Nick Valensi is the charismatic, high-energy lead guitar player in The Strokes. Valensi recently formed CRX, a creative outlet where he stepped out in front of the stage as the lead vocalist and chief songwriter. The album, entitled New Skin, was produced by the badass, and very prolific, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age fame, and offers a glimpse into Valensi’s world outside one of the most important rock bands of the 21st century. In short, Valensi just wanted to play music on stage, and needed a vehicle to do so. New Skin is a tremendous record, and Nick Valensi spoke with B-Sides to talk about the project.
On being a guitar player by nature and taking over lead vocal duties:
Valensi – “I just never really wanted to be singer, even as a kid growing up I just really wanted to be a guitar player. I grew up loving rock n roll, but never really identified with the singer, I always appreciated the singer, but always identified more with the guitar player. When I was 13 I met Julian Casablancas, and Fabrizio Moretti and we started a band, and the roles were pretty clearly laid out from there. We were kids, and Julian was like ‘I want to be the singer’, and I was like ‘great, cause I don’t, I want to be the guitar player’, and things just worked out kind of naturally, and got reinforced over time.
“I started playing guitar when I was really young and was in a band all through my teenage years and my high school band evolved into The Strokes, and we got pretty successful so as a result of all that experience, I’m just really confident as a guitar player, I like doing it, I feel like I’m good at it, and it’s honestly what I felt like I was put on the planet to do. So… it feels very natural to me.
“Singing was something that when I started this new band, I knew I wanted to get on tour more, I knew that I wanted to have a creative outlet outside my main band and I wanted to have something a little more local in LA, cause I’ve been living in LA for 8 years. I wanted to have a group of guys that I could play with and not have to get on a plane for 5 hours just to get to rehearsal. Cause that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 8 years in The Strokes. Every time we have a band meeting, or a writing session I’m getting on a plane, which is cool, I got a ton of frequent flyer miles, but in the end it just felt like I wanted something in LA, more local, and more easy. Something with a group of guys where I can say ‘Hey I have an idea, let’s meet at the rehearsal space at 4 and just work through it.’ I was faced with this thing early on where I could get someone to sing these songs that I wrote, but I was worried about dealing with another person since one of the main reasons for this band was to be on tour more… to get on stage more… I was worried about being beholden to a vocalist to get on stage. What if I put this whole band together, and then this person is like ‘I don’t want to do a tour.’ Because if you’re not the singer, if you’re the guitar player, even though you wrote a bunch of music, Pete Townshend wrote a bunch of The Who songs, but he’s not going onstage to sing ‘Pinball Wizard’ he needs Roger Daltrey to do that.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want to put myself in a situation that I’m not comfortable in and I just want to have fun. The point of CRX is to have fun and I didn’t want to find myself on stage feeling like this was a drag so I really had to put in a lot of leg work for like a year of writing the songs, writing the lyrics and actually practicing singing them, and how I wanted to sing them, what kind of message I wanted to convey with the lyrics. And that year long process was just me figuring out whether or not I wanted to do this. And I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, I did it in secret at home on my laptop and just fucking sitting around in my underwear. But it was really an exercise in determining, not whether I can do it… I mean, I can sing, I sing backup on the Strokes albums, and people always tell me ‘dude, you can sing’, but I always say to them ‘I don’t want to.’ I think also there is an element of being a lyricist, being a vocalist, you’re putting yourself out there so much more and the vulnerabilities are so much more, not just with the spotlight on you, but you’re there basically sharing your feelings with the world, which is a very vulnerable place to put yourself in and I’m sure there is a psychological hurdle to overcome where you go…’OK, it’s alright for people to hear your feelings.’
On working with Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age:
Valensi – “It doesn’t get any more badass than Josh Homme; it was awesome. I was so happy to get him on board, cause when I reached out to Josh about the production stuff, I was at a place where I had been working on these songs for like a year. The reason I reached out to him was because I had kind of lost perspective with the project and my confidence in the songs had waned a little bit at that point. I think I was just too close to the project for too long, and reaching out to Josh was an attempt for me to link up with someone who I trust intuitively, and who I could say ‘Hey man, point me in the right direction, I’m at a fork in the road, just point me in the direction you think I should go’, and he did, and I trusted him, and Josh, out of anyone, I couldn’t have found someone better to produce this record because I trust him as a guitar player, I trust him as a singer, I trust him as a songwriter, andI trust him as a producer. And it’s just this multifaceted thing between him and I.
