Interviews

Finding the Perfect Balance: An Interview with Albert Hammond, Jr.

The Strokes guitarist and solo artist talks about his new EP, the differences between working in a band and working on your own, and why he loves Frank Sinatra.


Albert Hammond, Jr.

AHJ EP

Label: Cult
US Release Date: 2013-10-08
UK Release Date: 2013-10-07
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One conversation with Albert Hammond Jr. will leave you convinced that the notion of the Strokes being a group of people valuing style over substance is utter bullshit.

Not that this is surprising-anyone who's listened closely to either Hammond's work with the Strokes or his solo records knows that the guy's work is meant to be taken seriously. After a bit of a hiatus following the release of Como Te Llama? in 2008, Hammond is back writing songs on his own with a new EP, AHJ, which has the sort of lo-fi feel of his early work, yet a modern slickness that brings out new dimensions in work.

However, according to Hammond, the EP almost happened by accident: "I got excited when Julian [Casablancas] started his label [Cult Records], so I came to him with the idea to do covers of Frank Sinatra songs with friends of mine in other bands," Hammond said. The Frank Sinatra covers are a project that Hammond intends to finish in the future, "I'm fascinated with the harmonies and the arrangement of 'That's Life', for example," Hammond said, "and I want to figure out how to put those songs in a more modern arrangement." However, Hammond's boss, bandmate, and friend had other ideas: "When Cult was finally ready to put stuff out, Julian asked me if I had written any new songs."

With that, Hammond went to work with producer Gus Oberg (who worked with Hammond on both of his solo albums as well as the last two Strokes albums) on what would be his first solo material in five years. Given his recently-publicized personal struggles and The Strokes' return to prominence, one would think that Hammond would feel the pressure to deliver, but that was far from the case. The way he tells it, the recording of AHJ couldn't have been more relaxed. "I had just accumulated enough stuff where I just needed to let some of it out before I could move on," Hammond said of his creative process at the time. "When I sent some stuff to Julian, he got really excited, so Gus and I kept working on songs and kept sending them to him."

The resulting work is a progression for Hammond; as he keeps recording, Hammond has found more and more of a solid footing as a solo artist. The ease with which Hammond crafted AHJ is something that he figured out over time. "The records all capture where I was," Hammond said, "When I recorded the first record [Yours To Keep], it wasn't supposed to be an album; it was just this recording to get myself out of my apartment."

Fortunately, the response to that album was enough to convince Hammond to get out of his apartment more. "The second one was a bit of a mess, but it was still a step forward, trying to get away from that acoustic sound." With AHJ, Hammond feels that he's found the perfect synthesis between the sweet melodies of his first record and the dense, modern arrangements of his second solo effort.

"After the second album came out, people told me that they liked the first one better because they could sing along to it," Hammond said, "and others said that they liked the second one better because it was more rhythmic and dense; there was more stuff going on." With the new EP, Hammond found himself relying less on dense arrangements than he previously did: "I made an effort not to make things too heavy," he said. "It's rhythmically dense, but there's still melody there. There are a lot of different parts that come in and out of these songs."

AHJ finds Hammond shifting his style of recording a little bit: whereas his first two solo efforts were done with a full band, the new EP mostly features just Hammond, Oberg, and a keyboard drum machine. "We took three of the songs to have drums recorded, but for two of the songs, Gus and I found that we liked the sound of the drum machine," Hammond said, "so we just kept it."

In some ways, it recalled Hammond's process in recording Yours To Keep, which began under similar circumstances: "That started with me playing everything and the producer helping, as well," Hammond said, "but it sort of grew into something else as it went on." In contrast, the recording of AHJ "was like we were just coming in to do a demo. We'd come up with a cool bass line and just keep it as it was." As he kept recording, Hammond became interested in "filling the spaces" of his songs after the relative "sparseness" of his earlier work. "I didn't even regard it as sparse until people started telling me that," Hammond said.

The new solo effort from Hammond comes during an interesting period for The Strokes in which the band, whose work was previously dominated by the compositions of Julian Casablancas, has become a considerably more collaborative effort. Hammond arguably led the charge with "Automatic Stop," his contribution (with Casablancas) to 2003's Room On Fire. Since then, Hammond has co-contributed songs on Angles ("Under Cover Of Darkness" and "Games") and Comedown Machine (the band share credit on everything, but Hammond and Casablancas are both credited for "One Way Trigger").

Still, his more active role in The Strokes hasn't curbed Hammond's creativity. After all, as anyone who's been in a band knows, working by yourself and working in a group present different challenges. "It's a different dynamic, bringing something into four other people and making it grow that way," Hammond said. "Doing something that gets someone else excited is different than me getting excited about something and doing it." On his own, Hammond says he follows "what I hear in my head, and I just build on that. That's very different from how things work in a band dynamic."

"When you get together in a group," Hammond said, "it becomes like a family, with the different personalities and the politics that comes with being in a band. It's different than bringing something in by yourself." For Hammond, both his band life and his solo work coexist fine, though: "One dynamic isn't better than the other," he said, "they're just different."

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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