The Lost Ingredient: Albert Hammond Jr.

The Strokes guitarist finds himself again...

It’s the day after the night before. Five years since their last live date in the capital, The Strokes filled London’s Hyde Park, topping a muscular day of music that also included Gengahr, Future Islands and Beck, and proved time is no match for the New York quintet’s spiky force. It’s a welcome return that deserved celebrating, but, for Albert Hammond Jr., the post-gig festivities were swiftly curtailed and an early night beckoned.

I expected to meet a wearied shell of a man, reluctantly severing the still-glowing memories of the band’s triumphant return while being coerced into enduring a day of press for his forthcoming solo album, ‘Momentary Masters’, but instead I’m met by a fresh, sparkling face, whose wide-eyed euphoria (naturally induced, of course) and pride in his new work becomes ever more apparent throughout our conversation. “That’s why, when they said, ‘We have all this work for you,’ I said, ‘Fuck yeah, I want do it all,’” he enthuses, beaming a huge grin, even now, at 6pm, as Clash rounds off a full day of interviews. “I want to be out. I want everyone to see me, because I feel so proud to promote this. I don’t feel like I need to hide; I’m okay with myself.”

This is the genial, open nature of an artist that has, over the last two years, been impeccably honest when it came to his private life and the struggle with drug addiction he withstood. Usually, at this point in a feature, a journalist would list what a former addict “reportedly” ingested, but the horrific details of the depths Hammond reached were previously revealed in an interview he gave; he admitted to shooting up a grim concoction of cocaine, heroin and ketamine up to 20 times a day.

It was amid this bleak nadir – the effect of revelling in the lifestyle and opportunities that The Strokes’ first flush of international success afforded – that Hammond released his first solo album, the likeable ‘Yours To Keep’, and its power-pop-fuelled follow-up, ‘¿Como Te Llama?’. In 2009, however, he entered rehab, and there followed a period of recovery and restoration. Now, in hindsight, he recognises the clouded genesis of his early work, and notes the breakthrough that came with his 2013 EP, ‘AHJ’.

Released on bandmate Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records, the five-track release marked a turning point for a number of reasons. First, it was made entirely sober. Second, its back-to-basics inception provided Hammond a more invested interest. And third, it broke a lingering seal of idleness that had prevented him from song writing. “After I got out of rehab, I was just so slow. I might have been clean, but I was just, like, fucked,” he laughs. “So that took a while. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and you also start doubting… You’ve held off so many thoughts for so long, you start doubting everything you’ve done, and try to do something new, just to stop being in this [other] world, and then you kinda gain back yourself, and then the situation of a better self. I didn’t even know I could exist. I guess with such a worse self I got the opposite from it, which was nice.”

His songwriting reparation began with ‘One Way Trigger’, which The Strokes included on their 2013 album, ‘Comedown Machine’ – an album that wasn’t toured and, as a result, granted Hammond time to refine his new self and consider how best to proceed. Thus followed the EP, the band formed to recreate it, and the consequent tour.

The ‘AHJ EP’ was recorded at Hammond’s home studio in upstate New York, where he and producer/engineer/friend Gus Oberg would throw ideas around, try things out, challenge each other, and generally enjoy the informal nature of crafting music. “Each day, Gus and I were always left wanting more, so I just knew there was something better than I had done,” Albert says. “I could just hear it.”

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That collaborative momentum was sustained as the pair prepared ‘Momentary Masters’, again decamping to Hammond’s country retreat, this time with the EP’s band in tow: Hammarsing Kharmar and Mikey Hart on guitars, Jordan Brooks on bass, and Jeremy Gustin on drums. Relaxed yet purposeful sessions filled the days, while the group – detached from city life and sequestered in such intimate and pastoral surroundings – bonded over communal dinners and HBO box sets. That intimacy fed into the album’s vivid agility and dynamism, where dense layers of edgy guitars pile up to form walls of sound that are imposing one minute, then scrappy and playful the next.

