Albert Hammond, Jr.: Chasing Greatness

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It’s been 13 lucky years—count ‘em—since The Strokes’ epic garage- and post-punk-channeling debut provided an indispensable shot in the arm to then sickly and ailing mainstream rock ‘n’ roll. Guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr.—whose precise riffing and unforgettable hooks have been a key ingredient in the band’s unique sound and wild success—has, by this point, released two solo albums and recently dropped new EP AHJ. How has the now-veteran rock star grown as an artist along the way?

“I guess I used to be a little more uptight about it, but [as I’ve gotten older], I’ve been able to enjoy the random chaos of creating a little more,” says Hammond, on tour just outside Chicago. “I’m not smart enough to be able to describe exactly what happens or what it is, but I know it’s happening. I’m just capturing where I’m at now. My albums each have a place and a moment they’re describing. You just go through different phases in life. I’m happy to say I think these new songs are my best. It’s always good to feel that your newest stuff is your favorite.”

AHJ is indeed a water-tight little five-track set that sounds innovative and modern while simultaneously incorporating so much of what won Hammond’s fans over in the first place. Sessions for the EP—which was released on Strokes bandmate Julian Casablancas’ label, Cult Records—were split between Hammond’s Manhattan apartment and his home studio in upstate New York.

“They’re both my places, so they both have a comfort,” Hammond says. “Weirdly enough, the one in Manhattan is more cozy because it’s not a [proper] studio; it’s just one mic pre and one mic in my living-room office space. In the early stages of creating, I prefer being in smaller spaces. My place in the city isn’t that big—it’s a loft-type apartment, so it feels very relaxed, like you’re just hanging out, having a conversation.”

This musical dialogue is what Hammond enjoys most about working with his good buddy, producer/engineer Gus Oberg (The Strokes, Har Mar Superstar, Turbonegro), and about collaboration in general. “When you’re having a conversation, it means you’re trusting, and when you can trust someone, that’s when you can let go of certain things and focus on others. Instead of worrying about every little piece, you can let the subconscious between each other guide things. Sometimes you’ll nudge each other in different directions—whatever’s exciting you, and then you’ll put more energy into that. The same process—that kind of conversation—would happen when Julian would come in, too.”

Casablancas offered both encouragement and welcome ideas during the sessions for AHJ. He wrote some new words for pensive rocker “Strange Tidings,” and along with Oberg helped iron out the kinks on the pulsing, carefully frenetic “Rude Customer.” “I’ve always collaborated with the people around me,” Hammond says. “I don’t want to be closed off in my own world when I can broaden myself so much more with my talented friends.”

That said, Hammond did end up playing almost all of the instruments on the record, with the exception of drums on a couple tracks. But this was more by default than intention. “It wasn’t that I wanted to play everything,” Hammond says. “It just worked out that way during the writing process. We’d be recording, and we’d get to a certain spot, and it’d be really exciting, and it’d be like, ‘Well, I guess the bass is the only thing that’s missing.’...The song would start sounding really good, but then you realize there’s still a lot of work to be done. In a lot of ways, at the end of the day, you’re still kind of like a kid doing homework. As fun as it is, there are still moments like that. So it’s like, ‘Let’s see what kind of bass line I can come up with—worst case, I can’t play it well, and someone else can do it. But I’m glad it happened like that. It definitely felt like growth. And it was fun.”

On each of AHJ’s persistent, striking tracks, tiny melodies dance around each other in tight, clipped rhythms, locking together like pieces of some three-dimensional sonic puzzle. It’s got a fresh sparkle to it, but it’s still got that classic Hammond sound—that unmistakable, mathematical melodic precision that instantly carves its way into your memory. “I like when something can be remembered,” Hammond says. “So [my guitar playing] usually has some kind of melody to it, even if it’s the solo. It’s fun to think of an arrangement that can affect you—just trying to find some order. Rock ‘n’ roll to me is pretty ordered. In its energy, it might sound like it’s not—it might feel like it’s not, but everything in music has an order. That’s why it has theory to it. I don’t know if I buy into the idea [of rock ‘n’ roll as chaos]. I think that’s just a thing done up by media to create some kind of mystery.”

In fitting counterpoint, as Sean Penn’s weary voice unfurls in a steady murmur from the van’s stereo, narrating Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Hammond reflects back on his life of music. “It’s like a relationship,” he says, “but what’s funny is it’s one you’re having with yourself. You have good days, and you have bad days. The hard part, if you do something creative for a living—it fluctuates with you. But as time goes by, you feel more positive. Especially since the scene has changed to where it feels like more is possible now than before. When [The Strokes] were having success in the beginning, we were just breaking through, so we couldn’t even see it at first. There was nothing in front—It was like, ‘Really? Something’s changing? I don’t see it.’ It was like driving a fast boat. Now, I feel it a lot more than I could then. But things constantly change—you constantly have a different outlook, and you want different things, as you would without playing music. You never really reach [an endpoint]—you get there in one aspect, then you want to get better. You want to be really great. I want to be really great. Time only tells, but I just feel like—you gotta try for it. What’s the worst that could happen? Nothing. You die.”

Hammond laughs at the melodrama of what he’s saying, but then continues in way that—despite all the charming self deprecation—begs further consideration… “We all die in the end anyway—’Oh, well, I wasn’t great.’ But at least the journey is fun trying to get there.”