“I wish I could’ve done this when I was 20”: An interview with Albert Hammond Jr

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Sipping from a cup of green tea in his cramped dressing room, Albert Hammond Jr smiles as he reflects on the far-reaching legacy of his old band, The Strokes. “The idea that I’ve now influenced people in the same way that people once influenced me is amazing. You’re part of that cycle of things, it’s really special.” That iconic group – still active today but currently working on individual ventures – revolutionised rock music at the turn of the 21st century with their rugged swagger, and paved the way for a whole wave of new guitar bands like Arctic Monkeys and Kings of Leon.

Two hours after our chat, Albert would find himself back in the limelight, in front of an expectant audience inside Portsmouth’s Wedgewood Rooms. Those in attendance not wearing denim jackets and skinny jeans are sporting vintage tour t-shirts with ‘The Strokes’ emblazoned across their chests. He still has four bandmates sharing the stage with him, but not the ones we’re used to seeing by his side. “I’m very happy with having played guitar [in The Strokes], but I just had some songs of my own that I want to sing that we didn’t really tour. And then while touring my solo EP, a new band just naturally formed.”

During the gig, however, it’s clear that he hasn’t simply thrown together a troupe of studio musicians to provide middle-of-the-road accompaniment. The punchy guitar riffs, slick solos and frenetic drumming are mesmerising throughout from a live ensemble who could more than hold their own with Julian and the boys. “The four other guys in this band are amazing musicians”, explains Albert. “They’re so good, they should probably be more successful than myself.”

Tonight’s venue is somewhere between half and three-quarters full, with the locals happily drifting back and forth to the bar during the set. Photographers find no difficulty in making their way through the crowd to the front to capture the band in full flow. There’s an appreciative, feelgood vibe surrounding the whole evening, but it’s a world away from the tens of thousands Albert has made a living out of playing to at festivals around the world.

Which is why it seems crazy for him to tell me that getting this project off the ground is his proudest achievement in music. It sounded like he was drifting into ‘sales pitch’ mode, bigging up his latest work simply in an attempt to drive up sales of the new album. “I wish I could have done this when I was 20.” But as he continued, I began to grasp what he was getting at. “Thinking back to then [with The Strokes], I thought that was just gonna last forever.” Life has sped along since the early 2000’s, and only now can he look back and see how those reckless, heady days starting out in New York were shaping him into the well-honed artist he is today.

“I was very lucky to have found the other guys when we were doing The Strokes – cos I was super ambitious and had drive, but I needed people to learn from and to create a structure for me. In that group we all needed something that the other people had. We learnt so much in that process that now we’re all able to understand it and do it ourselves. I couldn’t have done this [solo material]before that process.”

While we chat, the support act continue with their playful soundcheck outside, prompting Albert at one point to pause mid-sentence and turn to his tour manager, “Are they playing a Cure song there? Yeah they are, nice!” His enthusiasm and laid-back approach to life make it impossible not to warm to him as a person.

His father, Albert Hammond Sr, is a renowned songwriter and recording artist in his own right, but growing up in that environment didn’t excite Albert Jr at all as a child: “I’d go into the studio to see my dad at work, but I definitely didn’t want to do it or anything.” Instead it was a chance night at the theatre and the tunes of one of rock and roll’s icons, Buddy Holly, that first exposed him to the irresistible pull of live music. “Dad took me to go see a musical called ‘Buddy’ in London, which showed his whole life. It’s not really a musical, it’s more like he’s playing a live show. And I just couldn’t believe that existed. That sound. From then, I just wanted to do that.”

That ‘sound’ has permeated Albert’s musical output ever since. The new album, Momentary Masters – his third solo effort – is packed with infectious, three-minute gems, and is in his own words “bombastically melodic”. It oozes confidence from beginning to end, and has been lauded by music journos across the UK since its release, with Q magazine calling it a ‘big beast with swagger in its bones and craft in its soul’. Even so, the music is taken to another level altogether when heard live.

During his explosive 90-minute set in Portsmouth, he churned out a catalogue of thumping tunes while strutting around the stage in his all-white outfit and white Fender to match. Highlights included ‘Razor’s Edge with its throbbing beat, the beautiful sing-a-long folk of ‘Blue Skies’ in the encore, and ‘Caught By My Shadow’ – which could just as well have been an Arctic Monkeys track driven along as it was by a ferocious garage blues riff. And not a Strokes song in sight – a testament to the strength of his new material.

He shared wisdom on many other areas while we chatted, from why he doesn’t like talking about his music – “I don’t know how to describe any of the music that I like in a way that would make you want to listen to it. Just give stuff a listen. Music is for a different sense” – through to how he developed from a boy barely able to play three chords into one of rock’s most celebrated guitarists – “It was a very slow progression in my teens. And then I got to New York, and found the right teacher. All these things need the right mentor, the right people. They come in and out of your life – it doesn’t necessarily have to be for music – but you’ll meet certain people that you’ll look up to and you’ll see how they do something, and you’ll translate that into how you do something in life”.

He hasn’t forgotten his roots though, and talks fondly of his time with The Strokes. He gave me a quick rundown of his favourite tracks from each Strokes album – “Trying Your Luck, I Can’t Win, Red Light, Gratisfaction and One Way Trigger – but those last two are kind of biased cos I wrote them!” Interestingly, he also revealed that the infamous ‘black glove’ album cover on Is This It? hadn’t been a hit with every member of the band. “Julian [Casablancas] never liked the cover! He actually hated it. He was really excited when we released it later in America, cos then he was able to change it!”

Despite those good times, he remains an immensely creative musician willing to move on instead of constantly looking back at past triumphs. “I’m always writing new material,” he said. “I never sit down and try to write, it’s just in constant play. I’m always doing lots of little doodles and putting them to the side. It’s like figuring out a puzzle working on an arrangement – thinking how I’m going to sculpt this thing. The clay of it is always just sitting around, and you have to figure out what to do with it.”

This impulse to continue cruising forward in producing great music shows no sign of stopping; “You want to take that emotion that you have, and showcase it in a way that can be understood”. For people reading who haven’t been fortunate enough to catch AHJ and his new band on this tour, don’t worry. They’ll be back. “I feel like we have an even better record in us. I feel it brewing. So, I’m curious to see where that can go.” However, it might not happen instantly. “There’s a tendency to want to find something you like and run towards it, and then if it doesn’t work you feel like the world’s ending – cos all your emotions were based on it and you thought you’d discovered gold. So there’s a patience – just wait, just wait, keep working at it. Then things grow and get better.”

We joked about what Albert might have done as a career if music hadn’t worked out for him – “Maybe been a pilot? Or a scientist, or maybe something with cooking. I definitely do imagine it though, what would I do now if this doesn’t work and I have to do something else? Where would I send my mind to transfix itself on something beyond music?” Regardless, there’s no need for him to waste energy imagining such options as things stand. Having witnessed his arresting stage presence first hand, and listened to hit after hit being rolled out by his supremely talented band, there’s clearly a whole lot more to come from this man.

Is this it? Not a chance.

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