Caspar Llewellyn Smith goes backstage with the Strokes

Drew Barrymore, Liv Tyler, Amanda de Cadenet, crates of champagne - just a normal night out for the hottest band in the world. Caspar Llewellyn Smith goes backstage with the Strokes in New York

It is the Strokes's after-show party and through the smoky haze, in among the magazine editors and fashionistas... yes, it's surely Drew Barrymore. The Hollywood actress is dating the band's drummer and here she is, all chipmunk smiles and a beer in her hand. Then, down from the dressing room of his friends the Kings of Leon, tonight's support act, comes one of the two guitarists, his shaggy sort-of afro bending round the corner before he does. Girls surround him straightaway, and he says 'Hey man!' in what I think is my direction, full of good vibes. (Nothing to do with the whisky and hash pipes in the Kings's dressing room.) And suddenly, a member of the group's inner circle is nudging me and whispering, loudly, because we've been drinking: 'The elf! Look at the elf!' It takes me some time to realise that this is a reference to the girl with Drew, who on closer inspection is Lord of the Rings star Liv Tyler.

Smoking! If anything has dented New York's reputation as the coolest city on earth, it's the extension of the ban on smoking in restaurants to cover nightclubs and rock concerts. But the rule doesn't seem to apply here and you can't help feeling that that's because we are in the presence of the coolest band on earth. We are with the Strokes, 20 minutes after they have come off stage at Madison Square Gardens. This is their hometown. Make no mistake: it does not get any cooler than this.

But first, a quick correction: they've played the Theater at Madison Square Gardens, not the main arena. That's the sort of space reserved for acts like Bruce Springsteen or the rapper Jay-Z, or the New York Knicks basketball team, who have touts working overtime for their first performance of the season tonight. The Theater holds about 5,200 - with the audience seated, except for a few hundred allowed to stand down the front - and is the biggest show the Strokes have ever played on their own in America. But this first of two nights is not sold out. They may be on the cover of Spin magazine and Rolling Stone - whose venerable editor-in-chief, Jann Wenner, has demanded tickets to the gig - in the week that I am in New York. But to the great US public, they mean less than nu-metal monstrosities such as Korn. 'But I've met the guys from Korn and Incubus and System of a Down,' says Albert from the band, the one with the big hair and cool cream suit. 'All people who you'd normally get into a fight with... but they were really nice.'

Some further detail: the after-show party is really a desultory affair. For one thing, the backstage rooms provided are hopelessly small, and the beer runs out within 20 minutes. There are no other refreshments, most certainly not any drugs. There is another young band in the mould of the Strokes kicking their heels, one of a number to have sprung up in the city, but the rock aristocracy's only representative is Steve Van Zandt, from Bruce Springsteen's E Street band. Much of the talk centres on the presence of the only other A-list celeb in the stalls tonight, John McEnroe (and whether he practices air guitar at home with his racquet). And Albert and Fab, Drew's boyfriend, hang around, but the rest of the Strokes make a speedy exit. 'We go home at the end of the night with our girlfriends,' says Nick, who is wearing ripped jeans and a black and white striped jacket and whose girlfriend happens to be former British TV presenter Amanda de Cadenet. 'We don't go out.' 'We're not like "Woooh - all right! Par-deeeee!"' confirms Fab, in a black leather jacket, smoking red Marlboros. 'We're not like that at all.'

Spend any time with the Strokes and you begin to feel that the press has always got them wrong. Or at least, that's what they believe themselves.

Never mind the haircuts or the hysteria that surrounds them in Britain, at least. Their second album, Room on Fire, repeated the trick of their gloriously rambunctious first, Is This It, by going straight into the charts at number two last month (beaten only by the woman referred to with much mirth within the Strokes's camp as Dildo). It is recognisably and thrillingly them, the new record, but also it marks an advance on the New York proto-punk 70s sound that critics said they'd ripped off for its predecessor - wrongly, as it turns out ('We only heard bands like Television after our record came out,' they say). Neither is it the album of hedonistic abandon that might have been expected. Nor would it be fair to characterise the five members of the band as being posh, ill-disciplined, the product of hype, or even cool.

