Watch twenty-three-year-old Fabrizio Moretti in action with The Strokes, and you’ll see an elegant simplicity, an economy of motion, and an almost machine-like precision. It’s no surprise to learn that in addition to studying music, he attended art school for sculpture, where he built elegant constructions out of discarded pieces of metal, crafting robotic figures that mimicked basic human movements.
“It was all about communications,” Moretti says. “I remember one that was a sort of noisemaking machine, with an arm that bounced back on a metal plate.” That sounds like exactly the sort of sculpture that a drummer would make. “Yeah, I guess it does,” he says, laughing.
Raised in midtown Manhattan, where neighbors tend to frown upon aspiring drummers, Moretti spent his early years banging away in a soundproofed closet. “I padded the walls, I padded the drums, I padded everything,” he says. “My mom was horrified, and so were the neighbors.”
The Strokes are Moretti’s first band. He has known singer Julian Casablancas and guitarist Nick Valensi since their days together at Dwight High School. They knocked the rock world on its ear in 2001 with their RCA debut, Is This It. Critics hailed the group’s mix of Velvet Underground drones, hyper-rhythmic guitars, undeniable hooks – and a killer backbeat. The Strokes were branded as the standard bearers of a new scene that represented the biggest burst of energy in the Big Apple since the mid-’70s uprising at C.B.G.B.: Here was “the new wave of new wave.”
Now the group (which is completed by guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. and bassist Nikolai Fraiture) is back with an equally strong second album, Room On Fire, which builds on the basic sound by incorporating diverse influences ranging from ’50s doo-wop to dub reggae. It stands as another collection of perfectly crafted rock songs, with every interlocking part a paradigm of tuneful minimalism.
Moretti clearly has a lot to be proud of in his musical career, and his personal life is going just as well: He’s dating actress Drew Barrymore. MD spoke with him after The Strokes’ first American tour in support of Room On Fire, when the band returned home to New York to perform a monthly residency on The Conan O’Brien Show.
MD: So you’ve been performing every Tuesday for a month on The Conan O’Brien Show. Do you like playing on TV?
Fab: To be honest with you, I’ve never done anything that’s more nerve-wracking. It’s like a show – you get the same kind of nervousness that you do when you’re about to go onstage. But the problem is that it’s only one song and you’re not able to get into it, plus you know that it’s going to be projected into millions of people’s houses. There’s something very freaky and ghostlike about it.
MD: It must be hard to come right out of the box and be good.
Fab: Exactly. That’s why there’s a whole lot of jumping about backstage and a lot of yelling right before we go on.
MD: How did you feel the initial US tour went?
Fab: It went really well. It was cool, because we sort of had to prove ourselves a little bit, like we did in the beginning. It felt like we were almost a different band, coming back on the second record.
MD: When I saw you in Chicago, I thought you played really well. It never ceases to amaze me how tight the group is.
Fab: I should start out by saying we’re all really close friends. We don’t have any egos to climb over. I’ve known Julian and Nick since I was thirteen. We’ve built this friendship and learned our musical tastes from each other. You can’t hide anything from a friendship like that. You kind of step into the situation showing your cards. In my case, it’s hard to be like a simple drummer who doesn’t play all over the place. But there’s something soothing about having my friends all around me, egging me on to do certain parts as we’re arranging the songs.
MD: It seems as if everyone in The Strokes intensely listens to one another. Each part is so wonderfully crafted and everything fits together so meticulously. Do you really put each song under the microscope?
Fab: Oh yeah, absolutely, for hours and hours. It’s similar to a machine in that every cog has its moments of up and down. When one part of the machine is at its lowest point of rotation, the other part is at its highest, and that’s the only way that the machine works. It’s just like any other art form, like when you paint something or build a sculpture and it finally clicks and you can’t put another stroke to it – no pun intended! You feel that sense of satisfaction that it’s finally finished. And it might seem finished for the longest time, but something might be missing, as small as one crash.
MD: When we’re talking about something specific in the drum part – like dropping out of a 16th-note ride and going to flams on the snare – is that something where Julian says, “I want you to do this?” Or will you try different things and inject them into a song?
Fab: He’s very specific about how he wants a song to come out. But what’s beautiful about the way Julian works is that he’s open to anything. I don’t know if you were talking about the song “The Way It Is,” when I go from the ride to flams on the snare, but stuff like that comes about from playing the part over and over again and trying a whole bunch of different things. Sometimes it comes from someone describing a mood that they want to set, and sometimes it just comes as a fluke. But a lot of the times, it’s just a certain amount of discipline, playing the song over and over again – or just playing the part over and over again – and thinking of as many things as you possibly can.