If you’re a fan of indie rock — even from a distance — there’s a good chance you’ve heard the name Gordon Raphael before. He’s renowned for being the person who helped break The Strokes’ signature sound when he produced The Modern Age EP and their first two albums Is This It and Room on Fire — a distinctly dangerous and invigorating sound that single-handedly launched the early aughts garage rock revival and continues to be imitated by an endless barrage of indie rock bands to this day.
Working with The Strokes has garnered Raphael international praise and adoration from millions of people, including myself. But reducing him to “The Strokes guy” doesn’t do justice to the amount of innovative realms he’s opened up for music as a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer over the past several decades.
Raphael started playing keyboards at an early age and spent years refining his craft in his hometown of Seattle, going on to play in several local bands like Mental Mannequin, Sky Cries Mary, and Absinthee with Anna Mercedes, among others. He’s credited as an engineer on Green River’s Dry As a Bone EP, and was also asked to temporarily join Nirvana when they were looking for an extra guitar player — an offer he ultimately declined, but doesn’t regret.
Raphael later relocated to his birthplace of New York where he set up a basement studio at the Transporterraum in the East Village. There he recorded The Strokes and also produced Regina Spektor’s widely-treasured debut album Soviet Kitsch. Since then he’s continued to release his own music and traveled internationally, working with bands in Berlin, Mexico, Argentina, England, Spain, and countless other places. He’s also produced and engineered records for Hinds, Blonde Redhead, and Colleen Green.
Now he’s gearing up for the release of his upcoming memoir, The World Is Going to Love This: Up From the Basement with The Strokes. The book chronicles his life as a musician and producer leading up to the point when he met The Strokes at the Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street and helped them create one of the most revered indie rock albums of the early-2000s.
I caught up with Raphael to discuss the upcoming book, the 20th anniversary of Is This It, spending a night at Wendy Carlos’s studio, and much more.
Hi Gordon! How are you doing?
I’m doing very well, thank you.
How was recording in Berlin?
That went surprisingly well! Whenever I go to work with a new band, I already have a song or two as a reference, so I know they’re going to be good. But I love it when I get surprised. I noticed right away that there was something really special about the band I worked with in Berlin. I had three jobs this year where I showed up to work with several groups, but after a while it just hit me how phenomenal these guys were. I was having the best time ever. So I’ve had a very lucky year. The pandemic has made it a bit harder to travel, but it’s been so worthwhile.
What was it like to travel again after the restrictions were lifted?
Well I would normally go back to my hometown once a year, which is Seattle. I would also travel to New York, which is also my town because I was born there and had also lived there for a while. Working out arrangements with the bands I recorded was really simple, but the travel arrangements were so freaky. There’s panic about airline complications and having to remember all the documents you’re supposed to carry now like passports, tickets, vaccination proof, passenger locator form, and test results from three days before. The first time I got a COVID test to fly I had to take a train to Manchester, which is about 50 minutes from where I live in the UK. I’ll usually get another test somewhere else just to be safe in case the lab messes up.
I read that you spent a night at Wendy Carlos’s studio at one point. How did that come about?
Wendy Carlos was so influential to me growing up. I had always listened to all these progressive rockers who were playing moog synthesizers and I always wanted to get my hands on that stuff when I was a teenager. But then I saw A Clockwork Orange in a theater with the choir singing in German, the synthesizers, and the Beethoven music that she did. I was in a band in Seattle at the time called Sky Cries Mary. And I had told a friend of mine I was going to New York and he goes, “Oh, then you got to stay with my friend Tom O’Horgan.” Tom O’Horgan was the Broadway director who did Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. His apartment was a loft the size of an entire city block. Everywhere you looked there were thousands of instruments on the walls. The whole ceiling was covered in vines and bells from all over the world. He had a grand piano, a pipe organ, and a hallway of gardens that were used in the Jesus Christ Superstar musical in the ‘60s. And so we were talking and he said, “So what do you do?” and I told him I play synthesizers. He went, “Oh, there’s this woman down the street. She plays synthesizers too. She’s always trying to get me to go out to dinner with her, but I just haven’t had time.” I asked him who it was and he told me it was Wendy Carlos. I just started gasping and thinking really fast about how I could convince him to arrange for me to tag along when he went to see her.
When we went to dinner, Wendy was really overjoyed to see Tom O’Horgan. When he introduced me to her as his “friend who also plays synthesizers,” she looked right at me and said, “Well, don’t come to me with your problems.” Those were the first words she directed at me. So we had dinner and she was talking about how she’d just gotten back from the Sahara Desert where she saw an eclipse, at which point I decided I’d make a joke and say “I didn’t know the power was stable enough there to run your synthesizers.” And then she was taken aback, glared at me and said “That was terrible.” All day I had been rehearsing these different questions I’d planned on asking her, and now I’m thinking I blew my chance. So at the end of dinner she asked Tom to come to her studio, and it was like 8:30 P.M. or something, which was normally when he went to sleep. But he decided to go to the studio for my sake. They lived one block from each other at the time. Tom O’Horgan is no longer alive, but Wendy Carlos is alive and well. I actually got a beautiful email from her last week. I’d written her a late birthday message, just as an excuse to reconnect. And she’s been very, very kind to me ever since this moment in history.
