New Ride

By
Photography Dani Brubaker

Published October 27, 2016

CRX IN LOS ANGELES, SEPTEMBER 2016. PHOTOS: DANI BRUBAKER. SITTINGS EDITOR: LAUREN KNUDSEN/WALTER SCHUPFER. GROOMING: MAKIKO NARA FOR MAC/WALTER SCHUPFER.

The Strokes are definitely my first wife,” Nick Valensi says with a laugh. As the guitarist of the band that set the standard for rock’n’roll in early-’00s New York City, Valensi has spent a good chunk of his life around its members (first playing in a band with Julian Casablancas and Fabrizio Moretti in the ninth grade). But a few years ago he acted on his urge to make music outside the “delicate ecosystem” of his forever family.

Though Valensi was reluctant to become a frontman, after a solitary year of daily writing, singing, and recording, he shared his demos with musician friends he admired. Those recipients—Ralph Alexander, Richie Follin, Jon Safley, and Darian Zahedi—now form CRX. The band’s name, says Valensi, refers to more than just an ’80s Honda; when Josh Homme, who produced their debut, New Skin (out tomorrow, October 28, via Columbia Records), used the descriptive “a punk rocker driving a CRX through deserted streets of Tokyo” while in the studio, that aesthetic became a shorthand for their sound. CRX’s ride so far has been a smooth one. After playing a handful of shows throughout the summer and into fall, Valensi says, “I’m looking forward to taking this thing as far as it wants to go.” CRX is preparing for their first North American tour, which begins on November 7 in Denver, Colorado.

Here, Valensi speaks to fellow musician and friend Alison Mosshart of the Kills and the Dead Weather. Valensi was at home in Los Angeles while Mosshart was in Cologne, Germany.

NICK VALENSI: You guys never stop touring.

ALISON MOSSHART: I’m not kidding, since I’ve seen you, I literally have had one day off, maybe two. No—I actually got pneumonia after I saw you. I basically said goodbye to you, and then I was in six doctors’ offices for the next two weeks. It was awesome. [laughs]

VALENSI: Holy shit. In England? Where they have nice doctors’ offices at least?

MOSSHART: No, it was Australia, and then I flew back to Nashville, and then promptly died. But I’m better now. I’m good! It happens.

VALENSI: Since the Kills came out you guys have been on what feels like an endless tour cycle.

MOSSHART: It’s been seven and a half straight months at this point, pretty much—just another month to go. Isn’t that crazy? So are you.

VALENSI: Well, now I am. I’m getting a taste of it for the first time in my life.

MOSSHART: It’s good. You just have to 100 percent focus on wherever you are that day and whoever you’re with, whatever band you’re playing with that night. That’s all you need the entire day.

VALENSI: Yeah, I try to be in the moment and I try to give as much of my full attention as I can to the task at hand and what’s going on in front of me. Sometimes that gets hard on tour, and then my family is at home and my family wants me to put attention on that. It gets tricky sometimes.

MOSSHART: You need three Nicks. I need, like, 10 Alisons for all the shit that I want to do. I understand.

VALENSI: Did you ever see that movie with Michael Keaton, Multiplicity, where he clones himself?

MOSSHART: No, but that’s such a great idea. I’m waiting for that to become possible. That would be so good.

VALENSI: Well, it backfires in the movie.

MOSSHART: Oh, it does? [laughs]

VALENSI: Yeah. [laughs] It’s basically a warning against cloning yourself, because, uh, it goes wrong.

MOSSHART: Well, shit. I didn’t see the movie. I would’ve made that mistake. It wouldn’t have been good. I also want them to invent that travel pill that you take.

VALENSI: I have one pre-prepared question for you. Growing up, did you love or hate the Elvis Costello song “Alison”?

MOSSHART: [sighs] Everybody sang it to me all the time. It was a long time before I actually heard the song. I didn’t know what anyone was talking about, but people sang it to me all the time. It was very sweet of them. I liked the song a lot.

VALENSI: It’s one of my favorites. It’s a very sweet song. It’s a pre-prepared question because, as I was thinking to myself, “Oh, I’m going to get on the phone with Alison,” and getting ready to talk to you, the only thing that I could think of was, [sings] “Aaaalison.” 

