A Day At The Museum With Albert Hammond Jr.
The Strokes are the last of a certain breed. They don’t make rock bands like them anymore: the larger-than-life, the mythic, the kinds that can fill an arena with screaming fans that span generations. You can argue this — you have Arcade Fire, or the National, or the Black Keys, maybe. There are still rock artists who ascend to the major leagues, but there’s something different and specific about the Strokes. They were a vicious, new thing that also held more in common with the rock mythos of the past. The youthfulness, the leather jackets, the partying. Most of our biggest rock artists are too self-conscious or self-deprecating or self-aware to have the kind of magnitude of the Strokes and buy into it entirely. Which they did, under all that detached cool. They were a rock band in the classic mold. They burned out, faded away, and returned as classic rock — and given this is the 21st century, that all happened within about half a decade. Sure, the War On Drugs signed a two-album deal with Atlantic, but it’s hard to envision any of these other rock bands embodying the classic ethos of the genre in the same kind of big-screen fantasy as the Strokes. They have an aura. They’re the kind of band where they walk onstage and you have to process the fact that you’re in the presence of them. That’s the stuff of bands that define a generation. They don’t feel human.
But, of course, they are human beings, with human desires, goals, fears, and demons. Albert Hammond, Jr., one of the band’s guitarists and the man that might be most readily identifiable as a voice for the band next to frontman Julian Casablancas, is definitely a human. And he’s definitely standing next to me, as we do very human things like wait in line to buy tickets into the American Museum Of Natural History on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and then, upon realizing that if we wait 15 more minutes we get to enter for free, chilling under and marveling at a dinosaur skeleton in the museum’s lobby. Hammond looks his 35 years, maybe because previously he would’ve been the one whose look was comprised of eternally youthful elements. Once haloed by a dense collection of curls, his hair long ago began thinning out, and he now wears it closely cropped to his head. The trendy Lower East Side cool of his old outfits has been replaced by a more grown-up ensemble: a Fred Perry polo buttoned all the way up, dress pants, each hanging on his formerly-skinny-now-fit frame in a firm, but not super-tight way. His face is slightly weathered from past habits, but in a way that’s made him age into his looks. For a Stroke, this is all halfway miraculous. Hammond came from the sort of band that made the sort of music that seemed to condemn them to anything but aging gracefully.
At the same time, an older, more grounded Hammond means a man brimming with enthusiasm of the sort you wouldn’t stereotypically associate with the Strokes. I remark that, even after living in New York for six years, I’ve only made it to the Museum Of Natural History once since childhood. “I only found it in adulthood,” he responds. There’s this push and pull in conversation with Hammond, the sense that he lived a lot, too much, in his youth, and now on the other side of that has rediscovered a childlike wonder about the world. As we walk around the museum, he’s in awe of the dinosaur skeletons, then the whale, then at the inherent strangeness of deep sea creatures. He jokes, often and warmly. When we collectively wonder how security might respond to us trying to stage a photo shoot in the whale room, he cracks, “If anyone bothers us I’ll just tell them I’m really serious about selfies, so I bring a team,” as he nonchalantly leans on the railing, the giant blue whale hanging over the room behind him.
On July 31, Hammond is releasing Momentary Masters, his third solo record and his first full-fledged solo release since getting sober five years ago. (The other, 2013’s EP AHJ, was a crucial stepping stone of four songs.) Despite the sprightliness of the man in front of me and the music therein, Momentary Masters comes with a denser press packet than most albums. Hammond provided notes on each song, with references ranging from Carl Jung to Joseph Campbell to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. The album is steeped in the process of building a new life after getting sober, the process of collecting the shards of what you’d left behind. It’s dedicated to a friend of Hammond’s who died from an overdose only two weeks after he had met her.
