“Sometimes the sun goes behind the clouds/You forget the warmth that could be found,” sings Albert Hammond Jr. in “Born Slippy,” the opening track to his third solo album, Momentary Masters, which came out this summer on Vagrant Records. It’s a line he particularly likes: “It has a ‘this too shall pass’ idea behind it,” he reveals. As he says this, he and his band are driving through Illinois on a tour that will bring the onetime Strokes guitarist to his old stomping grounds of New York City to play the Bowery Ballroom on September 21 and 22.
Though the album takes its name, rather loftily, from astronomer Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, that opening track shares its title and vision from Underworld’s mid-Nineties cut, which was famously used at the end of the movie Trainspotting. This is no coincidence: Hammond is fully aware of Underworld’s song, and he’s a Trainspotting fan, too.
“It’s interesting that a lot of younger people I’ve spoken to don’t seem to know that film or the song,” says the 35-year-old, who lives upstate these days. “It started off as the working title for the song, but I liked the title and I liked the idea — that kind of living life never knowing what’s coming up, the adventure of it all, the good and the bad, but getting through it somehow.”
Hammond’s personal story of getting through it includes falling into what some might perceive as typical rock-star behavior. He was a part of one of this century’s biggest and most adored bands, after all, and ended up doing more than his fair share of dabbling with intoxicants of various type, followed by the obligatory rehab cleanup. But Hammond doesn’t think his drug decline was totally down to lifestyle, but due to his personality.
“I’m pretty sure I’m self-destructive,” he acknowledges. “I still find things to be destructive with, but they’re not drugs. I started doing drugs that separated me from a pack of people, a line got crossed…” he says, not so cryptically referring to his bandmates in the Strokes. “There are so many steps to getting to a bad place and then there are so many steps to get out of that. I got to the point of destruction and I thought, ‘That’s not why I got into music, to destroy myself.’ It takes a couple of years to get your thinking back, to fall in love with music all over again and remember being sixteen and how excited I was. That’s where I am now. It’s a cliché.”
Understanding what he is — a puny human of no more consequence than an earthworm; an inhabitant of a pale blue dot in a grand universe — helped him ditch his ego and angst. “It’s a meditative thing. It cools it all out. The meaningless of the worlds we all create — I love that,” he says in reference to Sagan’s writings.
There is another element to this cooling-out: love and marriage to his wife of two years, Justyna. And there is the camaraderie of his current band — Hammarsing Kharhmar (of Mon Khmer and Hammond’s guitarist since 2008), guitarist Mikey Hart (Bleachers), bassist Jordan Brooks, and drummer Jeremy Gustin (Delicate Steve, Marc Ribot) — which formed around Hammond’s 2013 EP, AHJ, released on Strokes singer Julian Casablancas’s label, Cult Records.
“I brought together a group of people for that EP because I was curious to see how a band would work. I was uncomfortable with it just being me. We sort of went from there and confidence and understanding grew. We went in cold with the EP and made something that I wish I’d found with my first records,” Hammond explains.
Momentary Masters is a guitar lover’s feast of shimmering, Caribbean-influenced notes; there’s a spare cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice,” not to mention a certain Strokes-y garage-ness about “Razor’s Edge” and “Drunched in Crumbs.” To some ears there will also be hints of Seventies legends Television — though not to Hammond’s. “I was never a Television fan,” he says. “Later in life I discovered the Wipers and Wire, and that’s probably more influential. In your teens you think about doing it louder and faster, but this album is more thoughtful. The whole record has a lot of guitar stuff, yeah, but the bass and drums have a lot of cool things floating in there.”
His description adds up to one thing: It’s a band record. “That’s the idea,” Hammond agrees.
Speaking of bands, Hammond says he has no problem answering questions regarding the Strokes, even that much-asked inquiry: Will there be another Strokes record? “Yeah, people don’t believe me when I say I don’t know. I want to know more than anyone,” he says. “We’re a big band with a myth; there’s intrigue, drama. We were part of a scene, we shared the same dreams. I understand the interest. Right now, I am really excited about doing this and doing music. You are what you perceive, and I like the way I’m perceiving things.”
Albert Hammond Jr. headlines the Bowery Ballroom September 21 and 22. Tickets are available for the September 22 performance here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 21, 2015