So we got to her apartment and went to the back where she had this wonderland of a studio that she built into a ritzy New York apartment on Broadway. She built the walls, the speakers, the mixing console, she put chicken wire inside the walls so that no electromagnetic interference would come from the telephones while she was recording. There was the Switched-On Bach synth that Robert Moog made for her back in the old days and she had these Egyptian cats lounging on the synthesizer.
So she takes Tom to the front while I’m still marveling at the space. She mentioned that she was trying to get more into computer-based music and someone had sent her a whole sound library. And there were a set of sounds that she couldn’t discern, but she knew that Tom had played thousands of instruments and he would probably know what the sounds were. So she played a sound. And I had been sampling through the 90s. It was something that I’d been doing for five years before I met her. So she played these sounds while Tom kind of scratched his chin trying to figure it out and once in a while I would look up and say, “That’s a slowed down tom-tom.” The second or third time I answered one of her questions she turned around and she actually saw me for the first time. She looked at me and said, “Wow, Gordon. You really do know your stuff.” So Tom said his goodbyes and I stuck around. There was no more suspicion that I was going to be an embarrassment to her.
The fourth question I asked her was what keyboards she had leaning against the curtain. She said “Those are Kurzweil K2000 sampling keyboards. I never tried them. I invented a tuning system for them.” And so I said, “Oh wow, K2000. Those are supposed to be the best samplers,” and she said, “I think sampling is a gimmick,” and I said, “No, no, it’s great, let me show you!” So I took her K2000 from the curtain and I couldn’t really figure out immediately how to get it to work. I didn’t know what to do or what buttons to push. So around midnight I said, “Hey, do you have the owner’s manual for this?” And she said “Sure, it’s right there.” So I took the Kurzweil home and came back the next night and had her try it out with her autoharp and she was mystified. And then she went on to start a whole new chapter of work with a sampling orchestra. It was beyond anything anyone had ever done. She sent it to MIT for harmonic readouts of every orchestral instrument at different velocities that she had programmed. I think it was 250 oscillators per voice, so that certain frequencies would emerge like how a real violin would behave. And she wound up making a record called Tales of Heaven and Hell with this new sample system and she put my name in the credits. It said something like, “K2000 tutorial by Gordon Raphael.” That pretty much made my life. I didn’t feel like I had to do anything else.
You mentioned in passing earlier that you were born in New York. What made you decide to return after the ‘90s?
I was born in the Bronx. My dad was going to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and my mom’s from Brooklyn. I was 13 when I started playing in bands. Even as a teenager, if you were going to actually have a musical career, you were either going to go to L.A. or New York. All my music friends from Seattle had tried to move to New York and had various levels of success. A bunch of them wound up in Madonna’s Desperately Seeking Susan movie and in the club scenes. But it almost always ended really tragically for them when they moved to New York. They had either gone crazy or got strung out on drugs or would have to come back home and stay with their parents. It was very common for Seattle musicians to go to New York and wind up in really bad trouble. At that time, the image of L.A. was the complete opposite of where my mind was at. So there was no question about being in New York.
What can you tell me about the landscape in Seattle around the time you formed your initial bands?
A lot of the people who were savvy enough to be young and at the forefront of the music scene there — which would normally be the people who worked at Sub Pop and various people who were trying to sell records and push these bands — they have a different viewpoint of it. They think it all got really silly once it got in the hands of the mainstream, when bands’ singles were being used in movies and hundred-dollar flannel designer shirts started showing up in Vogue. But for a person who grew up in Seattle and saw this wave of music and culture from our own town hit the mainstream and bounce back to us, it was really incredible. It was absolutely jaw-dropping. Up until then, there were only two or three small venues. When it got past the Nevermind era, there were suddenly several Seattle venues open seven nights a week. Bootsy Collins and Funkadelic and George Clinton came around almost four or five times a year to play sold out shows, and every night was a party. Bands started migrating to Seattle like they would to New York and L.A. Bands in the area were getting signed left and right and getting asked to dinner with publishing companies from Beverly Hills.
It was also interesting because a lot of the core bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains — all from Seattle — they weren’t there for the grunge years. They were on the road. They were everywhere else. So there were a lot of other smaller bands, like the bands I was in and other local bands, and it was a great time. I had finally gotten offered a record deal after trying for years and years. Suddenly, I started living comfortably and was paying my own rent just from playing music all the time. So for me it was a golden time. It lasted five or six years. Then it was over as drastically as it had begun.
