Albert Hammond Jr. is back–it just took him a little while to get here. Earlier this year the rhythm guitarist for the Strokes opened up about his years-long addiction to cocaine, heroin, and ketamine that finally overwhelmed him during the recording sessions for 2011’s Angles at his One Way Studios in upstate New York. There, while spending thousands of dollars a weekend on drugs, he realized he needed to go to rehab. “For some people it works fine,” Hammond Jr. tells me over the phone after a European tour with British singer-songwriter Jake Bugg, whom he’ll perform with this Friday at Terminal 5. The musician is thoughtful and diplomatic when it comes to his drug abuse, carefully wording his answers so as not to condemn anyone’s choices but his own. “The path I went down was not doing anything and getting fucked up, or doing something and not.”
After he got out of rehab and worked on the Strokes’ underplayed Comedown Machine, released earlier this year, Hammond Jr. started on his first solo material since 2008’s ¿Como Te Llama? Splitting time between his studios in Manhattan and upstate, Hammond Jr. collaborated with longtime producer-engineer Gus Oberg, who also produced Angles, and played all the instruments except for drums on AHJ, which he released this September on Julian Casablancas’ label, Cult Records. (He also found the time to marry his girlfriend, Justyna Hammond Jr. [nee Sroka], operations manager at Juice Press.)
At five songs and 15 minutes, the EP eases fans back into Hammond Jr.’s familiar chord progressions and skill at lilting melody, unencumbered by the competing interests of a full band. This time, however, he pushes his voice to its straining point, bringing a newfound urgency to songs like “Carnal Cruise,” parts of which recall Is This It or First Impressions of Earth. While he hopes to keep releasing albums in this format, which he enjoys more than the album cycle, Hammond Jr. acknowledges that the music industry, while accepting him back with open, track-marked arms, is less receptive to non-album formats. “Maybe I’ll be proven wrong,” he says. “It’s a fun thing to try to do anyways, to wonder what’s going to happen. No one knows.”
What was it like working with Julian Casablancas? It always seemed like you guys had a pretty exceptional relationship. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to your bromance.
(Laughs) It was like working with a friend who just happened to be on the label. It’s a little different from working with the band because it’s not so direct with the music. When you’re in the band writing songs, you’re working from the ground up. Julian’s at the label, so when I’m playing songs for him, I’m pretty close to feeling like I’m done. Definitely when we were playing when we were younger, we obviously wanted to be successful, but we were friends. I was roommates with him. It was very casual. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to talk about it, because when he was over it wasn’t like, “I’ll mention this later.” We reached a point where we were lucky enough where he could come over casually and hang out and play music.
I heard he thought one of the lyrics on “St. Justice” was about him, even though the song was inspired by your wife.
In so many ways, yes, but I had parts of it before. My friend Jason would always call her Justice. It was a cool little nickname, so when I was thinking up titles for the song, I was like, “Oh, cool, ‘St. Justice.'” That had a better ring than something else, kind of like a famous Beatles song. I feel like stories are always told. It’s so much easier to explain things with a “Yep, that’s what it was,” when it’s always a million things. It’s never one thing, you know? I guess I need to learn how to tell stories better and say, “Yep.”
Your struggle with substance abuse and rehab has become a part of the story of this EP, and earlier you mentioned the press gets fixated on narratives. Do you ever think the focus on that story has taken away from interest that would otherwise solely go to the music of AHJ?
Well, that’s all it is, though, that’s why. It’s not a bad thing. They have to tell the same story over and over again. Even eight years into being in the Strokes, talking about Angles stuff, I was still talking about how we got together. In time, everything that’s been said kind of goes away, and all you’re left with is the music. That’s just how we’ll tell a story or talk about what’s exciting right now, like, “I’ll go in and pitch a story and I’ll talk about things in a certain way.” I’ve even said things enough times that it comes back to me as this idea that exists in the stratosphere, when it’s really just something I said to enough press to make it a thought. Like, “What do you think about this?” “Well, what do you mean? I was the one who said that.”
I read that you stayed sober for your solo tours during your addiction. Was it harder touring this time around without drugs to take away the anxiety of touring?
