James Beeson, Editor chats with The Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. about playing smaller solo shows, the emotional strain of being a rock-star and his relationship with Julian Casablancas
“Don’t mention The Strokes”, reads the headline of the Sydney Telegraph’s 2008 interview with Albert Hammond Jr. You must be joking, I think to myself as I pick up the phone and dial the number of a member of one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. It’s not often an opportunity to chat to a member of The Strokes arises, and I’d be damned if I was going to let one prickly interview stop me from asking the questions I wanted answered.
Nevertheless, when Hammond is patched through to me by his PA, I pragmatically decide to start the conversation by asking about the 35-year old’s solo career; a venture that has so far yielded three albums and brought him to Bristol to play The Fleece just last month.
“Both shows (of the tour) have been amazing so far,” he tells me, “the reaction has been fantastic, especially to the new songs; I couldn’t wait to play them. We played our first show (in the UK) in Oxford and it was great to see the crowd waving for the new ones.”
The new songs to which Hammond refers, are of course tracks taken from his latest solo album, Momentary Masters, released earlier in the year. Unfortunately for Hammond, the new material hasn’t taken off in quite the same way as The Strokes, with his latest release failing to chart in the US or in the UK. Hence, Hammond now finds himself playing significantly smaller venues than in the past. I ask him what the transition has been like for him as an artist.
“I think it’s just where I’m at (as an artist) right now,” he admits, “I’d really love to play large venues with my band right now. Just last night (playing at Gorilla in Manchester) it was like our dreams were across the street at the Ritz – a visual representation of where we want to go… but as a new band, you have to build a career, and even if your last venture was successful you cant just go into the next one doing the same venues… the people just aren’t there.”
One thing Hammond has always been keen to emphasize (hence the Sydney Telegraph interview) is that his solo material is something to be kept distinctly separate from his work with The Strokes. I ask him why this is the case, and how he deals with instances, such as when in September 2015 he was heckled by members of the audience to play Strokes songs at a solo show.
“I don’t really feel like I’ve ever had people heckle me!” he retorts, a little taken aback, “but this naturally feels separate to me. I’m in that band (The Strokes) and I’ll always have been in that band, and no matter what happens I’ll always be thankful of it for the rest of my life. But it’s hard, because we made such an impact at such a young age… so now it’s just a case of going and doing what I do, and letting time and records build something else, something new up.”
Despite this attempt to keep his solo project separate, Hammond’s solo material is unmistakably similar to The Stokes, something he isn’t shy of admitting: “I try to make bombastically melodic rock and roll,” he says, “I don’t really think about how different or the same it is from other things I like or in the vein of The Strokes. I feel very different from the band… when I fell in love with making music, it was more like what I’m doing now, and I feel like I’ve finally got to the right place where I feel like I can do it well.”
Regardless of this, Strokes fans will undoubtedly be keen to know whether they can expect to see the band playing together again in the UK. With this in mind, I brace myself for an onslaught and ask: we will see another Strokes tour anytime in the near future?
Hammond’s response is surprisingly honest: “I’ve thought about it for a long time,” he sighs, “but it was just too hard emotionally to keep up with, so I just kind of let go. I’m not the one pushing for it anymore. One half of me can picture it, the other half just cant… so I think it’s just silly to worry about it because if it happens I’ve worried for no reason and if it doesn’t happen the worry isn’t going to help make me feel any better.
“I’m going to focus and spend a couple of years to try and build this band and to build a repertoire with them,” he continues, “whether The Strokes do stuff or not at least I’m continuing doing what I love to do, and I feel I can add something really great to the scene.”
Intrigued by the ‘emotional strain’ Hammond refers to, I begin a question asking him exactly what he means by this, but he interrupts me: “It shouldn’t be like that!” he exclaims, “It shouldn’t be emotionally straining, it should be fun! In the grand scheme of things we’re really lucky to do what we do. Its just music, it’s not brain surgery, and sometimes I think that gets lost…” he trails off, and I decide not to push further on what is clearly a sore and personal subject.
Hoping to lighten the mood, I turn the conversation towards Hammond’s close friend and band-mate Julian Casablancas. Famously cold and detached on stage, I ask Hammond, who has known Casablancas since he was 13, what he is like to work with, and how accurate the media’s perception of The Strokes frontman really is.
“He’s never like he is on stage,” Hammond tells me, “I think the biggest misconception about us is that we’re all really moody, but we’re really more all funny goofballs than anything else. I guess in mediums like the media and on stage you can’t build a three dimensional person really… It gets projected out in little bits, and nobody is really how you read about them.
“I think that sometimes when you’re nervous and you go on stage, or if there’s a kind of look you want to give off – I don’t ever really ask him (Casablancas) about that…. But no, he’s definitely not wearing sunglasses and cold when you’re talking to him. He’s a very normal, silly person that also has a wonderful sense of depth. But I don’t know if you’d get that across by talking to him though!”
It is this funny, sillier side of Casablancas that saw him release a cover of Saturday Night Live Christmas single ‘I wish it were Christmas today” back in 2009. To finish the interview, I ask Hammond what he thought of the track. “Yeah…. it was cool,” he mumbles, undoubtedly a little peeved to be answering yet more questions about The Strokes, and, having probably pushed my luck a little already, I decide it’s probably best to leave it at that.