Julian Casablancas, 25, the singer, is the son of the founder of the model agency Elite and a former Miss Denmark. He first met the Los Angeles-raised Albert Hammond Jr, 23, one of the two guitarists, at a Swiss private school, when they were both temporarily billeted there. The other three - Nick Valensi (22, guitar), Nikolai Fraiture (24, bass) and Fabrizio Moretti (23, drums) - were later friends at the Dwight School on the Upper West Side in New York. None of their parents is American. In Nick's words: 'We are all well travelled and, you know, fucking cultured... not some crass American rock band.' But neither, they insist, are they spoilt. This is their first myth.

The Strokes played their first gig in front of 15 girls at a party thrown by Nick's older sister in 1996, but it was only when Albert joined the band two years later that they really clicked. Albert bumped into Julian by chance in his street in the East Village, shortly after leaving LA for the East Coast. No one in New York liked the group much - Nikolai recalls that 'People wouldn't even lend us a drum stool.' Julian's father did not, contrary to rumour, pay someone to write songs for them. It was only through hard work and perseverance that they made it - and through talent. A constant refrain in conversation about the Strokes is the labour that they put into it. 'I had never seen a band practise so much,' says Ryan Gentles, 22, their manager, who discovered them when working as a booker at the Mercury Lounge in August 2000.

In Britain, the band were signed by Geoff Travis to his independent label Rough Trade after he had received a tip-off from the Mercury Lounge. 'They seemed fully formed right from the word go. And there was this astonishing bond between them, which reminded me very much of working with the Smiths, a sort of code which kept the outside world out and allowed them the tunnel vision to concentrate on their work.'

'Whoever says it's not hard work,' says Fab, 'can suck a dick.' Julian agrees: 'You shouldn't lose focus. The bigger you get, the harder you have to work.'

Myth two is an extension of the first: there is no great hype machine behind them. The first night I'm in New York sees a bar-crawl of the East Village, where the band continue to live, with the exception of Nikolai (who resides on the Upper East Side in his parents' old house, with his brother, an apprentice furniture maker). It is in, I think, the 7Bs, though it might have been Bar 81, or Julian's favourite, the International Bar, that we in turn by chance bump into Gentles's assistant Juliet, and the band's friend and drum tech, Matt. They operate from over the street at Wiz Kid Management, a set-up devoted to the Strokes.

It is hard to believe that a group of any international stature could be run from this dinky office. There are two video-arcade machines by the entrance; gold and platinum discs from around the world on the walls; a note of an email from a fan asking if his friend really did see a Stroke in the men's room of a Toronto lapdancing club after their recent show there.

Then we take a cab to Union Square to hook up with Gentles himself, who couldn't be physically more different from hulking managers of rock lore, such as Peter Grant. Before retiring to his nearby and new apartment, where he will patiently tolerate a frank if positive assessment of his charges from his English guest, we all go to the Virgin Megastore, at midnight. The Strokes's second album has just gone on sale in America. Gentles and Juliet and Matt all buy copies, including the vinyl version, which they've not even seen before. 'I'm a little stoned, which is really not like me,' says Gentles, peering up.

It is true that the band had a publicist before they had signed a deal in America and that he had previously handled PR for Nirvana. But the way he tells it to me, Jim Merlin did it all for free, because he was so excited by the band's potential. 'And Julian gave me a really hard time,' he says. 'He was deeply suspicious of any hype and quizzed me for hours about what I would do for them. But he has always been really difficult.'

This much is certainly accurate: the Strokes hate giving interviews. Even before they had put out a record in the UK, the NME and Time Out had put them on their cover, salivating at their good looks and their stylish amalgam of different rock looks. (It was Albert who first told the others to start dressing all the time like they were playing on stage.) The fact that they got into fights - rather like Oasis, rock's last saviours - and drunkenly snogged each other helped as well. 'The hugs and kisses were always embellished by the British press,' Nick recently recalled, 'because the music press loves homoeroticism.' The Strokes are a rarity in that they do things like read books and are fully acquainted with Updike's dictum that celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.