Well, not sober. I wasn’t shooting up. I was still doing everything else (laughs). It was easier to tour sober, not harder. Drugs alleviate drug anxiety, like nicotine alleviates want for more nicotine. It’s not so much that it numbs you. Once you get to that level, it’s a big difference. It’s not like early on where I’d have a beer and chill out because I was nervous. When it came to that, I was just a mess, so it didn’t really matter. I would do other stuff just so I wouldn’t lose my mind because I felt like shit.
In another interview, you suggested that if you hadn’t partied so hard from 2001 to 2003, you would be a smarter person and a better guitar player. When you make music now, do you feel like you’re trying to make up for lost time?
It’s all your perspective: you can look at it as lost time or you can use what you know from it for something else, or look at life a different way, and in return that treats you back differently. You’ll always have stuff that you’ll regret or time you feel like you’ve lost. What I meant by that is doing that stuff made me plateau. You don’t, you can’t change as quickly. You stay in one thing. You may see other outlets but it’s hard to take them because you’re satisfied. It kind of leaves you in a frozen state. Or leaves me in a frozen state, in case someone reads this who’s like, “Well, I’m very creative and I get fucked up.”
There is this notion–it’s less pervasive now than it used to be–that musicians put out their best work while they’re on drugs.
We all look for ways to change our perception. That’s pretty universal in humans, and at some points doing drugs can open new thoughts, and it’s fun, and it can be creative. It’s just in the process of doing that over and over and over again, you forget all of that. It becomes a tool in which to shut things out, to shut down. You can do drugs and then not do them anymore and still get to some of those places. Maybe if I just did mushrooms once a year and found beauty in that in the jungle and understood that better, I’m all for that. Shooting up chemicals in your body, with whatever pleasures you get, where it left me, that wasn’t creative.
I was revisiting your older stuff like “Everyone Gets a Star,” and certain lyrics like “Sometimes it all seems to drag me down/ And when I’m getting closer/ So close, everything seems to fall apart,” now that you’ve opened up about your past, it’s easy to project that they’re about addiction.
There are ones that are like that, that I may not have thought about it then but now that I’m singing it back to myself I think, “Oh shit.” All the songs come from something I’ve felt or thought of. When you get down to the nitty gritty of emotion and describe it, it could all be from many things, which is what’s so awesome about it. Sometimes knowing someone’s back history, you’ll think, “Oh, it has to do with that,” but maybe it was just stuck in their head from years before. It could have been band stuff. It could have just been feelings of the whole being in a band is confusing, and our inability to communicate is dragging me down, and we were so close and doing it all so perfect, and it crumbled.
Do you still have plans to cover a Metallica song?
(Laughs) Yeah, I wanted to cover a song from the Fillmore. I still haven’t done it. Now that I’m opening for Jake Bugg, my set’s shorter, so I’m not going to cover them right now. I’ll wait until my own tour. I never thought about recording it. Since I’ve played that Misfits song, “Last Caress,” so many times now, I’ve thought about recording that one since it’s been so much fun. With Metallica, I would listen to them when I was running or walking around the city, and I liked certain parts about it, but certain parts I wouldn’t play, and I thought, if I were to play this song live there would be such a cool dynamic. You wouldn’t expect it. I think people might be able to hear things that I liked about it. I always liked that about music. Someone might be like, “I would never listen to that,” and then you play something a certain way and think, “That’s actually pretty cool!”
Do you think you’re just going to keep putting our EPs from now on?
I want to, but I’ve been told many times that it wouldn’t happen now the way people look at EPs. Most EPs are a song, or two, or you throw together a thing, but my EP to me feels like half a record. You can put out a few things here, a few things there and by the end of the year have 12 or 15 songs. I thought that would be more fun than writing a year, touring a year, and then two years later you go back to writing. I could have done a few more and it would have been a record. To get TV shows or certain attention it has to be a record format. I got a lot of, “We love it very much, but it’s just an EP.” That shit never made sense to me, but whatever.
Albert Hammond Jr. performs tonight (1.10) at Terminal 5 with Jake Bugg. Doors 7:00pm. Tickets are $27.50 advance, $30 same day.