By: Jakob Mueller
Editor’s Note: Prior to CRX’s November 7 show at Larimer Lounge in Denver, Scene had Colorado musician and writer, Jakob Mueller, do an interview with CRX front man, Nick Valensi. The two discussed CRX’s current projects, The Strokes, guitars, and more in this intimate exchange. Read on for the interview and check out CRX’s website (crxmusic.com) for tour, band, and project information, including their new video for “Ways to Fake It.”
Mueller: Is there a reason that cars and driving are a significant lyrical theme on New Skin?
Valensi: Um, is there a reason? I’m trying to think of what lyrics there are about driving and cars. Are there lyrics about driving and cars?
Mueller: Well maybe like on tracks like “Slow Down?”
Valensi: Oh yeah, I guess you could interpret that about being about cars. Hey, that’s interesting. I think that, you know, that’s weird, when we were recording the album a lot of the songs were kind of… they make you want to drive. They feel like songs to me that are good to put on during a really fast drive. There’s a song called “Walls” that, it just feels like you want to drive 110 mph and blast that track. That’s something that we spoke about while we were recording in the studio. That was actually when we were making that song and is where the band name kind of came from.
It’s a weird story, but we were recording that song and we were using this drum machine called the “CR78” and I think because we were using that drum machine that had the “CR” in the name that Josh Homme, the producer, thought that it was a driving song. Then Josh started getting this visual in his mind, and was like, “Oh man, it’s like post-apocalyptic Tokyo, in the future, and Tokyo’s all deserted, and there’s this punk rocker dude with a really tall Mohawk and he’s in a CRX, and he’s like drifting and shredding through these deserted streets of Tokyo. It was almost like he was coming up with a concept for a music video.
He kept on coming back to that visual every time we worked on that song, so CRX kind of became the term that we were using for that drum machine. Instead of calling it a CR78, we’d be like, “Yo, put some CRX on that shit.” And then it went on the list of band names, and I think because we used that term in the studio so much that when we went to name the band, that one felt like it kind of it described the sound of the music in a weird way to me. I know that doesn’t make sense and no one will probably get that feeling but me, but its why we named the band, “CRX.”
Mueller: No, I think I know exactly what you mean. I think it really fits the sound, and the vibe of the artwork, and the music video (for “Ways to Fake It”). Speaking of the music video, here’s a quick follow up to that whole driving theme: I love the very end of the video where you get into the Prius. How did that come about?
Valensi: I mean, we were looking for a funny twist at the end of the video that would kind of play on the theme faking it. That was the director’s idea, and it was like completely last minute. Warren Fu, who is a dear friend of mine and the director of the video… We were there and we were trying to find ways to tie in this thing. We actually shot other kind of comedy endings. That was one of the ones we shot and he had that idea at the last minute, and he was like, “Does anyone have a Prius? Did anyone drive here in a Prius?” and it just so happened that Richie the keyboard player had it. To me it’s like, you can have all this driving around a race track for the whole video, and it’s about faking it and shit, and then at the end I get in a Prius. It’s just a little comic relief.
Mueller: Did you write all these songs on guitar? If not, how else do you like to write?
I think I did write them all on guitar, to be honest with you. Usually the way that I like to write is I come up with a riff or some chords or the melody. It’s gotta be one of those three things. And if I get turned on by that, then I usually go to my laptop computer and either I will just play a drum beat really quick and record it or loop it and write the song around this looped drum beat, or just program a drum beat, like drum machine style, just program stuff. It usually starts just me by myself in my underwear, messing around and trying to see what turns me on in terms of drum beats and chords and riffs and melodies.
Drum beats are important to me when I write. I think for some people, they put together everything, and the drums at the end are basically just there to keep the beat. But, for me what the drums are doing is really important with how it interacts with what the other instruments are doing, and to me the drums can be a hook by themselves. I take a lot of care with the drum beat and stuff. And once I get something on my computer that turns me on, that’s when I feel ready to show it to other people and take it to a rehearsal room and fuck around with it, you know, in a live setting with other people. And that’s how I write songs for The Strokes. That’s how I wrote songs for CRX, or when I work with other people outside The Strokes and CRX that’s kind of my process.
Look, I’m generalizing. There have been other times when I wrote something on the piano and then went to the laptop.
