We’ve got to be honest: when we heard that Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. was releasing a solo record, we rolled our eyes and essentially dismissed it, despite the fact that he’d always been our favorite Stroke, just barely surpassing Nick Valensi and his awesome, awesome hair. Then we actually listened to the record, Yours To Keep, and we feel bad for doubting him. It’s smart and tasteful, full of straightforward, sweet pop songs that are as reminiscent of 90s indie rock as they are of 60s pop. Hammond took some time to answer a few questions for us. Catch him live at Hiro Ballroom on May 10th.
The L Magazine: In the past, I’ve heard you talk about how you embrace the pressure that comes along with putting out a new Strokes record, with the constant media attention and all that. Did you feel any of that same pressure when recording the solo record, or did you find that you had to put pressure on yourself in order to achieve similar working conditions?
Albert Hammond Jr.: No, I don’t really… When you’re creating something that you put your heart in, you have natural pressure. The moment kind of creates its own pressure. No matter what you do, you always want things to sound the way you want them to sound, and you’re always trying to push yourself in different directions and learn things, and that’s what creates that world.
The L: Can you talk a little bit about how the songs on Yours To Keep came to fruition? When did you do all the writing? And how did the songs change when the rest of your band started working on them? AH: Well, I’d written the song ‘In Transit’, and that was the beginning of it. I thought it was better than other songs I’d written. And then ‘Everyone Gets a Star’ happened. I’d been talking to Matt (Romano, drums), and had been on tour [with the Strokes]. We had a little break, and Matt and I got together. We started with ‘Cartoon Music For Superheroes’ and it was a lullaby, so I knew what I wanted out of the parts. I thought if I could get that done, then I’d be on the right track. The band kind of formed while we were recording. Matt and I had been talking about music for a while, so that came pretty easy. The album’s actually in the order of how it was recorded, so by the time we were doing ‘Holiday’ and ‘Hard to Live’, which are the last two songs, it was kind of like, “Oh shit, the three of us really became a band.”
The L: If you were to do another solo record, would you use the same band? AH: Definitely. Matt and I are partners, you know? Half of what’s fun about playing music is being able to find the right people to play with. Finding him was great. Before, I wouldn’t bring in something that was raw, but now we’ve been working on some new songs. I’ll bring in songs that are in a rawer stage, and he’ll start to see where I’m coming from. He’ll see kind of how I don’t always know where it’s going. Essentially, I’d like for us to do all the basic tracks together.
The L: I feel like, in addition to a sort of vague 1960s pop thing, what most comes to mind when I listen to the record is a lot of 90s indie rock stuff, most specifically Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices. Who would you say are the bands and artists that most inform your own songs? AH: Yeah, Guided By Voices, Built To Spill, Modest Mouse. It’s a mixture. When you’re a teenager you start to find bands, and I feel like the main inspiration is always going to be that core period, whatever age you were when you found all that music.
The L: Is it at all strange for you to have to be the one person most responsible for everything in terms of the new record? In the Strokes, you’re more able to hang out in the background and let other people handle shitty things like interviews. Is it something you feel comfortable with? Obviously, you’re the one person who’s going to get either all the blame or all the credit. AH: Right, right… well, if you look at it like that, it sounds kind of intense. When I’m playing, I’m not looking that far. I look at it more, like, the blame or the credit amongst ourselves, or our friends. For instance, next week we’re going to record a new song, just to start the second record and kind of feel where we could go, and whether it fails or succeds in my mind in terms of how it sounds, that’s it right there. By the time it’s reached the point where other people are criticizing it, I’ve already gone through the whole process of criticizing it myself with the people I’m working with, so I’ve already satisfied that side of it. By the time it gets to that, I don’t really think about it.
The L: It’s hard, obviously, to conduct an interview with you, or even write a review of your record without mentioning the Strokes. And it’s something I battle with all the time — not taking the obvious angle — and I’m wondering what your thoughts are in that regard. Do you ever feel slighted? AH: I don’t feel slighted. I know what you’re talking about, but to me, they’re just facts. I understand it. It’s not upsetting, it’s not strange, it’s just the facts. I’m just trying to build songs and hopefully people will get excited to hear what I have next, the same way bands that I love now, bands that I trust in the sense that when they make a record, I’m excited to see what they did.
The L: The past few years have seen the music industry change in a lot of ways, in terms of distribution and downloading and accelerated life cycles for albums. How have you, as both a member of an established band and now as a solo musician, been affected by these shifts? AH: I think we’re in a gray area, where everyone’s trying to figure everything out. No one seems to know what’s good or bad, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career. I think musicians should focus on being better musicians and let everything else kind of fall into place. A lot of the questions are now being put onto artists, and to me, it’s something… if I sat around all day and thought about it, I’d probably be able to give you a good answer, but I don’t. I sit around and think, “How the hell am I going to arrange this song?” which I’m doing right now, and it’s pissing me off. I can tell you all about that. But how it all ends up working out? It’ll figure itself out. I just think sometimes there’s too much weight on that and not enough on quality. In the 60s, things worked fast, and there was a lot of quality. Now, everything’s going fast again, and people are all confused. But for me, I think it’s better.
The L: I wanted to talk a bit about the New York music scene and how, in your mind, it’s changed in the five or six years since the Strokes were starting out. I know you spend a lot of time on the road, but what are your general impressions? AH: I wouldn’t know, you’d probably want to find an 18 year old who’s playing music around here and ask him.
The L: That kind of brings me to my last question. Obviously, your involvement with the Strokes has given you a bit of a head start in terms of your solo career or side projects or whatever, but if you were in a young band, just starting out, struggling to pay rent and hold down jobs and all that, do you think New York would be the place to be? AH: It all depends. When I came here, I’d just finished high school, and I had so many questions, and I kinda wanted to take a year off and just roam around the city and see what it brought to me. I guess it brought me things a lot faster than I thought it would, by meeting people. But yeah, that’s a good question. It all depends on who you meet, and what stage of your life you’re at. If you meet all the right people and you’re all ambitious about it, I think anywhere is a good place. If you’re from a place, and you have a band, and there are things going on, I wouldn’t just move to New York. What [the Strokes] would always think about was trying to conquer whatever was in front of us, just conquer where you are. Obviously, there’s the songs, which everyone always seems to forget about. All the time, I meet young bands, and they go, “Help me out, help me out, introduce me to this label guy,” and it’s like, “What’s that gonna do? When you’re ready, they’ll come to you.” No matter who you know, if what you’re doing doesn’t please people or doesn’t excite people, then it doesn’t matter.
The L: Well, people certainly seem to be liking what you’re doing, so that’s good. AH: The fact that I’m talking to you now or going on this tour is a million times more than I ever thought it would be. I was going out to record a song, just to leave my house.