Momentary Masters: An Interview With Strokes Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.

Most people know Albert Hammond Jr. as the nicer dressed guitarist of The Strokes – with his signature curly-cue mop and cigarette cocked askew. After a little more than a decade of being in the band that defined a generation and kicked off a garage-rock revival, Hammond started exploring his own artistic journey, which has resulted in two solo albums – his third, Momentary Masters, is set to drop at the end of this month. This latest album is much more personal for Hammond – who is an artist realizing his place in the universe outside of himself. After emerging from the cocaine-dust-choked atmosphere of his youth, Hammond is learning about home, family and security. He has survived the shipwreck of his own self and is now clinging to newfound shoreline. In fact, his new album, which he calls “a love letter to my past self,” was recorded at his home studio in upstate New York, which has perhaps allowed Hammond the unique opportunity to open up like never before – with each song you can really feel it. The name of the record borrows from astronomer Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, which proposes that in the grand scheme of the things, we are all only “momentary masters” during the little time we have on earth, so you may as well enjoy the ride. In the following interview Hammond talks about moving forward, the process of making music at home and the importance of realizing the impermanence of everything. 

I want to talk about the Strokes, just because that’s such a big part of you as an artist. I remember vividly when that first music video came out for “Last Night” on MTV. It was the last hurrah of MTV premiering music videos. But everything was girl bands, boy bands, pop music. It was terrible, all the candy pop music. Then, your music video came on, and I didn’t know what to think. What do you think about when you look back on those days?

It was fun… Are there words to describe such a moment in one’s life? I said “fun,” and thought, “Wow, what a terrible word.” Yes, it was fun. It’s life-changing. I felt it beforehand and during and after, but I never really think about it. Maybe when I’m sixty I’ll lie down. I feel still like I’m reaching for the new. It was all new and exciting at the time.

So you’re chugging forward. You haven’t really processed, you’re just moving forward.

I love it. It always sounds negative. It always sounds like I don’t care about it, but that’s not the case. It’s amazing, but it’s more fun for people who weren’t in it to reminisce about it. If not, you get stuck in that. Sometimes, as a band, we’ll reminisce. It’s fun. You have old jokes.

I’m more thinking in the sense of how that music was breaking through what was going on at the time. It was pretty amazing.

I remember believing in what we made. The same way I am now—just so happy with what was there to promote. I felt like we had succeeded already. Everything else was out of your control anyway. All you could do was do the things you do.

What were some of your musical influences? What kind of music did you listen to when you were younger? I know your father was a musician. Was he a big influence?

I fell in love with music through Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, The Beatles, The Doors, a little bit of underground, David Bowie, The Stones, The Talking Heads, Jonathan Richman, The Cure, The Cars, Guided by Voices. That’s just the first round in my head. I got into classical music with Beethoven.

What is your favorite thing about making music? What is your favorite thing about music in general?

There are always points in music. You start with nothing. You create something that you want to share with people. Parts get better, maybe parts get worse. Then, you reach a new high point like you did when you first discovered it. You keep getting these new highs and lows. It’s a constant up-and-down feel. That challenge, and the overall outcome from accepting that challenge—I love that. I love when you get to the end of a song and say, “Wow, I can’t believe we made that.”

What’s my favorite thing about music? Music and movies broke me free, when I was a teenager, from thinking and living in a box. I was moving like a robot, and then it opened a new door into how to think about things. It affected me very deeply. It completely changed my life. It’s like that cheesy Jesus thing—he’s “always by your side.” Music has always been by my side. It’s my meditation, my reason, my understanding. It’s led me to many different outlooks in my life.

You grew up in LA, right?

I did, yeah. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. I enjoyed it as a kid because I lived in the suburbs, and you could ride your bike. LA has that city, but you can still be in the suburbs. But growing up, I didn’t like it. For me, it was strange.

"The record, if you listen to it, has layers. That’s how life feels to me. It has its strange moments. You end up thinking about stuff happening, and you realize that we’re all in the same boat."

Do you think New York is your home?

Yeah, I came here, things clicked. I live upstate now. Well, I tour and travel a lot, so “home” is a place where I go to regain energy. It’s easier to have a house and a yard. I can come to the city and use its purposes, but just as much, I don’t need to be there everyday.

You recorded your new album at your house?

