Albert Hammond Jr.
Albert Hammond Jr. may be the progeny of an Argentine model and a singer/songwriter father of the same name (hence the Jr.), but his past seems to excite him much less than his future. His fourth full-length album, Momentary Masters, has been seven years coming, and the first he’s done since exiting rehab. Through channeling astronomer Carl Sagan as a source of inspiration, Hammond Jr.’s 10-song album is one his most progressive and energetic efforts to date, which has been received favorably by both critics and diehard fans of his first band, The Strokes.
Despite sounding a little worn from the tour, Hammond Jr. seemed pleased to be in the place he is now, even if at the moment we spoke with him, that was on a tour bus trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.
You arrived in Portland today, right? How was the trip from Vancouver?
Good, we’re just getting in. We aren’t even in Portland yet, but we are right on the outside stuck in traffic, which means we’re close.
Sure sounds like the west coast. Now, jumping straight into your latest album: In it, you cover Bob Dylan. Of his deep, deep discography, what made you land on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”?
I was doing this Dylan festival with some friends in Dublin and they said I could do any song. But then they gave me a list of one’s they played and I said I wanted to rearrange one, so I was listening to “Don’t Think Twice” and things started to click. I felt like I’d come up with some cool guitar melodies I could play, then the drum beats and it just kind of went from there.
Right, and that brings up this persisting question I get with cover songs where successful ones seem to reveal a new insight about the song or person covering it. So from your perspective, what did you bring to “Don’t Think Twice” that wasn’t there before?
Ohh, that sounds heavier than what I thought about when I was doing it. At the time, it was more like “I enjoy these kind of homework assignments,” which I also try to do with Frank Sinatra songs. I thought it worked well when I was done, like a cool little demo that I’d done at home and it felt like a palate cleanser on the record. It’s easier when you’re playing it live because you can do it just the same or change it a little bit or shorten it and you get the spirit of it. But when you record it, I think sometimes it’s fun to give songs like that a modern arrangement.
Let's rewind to the very start of your career with The Strokes and your debut album Is This It. It’s arguably the band’s most recognizable album but features two vastly different covers. In America, it’s an image of the Big Bang experiments inside particle accelerators at CERN, while the original cover is a close-up of a woman's, uh, derrier with her hand resting on top. Who made that call?
That was just Julian—he never liked the first album cover. So when we had the chance to re-do it in America, he changed it. I think he wanted the front to be the Big Bang and the back to be the Roman Empire at its peak, for the duality I guess. I don’t know exactly what was in his head, but I remember he was saying that.
There’s a space theme that spans the Is This It cover and your latest album, Momentary Masters, which borrows its name from astronomer Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. Have you or The Strokes had an underlying interest in the final frontier?
I guess I’ve spoken to Julian about stuff like that in conversation, but I don’t know if I was as into it then as I am now, or even thought about it in the same way. The idea of something so much bigger than you and that has been around for so much time excites me. There’s something peaceful in making yourself seem small. It’s sort of meditative.
Your fashion reputation precedes you, and you’ve actually even designed suits yourself. Like, I just recently found out that you designed the suits that Ryan Gosling wore in Crazy, Stupid, Love. What inspired the red jumpsuit you’ve been wearing lately?
It’s been my own take on Mick Jones when The Clash opened up for The Who in the mid-80s for a few stadium shows. He had this cool red jumpsuit, although his was a little more satiny. But I like the idea of a one-piece workingman’s outfit. I can give an energetic performance in anything, you know. I’ve done it in a suit and other stuff. If anything, it’s all about how you hold yourself in what you wear. When you’re playing something big, like in a festival or a sold-out show, it’s fun to wear something that you stand out it in, and it becomes fun to think of it like that.
I can’t name too many rock stars who wear full suits during concerts anymore. Out of curiosity, how many ways do you know how to tie a tie?
One. Just one. I don’t know what it’s called, but I don’t think it’s the windsor. I can’t imagine why you’d need to know more than one.
There are technically more than 177,000 ways to tie a tie.
Jesus Christ, that’s amazing. I still want to learn how to tie a bow tie—not because I want to wear one—just because it’d be fun to know how to do it. That’s a nice fun fact, though.
You dedicated this record to your late friend Sara. She turned you on to poetry and encouraged you to start putting your thoughts on paper. What effect do you think this had on Momentary Masters that maybe had lacked in your previous work?
Lyric-wise, I think it’s hard sometimes to get a three dimensional picture of life, in the same way when you watch a movie or reality TV because you’re describing such a short thing in time. I still write down lines throughout the day and a song can start in so many ways that you’re trying to just get it going. Sara would write doing something every day and she would say it’s important and that it wasn’t so much about lyrics, but more that musically it was something you had to stretch and strengthen.
Did your singer/songwriter father have much of an influence on you, too?
It’s hard to describe because part of me fell in love with music on my own. As a kid, not listening to him was my way of rebellion of making it feel like my own thing. I don’t really know though, I haven’t really thought of it much.
You have been all over the map on this tour... Literally. Last week it was Japan and then after your American gigs you are going to Europe, Australia, and South America. Do you channel your focus toward the next gig or your next major project?
I guess part of you becomes somewhat in autopilot on tour, unless you change up songs or set lists to change things up a bit. I mean, I’m thinking of how I can make a better show and I’m thinking of the next record. We are gonna try to go back to New York City after South America, maybe for a week, because I like going early to see what new songs would sound like way before you actually need to do a record. You’re always writing and it stops a little when you start the tour. I’m not in autopilot yet, but it’s hard sometimes on the road. You usually have enough material that keeps overflowing so you maybe spend the time listening to stuff that you’ve done and then when you get home you start arranging and thinking about it more and maybe start playing it during sound checks. You’re constantly in the process.
Albert Hammond Jr. Nov. 3. Turf Club. Tickets are available here for $15.