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Amid breakup rumors, The Strokes hit the road stronger

The indie rockers headline the Sweetlife Festival at Merriweather

By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

5:52 PM EDT, April 28, 2011

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Nikolai Fraiture hopes The Strokes aren't breaking up.

The New York five-member band has been dogged with questions about its longevity, relevance and commitment ever since the hype over its first album, "This is It," cooled down in the early 2000s.

The latest one came in March, when website Pitchfork suggested the band's latest album, "Angles," could be its last. Fraiture didn't dismiss the story. "At the time, it felt like that," he said.

But he's not declaring the band over. When asked about its future, he doesn't scoff or decline comment.

He wants to record more albums, but "there are five of us in the band. I can't tell you exactly where we're all headed," he said.

So it's with a hint of nostalgia that the band has been touring this year, the specter of a breakup in the air, if not a definite possibility.

There's one reason for fans to be hopeful, Fraiture said. He suggested that on Sunday night at Merriweather Post Pavilion, as headliners of the Sweetlife Music Festival, band members will be where they're at their best: on stage. He said they've been delivering their best live performances yet.

The performance will be culmination of 10 hours of music at the festival, the second organized by salad and yogurt restaurant group Sweetgreen, which will feature nine other acts, including Girl Talk, Lupe Fiasco and D.C.'s Modern Man and U.S. Royalty.

It was the Strokes' cocky and irreverent live performances that first brought them acclaim.

"I feel that what people liked about us in the early days was our live shows," Fraiture said.

When they recorded, Fraiture said, the "main goal in the early days was to capture what we did live on record."

Largely because they managed to strike the right balance, their first EP, "The Modern Age," and their debut album, "Is This It," which came later that year, was highly admired and promoted, inevitably setting up steep expectations.

In part because of the hype, and because the band headed in a more polished direction with the follow-ups, each one has been received with gleeful schadenfreude. But there was also discord among the band members, who were working on individual projects.

"Angles" was no different. Guitarist Nick Valensi has been quoted as saying production was "awful."

Singer Julian Casablancas had recorded his vocals by himself before, but with the band in the studio, Fraiture said. But this time, Casablancas recorded his vocals in a different studio and shared them with the band electronically.

"It was a long, on-and-off kind of thing," Fraiture said of the making of the album, which started in 2009 and lasted a year and a half.

He said he's happy with the finished product. But he said it's in their live performances that fans will recognize a change, a return to their roots.

"In the past, we prided ourselves on bringing our live shows to tape," he said. "Now we're a little more comfortable not necessarily playing every little thing. Sometimes it works on record, sometimes it works better live."

Fraiture said that change has come from experience. They've been performing live now for more than 10 years. And he said they've gotten a better handle on their fans.

"We understand a lot more how to interact with a crowd," he said. "After many years of trying, we've found a groove where we understand that we're not just playing to a wall, but to people who are receiving and emitting as well."

The improvement in the band's performance has not been lost on critics.

In early April, the Strokes performed at Madison Square Garden in New York City the night before LCD Soundsystem's last show ever.

The two bands had come of age in the same time period, but as the Strokes lost critical acclaim and fans, James Murphy and LCD accumulated almost unrivaled respect and fan-boy devotion.

Yet Jon Caramanica, writing in The New York Times, said it was the suddenly revved-up Strokes who put on the better show, noting Casablancas' "beautifully woozy voice" and the band's "invigorating" guitar work.

Fraiture said it's not untrue that they've become better live than on record.

"Back in the day it was fun and it was great, but it was a lot loose. It wasn't as consistent," he said. "I would say that the energy is definitely stronger now. It's not as hit-or-miss anymore."

erik.maza@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/midnightsunblog



If you go



The Strokes perform Sunday as part of the Sweetlife Music Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. The festival begins at noon. Tickets are $55. Call 410-730-3506 or go to ticketfly.com.