An Original Strain: Armand Hammer Interviewed

Talking ‘Shrines,’ its artistic missions and life in New York...

ELUCID and billy woods decided it was time for a new Armand Hammer project when they were on tour in Edinburgh last year. They’d just received the beat by Earl Sweatshirt that became the new album’s opening track, 'Bitter Cassava'. 

But they didn’t know that then. They didn’t have a plan for the album’s major themes and they didn’t know that they would end up calling it ‘Shrines.’

That’s not how Armand Hammer operates.

“I never approach records [with a plan],” ELUCID told Clash. “I just do the record. As you continue to work at something, continue to mine yourself for things, things just start falling into place. You start to imagine a narrative… Discovery through work is usually where I’m at.”

At the beginning, all they knew is that their new project had to “push forward.”

“I think it’s taken for granted that if we’re going to do something, we are going to try to do something different,” woods said. On ‘Shrines,’ which dropped in early June, Armand Hammer created “an original strain.”

Armand Hammer spoke with Clash in a phone interview one evening in mid-July, where we talk about ‘Shrines,’ the duo’s artistic mission and life in New York. The interview, edited for style and length, follows below.

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Clash: How have you both been keeping busy since 'Shrines' dropped?

ELUCID: I have not been keeping busy. I’ve let go. Everything kind of blends into one another. I feel very free right now.

billy woods: You definitely haven't recorded any lyrics.

ELUCID: I have not. I don't have a computer. I'm not found. I’m not found in the wiles of this system at this focal point in time. Yeah, I think it’s been alright. I’m excited to have a lot of things in progress, nearing completion. I’ve been good.

billy woods: It’s been strange. I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn so a lot of things have happened. You know it’s funny to think at one point there was a curfew here. For days there was a 7 p.m. curfew. Crazy stuff to think about. I’ve been in a curfew before but never in the United States.

It’s definitely been an odd journey –– one of the strangest years in recent memory. It's been made more weird by the fact that we’ve made success this year. Part of [2020] has been a black hole because your life kind of ground to an end. But then part of it feels way more normal now, just because of how locked down it was. I sat by myself the other day at the outdoor seating at a bar. I just sat by myself, off away from everyone, and had a cocktail. I was like ‘man, this is so far from normal, but yet feels like some whole new version of normal.’

ELUCID: I felt that when the shit first jumped off. The first time I waited in line at Trader Joes I was like ‘I kind of like this. I kind of like this order. I kind of like not being bothered by other people. I kind of like my space. I kind of like people not hawking on my back.’ It’s a weird transition for sure.

What is Armand Hammer’s artistic mission?

woods: I guess the mission is to be making great music that’s pushing forward. Hopefully you had fun making it. And [hopefully] it has meaning and import. That doesn’t always mean it has to be super serious but I don’t want to do things that are disposable. That’ll be discouraging. I guess for me [that’s the mission] but I haven’t necessarily interrogated it beyond that. I’m not sure I need to.

ELUCID: I would like to introduce a little bit of chaos into it. I like to think of it like making art that challenges myself first and then kind of leans into the unseen and imagines, or envisions, something that could be that next step when we think about music and how far we can take it. 

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Critics have used the term ‘apocalyptic’ to describe two of your previous albums, ‘Rome’ and ‘Paraffin’. Do you agree? What differentiates ‘Shrines?’

ELUCID: I think it’s always in there because it goes back to what I’m saying about introducing chaos and leaning into the unseen and trying to imagine that step between where we are presently and what’s next.

An apocalypse also means a new beginning. So we’re turning the page every time, but it also reflects this fucking trash fire that we’re in. But it’s not so direct all the time. The world has been on fire forever. Generations. So I get why people say that, but it’s played out.

woods: I think there are situations where it was asked. In ‘Rome,’ it was invited with the cover.

ELUCID: That label has been applied since ‘Race Music’ and to my solo record. When I find reviews online it’s always been applied. ‘Dystopian, apocalyptic.’ It’s kind of like a lazy title.

woods: At this point I think people can move beyond that. I think with ‘Rome,’ it’s a more apt description. I think with ‘Paraffin’ there was a sense of ‘this is a sorting-through-the-ashes record.’

