Nick Valensi has always been a guitar player. While other kids were still clumsily tying their shoelaces into lopsided bunny ears, The Strokes guitarist was mapping out chord changes - according to him, anyway. “I don’t really remember a time in my life when I didn’t know how to play a C chord,” he says from the other end of a delay-ridden phone line. “It was always a part of me. I come from a musical family, so it was just a natural thing.”
In the early 2000s, Nick turned that “natural thing” of his into a successful career. “I started a band in high school with Julian [Casablancas] and Fab [Moretti] and we did a couple of shows, and that turned into The Strokes,” he summarises.
Off the road, after the release of The Strokes’ album ‘Comedown Machine’, Nick discovered that he missed being onstage, and found himself itching to tour again. Enter his new band, the fuzzed-out rock and roll machine CRX.
“Over the years, performing live has become one of my favourite parts of being a musician,” he says. “The catalyst for me even wanting to start CRX was missing being onstage and being on tour. Not getting my fill of live performances.” There was also the matter of scale to consider. With The Strokes still drawing monumental audiences fifteen years into their career, Nick found a certain appeal in getting back to smaller club stages. “I’ll show up with my amp and guitar and a couple of pedals, and we’ll set up and play,” he says. “Kind of how things were more when I was a teenager. I had a hankering to somehow get back to that.”
“I don’t really remember a time in my life when I didn’t know how to play a C chord."
— Nick Valensi
That’s not to say Nick Valensi is tired of being in the Strokes. He’s clearly well aware of how lucky he is to have hit the indie jackpot when the millennium clicked over, as his band helped revitalise an entire genre and ensured leather jackets stayed in style for at least another decade. “The Strokes put on awesome shows, man,” he enthuses. “We get such cool crowds and we have such good fans that when there’s a Strokes show it feels like an event. And it’s really fun playing for tens of thousands of people. But I felt that it would be a good thing for me to have some balance to those mega festival shows.”
Unsurprisingly, the CRX record features the kind of razor sharp riffage one might expect from a Strokes album. But ‘New Skin’ isn’t just more of the same. The album is simultaneously brasher and more fragile than Nick’s other work, in part because for him this is all uncharted territory. He’s never had to be centre stage before.
Nick never particularly wanted to be a frontman before, he says, because it didn’t sit right with his personality. “When you’re the guitar player in a band it’s easy to command attention when you want it, and disappear into the shadows when you don’t want it,” he admits. “I was always very comfortable in that role. Even growing up, I always loved watching Axl Rose but I never wanted to be him. I identified more with Izzy and Slash. Always. I still do.”
Eighties hard rock heroes aside, in the end a combination of practicality and an itchy sort of impatience made the decision for him. “Really,” he says, “the end-game for me was booking a tour. I was so hell-bent on it that I wanted to put as few obstacles in the way as possible. It seemed to me that if I could just, you know, man up and force myself to front this thing, it would be a lot easier for me to achieve my goal of getting on tour.”
"Growing up, I always loved watching Axl Rose but I never wanted to be him. I identified more with Izzy and Slash. Always. I still do.”
— Nick Valensi
The next problem was learning to sing comfortably, Nick says. He’d never written songs with the intention of being the one to sing them, and had to learn to use his voice as an instrument. “I sang into my laptop every day with headphones on and tried songs out in different keys. It took a while, honestly, it took me like a year to get to the point where I thought ‘oh I think I can swing this, I think I’ve learned enough and put in enough time’.”
Once he had a few tracks written Nick found himself getting caught up in self-doubt, and decided it was time to take the beginnings of CRX out into the world. “I started to second guess what I was doing a little bit,” he says. “I really missed having like-minded individuals in the room to bounce ideas off of. So I started sharing the demos that I was working on with other people to get their take on it. I didn’t reach out to many people, and most of them are the dudes who are now in CRX with me." Nick also plays in the band with Jon Safely from The Reflections, Guards and Willowz guitarist Richie James Follin, Ralph Alexander of The Dose, and LA musician Darian Zahedi. "And one of the other people I bounced ideas off of was Josh Homme.”
The Queens of the Stone Age frontman and serial collaborator came on board to produce ‘New Skin’, and proved vital to the album’s development. Josh acted as a sounding board and impartial decision-maker, and Nick says his friend’s conviction was exactly what he needed to get CRX off the ground.
“Never in my life have I had the opportunity to work with someone who could seem so certain that one idea was right and the other was wrong,” he laughs. “Josh’s style is: when we’re faced with a decision, let’s make it, and then let’s move on and never think about that decision again.” It was the perfect foil to Nick’s own habits, he says, “because I was at a place where I was holding onto too many options.” Luckily for him, he had Josh and his CRX bandmates to help clear the path.
“Getting that outside feedback from Josh and the guys in the band was so valuable for me,” he says. “I really try to surround myself with people who I feel are smarter than me, and more talented than me. I always want to be around people like that. I never want to be the smartest guy in the room. ‘Cause then I’m stuck.”
CRX's debut album 'New Skin' is out on 28th October.