Albert Hammond Jr.'s 'Pale Blue Dot' Moment: "I Wanted to Be Curious Again"

The Strokes guitarist talks his upcoming solo record and Carl Sagan, the influence of his musical career, and proposing over the phone.

af Eric Sundermann
23 juni 2015, 2:39pm

AHJ shot by Jason McDonald.

I’m sitting on a balcony in New York City’s East Village, right on the Bowery. Across from me sits Albert Hammond Jr., guitarist for The Strokes, eating Greek yogurt and drinking a cold brew. We’re talking about his upcoming solo album Momentary Masters, a ballsy rock record out July 31 on Vagrant, his third full length solo project and the first since 2008’s ¿Cómo Te Llama?.

At 35-years-old, Hammond Jr. wears a dark gray pocket T-shirt. His hair is short and well groomed. He’s balding, but doesn't seem to care. His smile is wide. His voice is relaxed. He talks fast and in circles, but is always certain to make his point as clear as possible. He might play guitar in one of the most iconic rock bands of the past two decades, but on this bright spring afternoon in May, he looks more like he’s ready to talk the latest opinion piece in the New York Times versus tear through a riff late night on stage at a rock club.

“When I got out of rehab, I began rediscovering and relearning things because I was kind of stale doing drugs,” he says. “I wanted to be curious again and let my brain be that. So I observed a lot of things, I found things that I loved or was curious about, and I just jumped into them.”

One of the things he jumped into was Carl Sagan’s mind-bending book Pale Blue Dot, which contains a line he ultimately named Momentary Masters after. The LP a complicated record. It deals with the heavy themes of the Big Stuff of what life means on top of the mentality of “holy shit when you think about it we’re just tiny specs in the universe” we often times have trouble parsing. Yet Masters is driven by the classic AHJ style of energetic guitar playing that’s fueled The Strokes for years. These are straight up rock songs, with catchy riffs and pop friendly refrains that get stuck in your head for days. In conversation, you can tell he’s genuinely excited about it—telling me stories of singing and dancing to songs with his wife around his house in upstate New York, where he now lives. He tells me that he wants to prove himself worthy as a solo artist, and hasn’t felt this way since the beginning of The Strokes.

“The Strokes is my identity—it’s all of ours,” he tells me. “And it’s hard to describe that feeling when we don’t know what we’re doing. The band is in a good place, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like that feeling of having a girlfriend and not knowing if you're still going out.”

Now, years removed from rehab, in a mature state of mind, unclear of what The Strokes are doing except playing a festival here and there, this is very much AHJ’s moment. At least, he says, that’s what he wants it to be.

“I’m putting everything I have into this record emotionally, creatively, everything,” he says, “to see if it can stand on its own. It doesn’t stand on its own yet.”

Continued below.

Noisey: The record is out of your hands but the public doesn’t have it.
Albert Hammond, Jr.:
It’s definitely a different stage than when you’re done and you feel like it’s your little thing. I’m just impatient cause I want people to hear it. That’s the stage I’m at. Like, ‘when is a single coming out or when can we like leak another song?’

When did you wrap it?
February 26.

This is your first full-length since, what, 2008?
Yeah, but I did do two Strokes records.

Is writing solo different than writing for The Strokes?
It’s a different end product because you have different people you’re bouncing ideas off of. But it’s not so different in the writing process cause because the writing process is a little bit every day, and you don’t know where things are gonna go. After I did that second record in 2008, I got really fucked up. I went to rehab, then I probably didn’t write a song for a good year or more. Then the first song I wrote when I got back was “One Way Trigger.” But I always feel shy with songs, regardless the band. This AHJ band, I still feel shy coming in.

It’s a bit like having surgery performed on yourself.
Yeah, I always call [the songs], like, little babies. It’s just very easy to kill. If someone is like “I don’t get it,” all of a sudden this idea that you think is a great idea, and then where it might go is now gone.

