moved on and never thought about it again.”
After recording Is This It in Raphael’s modest personal studio, the album’s success found them in TMF Studios for Room on Fire, a facility the producer had discovered working with Regina Spektor on her 2005 full-length, Soviet Kitsch. “They wanted to keep a lot of the identity they’d created on the first album in the small studio, but here we were in a very big room with a lot of gear at our disposal, and more time.”
With a larger room, “The mood and they lyrics were considerably heavier [on Room on Fire],” Raphael mused. “Whatever caused that I can only speculate. There were personal things and romantic things going on with certain band members. The sheer joyous, party, happy, cut loose kind of thing that might have been on the first record was gone.”
Led by first single, “12:51” (with a synthesized guitar melody that would’ve sounded right at home on the Cars’ 1979 classic, Candy-O), Room on Fire did indeed come with denser and more muscular arrangements. Songs like “Reptilia” and “The End Has No End” brought new dynamics to the band’s early catalog.
While the album was for the most part positively received by critics and fans alike, there has long been the general sense that Room on Fire will forever exist in the shadow of Is This It, and that in retrospect, the 2003 version of the Strokes has yet to truly collect the accolades it deserves.
“There’s a phenomenon when you hear something brand new for the first time. Part of what makes you go crazy is you’ve never heard anything like it before,” Raphael said of Room on Fire‘s status in relation to Is This It. “So even though the second record may have much more powerful musicianship with lots of interesting stuff going on, they’ll never recapture the feeling of some 15-year-old hearing the Strokes for the first time. They had a lot of competition from their own impact when they made Room on Fire.”
While the Strokes continued to evolve and move further away from the bare-bones sound of the band’s first string of recordings, Raphael says his door is always open if they ever wanted to reconvene and tackle another round of new music together.
“I have fond memories of every moment I have to do with the Strokes. Maybe getting fired from making the third album (First Impressions of Earth) wasn’t one of my favorite moments, but it’s a good story,” he admitted. “There was definitely hard work involved in both albums, like really pushed to the limit kind of stuff, but certainly all within the realms of fantastic adventure and good spirit.”