Photos by Cody Smyth
How have The Strokes even made it this far? Think back to 2001, when the New York City rockers released their debut album, Is This It. That title, diffident and self-critical, didn’t exactly match the profile of a band pegged for ubiquity or longevity. An even bigger sign of the band’s imminent demise was the fact that critics held them to messianic expectations, hailing them as the second coming of The Velvet Underground. (Is This It’s post-punk roots and no-frills production also made comparisons to Television and the Stooges inescapable.)
But the actual Strokes were something much simpler than all that: a great rock band. In the early 2000s, they helped New York feel exciting again and made everyone forget the solemn adage “rock ‘n’ roll is dead,” even if just for a moment. Fifteen years and four albums later, the band’s influence is clear, easily recognizable in the burn marks left by Julian Casablancas’ hangover dispatches or the ragged distortion of Albert Hammond Jr.’s guitar.
It may seem like The Strokes rocketed to stardom in a matter of seconds, but their fame didn’t happen overnight. Just ask the band’s longtime friend and photographer, Cody Smyth, who began chronicling their story in the late ‘90s. Smyth stayed with the group as they transitioned from leather-jacketed bar regulars to festival headliners, snapping as many photos as he could along the way. Next year, he’ll be releasing a photography book tentatively titled The Strokes 1996–2016, which he describes as “a 20-year document of some close friends that became one of the world’s biggest rock bands.”
Consequence of Sound recently spoke with Smyth about his plans for the book, his early memories with the band, and what he sees in The Strokes’ future. With new music due out soon and a headlining slot at Governors Ball Music Festival this summer, that future may be as photogenic as the past.
So what’s the history behind this book you’ll be releasing?
I met Nick [Valensi] and Julian and Fab [Moretti] and Nikolai [Fraiture] back in ‘95 in high school. We became close friends instantly. So it started back then as me just photographing friends because my parents grew up in that industry. It started from that and grew into a whole document.
A close family friend of mine who is the publisher of Lesser Gods knew I had been photographing them. He had worked for MTV Books, and I think he knew that I had this document that had been unseen … that I have been just holding for myself more or less for almost, like, 20 years. So I met up with him, and he just looked over a few of the photos I had and thought that there is definitely enough here for a story to be told from the inside — not really looking to profit off it. It’s sort of this 20-year intimate document of traveling around with them, but the book came about because of him being interested in it and seeing other pictures besides what’s on my website.
Since then, I’ve reached out to the guys in the band, and they know about my work and have always championed it. They were all super cool with it and really excited and happy about it.
This seems to be very different from most photography books regarding bands. Most just showcase the musician at the peak of fame, rather than attempt to chronicle their career.
That’s sort of what I have unintentionally tried to capture with my work. Like us just in high school, goofing around Central Park or messing around late at night doing what we shouldn’t be doing. Early on, I knew they were going to do something with it, even very early on when they were playing at bars in New York like Baby Jupiter and Arlene’s Grocery. I just wanted to keep capturing that and enjoy what was happening as well.
I didn’t want the photos to come off with the intention of being seen or published. [They’re] a document of friendship from an inside and outside perspective — being there with them, being friends with them, seeing how songs progress and knowing how they think.
Any thoughts on a title for the book?
I’m not sure yet. I’m trying to stay away from song lyrics of theirs. There was one title I thought of that would be a play off their first album, Is This It. I want it to be straightforward and good-looking. I don’t want it to be cheesy.
You talk about meeting Nick, Fab, and Julian in high school. How did your friendship start?
Well, once I met Nick and Julian in the winter of ’95, we were somewhat inseparable. During school, after school, and on weekends, we all hung and did what NYC teens did in those days. We were always on bikes and going back and forth to someone’s house. We basically had Central Park as our backyard, so we spent a lot of time hanging out in the park. Back in those days, almost everyone we knew hung out at a spot called the Meadow in the park. We would go to see music shows at Roseland or CBGB’s sometimes, too.