Mueller: Speaking of writing for The Strokes, I was wondering if any of these new CRX songs were originally written for The Strokes? The reason I ask is because there have been some of your Strokes demos that have surfaced from “Comedown Machine.” So I was wondering if any of those songs kind of trickled over to CRX, or are all of these songs on New Skin brand new?
Valensi: Yeah, I’m baffled. I don’t understand how those demos came out. Someone sent me that. It was actually kind of embarrassing. It’s like if an author wrote a book and then a couple of months later, the first draft of the book came out. The first draft is always gonna be whack. Anyway, I can’t complain. It’s whatever. I think super super early on when we were doing “Comedown Machine;” the ideas at that time were so unrefined and were basically just chords and a simple melody. I think maybe “Slow Down” was one of the ones I brought it for the Strokes Comedown Machine record. I guess it didn’t really get anyone excited, so I just kept it in my pocket. There may be one or two others like that.
After we made that Comedown Machine record, that was really when I put it in my head that I wanted to have my own project that I could just pick up and take on tour whenever I want to. We didn’t tour that record, and we didn’t promote it. I just kind of fixated on the idea of being able to go on stage whenever I want to and not have to be at the heft of others about doing something as simple as going on stage and just doing a show. So, that’s why I wanted to do this in the first place. And what that meant was not putting my songs out there for other acts or for my main act, The Strokes, and also forcing myself out of my comfort zone and pushing myself to be the singer for the project. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but it was something that I felt like I had to do because I just wanted to get on stage and play, and go on tour, and if I could find a way to just front this project, it felt like there would be way fewer obstacles in the way of me achieving that goal of just being on stage.
Mueller: I wanted to ask a question about your guitar playing. In The Strokes and on the CRX record, you often incorporate guitar parts with arpeggiated chords and I’ve always thought they kind of sounded “baroque,” with a Bach sound. I was wondering if that was influenced by anything or it was something that you just figured out that you liked?
Valensi: To be honest with you, one of the first things that I learned to play on guitar as a kid was the intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” I’ve just been copying that ever since.
Valensi: That’s where all that arpeggiated stuff comes from. Let’s say you’ve got a song with three chords in it. There’s only so much you can do with three chords. But if you take a look at those three chords and break them down into individual notes, you can play around be like “within these three chords I have a ton of options.” I think you don’t have to play all these notes at the same time. You can break them up and create rhythmic patterns within them. It’s really just a way of taking these chord progressions and making them more interesting. That’s what Slash does over the intro of “Sweet Child O’ Mine!”
Mueller: I’m so happy that was your answer!
Valensi: I wish I could say, “It’s inspired by Bach’s Fugue in G minor.” That just wouldn’t be as true.
Mueller: I think Slash is just as respectable as a source of inspiration as Bach.
Valensi: I agree.
Mueller: Back to some songwriting. You’ve written with some people like Sia, and have done really well with that. Are there some people that you would like to write for/with in the future?
Valensi: Yeah, there are things that I write sometimes that I feel like they fit more in the pop music realm. I’m always looking for artists to place those songs that they would fit with. There are just so many good ones! Sia, Kesha, Taylor Swift, all these female pop stars. You know what band I really want to work with? I don’t know if they write with outside people or not, but Haim is an awesome band. I don’t know if they have a closed circle and only write with themselves, or if they work with outside people, but I would definitely love to do that. If it’s not with The Strokes or with CRX, its fun for me to write with females because I get so much of the testosterone thing with the two bands that I have that working with women is refreshing for me in a way that I don’t get with my two bands. I don’t mean that in a “pervy” way.
Mueller: You’ve worked with Josh Homme on this record who’s an infamous collaborator and has worked with people like Iggy Pop and Arctic Monkeys, and has the super group, Them Crooked Vultures. If you were to put together a super group, who would be in it?
