IN the 15 years since The Strokes became a breakout global sensation, guitarist Nick Valensi has found comfort in the shadows, taking the limelight only when he wants.
So he began his latest vocation – as a frontman for his side project CRX, which releases its debut album on Friday – with little idea of what to do.
“I didn’t really want to be a singer. I like singing back-up vocals, I like writing melodies, but being the frontman of a band seemed kind of a tall order,” Valensi told AFP over coffee sitting at a sunlit sidewalk cafe in Los Angeles, the native New Yorker’s adopted home.
“Being the frontman for a rock band, a lot of it has to do with talent, but a lot of it has to do also with your personality and how comfortable you are commanding attention,” he said.
“I like attention, but I like it when I’m ready for it, and as a guitar player you’re always afforded that ability to kind of step out and get a lot of attention, but also step back and retreat into the shadows a little bit.”
Still, Valensi is at ease with his own voice on the new album, New Skin. He confidently, if not flamboyantly, carries songs largely consistent with The Strokes’ rough-around-the-edges punk revival sound, albeit with a touch more keyboard.
But working apart from The Strokes’ charismatic frontman Julian Casablancas, Valensi says, he struggled to write lyrics, spending a full year penning out thoughts.
“To be honest, man, at first I really sucked at it,” he said.
He eventually settled on songs about his life experiences – Broken Bones from his time with his arm in a sling – and distaste for social phoniness.
But mostly Valensi let the music take the lead, saying he has an ear for lyrics that complement the sound, even if he doesn’t see himself as a poet.
“I’m a big believer that anyone can get better at anything just by doing it over and over again,” he said.
“I love baseball, but I’m a terrible pitcher,” he added. “But if I spent a year or two really studying and practicing the mechanics of it, I think I could be a really good pitcher.”
Having fun again
Why sing in the first place? The 35-year-old Valensi said he was longing to return to the road with CRX, but to play mid-sized clubs rather than The Strokes’ festival-headlining sets.
The Strokes played several shows this year and released an EP, Future Present Past. But Valensi – mentioning nothing about friction with his bandmates – likens The Strokes to a freight train that needs time to get on the tracks.
For their last album, 2013’s Comedown Machine, The Strokes decided against any tour or promotional activity.
“I’ve been doing this for over 15 years already and sometimes it’s hard to just remember what was fun about it in the first place,” Valensi said.
Delighting in the warm weather and relaxed vibe of Los Angeles, Valensi teamed up with his California friends for CRX.
Josh Homme, the rocker from Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal, produced New Skin. CRX’s lineup includes Willowz frontman Richie Follin, who happened to drive by Valensi and waved during the interview at the cafe.
‘Shooting fish in a barrel’
Valensi frequently returns to New York for The Strokes, who came to symbolize a new musical era with their debut album Is This It, released in the United States days after the September 11 attacks.
With an unkempt but infectious rock sound inspired by The Velvet Underground, The Strokes also adopted a sleek retro look of leather jackets and flowing hair, finding a following at a time that guitar rock was dominated by frat boy-friendly bands such as Nickelback.
“We thought these label guys were really stupid if they thought they were going to get money out of us,” Valensi quipped.
However, the group’s success was “obviously a pleasant feeling and it gave me the feeling that maybe people don’t have such shitty taste after all.”
But Valensi doesn’t like to theorize about his music, seeing art as simply finding “a new configuration of patterns.”
“I don’t really know what I’m doing and I don’t know that anybody does. We’re all shooting fish in a barrel and eventually something sticks.”