Where do you feel like you are mentally now versus your last solo release?
In some ways, I don’t feel like a different person. You still have your ups and downs of life. I just feel like different in how I can pull myself out of it and examine what’s happening. It’s maturing. I mean, I would have changed anyways, just aging from 20 to 30. I definitely feel happier—maybe happy isn’t the word. You know when you sit on a couch that’s been used a little bit? I just feel OK in my place, and I don’t need to feel insecure about certain things. I don’t have to spend energy on a part of my brain that just goes in circles.

I’m younger than you, but I even feel drastically different from ages 23 to 27.
You ever think about going out with your 23 year old self?

I was a douchebag.
That’s what I always feel, too. Maybe the 23-year-old self would look at you and be like “what a douche bag. Who are you? I don’t even know you.” [Laughs.] But I feel like that’s why you can never really take yourself too seriously. You have to laugh at yourself. There’s no way you can get out of it; you’ll always look back and be like, “Oh god.” I feel like there was a lot of discovery on just what’s happened in seven years. It’s hard to pinpoint.

When did you get married?
2013. Right after Comedown Machine came out I did the AHJ EP. I just had my one-year anniversary December 23. On the phone when I was on tour is when I asked her if she wanted to get married.

On the phone?
Yeah… uh… I’m not—I’m romantic and I definitely like the idea of what exists, how people create things to make things seem even more romantic, and maybe it sounds cold on the phone. But when I was in my 20s, I believed in this idea of finding this person and not really having it makes sense with someone who’s, like, good for you. You’re just like, “Yeah I like this person.” And you want this package or whatever, this thing, and so this [relationship] was the most casual but it’s the one that’s been the most real. All the other ones had this big drawn out thing with them, but it wasn’t right.

You project a certain thing on someone.
You project what you want them to be, and then that’s why you break up.

That’s funny... over the phone.
When I met her it was at a time when I was like, OK, now I wanna be single. I quite enjoy being alone and that whole routine but, you know, she just became my best friend. We wanted to keep it private, like, “Let’s just do it and not tell anyone.” And then my mom found out and she was like, “You weren’t gonna tell me?” I’m her only son so I was like, like “That’s not the point!” We weren’t gonna wear rings; we were just gonna do it to have this little secret. It seemed fun.

That’s pretty romantic, man.
It’s true; it is pretty romantic.

I guess we can talk about the record. So at the time, you’re inspired by ties and Carl Sagan? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Press, man. I know you’re press but things get taken out of context. Someone once asked me what I like to cook, a random question. I said lentils and then just read all over the internet about how I love lentils. It was so out of context!

I discovered Carl Sagan, I don’t remember exactly when, but when I got out of rehab, I began rediscovering and relearning things because I was kind of stale doing drugs. I wanted to be curious again and let my brain be that. So I observed a lot of things, I found things that I loved or was curious about, and I just jumped into them. It puts me at ease. You still need a way to wind down. You still need an evening drink to take off the edges of life sometimes, and if you don’t drink you just have to find other ways. There’s meditation. There’s going for a walk. There’s listening to music. You find your own little rituals, different times. Space, in general, was one for me.

You bring all these things into your life and then they start to influence little bits here and there, and then when do something with all these things—I call them happy accidents, but they’re just baby steps built upon other steps.

How do you feel your state of mind influenced your writing now versus when you first came out of rehab?
It’s hard to tell because, once again, it’s hypothetical because you’ve changed. If I was in a vacuum I could tell you. But a lot of early stuff was based off of emotion and this big guy feeling. I still get that, but then I used what’s best about that and continue to work at it whereas I didn’t work as much as I could have. I wouldn’t go back and do things different. It’s just so different now. I found myself discovering.

If I was doing it the same, there would be no newness. And it would feel like that and sound like that. So I feel like if anything this is just a rediscovery and I had to make it really exciting for me. Funny enough, that entails just working at it. But it was really exciting to watch it unfold. The satisfaction lasted longer cause it took so much time to get there. I was so used to instant satisfaction. “I want it now; I wanna feel great right now.”

What’s it like for you to have these feelings, and then go back and play a song off of Is This It?
You know what? It always feels good. There’s always a relaxed feeling playing an older one because it’s in your fingers, but there’s always an excitement in new songs. When you have a fan base you’re not trying to gain a fan base. The Strokes is my identity—it’s all of ours. And it’s hard to describe that feeling when we don’t know what we’re doing. The band is in a good place, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like that feeling of having a girlfriend and not knowing if you're still going out. So you're just like, “Do I cry about it? Forget about it?” And then you get older so you start to think—especially when it becomes so much you're person—there are so many emotions when people ask me what it’s like to play. It’s always wonderful because at its basic quality it’s such a release. But it’s also like such an unknown.

You guys were great at Gov Ball last year.
We’re definitely the best version of us we’ve ever been. If you come to see us now, like maybe when it was before it was more fun cause no one knew and you were getting it first hand, probably, whatever that mixture of like youthful atmosphere, even thought I don’t feel like I’m not youthful. [Laughs] But sound wise, I don’t think we’ll be better than we are now. What’s funny is from Twitter and Instagram you always get these people who are like, “I cant believe this show is 18 and over or 21 and over!” It’s like, “How old are you?! You were like not even born when we started out.”

Do you feel established like you do with The Strokes with your solo work?
No I don’t feel there. I mean, that’s kind of why—not that you would work less once you have them—but I’m putting everything I have into this record emotionally, creatively, everything, to see if it can stand on its own. It doesn’t stand on its own yet.

Did you think that you would get to this point again?
No. I got out of rehab saying, “Alright I’m done doing this. I’m just gonna put all my focus into doing The Strokes.” And I was super excited about it, and had all these letters I wrote to everyone, and then we kind of didn’t really ever fully come back to the full function. We haven’t really toured since First Impressions. We played shows and stuff like that. I like being on the road. I like the lifestyle of it; I remember dreaming about it. I just felt like well if I don’t know what we’re gonna do, let me take control of what I know I can do and we’ll just see what happens. It’s all small steps.

What’s living upstate done for you?
Well, it’s new, I just moved. I thought I’d miss the city more, but not saying that I wouldn’t in a few years but I feel like I’m lucky I get to travel. If you were stuck up there then maybe you’d feel isolated but it just feels like a great place to come home to. It’s just calm. It’s also not far from here. I took a train today. It’s just calm and I get so much done. You know? Nature’s something that we’re apart of so I guess maybe that brings the calmness. I feel lucky to be able to be up there. But I’m not, like, a hippie up there smoking pot. Up there, I’m the weirdo. Like, “Who’s this city guy?” I chop trees. I have a big lawn. I mow it. It shouldn’t make sense. I don’t feel like being up has muted me there, which I feel like is the vibe sometimes of people, like “Oh, he’s married in the country.” If anything, it’s focused me more.

Something I wanted to talk about was the influence of your music and creativity. Do you ever think about the true influence of a band like The Strokes? Are you aware?
When I look back on the influence we have, I just… I don’t know. I just pictured a video I watched last night, and it looks like I’m watching a movie—a documentary of someone who I’d like to be but it doesn’t seem like my life. So, for some reason answering that question always feels like your life is over. [Laughs]

Ha. Fair.
I’ve had influence! Good night! [Laughs.] I feel like if I walk around the East Village, it feels different. I’m not saying that that was our influence, but I know that in 2001, we were coming out the rock scene, and it was not what you hear now. So it’s not to say so much that we had an influence on it; we were just the first there. We’ve done some good and bad. You almost can’t exist without one affecting the other.

I don’t think I’m alone in the fact that I wanted to move to New York and wear a leather jacket and smoke a cigarette because I loved The Strokes.
I don’t know. It’s just weird if someone comes up and they say that. There's a connection and you’re in that moment for a second and you think about it, and you're like, “Wow, that’s so strange. I didn’t know you and here we are.” But other than that, you know, I probably think more about taking a shit. [Laughs.] Not that I’m putting it down. It’s always very touching. It reminds me when I first read Please Kill Me when I came to New York.