MOSSHART: Well, I have a shit ton of questions for you. I have a lot of questions about this record. First of all, the name of your band is so great, because I’m obsessed with cars, and that was the car that every punk rocker, badass skateboard kid drove around when I was in high school in Florida. I always wanted that car. It was the car that parents didn’t buy for their kids. You had to have a pizza delivery job and work at the record store at the mall to have that car, and you were in four bands, and you had a super fucked up haircut. Everyone that drove that car—I kind of had a crush on that person. So, why did you name the band after my teenage dream car?

VALENSI: That is very cool. I’m glad that you have fond memories of the car. Most people don’t. Most people think of it just as a kind of shitty ’80s, boy racer kind of car.

MOSSHART: It was. [laughs]

VALENSI: I think they’re really cool. The record was produced by Josh [Homme]. You know Josh, right?

MOSSHART: Yeah. Very well.

VALENSI: It was more him… [In the studio] he would close his eyes, and he’d be like, “Man, every time we work on this song [‘Walls’], all I can picture is a Japanese punk rocker with a really tall mohawk, and he’s just shredding around Tokyo in a CRX. Tokyo’s all converted and post-apocalyptic.” It was basically like this awesome video with this future punk rocker Japanese dude. So CRX went on the shortlist for band names.

MOSSHART: First of all, I love that you were recording a record without a band name. You didn’t even have a band name. 

VALENSI: Well, when I first started doing this, I wasn’t sure if it was a solo thing or a band thing. I wanted to leave it open because I didn’t want to force myself into doing a solo thing that maybe felt more like a band, and I certainly didn’t want to end up with something that felt like a band and call it a solo thing. I started not knowing what the fuck I was doing. The solo thing doesn’t really jive with my personality—to show up and everyone is here to see… Me? That notion makes me a little uncomfortable.

MOSSHART: Yeah, I’m a little uncomfortable with that idea, too.

VALENSI: Especially on stage from a performance point of view, that seems uncomfortable. I started writing songs for this CRX thing back home by myself. … It was really private and felt like my secret for a while. I think because I’ve been in a band my whole life I’m used to the dynamic of feeding off other people’s ideas, and then bouncing my own ideas off people and getting the reactions from them—just being in a room full of creative people and letting an idea percolate that way is what I’m used to. Being by myself was cool at first, but after a year of that, I got to a place where I lost perspective and I didn’t even like what I was doing anymore. I totally doubted the whole thing and felt stuck.

MOSSHART: Your voice sounds so great, Nick. I didn’t know you could sing like that. It’s awesome, super awesome.

VALENSI: Aw, thank you. That’s very sweet. I didn’t know I could sing like that either. I spent a lot of time figuring out—

MOSSHART: You sing like a guitar. You have this totally electrified vibe and it sounds super natural and your melodies are insane and your timing is great. It’s super natural. It was in you; you just had to let it out.

VALENSI: You are so sweet. Let’s talk more like that. Let’s flatter me more.

MOSSHART: [laughs] Say more things like that to me. Keep talking, uh-huh. It’s awesome as a band. I think you did the absolute right thing. Everyone is a great player. It sounds so good, the record is so good. You’ve got to be really fucking happy right now.

VALENSI: I’m really psyched. It feels good to get on tour in a way that’s different from the summertime festival circuit. That’s definitely the last place we saw each other, was at some festival over the summer. The past however many years, those are pretty much the only shows [the Strokes] do. I wanted to do something a little different.

MOSSHART: I read that that you wanted to play. The reason you wrote stuff is because you wanted to go and perform, and that’s a really interesting thing to me, because performing to me is the most vital, most important. It’s my favorite part of all of it. I just want to be on stage. I don’t know if that’s the same for you, if you just love playing on stage as much.

VALENSI: I have the same exact thing as you. I have not met many musicians who have that same feeling. I love working on new stuff. I love the feeling of a new idea and watching it evolve. That’s one of my favorite parts of it. Another favorite thing for me is being on stage in front of an audience and performing the shit that you worked on. I guess the part where you have to do it is the part when you’re recording the ideas and creating the definitive version of it that’s going to last forever. There’s a lot of magic that can happen in that process, but for me, and I guess for you too, that’s the part of it that’s like, “Ugh.” It’s not as much fun as working on it and playing it. Playing for me is really fun, you know?