ELUCID: Are you saying that for yourself or for what people said?

woods: I’m saying for myself. I can see on many levels that ‘Rome’ was like a fire and ‘Paraffin’ was the aftermath. There’s some truth in that statement by design of those records. But I don’t like the idea of being like ‘oh, ELUCID’s music is dystopian.’ That’s silly. There is nothing dystopian about ‘Shit Don’t Rhyme No More.’ Sometimes it’s lazy but also sometimes people don’t know.

I try to give people a break. Some people don’t know a lot of words and they’re not that smart. That’s also okay. It’s just disappointing sometimes when they have really good jobs. But [apocalypse] doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of [‘Shrines’].

ELUCID: The very first thing I said on ‘Shrines’ was ‘teaching my kids to throw the peace sign.’ I was not on that [apocalypse]. I haven’t been on that in a while. That’s not what I’m drawing inspiration from.

woods: I mean you said ‘we are bored of the apocalypse’ in this album. I think there’s lots of stuff about rebirth through which one could draw a line from that to apocalypse. But as a real description, I don’t think so. I do think there’s a lot of other interesting things in this record.

The cover of Shrines is a photograph of an NYPD officer about to tranquilize and capture Ming the Tiger: a tiger that was kept in a Harlem apartment in the early 2000s. Can you explain how the image relates to the album?

ELUCID: Don’t you feel like Ming sometimes, man?

woods: Yeah. I think it works on multiple levels, which is what I’m really looking for. It was important to me because I lived [in NY] then. I used to live near that building where the tiger was found, although I didn’t live there when it was found.

But it is just one of those stories that sticks in your mind. Like ‘Oh, down the street from where I used to live a guy had a Tiger in this building that I used to walk by everyday.’ It's something I’ve always remembered. There is symbolism beyond that about man and nature, race, urban and …

ELUCID: Reality.

woods: Reality. Feelings. It has everything in it. It’s so layered. 

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There was imagery about wildlife throughout 'Shrines', but it was often contained in an artificial environment. Can you elaborate on that theme?

woods: What are you thinking of? I’m curious to hear.

The cover. Then the title of ‘Solarium.’ I also remember imagery throughout the project that made me think of nature. It seemed important.

woods: No, I don’t think you’re wrong.

ELUCID: Yeah, I never considered that for ‘Solarium’ before. I never looked at it that way. But that’s actually kind of cool because you’re indoors, but you’re still enjoying the warmth of the sun and there’s usually greenery inside. That’s kind of interesting.

woods: I think there’s themes of nature and wildlife, definitely a bird, and you might be onto something speaking about their containment. The natural world plays a significant role in this album.

What are your favorite tracks on ‘Shrines?’

ELUCID: ‘Charms’ has been my favorite track since we’ve done it. It’s a brain warper for me. It’s challenging to take in. I mean, that beat: can you catch the rhythm to it? It exists but … when I first heard that beat I was hooked. I sent it to woods and it took off from there. ‘Charms’ for me. ‘War Stories’ is up there for me. My kid loves ‘Flavor Flav.’

woods: The best and most important song is ‘Charms’ from an Armand Hammer perspective –– for what we’re doing. In terms of something I like to listen to over and over and be mesmerized, ‘King Tubby.’ My personal favorite is ‘The Eucharist’ because I love a great closing record and it really had a crazy vibe. I feel like every line on it was electric.

Those would be the three but if somebody was like ‘which one of these do we need to preserve?’ I’d be like ‘Charms’ right away. I think the key for a song like that is sometimes you make music that's more than the sum of its parts, where it's like ‘all of these things are really good but I can't really explain to you why this final thing is at this level.’ [‘Charms’] is levitating in a special space.

ELUCID: It’s an original strain. It cannot come from nowhere else. Whatever Armand Hammer is –– whatever we synthesize –– that’s it.

woods: Nobody else could make that song and have it be like that.

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'Shrines' is out now.

Words: Julian Roberts-Grmela

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