The bristling funk of defiant opener and lead single ‘Born Slippy’ (no, not that ‘Born Slippy’) gives way to an album that gets increasingly more frenetic – the pummeling ‘Caught By My Shadow’, ‘Razors Edge’ and ‘Drunched In Crumbs’ exemplify its might – yet remains enlivening, and is an affirming counterpoint to the dark undercurrent that flows through. “You could definitely put it on in the car going out. You could have a good time with it,” he says of the record. “And then you could also sit and listen and it could get a little heavy!”

There are flashes of melancholia throughout ‘Momentary Masters’ – the songs reveal the regrets, disappointments, heartache and penitence felt upon looking back on his darkest days. “I thought I belonged to something / Walking upstairs gets me down,” he laments on ‘Power Hungry’, while in the creeping ‘Coming To Getcha’ he sings: “Just because we’re part of the scene / Doesn’t mean we share the same dream”. It’s a feeling of displacement, a searing remorse of his actions. “What you call wisdom,” he rails in the rousing anthem, ‘Losing Touch’, “I call pain.” For Albert, the recurring contrast of dark and light is a theme he enjoys. “Maybe that’s in my personality,” he reasons. “I like the idea of things tugging at your little heartstrings, when you get goosebumps – I like to create that feeling – but I also like the other [more positive] feeling, so maybe that’s just the duality in the songs.”

Tragedy also reared its ugly head during proceedings. Acknowledging a “huge” evolution within the quality and process of lyric writing, Albert points to the impact of a dear, departed friend, Sara, whose legacy was an inspiring source of influences. “We had like, this…I call it a romance, but it wasn’t really a romance; it was just a connection,” he begins. “We were actually each other’s opposites: I was the bright side, and she saw that, and I saw her dark side, and we were both kinda feeding off that. We had long conversations. She OD’d – she died… She had given me this discipline of, ‘You should write a little bit every day. Even if it sucks, just use the muscle,’ and she told me all these different poets and different books, so I just bought it all, printed everything she wrote, and just put it in the corner being like, ‘One day I’m gonna be able to look at this, but right now I can’t.’ I didn’t use it on the EP at all, and then the time came, and I was just sitting here – I was excited to dive into the lyrics. The album felt so strong – I felt like I needed bold melodies and bold lyrics.”

One particular fountain of revelation was a collection of works by troubled American poet, Anne Sexton. A long-time sufferer of depression, Sexton eventually committed suicide in 1974. Her poems were naked insights into her fragile state of mind, and thus resonated with the grieving Hammond, who injected his songs with a stark, confessional disposition. “For some reason, whenever I would get stuck, I’d open the book and just start reading stuff, and maybe phrases or words would just get the brain going again,” he says. “It’s like jump-starting a lawnmower.” Furthermore, tribute was paid personally to Sara by quoting her own poetry on the album – the second verse of ‘Touché’ was lifted directly from a page in one of her notebooks. “Maybe it became meaningful to me because I felt like I had to write something good so she wouldn’t think I sucked,” he laughs meekly.

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In addition to the nine originals on the album, it’s only upon the utterance of the first line in ‘Don’t Think Twice’ that the listener realises that the sixth track is actually a personalised interpretation of Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’. Motivated by his performance at Dylan Fest in Dublin in 2013, Hammond worked on his own arrangement of the song, and felt such an affinity with its sentiment that he shortened the title to make his own distinction. Its inclusion is appropriate in the company it shares – there’s a duality (a word that pops up a lot in our discussion) to the song in that behind its conciliatory title, it is, in essence, quite a nasty song. “He [Bob Dylan] was good at that biting-ness, but still not sounding…”

Like a total dick?

“Yeah. Weird, right? You’re, like, almost on his side!” he laughs. “But I like it. It became my own thing to me. I felt like after I would listen to it, I was just hearing me have this conversation to different people through it – just in my own mind, not even in real life – and I just thought that was fun. It felt so strong. That song is put right in the middle as a kind of palate cleanser between the whole record.”

Because he was worried that things were getting a bit too intense?

