Strokes' guitarist keeps different company with solo disc

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

9 February 2007


Albert Hammond Jr. thinks it serendipitous rather than unusual or incongruous for his new indie-pop band to be opening for alt-metal arena act Incubus.

“I’m surprised something so good happened so early in my career,” says the curly-haired guitarist, who over nine years and three albums has wielded his ax for indie-rock hipsters The Strokes. “I’m excited at the possibilities of a small theater tour with such a big band.”

So, has Hammond encountered a different breed of fan touring with Incubus?

“I look at people more as human beings than as what they listen to,” he replies during an interview from Myrtle Beach, S.C. “They (Incubus) have fans who love what they do and I’m trying to show them what I love to do.”

What the 27-year-old Hammond’s loves to do—pop music—is all over his first solo disc, “Yours to Keep.” The album, released overseas last October and due in the U.S. record stores on March 6, was recorded with 34-year-old bassist Josh Lattanzi and 28-year-old drummer Matt Romano (who are accompanying Hammond on tour) and features guest spots from Sean Lennon, Strokes singer Julian Casablancas, Ben Kweller and Moony Suzuki guitarist-vocalist Sammy James Jr.

While virtually all of The Strokes’ material is written by Casablancas—Hammond’s only co-writing credit is on “Automatic Stop” from the band’s 2003 CD, “Room on Fire”—“Yours to Keep” is an all-Hammond effort. He co-wrote eight tracks with singer-guitarist Jon Larue, one with fiancee Catherine Pierce (half of the folk-singing group The Pierces) and another with producer and Thin Lizard Dawn vocalist Greg Lattimer. As for the two bonus-track cover versions, “Postal Blowfish” and “Well ... Alright,” which were released as B-sides of singles in England, Hammond says: “Those represent two of the greatest influences in my life, Guided by Voices and Buddy Holly.”

Hammond has denied that “Yours to Keep” songs were offered to The Strokes and were rejected, and that The Strokes are headed for extinction. (Asked if the band is still going full bore, Hammond replies, “Of course.”)

A handful of Hammond’s tunes, including “In Transit” and “101,” are chilled with Strokes-like urban cool. “For a while I just kept singing the line `I’m not gonna change, till I want to’ on every verse,” says Hammond of the former. “I’d wake up the next day and say, `God, I have to think of new stuff.’ But then I came to think it was one of the better lines, and that it felt so right to say it. As for the chorus, `I went too far, that’s all I got to say,’ it is what it is. It’s about huge fights and if you took a second to look at what you’re doing to people you can see that you’ve done too much.”

Of “101,” Hammond says that if there was a single from the disc, this would likely be it. “It’s crafted very much how you would craft an old-school pop song. ... The idea of `101’ comes from (American) college courses, going back to square one. In Europe they didn’t really get that one,” he chuckles.

Other songs, however, are far removed from The Strokes’ streetwise ennui, including “Cartoon Music for Superheroes” and “Blue Skies.”

When told “Cartoon Music” sounds like a lullaby, Hammond responds, “That’s exactly what it is. It’s ear candy surrounded with weird rhythms and instruments. It’s what a kid would like and what an adult could enjoy.”

As for the Lennonesque “Blues Skies,” featuring little more than Hammond’s guitar strum and passionate vocal, he says, “Each verse relates to a different thing. When I first wrote it the first verse was a joke I was singing to my girlfriend at the time. Then I stopped thinking of it as a joke. The second verse I imagined myself dead in the casket describing what it looks like to everyone on the outside. Then, by the third verse it was more about communication and understanding. ... It’s hard to be that naked.”

Another remarkable tune with a three-part construction is “Hard to Live in the City,” inspired by Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” album.

“When I was 18 and moved (to New York City) I saw all these beautiful women, and you would hope they would look at you, but then you find out it’s not that way. Then you meet someone you care about, and then realize you have no answers to anything. Then there’s the loss, and everything is gone, and you’re beaten down. But even after all that, everything can be positive and great.”

Which is why he included an uplifting horn-fired coda with ska and Dixieland flavors to finish the song.

“Some of my friends were (skeptical) about the horns,” says Hammond, “but no way they didn’t smile at the end of it.”

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