The Strokes' Nick Valensi Gives Advice on Forming a Rock Band, Songwriting, and Gear
There has always been a lot of intrigue around The Strokes, arguably one of the most important and influential rock & roll bands since they stormed onto the scene in 2001 with their album Is This It (by most accounts still their best effort). And just like the intrigue surrounding the band, there’s perhaps even more surrounding their lead guitarist, keyboardist, and backing vocals, Nick Valensi, especially emanating from the guitarist community.
Valensi is a role model to many seasoned guitarists and novices alike, and the fascination with his songwriting, playing, and gear has only grown larger over the years due to his general avoidance of press. Things have come a long way since the early days of The Strokes, and these days you can find find Valensi living the life of a rock icon and family man in Los Angeles (“otherwise known as paradise,” he claims). Asked how he passes his time, in September 2016 he told Rolling Stone, “I'm married... I've got a family, man. First and foremost I'm a family man. I have nine-year-old twins, so, you know, a lot of family stuff and working, writing songs for this thing, doing Strokes things, writing songs for some other people. Just music stuff and L.A. stuff.”
On the social news Website reddit, Nick Valensi did an AMA (Ask Me Anything), a Q&A format where the reddit community submits questions and upvotes the most interesting ones, which then bubble to the top. Given Valensi’s penchant for avoiding interviews, this was a great opportunity to get his raw, unedited thoughts on a myriad of topics he was asked about, including the state of The Strokes, and his new project CRX. Most interestingly though, he dishes out some fantastic, honest advice around how to form a rock band and make it stick as a career, songwriting, and he even talks a bit about gear (which is another rarity). We pulled some of the more interesting questions and answers from his AMA.
Q: What advice would you give to a young man who wants to make a career playing in a rock band?
1. surround yourself with people who are smarter and more talented than you
2. work your ass off to get smarter and more talented than them
3. move on to a new group of people
This piece of advice is interesting, considering Nick and his four Strokes bandmates have stayed together since the inception of the group in 1998. Still, the man has very valid points. Surrounding yourself with people with more talent than you can be a powerful motivating factor, and can drive you to develop the motivation and discipline to push yourself and improve until one day, you emerge as the talented one of the group.
In a band situation, especially one started with friends, it can be difficult to break away and move on. Even when you feel like your goals, talent level, or motivation and drive is no longer a good match, it can be tempting to stick by them for the sake of friendship - after all, most people aspiring to make a career out of playing in a band would love to do so alongside their good friends. Getting out of your comfort zone and moving on from that familiar group in search of people who will continue to push you to get better might be one of the hardest things you ever do, but it might also be one of the best things to push your music career forward.
Q: what is the key, in your opinion, to writing dual guitar songs?
NV: in a dual guitar band, you really wanna play less. don't play a full chord -- only play 2 notes. and tell the other guitar player to pick 2 different notes in the same chord. when you play together, it'll sound tighter and less clunky. also, get a good bass player
The Strokes are a quintessential “dual guitar” band, with the dynamic duo of Nick Valensi and the super-talented Albert Hammond Jr complementing each other brilliantly. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking of a dual-guitar scenario as black and white; one guitarist plays lead, and one plays rhythm, right? Unfortunately it’s not always so cut and dried.
Valensi suggests learning to play rhythm differently, with you and your other guitarist bandmate playing fewer notes of the same chord; we would even suggest different voicings of the same chord. Aside from The Strokes, listen to bands like Bloc Party and Interpol as fantastic examples of two guitarists who mesh together perfectly. Don’t get frustrated, as sounding this good and tight takes practice. Oh, and definitely listen to Valensi and find a great bass player!
Q: I'm learning more about theory and it makes me wonder--do you write/play what sounds good or what you know is musically correct?
NV: some of the coolest musical moments (for me) is when something SHOULDN'T sound good (in theory), but it just sounds so RIGHT to your ears. it's those times that you feel like you've unlocked some secret that's never been discovered. so.... yes, learn the theory, but be prepared to ignore it if you wanna do original shit
Learning and mastering the guitar is hard - there’s little doubt about that. Guitarists are often split between learning by sight, feel, and imitating others, as opposed to drilling down on theory. In his answer Valensi argues both are important, but knowing theory is a prerequisite to realizing how to step away from its bounds and do something completely original. It’s like the old adage, to beat the system you must first understand it - same thing with music and songwriting.
If you haven’t given theory much thought or need to brush up on it, these days there are so many resources you can take advantage of from the comfort of your sofa. Jump over to our reviews of the best online guitar lessons to see the ones we recommend the most.
Q: How come you decided to shelve the Jekyll and Hyde? As a followup, how are you making that gorgeous crunchy but smooth sound in your recent live performances with The Strokes? Thanks for doing the AMA and can't wait to see more from CRX and The Strokes!