His previous releases — 2006’s Yours To Keep and 2008’s ¿Cómo Te Llama? — could be taken as conciliatory in their way. Though not at all his intention, one would imagine, they were something to hang on to for diehard Strokes fans dispirited in the years where it looked like the Strokes could never make another album together, or the years where they returned and made records that might not have been what some fans wanted or expected, or even up until last year, when that wait for another great Strokes record was exacerbated by Casablancas going all-in on the batshit Tyranny with some other group called the Voidz. Momentary Masters might still provide that kind of musical refuge to longtime Strokes listeners, but it has its own heaviness, its own personality, its own strong desire to exist. “This feels like a brand new chapter,” Hammond says, explaining the relationship of Momentary Masters to his past solo outings. “A lot of times people were saying, ‘Is this ending a chapter?’ No, that chapter is done. I’m no longer that person.”
Eventually we walk to the Rose Center For Earth And Space, the corner of the Natural History museum that’s made up of a giant glass cube housing a sphere of the most clinically pristine grey, where the Hayden Planetarium is. The music on Momentary Masters isn’t what you’d call spacey. It’s a new chapter that still exists in the same world as the other music Hammond has made on his own or with the Strokes — now its grooves are more muscular than on his past records, Hammond’s voice richer, the ideas influencing it of a more mature quality. But even if Hammond hasn’t ventured into dreampop or something, he has looked into space for inspiration and comfort. Of the various writers and thinkers who impacted Hammond’s mindset in the years leading up to Momentary Masters, the astronomer Carl Sagan is a big one. At one point in our conversation, Hammond pulls his phone out, opens Safari, and shows me how he always has a tab open to the YouTube video that features Sagan reading the famous passage from Pale Blue Dot, the one used in Cosmos. It’s a passage that’s stuck with Hammond so much that he borrowed the phrase “momentary masters” for his album’s title.
Some people turn to God when they get sober, but for Hammond it was more abstract things. The universe, the mystery. Sagan spends a lot of that passage talking about how minuscule the entire existence we know is in the grand scheme of the universe, which is simultaneously horrifying and awe-inspiring — but not necessarily the first thing I’d think of for someone to turn to in comfort. “It brings me peace and quiet, a reset button,” Hammond explains. “I liked hearing it because it creates this meaninglessness, [so] you create your own meaning. Why it’s so calming to me is it allows for change. Change isn’t a scary thing. It’s constant and inevitable.”
That sentiment is at the core of Momentary Masters. By now we’ve walked outside the Rose Center, to a secluded corner where the glass cube overlooks fountains where small children in bathing suits are playing as their parents and nannies watch from tables off to the side. For Hammond, part of the process of his new album was reclaiming something as innocent as the scene in front of us, something as pure and childlike. “Over time, naturally, you lose your innocence from gaining knowledge,” he says. “You can’t be innocent forever, but there’s something in innocence you need to regain to be creative.” The change — the thing that had once been frightening — was getting back to some version of that place, to become curious again, to see the world anew. Hammond relays advice his therapist had given him since he had become sober. Some of it’s simple: go to a bookstore, go to a section you normally wouldn’t visit. Some of it’s abstract: “walk around and look at things without judgment, as if your eyes were cameras.” “That started to change how my mind worked,” Hammond explained.
“It’s not a perfectly straight line,” Hammond says, describing the process of getting sober. And neither is recovery; it’s an ongoing thing for the rest of your life, a constant effort of working on yourself, maybe becoming a completely different self over time. That’s the way it has been for Hammond since getting out of rehab in early 2010. He no longer recognizes the man from 2012 (“My brain is quicker”), let alone the one from 2009 — the kind of experience chronicled in Momentary Masters track “Losing Touch,” which also gestures at the fact that there are people he can longer see, places he can no longer go, in his new life. In that broken line, you collect “What if?” moments. Hammond wonders what more he could have achieved if he had this sort of clarity ten years ago. He recounts the kind of harrowing scene familiar to anyone who’s known an addict or alcoholic: a time where his parents were knocking on his door while he was passed out inside, called a locksmith and broke the door down, and tried for twenty minutes to wake Hammond up. “I woke up to my mom crying like only a mom can cry when she thinks her son is dead,” he recalls. “Which is something you should never hear.”