We laughed a lot, did some illegal stuff, got into some trouble, and just always wanted to hang with each other. Another great memory we all have is spending long vacation weekends at a very close friend’s family beach townhouse. It was about an hour train ride out to this spot on Long Island. We would do what teens did without any parental supervision on those weekends. But we would cook, play basketball, ride bikes, hit the beach, and bum around the town since you could walk it. It was a great escape from the city every now and then. At all these moments, a guitar was usually there, and Nick or Julian or even myself would be playing. Music was always playing. Music was always a big connector for us.
They seem to be real big supporters of you, but were there ever times when you felt like the dynamics began to change as the band got bigger?
Yeah, they have always been champions of mine as friends. There was never a moment of them telling me to get out or anything. Once in awhile, Julian at sound check would tell me to back away, but that was early on, and because of that I ended up getting this great photograph of a whole empty ballroom they played in. So from that one moment when he told me to “Get out of my face, not right now,” it allowed me to understand that he was working. I didn’t want to interfere, so it forced me to get another shot and to back away from it. All the guys are really supportive, especially Nick. He’s like my brother. They’re all artists, too, so they understand.
But going back to your question, I did notice that those dynamics would sort of start to change. I’d go on tour with them around the East Coast, and other photographers would come on board who were their friends and acquaintances, and there were moments where things would get heavy. But the aspects mostly have changed in regards to [the band’s management] and the politics of that. My buddy Nick has always welcomed me on board like, “We have a spot for you on the bus, dude, don’t worry about it,” or “Just come, it’ll be fun.” Once I’m there, it’s like family.
There was shit I saw, but it’s bound to happen. Being friends with them for 20 years comes with also getting on each other’s nerves once in awhile. There was always a pass or a laminate, though. Even as they grew bigger and got regular security guys — like this guy Rob, who I might have a photo of in the book — everyone knew that I wasn’t a hanger-on. Even other managers or people who came on board knew that I had no ill intention of just making quick-cash pictures to sell to social media.
Was there ever a moment early on when you were like, “OK, this band has the potential to make it”?
There wasn’t really a specific moment or anything, but I do remember this one instance back in ’99 when they were playing smaller venues in New York. There weren’t a lot of fans there yet. When Albert came on board back in ’98 or ’99, I remember thinking, “OK, this is going to be something tight and something cohesive and energizing that New York hasn’t felt in a long time.” I’m only 38, but the early 2000s were some really great years for music in New York.
There is one moment I will always go back to, though. It was at a show probably in August of 2000 or 2001 at Mercury Lounge. There was no air-conditioning, and it was brutally hot. They were spraying West Nile spray all along New York, like the streets and the main avenues, so they turned the AC off. There was a crowd gathering because there were a couple of other bands — I think the Yeah Yeah Yeahs might have just been starting. There were a lot of friends, and at that show I remember all of us sort of just felt it kick in. I don’t know if it was the AC or the vibe or the summertime, but it was that show. You could feel it and all the friends could feel it, and that’s where everything sort of just took off.
What are some of your favorite photographs that you’ll be including in the book?
One of my favorite ones is this photograph where they’re lined up along 8th Avenue. They had a practice building over on 8th Avenue in New York and they were going to Philly for the night and I told them, “Let me get a group portrait, I haven’t done one yet,” so we all met up. That’s one of my favorite photos only because of the whole night that followed. I ended up going to Philly with them, and the Oasis brothers showed up at this tiny club and we stayed up all night.
A few other photos that I took of Albert in the Radio City Music Hall bathroom … Those always stuck out to me because they were about to play with The White Stripes, and everyone was excited and it was a point where I wanted to get individual portraits of them wherever they were, however I could. Albert was the first to go, and I just remember somebody telling me the bathrooms of Radio City were really majestic-looking bathrooms, so I took him down there and we were just shooting the shit and taking some photos.
The White Stripes and The Strokes? I would imagine that to be a pretty crazy show.
It was! It was really packed and everyone was really stressed out. I think it was 2002, but I remember the vibe being really high-energy, and a lot of people were excited that the two of them were playing together. The band were super-stressed but so cool about me wanting to get shots of them.
