INTERVIEW: GORDON RAPHAEL
By Jackson Tarricone
The 2001 debut album “Is This It” by the Strokes has been mythologized not just in the history of the New York scene, but in the entire history of rock music. The Strokes and Gordon Raphael, however, have very real and concrete memories from this time. As much as it is magical, the album is undoubtedly a product of their hard work and deliberate artistic choices. Gordon Raphael, producer of the Strokes’ “Is This It” and “Room on Fire” along with albums by Regina Spektor, Hinds, and more, has written a book documenting his journey to New York and his experience in Transporterraum with the Strokes along with how his life changed after that titled The World Is Going to Love This: Up From the Basement with the Strokes.
Raphael was all too aware that he was writing a book without a title. “All this time I had in the back of my mind: ‘I gotta come up with a title for the book!’ and I had a really shitty title: ‘My life with the Strokes,’” said Raphael. After numerous pun-heavy suggestions—including but not limited to “Strokes of Genius”—Raphael became more clear on what message he wanted his title to communicate: “I knew I wanted to have somewhere ‘the basement.’ I had that in my mind a lot because my studio was in a basement and they came in my basement and after they were in my basement our life changed. We got to go out of the basement and around the world.”
The second part of the title, which comes from inside the book, was suggested by his publisher. Raphael recalls the exact moment when he said those words: “In my book, I meet Regina Spektor in a studio and I don’t want to work; I just spent a whole year working in London and I’m just back in New York to party and have fun around christmas time. Someone introduces me to Regina and I say ‘Hi, what do you do?’ and she said ‘Watch!’ and she played ‘Poor Little Rich Boy,’ one hand on the piano, one hand with a drumstick and singing looking right at me. Within 10 seconds I thought ‘oh my god, the world is going to love this! I gotta record it!’” The result was Regina Spektor’s 2004 album “Soviet Kitsch,” featuring production and some percussion by Gordon Raphael, also leading to the Spektor-Strokes collaborative single, “Modern Girls & Old Fashion Men” later that year.
According to the Seattleite and current UK resident, the book centers around an eight year period, although it is far from chronological: “my mind goes on many flashbacks and flash forwards so it zigzags around a lot,” he said. As for the different stops on this zig-zag through space and time, Raphael describes the book’s content as “automatic stories” already written in his mind: “The stories are stories I’ve been telling every band that hires me for the last twenty years,” Raphael explained. These stories range from his time in New York to his involvement in the Seattle grunge scene before that and how he got to New York in the first place.
The World is Going to Love This is not just a memoir, however. There are several underlying messages in Raphael’s book about both his life and beyond: “I wanted to show that the real life adventure that I‘ve been on is quite unusual and kind of like an imagination or a dream. So many things are random and coincidence and serendipity,” said Raphael. Some of these messages present almost as a thesis, Raphael explained: “Truth is stranger than fiction, and in my case I may be able to prove that point in my book.” Beyond its value as a recounting of this time in his life, Raphael also aims to inspire his audience through his own story. Raphael imagines that the main theme from the novel may be creativity itself: “Someone could see in my book the core of just being open and excited to create stuff, just loving the process of creativity.”
Storytelling and creativity are two familiar animals to Raphael. What does not come as easy to him, however, is sitting in place: “Writing the book, the hardest thing was always going to be sitting down long enough to compile the stories in print in a logical way […] that book was never going to happen except for the fact that with the lockdown, I didn’t have anywhere to go. I couldn’t go to see my friends, I couldn’t go on tour, I couldn’t do anything.” Raphael stated. Raphael simply had no other option but to sit down and write his book, and he knew it: “This voice in my head was like ‘Hey! Remember me! You could do this!’” This call was obliged by Raphael before long.
Partially because of this aversion to sitting still, Raphael was presented with the option of other mediums to tell his story. Attributing this quality to his long history of playing in bands since he was 13 years old, Raphael has liked performing. This is precisely what he has been doing for the past 20 years while recounting the stories that now appear in his book: “When people ask me ‘what was this like?’ I get into the voices and the characters and the facial expressions; it’s kind of like a performance.” It is for that very reason that his friend Forest Kinney wanted to film him telling these stories, to capture Raphael’s storytelling abilities more directly in the audiovisual format. However, the former New Yorker maintained that he wanted to present these experiences on paper.
Although he has never written a book before, the process was not entirely novel to Raphael: “A lot of it ties into the same way I make music and I make art and I make videos. All my life I’ve kind of been privileged and happy to be a creative person. What that means to me is, maybe I’m just walking through the woods or on the street and an idea hits me. I start working on the idea, and it just comes out.” Raphael had a similar experience writing the beginning of his book: “I thought ‘Okay, I’m starting my book…where do I start? Oh I know! I’m in that café that I loved so much in New York. I just want to talk about that café. I knew it could start there, and from there it’s like ‘how did I get to New York, man?’” Raphael relied on a combination of his own memory, stream of consciousness, and the internet to get from that café to the many different sounds and scenes along the way in his book.