Valensi: Whoa. Well shit, you mentioned Them Crooked Vultures, and that is close to perfection! If I were putting together a super group, I don’t know, I feel like I would put Dave Grohl on drums just because, I mean no disrespect to Ralph Alexander who plays in CRX, or Fab Moretti, my best friend who plays drums in The Strokes, but Dave Grohl has always been my favorite drummer and I’ve been trying to top his vibe my entire career. He’d be on drums for sure. I’m trying to think of a bass player who’s not John Paul Jones. I can’t just recreate Them Crooked Vultures. I don’t know man, I’m not good at questions like these. You know who’d be the singer though? You know who has such a great voice? Actually I have a couple of options for singers. I think maybe if I’ve got Dave Grohl on drums, is it too much of a 90’s grunge thing if I put Eddie Vedder on vocals? I like Eddie Vedder a lot. You know who else I really like as a singer is Caleb Followill. He’s a great singer. And you know who else is a fucking excellent singer is, I mean we were talking about Josh (Homme), Josh’s wife, Brody Dalle she had a band called The Distillers back in the day, yeah she’s a great singer. You know what, fuck it, let’s put Dave Grohl on drums, let’s put Brody Dalle on vocals, let’s put Josh Homme on bass. Let’s put Blake Mills on lead guitar. Can we put dead people in this band?
Mueller: Of course.
Valensi: Who’s that guy who played in Deep Purple? John Lord? I think his name was John Lord, I’m googling this, hold on. Yeah John Lord on keyboards, Brody Dalle on vocals, Josh Homme on bass, Dave Grohl on drums, Blake Mills, lead guitar, and just because it’s my super group, I have to be in it, I’ll play percussion. I’ll play shakers, cowbells, and tambourine, stuff like that. Maybe a little rhythm guitar? I can be the utility player. I’ll just fill in whatever they need. Maybe I’ll trigger samples if they need that. This is a good band! This is a really good band!
Mueller: I actually think you should really make this happened.
Valensi: Well John Lord is the only dead guy. I think all these people live in LA, too, and know people whom I actually know.
Mueller: Between CRX tours, get this going!
Valensi: Ok. Good idea. Alright.
Mueller: I’d like to talk about some gear. So you’re known for playing your modified Epiphone Riviera in The Strokes, but now you’re playing that white Telecaster. What exactly about that Telecaster do you think is perfect for CRX?
Valensi: Something about it… I’ve always loved Teles. There are like three guitars in my life that I’ve always gravitated towards. The first one is a 335 hollow body. And then Les Pauls I’ve always loved because I grew up idolizing Guns and Roses so I’ve always love Les Pauls because of the sound they make. And Telecasters, too… You know, I’ve never been a Strat guy. But if I play a Fender, I like Teles. And what I like about Teles is that they sound like Teles. I don’t know. I found that particular one, and it just felt right to me. The neck felt right, it sounded right. It helped that it looked super cool. I don’t know what type of pickups were in it when I bought it, but I did swap out the pickups for Lollar pickups, which are my new favorite pickup company. I’ve actually swapped out pretty much 90% of my guitars and put Lollars in them. The one that I didn’t switch out was that Epiphone Riviera, my main Strokes guitar. I’m not gonna fuck with that one. I like that one the way it is. I wanted to use a different guitar, just because I associate that Riviera so closely with The Strokes and what I do in The Strokes and the sound I get from that guitar. It’s so closely intertwined with The Strokes sound to me, and I just wanted something different. That guitar has been around the block many times, and it’s old and fragile and it’s been repaired like ten times already and I’m not a sentimental guy at all, but, I feel kind of attached to that guitar. I don’t know, I just want to be careful with it. It only shows up when it really needs to show up. It’s too old and tired to be going on tour and sitting in the van and shit. That guitar is just too precious to me for that. It’s funny, that guitar was just $300. Some people spend tens of thousands of dollars on guitars, and that’s like a $300 guitar that really has no value. If you tried to show up at a pawn shop and try to sell that guitar, it’s not worth anything. But, to me it’s priceless.
Mueller: Do you ever use the signature Nick Valensi Riviera that Epiphone made?
Valensi: No, I just use my original one. The signature guitars were kind of based off my original one and I have a couple of those signature ones just in cases and stuff, but I only use my OG one.
Instagram: @crxmusic and @thestrokes
CRX Albums: New Skin (2016), Non Cambia (2015
Jakob Mueller is the lead singer and guitarist for Northern Colorado-based synth punk band, Slow Caves. He is currently attending CSU and is a first-time contributing writer for Scene Magazine. @slowcaves