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How the Strokes' Nick Valensi got his groove back

Jon Dekel

When he moved to Los Angeles in the mid-2000s, Nick Valensi was the king of New York. Or, at the very least, part of the embodiment of that idea that was the Strokes.

He left his friends and family behind to find new purpose as a doting husband and father, trading in whirlwind wild nights for Prius-filled dreams. But Valensi soon discovered that life outside New York’s concrete jungle can get a little lonesome. so he reached out to an acquaintance. Someone who, he hoped, could translate his former life to his current one: Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme.

“I didn't know that many people and it was lonely,” Valensi recalls. “He was one of the first people I reached out to and we became fast friends. I was completely accepted into this community of L.A. rocker dudes, basically.”

Nearly a decade on, Valensi found himself once again turning to Homme at a point of personal and creative consternation. The Strokes had all but stopped touring and he suddenly felt an urgent restlessness. Valensi wanted — needed — to play for people. He began putting pen to paper, forcing himself to learn to sing and perform. And just when he got to the point of feeling confident enough to put himself out there, he ran face-first into a wall of self-doubt. Again, he called up his pal.

“It was really him losing his shit over the demos, that was the first moment where I rediscovered my confidence,” Valensi says. “How Nick Valensi got his groove back kind of thing.”

It’s mid-November some two years later, and Valensi is looking down at an empty 250-capacity venue in Toronto, doing the math in his head. “I’m not sure we can fill it,” he says sheepishly. Last time his Strokes played the city was around the era Valensi switched locales. Instead, the group has chosen to spend the last decade either on hiatus or headlining big festivals for big crowds and big bucks, putting out a stop-gap EP last year so they can play those same festivals again. To satiate his thirst, Valensi is hitting the road in a tiny van alongside his new band, CRX. The evolution of those early demos, the group's debut New Skin is a Homme-produced affair that slots Strokes-worthy Cars-homages alongside blistering riff rock reminiscent of its producer's day-band.

Tanned, slender and tall with wavy shoulder-length hair, the 35-year-old wouldn’t look out of place in a 1970s skater demo video, and he’s adopted the laid-back lilt to match. Below, he speaks of getting accepted into the secret "rocker dad" world of Los Angeles, sets the record straight on Strokes mythology and speaks of a future, with the group and with his own writing career alongside Kesha, Sia and more.

You previously ripped on your fellow Strokes for pursuing solo careers instead of focusing on the group. What made you change your tune?

Living in L.A., I would see my friends come to town and I would always leave the show with this feeling of envy. So around three years ago I started feeling like I wish I could book a tour. But I didn't want to go out and do covers or a whole set of Strokes songs so I started writing. The end goal was to create a really good live band that tours a lot. I figured it was in my best interest to push myself out of my comfort zone — being the guitarist that hangs back and does his poses — and front the project because I was reluctant to find someone else to sing the songs. I was worried about what that would mean.

In terms of ego?

I'm already in a band like that and I didn't want this to be a copy [of the Strokes], in terms of music and in terms of the dynamic within the band. After about a year of working in secret, by myself at home usually in my underwear demoing songs, I started going through this weird period where I started losing perspective and started second-guessing what I was doing and that pushed me to reach out to friends — people who, musically, I have respect for. Some of those guys are in the band now — Ralph, the drummer, and I have been jamming together for eight years — and the whole thing became very collaborative. When I started I wasn't sure if this would be a solo thing or a band but really quickly the whole thing started to feel like a band. And I know what a band feels like because I've been in one my whole life.

Was it weird to be in the Julian [Casablancas] role, so to speak?

At first it was a little weird. I'm totally getting the hang of it now. I'm more of a team player. I don't like being put in the role of boss man so I'm deliberately not letting myself feel like that. I'm just a guy in this band like all the guys are. We're having fun, there's no need for this band to get hierarchical.

So you reached out to Josh Homme. Do you see him as a mentor, of sorts?

The Strokes toured with Eagles [of Death Metal] but we've actually been close friends for a long time. Ever since I moved to L.A. He was one of the other guys I reached out to [during the phase of unease], and he was really the most instrumental person for helping me get this record done. He's someone that I have so much respect and admiration for.

Do you guys have your own bizarro version of the Hollywood Vampires?

No, not that. But all the guys in Queens, all the guys in Eagles, the guys from Foo Fighters, there's a very small community of rock musicians in southern California. They're all just really cool guys: family guys, all really good dads, all devoted husbands. Kindred spirits for me.

The Strokes have a reputation for making “New York” records. Do you see this as your Los Angeles record?

I like thinking of the Strokes as my New York thing, because whatever we're doing — songwriting session, recording, rehearsal — it's always in New York. So I'm always flying there to do stuff like that because I still have the majority of my family [there]. As an L.A. guy I'm back in New York often enough that I never really miss it that much because I go back five or six times a year. It's nice for me to think of CRX as my West Coast band because I don't have to fly out of L.A. to get work done.

You said you started this band because the Strokes essentially stopped touring.