Perhaps one more “What if?” happened when Hammond had already been sober for a few years. “The universe lays things out for you, makes you run into someone who has the information you need,” he says. He’s referring to Sara, the woman mentioned above — the friend that Momentary Masters is dedicated to, the friend who died so soon after Hammond had met her. “There was this weird light and darkness between us,” he remembers. “She admired where I’d gone to, and the questions I had for her, and I guess … I’m always still fascinated by the dark side of things, so I was wrapped in that with her.” But in those two weeks, they forged a connection, with Sara showing Hammond writers and texts that he would save until later, until he got over his anger about her death. Eventually he’d return to it all, somewhere earlier in Momentary Masters’ gestation, and find inspiration in everything his friend had left behind for him.
Things aren’t a straight line, and it had taken Hammond a while to get back to songwriting. After getting sober, he didn’t write anything until “One Way Trigger,” a song that appeared on the Strokes’ 2013 album Comedown Machine. “What I gave all credit for to powders and solutions creating everything, I realized was really inside of me all the time,” Hammond says. “Once I got into a better place in my head, it was all just there again. It was a different feeling to get there.” He took what he calls baby steps — a handful of songs for the Strokes, the AHJ EP, and then finally Momentary Masters, the moment where he had restored confidence in himself, the moment where he had things he wanted to say. “You start to do stuff like that, and it would open up your mind to different ideas,” he says, describing all the disparate things he explored in that interim time between getting sober and writing the album. “You get excited, your mind clicks to something, and you’re like ‘What is this?’ ‘How come I never thought of this?’ And you run with it.” That change, that regained innocence and curiosity, all of that lead to a fundamental change in how Hammond operated. “I spent so long kind of dead,” he says of the past. “[Now] part of me wants to understand things, part of me wants to try to leave things better than when I came in.”
At this point in the evening, the brutal humidity of a July day in New York has made good on its threat already — Hammond and I have so far spent most of our time talking huddled under an umbrella outside the Museum during a torrential downpour. In an aftermath that’s a cool relief at the same time as balmy, a Museum guard shoos us away since it’s closing time, and we stop in a small park area behind the Museum. Hammond, as he has been throughout our time together, is attuned to tiny details around us. He smirks at how children have scrawled their own names in vibrant chalk all over the names carved into a small monument in front of us, names that happen to belong to Nobel Prize winners. He points to two teenagers in suits standing on the steps, who from far away appear to be smoking a joint. “It’s like a scene out of Gossip Girl,” he says with a grin.
Inevitably, any conversation with a member of the Strokes must turn to the Strokes. They’re just one of those bands. Feverishly loved and, to some extent, withholding. Anyone invested in the band is eager for more music and more shows, even if they’re amongst the fans who were let down by the last two Strokes releases. “I’m still in the band. It was a big thing in my life, I love it very much. I don’t mind answering questions about it,” Hammond says when I start by saying I assume he’s frustrated by answering Strokes questions all the time. Last month, Hammond made comments about how the Strokes have no future plans beyond Austin City Limits in October. After Casablancas had said he was working on new Strokes material, a lot of people took the quote slightly out of context, interpreting it as a bleak outlook on the future of the band, or Hammond’s own disenchantment with the slow-moving machine the group has become.
In reality, he meant it as positively as he could. As Hammond puts it, he’s simply become burnt out on not having a real answer for people. “I was tired of being like, yeah, we’re doing stuff…I don’t know what we’re doing. I would love to tell you,” he explains. “If anything, it saddens me to have not done stuff.” As for Casablancas’ comment, apparently the band did try some stuff out. They went into the studio, worked on two recordings, Casablancas sang on one of them a few months later. “That’s what I mean, the machine now is moving very slowly,” Hammond explains. “There’s nothing I can do to speed it up. After a while, you feel drained from it because of how much I love it and care for it.” If there’s any weariness in Hammond’s voice now or at any other points when asked about the Strokes, it’s because he truly seems to want to be doing more Strokes stuff alongside his own work. “My personality kinda needs me to leave it on the side,” he says regarding the periods of relative inactivity in the band. “I can’t put the burner on simmer. If I put the burner on, I have all these ideas and I want to do all this stuff, and then I get depressed when nothing happens.”
