Nick Valensi of The Strokes Is Not Throwing Away His Shot With CRX

Nick Valensi is a member of the coolest band of the 21st century, the Strokes. And like most of America, he is a big fan of the Broadway musical Hamilton.

The guitarist, talking on the phone while on tour with his latest project, CRX, discovered Lin-Manuel Miranda’s presidential hip-hop opus through his daughter. He then took his family to see it and was blown away. The former New York resident prides himself on his eclectic tastes and credits his children with helping him discover new things while he turns them on to David Bowie and Nina Simone.

“We live in Los Angeles and spend a lot of time in the car,” Valensi says. “We take turns and pick a song. My daughter turned 10 a couple of months ago, and on the top of her list was a portable turntable. She wanted me to get her started on a vinyl collection. It was all the coolest shit. I’ve got the cool kids and they have good taste. What I did to get them there, I don’t really know. I just lucked out in that regard.”

Our conversation just happened to take place several days after President-elect Donald Trump sent out a flurry of tweets demanding an apology from the current Hamilton cast. After a recent show, they shared with audience member and Vice President-elect Mike Pence their anxieties concerning the new administration and their hopes that he would uphold the country’s values and work on behalf of all Americans. Having performed with one of the greatest rock bands, would Valensi have called out an audience member like the cast did?

“I wouldn’t,” Valensi says. “It’s their play. [Miranda] can do what he wants. Personally, I agree with everything they said. It is not like they said anything that was controversial. All they did was express concerns and fears that slightly more than 50 percent of American people are sharing. I don’t think it is much of a controversy, but it seems President-elect Donald Trump has a knack for making small things more controversial than they are.”
Valensi knows a little bit about making mountains out of molehills. He plays in one of the most (deservedly) hyped bands of the millennium. Not a week goes by without another rumor that the Strokes are (slowly) working on a new album. He is constantly surprised by the generations of audience members he sees at their shows, but he also wants them to know he has been hard at work creating material of his own.

“Luckily for me, I have got a bunch of people who know me from the Strokes who are happy to come along on this ride with me,” he explains. “The Strokes have had some of the best fans over the years. They’ve turned their younger brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters onto us. It’s beautiful to see at a Strokes show. Lucky for me, some of those people have come along on the CRX journey as well.”

The CRX journey began three years ago. The Strokes were not touring as much as they used to, and Valensi was hungry to create music and perform. He slowly started creating some demos that would eventually become CRX’s first full-length album, New Skin. When he began writing the 10 songs on the record, he didn’t have an agenda in mind. As the project started to come together, he began exploring the frustration and information overload that come with social media and modern living.

“I’ve never really written lyrics before,” Valensi says. “Over time, certain sentiments started popping up over and over again. At the risk of sounding corny, so many new things we are dealing with in the modern world and in our society today have become ubiquitous so quickly. I am still coming to terms with new media, the way it has changed our world, and how we deal with each other as people.”

Valensi isn’t exactly young, scrappy, and hungry like the Broadway version of Alexander Hamilton. He is aware that he is not starting from the bottom with CRX. But writing his own songs and collaborating with drummer Ralph Alexander, Jon Safely on bass, guitarist Darian Zahedi, and Richie Follin on keys did make him feel like a teenager again. It also gave him a leadership role of sorts.

“Julian [Casablancas] has always been the leader of the Strokes, so that’s definitely not my role there,” Valensi explains. “I am having a lot of fun with CRX. It feels like a thing where we all contribute. If there are five filters in our band, I am the final filter. We all collaborate on this stuff. I am not doing this by myself, nor do I want to. I don’t even know if I’d be capable of doing it by myself. I need the help of my friends.”
New Skin is 30 minutes of unrelenting, percussive power pop that will satisfy those fans of Valensi’s other band in New York. It also carries a distinctive West Coast vibe that is reflective of the musician’s California address.

Knowing numerous talented musicians to bounce ideas off of also helped. Valensi knew after asking for some advice from Josh Homme, the mind behind Queens of the Stone Age, that he would be the perfect producer for New Skin. He credits Homme for pushing him and drummer Alexander to their limits, but also using unusual methods to get the beat they needed. Valensi’s studio stories run in the same vein as the urban legend about the time Joy Division producer Martin Hannett forced drummer Stephen Morris to reassemble his drum kit with toilet parts. In one such tale, Homme made the band listen to Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” for several hours when the band was unsure what direction to take a song.

“That shit worked,” he exclaims. “Things start to reveal themselves a little bit. It’s an exercise in shutting down your brain a little bit. Part of your brain comes in and tries to solve problems, edit, criticize, and hack away at things. Sometimes, it’s important to get that part of your brain quiet so that the other part that wants to create stuff can come to the floor.”

Valensi may not be the underdog, but he has never really had an opportunity to offer something new into the world. Despite his association with the Strokes, Valensi firmly believes CRX will be viewed as more than just a side project.

“People have only gotten to know me this one way,” he says, “Now, I am doing something a little bit different. At first, it is still kind of novel. It’s still new enough that there will be a ton of comparisons to the Strokes. It’s inevitable and understandable. I am looking forward to doing a second and third CRX record. Maybe when we release that third album, we will be compared to [New Skin] and not previous Strokes albums.”

As the world eagerly awaits that new Strokes album, Valensi is using his friends, talents, and desire to fan his creative spark into a flame. CRX is not going to throw away their shot.

CRX is scheduled to play Crescent Ballroom on Thursday, December 8.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil