Albert Hammond Jr. Comes Into His Own

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How do you top a modern-rock masterpiece like Is This It, the edgy, jagged-riffed 2001 debut from groundbreaking New York City ruffians The Strokes? That’s a question that its guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. has been asking himself for nearly a decade now, via a series of solo albums he’s released during band breaks, starting with Yours to Keep in 2006. But the answer proved elusive until he arrived at his AHJ EP two years ago, which was issued on Strokes leader Julian Casablancas’ own Cult Records. And now, with the chiming, chugging new full-length Momentary Masters, he feels like he’s actually figured it out. “And the biggest difference with this album is I’ve just put more focus into it,” he readily admits.

“My earlier stuff just had, well, something in it, but also a lack of focus, especially on the second one, when it was my peak of debauchery,” sighs the now-sober former hard partier, who, in his late 20s, would typically blow $2,000 a weekend on cocaine, ketamine, Oxycontin, even heroin. “And I’m kind of bummed, because—as much as those wild stories are fun to tell, I’d much rather have the songs. So I feel much happier having the more focused Momentary Masters than being the other guy, who had the crazy life and was constantly insecure. That’s why I’ve been telling people that this one feels like a debut to me, because it feels like finally, for once, I have the beginnings of something, and I kind of know more about what I’m doing.”

In The Strokes, co-axeman Nick Valensi handled most of the fiery leads, relegating Hammond—the son of ‘70s folk singer Albert Hammond, of “It Never Rains in Southern California” renown—to rhythm guitar and backing vocals, behind Casablancas’ distinctive disaffected drone, which often bordered on spoken word. On AHJ, however, he began to find his own voice—both six-string and singing—in the Strokes-worthy janglers “St. Justice” and “Rude Customer.” And the flowery style is in full bloom on the Gus Oberg-produced Masters, starting with the opening “Born Slippy,” which blends a cascading filigree with Britpop-classic phraseology and the reflective lyrical rumination “Sometimes the sun goes behind the clouds/ You forget the warmth that could be found.” (And the song has nothing to do with the hallmark Underworld track of the same name—“I just liked the phrase, and the idea of being always on the verge of falling off the razor’s edge,” he clarifies.)

The artist slips into falsetto for a bouncy, but jazz-muted “Power Hungry,” then revs his engine by the third entry, a machine-gun-rhythm march called “Caught By My Shadow,” inspired by the Connie Zweig book Meeting the Shadow – The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. And by the fifth cut, the Beatles-meets-Undertones growler “Losing Touch,” his identity is set in punk/power-pop stone, and that confidence never wanes through the similarly-propulsive “Touche,” “Razor’s Edge,” “Drunched in Crumbs,” and a gilded-carousel take on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.” At record’s end, you feel like you know the real Albert Hammond, Jr. Or at the very least, like you’d want to get to know him.

And outside of The Strokes’ limelight, the artist as an individual does not disappoint. He may have ingested a truly Herculean amount of stimulants and depressants in his glory days, but since getting clean over six years ago, he’s discovered the two truisms that every recovering addict learns: “You use, you die” and “Real life—once you’ve shaken the drug-haze penumbra—is pretty damned amazing.” “I don’t mean to sound cheesy, but once you get serious again, there’s a lot of cool, fun things happening that you can explore and get into,” he asserts. “Especially when you’re all the way into a certain spot, where it’s just dark and you feel like it should be over. And then you realize, ‘Oh! What was I thinking?’ I guess the first two years, though, were really rough, post-withdrawal. It just left my brain unable to know what I wanted to do—I was just following where things were going, and I didn’t really feel like I was doing anything. But then I slowly started getting into things.”

Hammond bought himself two motorcycles—a Ducati and a sleek custom—and began taking scenic rides through rural New York. He took up scuba diving, acquiring his initial license at home, then earning more advanced certificates in Belize, then Turks and Caicos. So far, he’s shared waters with sharks, barracudas, groupers, even a friendly pufferfish. He also started a rigorous diet and exercise regimen, which helps to keep him moving forward in life, maintaining his status quo. “I always feel like if you tend to begin drifting toward a negative space, that those are the first thing you lose—those structures, things that you do, that you’ve put in place,” he believes. “If you’re going back the wrong way, the first thing you lose is to wake up early and go do something. Like, ‘Aww, I’ll just blow it off—I don’t really need to do that.’” But if you follow your set routine? No foreseeable problem, he reckons.

Hammond is now heavily into gourmet cuisine, as well. And it didn’t begin with his 2013 marriage to restaurateur Justyna Stroka, who ran the Big Apple’s celebrated Café Gitanes. “I was always into food,” he swears. “And I think, if anything, I’d bother her about food and cooking when we first went on dates, and she’d laugh at the idea that I liked to cook and didn’t really go out much anymore. Well, I do on special occasions,” he allows. “Or to get Japanese food, because that’s one thing that I can’t do.” His missus brought him out of his reclusive shell, however, and made him a more sociable fellow. She even quit her job to help him out. “When we got married, she saw I needed help, and she said, ‘Why don’t we do this as a team?’” he recalls. “She did a video for me, and now she actually does my lights—she’s the lighting director. She’s amazing, and she’s pretty tough.”

Hammond also dove deeper into literature, thanks to a writer named Sara he met on Instagram who recommended an exhaustive reading list, which included obscure poets like Anne Sexton. Ironically, two weeks later, he had just ventured out to purchase almost every last book she recommended when he got the news that his muse had died from a drug overdose. “Even in her mess, she had a discipline for writing that was really special,” he says of his late friend. “She wrote really well, from her emails to her poetry to her short stories. We got along, and we would talk about everything, and this was before Justyna. But she really lifted me up—in her darkness, she gave me a push forward, and then she fell backwards. And then a year and a half, two years later, at the moment where I was looking for things to inspire me, all the things that she showed me? They just did.”

Growing increasingly inquisitive, the singer began watching informative TED talks online, poring over Carl Sagan tomes (which inspired his latest album title), and actually getting into the rhythm and vernacular of New York Times crossword puzzles (although he can so far only complete Monday and Tuesday’s less-taxing ones, he confesses). And right now, he does feel like a mere momentary master, he says. “Because I feel like I have so much yet to learn. I spent so much time not learning things, so—for as much as I feel like I gained—I still don’t have a handle on expressing myself perfectly.

“When I get something that moves me or changes me or makes me feel excited, I want to be able to express it, so that it excites other people. I want them to feel the impact, the same way that I felt it. So I still don’t know quite how to verbalize that yet….”