"Last time we played here was at the Dragonfly, and it was empty," said the Strokes' singer Julian Casablancas last week, addressing the fans at an anything-but-empty Troubadour.
As the New York band played its melodic rock with a confident swagger, guys in the audience jumped up and down and women jostled for a view of the young, slightly scruffy musicians. Outside the Troubadour was a sidewalk full of people trying to score a way into the sold-out show, with at least one person offering $100 for one of the $10 tickets.
All this for a band that hasn't released an album in the U.S. and bears about as much relation to current rock trends as does Rudy Vallee.
What happened between the March Dragonfly show and now?
It's the best thing that can happen to a band early in its career--and it's the worst thing. Typically, it unfolds with a small but intense local or regional following, followed by support in the music press, followed by record companies in search of the next Nirvana or Guns N' Roses bidding for the act.
More often than not, though, such bidding wars raise expectations that are never realized. The real Nirvana was passed over by just about every label before Geffen signed it, while the cutout bins are littered with dusty CDs by former buzz bands.
The Strokes' buzz started last fall when a weekly residency at New York's Bowery Ballroom became an overflow sensation and grew after the British rock press went crazy for an EP released late last year. The band was arguably the hit of Austin's South by Southwest conference in March, with major labels turning the pursuit of the group into a classic bidding war. RCA Records won, signing the band in April and gearing up to release the Strokes' debut album, "Is This It," on Sept. 25.
But is this the first step on the way to Nirvana-dom? Or is it Chapter 1 of the more common story?
"The one I keep coming back to is Jonathan Fire Eater," says Alan Light, editor in chief of Spin magazine, about the last rock band he remembers generating this kind of buzz--and one that made little impact after signing with DreamWorks Records in 1997.
"[The Strokes] don't sound much like what's big out there. It's difficult to imagine this connecting as a big multi-platinum KROQ sort of band."
And yet, Light says, it's hard to dismiss the Strokes.
"Even here as it was happening I just kept thinking, 'How ... is it that everyone is all of a sudden talking about this band?"' he says. "Everybody--kids I run into, not just industry insiders. I don't think it's fabricated, someone creating this hype. Now everyone's trying to figure out, (a) Where did [the buzz] come from? and (b) What does it add up to?"
Not everyone is. Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., whose father had a big '70s pop hit with "It Never Rains in Southern California," says the band is trying not to analyze the buzz too much and wants to take its career one step at a time.
"I don't know how big the audience is for our music," says the 21-year-old musician. "At one time it was hard to imagine 1,000 people liking us, and when 1,000 did it was hard to imagine 10,000."
Not that he doesn't think there's potential for a large following. It was being out of step with trends that brought Van Nuys-raised Hammond and his bandmates together. Shortly after moving to New York two years ago, he ran into Casablancas, 22, with whom he had gone to boarding school in Switzerland in the early '90s.
A mutual love of classic rock values and dislike of what they viewed as gimmicky rap-metal and punk currents led to an invitation for Hammond to join the band Casablancas had started.
As a unit the band developed a melodic, energetic style with echoes of acts ranging from the Velvet Underground and New York Dolls to Tom Petty and the Jam. But the Strokes' music is far from breaking ground of its own, and at this point lacks the dark mystique at the heart of the best of its models. Still, there is an earnest joy in the presentation--live and on record--that gives it potential for growth.
"We never wanted to be a gimmick, just five honest guys on stage," says Hammond.
Can that approach break through the current rock climate? Steve Ralbovsky, the RCA senior vice president of A&R who signed the band, sees encouraging developments. Though mainstream radio play for the Strokes in the U.S. has been largely limited to specialty programming, response has been positive in such key markets as Seattle and Philadelphia.
"Early indications are there are a number of mainstream radio programmers who love the Strokes and are looking for a band that they are passionate about who can break the mold," he says. "In the middle of any trend there are one or two things that break the trend."
But like Spin magazine's Light, Ralbovsky and Hammond are cautious about trying to make too much happen too soon from too little. After all, the band's entire repertoire filled just 40 minutes at the Troubadour. Hammond says that rather than try to push the debut album too hard, the band plans to tour just six months before starting work on a second album. And Ralbovsky is wary of the appearance of hype.
"We have to be patient and thoughtful about how we deal with radio and retail," says Ralbovsky. "But you can't over-think things and be too clever, and early signs are that this is not just critics'-darling-industry-frenzy-thing No. 117."