Even over the phone, it isn’t hard to tell that Albert Hammond Jr. is one of those rare and lucky few who has truly lived the fantasies that we all have about life in the big city. As a part of The Strokes, Hammond didn’t just see the scene, he and his fellow bandmates essentially were the scene for the better part of the 2000s. But Hammond’s appeal isn’t just about his effortless and instinctive cool. Having played with The Strokes for years, and released solo material since 2006, Hammond has been an infectious presence in indie rock, helping to write and play some of the most memorable guitar work of the past 15 years on songs like “Last Nite” and “GfC.” Now, fresh off of his third solo effort, the AHJ EP, and ready to head out on a tour with English singer Jake Bugg, Hammond took some time to talk with us about his upcoming shows, his artistic process, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Albert Hammond Jr. is playing in New York tonight (Friday 10). Check out the tour dates and buy tickets here.
What can we expect from an Albert Hammond Jr. solo show?
Well, I’m not taking anyone on stage, nothing fantastical like that. If you want to see a good rock show, then come out. If you don’t, then don’t. [Laughs.]
Okay, well, for anyone who may not be familiar with him, what can you tell us about Jake Bugg? How did you guys happen to connect?
I didn’t know much about him actually until I got offered the tour. And then I just went online and looked him up. He’s got a helluva voice, I can tell you that. Yeah, I’m excited to see him live tomorrow. I feel like it’s a different experience. When you watch something it’s not like being there, y’know? Like, it’s always very confusing when people film stuff at shows. If you’re there, then there’s nothing really like being there.
Oh, I see. This is going to be your first time seeing him too, then?
Yeah, he’s popping my cherry tomorrow.
Okay. So, when you’re touring for a solo record versus when you’re touring with The Strokes, there’s obviously a difference between the on-stage and off-stage dynamics. Especially with The Strokes, you guys had this mythos surrounding you when you were blowing up at the beginning. Did you ever feel like there was an expectation you had to live up to as a rock n’ roll band, and how do you feel about that now? What do you think has changed for you since?
I feel like you’re in your own bubble and you don’t really see it until later and you’re just excited that you get to play music. You’re just hanging out with each other. And I guess people capture that, looking at you hanging out, and they make it such a big deal, but we’re just hanging out. So, it’s kind of just funny, and you just accept it and it’s exciting and then you get successful and other options open up. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do now, figure out other things I can do, that I like to do, that I can do well. The only thing that has changed is that you get older and you’ve been through more, you just become this more… not more normal, but, y’know, you can’t just sit there in awe for the rest of your life. You have to be like, “Okay. That’s my role now. I can do this now.”
Do you think you’re at greater peace as a musician then?
I mean, there’s so many lines. Do I think I’m at greater peace? I don’t know. No. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, really not. I don’t think any one thing would give everything else peace, y’know? Music is just one facet of my life that I happen to be good at and make a living at. Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe if I just try to accept more from what I do musically then I can be less crazy with my emotions. I don’t really know, maybe that’s just age. I haven’t lived life twice, right? You look back and it could just be a matter of living on the planet. Maybe eventually you’re just like, “Okay, these are just emotions.”
I still haven’t written enough songs. There’s so much to explore with playing guitar, piano, and drums and bass. I don’t even feel the tiniest bit done with that.
Do you foresee any changes you want to make musically then? Are there any avenues or genres that you know you want to explore still or do you think that the inspiration to do so can’t be pre-planned?
I’d say it’s a little bit of all of that. Sure, I listen to other music besides rock. I listen to classical. Not that I’m going to write a classical piece at all, but I love movies and I’ve thought about writing—as a lot of bands have recently done—cool scores that aren’t necessarily classical scores for movies. I’ve found that really interesting. But, no, I feel like with what I’m doing I still haven’t written enough songs. There’s so much to explore with playing guitar, piano, and drums and bass. I don’t even feel the tiniest bit done with that. It feels likes it’s just beginning. But yeah, you think about stuff all the time and then they interact with things that happen in life and then you work and then that’s kind of like a process of elimination that leaves you with your end result. And that’s the most unromantic way you could describe it. [Laughs.] “I sat and I pondered for days and it came to me in a dream.” I should’ve just said it like that.