'As soon as you think, "I'm the man, I'm the shit," I think you're potentially setting yourself up for trouble,' has been Casablancas's mantra - or 'Fuck fame and the people associated with it.' One result of this is that while I catch them backstage before their two shows at the Garden, Nikolai and Nick are fairly elusive and Julian absolutely won't sit for a formal interview to discuss Room on Fire, a record which begins with him rasping, over a petulant guitar riff, 'I want to be forgotten...' Why so resolutely downbeat? It is easy to speculate that Julian's upbringing had a lot to do with such recalcitrance: his parents split up when he was around seven and 'my mum was miserable and I lived with her crying every day, and that was my life,' he told The Face two years ago. What he has revealed is that his Ghanaian stepfather encouraged his interest in music, first by sending him a Doors album when he was marooned for those 18 months in Switzerland; then by hammering home to him the notion that all great artists work at it, endlessly.

To Geoff Travis, the petulant singer is 'an amazing chameleon', who can one minute be charming and the next completely ignore you, 'like a wanton girlfriend - he seems to have perfected that'.

Fab and Albert are the most gregarious members of the band, but they just mutter about not wanting to speak on Julian's behalf. What they will say is that popular culture in America is so in thrall to MTV and its instant-fix appetite that it is very hard for a band that wants to deal with the subject of human emotions and something a little more thoughtful than the average wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am to get their message across. Of course, that's what they did so spectacularly well, with Is This It and now Room on Fire. The first album contained 11 songs and clocked in at 36 minutes and 30 seconds. The newie crams more musical textures and mixed emotions into the same number of tunes and is three minutes shorter. 'We try very hard not to be a cookie-cutter band,' Fab tells me, and given the expectations surrounding the Strokes, it is an achievement that they have not made the obvious album and yet certainly remain the most arresting contemporary rock group we have.

Backstage before the band's second show, Albert is worried. When we've finished talking, I ask him quite casually where I can get my hair cut in New York. He asks his tour manager for his cellphone, and tells me where the band go, in Greenwich Village. 'Tell Mika, Albert sent you!' But as soon as I turn away, he asks his English publicist if I won't write that he had her number, because, 'It won't look very cool.' For Albert, remaining sub-zero requires constant vigilance; the others aren't so worried. Elsewhere Fab, who says he always gets nervous before shows, and is so particularly tonight, announces, 'I need to go take a shit!' Matt, his friend, replies joshingly: 'I'll be in in 10 minutes to wipe!' In the band's dressing room, Nikolai (in a perplexingly chic tank top) is stoked by the fact that there's supposed to be champagne on their rider tonight. 'Oh man! They got us Dom Pérignon!' Then he bangs the bottle on the table when he thinks he's been fobbed off with the cheaper stuff instead.

Yes, Drew is here, and yes, I have a nice chat with the woman in the very short skirt, Amanda de Cadenet. But it is not a scene of bacchanalian frenzy; as the band's security crew, who are all English and fans of West Ham, will tell you: 'This lot? They're good as gold.'

On the girlfriends - Fab resents very strongly the fact that The New York Observer printed the address of the 1,049 sq ft, $657,000 condo that he now shares with Drew near Union Square; Nikolai is going out with an English girl that he met at the Reading Festival last year; Fab is dating Catherine Pierce, who is in a band with her sister called the Pierces - and they are both here tonight, too. But it is only because this is New York - girls don't normally come on tour, lest they disrupt the bond between the boys. Only Julian is single right now. 'But it doesn't mean anything,' says Fab. 'And it's not like we never had girlfriends before, it's just that now people seem to give a fuck.'

The closest I really get to Julian comes in the middle of what proves to be an incendiary show. He is singing 'Last Nite' from the first album and flings himself into the crowd - and suddenly his skinny body is careering into mine, his short-sleeved shirt soaked in sweat, as he snarls the lyrics. But it only lasts a second - and it doesn't seem polite to corner him then. The crowd is too cool to go properly bonkers - that will happen when they reach Britain - but at the end they hail the rock iconography when Fab bounces down from his drum rise and hands out a beer. Then stops and lights a cigarette, and passes that on, too.

Tonight's after-show is even more perfunctory, although the Kings of Leon host a party in a bar nearby, to which Albert rolls along. The next day, it's on to Boston to complete the US tour. At the Garden that night, it's a children's show, with the Wiggles. Tickets are going for $400 on eBay. I get my hair cut by Mika. It does look pretty cool.

· The Strokes play Cardiff International Arena on 3 December and Alexandra Palace, London on 5 and 6 December.


Caspar Llewellyn Smith

The GuardianTramp

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