If you have a studio, you’re going to use it.

Do you think it’s easier to record at home versus a studio that maybe you’re more unfamiliar with?

It’s definitely more fun to record at home. For me, to be able to say, “Take a break,” and not worry about it is great. I don’t think I could have done it the way I did it. The way you do it for a week and then come back a month later, moving all the gear into another studio, would be a nightmare. By the time you set up, you almost have to go again. I think that’s why people build studios—to have that quality, but also to have the time.  

I’m thinking about The Band—there were a lot of great albums that were recorded close to home. You can feel it in the music.

For me, recording, we’d wake up in the morning, we’d go for a run, and we’d eat meals together. We’d play music and then go back to the house. We always watched TV at night. Those are enjoyable things in life, whether you play music or not. Doing that made the overall experience more fun. And when it got to where we couldn’t break through, we’d walk out, take a second, and breathe for a minute. In a studio, you’re paying a bunch of money to play twelve hours straight. You try as much as you can, but you always walk in a little more broken.

In terms of influences for this record, I know sobriety has been a big part of your transformation.

It’s less of an influence and more what enabled the record. That’s the first step. There are so many things I did after that that led to the record. But without that first step, you can’t do those other ones. That’s why it always seems like the biggest one. It’s constant though. I fuck up left and right. You find new demons to exist. You find new ways to destroy things. But you confront it and fix it again. It’s not like, Yay! Happy! Done!

And you have to keep working through that. It’s a lifelong thing.

Yeah, exactly. [Singing] We’ve only just begun.  

A lot of people have these patron saints that come into their lives in many different ways. You talk about this girl Sarah, in terms of being able to open up your creative process. Can you talk a little about that?

At a time that I was figuring stuff out, she gave me new musical influences, new influences with writers. She had work ethic with writing—the idea of words. When I was playing with this band, I knew I wanted to try new things to see if it would work. It started to work, which gave me more time to work on melody and lyrics. In the two weeks spent with her I reemerged. At the time, I didn’t realize it was going to do that. I didn’t know. Those are things that happen in life, and you just try to be aware of them.

I’m looking at the cover right now. There’s a Bauhaus theme to the aesthetic. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I like the idea of light and dark, black and white. The idea that there are two sides to yourself. Everyone has projections of them, and that comes out in the record. Obviously, I wish I could have thought of that Day One, but it happened slowly. It took a while to evolve. Then this photo came out—it was perfect to explain that. The profile, the shadow of it, the way the lines work, and it looked good. It felt great. We had different album titles. Then when “Momentary Masters” came in, it seemed to help tie in the shadow theme. It offered a cool perspective to the record. Just two words—I kept repeating those words. I thought they were great.

And it’s based on one of Carl Sagan’s philosophies, right?

Yeah. The blue dot. You can YouTube the clip. He talks about Earth and everything we’ve ever known and done is in this one space. As he pulls away from the planet, you see how tiny and meaningless everything is. We create meaning. To me, that allows for change, allows for the human element, for mistake. It lets us learn. He says, “Momentary Masters” talking about how funny it is that people are fighting for a fraction of a dot to become momentary masters. Nothing is permanent. Even when it feels so permanent, it isn’t.

That’s why we need to keep making art, music.

You create your meaning around that. I still have things to say… You have to listen to it. It really relaxes me.

It’s comforting. A lot of people seem to do things for the sake of permanence. It seems a little bit desperate.


What do you want people to know about you as an artist that they don’t know already?

I don’t know if it has anything to do with words. What I want them to know is in this album and how I perform my live show. I’m at the stage where I feel like I don’t even know. If anything, that’s kind of what I’m saying and doing. The record, if you listen to it, has layers. That’s how life feels to me. It has its strange moments. You end up thinking about stuff happening, and you realize that we’re all in the same boat. The record means a lot to me. I made it with the idea of trying on my own two feet. I don’t know if I can move people, or entertain people, or both. That’s what I mean by “It’s in the music.” I don’t know what to say, other than, “Hear it.” Your perception, your writing isn’t as important as the music.  

"Momentary Masters" will be available July 31st, 2015 in the US/EU, July 29 in Japan. Pre-Order now and Get "Born Slippy" & "Losing Touch" instantly. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper for Autre Magazine. Follow Autre Magazine on instagram: @autremagazine