Time has been kind to Nick Valensi. The guitarist saunters into the dimly lit lobby of a fancy pants hotel in Gramercy in New York, and he looks pretty much the same as he did when I met him 15 years ago on The Strokes first ever UK tour. He's all angles, rakishly slim, with slightly surprised, slightly sardonic blue eyes. The major difference is the battered Cons are gone and his hair has the kind of enviable volume I attempt daily, but rarely achieve. Last night the 35-year-old scored the hottest ticket in town: he took his kids to see Hamilton. "I'll be honest with you—it was fine," he says. "But whether you think Hamilton is cheesy or stupid, it's cool whenever something comes out and takes a medium, whatever it is, and flips it upside down, when people do original shit and people take notice."
Valensi's back in his hometown, not to take the pop culture pulse, but to play a handful of shows with his new band CRX—made up of keyboardist/vocalist Richie Follin (Willoz / Guards), drummer Ralph Alexander, and guitarist Darian Zahedi and bassist Jon Safley (who both play in The Reflections). "As soon as all five of us got together, it became clear this was a band," he explains. "We thought, 'We look like a band, we act like a band, and we work like a band, so we're a fuckin' band.'"
A week before this CRX made their live debut in LA, where Valensi's lived with his wife and two kids for the better part of a decade. Performing to 300 people who hadn't heard a lick of their music, the audience felt moved to mosh. "I didn't realize moshing was still a thing," laughs Valensi. "It was flattering, flattery. Especially when they don't know your fuckin' music, and they're hearing it for the first time."
Produced by Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, CRX's album, New Skin, is a collection that pinballs between flinty, brooding rock, with muscular riffs and retro-treated vocals ("Give It Up," "Broken Bones"), and taut pop on new wave tip ("Ways to Fake It," "One Track Mind"). For sure there are traces of QOTSA here, and The Strokes too—in the white-knuckle fury of "On Edge" and the serrated stomp of "Unnatural"—but Valensi's keen to carve out his own CRX-shaped space and really get out on the road and play. While the rest of The Strokes have released (in some cases) multiple solo albums, and although Valensi's contributed guitars to songs by Regina Spektor, Sia, and (Fab Moretti's now defunct) Little Joy, this is Valensi's first full length under his own steer. As for the future of NYC's beloved sons: The Strokes are currently working on new music. "We're in a writing stage right now, just putting ideas together and letting things take shape," says Valensi. "The vibe is casual and super low-pressure, which suits me fine."
For now it's all about CRX: working with Homme, stepping up to the mic, what the guitarist's learned from The Strokes, the power of no… and an interesting factoid about Mariah Carey's selection of sex soundtrack. We intercept guitarist Darian Zahedi on his way to check out a museum, and get him to join us. Turns out they first met in New York, pre-Strokes, because Zahedi went to NYU with Albert Hammond Jr. They lost touch for a decade or so, but fate, or rather, the fact that the NY-LA music scenes and studios are so closely entwined, brought them back together. Serendipity.
Noisey: Can you remember the first impressions of each other?
Darian: I actually remember I met you in front of Arlene's Grocery. I was with Will and Sam, and we came to see you guys [The Strokes] at Arlene's maybe? We were all hanging out on the street outside. I remember you were wearing one of those gas station shirts that has a name on it—
Nick: The name on that shirt was "Mark." I remember that shirt.
You've got a good memory.
Nick: He's got a good memory, because I do not remember that. I remember specific experiences and situations from that time of my life, but I don't remember how I got myself into that situation.
Nick: [To Noisey] I don't remember meeting you for the first time. I just remember knowing you.
I really remember meeting you guys for the first time.
Nick: I have abused my brain. So that's the problem.
Well anyway, you started off writing this stuff on your own, like how long ago?
Nick: Maybe three years ago? This whole thing started that it would be fun for me to write some songs, put together a band, and just do some shows, maybe book a tour, and end up with a kind of counterpoint to The Strokes in my life. Something a little more simple, a train that's a little smaller, lighter and easier to get on the tracks.
And because you really miss playing live?
Nick: Yeah, I hit a point where I had a hankering to get out there and perform.
How do you feel when you get up onstage? Can you describe that feeling to me?
Nick: That's a good question. The whole thing feels kind of like a blur in a very exhilarating and fun way. I like it. I think some people get into music, and the performing thing is not their favorite part of it. They'd rather maybe be in a studio working on new stuff. Not to say that I don't like that, because I like that too, but performing is one of the funnest parts of being a musician to me. It got to a point with The Strokes, especially with that last LP, Comedown Machine, we didn't tour it at all. That was cool and fine, but maybe six months after that came out I was like, "Fuck I actually want to get onstage and do shit. Let me just put together some songs, maybe I can just sing on them so that it will be an easier avenue for me to take it on tour."
Did you previously never feel the urge to do that because The Strokes fulfilled you creatively? Everyone else has put out solo projects, how come you resisted it for so long?
Nick: The honest answer is that I just didn't want to. It's funny, people ask me that all the time. "What took so long? How come you didn't do anything for a long time?" I'm not sure why I'm expected to. I have a band already, and I love the band I'm in. Why I should be expected to have two bands… I'm not sure where that expectation comes from. For the years when I didn't do anything, people were always like, "What's going on? What are you going to do?" You don't do things until you want to do them. I got to a point where I just wanted to do it. I'm a go with the flow kind of guy.
How was it working with Josh?
Nick: Do you have any friends you love hanging out with, they make you laugh incessantly, and you really admire all the work that they do? Well imagine working with that friend. It's like working with Josh. He's great. We're lucky to have him on board as producer. He made a lot of positive contributions to this record. In terms of?
Nick: In terms of everything. You have certain producers that are super heavy-handed, at the controls all the time. You have other producers who take a more big picture approach, who come in and consult. Not so much "Let's EQ the hi-hat," but more songwriting. Josh was very impressive in that he was able to do all of those depending what he thought the song required.
I remember one song where he was like, "Before you guys start working on this, just listen to "Don't You Stop" by The Cars and "Work It" by Missy Elliott. Just keep on listening to those two things, and I'll come back later today." We kept on listening and it worked. On "One Track Mind" I couldn't fit in the bridge. I got to a point where I was like, "It's not gonna work. We're going to have to cut the bridge from the song. Fuck it, who cares." Josh wouldn't let me, he was like "Nah, there's a way to do this! I'm gonna do it. Just give me two hours and I can do it." I sat on the sofa and watched him change the bass line, and then the bridge was in the song. The bridge is my favorite part of the song now.
Did you have any apprehensions about singing and taking that leadership role in CRX?
Nick: Me? No! [Laughs.] Of course I did, for a long time. I never wanted to be a singer. I never had interest in fronting a band and being the guy in the center and the guy with the lights on his face. Let me retract that for a second: I like being the guy with the lights on him, when I'm ready for it. I like the spotlight when I want the spotlight. But when I don't, I like to be able to back away from it. That's easier when you're the guitar player. When you're the singer, it's tougher to get a moment away. I just mean as a performer onstage, not in life. For a long time I thought my personality didn't jive with that, with the "frontman thing."
At the same time, I was writing these songs, and I knew that I'd like to get on stage and perform them in a way that had the least obstacles in front of it. It was pretty clear to me that if I went on tour I'd have to sing it myself.
Do you like your voice?
Nick: I'm still coming to terms with that.
Darian: I'm not sure that any singer really likes their voice. Even John Lennon reportedly hated his voice, which is why he would effect it during certain recordings. As a singer you sing because like to sing not because you like your voice.
Nick: I heard Mariah Carey would play her music when she had sex. Nick Cannon said that in an interview. I'm gonna start doing that. I was blasting the CRX record last night while I was getting busy.
Lovely. So "Ways to Fake It" was the first song you released, but it isn't totally indicative of the album. At least to me, it sounds like The Cars. It's a little bit more pop than the other ones.
Darian: What I like about this record is that it isn't all one vibe. There are moments that aren't just all pop-y or tough. I was telling Nick, my favorite records from the past have that too. Like The Cars' Candy-O.
Nick: Elvis Costello records have that too. Where there's fuckin' punk shit, but then there's [sings Elvis Costello's "Alison"] "My aim is true."
Nick: You don't have to stick to one, "Let's go dark with this record, let's go pop-y with this record." Let's give people a journey. Different emotions too.
Darian: Like life.
Nick: Yeah. You were saying that to me yesterday. Like how much it would suck if you were just like, angry, angry, angry on every song. You can't do that.
Darian: Some movies are just dark, all the way through. They don't offer any sort of respite from darkness. Life is a balance of yin and yang, dark and light, and to be able to express that over one record is—not to get all zen on you—but that's what's great about art. You know?
Actually I've something written down about "Walls," regarding the lyrics: "We won't be sure what's legendary until we read the obituary" and "I don't know what to make of it when everyone is faking it."
Nick: They just rhyme, that's all. This is obviously the first time I've written complete lyrics for an album. I have some one-off stuff that [Julian] Casablancas kind of dug, but I'm just, you know, pouring my shit out. It's not until you're done with it that you can make sense of what the hell you were saying.
That's often the way with the creative process. There seems to be a bit of a critique of modernity.
Nick: A part of it is expressing frustration about how the world has turned into such a phony place. There's another part of it that is frustration that you're part of all that phony shit.
So what would you say is the most personal song on the album in terms of allowing yourself to become a little more vulnerable?
Nick: "Ways to Fake It." It's really straightforward and direct, there's not a lot of metaphor in there. The lyrics are pretty transparent. If things aren't going great, but let's front like they are. The music is bouncy and happy, but the message is not.
It's been 15 years since Is This It came out. What do you think you learned from all your time in The Strokes?
Nick: That's a good question. I started playing music with Fab and Julian when I was 13. So, when you ask me what have you learned being in The Strokes and working with these guys for so long, I mean, it's been 22 years that we've been doing this stuff together. What have I learned? Everything. Every single experience I've absorbed. I've learned a lot about songwriting from working with Casablancas. I watched him put together that first Strokes record. I learned a lot from that experience. Also, over the years, I've learned about the craft. Like, "Hey I have a really good idea," how do we put this together in a way that's going to please our ears, in a way that not everyone knows how to do? Some people are super creative and have great ideas, but the execution is all wrong. Without my time in The Strokes, I don't think I'd be able to put this record together.
I actually didn't mean the music. Being in a band is a partnership; it's a marriage. I'm interested in what you're taking with you from being in The Strokes and coming into this new partnership.
Nick: Ah. That's a good question. There are so many different facets of what you're asking me. If you're talking about what will help a band succeed once they have written their songs, I would say, this is going to sound cliché, but communication is of the utmost importance to me. Something I learned from The Strokes is that saying no can be beneficial. The Strokes say no a lot. "Will you come here?" "No" "Will you do this?" "No." [Laughs.] That worried me for a time, but I've learned that 10 small no's lead to one big yes. You gotta play hard to get.
Ah, yes. Withholding. You're just blue-balling people.
Nick: Yes. [Laughs.] You've been around that before?
Ha! Yes. I know the power of that
Nick: We have history, Darian. I don't think I told you, but me and Kim have known each other for a long time. Remind me how we though. You said you remembered how you first met us, but you didn't say.
It was your first tour in the UK and you had played a show the previous day supporting somebody, and you came to Brighton and it was your first headline show.
Nick: We were supporting Trail of Dead.
Yeah! It was this tiny dive that's now closed and I walked in…
Nick: See, OK, I remember the room.
Darian: You're from England?
I grew up there. I only moved back to the States three-and-a-half years ago. I was a student journalist at the time and very, very green.
Nick: She was a go-getter. Real whippersnapper! She really was. This kid had moxie!
It was a disaster! I was so flustered for various reasons that I forgot to press record.
Nick: Was this an interview with Casablancas?
No, it was with all of you!
Nick: With all of us? See, I don't remember that part. And you forgot to press record!
It was tremendously awkward. Then I went to Oxford with you guys and ended up building the story up. You were probably my third interview ever.
Nick: You probably were our third ever interview.
I think I was your first face-to-face, at least in England.
Nick: There you go!
Anyway! What do your kids think of the record? Are they down? What's their response?
Nick: They like it a lot. I don't know if they just say that. My son listens to a lot of hip-hop, and my daughter's obsessed with the Hamilton musical. He really like J. Cole. I actually really like that J. Cole album, it's really good. He's also into a lot of older stuff too, like I show him the 90s hip-hop that I liked. A lot of Wu Tang stuff, or Tribe stuff, or even going back to the OG teachers, KRS-One. BackSpin is his favorite Sirius channel. He likes that.
It must be fun to have kids and be able to mold their music tastes.
Nick: I mean that's not what's fun about it. I was a weird kid and by seven years old, I had fully formed thoughts about what was cool and what wasn't and why I liked things. I was kind of precocious that way. My parents didn't push stuff on me. They kind of let my interests go wherever. My interests were really different from those in my family, and kind of still are. I want to provide them with that too. If you want to be into musicals and painting and fuckin' horseback riding, sure, we can do that. We can give this a shot. Or if you're into rap and flag football, we'll go do that… as long as you're into something! I don't care what it is!
Kim Taylor Bennett is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.