“You definitely think about that when you’re making a record,” he admits. “‘Oh, it’ll be fun to have something a little upbeat’, or ‘Does this feel a little sluggish?’ Or sometimes your ears might need a break from full-on stuff. You’ve probably heard records where you’re just like, ‘Why are you making me think so much? I can hear you thinking! I can hear you over-analysing stuff!’ You want a balance. I try to balance, and that seemed, to me, to be my balance. It kinda reset everything so when you heard side B, it felt fresh again.”

From all the artists to choose to cover on this album, it’s funny that Bob Dylan should have made the cut, considering the many parallels that Hammond now shares with the bard. In 1966, Dylan escaped to the seclusion of upstate New York, using the cover of a serious motorcycle accident to hide awhile from the pressures of work, and supposedly recover from an increasing drug habit. (Albert rides a bike, too, but fortunately has never fallen off it. “There’s all these weird coincidences that were not thought of when I’m doing it,” he says)

Both yielded fresh incentives from their rural surroundings. Just as Dylan liberated himself to hole up in The Band’s home studio in Woodstock, recouping his strength and rediscovering his hunger for making music in the whimsical sessions that would make up ‘The Basement Tapes’, so too have Hammond’s own impulsions been stimulated. “Well, getting back to nature is just fun – in life, it’s rejuvenating. There’s something amazing about being up there. You forget that we live in something that’s natural!” he laughs. “But I don’t know if you think about it so much when it’s happening, or if it’s just when you look back you can see all these things happening. It was definitely, like, very fun.”

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I feel quite comfortable with just myself as a human…

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For all its introspection, ‘Momentary Masters’ is far from bleak. It’s infused with optimism, and at its core is a quixotic energy that’s fused from all the disparate coincidences and happy accidents that brought it all together. It’s personal, but it’s not self-centred. In fact, the title alone is a consideration of the entire human race, and its role in the universe. Taken from the book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision Of The Human Future In Space by astronomer Carl Sagan, the line refers to our apparent insignificance: “Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

“The way he describes the existence that we’ve known is just so peaceful,” Albert explains. “Some people find it depressing – I don’t find it to be depressing at all; it puts me at ease. And then I just had a gut feeling with the words ‘Momentary Masters’. I just felt like they fit so well. I had all these different ideas and it was a last-minute decision, and it just felt so right… Somehow ‘Momentary Masters’ really feels right for the record.”

I understand the original excerpt, I tell Albert, but in the context of the album – and indeed that last quote about following one’s instinct – my own translation of the title was more a suggestion that every person controls their own destiny with every single decision they make in their everyday lives; in that precise moment that you choose, you are your own master.

“Dude, I love it,” he says, clapping his hands. “I love it because I totally agree with you, but it’s so wonderful because I felt like 12 different meanings when I said that. And then I’ve been getting some of the same meanings I’ve been thinking back from people, and it’s fun that they could all exist like that. It’s fun. It just triggers stuff in your head. I mean, isn’t that the whole point? You go stare at a photo, and maybe it triggers something in your head to do something else, and I think that’s kinda what I feel like art has been there for – music especially. It connects with people the most, because it triggers emotions and is such a part of people’s lives.”

But, in line with the reflections on one’s humility and mortality that’s so redolent on this album, the cosmic altruisms of its title, and Albert’s humble position as not only an aspiring solo artist apart from The Strokes, but amid an infinite sea of ardent contemporaries, does it all make him feel a bit trivial in the vast landscape of music?

“No,” he smiles. “I feel quite comfortable with just myself as a human. I’m sure I have my highs and lows, but I feel I can make fun of myself. I laugh at it. I feel like that’s important; you gotta try to be serious, but also poke yourself.”

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'Momentary Masters' will be released on July 31st. Albert Hammond Jr. will play the following UK shows:

16 Oxford Academy 2
17 Manchester Gorilla
19 Birmingham Hare & Hounds
20 Leicester Academy 2
21 Glasgow CCA
23 Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms
24 Bristol The Fleece
25 London Islington Assembly Hall
26 Brighton Old Market

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