MOSSHART: Well, I always think that playing a song changes a song. Every night a song becomes something else on stage. Whatever the energy in the room is and the energy on the stage and the sound… Shit happens that you could never make up. You think of things and move in certain ways and sing something a certain way one night, play something a different way another night, and it’s incredible to me, because you can’t repeat it. If you make a mistake, you can’t rewind it. We’re all in this thing together, and everybody in that room is part of it. There’s nothing else on Earth like that.

I don’t know how nervous you get, like maybe in this band you get really nervous because you’re the frontperson. I don’t know if it’s different, because I’ve never not been that person singing, but I get so fucking nervous every night. It doesn’t matter. I’ve played thousands of shows. I’m much more nervous than everyone else.

VALENSI: I’ve been getting nervous with CRX just because there’s this whole added pressure of being the singer and the frontman. Sometimes I feel like when you’re in the dressing room, and you’re on stage in 10 minutes, you feel like your stomach is going to explode.

MOSSHART: Oh, yeah. I think I going to die. I don’t even know if I can work my legs. [laughs]

VALENSI: All that stress and anxiety, it can’t be good for you. I feel like we’re shaving years off of our lives.

MOSSHART: I think it’s fantastic for you. It keeps us young, Nick. 

VALENSI: [laughs] I don’t think it’s good for us. I think it’s flooding our bodies with all kinds of cortisol and bad… I don’t know.

MOSSHART: [laughs] I feel great. I feel nothing. … Do you like writing lyrics, or is it painful to you?

VALENSI: I like it now. I never tried to write lyrics my entire life, until I was 33 years old. I just started doing this. I’ve always been way more focused on the music and keeping the music as tight as possible. At first, when I started writing the lyrics, it didn’t go well for me. I was really unsatisfied with what I was doing, but I stuck with it. I’m a really firm believer that anyone can get pretty good at anything if you just do it all the time and you just keep working at it. That’s what I kept in my head as I started doing it. The lyrics that I was writing really sucked, and the voice sucked too, and I just really held true to the notion that, “I can get good at this.” Music is one of those art forms that you can get pretty immediate feedback by just doing it and getting better at it. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do that with singing or anything for that matter—hitting a baseball, fucking riding a motorcycle. You really should be able to do whatever you want.

MOSSHART: I’d love it if you just got super into baseball, like you just stopped, and you were like, “I’m just doing baseball now.” That’s it. Just play baseball.

VALENSI: I have a 10-year-old son, and he’s a huge baseball fan. I am not the most athletic individual. I didn’t grow up being in sports or whatever. I’m having to learn these things through my son. He’s 10 and he’s got a much better arm than I do. He throws way better and accurately and much faster than I do.

I don’t know how I got started with the tangent of just working on stuff… Oh yeah, the lyrics. I have a better grasp on it now. There are really great writers who kind of paint pictures—I’m thinking of Kurt Cobain specifically, who, when you read his lyrics, doesn’t say a whole lot, and it’s really tough to figure out exactly what he’s talking about. But you walk away from the song with just a vibe. You get the feeling. Like I don’t know what he’s talking about with his libido and the mosquitoes [in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”], and all that stuff, but I do fucking get the feeling of what he’s trying to say, which is, “I’m fucking miserable.” At first I was trying to write like that, because I think I was just a little too self-conscious about being vulnerable and really exposing myself. Those first attempts really sucked. It was me avoiding what I was really trying to talk about. 

MOSSHART: I think you have to find your own language. You find your footing with it, and you start to express it in certain ways…

VALENSI: What are you guys doing the next couple of months? You’ve been on tour for fucking eight months already. Are you staying on tour?

MOSSHART: Yeah, we’re on tour until November 13, and then we’re off for a couple of months. Then we start again in February, and I don’t know how long we’ll go, but I imagine for another five or six months. … I want to go to Japan. I haven’t been to Japan in five years.

VALENSI: That’s one of my favorite places on the planet now. I love Japan so much.