You’re very concise with your music, and on AHJ all of the music is in that three minute range or shorter. Is it a conscious decision you’re making or is that just how it happens to end up?
It’s definitely a conscious thought. There are many reasons for that, but one of the reasons is that having to create with some kind of limitation helps me be a little bit more creative. When you just open it up too much, it can work sometimes, but often it can’t. You have to listen to it honestly and just be like, “Wow, this is kind of dragging on. Do we cut it out or does it need a part to spruce it up?” I imagine when they put together the amazing “Bohemian Rhapsody” they were like, “This does not need to be shorter. It’s perfect.” [Laughs.]
But until the day that I can write something as amazing as that, I’d like to keep it shorter. I don’t know, it’s just what feels good. I always liked the idea that The Beatles got weird on stuff, but it was always still in a framework that you would know and understand. They could advance as songwriters but still stay in something that you would understand so that you could accept the change. Was that a conscious decision when I was a kid? I don’t really know. But I do like that form of songs. I mean, there are songs that are six minutes that I like, but definitely not a lot of them.
You must go through a pretty severe editing process then.
It’s a constant editing process. It’s not one point, it’s constant. On my second album I have a song called “Victory at Monterey.” It started out as a 16-minute thing and I was just piecing parts together. They were all kind of working and I kept on writing another part and was like, “Wow! That works too!” But it had no structure whatsoever. That’s an extreme example. Some songs have structure right away. Then you might be trying to make it a little weirder because the structure is a little too simple. And then sometimes you set something up and it’s fine but as you’re going along you make the verse better, and now the chorus feels too long, so you make that shorter and better, and now the verse feels weird, so you go back, and now the song’s too short. It’s so many little things constantly until it feels in balance. It’s like tuning a car. [Laughs.]
So, you talked earlier about your love for movies. Who can you point to in film that you’re impressed by?
Well, I really liked Wolf of Wall Street. I really like Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorcese’s partnership. It’s getting pretty awesome.
Yeah, that was incredible. And you’ve been around New York for awhile. Did you notice any changes in the make-up of the city from what was going on in the movie?
No, I just kind of watched it as a movie. Obviously, I’m not in agreement with the way money was moved or anything like that. Clearly, you can see by the movie and just what happens in life that whenever it gets like that, there’s something wrong with it. But, y’know, I’m just watching a movie they make. I like movies and I like the entertainment process of it and getting sucked into the story because you can live a life that you wouldn’t live, right? It’s like when you were a kid and were watching those cop movies. Like, I’m not going to be a cop. You fantasize about it but I couldn’t do it. I’m just watching the movie. It was really good. It was so good that I couldn’t even think about it. It just seemed like they wrote a fake story, y’know?
I always hoped to achieve with some song or something the way I felt when I listened to bands when I first discovered music at 14 or 15. It changed the way I thought about stuff.
Right, and with that film, the escape that it offers is all this excess and wealth and the so-called “American Dream” and so forth. But with your music, what type of escape do you think you offer? If someone had never heard your music before, and they suddenly just turned it on, what would you hope that they were getting out of it?
I always hoped to achieve with some song or something the way I felt when I listened to bands when I first discovered music at 14 or 15. It changed the way I thought about stuff. You never know when you’re writing the songs, you just hope that they connect with some people. Some do and some don’t.
What bands gave you those moments?
A big one was Buddy Holly and the biggest one was Guided By Voices. And then Lou Reed, and John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. Certain moments just transcend the band or the person. When I say it out loud, it’s hard to describe when you hear something and it’s telling you to do something else. Or it triggers something in your brain and then you’re just thinking differently about life. I think that The Wolf of Wall Street is definitely not that for me. That for me, in a movie, when I younger, was Blue Velvet with the way it manipulated sound and visuals. I saw that and I was like, “Whoa. You can make movies like this?” Or like when you see Stanley Kubrick and you get those feelings. The first time I heard Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven, that’s when I was like, “Oh! I’m gonna study music a little bit.” [Laughs.]