Nick Valensi on New Side Project, State of the Strokes
Nick Valensi doesn't like to do a lot of press. "I think this is the first interview that I've done in maybe seven years," he says. "I just got really sick of doing it." But he's decided to get on the phone to discuss his new band CRX (also including keyboardist Richie James Follin, drummer Ralph Alexander, bassist Jon Safley and guitarist Darian Zahedi), who will release their Josh Homme–produced debut, New Skin, on October 28th. The band recently played a series of surprise shows in L.A. and New York, showcasing twin-guitar breakdowns and Cars-inspired hooks that will easily appeal to Strokes fans. We spoke to Valensi about how the project came together, the Strokes' next album and more.
In the past you've sort of been the one guy who has spoken out against side projects. What made you sort of change your mind?
I know the comment that you're talking about. I suppose I have to backtrack on that a little bit. I'm a little bit older now, and I guess I changed my mind about side projects. The truth is that at the onset of this project, it was a vehicle for me to get back onstage. I really missed playing. It started as a vehicle to get me on tour, and at some point in the recording process – and getting Josh [Homme] on board really helped a lot – it kind of felt like, "Maybe this is more than just a vehicle to get onstage, and this could actually be a really cool record, something bigger than I ever thought it could be."
I'm excited about it, man. It's my first time out as a vocalist and singer, so there's a bit of a learning curve because I am doing a lot of the same guitar stuff that I'm used to doing, but also singing on top of that is a new endeavor for me, but I'm having a lot of fun with it.
Was this in the period after you guys did the Comedown Machine album, which was more of a studio thing and not touring?
Yeah, it was kind of a reaction to that. We made the Comedown Machine record and didn't tour it at all, and I was kind of left like, "Well, shit, I kinda want to get onstage," so I put this together.
How long did it take for these songs to come together?
It was kind of a slow process. I started writing songs two or three years ago with the intention of singing on them. It was the first time that I was writing songs with that intention behind it.
Did singing come naturally to you?
No! It took me a while to kind of find out how to sing, as opposed to just aping someone else's voice. This is also my first time out as a lyricist. That was actually the hardest part for me.
I don't have a lot of experience doing that and for the most part, as a songwriter I have always written songs with someone else's voice in mind. And this was the first time where I was like, "No, I gotta sing on this" because the whole point of it was to take it on tour. It took me a little while to wrap my head round that at first, but it came together pretty quick.
The sound isn't far from the Strokes. Whenever I go and see you guys play, I'm zeroing in on what you're doing with Albert on guitar. There's a lot of that great playing on this album, too.
Well that's kind of first and foremost what I do, those kind of dual-guitar arrangements. That's there in spades on this record. That's my bread and butter. There's a lot for Strokes fans to like here, but there's another aspect to the record, too, which gets a little bit on the heavier, more aggressive side that maybe fans of other bands would appreciate that more. There was a point where I had a couple of really heavy, aggressive songs and a couple of songs that felt more power-pop, kind of Cheap Trick or the Cars.
I was demoing these songs. It felt like maybe these are two different records that I'm working on, and it was really hooking up with Josh Homme, the producer, who really helped me to worry less about some kind of cohesiveness of the record. He said, "Your guitar playing and your voice is the glue that makes this whole thing work together – don't worry about cohesiveness because you're what's gluing this together." Josh was a big help on this record.
How did Josh come into come to produce it?
Well, we've been friends for a long time. I think we've been friends for over 10, maybe 15 years now. Initially, I just approached him with a couple of songs that I had demoed to get his opinion and to get feedback from him. I was at his house and played him some music, and then we started talking about producers. The conversation led to "who would be a good producer for this?" And so we had that conversation and one thing led to another and I was like, "Well, would you do it?" And he said "I'd do it in a heartbeat." We just started working together from then on.
Somebody told me that you said you wanted to make a rock record, and he said that he'll do anything but make a rock record.
I had these songs that were kind of in two different camps and one camp was this power-pop vibe. I mentioned to him, "Maybe you can help me get these poppier songs sounding a little bit more aggressive." One of his main caveats was "I don't want to make you sound like Queens of Stone Age – in fact, I want to go the opposite direction. Let's just treat it as what it is." Which was weird for me at first because I'm a huge fan of Josh's work across the board, and for a long time now, and I was like, "That's what I want." And he was like, "No, trust me. Just roll with this. We're going to make these songs sound really big." And from the first time we got in the studio together, there was a really, really good thing happening. Watching him work in the studio, I was blown over many times. He's a man of great ideas and great conviction. As opposed to someone like me who has the tendency to kind of second-guess, this dude does not second-guess for a second.
Were there themes you wanted to write about, or found yourself returning to, on the album?
I struggled a lot with the lyrics. I had a lot of music written with melodies and everything before I was able to nail down all of the lyrics and that was the biggest struggle of this whole project for me, so I would just write. I spent a couple of months where I would just try to write for hours every day, and over time you take lines from here and lines from there and put things together and it would kind of create a thing. I didn't really know what I was doing. I wasn't trying to write about something in particular, [but] some of them sound borderline antagonistic. One of the things that it feels like I was writing about was kind of questioning authenticity in the world we live in today.
