The Strokes turn to a 'unicorn figure' and get Grammy love


Julian Casablancas of The Strokes performs during Lollapalooza in Chicago on Aug. 1, 2019. The band's "The New Abnormal" is nominated for a Grammy for best rock album.

It has taken The Strokes almost two decades to earn their first Grammy nomination. But lead singer Julian Casablancas is betting they'll walk away empty-handed at the ceremony.

The band's “The New Abnormal” will compete on Jan. 31 in the best rock album category against “A Hero’s Death” by Fontaines D.C., “Kiwanuka” by Michael Kiwanuka, “Daylight” by Grace Potter and “Sound & Fury” by Sturgill Simpson.

“My money’s on Grace Potter,” Casablancas tells The Associated Press.

If “The New Abnormal” had been placed in the best alternative music album category, he has another favorite.

“I’d probably be rooting for Tame Impala,” he said. “Lose-lose.”

“The New Abnormal” peaked at No. 8 on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart, but it reached No. 1 on both Billboard’s top rock albums and alternative albums charts for the first time since 2011.

Reviews have generally cheered the band’s return to form — not that Casablancas spends a lot of time reading what music journalists write: “Care? I don’t know, probably. Read them? No.”

The band has been at record label RCA for its entire career, and co-president John Fleckenstein is thrilled with the result, although frustrated the band can't perform live right now.

“We're very, very pleased to see the reaction to this album,” he said. "This project for them has just been successful on so many levels. It's a big relief to us it's being recognized the way it is."

Casablancas has been in the Grammy spotlight before, having won at the 2014 show for his guest appearance on Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories," which won album of the year. But The Strokes have not been nominated before.

“I’m not looking for Grammys as any kind of validation artistically," he said. "Basically, it validates you to people that don’t really understand music. If you’re a ‘Grammy-nominated artist,’ it’s like, ‘Whoa, you’re like a serious musician.’”

“The New Abnormal” arrived in April just as the pandemic was digging into everyday life, offering shards of glam, punk, straight-down-the-line rock, '80s new wave and dreamy pop. The title seemed prescient.

Formed in 1998, the New York-based band — which includes guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti — burst out the gates with their full-length debut, “Is This It,” in 2001.

Though “The New Abnormal” is technically the band's first full-length album in seven years, it put out the 2016 EP “Future Present Past” and members have had various solo projects, including Casablancas' experimental band, The Voidz.

This time, the group turned to producer Rick Rubin, who has helped sharpen an A-list of artists, including Beastie Boys, Adele, The Chicks, Red Hot Chili Peppers and LL Cool J.

Casablancas calls Rubin “a legend” and someone the band always wanted to work with.

“He’s like that kind of unicorn figure — someone who brings you success without diminishing you artistically,” Casablancas said.

Fleckenstein said that one of the more subtle but meaningful changes Rubin made was to let Casablancas' vocals — often distorted in previous outings — shine more clearly this time around.

“It brought out some of The Strokes that we had never heard before in a fresh way without ever losing the core of what they do,” Fleckenstein said. “And it was a pretty ingenious way to approach it. It really worked.”

The album leans — as many Strokes albums do — on the '80s, with melodies lifted from Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” and the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You.” On one song, Casablancas asks: “The '80s bands, where did they go?”

“It’s like in my subconscious," he said of his '80s influence. “When I do Voidz stuff, I’m kind of trying to push the limits as much as possible. When I’m back in The Strokes’ saddle, I’m like letting loose more with guilty pleasure harmonies.”

The lyrics explore unease, inaction and alienation.

“I want new friends, but they don’t want me/ They’re making plans while I watch TV” is the chorus to one song. On “At the Door,” Casablancas knows he is a lost soul, but offers hope: “Use me like an oar/ Get yourself to shore.”

“I think I’m getting better at expressing myself,” he said. “I try to never stop learning. I think I’m hopefully a little smarter and can communicate what I’m thinking more.”

It's been a long wait for The Strokes to get Grammy recognition, and Casablancas suspects the breakthrough of “The New Abnormal” is due both to the band's Rubin-helped grooves and that nominators are embracing different sounds.

“Sonically, it definitely sounds I’d say more toward the Grammy’s vibe than our previous albums,” he said. “They definitely lately seem like they've been like choosing cooler things.”

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