MOSSHART: Tokyo might be my favorite. It’s the best, god. I’m really tall there, but you, Jesus. When I was 16 and I did my first tour there, I got off the plane and I just started crying. I’ve never had culture shock before, but I felt like a giant, I felt like a big fucking, oofing giant. I didn’t like it and I wanted to hide, and I didn’t know how to feel. I was not emotionally prepared to go somewhere that was so different even though I’d been everywhere. Then I had such a strong reaction to it that I just immediately fell in love with the place and everyone I met and everything I ate and everything I saw and did. To this day it’s still my favorite place to go on tour or visit or anything. I love it so much. I’m okay with looking like a freak.

VALENSI: I fell in love with Japan the first time I went. The culture, the food, the shopping, the everything. Talk about culture shock. I’ve never been to a place that felt so different from what I was used to, but I fucking love it, man. I really love it. In I think January 2002, the first time I went there, we landed, and we were trying to stay awake and not deal with jet lag, so we went out to dinner, and I had way too much to drink at dinner. You know, the mixture of the jet lag, the sake, and the beer—I got really hammered. I went back—I was sharing a room with Fabrizio Moretti, the drummer from the Strokes—and we got back to the room, and I was just so hammered and he had picked his bed, he sat on it, he took his jeans off and left them at the side of the bed and went to the bathroom. I just passed out on the bed that he had chosen, like with his jeans at the side of the bed, and at some point in the night, I woke up and had to puke so bad, and I puked all over his jeans. They were the only pants that he had brought on tour. [laughs] They were just covered in vomit. So the next morning, he went to grab his pants, and he was like, “Ah, what the fuck did you do?” I was all hungover, and we had to go. We were doing some kind of TV show or something. He was like, “Dude, you gotta wash my jeans. I don’t have anything else to wear.” So I had to go to the bathtub and shit. That’s my earliest memory or arriving to Japan.

MOSSHART: [laughs] That’s so great. Of all the places to puke, you puked on the one pair of jeans in the whole entire room. Just those.

VALENSI: I felt really, really bad. I did clean them though.

MOSSHART: That’s nice of you. You did the right thing by cleaning them for him. [laughs] That’s so disgusting.

VALENSI: I noticed that I started wearing a pink leopard print shirt.

MOSSHART: I know it well. I wanted that shirt really bad, but you have it.

VALENSI: Whenever I wear it, people tell me it’s an Alison Mosshart shirt.

MOSSHART: It totally is. That’s fine. [laughs]

VALENSI: I’ve got to start wearing it. I need to just give it to you. I’m gonna give it to you.

MOSSHART: Well, it looks good on you. You’ve got it in all your pictures. It’s a good shirt. I agree with that shirt, and it looks good on you.

VALENSI: It’s a good shirt! I know it’s a good shirt.

MOSSHART: It’s a fucking great shirt.

VALENSI: I’m ripping off your style a little bit. I also thought it was really cool when you dyed your hair. I remember when I was in eighth grade, there was this kid named Alex. He had long hair like me, kind of shoulder length hair, and one day he showed up and it was bleached blond. He looked like a surfer dude. I thought it was ballsy move. I remember thinking, “What the fuck, dude? That’s really cool.” That dude just went and did it. Ever since then, I’ve flirted with the idea a little bit, like, “Hmm, like that kid Alex in eighth grade.” I just never had the balls to do it. Every once in a while, I’ll ask my wife. I’ll be like, “What if I bleach my hair blond?” That was another thing, when Justin Bieber did it. That’s when it got me thinking again, and I asked my wife, “How would you feel if I went blond like that? What if I bleached my hair blond?” And she was like, “Don’t you fucking dare.” She talked me out of it, so I haven’t done it.

MOSSHART: [laughs] It’s like, “Bieber did it and Alex did it! Lots of people are doing it!” Oh god, that’s funny. I wonder what Alex is doing now. You should try to hunt him down and see what his hair is like now. I’m curious.

VALENSI: He might be dead or in jail, because he did a lot of drugs back then.

MOSSHART: He probably drove a CRX around. Most likely.

VALENSI: Quite possibly. I’m actually in the market for a mint CRX, now that my band is called CRX.

