The Strokes’ Nick Valensi Tells Me How My Strokes Cover Band Can Be The Best Strokes Cover Band.
Earlier this summer, The Strokes proved themselves plenty capable of causing a stir, releasing the surprise Future Present Past EP in June and headlining The Governors Ball that same week like a bunch of badasses.
Of course, over the years, the guys in the band have shown themselves as perennially buzzworthy subjects whether performing separately or together — that is, except for guitarist Nick Valensi, who has until this fall remained content to sit on the sidelines while the rest of his mates toured with side projects like The Voids, Little Joy and The Albert Hammonds.
But with some encouragement from Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Valensi hit the studio this year, recording his recently released debut as CRX. Initially intended to be a heavy sort of thing, Homme steered him in a direction somewhere nearer to the realm of The Strokes, with some heavy flourishes and dance-pop elements sprinkled in for flavor.
I also happen to be the bass player in Dallas’ only Strokes cover band, Different Strokes.
I couldn’t pass this chance up. Rather, I straight up went for it: As part of an interview meant to preview CRX’s stop at Trees on Sunday, December 11, I asked Nick how we, Different Strokes, might become the best Strokes cover band of them all.
I was not disappointed by his response.
So, doing the frontman now, I see.
How has that been working so far? I’m sure there’s a bit of learning curve there, going from just playing guitar. But are you enjoying it? How are you finding it to be different than what you’re used to?
We’re on tour now, going across the country playing clubs. It’s really fun. I’m having a great time. It doesn’t really feel different than what I do in The Strokes.
Do you find yourself tethered to one spot more by the mic? Or maybe does it feel a little differently with more of the audience’s focus on you specifically?
I mean, I was anticipating that but, surprisingly, no, the feeling I get is the same. There’s been a couple of moments where, let’s say at the start of the song, in the intro, and it’s sounding really good and I’m feeling really in the zone with it, and then when the first verse starts approaching and the vocal is supposed to kick in, I have this moment where I’m like, “Oh shit, I have to sing now!” And I kind of forget about it and have to rush over to the mic – only because I’m used to getting to hang back and play. Aside from those little moments of forgetfulness, everything’s been smooth sailing.
Something I’ve noticed with the record is things like the dual guitar lines that Strokes fans will be familiar with. But there’s also a lot of other stuff in there — some heavier elements, some dance-pop components. I was wondering if any of that is carryover from writing with Sia on her records?
Shit, I don’t know. I think that it’s tough to say what you’re influenced by. I feel like we’re all influenced by everything that we come into contact with and that we experience. So, I mean, yeah, I’m sure that did come into play somehow. To be honest, I listen to a ton of different kind of music, from rock things, garage stuff, heavier music, metal, a ton of hip-hop. It’s all kind of mixed in there and it comes out the way it comes out, I guess.
Did you change your rig up at all for this tour?
I play a different guitar. It’s the same amp that I usually play. The pedals, some I don’t use with The Strokes, but nothing drastically different. Aside from using a different guitar, it’s a pretty similar setup. And the setup is pretty similar between The Strokes and CRX, too, in that there’s two guitars, drums, bass, vocals. CRX has keyboards that we don’t have in The Strokes. Initially, we weren’t supposed to be keyboards in this band, but we got into Josh Homme’s studio in L.A. and there were all these amps and keyboards there. We ended up trying it on a bunch of songs, it worked, and now Ritchie [James Follin]’s playing keyboards.
With CRX, you became the last of The Strokes to get a side project going. What took you so long?
I don’t know. I just didn’t really feel the need to have another band outside of The Strokes for a long time. Until I finally did. Initially, and I’ve said this before, the thing that made me want to do something outside of The Strokes was to get up on stage more and be on tour more. I guess it took me longer than the other guys because I moved to L.A. and started a family around 2007. That took up a lot of my time. It coincided with a time when things with The Strokes got less busy. Albert started his solo thing and there were a couple other side projects going that afforded me a lot of downtime. But it actually worked out with my lifestyle because I had just moved to a new city and I had newborn twins. I’m actually pretty grateful that I got to help out raising them and be a part of their lives during the very formative years. It was actually cool for me to get to dip in and do some stuff with The Strokes and kind of keep that alive, but also be able to chill at home with my kids and do all the dad stuff. Now my kids are older and they’re in school every day. It seemed like a good time for me to call my friends, put a band together and go on tour.
Did you learn anything during that time — watching the rest of your bandmates put together their solo projects — that you’ve taken an applied to what you’re doing with CRX?
Yeah, of course. Albert’s been doing it for a long time. Naturally, stories he would tell me about being on tour with The Strokes and his solo thing. With Little Joy, Fab’s side project, I was actually pretty involved, so I got to see a lot of that stuff firsthand. But, yeah, of course we all share stories and learn things from one another.