For Hammond in particular, there appears to be a strain despite his enthusiasm about the Strokes. He sees Momentary Masters as a “roll of the dice,” a heartfelt attempt at carving his own space as a solo artist in a way he wasn’t capable of in the ’00s. With so much of his new album focusing on the idea of figuring out a new identity for yourself, it’s easy to wonder whether Hammond is more comfortable with the idea of continuing on as a solo artist and frontman or as a member of the band that brought them all to where they are now, whether he prefers one route or the other. I ask him if he sees a future where he’s simply “Albert Hammond, Jr.,” no longer “Albert Hammond, Jr., of the Strokes.” “It would be half-assed of me to be like, ‘Nah, I don’t really care.’ I care very much,” he says of his solo work. “I feel like I can be a frontman, I feel like I have good songs. It would be sad [if the Strokes didn’t continue, too], and I’ve had times where I’ve almost mourned the Strokes.” But the dream, the world Hammond wants to see, is the world where the Strokes continue on and he’s doing his own thing, too. That’s the ideal.
Hammond, at least, does not seem disenchanted or disinterested in the Strokes. He still clearly loves being in that band, and talks of what they’ve achieved enthusiastically as anything else today — if anything, you can see how being the main cheerleader within the band may have worn him down. You can see how he may have grown weary of telling everyone the band is revving up, and then having fans get pissed at him when he was wrong. The Strokes, as he describes them, are an operation that is disorganized when it comes to reconciling their individual interests with the band. It’s stop-start, things get stalled. But he has faith in it all. “I feel like we still have a great record to make. Or more,” he says. “I feel like a lucky band that’s liked by a lot of people. It seems silly to not make music.”
While there might be something liberating about putting out a solo record, or a dream to be attained in becoming a full-fledged solo artist standing out alongside of, but not totally beholden to, his old band, Hammond acknowledges that even forming a band that always tours with him will never be the same as what the Strokes are. For this record, he met players he built a connection with, people he liked playing with and thought could play the music well. “The Strokes, you bond when you’re 18 and you’re friends,” he says. “The feeling’s different. When all of us get into a room, we feel like the same people from before. We weren’t anybody, we were just hanging out. It’s hard to understand if you’re not in a band. You’re one-fifth.” He says it, in a way, wistfully. Like the appealing mythos of the rock band, the gang — one of those fleeting things of the past that the Strokes caught — is something that means something to him, too.
So the only thing that’s odd, in our final minutes together, is how much Hammond seems to feel as if he’s starting over. Not in the sense that the Strokes don’t have a future, but in the sense that he has to fight to build something again from scratch, to build Albert Hammond, Jr. from scratch. In reality, he’ll always be the man who is or was in the Strokes, and that will always mean something. But when you consider the arc of Hammond’s last decade, you can feel the stakes. What if the Strokes do nothing else in the future? This is all he has, this is all he knows. “I’ve had this burning question for a few years in my 30s,” he says. “What am I doing? Do I need to do something else? Is this over?” Momentary Masters might not seem like a gamble when he still has Strokes shows booked. But it is a gamble in the long term — on the idea that he can be Albert Hammond, Jr. whether or not the Strokes are there. That he could do this for the rest of his life. “I’m excited to see where things go,” he says, having finally reached a point in his life where the pieces have come together, where he can maintain positivity about the Strokes and have solo work he’s proud of.
Soon after, we say goodbye and he walks out of the park, towards the street. I linger for a moment, trying that camera thing his therapist recommended. For a moment there, I’m outside of the fact that I just went to the Museum Of Natural History with a member of one of the most important bands of my generation. For a moment there, I don’t see Hammond as a member of the band that was so foundational in my youth and the youth of so many of my friends. For a moment there, I just see another man walking down the street in Manhattan, trying to do something while he’s still here.
Momentary Masters is out 7/31 via Vagrant. Stereogum is premiering the album track “Side Boob,” too — give it a listen:
[Photos by Mallory Turner/Stereogum.]