“It was really important to me to reach out to him specifically, because with his first band Kyuss he was the lead guitar player, he wasn’t the singer and his band broke up and he transitioned into the lead singer role, not because he wanted to, but because it was a similar thing to me, he was kind of forced into that role, not even being really sure that he wanted to do it. For a long time he would sing half the songs, he would get Mark Lanegan to come in and sing the other half of the songs, but it kind of evolved over time to where he officially became the lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age and I felt like him more than anyone else on the planet would impart some insight, and he did
“I played him my demos, and he loved them, and I was really excited, cause my confidence was waning and he flipped out over them. One of the first things we did was go through all of the songs, and there were certain little elements of the demos that he wanted to keep, on one song it was like ‘this guitar was so fucking rad we’re not redoing that, we are going to record around it.’ We would record one whole song around that one guitar part and that was totally his thing, I completely left it up to him. I said ‘dude, you go through the demos,if you think we can beat it, then we’ll redo it, if you think the demo is good, than we’ll work around it.’ I really left him with a lot of decision making in the final direction that the song would take. There is a song called ‘One Track Mind’ on the record that has a more dancey vibe to it, and Josh wanted to keep it cause that vibe was not represented on the record anywhere, it’s fucking rad, and it kind of feels like Phoenix, and we love Phoenix, and let’s push it more in that direction, so we did, and there were other songs like ‘Ways to Fake It’, where I was trying to make to make it more heavy and aggressive, and Josh was like, ‘no dude, this is a power-pop song and like a new wave Rick Springfield power-pop song and we’ve got to let it be that, and stop trying to change it.’
“One of the biggest things that he did as a producer on the record was help define the identity of each song, and to help push that song in that direction, and I really needed that.”
On the the influence of recording in Los Angeles on the record:
Valensi – “I don’t know if living in LA affected what I’m doing musically, I think it’s impossible to say, but I know that I’ve been in LA long enough that I feel a bit of Los Angeleno in me, but I’m born in Manhattan, raised in Manhattan, spent my youth there, spent my teenage years there, started a band there, got my band successful there. So there is this whole element of New York City that will never leave me. I have the sunny exterior of a Los Angelino, but I have the cold, dark heart of a New Yorker, and I think it will eternally be that way. Also for me, there is this element that we are just products of our upbringing, I spent very formative years there and they tend to define us, no matter how hard we try to get away from it. And for me, I grew up without a father, I was raised by a single mom, she worked all the time. I didn’t really have a lot of structure as a youth, and in a weird way, I was raised by New York City, I was on the streets, a lot. I basically spent my whole childhood on the streets. I have memories of every block in that city, more particularly on the island of Manhattan. So that’s not going anywhere.”
On the rad cover art for the record:
Valensi – “It’s a UK artist called Boneface, I’m assuming that’s not his real name but he’s one of those artists that do things super secret and they don’t reveal their identity and shit, I reached out to him to do the cover art, and I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I love that tiger on the cover, we put it on t-shirts, it’s the top selling t-shirt on the merch table at every show so it is really rad.”
On the current state of rock music:
Valensi – “There has been a resurgence, but I also feel that there is kind of a lull, there’s not a lot of rock bands, maybe for decades the guitar, drums, and bass were the instruments of choice for teenagers and young adults wanting to get into music, and to learn how to do it. A lot of times I just think it was young men wanting to get laid so they learned how to play guitar, so as a result you had a shitload of guitar driven bands for decades. Now, trends are changing, music is changing, and maybe now you can get laid if you are a DJ, I’m not totally sure… I feel like The Strokes have never played by those rules, and as an extension CRX don’t really play by those rules. I just throw shit at the wall and see what sticks, if I like it, that’s step one, if my band likes it, that’s step two, if a record label can make money off it, that’s step three…
“In all actuality, there are less than 10 rock bands right now that are big time touring bands, but… those are the bands that people go to see, they headline festivals, and sell out arenas, and the live music industry is thriving… cause when you have 3,4,5 musicians with real instruments and no backing vocals, in a live setting… that shit is powerful.”
On one record that you can’t live without:
“That is a really hard question…. I have a pretty good musical memory, the first thing that came to mind was Nirvana – In Utero, I really love that record, but if I had to be stranded on a desert island, my musical memory is strong enough that I could playback the whole record in my mind. So… ya I’m good.”
On what’s next for CRX:
“We just did two weeks in the Midwest and the Northeast and we are taking a week off, and then back on tour for another two weeks. Over Christmas break we’ll be writing songs and working on some new stuff, and then going over to Europe and the UK early next year. A lot of touring, and getting ready to work on a second record, and really excited to see where this thing takes us. I’m having more fun than I’ve had in a long time and it’s really cool.”
- CRX’s debut record, New Skin, is available in stores and online now.
- Tour dates for CRX can be found here.
- The video for lead single “Ways to Fake It” can be seen below: