By Mike Bax
Nick Valensi (The Strokes) is one of the last members of that band to branch off into a solo capacity and put material out on his own. CRX, an American rock band formed in Los Angeles in 2013, includes Nick Valensi (lead vocals, guitar), Ralph Alexander (drums), Richie Follin (guitar, keyboard, backing vocals), Jon Safley (bass) and Darian Zahedi (guitar, backing vocals). Their debut album, New Skin, was released on October 28, 2016. Produced by Josh Homme, the album boasts ten up-tempo songs that more than impress, leaving the listener wondering why Valensi didn’t attempt a solo album years earlier.
Currently in the middle of touring clubs and small theatres across North America, Valensi took a bit of time to talk with Lithium about the album, it’s inception, and the contributors involved in it’s making.
Mike: I’d imagine the question you are getting asked the most right now is what made you wait so long to start singing on an album, Nick?
Nick: Um, well I don’t want to give an overly simple answer, but I just waited until I wanted to. I didn’t really have the urge to do this until I finally did. (laughs) I don’t know how else to answer that, I’m sorry. You know, I started a band when I was 13 in 9th grade with Julian and Fab and that turned into The Strokes. And I always loved doing that, and never really had the urge to do another thing, even when all of these other guys from The Strokes started doing their side projects. Albert started his a decade ago and the other guys followed suit. For a time there I was cool just having the extra down time. I think all of that downtime coincided with me moving to L.A. and starting a family and having kids. So I was really grateful to just have the opportunity to do that. I could dip in and do a little bit of Strokes stuff sometimes, and then go back to L.A. and do the Mr. Mom stuff for a little bit. I did that for a couple of years and I was really happy. So having another band would have interfered with being able to do that. I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity because most people wouldn’t be afforded that luxury. To start a family and get to do stuff with your kid whenever you want – take him to school and take him to the park, do your own grocery shopping together, etc., instead of being away all of the time. Being a touring musician with a family is really difficult.
Mike: Yeah. True.
Nick: It got to the point where my kid is a little bit older and is in school every day, and then I had even more down time. And one of the things I’ve always loved about being a musician is the live show and playing in front of people. I was missing all of that. I felt like I wanted to get to do that more. And I also wanted to do that a little bit differently. Instead of doing the big summertime music festivals with The Strokes, I wanted some balance from that. And I wanted to play in some clubs and theaters again, tour around again, and go to some different places. That is when the idea started getting into my mind, maybe I should try putting some songs together and see how my voice sounds. If I can put together an album that I like and that I’m proud of, I’ll release it and go on tour. That was about three years ago. I had some starts and stops. I had some moments of doubt along the way. It took me a little while to figure out the lyric writing process and how I wanted to sing and how I could sound most natural – what I could do with my voice that wouldn’t irk the shit out of me when I heard it played back. There was a learning curve there. I ended up hitting a wall after a year or so of working by myself and losing perspective and going into a mini kind of a freak-out. And then opening the door to friends of mine for collaboration and for help and starting a band and also reaching out to Josh Homme for help with production and stuff. It started out as something I did by myself, but it quickly evolved into this collaborative thing that I don’t think I would have been able to realize on my own.
Mike: Yeah. If your impetus for CRX was to get out and tour again, it’s a given that you’ve got to have a band.
Nick: Well, yes. But within that you’ve got the option of doing the solo thing. A lot of people do it themselves, but this wasn’t my thing. When I first started doing it, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t know if it was going to be solo or a side project of a band thing, or if it would even be released at all. I always kept the notion in the back of my mind that if it didn’t please me or that I wasn’t satisfied with it in any way that it would just stay on the hard drive and never see the light of day. Luckily, it came out pretty good and I’m proud of it (laughs). So I got to achieve that end goal of hitting the road.
Mike: You are flirting with some pretty heavy terrain on the album. ‘Unatural’ and ‘Monkey Machine’ boast some pretty heavy riffs and tempo. I dig them. They are great songs.
Nick: Thanks, man.
Mike: Can you tell me about your band, Nick? Who they are, and what ultimately drew you to them for this project?
Nick: Well, they are basically friends of mine whom I’ve known in different capacities for a pretty long time. Ralph Alexander, the drummer, I met when I first moved to L.A. He also moved to L.A. around the same time, so we bonded over being new to L.A. The first time I ever saw him play I knew that if I ever needed a drummer outside of The Strokes that he would be the person I would ask. Actually, when Fab, the drummer from the Strokes, needed a drum tech, I recommended Ralph. So Ralph was Fab’s drum tech for a couple of years. I knew Darian from back in the day in New York. And when we moved to L.A. I felt out of touch. When I was in L.A. I met this dude Jon Safley who was a bass player. He wound up telling me he plays in this band with his good friend Darian, who used to live in New York. This intrigued me, and when I asked for his last name (Zahedi) I said, “Oh, I know that guy.” So Darian and I got to rekindle our friendship through Jon. And Richie Follin is the keyboardist and also plays guitar as well – someone else who I met through mutual friends about five years ago and we hit it off quickly. We started going to baseball games together and basketball games. He plays in a couple of other bands and was one of those people that I reached out to for help finishing lyrics and some songwriting things.
Nick: Really, we are like a group of friends who hang out with each other for real. It’s not like I found these guys through a casting call or something. They are my friends.
Mike: I didn’t know that Josh was involved with this album until well after I had played it a bunch of times and was enjoying it. But now when I play it, you can hear his signature on it in places. At least I feel like I can. What drew you to him and how did he get involved?
Nick: Well, he and I have been friends for a long time. And I have been a fan of his music since even before that happened. So when I was working on the demos for New Skin, in the early stages of songwriting he was one of the people who I reached out to for feedback. I wanted to play him what I was working on to get a sense of what he thought of the direction I was going in. And when I played it for him I was pleasantly surprised at how much he liked it and how excited he was about it. He was really into the songs and liked my singing voice. And immediately we started talking about production. There were all of these elements I’d made in my demos that he really loved. And he was telling me how important it was that I didn’t lose these elements from my demos when recording the album. There were a bunch of other things going on in the demos that he was choc full of ideas on how to improve them. Over the course of that conversation, I threw it out there that I wished I could get him to produce it. He said, “Aw man, I would do it in a heartbeat.” We just went from there. Again, it was very natural and organic. The way that this whole band has come together has been a gathering of friends, helping one and other and bouncing ideas off of one another. Really just being creative in a really fun and interesting way.
Mike: If there was only one thing that you would hope listeners would take away from New Skin, what would you hope that thing is?
Nick: Um, that’s a good question. Even at the onset of this, I wanted the music to be fun. I wanted to have fun making the music, recording the music, and above all going out on tour and performing. So I want people listening to it to get a sense of how much fun we had making it.
Mike: How has the energy been at some of the shows you have performed at already, Nick? Are you getting a good vibe off of the crowds while you are performing?
Nick: Oh, it’s been so great. We did about ten or fifteen shows before the album came out, and it was interesting to play for people who had never heard any of the songs. So the first half of these shows would be people standing there soaking it all in for the first time and scrutinizing it, I guess. But for the second half of those shows, people let loose, man. There’s been some mosh pits. It’s been pretty sweaty. Now that the album has been out a few weeks, we are on our first tour now playing to people who know the music. That has been really cool, too.
Mike: Has it sunk in for you that you are now a front man? And how are you dealing with that responsibility?
Nick: (laughs) Yes. It’s fully soaked in. I’m actually having so much more fun with it than I thought I would. The live performance aspect of it is one of the things that made me resist it in the first place because I wasn’t sure much I would enjoy fronting a band in a live setting. I like to be able to divert attention away when I want to. But actually, the feeling that I’m getting isn’t really that much different than what I do in The Strokes. It’s just been fun. I did make sure to rehearse a lot. I didn’t want to come out on stage and suck.
Mike: Well, all ego stroking aside, I think New Skin is great. I have been playing it steadily since it was passed onto me by the label. It really impressed me.
Nick: Thanks, man. I appreciate that.