How old were you when you moved here?
I moved here when I was 18. I took a year off of college cause I wanted to see what it was like. I just wanted to go explore. So I got a shitty job at a record store and made just enough to do rent. It’s weird. You don’t really eat that much so it’s not like that big of a deal. I don’t know how you don’t eat that much.

It’s kind of amazing. There’s always money for beer, but maybe not food.
There’s always money for beer! Our fridge just had beer in it! And I wasn’t even that much of a drinker.

I still have that same unknown feeling as when I came to New York. I always tell people and they’re like, “Oh I wish I was successful,” and I feel like I was successful you see what I did and I still feel more scared then if it hadn’t happened, because I don’t know what to do with myself and how am I going to take care of my family, you know? Maybe that’s what’s fun, what keeps you going, even though you got to where you wanted to go. I just feel like all the time you wanna get to the end, but then when you get there, you’re always like, now what do I do?

A teacher once told me that being a creative person is like continually climbing a new mountain. Once you reach the top, you’ve got to climb another.
Everyday. Once you’ve finished something and you learn something new and you got to somewhere you didn’t think you would, you're like, well now I gotta see what I can do.

Eric Sundermann is Noisey's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter.

Albert Hammond Jr. is on tour:
August 02 Chicago, IL @Lollapalooza
September 09 Pittsburgh, PA @Brillobox
September 10 Cleveland, OH @ The Grog Shop
September 13 Lawrence, KS @The Bottleneck
September 15 Chicago, IL @ Bottom Lounge
September 16 Detroit, MI @ Shelter
September 17 Toronto, ON @ The Opera House
September 19 Montreal, QC @ La Sala Rossa
September 20 Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
September 21 New York, NY @ The Bowery Ballroom
September 26-27 Washington DC @ Landmark Festival
September 29 Atlanta, GA @ The Earl Restaurant & Lounge
September 30 Nashville, TN @ Exit In
October 02 New Orleans, LA @ One Eyed Jacks
October 02-04 Austin, TX @ ACL Festival
October 05 Houston, TX @ HOB Bronze Peacock
October 06 Dallas, TX @ HOB Cambridge Room
October 07 Norman, OK @ Opolis
October 08 Little Rock, AK @ Juantias
October 9-11 Austin, TX @ ACL Festival
October 12 Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
October 13 Santa Ana, CA @ The Observatory - Constellation Room
October 14 Los Angeles, CA @ Teragram Ballroom
October 16 San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
October 21 Tokyo, JP @ Duo
October 22 Tokyo, JP @ Astro Hall
October 25 Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile
October 26 Vancouver, BC @ Venue
October 27 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
October 29 Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
October 30 Aspen, CO @ Belly Up Aspen
October 31 Denver, CO @ Lost Lake
November 02 Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews
November 03 St. Paul, MN @ Turf Club
November 04 Madison, WI @ High Noon Saloon
November 06 Columbus, OH @ The Basement
November 07 Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church
November 13 Nantes, FR @ Stereolux
November 16 Oxford, UK @ Academy 2
November 17 Manchester, UK @ Manchester Gorilla
November 19 Birmingham, UK @ Hare & Hounds
November 20 Leicester, UK @ Academy 2
November 21 Glasgow, UK @ CCA
November 23 Portsmouth, UK @ Wedgewood Rooms
November 24 Bristol, UK @ The Fleece
November 25 London, UK @ Islington Assembly Hall
November 26 Brighton, UK @ Old Market
November 28 Lille-Tourcoing, FR @ Le Grand Mix
November 29 Paris, FR @ Le Trabendo
November 30 Brussels, BE @ Orangerie
December 2 Amsterdam, NL @ Paradiso
December 3 Hamburg, DE @ Nochtspeicher
December 4 Berlin, DE @ Lido
December 6 Copenhagen, DK @ Amager Bio
December 7 Oslo, NO @ John Dee
December 8 Stockholm, SE @ Debaser Medis
December 10 Helsinki, FI @ Nosturi