Up from the basement with The Strokes

By Beverley Knight

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Autumn in New York. Sounds heavenly, especially by personal invitation. It was an offer artist, writer, and producer Gordon Raphael couldn’t refuse. He dreamt of Halloween in the Big Apple once more, so the curious mind packed his bags in Hebden Bridge in the UK and left for his latest musical pilgrimage.

“It was in the East Village. My favourite neighbourhood and old home,” Gordon says. Musician Junius Karr threw a party for his new record, White Denim Jacket: a fitting moment, it seemed, for Raphael to do a little storytelling around his book, The World Is Going To Love This (Up from the basement with The Strokes): a look back his time producing the garage rock five-piece who revitalised and changed the course of the noughties indie scene, with a bit of help from Gordon.

Raphael made just one call-out on Instagram asking if anyone fancied working together. “On the same day, 20 bands raised their hand, saying “We do, we do!” Connecting with 16, he drew up a schedule for the witching season to make fresh rock ‘n’ roll in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The list is plentiful, with the likes of Samsara, The Dutch Kills, Shira, Pinc Louds, Full Bleed and Jade Tourniquet. And they weren’t all confined to the four walls of the studio. No, the city that never sleeps was calling for exploration again.

Jade Tourniquet’s bassist and singer, Sasha Worms, convinced Gordon to play synthesisers on the bohemian and famous Saint Marks Place, entertaining passersby. “It was so liberating to me: crazy sounds on the streets of New York in front of this great, historic book shop The Village Works.” The guitarist of Jade Tourniquet, Mitch, is on a stratospheric level, with Gordon never hearing the like or the kind of chords, riffs and tones Mitch created in the studio before. “It’s some kind of very New York version of heavy metal, mixed with witchcraft and sorcery in the most delightful post-punk way.” Frankie, the band’s drummer, is a force of nature to Gordon and another artist he admires greatly. “They can do so many styles, combining progressive jazz and super hard rock, all into one song, full of finesse and flavour.”

No artist had any requests that surprised Gordon when recording. But the quality and inventiveness shattered his mind. It was a blessing for him to see a new generation of musicians play a form of hard-rock-derived music. The bands oozed confidence, making it seem like it’s never been done before. “I found that very innocent, also hugely compelling.”

Over twenty years ago, the streets of New York were The Strokes for the taking. And take they did, which Gordon writes of in his book. There’s still a huge appetite to hear the story, transporting people back to that period of promise. People love to hear it. The only parallel he draws today with that time is almost the entire city of New York, and other bands that have come to him from the United States seem greatly affected and influenced by the music of The Strokes. Who can blame them? But sometimes, it’s a tad too much for Gordon. “There are bands that I chose not to work with, where the singer not only imitates the sound of Julian Casablancas. It’s already a bit offputting to me, but they copy his slouch on stage, which is disturbing and a bit boring.”

When Gordon lived in the city around 2000 and was working with The Strokes, there wasn’t much of a scene for rock music; there weren’t many bands that had that magnetic bond of The Strokes. He catches a little flack for saying that at times. But he stands by his word. Right now, at this very moment, there is an explosion of rock ‘n’ roll and live performances. It was entirely unexpected. The sheer number of players and concerts and truly brilliant music is something to shout about. “The interesting thing is I don’t think I would’ve discovered it if I hadn’t inquired about work in October and flew over.”

As a multi-media artist himself, Gordon discovered New York in 1984. A time he remembers with real fondness. “It was literally the rock ‘n’ roll Jerusalem. People could come from around the world, congregate in the East Village, rent places to live and basically party all day and all night throughout the summer.” Alas, that’s certainly changed with the restrictive immigration laws in the US and astronomical rent prices. “Up to $8,500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, I’ve heard!” On this trip of gold, Raphael surrounded himself with “fantastic people, super intelligent people, bursting with talent and a drive to make outrageous art and music.”

“It’s really fun to people watch here, and the plethora of amazing shops, cafes, coffee and restaurants are just perfect for my genteel music producer sensibilities.” For our restless soul, out of anywhere in the whole wide world, New York hits that sweet spot.

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Cover image by Hella Wittenberg