During his twenty years on the music scene, Albert Hammond Jr. has been known by a number of identities: as the son of celebrated songwriter Albert Hammond; as the shaggy-haired, tight-trousered guitarist from the Strokes; and as the solo singer-songwriter-performer “Albert Hammond Jr.” But he craved being something different. “It always seemed really interesting to be someone else,” he says.
At the age of 38, the constantly touring musician found himself slowing down. Not literally: When he isn’t making music, Hammond is often on his motorcycle, speeding through the Catskill Mountains or heading down to ride at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville. But these days, the onetime icon of downtown New York hedonism lives upstate with his wife, Justyna, fifteen minutes from the site of the original Woodstock Festival. And musically, he’s found himself on the path to self-discovery. “I think being a ‘junior’ and then being in a band,” he says, then pauses — “there’s a lot of baggage that comes with all those things.”
On March 28, as Hammond took the stage of the New York warehouse venue Brooklyn Steel, it was apparent that he had shed that baggage. Fresh off the release of his critically acclaimed fourth solo album, Francis Trouble, Hammond took the stage a natural-born rock star, shedding his golden bomber jacket to reveal a T.Rex T-shirt, and filling the night with Angus Young-style jumps and nonstop dancing. By the end of the nineteen-song set, it was clear how meaningful the performance had been for him, with Hammond telling the crowd, “I’d like to never leave a stage like this.” Truthfully, it took him a long time to get there.
In the years following the success of the Strokes’ debut album, Is This It, in 2001, Hammond pursued rock ’n’ roll excess with a vengeance, developing addictions to cocaine, ketamine, and heroin along the way. At the same time, the guitarist somehow managed to release a string of solo albums that mostly just made fans long for more proper Strokes albums. It wasn’t until he found sobriety in his thirties that he began to rediscover himself, both as an artist and as a man, and what he learned made for a hell of an origin story. In 1979, Hammond’s mother had suffered a miscarriage while carrying him and his brother. That much he knew: Where Elvis had his phantom twin, Jesse, Albert had Francis. Then, two years ago while talking to his aunt, Hammond learned an additional detail: that one part of his brother, a fingernail, had survived childbirth. It was this discovery that made him consider the connection of two bodies in the womb, and the energy that might have passed between them. After hearing this story, Hammond realized his music was subconsciously taking on a new sound; it was as if Francis had been speaking through him.
“I started with demos, and in the process of doing it all, I learned about the collision I had with my twin,” he says. “I’d already been working on the idea of an alter ego, so it just all started to make sense.” For Hammond, it felt like he’d found the missing piece of a puzzle, and in doing so, he found a new identity. “It gave an arc to my career, really. I had to kill myself off to start anew.” Now, with Francis Trouble, Hammond has been reborn as his own rock star alter ego, albeit one that’s more Ziggy Stardust than Chris Gaines. “It was a way to take the baggage of my name off the record,” he says. The name “Francis Trouble” pays homage to his brother, and the character embodies Hammond’s newfound sound. “I was always thinking of names for myself, and I’ve always wanted an escape,” he says. “When I thought of the name ‘Francis’ — I’ve always liked it — it just became part of the alter ego.”
Thankfully for fans, Hammond’s music seems to have been energized by his personal rebirth. “Muted Beatings,” the album’s lead single, has the anxious, nervous energy of the Stroke’s best work. “It’s about how you don’t need to have the shit beaten out of you by fists,” he says, explaining the track. “How, actually, silence can be even worse.” Elsewhere on the album, he finds himself in more uplifting territory; despite the ghost of his brother haunting the proceedings, Francis Trouble is more focused on life than death. Hammond details trust and romance on “Far Away Truths” (“Don’t tell me that I’ve seen enough/’Cause if I saw nothing why would I look twice”), and pays “a triumphant homage,” he says, to the limitless promise of one’s teenage self on “Set to Attack.”
Given where Hammond found himself a decade ago, it’s amazing he was able to get his career back on track at all. According to the guitarist, as he slipped further into drug-fueled oblivion in the wake of the Strokes’ success, he may have inadvertently “killed” the other bandmates’ dreams. As readers of Lizzy Goodman’s indie rock oral history, Meet Me in the Bathroom, learned, during the recording of the band’s 2006 album, First Impressions of Earth, Hammond began to notice things had stopped being “fun”: “Friends, girlfriends, strangers would all start coming in, being like, ‘You should be a bigger band,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, we should be a bigger band…,’ ” he told Goodman. “For as strong as we were and as close as we were, we weren’t close or strong enough to fight that.” It wasn’t until 2010, when Hammond began his recovery, that his priorities shifted, with music returning to the center of his world.
While his early solo career was perhaps seen as a distraction from the Strokes, Francis Trouble has ensured that Hammond’s talent can stand on its own. “On this one I finally got to make the record I wanted to make,” he says. Francis Trouble is a fresh start for Hammond — he considers it his “Volume I,” and he’s contemplating a Volume II.
“I won’t know what that is until the end of this cycle, because it starts to grow in you as you take it on the road,” he explains. For now, he’s looking forward to getting lost as someone else for a while. “I get to travel in Francis’s shoes for a bit.”
The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 18, 2018