MOSSHART: You want a mint one you said, like one that’s hardly driven?

VALENSI: Yeah, I just want to pull up to some rad event in a fucking pimped out CRX. I feel like that’s going to be really awesome.

MOSSHART: You definitely should do that.

VALENSI: Can you help me?

MOSSHART: I can help you. My dad is a used car dealer. I’ll keep an eye out for you.

VALENSI: Your dad is a used car dealer? Get out of here.

MOSSHART: Yeah, this is why I’m so obsessed with cars.

VALENSI: You drive a Challenger right?

MOSSHART: Yeah, it’s my favorite thing in the whole wide world. But now they make the Hellcat, which is even faster, it’s so ridiculous. It should be illegal to drive, like 700 fucking horsepower. I don’t even know. It’s unreal.

VALENSI: Are you going to get that?

MOSSHART: Well, you know I want it, but do I need two cars? I’m not letting go of my baby. It’s like an extension of my person at this point. I can’t trade him yet.

VALENSI: You’re talking about the current Challenger? You wait a couple years, you trade it, you get the new one. No?

MOSSHART: No, I love him so much. He’s got a personality; we’re really close, you know, we talk about shit. I love that car so much. I talk a lot in the car to myself to him. It’s good.

VALENSI: What’s your car’s name?

MOSSHART: It’s called the Black Shark.

VALENSI: Oh shit—that is kind of cool.

MOSSHART: He’s very well looked after.

VALENSI: Where’s your car, in Nashville or in L.A.?

MOSSHART: It’s in Nashville.

VALENSI: When you and Jamie [Hince] are working on Kills stuff, is that in London?

MOSSHART: No. Well, he just got a place in L.A, so that’s going to change. I work alone and he works alone and then we meet and we give each other the songs that we’ve written, and we kind of fill in each other’s gaps. In the studio, we’ll go somewhere else entirely. … We just do it until it’s done.

VALENSI: Yeah, the Strokes are kind of becoming like that. We’ll just work on stuff whenever and wherever we’re all free to meet and work on it. We’re writing a Strokes record right now, and I’m doing all this touring and all this promo for the CRX show. For the first time in my life, I have the two bands. I feel like I haven’t been this busy since 2001.

MOSSHART: That is exactly what happened to me with the last Dead Weather record. I was recording it, but I was also recording with Jamie at the same time. When that record came out, I had to do all the press for it, and there was a lot and I did it all while I was in the studio with Jamie. I was getting so fucking confused. If I’m working on one thing, then that’s all that there is going on, and there’s no such thing as a side project to me. It’s 100 percent.

VALENSI: Yeah, I’m like that too.

MOSSHART: It was really testing the boundaries of my strengths to be able to switch back-and-forth like that and not be a psychopath. It was pretty strange.

VALENSI: I’m dealing with it for the first time of my life of being in CRX mode—being the leader of this thing and the frontperson is a certain kind of way that I have to think and act—and then flipping back to Strokes mode where I’m not the singer, and I’m the guitar player. The dynamic is way different. I’m sure you understand. Now I’m for the first time in my life having to flip from one mode to the other, and sometimes it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s like, “Wait, where am I again? What am I doing?”

MOSSHART: Yeah, I know. It’s kind of fascinating, but you know, it’s all good for you. It’s good for your soul. It’s good for just communicating in a general way. You’re learning tons of shit right now. It’s great. It’s awesome. Doing anything new is good.

VALENSI: I’m tired and I’m stressed out, but I’m so excited about what’s going on.

MOSSHART: It’s so worth it!

VALENSI: We’re about to go on tour. It’s been so long. We’re doing a six-week tour in a van going across North America. It’s been over 15 years since I’ve done a van tour.

MOSSHART: You’re going to have so much fun. I’m so jealous. It sounds so freeing and excellent and fun. I want to see you play so badly. I hope I can, if I ever stop touring.

NEW SKIN (COLUMBIA RECORDS) WILL BE RELEASED TOMORROW, OCTOBER 28, 2016. CRX’S NORTH AMERICAN TOUR BEGINS NOVEMBER 7, 2016. ALISON MOSSHART IS CURRENTLY ON TOUR WITH THE KILLS