Yeah. It's never easy. The bigger the band gets the harder it is to get the show on the road. It's cliché but very apt. With the Strokes, we've become old enough and wise enough to observe a pattern that gets established when we start to ramp up: there's a direct correlation between the amount of touring we do and the amount of tolerance that we have for one another. So there were times when things were really good between all of us. We made this record called Comedown Machine and it was a great record. We had a great experience making it. It kind of felt like we were kids in the late '90s again. Arm-in-arm and really excited and super collaborative.

That’s surprising. The general perception was that Comedown Machine was maybe your last record because it fulfilled your contract with RCA and you didn’t tour or promote it, really?

That was actually a reaction to that thing I was talking about. Things were going so f--king well, why would we run the risk of f--king that up? Why don't we just make this record, we'll get off the recording contact, this will give Julian the opportunity because Julian was starting this business [Cult Records] and we're all very supportive of that. It seemed like the smartest thing to do and in hindsight it was. I'm glad we did it that way. Because first and foremost I love being in the Strokes and I'm like the biggest supporter of that band. More than anyone. Doing this band is in a way me trying to separate myself from that. It was just about balance. Having said that, in the Strokes we're slowly working on putting some music together. And the idea is maybe we can handle going on a 30-show run or something like that.

It’s been over a decade since you’ve done a proper headlining tour.

We recently did a small charity show in L.A to raise money for homeless shelters because there's an awful homeless problem going on in Los Angeles right now. And it dawned on me it's the first we've played L.A. that wasn't a festival since 2006. Which is a long time. And it's a hometown now for me. I mean, I'm a New Yorker at heart but everything else about me is pure L.A.

Your first Strokes writing credit was on First Impressions of Earth's "Ask Me Anything."

The first one I got credited for.

Critics seemed to delight in the song’s chorus (“I’ve got nothing to say”) but I’ve always wondered about the line, “Don’t be a coconut, God is trying to talk to you.”

I didn't write the lyrics. I wish I could explain it. It's one of my favourite lines in the entire Casablancas cannon of lyrics. Actually, I think that whole song is really strong. It took me about five minutes to get on board with the chorus. My initial reaction was this is kind of a copout but after sitting with it for a brief couple of minutes, let yourself delve into what he's saying there, which is basically nothing: I've got nothing to say. It's deeper than I thought it was at first glance.

Is This It turned 15 this year and there was a lot of ink spilled about that but you’ve said you like its followup, Room on Fire, better.

I think I do, actually. I mean the first one's great. They're all great. I like them all. I would have pushed to not release them if I thought they weren't great.

You guys got some blowback on that album. Do you think it’s underrated?

No. I think we get plenty of credit, man. I'm not gonna come out and complain that the Strokes are underrated. If anything it's quite the opposite. For me, listening to those records it just takes me back to that time. My memories and experiences of these things are pragmatic and personal but when I hear other people talk about them it's like it’s blown out of proportion. It's just a song.

You were in the eye of the hurricane.

My memories from high school up until we started selling clubs out in New York are pretty clear. I can even remember the feeling of it. And from the moment a record company came in, shit just started to go nuts. The memories are just a blur. Every day was just crazy new cool shit: what kind of people am I going to meet? What kind of cool place am I going to go to? What kind of crazy experience am I going to have? And mixed in with that was quite a bit of drugs and alcohol, too. I wish I had more solid memories.

Things got kind of crazy, in that way. And just when Julian got sober, Albert [Hammond Jr.] had his issues with heroin.

Yeah. Things went crazy. Julian cleaned up. Albert also went off the deep end and had to come back. Almost lost him for a second there.

How bad did it get? There were rumours you guys were done after First Impressions?

You know, every once in a while someone will email me a link which says, "The Strokes will never make an album again," and I'm like, what the f--k is going on?

So, for the record, you never broke up or came close?

No. Not even close. Not a single person in the Strokes wants to end the Strokes. It'd be really stupid. No, it's good. We're good.

Which brings me to the new album.

A lot of people have asked me about it and I don't want people to be bored of the idea of the sixth Strokes record before we finish it. The truth is, we haven't even started recording. We're just writing songs. Every once in a while we get together and we do show and tell. You go around the room and everyone gets to share their bit and we work on it. And other times we just jam for 45 minutes. And we record the jam session and mine it for golden nuggets which might work. That's basically what we're doing right now. The Strokes are really lucky and I'm really lucky that we don't have to put anything out. Financially, we don't have to put out a record if we don't want to. That's a good place to be. That doesn't mean that we should stop working.

You’ve done some songwriting with the likes of Sia and Regina Spektor. Now that the Strokes and CRX are functioning at the same time, is that on the backburner?

I actually did some work with Kesha not long ago.

Julian and Fab[rizio Moretti] appeared on her last album, right?

I wasn't part of that but we met recently and we started writing some things together. She mired in this litigation and whatnot, so I'm not sure what's going on with that so I don't know how much I can say about that, but she's so cool. She's a really smart, fun, forward-thinking person. And it's cool for me because I'm in the Strokes and I'm in CRX and it's this very male-fuelled, testosterone-rich environment and then I get to work with these amazing female pop stars like her and Sia and Regina, which is really refreshing. Totally different perspective. Working with Sia was a f--king revelation. I've never worked with someone so fast and so certain.

CRX play the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver on Wednesday, November 30