The Strokes’ Nick Valensi On Changes Of The Heart & His New Band CRX
Written by Sally McMullen on 1st November, 2016
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Have you ever looked back and grimaced at a Facebook status from five years ago? Has a friend recently reminded you that you vowed to never drink and snap again? Well, this is basically what happened with The Strokes’ lead guitarist Nick Valensi and his new band CRX (though we doubt his experience involved some pseudo-angst-ridden social media post or questionable filter choices).
In an interview with Pitchfork in 2011, Valensi swore off side projects, turning his nose up at the idea of keeping new music from your main band. Staying true to his word, Valensi was the only member of The Strokes who had yet to pursue anything outside of the band since they formed around 18 years ago. Until now, that is.
Fast forward to 2016 and Valensi has just polished off his new band CRX’s debut album New Skin. With humble beginnings, Valensi started the project writing and recording songs on his laptop two or three years ago. Since then, the now 35-year-old embraced the frontman role on lead vocals and guitar and has recruited four more bandmates, and the help of Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), to produce the pop-rock project. In a quick series of events, CRX revealed themselves this August, dropped their first single Ways to Fake It in September and released the 10 track album this past week.
While the fun lovin’ Ways to Fake It was a tasty first bite, it’s not entirely indicative of the what the rest of the album has to offer. Some tracks channel a heavy metal vibe with fast guitars and a hectic-sounding drum machine, while others tap into a retro rock sound with synth-soaked keyboards. It might not be The Strokes, but we sure are glad that Valensi hopped off his moral high horse to give it a go.
We spoke to Nick about CRX’s debut album, harnessing his influences with Josh Homme and how it all came down to a simple change of heart.
Watch: CRX – Ways to Fake It
Congrats on the upcoming release of ‘New Skin’, your first album with CRX!
Nick Valensi: Thank you very much. I’m excited!
You’ve kept it pretty under wraps, though. You guys announced the side project in early August and the new album is already set for release on October 28. How long had you been working on CRX and the new album?
NV: Well, I guess the beginning of the project was between two and three years ago when I started writing some songs and demoing them at home on my laptop. So, yeah, it’s been going on for that long. It’s not that I intentionally kept anything under wraps but I always had the feeling with the project that if things didn’t turn out the way that I wanted them to or if I didn’t feel proud of it in the end, it didn’t have to be released. So it was really like a no pressure kind of thing.
You’re the last of The Strokes members to come out with a side project. In a previous interview a few years ago, you’d said that “if you’re playing material that you haven’t even shown to your main band and you’re just sort of keeping it for yourself, I’m not a big fan of that.” What made you change your mind?
NV: Yeah, I do remember saying that and I should’ve known that it would come back and bite me in the ass (laughs). I don’t mean to oversimplify it, but I just changed my mind. I think I said that five or ten years ago and you’re five or ten years older and things change a little bit.
You know the truth is that sometime after recording the last The Strokes album Comedown Machine, I just really got the bug to want to get on stage more and go on tour more and just perform in front of audiences. That’s not something… you know, The Strokes don’t play that often and don’t really tour per se anymore. Even though the shows that we do are great, we usually do these really massive festival shows with tens of thousands of people and it’s awesome and a lot of fun. I got to a point where I needed some balance from that. And starting something new from the ground up seemed excited and enticing to me. So, I guess I just changed my mind.
You mentioned that you were excited by the idea of touring more with CRX. You obviously have a lot of experience touring with The Strokes, but how have you found being the frontman on stage?
NV: Yeah, I’m having a lot of fun singing. I thought there would be more of a dynamic shift on stage but after doing a handful of shows now, we’ve only done a few at this point and we’re going to be doing a tonne more, but at this point we’ve done a handful. You know, it’s different but it’s not that different. It’s really not that different [laughs]. But, I’m having a lot of fun. That’s what I really wanted this to be from the beginning, something loose and fun for me that I could take on the road whenever I wanted to. So yeah, that’s what I’ve got going on.
You’re obviously working with a new group of people and the record was produced by Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) which would’ve been amazing. Was the writing and recording process very different to your experiences with The Strokes?
NV: Yeah, this was completely different. Basically, I started by myself at home on the computer and got to a place with about eight songs. Some of them felt really finished and some of them felt like maybe the songwriting, the lyrics in particular, needed a little bit of help and needed a little bit of refining.
So it was around that time that some of the guys in the band, I reached out to them as friends, the dudes in LA who I’ve known for a long time, to help me finish up the writing on a couple of songs and also to finish up the music on another couple of songs. Things started getting really collaborative and I shared my demos with them. So it was kind of like I started it and they helped me finish it.
Josh came on board around the same time when I emailed him the eight demos because I wanted to get some of his feedback on them about the songwriting and the sound of the songs. I also, in particular, wanted to ask him about producers and which producers he thought would be a good fit to take the demos to the next level. So we met up and talked about it and I was pleasantly surprised at how much he loved the songs. He was really excited for me and about the demos in general.