Speaking of Little Joy: I got to talk to Fabrizio for a long time the very first time they played Dallas. It was really funny talking to him, because he was telling me about how there was nobody at the shows and how they were playing such small places and that nobody cares about them or whatever. But then I talked to a couple of his bandmates after that and they’d be like, “Oh, no, there’s been like 300 people at every show, they’ve all been packed.”
[Laughs]. Yeah, he had a different prior experience than they did, I guess. But, if you’re asking if I’ve learned anything from them, yeah, my expectations are pretty realistic. I’ve always been a pragmatic person, anyway.
I guess where I was going with that is that you’re going to be playing in much smaller places on this tour than The Strokes would, so is that something that excites you, to be getting to play different, more intimate environments?
Oh yeah, I’m psyched about that. At least for the time being, it’s fun for me to have this new thing that we can do in a smaller way and balance out the big thing I do with The Strokes. It’s really fun. A lot of the rooms – we’re halfway through the tour right now – we show up and I walk in, and the feeling I get at a lot of these places is that this is exactly why I wanted to start a new band with my friends, to be playing in clubs like this and jamming on smaller stages. It’s awesome to me.
How does the feeling of playing a smaller club feel different than a stadium? What about getting to do that excites you so much?
That’s a good question. I’m trying to think how to put into words that feeling you get performing music you wrote in front of an audience. It’s tough to describe. It’s a significantly different feeling.
Does it have anything to do with being able to more easily connect with crowds that are right there in front of you as opposed to maybe farther away?
It’s possible to have a connection with an audience when you play a big show. It’s not so much about that. I guess it’s really just about being able to do both. One of my favorite things about being a musician is performing and playing and doing the show. So I want to be able to do all kinds of shows. I don’t just want to be at the music festival or just the club. I’d like to do everything in between. I want to do theaters. I want to do parties. I want to do fuckin’ bar mitzvahs. I want to headline the biggest music festival in the world, and then go and play the bar and grill in Albany, New York that night.
That said, exactly how small of a tour is this for you? Are you riding around in a van?
We’re in a van! I’m talking to you from the van right now, driving to New Jersey!
Is that something The Strokes ever really got to do much of, living the van life? You guys broke pretty quickly.
Yeah, we did. But, thankfully, we didn’t have to do it for very long. There was definitely about a year where we were in a van, the five of us driving around, plus Ryan, our manager that’d be with us. Early on, we would do a thing where we would set up residencies in New York and try to find some small clubs and try to set up a thing where [we’d play there, say, every Tuesday]. And then, we’d also reach out to clubs in other cities close by in the region like Philadelphia and try to set up like every Thursday night in Philadelphia. So we’d have kind of like a regional thing going where we’d do a couple shows a week, just traveling close by in the region.
That’s a great strategy.
That’s how we started. That’s how we built a following in New York and the cities around New York.
So this is a bit self-indulgent, I admit, but I play music as well. Most of my projects lean more country. But one of the things I also do on the side is play in a Strokes cover band.
Oh shit, that’s awesome!
I’m the bass player, and we’re called Different Strokes. For the sake of my bandmates, I just wanted to ask if you had any advice on how we can be the best Strokes cover band possible.
That’s a good question. I guess there’s a lot of live footage of us playing on YouTube. I guess the best advice I could give is to use your ears but also use your eyes and watch what the guitar players and bass player are doing on the YouTube clips. That’ll provide some insight.
How about performance-wise? I mean other than, like, knowing the notes. Like how do we nail the essence of The Strokes?
Oh, you mean performance-wise? Um, I don’t know, but let me ask you a question. Do you do the thing where you guys look like us, too? Do you just play the music? Do you do a full-on… like, is someone rocking the long hair, like Nick Valensi hair? Do you have another dude with a curly fro? Do you do that whole thing?
No, our agreement when we got together was no wigs.
Because that could kind of cool if you could have a Casablancas who has got like the Mad Max gear on and the dark sunglasses, strips of color in his hair. And the drummer just has a T-shirt, but he’s also got stubble and wears his hair like a soccer player from the ‘70s. Y’know what I mean? And you? You’re the bass player, so you’ve got to rock that 1970 tennis player look — that Richie Tenenbaum look. I think you should do that.
We try to stay away from the tribute band thing, other than the fact that we all wear Converse. But we do that anyway.
Well, then, I don’t know. Maybe the only advice I can give you in terms of performance is just fucking bring it, man.
Absolutely. And maybe we should wear wigs.
It sounds like fun, man! It could be fun to play dress up. Don’t be scared of it.