Albert Hammond Jr talks about his new EP, his working relationship with Julian Casablancas, his battle to overcome addiction, and the small matter of a band called The Strokes. Interview by Nick Mitchell
One of the big music events of 2013 – and there have been many – was the return of The Strokes, with their fifth album Comedown Machine catching the world off guard in the early Spring. There was quite literally no fanfare around it: no tour dates, no interviews, and not even the prerequisite of a major album launch that is an appearance on Letterman or Jools Holland.
While the New Yorkers – who changed the face of rock in 2001 with their seminal debut album Is This It – have hinted at a “return to the scene” next year, for now the task of batting away all the log-jammed, unanswered questions lies with guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.
That’s because the 33-year-old wasted no time after Comedown Machine by turning attention back to his solo career – and the resultant media courtship that involves. Within a month of The Strokes album hitting the shelves, Hammond Jr started work on the five songs that would become his new EP, AHJ.
“I had a spark of something,” says Hammond Jr in his laid-back drawl, speaking on the phone from New York. “You know when you have a few things where you’re curious to see where they’re gonna go, you really can’t write more. You’re like, ‘OK let’s see what these new things are, what they sound like, where I can go with them’. I do that every once in a while. It either sucks or it’s awesome and you’re like, ‘I wanna play that for people, I wanna tour it’.”
Hammond Jr. stayed true to his word. He’s in the midst of a North American tour when we talk, and arrives in the UK this week armed with some of the leanest, punchiest songs of his career. While his first two albums, 2006’s Yours To Keep and 2008’s ¿Cómo Te Llama?, sounded like an artist consciously trying to find his own direction, AHJ finds Hammond Jr in a more comfortable place, and he maintains, “it’s the best thing I’ve done”. But has it been strange to have to stay tight-lipped about The Strokes and then spread the word about his own work?
“I didn’t mind the ‘no press’ thing, I think it actually seemed kinda cool, especially because we’ve done so much press,” says Hammond Jr about the lack of activity around The Strokes album. “But I definitely miss the touring, I like the live shows, I like being on stage… It made sense to be like, ‘well look, this is like the end of a cycle for us. Let’s talk about the new cycle, rather than the ending of it’.”
Having moved on swiftly with his own music, an obvious question is why Hammond Jr chose to stop short at an EP instead of doubling up for a third full-length album?
“It was just one song, then maybe two, and it just ended at five, because it sounded great and it felt like we could put it out sooner and I had time to tour it,” he says. “So overall it just made sense. And that’s when it felt like, oh, this is kinda nice, how about just making two or three little things like this a year? As opposed to making a record and spending so much time waiting to put it out.”
While Hammond Jr is clearly in favour of a faster work-rate than the traditional album demands, he is left frustrated by the continued dominance of the longer format.
“I don’t know if that’s going to change… it would take a lot of bands to agree with me,” he laughs. “I’ve felt it just on this, like doing press or getting TV. They’re just like, ‘oh it’s an EP’, but it’s five great songs, what’s the difference? And just getting certain people to review it. As much as I have a good relationship with Rolling Stone, they didn’t review it, y’know, so it’s a bit of a bummer, because they review albums with ten songs that suck.
“I just like it because it makes the back-and-forth quicker, more fun,” he continues. “You go on tour for a little bit, you come back and maybe you just have one song, and you put that out straight away, and then you come back and you have three or four. In a year you’d end up having an album’s worth.”
“Sorry, am I ruining your song?”
This time round the “back-and-forth” for Hammond Jr has been with his band mate Julian Casablancas, who is releasing AHJ on his own Cult Records label. Has this new working relationship changed the dynamic between the two old friends, who originally met at boarding school in Switzerland?
“It’s so funny… it’s a strange thing because our dynamic is the same as we first met,” says Hammond Jr. “If anything it’s even more like when we first met than even band stuff because when we lived together for seven years we always chatted about music… It’s always hard to describe because I feel like he gets interpreted as – especially in the band – his way or the highway, but it’s never really like that. And especially not label wise.
“We’d just meet in the apartment and he would be like, ‘try this, and just do it real fast’, and it would be like, ooh. And he would always be like, ‘sorry, am I ruining your song?'” laughs Hammond Jr.
Although Hammond Jr plays all the instruments except drums on the EP, he reveals that the song ‘Rude Customer’ was more of a group effort, with himself and Casablancas trying to make the chords “weirder” than the original demo, while Grammy Award-winning producer Gus Oberg devised the drum beat that opens the song.
“That was what you hope for in any collaboration,” he says. “You have this song and everyone helps you take it to the next level, which you wouldn’t be able to do alone.”
While AHJ bears more than a passing resemblance to his choppy, boisterous contributions to The Strokes, Hammond Jr claims he does not feel any frustrations that he’s seen as the band’s rhythm guitarist first and as solo artist second.
“I would never feel frustrated about being in The Strokes at all,” he insists. “I’m lucky to be in that great band, and to still be in that great band. I understand it completely, I feel like I’ll be 60 and I’ll write a cookbook – I’m not saying I’m going to, I’m just saying I could be doing something very different – and it will still be, the guy from The Strokes. Which is an amazing thing because it just means that we were a successful band that made an impact to the extent that people know you from that… But you know what, it doesn’t matter, because by now it’s slowly meaning less and less, the more stuff I release. I’m definitely not frustrated by the band in any way.”
“You never forget what you’ve learned”
While it’s easy to detect a small inner conflict when he explains his relationship to The Strokes, it seems that Hammond Jr has found a new gear as a solo artist. But in the 13 years since he became a rock star almost overnight at the age of 20, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. In a recent interview, he revealed how his use of intravenous drugs reached the point where his band mates were worried he would kill himself. How does he look back on that dark episode of his life?
“I mean I still feel like I’m living it. I don’t feel like it’s something over, it’s just evolved into something else,” he says. “It was just my life, it was a big part of it. Yeah it was hard, really hard. I won’t say it wasn’t. I feel lucky to have… you know, I guess when I fully stopped to not feel like that was enough. It took many times, I’d been trying since before making my second [solo] record, you slip back and forth.
“I would have bigger gaps by then, but it’s so funny, it’s just like a process, you slowly go up and you drop a little down, and you slowly go back up and you drop a little down. But you never forget what you’ve learned. Hopefully that’s what clicks one day, which I guess is what happened. I just feel lucky that happened.”
Hammond Jr has five shows lined up in the UK this week and next, and his long term plan is to “work on new stuff” in January, followed by more touring throughout the summer.
“I’m just curious to see where it goes,” he says.
And would he be interested in opening for The Strokes, were his band mates to announce a 2014 tour as is widely rumoured?
“That’s an interesting way to ask if we’re touring!” he laughs. “But sure, I would definitely ask the guys if I could open for them, that’d be amazing.”
Albert Hammond Jr plays the following UK shows:
5 Dec: Brighton, The Haunt
7 Dec: Glasgow, Broadcast
8 Dec: Manchester, Night & Day Café
9 Dec: Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
10 Dec: London, XOYO
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