Already 20 years deep into his career as guitarist for the Strokes, Nick Valensi realized he had his own songs hidden inside, lying in wait.
With his new project, CRX, Valensi created a new musical world that pulls pop flavors into his rock 'n' roll attitude. The group's debut album, October's New Skin, showcases a sound many critics are likening to the Cars, Elvis Costello, and, of course, the Strokes.
Currently residing in L.A., Valensi recently spoke with City Pages about why it took so long to start his own band, how he snagged Josh Homme to produce New Skin, and losing the guitar he played on every Strokes album. CRX is set to hit Triple Rock on Thursday.
City Pages: There’s one more week left before the album release. Are you excited for this?
Nick Valensi: It’s do or die time. I’m really excited. I can’t wait for the album to come out. It feels like it’s been a long time since I started working on it, and now it’s getting to the point where it’s been four or five months since we finished everything, and it’s still not out. So, I’m really excited for it to get unleashed on the world.
CP: When did you start writing for this album?
NV: It’s almost three years ago now that I got the urge to start writing and practice my singing. It was kind of a slow burn for me -- not knowing whether it was going to be a band or a solo thing or whatever.
CP: I’m curious as to why it’s taken you so long to do your own thing, since all of your bandmates in the Strokes all have their side projects.
NV: [Strokes multi-instrumentalist] Albert’s [Hammond, Jr.] first solo album came out over 10 years ago now. I just didn’t want to. That’s the question people ask now that I’m doing this new band. The question people ask me the most is, “What took you so long to do this?” My answer is so overly simple that it sounds stupid, but the reality is I didn’t have the desire to do it.
Half of my life, I’ve been in the Strokes, and I love being in the Strokes, and that’s been my main focus. Then I got to a time where I started a family. I moved to California. I really loved spending time with my kids and being a part of their community at school. Eventually, I got to a point where my kids were a little older. There’s more downtime in the band than there ever was in the past, and I had a little extra energy and a real desire to go out on tour and be performing in front of audiences. It hit me pretty hard, so I just went for it.
CP: We sometimes forget that we can’t be defined by one thing. We can be a father, or a musician in a different band, or this instead of that. We are not solid state.
NV: Absolutely. For me, first and foremost, I identify as a dad, a husband, a brother, a son, and a person within a family. Everything else comes after that for me; that’s the most important thing for me, and also we’re in a time for music where it’s almost the expectation for artists to be doing multiple things. That’s fine, and a lot of people have a really good grasp on that. You know Jack White has 10 bands. Josh Homme, who produced my record, is in several bands, too. They’ve got a lot going on.
For a long time, I was really happy just doing the one thing. I got to a point where it seems like I could have nice balance to that one thing. That’s where CRX came in. It’s important for me to have a band project -- a group of songs where I could take on the road whenever I want to, or show up and play at a charity event whenever I want, or play at my friend's party. Just something simple where we could be, “Oh, shit. Let’s go do that on a Thursday night.” It doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure to get it going.
CP: How did you rope Josh Homme into working with you on this?
NV: It didn’t take a lot of persuading, to be honest. It started out for me wanting to play some demos for him that I’d recorded. I had been working on these songs for the better part of a year by myself at my home on my laptop, and I recorded about eight demos that I felt were pretty strong, but I felt I needed help with. I played them for him, cause we’re friends.
He got really excited right off the bat -- the songs, about my voice, the demos in general. Out conversation quickly turned to production, and he got really energized to talking about all of the things he loved about the demos, and all of the things he felt could be improved on them. In the back of my mind, I always knew no one would do a better job than him. I put it out there and asked him, and he said yes. It was a natural thing.
CP: Did he change a lot of songs in the production process?
NV: It varied. For example, one thing he would scrutinize heavily on was the feel of the drums and how they influenced songs. There were other songs where we both felt like the demo needed help, and the song wasn’t really in the right place yet. That’s where he’d get heavy-handed, and there were a couple of instances where he came in and really helped me arrange instruments.
I remember how on “One Track Mind” I had a bridge section that I wanted to fit in a song somehow. It was this thing that I wrote, and I couldn’t figure out how to transition in and out of this section. I eventually gave up, and was like, “You know what? Fuck that bridge. Let’s just leave it out.” Josh wouldn’t let me. I got kinda annoyed by that. I said, “I can’t squeeze it in, so if you feel like it can fit in there, you fit it in.” He was like, “OK, I will.” I watched him sit down, get to work for three hours and rearrange the bass line in a way that this new section seamlessly transitioned in. There were definitely moments like that where I was like, “Fuck, this guy’s good.”
CP: You have such a big hand in the project. Do you feel it’s a solo album or a true band?
NV: I feel it’s a band. I started doing this by myself all at home. I was definitely the nucleus of this thing, but no doubt about it, I hit a wall in the writing process. I just wrote by myself for a year, and it’s so hard for someone like me who’s used to being in a band and used to having other people in the room to feed off of. It got really lonely doing it by myself and it got really difficult. I hit a point where I lost perspective. I was second-guessing what I was doing. I was just not sure it was any good anymore.
I just needed to bring people in. I reached out to friends in the local scene in L.A. who I knew and had friends with for a long time, people who I respected as musicians and who I respected as creative thinkers. They helped me to finish songs that I was having a tough time finishing on my own, especially with lyrics. Basically from the moment I opened the door to letting people in and helping me with the project, it became a collaborative thing. It really started to feel like a band, so it’s a band. If it walks like a duck, it talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.
CP: Earlier this year, your beloved guitar went missing. Can you tell me what happened?
NV: It’s OK now. I still, to this day, don’t know what happened, but it’s the guitar I’ve used since the mid-‘90s. It was actually given to me by Albert. I’ve used it on every Strokes album. I played it at every Strokes show; it’s my main guitar. I was shipping to from L. A. to New York one day, and it didn’t show up. I thought it was gone. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to see it again. I was in the process of, in my mind, building a new guitar.
Then one day, I got a phone call -- a random call on my cell phone. I don’t even know how they got my number or from where, but it was some random post office in L.A. Not even close to my house or studio or anything. They said, “We got a package here for you. It’s been here five weeks. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know how it got here, but you have to come pick it up. You owe $85 postage on it.” I was just happy to get it back.
I was like, “What does it look like?” They said, “It looks like an instrument.” I knew it was my guitar. I rushed to the post office, opened it up, and it was all rusted out, had all of this mold on it. It had water damage to it. It was all fucked up. I think it’d been left our on the rain. I got it repaired. It’s OK now. I sent it to the good people at Gibson, and the completely restored it for me. It plays like new. I’m grateful to have it back.
It’s nice. I got an outpouring of love from people all over the internet and social media -- just condolences from all over the world. It was like a family member had died. I really do appreciate it. I have some great fans.
With: Streets of Laredo and the Gloomies
Where: Triple Rock Social Club
When: 8:30 p.m. Thu., Nov. 10
Tickets: $15; more info here