Once one fifth of the coolest gang in town, Albert Hammond Jr went solo – and finished with drugs – at the same time. So, how’s it been, Albert, asks Fiona Shepherd ahead of his Glasgow gig
It is early doors in New York City and a fuzzy Albert Hammond Jr is trying to marshal his thoughts not long after coming off a US solo tour and mere days before he heads off again to Europe. Hey Albert, here’s one for you – what’s it like coming off drugs?
The Strokes rhythm guitarist has been asked this sort of question a lot in the last couple of months, ever since he revealed the escalation of his drug problem over the past decade, and that he ended up in rehab four years ago and has been clean ever since. Two more Strokes albums down the line, this is probably stale bread to Hammond. Nevertheless he is obliging enough to have a go at making an analogy. “It’s like standing off to the side watching this river go down, and the river’s life and you don’t feel like a part of it … and then I guess you find a way to be comfortable. It’s a slow process, hard to talk about it.” Right on cue, he yawns.
Hammond Jr comes across as a pretty laidback guy, accommodating in his answers but not overly voluble. At one point he catches himself unwittingly quoting a Strokes lyric when he sighs, “it’s so hard to explain…” He laughs nervously. Being in the spotlight as one fifth of the coolest gang in town is one thing – and even then, you get the impression he and his fellow Strokes wish everybody could just get over the past ten years of speculation about when or whether they would release another album, were they even speaking to each other, etc already – but promoting your latest solo recordings by admitting you “used to shoot cocaine, heroin and ketamine, all together, about 20 times a day”, as Hammond told NME, invites another level of scrutiny.
With that door flapping wide open now, Hammond volunteers his memory of working on his two solo albums to date – the unexpectedly sweet, soft Yours To Keep and the ballsier new wave stylings of Como Te Llama?, released in 2006 and 2008 respectively, while the Strokes were on hiatus – “and being completely trashed for both of them – one maybe a little more innocently and the second one a little darker…”
Hammond had initially embarked on a solo career at least partly to provide an outlet for his songs at a time when Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas held on to the writing reins pretty tightly. But having made it through rehab, he found he had dried out in more ways than one.
“There were so many questions and so many things felt so raw,” he says. “When you come out of that, the idea of sitting there being creative, you don’t have the energy for it or the mind for it, you’re kind of figuring so many other things out. It took a while to start writing again, for sure.”
Hammond found the road back to creativity when he wrote One Way Trigger, the first song out the traps from the Strokes’ fifth album Comedown Machine. “Cool things started coming together and then after that I wrote a line for the song Cooker Ship and that’s where I really shocked myself in an exciting way,” he says. “I wrote that guitar line on piano and it felt like I had something different and when I started recording it I knew for sure.”
Cooker Ship is one of five new tracks Hammond has released as the AHJ EP – he’s not so inspired with the title – on Cult Records, the imprint run by Casablancas. Only later did he connect the title to a misheard lyric from – of all songs – the Velvet Underground’s Heroin. Still, it is very tempting to interpret his new songs in the light of what we now know he has been through. The somewhat vague Hammond vaguely explains that it’s more kinda vague than that.
“It’s not like I sat down to write a story,” he says. “If anything, I try to make my emotions a little more universal. It’s a process, like a muscle, a constant thing you’re doing. Maybe sometimes you go through little spots where you don’t feel like playing. But even though I’m not holding a guitar, I’m thinking of an idea or imagining a sound or trying to put myself in a place, and so then the next time I pick it up I might want to go there.”
Already, fans are champing at the bit for more material but, as to what lies beyond his latest round of dates, Hammond will only confirm, with a little poetic flourish, that “I’m already working on the rest of my life.”
AHJ is out now on Cult Records. Albert Hammond Jr plays Broadcast, Glasgow, tonight