They were happy to do it, and it’s that sort of aspect I want to put in the book. My buddy Nick could have easily been like, “Look, we’re all stressed and it’s a pain in the ass,” but he didn’t, which is great. While I’m taking photos, I’m also very much just a fan. There was some times when I didn’t take my camera, just to enjoy it.
I wanted to talk about a couple photos in particular. There’s one of the band at Lyric Diner. They look exhausted.
That was New Year’s Eve in ’99, and I think it was very, very late. I don’t even know if we were out doing anything crazy that night. They weren’t even known yet. They probably look exhausted because that’s when they were really, really practicing a lot and playing a lot of shows at bars. I was always sort of looking for those really candid moments. It also looked very linear to me, growing up in New York looking up at the buildings, trains, and streets. It was the way that everyone was standing in the photo. We were just hanging around as friends and kicking it. It was sort of unknown what would happen in the future.
There’s also this funny photo where I guess Nikolai is holding a knife and Albert is drinking a beer. They seem in their own worlds.
Everyone was backstage. And Nick is at the piano, and I honestly don’t know why Nikolai has the knife in his hand, but I remember he was throwing it at the wall, I think. I remember we were in LA at the Gibson Theatre, and the Eagles of Death Metal were opening up for them. That was the type of show where everyone was sort of everywhere … In that picture, it was sort of like them acting like themselves for a moment.
There’s also one that comes off as the quintessential “about to walk onstage” photo, which you find often in books.
I believe this was in San Diego. Eagles of Death Metal were opening for them. I was staying with Nick back in LA, and we decided to drive down instead of take the bus with the other guys. It was pouring rain the whole drive down there, which took about three hours. We had planned on getting there earlier, but it didn’t happen. By the time we got there, Nick had to be on stage in like 10 minutes.
I really had no time to shoot, besides some side-stage live shots. So I shot them walking out of the dressing room to the stage. Once again and years later, I still had that little point-and-shoot camera on me that I was using.
The next picture is really grainy. Everyone seems so into it, especially Albert, and the club looks small, too.
This photo was taken in 2000 at a now-closed but amazing bar called Don Hill’s in the city. We would hang out there a lot that year, both when they played and possibly more when they didn’t. Some friends we knew would throw a party there called “TisWas.” This was the early days, so it was another show where it was basically friends.
I still have it, but I was using a little point-and-shoot 35mm camera called a Yashica T4. Great little camera! A lot of times when I just wanted to hang out and not focus on shooting so much, I carried this on me. Energy was high in this show, and it was just great to watch. I was standing up front snapping pictures on my point-and-shoot, drinking a beer, and smoking a cigarette — back in the old days when you could smoke in bars. Processing the film a few days later, I was beyond happy with what I got… Not really worrying about anything really paid off in the end. I’m also fairly certain this was one of those 6 a.m. nights, but that was pretty common in those days.
What’s everyone up to these days?
Everybody is sort of in their own place. Like, I go out to LA and spend a lot of time with Nick and his family. It’s very much us just hanging out doing normal shit, like going to a baseball game or going to see Jerry Seinfeld. If not, we’ll just hang out by the pool and chill out. Nikolai is sort of with his family, but I would actually see him a lot because his daughter went to school with my younger brother and sister, so I would see him all the time in the West Village. Or we would see each other at the playground or the neighborhood. Albert and I will text, too. I would say Julian is the most reclusive out of everybody, but when we see each other, it’s like family.
What do you see the trajectory for the band being in the future?
I see them still making music years from now and still touring. Even though they have taken a few years between material to do their own stuff on the side … They know it’s magic when they get together. And when they don’t play for five years and headline a festival with large amounts of people still showing up, that says something. I see them getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for sure.
Aside from being their friend and looking at it from the standpoint of a fan, I do see them being one of the most influential bands of the past 15 years. Like I said, they and The White Stripes sort of ushered in this new wave of rock ‘n’ roll that was missing for a long time since the early ‘90s.