Being a part of one of the great rock & roll bands, what do you think of where rock is right now?
Well, I don't think it's news to anyone that there's not a lot of great rock bands out right now. There's some and they're doing really well, probably because they're few and far between. Sometimes I feel like the way a jazz musician must have felt in the Sixties when the British Invasion was happening and kind of jazz guys were sticking to the art form of 20 or 30 years ago. But I feel like there's always going to be a place for guitar music and rock music because, in terms of the live experience and going out to a show, that's the funnest kind of music to watch, if you ask me. There's nothing like going to see a really good rock band play live.
It's different from going to see a hip-hop show or different from going to see a big pop star perform. Some kind of raw energy that happens when people are plugging in guitars and bashing away at drums. I don't think that's ever going away.
There's always such intrigue around the Strokes. You're one of those bands that people are interested in the personalities and what's going on.
I can see that, and I'm grateful for that. I mean I'm grateful for the Strokes in general, man. It's been such an awesome fucking ride for me and I never want it to stop, you know?
How do you feel about the band these days and how is everything compared to when you started to make this record?
Things with the Strokes are great. They're all super supportive about the CRX thing that I'm doing and honestly man, things haven't been this great in a long time so we're just going with the flow.
Are you guys all friends in the band these days?
Yeah. It feels like more than friends. It feels like family. It's hard to describe. These are dudes that I grew up with. When you say "are you guys friends?" to me it feels like, well, of course we are. They're my brothers, you know what I mean?
Can you tell me about your life? What do you during a typical day at home? Where do you live these days?
I live in Los Angeles, otherwise known as paradise. I was born in Manhattan, raised there, but I've been living in L.A. for the past 10 years and I really love it out here. I put CRX together with all L.A. dudes who I've known for a little while. It feels like my West Coast project. If the Strokes is my East Coast band, this feels like my West Coast band.
And what are your hobbies in L.A?
I'm creating a dating website for you.
Are you getting my profile together on Jdate? [Laughs] No, I'm married, so I don't need a JDate profile. I've got a family, man. First and foremost I'm a family man. I have nine-year-old twins, so, you know, a lot of family stuff and working, writing songs for this thing, doing Strokes things, writing songs for some other people. Just music stuff and L.A. stuff.
Who are your biggest guitar influences? How did you find your sound?
It's kind of a thing that has evolved over time. Early on, I wanted to sound like Izzy and Slash, and then that got simplified a bit over time and I kind of had to unlearn some things. I feel like it's evolved over the years.
I'm curious, why didn't the Strokes tour off Comedown Machine?
There was just a lot going on at that time in terms of other projects, and also, we made the record, and we were in a good place and we were reluctant to fuck up the good vibe that we had.
"I can't tell you how grateful I am for just the Strokes and their fans."
How are things in the band these days?
I can't tell you how grateful I am for just the Strokes and their fans. We have the best fans who have kind of been with us for so long and we do shows now and there are all of these mid-thirties hipsters who have been with us the whole time, but there's also this kind of new wave of 15-, 16-, 17-year-old fans too that have gotten turned on to us. It kind of baffles me when I look out into the audience and see all of these young kids. It's pretty amazing – we have the greatest fans.
Do you sort of see Julian in a different way, now that you've become a frontman and lyricist?
Absolutely, dude. I have such a newfound respect for lead singers because it's really hard to be a lead singer. You're carrying a lot of that weight and all eyes on you. It's not an easy gig, so yeah, it's a whole newfound respect.
The Strokes EP Future Present Past was great. Is there more on the horizon?
We are working on stuff. It's tough to say when people are going to get to hear it, but we're working on stuff and there will be new Strokes music sometime next year.
How's it sounding?
It's fucking great. It's early, but we've got maybe eight to 10 ideas that are floating around. None of them are super concrete just yet, but it's cool stuff.
Did you show any these songs to the Strokes before bringing them to CRX?
Um, well, it was away from them because like I said, at the start of the writing process, everything was supposed to be kind of heavier and more aggressive and dissimilar from the Strokes, so at the start of it, I felt like the Strokes would never want to do these heavy-metal songs anyway. It's not really what we do and then these other power-poppy songs started coming out, but since I was kind of hellbent on forcing myself to be the vocalist on these songs, it was something that was for me.
What are your touring plans with CRX?
I think we're going out of the country in October, but there's a proper U.S. run that starts early November. I'm having such a good time doing this and the dudes in the band are all great friends of mine who I've known for years and it sounds crazy to say, but I'm really excited about getting in a van again and just driving around the country and kind of starting at the bottom. We're having such a good time.
Thanks for taking the time to do this. It's crazy it was your first interview in seven years!
Isn't that crazy? You know, I just got really sick of doing it and then didn't do it for a long time, but I'm back now. Back and better than ever.
That's the final line in the story.
Go for it.