BYT Interviews: Albert Hammond Jr.
Jose Lopez-Sanchez | Sep 21, 2015 | 9:00AM |

By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious

My hands tremble slightly as I punch the endless trail of conference line digits into my cell phone, and then, embarrassingly, the first sound out of my mouth is more a croak than any discernible word. It’s a Friday afternoon in late August and I am a mess. I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that I’m on the phone with one of my heroes, Albert Hammond, Jr.

Even as I wade through the nerves, though, this moment is charged with a sense of inevitability.

For many who came of age in the early 2000s, Albert Hammond, Jr. cuts a seminal figure in 21st century rock and roll. As lead guitarist of the Strokes, he influenced an entire generation of bands and music listeners. All of these people have their own stories; mine is set in the Dominican Republic of 2002, where as a gangly 14-year-old, I was the singer in a Strokes cover band.

We inexplicably called ourselves Spam. Perhaps more perplexingly, we insisted on solely performing the songs of Is This It, much to the bemusement of our predominantly Spanish-speaking audiences. And though my early days of rock stardom were short lived – and, admittedly, imaginary – the Strokes were the first band that had my heart and my devotion, as well as the blame for a series of extremely awkward photo shoots involving Members Only jackets.

Despite all of this one-sided history, a few minutes into the call, Hammond’s chatty and personable demeanor has all but defused any jitters. He is, after all, in this moment, just a touring musician promoting his latest album. It is unfair to freeze our picture of him in 2001, even if that image – playing on an underlit stage with a mop of hair, his guitar wore high against a leather jacket – is iconic.

As a solo artist, Hammond has maintained a prodigious work ethic, releasing insightful and personal records under his own name. An innate curiosity and slight intensity comes through in this music; something that’s also reflected in his speech pattern. He’s always probing, always questioning, and despite going off on tangents frequently, he sticks the landing every time.

Hammond is in the midst of enjoying a self-described “creative high point.” Momentary Masters, his new LP, features some of his finest melodic work and songwriting, as well as echoes of seminal pop/rock masters like Lou Reed, Davids Byrne and Bowie. (It bears noting, additionally, that the Strokes last record, 2013’s Comedown Machine, was the band’s best since Room on Fire.)

As Hammond and I ease into our rhythms, my guardedness and awe dissipates. It feels like I’m catching up with an old friend whose voice I was beginning to forget.

Albert Hammond, Jr. plays NYC’s Bowery Ballroom Monday and Tuesday, and DC’s Landmark Festival on Saturday. Momentary Masters is out now Vagrant Records.

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Fourteen years have passed since the release of Is This It. In retrospect, what’s it like to release an album with such a far-reaching impact on rock music, and one that will always serve as a reference point to the music you put out? Did you guys feel like you had a classic on your hands when you were putting it together?

You definitely realize when you have something special on your hands, but you don’t know what that means. I think I have something special on my hands right now [with Momentary Masters]. At the end of the day, I don’t know what that means; it’s out of your control. We all knew we had something special, but whether it was going to be a classic, I don’t know. You aim for the hardest things, and that’s something that lasts over time but can be accepted now.

You know, everything has its pros and cons. Even the best thing in the world, even falling in love with the person of your dreams, has its cons. That’s an important thing to be aware of. And it’s this classic record that came early on – our first album. It also has its cons from what we do now and how we try do to things and everyone comparing it to that, both as a band and individually.

Because the name and the record is so big, there’s this sense from people that we are a lot more successful than we are. People think we do our solo records as a hobby while we take time off [from the Strokes]. I don’t think they realize the passion to have a career out of what you do still. There’s this greatness from it, but it can shadow stuff you’re trying to do afterwards for a while.

But it’s OK; none of it is a complaint. You just have to realize that they both exist. It’s an awesome thing to have been a part of. Remember, I’m answering you basically off the top of my head. I do not sit and think about it – not for any reason other than I feel that it just wouldn’t do anything. It’s fun to think back about the things you did when you were younger, but if you sit too long in the past you depress yourself. If you sit too long in the future, you create way too much anxiety. [Laughs]

You’ve described this album as a “rock album in love with pop music.” Are there albums that consider benchmarks for that style or sound?