So we started talking and I asked him about producers and over the course of the conversation I asked him if he would do it. I’ve always been a huge admirer of his work and a huge fan of his bands and he was excited to do it! So it felt like a really natural, organic fit and one of his caveats that he said was “I want to do this, I think we could make it really good but I don’t want to try to make you sound like Queens of the Stone Age”, which I thought was really cool.
Watch: CRX – Broken Bones
That’s awesome. Was this before or after Josh had also produced ‘Post Pop Depression’ with Iggy Pop?
NV: At the time we were talking about it and I sent him the demos, he was kind of in the earlier stages of doing the Iggy Pop record. So we kind of had to schedule around that and I was also doing some stuff with The Strokes so there was a bit of back and forth with the scheduling of stuff. It actually ended up being a good thing, though, because the first session we did together we only did two songs and then we took a couple of weeks off and then we did another couple of songs and took more time off and it gave me time to refine ideas and work on lyrics. I didn’t have the pressure of just being in the studio for three weeks and having to record X amount of songs in three weeks. It was a little bit looser than that.
You guys recently dropped ‘Ways to Fake It’, the first single off ‘New Skin’. There’s a bit of pressure on the first song of a new side project, what made you guys go with this song as the debut?
NV: Shit, that’s a good question. I guess it was just a feeling. That was the one that felt right to me and to Josh and to everyone at Columbia records and all the guys in the band. I don’t know, it’s not necessarily representative of how all of the other songs on the record sound but I think it’s a fun introduction to the project.
Yeah, it is a little bit more pop rock than some of the other tracks on the album. Was ‘Ways to Fake It’ one of the first eight demos you sent to the band and Josh?
NV: Well, the first couple of songs that I wrote were heavier and faster and more aggressive than Ways to Fake It. It was like Unnatural and Monkey Machine. So, I kind of got excited about this super up-tempo, really aggressive almost heavy metal kind of vibe and I was feeling that maybe that I would write a record that was all in that vein. But half way through is when I wrote Ways to Fake It and it was the first one that I wrote lyrics for and sang on the demo. It was also the first one that felt a little bit different from the faster, more aggressive ones. I guess it was a little more power pop than the other ones, but I still loved it a lot. So, I kind of just left it on a virtual shelf on my hard drive for a little bit and I kept writing and a couple of other songs that were in that vein came out too that had more of the power pop kind of like Cars, Elvis Costello, Cheap Trick vibe to them.
So I was kind of left with half of them that were really fast and aggressive and half that were a little bit more power poppy and those were the eight that I sent to Josh. One of my concerns at first was that maybe there was too much of a contrast. It felt like one-half was like this and the other half was like that. But Josh was really quick to convince me and assure me that that’s what was part of what made the album still cool. I guess at first I was concerned about some kind of cohesiveness but Josh was able to point out that the thing that really glues the whole album together is the singing, first and foremost, but also the guitar playing that you hear on every track no matter what the energy of the track is.
I also realised that making a whole record that’s just kinda angry and rushed and frenetic, as much as I love music like that and there are a couple of tracks on the record that are like that, making a whole record like that – I think that would get annoying. It’s nice to be able to represent different emotions over the course of a record. The same way a record that was kind of just sad and mopey the whole time, that wouldn’t be cool either.
Yeah, you can definitely hear that on the record. There’s almost an ’80s vibe with the keyboard and super poppy songs like ‘Ways to Fake It”’and then there’s a hectic-sounding drum machine and super-fast guitar on others. It seemed like you were trying to harness a lot of influences on one record, but it’s a good mix.
NV: Yeah, it’s weird because I listen to so much music and it’s a weird thing to talk about, like influence and inspiration, because when I’m working on a song, I’m not consciously trying to write a song that is influenced by this or inspired by that. It’s more when you’re done with it and you step back and you think “Oh, wow. This really sounds like The Cars”. So there’s the ones that you can hear that are like The Cars or Tom Petty or there’s some Queens of the Stone Age too. There was a pretty big Queens of the Stone Age influence even before Josh came on board. Cheap Trick is one as well. But then there’s also early Metallica stuff as well and a little bit of Judas Priest on some of the more aggressive tracks. But then there’s also a tonne of stuff that I listen to a lot that you might not hear in the record and it might not sound like a direct influence. But I hear little Kanye West things in there or Missy Elliot. I don’t know, I hear shit like that but I don’t think other people would pick up on that.
That’s awesome. I think a lot of people are excited to hear it. So you were in Australia in July for Splendour in the Grass with The Strokes, but are you going to be bringing CRX down under any time soon?
NV: I would really love to, yeah. I love coming to Australia. I love everything about it. I love being there, I love playing there. So that’s definitely in the plan, yes!