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.
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."