The very concept of editing seemed somewhat antithetical to Raphael’s approach in his creative endeavors. At first, he was confident that he wouldn’t need to do it at all: “When my best friend Sarah said ‘well, you wrote a book, now you’ve got to edit it,’ I chuckled to myself and I thought, ‘she doesn’t know that I’m actually the kind of writer that I don’t really need editing!’ I don’t really edit my music too much. It just comes out and it’s done.” However, as anyone who has ever written anything knows, editing is a vital part of the process, a conclusion which Raphael soon came to himself when he read his first draft. Although this process took much longer, Raphael found that the edited iterations of his book were bringing his stories into closer, more precise, not to mention coherent, detail: “I think I edited it 4 or 5 times. I’ve never even read a book 5 times in a row! By the 5th time it actually started to sound like something.” After six months of editing, the book was complete.
Raphael writing a book about his experience in music is quite fitting for him. The world renowned producer was a “real competitive” reader as a child, always trying to outreach his classmates. This process afforded Raphael a chance to interweave his two passions, reading and music. To that same end, most of the stories Raphael seeks out now are music documentaries: “I just always love stories about musicians,” said Raphael. Now, he is adding his own story to that list.
Along with music documentaries, Raphael also engages with a great deal of music and has been doing so for much of his life: “I listened to music so much, so many albums from the time I was ten, I never stopped. Even now I listen to four albums a day. Even when I’m working, at night I put on an album to relax, in the morning I listen to music.” Given his career, this comes as no surprise. In fact, Raphael cites music as an influence on his unique, sometimes syntax-defying writing style: “Lyrics just informed my style. Also, having come from Seattle and lived in LA a little, New York a little, London a little, there’s a lot of slang that my different peer groups would say that I adopted.” One example which appears in his book is the word “styly,” a word which Gordon said raised the eyebrows of his editor Ted George. Raphael did not change the word: “let people go like ‘huh?’ That’s how I want to say it,” he then clarified. Raphael’s language, much like the lyrics to a Velvet Underground or Siouxsie and the Banshees record, requires a certain amount of disentanglement. George’s reaction was precisely the effect Raphael intends to evoke with his writing.
Along with writing and editing the book, Raphael also faced the task of finding a publisher. At first, both he and his agent ran into some difficulties finding a publisher. After his manuscript was “just sitting around” for a while, he got a call from a musician and journalist he had worked with in the past by the name of Ned Dylan who had a lead on a publisher looking for a book by a musician, which is how Gordon got in touch with Wordville. Three days after he sent his manuscript to Lucy Tertia George at Wordville, she had read it all. Tertia George then wrote the following to Raphael: “I really like your book because it’s about the creative process and how musicians make music in a studio. People don’t really know that, so I think this is a really good book for our publishing company.” In response, Raphael wrote: “First of all, you read it in three days, you’re not asking me to remove half of the content, you’re not being starstruck by the names and famous people I might mention, you’ve actually noticed that I’m talking about the creative process and my philosophy of sound… I love you—let’s do this!” Together, with Wordville and his editor Ted George, they tightened up the book without sacrificing its stylistic (or “styly”) integrity or the heart of the story.
As Raphael has said previously, the making of “Is This It” was a strange time in his life. With this absurdity, however, comes gratitude: “The work that they did, their songs that they wrote, Julian’s songs and their whole thing, that’s powerful. I guess it’s part of our culture and it’s legendary stuff by now. I’m more grateful than I am confounded.” Raphael also had more thanks to give: “I have such a huge debt to the masters and artists and albums that made me want to be in music and made me understand the world through these albums I heard as a kid and still do. To know something I worked on, even as a producer, is having this great inspirational effect on people for 20 years just feels good and it’s very humbling to know that I had a chance to be part of the giving back,” he said.
Raphael is giving back in more ways than one, producing for bands from around the world. One such group is a New York band called Cab Ellis and their upcoming album, “The East Coast Hold On.” Raphael also recorded with a Berlin-based band composed of Scottish and Ecuadorian musicians called Ponte Pilas along with another New York outfit known as Girl Skin.
The World is Going to Love This is available for preorder now and is slated for release on July 2nd of this year. In the meantime, Raphael is doing a book signing on June 14th at Rough Trade East in London, which he described as a “full circle” event since Rough Trade were the first label to sign the Strokes in 2001.