NV: the 1st gen jekkyl & hyde was my jam. i didn't like the ones that came after. lately i've been using the JHS color box and klon centaur for all overdrive sounds
Ah, some Nick Valensi gear talk, now we’re cooking with gas! Valensi just has one of those guitar tones that everyone wants to imitate and dissect, yet historically he hasn’t talked at great length about his gear (similar to Josh Homme and Jack White). The Jekyll and Hyde he’s referring to is a large, red overdrive/distortion pedal made by Truetone (formerly Visual Sound). As to why he no longer uses it, he preferred version 1 (which you can look for on eBay). Since then a second and a third version of the pedal have been made.
Lucky for us, the JHS Colour Box pedal he’s referring to is available for purchase, but it is not exactly budget priced. The pedal is 100% analog and meant to emulate plugging a guitar directly into a vintage mixing console, leading to anything from a warm clean tone to full-on distortion.
Finally he mentions a Klon Centaur, which for the tone snobs and collectors of vintage gear out there has become the holy grail of distortion pedals. Have a look on eBay for it, and good luck finding one for under $1000!
Q: I saw your tele custom in person when you played with CRX at the taping. Very nice, did Fender make that custom for you? Any plans of a new signature model?
NV: i found the white tele at guitar center in sherman oaks, ca. i played it for a bit, and really liked it. but, man, it was very expensive. i don't like guitars that are too expensive. so i left it there and went home. and for the next 3 days, i obsessed over that white tele. it's all i could think about. so i just said fuck it and bought it. and it was worth every penny
His strategy of leaving the guitar behind when he first found it can actually be quite effective when trying to justify an expensive gear purchase. There are just certain guitars, amps, etc. that will stick in your mind after you put them back on the shelf at the music store. It’s a gamble, since if it’s a rare item it might be gone by the time you make up your mind about it. However if you’re lucky and it’s still there, this can be a great way to convince yourself (and perhaps your significant other) that it’s a purchase you cannot live without!
Q: What have you been listening to lately that really caught your ear?
NV: i'm listening to a band called KIEV right now. from orange county. pretty dope
It’s always fun to get music recommendations from famous musicians, and here Valensi recommends the band Kiev, an American indie rock band founded in Orange, CA. We had the pleasure of seeing Kiev open up a show for Foals in Austin, TX and they were fantastic live. Check out the music video for Be Gone Dull Cage and judge for yourself:
Q: What did it feel like to commit everything to music at such a young age? Was your family supportive of your decision
NV: my family wasn't supportive until i started earning money. once you make money, everyone's like, "oh, i always knew he'd make it" hahah
This can be a tough subject to confront for anyone pursuing a life where there is not a set, predictable career path leading to guaranteed paychecks and benefits, and committing to music from a young age like Nick Valensi did is a perfect example of such a life.
Most of the time a family wants the best for its children, and it can be a massive departure from a comfort zone when a child decides to embark on a journey where success is anything but guaranteed, and stability and monetary gain is hard to come by. By the same token, deviating from the “safe” path can lead to greatness - with hard work, determination, and sacrifice, you might find yourself the lead guitarist in the next Strokes. For all of you pursuing the path less traveled, surround yourself with a support system that understands - or at the very least respects - what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. When you do emerge successful on the other side, remain humble, and remember those that understood and supported you.
Q: with singing being new to you, what are some things you did to find your singing voice for CRX? I would like to learn to sing but I don't know if I have the voice for it.
NV: i demo'd a bunch of tracks on my laptop, then i spent a year singing on the tracks. every day. i would change my voice, alter my delivery, switch up the rhythym/phrasing, copy other people's voices, rewrite lyrics/melodies, change the key, sing more quiet/loud/breathy/scream-y, whataver. basically just experimenting and having fun until i liked what i heard
If you’re an instrumentalist, learning to be a singer can open up a new world for you in terms of versatility and potential for success. In this answer, Valensi details how we went about learning to sing for CRX, despite only doing backup vocal duties in The Strokes for many years prior. If your “natural” voice isn’t working out, variation is key. Try different octaves, different styles, and even apply different effects to your voice until you find something that feels right.
Q: How has aging affected your songwriting? I just turned 20, and I tend to be depressed a lot by the fact that I've lived 1/4 of my life already.
NV: relax, yo. you have plenty of time. i didn't even write a complete song until i was like 23, 24. before that it was just riffs and random chords. some people get better with age.
When it comes to successful artists, it’s easy to be blinded into thinking it’s solely a young person’s game. The music industry loves to tout having discovered talent at age 12, who is already selling out arenas by age 17. Just remember, being that young and successful is the exception, not the rule. As Valensi says, his first completely written song did not happen until his mid-20s. It’s important to not get caught up in the age game. If you have the drive and motivation, and a dash of talent and creativity to go along with it, keep at it; you’ll hit your stride eventually. If you panic, you might end up forcing the issue, which might stifle your creativity. Age is but a number, and you’re as young as you feel.
That being said, keep hustling! I see that guitar in the corner - I think she’s asking you to pick her up! ;-)
Head over to CRX’s official website to learn more about Nick Valensi’s new band, and make sure to check out their debut album, New Skin. As always, you can follow Nick Valensi on Equipboard to keep apprised of his guitars, amps, effects pedals, and other gear and equipment.