I mean, everything I grew up with I consider [a benchmark]. I think it’s rock and roll, but at some point it was pop music. When you call it “pop” now, it evokes the wrong image. David Bowie, and Talking Heads or Beatles or Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison – I grew up with melodic rock music.

I like so much different music, and it’s pretty funny: If you heard me make a playlist, you’d hear everything from Beethoven to ’90s hip-hop to ’50s rock and roll to ’80s [music]. It’s all music that causes you to have some kind of reaction to it. There’s entertainment at its base, but there’s some form of depth to it in the melody and the words.

I’ve always tried to do that, and I’ve never gotten it as much as I feel like I’ve gotten it now. I was getting close to it on the EP but this is the first time that I feel that the record is entertaining and it’s fun, and that’s what people are talking about. But I think over time, it will have more depth with it. As I play it live, it will develop different aspects to it, but I hope it retains that feeling of what attracted me to music – just this rush. As you get older, you can’t forget that exists.

Do you listen to pop music now?

Well, what is “pop music”? Are you asking me whether I listen to One Direction? I definitely do not. [Laughs] I understand why it’s catchy, and it’s fine; it’s just too much on one side. It just kind of drains me after a while. [Pauses] I could go off on many things, but I’ve come to realize it doesn’t do anything. And people can go off on me, but I’d rather just talk about stuff that I like.

I know how the game works, and I hear my stuff right next to whatever pop music is being played on the big stations, but I feel like they [radio stations] don’t like having options. They find a way to have a certain 20 songs, and everyone just tries to make those songs. Occasionally, a new one comes in and changes something, but there’s no personality in it anymore. It’s a list of stuff. There’s no more extremes. I always liked that idea of being an option in the other extreme. I don’t want to tear down whatever pop music is around, but it’s great to have other options in there. And that’s kind of hard to do nowadays to be the other option. I feel like I sound good enough for a mass to hear me. Why won’t you let a mass hear me?! [Laughs]

I remember when I first heard Talking Heads when I was 17 or so. It took me like a week or two to get into it, but I feel like that was because it was something new. I wasn’t used to it. And it helped me get into other stuff too, and it was all very deep. I feel that if you give someone the right song, they might get into something sooner.

I just finished reading David Byrne’s “How Music Works” and there’s an entire chapter dedicated to his writing style for Remain In Light. He was focused on writing a groove and keeping it throughout an entire song, even as the lyrics varied. Listening to Momentary Masters, it was oddly reminiscent of that album. 

See, that’s a good example. I might not do that for a whole record, but I’ll definitely think about that kind of stuff. I did a song called “Hard To Live In The City” and the bass line goes over the whole song. It’s the same bass line. I got that from Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle“. I wanted to write a song where the bass line stayed constant but things change around it. And you don’t notice! If anything, it builds this great tension you don’t even realize is happening. It’s definitely what David Byrne is saying, for sure.

Funnily enough, when we were writing “Born Slippy”, Jordan [Brooks], our bassist observed that the bass line sounded a little bit like “Once An A Lifetime“. It’s influenced by it; let’s put it that way. The song sounds so different that it doesn’t feel like it’s part of it. But it’s a huge thing, and it has a groove that can just sit there when playing the song live. It’s fun to hang out with it and let it play for a minute or two.

I like spreading melody, and it’s so hard sometime to end up with the singing, because I’ve figured out three melodies for the song and I’m not singing it. Sometimes you have to sing one of those melodies, and sometimes you have to find the melody over it, and you’re like, “Holy shit!” But I love that – it’s that arrangement, and it’s mathematically romantic. There’s a lot of romance in math and arrangement, actually; more than people think. Sometimes things that change the world are kind of boring and simple.

You’ve done a few cover songs on your albums, and this one features a version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. How do you put your own twist on iconic tracks?

You definitely can’t start off thinking that because it’s going to get to your head. [Laughs] You have to think of it as a “casual encounter” – no pressure of having sex, but hopefully we’ll make out. [Laughs]

I had been wanting to arrange some Frank Sinatra songs into a modern arrangement, and my friends were doing Dylan Fest for Sweet Relief, which is a charity that gives money to musicians who are sick and can’t afford to pay for things. They were doing one in Dublin, and I went over there, but wanted to arrange a Dylan song a little differently; I just didn’t want to play one, maybe out of fear. [Laughs nervously].

