by: Stephan Masnyj
For nearly 20 years, Nick Valensi has been the lead guitarist of The Strokes; a band that (at times unfairly so) has been seen as the last bastion of Rock music. More than any other band that has emerged from the early 2000’s, The Strokes have been under a microscope for nearly every decision each band member has made. From rumblings of inter-band feuds over songwriting processes to the emergence of solo projects from most of its members, the New York five-piece seems to exist in a constant media fervor. Throughout it all, Nick Valensi has remained enigmatic in his free time outside of Strokes projects. While he has written for artists as popular as Sia and Regina Spektor, he has largely shied away from the spotlight any bonafide side project would emit. That is, until now. With the release of CRX’s debut record New Skin, Valensi has shown himself to be a more than capable frontman. The album is riddled with the guitar work that helped make The Strokes so electrifying, and hooks that’ll remain firmly lodged in your head for weeks at a time. Perhaps more than any other side project to emerge from the different members of The Strokes, it just sounds fun. Nick was kind enough to discuss the recording process and tour with KUCI, and below is a transcript of our conversation.
Stephan Masnyj (SM): Thanks again for sitting down and taking the time to chat, I really do appreciate it.
Nick Valensi (NV): My pleasure.
SM: So I wanted to start to talk about the tour you've been doing [for CRX]; for the past few years with The Strokes, you've only been playing one off major dates at festivals. Was it a big adjustment going from the huge stages to the small clubs and theaters the past couple weeks?
NV: Yeah it's a change of pace for sure, but a welcome one. It's kind of what I was looking forward to putting CRX together; getting up and doing different kinds of shows than the ones for The Strokes. We're on tour across the country right now and playing a lot of small clubs. You know, a lot of them when we walk in and load our stuff I just get the feeling of 'This is exactly what I want to be doing.' So it's been pretty cool for me.
SM: Another difference between CRX and your other projects is that for the first time you're the frontman. Was it hard to find your voice in regards to singing? Were there a lot of moments of singing in the mirror or shower trying to feel it out?
NV: (Laughs) Um, yeah! To be honest, not so much singing in the mirror, but singing a lot into my laptop and trying different stuff out. I guess I wanted to take the time to... figure out the sound but also feel comfortable with it. Because at first I had that thing that most people get who don't have the experience of singing or public speaking. You get that thing where you hear your voice back over on a recording and it sounds annoying to you and you're like 'Ugh is that how I sound?' Everyone kinda gets that. So I had to overcome that and also just making subtle little changes in how I was approaching it. It took me a sec... I feel way more comfortable with it now, especially after touring.
SM: I can definitely relate to that. There's plenty of people here [at KUCI] that will hear their voice over a recording and feel uncomfortable.
NV: Yeah it's a funny thing there's a part of overcoming that and doing whatever technically you need to do to sound the way you feel more comfortable with, but there's another psychological aspect that you need to overcome.
SM: Moving on to the recording and writing, from what I've read in many aspects this project was sort of a way for you to get back on the road since The Strokes didn't tour too much for Comedown Machine. Was there a certain song when you were writing or recording when you realized this was the start of a new full blown project?
NV: No, to be honest with you. Initially the project was a thing where it was just going to be a vehicle to put a band together and book some shows or book a tour and get in front of audiences. But it became something different to me over the course of it, and now I'm realizing it's a really awesome thing for me to have; an outlet creatively that's different from The Strokes. And it makes coming back to The Strokes for me a lot more enjoyable, and a lot more constructive I think. But to be honest with you with the songwriting and the songs, I demoed a bunch of songs — probably like 8 or 10 — and I was still not 100% sure if it was something I was going to pursue. I thought that maybe the songs would go somewhere else or maybe I would offer them to somebody else. It wasn't until I reached out to some friends and slowly started putting the band together and have these guys help me finish songs and start collaborating putting lyrics together. Also when I reached out to Josh Homme [Lead singer/writer
of Queens of the Stone Age, producer for New Skin]. Once he heard the demos he loved them. It was a huge confidence booster for me that made me realize 'This is going to work, I want to pursue this.'
SM: I think one of the best parts of the album is the sound it has; it's sort of if you gave The Cars "Appetite for Destruction" [the Guns n' Roses album] and told them to listen to it for ten straight days. It has this --
NV: Oh man (laughs)
SM: Honestly! It has these heavy riffs but these power pop sheen that I really admire a lot. During the demo and recording process was that a sound you actively tried to pursue or was that something you and Josh hashed out in the recording studio and settled on?
NV: Well that sound was kind of there in the demos, and there was Josh's role... initially he loved the demos so much and there were a lot of elements [from the demos] that he wanted to keep. Our first conversation was really about there were certain songs that he'd pick. Like maybe one song there would be a guitar that he really loved, or another song there'd be a vocal or a drum track. One of the first things we did was that we went through all the demos and pick what we were going to keep. On the album actually there's a lot of stuff; maybe 25-35% that's actually from the demos. And Josh was really good a picking and choosing what to keep. And then there were other songs that we just recorded from scratch and the stuff we worked on from the demos was totally up to him. I was kinda at a place where I'd been with the songs for a year practicing them and I was really close to the whole thing and didn't know... I guess I just lost respect with where it was going and where to take it. Josh really came in and saved the day with that. I don't know if I would've been able to do it without him.
SM: It can be really helpful to get a different set of ears on it or to have friends give their opinion on things. When you're alone with material so long you can almost forget how it sounded originally.
NV: It’s important to get the perspective of someone you trust. That was it for me. It was that I trusted [Josh] and really respected what he had done prior. I'm a huge fan of all his bands, all the things he's produced, his songwriting choices. It was cool to have that.
SM: Do you see CRX as a continuous thing? Julian has often stated how he loves The Voidz and would like to keep that in tandem with The Strokes, Albert has had solo work for awhile, Nikolai has Summer Moon starting now. Do you see CRX as a refresher between Strokes projects?
NV: Absolutely. I wanna keep this thing going for sure. I've kinda come to a place to realize that it's good for all of the guys in The Strokes to have side projects and have creative outlets outside of the main band and that it's good for me to have this thing that I can pick up and take out on the road whenever I want. It makes everything better for The Strokes. But I'm definitely thinking about a second CRX already and we're kinda working on some things. I'm having so much fun with it.
SM: You’ve had a long, very successful career. What does it mean for you to be an artist and do you feel like you've accomplished that?
NV: It’s just fun to make stuff. I think that's what being an artist is; making something out of nothing. In terms of hitting achievements or reaching a benchmark it's always fun to create stuff and hope other people will enjoy it. I don't look at it as some sort of goal I'm trying to achieve. It's just baby steps towards making something fun and putting it out into the world and making another one. I don't know I'm sorry I'm giving you such a lame answer (laughs).
SM: Well I think I wouldn't be the only one in saying that you've made some pretty fun stuff over the years and that we hope you continue doing it for a long time.
NV: Aw shucks (laughs).
Nick Valensi is currently on tour as CRX through the end of the year. They will be at The Constellation Room in Santa Ana on December 5th, The Teagram Ballroom in Los Angeles on December 6th, and The Casbah in San Diego on December 7th. For more tour dates head to crxmusic.com.