Microsoft was also getting a big foot in the grunge scene. My band was involved in helping Microsoft pioneer CD-ROM technology and we were invited to one of the Windows launches. It was a really big deal. Before that, Seattle was mostly a place for people who went fishing, or were cowboys and airplane makers. To be a musician was considered an anomaly. People thought, What are you going to do with your life? Just hang out in your basement, drink beer, and practice your guitar? When are you going to give that up? That was what it was like before it all began. So that moment in time was really special.
Can you recall one of the first times that art transformed your life in a significant way?
According to my dad, whenever I cried as a child, my parents figured out that if they held me a certain way where I could see a painting on the wall behind me, I would quiet down. At a certain point in my young teenage years, I would immerse myself in art books from places like the Prado in Madrid. There were the weird European Renaissance guys like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. They really showed me the human potential that could be drawn, like demons bursting out of fire with nuns and pigs and all these skeletons.
My dad was a jazz musician and I didn’t really like jazz, but he introduced me to Frank Zappa and the Beatles when I was about 10. The music and the lyrics really painted a picture of what became really important to me. That really made me want to play music.
What made you decide to write a memoir about your time with The Strokes 20 years after Is This It came out?
Well, for starters, a lot of people all over the world wanted to talk about the 20th anniversary of Is This It. And The Strokes don’t really talk about it. So I got really lucky in 2021, because every media company that wanted to do something about The Strokes 20th anniversary, the band would always refer them to me, like, “Well, you can call Gordon, he’s happy to speak to you.” So I was getting a lot of press and I got to blab so much. I was popping up on Israeli radio stations, NME Magazine, and Rolling Stone. Now I’ve gone around the world producing bands for the past 20 years. Before that I just did it in my basement studio. As soon as The Strokes album hit, bands from all over the world wanted to fly me out to their studios in Brazil, Seattle, Paris, or the Netherlands. And the reason why they wanted to work with me was because they loved The Strokes record so much. I’ve been working non-stop for 20 years because of the first couple Strokes albums. Everyone’s always asking me, “What were those guys like?”
I always get asked to tell stories. I’ve been telling certain stories over and over. And when I told one of my friends some of these stories he said, “God, you’ve got to write a book.” And I thought, Oh, that sounds miserable. Sitting in a chair for hours or days on end just sounded lonely and too weird. So flash-forward to March 2020, I had my first gigs of the year canceled and I’d never said no to work before, but I was suddenly bailing on productions. Everything was closing down and I had no choice but to stay home. I tried writing songs, but it didn’t thrill me like it usually did. So eventually a little voice in my head said, Why don’t you write that book? So I sat down and started from the beginning, which is in the prologue where I talk about why I wrote the book. And then I started telling my stories that I’ve been telling for 20 years. So I’d always wanted to do this, but I never thought I was actually going to be able to sit still long enough to finish it. The pandemic gave me a reason to write it, and it was really fun. I really enjoyed the process.
Is the book a series of vignettes or is it told in a more linear narrative?
It’s definitely very linear because I go into detail about how one thing led to another. I basically started telling a story and would ask myself, When did that happen? So then I would go on the internet and search “Strokes setlist Boston 2001,” and think Oh yeah, that’s the day that I was there. I have a pretty good memory of all these stories, but the internet really locked it in. So it’s pretty chronological.
Where were you when Is This It came out? Were you like 10 years old or something when the album came out?
Oh god, I hadn’t even learned to walk yet. I was pushing two, I think.
I love that. It’s very interesting and gratifying to hear that all these years later younger people are still discovering The Strokes and getting heavily into the band. Because by the time you got it, it wasn’t trending. It wasn’t the hot new thing, yet it had an impact in an artistic way or a magical correspondence. And that’s so gratifying. I love that.
Definitely. That’s the best part of listening to something after the hype dies down. You get to enjoy the music in its purest form. You’ve said that The Strokes make you feel “committed to the powerful, sacred majesty in song and lyrics,” and a lot of listeners and fans — regardless of age — feel the same way.
Yeah, I mean, I listen to a lot of old music. I listen to stuff from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and those songs are just as potent now as they were the first time I heard them. It’s like a time capsule of energy, and it always delivers.
I also wanted to ask about Regina Spektor, who still speaks so highly of you and The Strokes. What can you tell me about recording her?
It’s interesting that you bring that up because while I was recording in Berlin a few weeks ago, I was hanging out with the engineer who owns the studio. I would play him different music that would really show off his speakers. He’d somehow never heard Regina before, so I played him some of her stuff and told him stories about all the time I spent working with her. He basically started listening to it nonstop. It became his family’s new favorite record. So that was a really nice Regina moment I had recently. I hadn’t heard that stuff for a while. It sounded so good. She completely blew my mind, you know? And there’s a lot of information in my book about exactly what happened and what I went through when I first met her. Working with her was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me and one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve ever had. It was so weird that in all my years of doing music, The Strokes and her happened back-to-back. They were like one right after the other.