I looked through a couple of songs and tried to find a beat that made it a little modern, and then began to fool around with the guitar. I found this jangly octave thing that never goes away from D [chord], and it basically becomes like a drone. So I was like, “OK, this is kind of Dylany, in a way,” and I added some other melodies that went with it, where the harmonicas are.

The hardest part was trying to find a way to sing it where it sounded like me, but still had a hint of what it was. I started to relate to the song in a different way, and then it just became a good palate cleanser for the last four songs on Momentary Masters. It felt like it made the last four songs better and gave your ear a break.

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Momentary Masters concerns itself with big issues – humanity as a species, our place in the universe. Even the title references Carl Sagan.  How do you distill these grand, overarching thoughts into a piece of art – and a rock album at that? 

It’s not like you’re ever going to get some definitive answer to that question. If you look at it like how am I going to fit something into a song?, then you’re not. You get glimpses of stuff, and that stuff is just inspiring. It gives you new curiosity for whatever you want to talk about. You can take those feelings and they can make you feel different things, and you can write them in songs, and then people can feel something bigger in them. It’s hard, because you’re not going to write about your references so directly in music, because you have melody to follow. You just can’t be so direct.

You’ve talked about there being a “shadow” to everyone’s existence, and the need embrace it and bring it closer to you to be complete. Do you draw from that inherent darkness? 

Yeah, actually, and I can give good examples through so many of my lyrics. The one I’ve been using lately is at the beginning of “Born Slippy”. There’s a line: “Sometimes the sun goes behind the clouds, and you forget the warmth that could be found.” It’s very literal. [Laughs] But it’s really just about how sometimes if you get lost in something, you seem to forget that there’s ever a way out. There’s a nature in our minds – or in my mind – to be consumed by whatever’s in front. It’s another way of saying, “This too shall pass.”

That line is an example of taking an idea and phrasing it as something simple and visual, but it having more meaning behind it. It’s a reflection on your shadow. It’s a reflection on both sides to your personality and how you live with everything within a sphere or a cylinder. Everything exists in it – how you’re going to respond to someone; you loving them and you hating them. Those things both exist at the same time. I feel like you’re constantly choosing those things.

For a while, people were telling me to get rid of things that I did that were bad. I don’t think this is something you can get rid of; it’s just something you have to understand. They’ll always be there. If anything, a lot of those parts can be quite special if used correctly. I was doing therapy and reading some [Joseph] Campbell, and [Carl] Jung, and it got me into it. When I’m doing it in a song, I’m trying to keep just the essence of it, and fit it into the melody.

There’s an inherent challenge in taking profound concepts and distilling them in a way that makes them universal.

But that’s what I like! I saw this interview with David Foster Wallace, and he was saying how ideally you want people to feel like there’s hope when you speak about things; that there’s something nice in art that can provide that. You go on a journey, and you feel these different feelings, but the idea remains that there is positivity in experiencing these things. It’s not just like “Ahhh, these thoughts!” and, you know, whatever, who cares. [Laughs] It’s fun to think big things.

I was worried. You just get worried reading the comments on YouTube when you see someone you like speak. You see how easily people will say something to bring someone down. They can’t just take whatever someone’s saying and what they don’t like and just leave it alone.

Do you read people’s comments about your own work?

Yeah, for sure. I answer some of my Twitter or Instagram stuff. And let me tell you, I like to answer it because you feel a connection to fans, but there are times when there are just some harsh things. Everyone has a keyboard, and I realized a long time ago that it’s pretty easy to be mean or negative. It’s a lot harder to find other ways to do things. Sometimes it’s funny when they don’t understand anything about your work. They don’t know what’s happening, but they have all these opinions about it. Part of me wants to answer them so badly because I’m confrontational like that.

Someone keyed my car when Justyna [Sroka, Hammond’s wife] was driving, and I got out of the car and fucking chased him and asked him what the hell he was doing. He was this professor and the cops came. He didn’t want to pay the cops, so they arrested him right then and there. I definitely am confrontational like that. Something clicks in my head, and it’s terrible. One day it’s probably going to get me in trouble. [Laughs] He even tried lying to the cops about what he had done! In the end, I got the money, because what he did was so blatantly wrong. He spent two nights in jail, and paid $1200 dollars. It seemed kind of silly. [Laughs] Sorry, that was neither here nor there.

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Additional contributions by Philip Runco.