She’s really special. I can’t stress enough how valuable that Soviet Kitsch record still is to me and so many of my friends who are full-time musicians.
I’m glad to hear that. It was incredibly fun and very different. I won’t tell you exactly how it was, because that’s all included in my book, and it’s pretty interesting. But she wanted to do things in a way that nobody had done before, and I was happy to oblige. We recorded [“Modern Girls and Old Fashioned Men”] with her and The Strokes at Bear Creek Studios. That studio is like a family studio to me. So I wanted to invite The Strokes to record there in the hopes that maybe they would do an album there.
What was one of the first albums you heard throughout your life that really blew your mind?
That’s easy. We’re Only In It for the Money by the Mothers of Invention. My dad used to be the medical expert who would give slideshow presentations about drugs at PTA meetings. This was at a time when the moral panic among parents about their kids doing drugs was running rampant. My dad had a presentation that he would show to the parents at PTA meetings to quell their fears about their kids possibly doing drugs and he would play Frank Zappa as part of the slide show. So when I was a little kid, seeing these images and hearing this music, it was like the musical equivalent of Hieronymous Bosch for me. The sounds, the humor, the lyrics — everything about it opened up my brain in a major way.
I remember all the songs I played when I was 8, 10, 13. I became a keyboard player because I met this guitar player who was around my age and he could play anything. He could play Jimi Hendrix at 13. So I thought if I couldn’t play guitar I would just play keyboards. Being a keyboard player in a band put me in the same family as The Doors. The Doors were a big influence on me and I really gravitated towards bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. They were bringing out these synthesizers and performing rock ‘n roll in a very extravagant way. Those were the moments when I knew my future was with synthesizers.
It’s interesting that you mention Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer being a major influence on you. I feel like history should have been a little kinder to those bands.
Oh, absolutely. During the punk days I would have roommates and friends take my Emerson, Lake & Palmer records off the turntable and frisbee them into the park in front of my house. I had to wrestle people away from that turntable a lot. So I definitely felt the pain of that transition into punk. It wasn’t an easy one for me, but certain music came out around the time that really opened my eyes to new ways to use crazy sounds. Once I heard Devo and Kraftwerk I thought, Okay, you can still play synthesizers and it doesn’t have to only be like Tony Banks doing Genesis solos. There’s another way to use it. Skinny Puppy was one of those bands that was extremely influential to me through the grunge years. I was actually listening to Skinny Puppy all the time because they were doing this really horror-based synthesizer music that had nothing to do with pretty sounds or spacey sounds. It was super aggressive, and I really liked it.
If I may pivot back to The Strokes, what did working with them teach you about collaboration?
Let’s just say there were a lot of important lessons that I learned working with them. As a producer I’ve always tried to do the opposite of what all the producers and engineers did with me when I was a kid. They would treat me like I didn’t know anything and acted like they knew everything because they were the experts. And if I wanted to try something else, they would talk me out of doing it. So I always wanted to be the kind of producer who wouldn’t pull that type of attitude on a band. The Strokes helped me find places where I was still holding on to that attitude and they forced me to let go of it. I had to really listen to what they were saying to go forward. If I didn’t, we wouldn’t have gotten very far because they were so precise about what they wanted. So the big lesson that I learned working with the Strokes was to always listen to ideas from people who I work very closely with, and not just assume that because I have more experience that I know more than they do.
Is it true that the band initially objected to that iconic lo-fi vocal processing you put on the tracks?
Well that also goes back to Skinny Puppy. They wanted to have something super distinctive about the vocals so I gave them the Skinny Puppy treatment, which was the process that Skinny Puppy called the Shit-A-Lyzer. I basically just distorted the vocals beyond recognition and into oblivion and they just looked at me and said “That’s really awful. We don’t like that.” And then we worked on going from there to the sound you hear on the album within a ten-minute interval of time. And so it was good that I listened to them, because they helped me fine-tune it into something that people like.
Are there any newer records from this year that you’ve enjoyed?
I haven’t really found a lot of great stuff. I really like Colleen Green’s new album, Cool, which was an album I worked on. The last time I got really, really excited about new music was when I discovered Lil Peep. I came a little late to that party, but I found that very interesting. So I’ll sometimes hear new music and I think it’s good, but I haven’t found much that made me want to hear it a second time in a long time. I also finally started listening to Mitski this year and wow. She’s really something else.
Thank you so much for joining me today. This is already the highlight of my week.
You’re very welcome. It was very nice speaking with you.
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