With his first solo release since 2008’s ¿Cómo Te Llama?, Albert Hammond Jr. – best known as a member of seminal alternative rock band The Strokes – is back with Momentary Masters, an album that will carry you through both the last few weeks of summer and the shorter, darker days of fall that sneak up after. We chat with the guitarist about Carl Sagan, Beethoven and playing new songs live.
You previously mentioned that a lot of the lyrical content for the album was based on a feeling of duality within your own mind. How much do you think that concept permeates the record as a whole?
I find it hard to talk about lyrics. The big idea for me, in general, was about accepting these two sides I have that make me whole. I don’t know. I’ve been reading a lot about that. How much is it in the lyrics? I think, in a lot of parts, it’s there. It’s very much there.
What’s your typical songwriting process like?
Nothing ever really stays the same. It’s this constant process where I’m writing a little bit here and there and some cool line pops up, or a melody or riff. I start putting stuff into folders in the computer and maybe a whole song develops and I’ll demo it. Different things begin to excite me and that kind of pushes me to do something. I’m like, “Oh, this song’s very exciting.” So, I’ll demo it and can’t wait to play it and it all goes from there. There’s no typical way besides just trying. Basically, something exciting is in there, and sometimes you get it in parts and not in other parts, so you just work it and work it until it falls into place.
How does working on a song for your solo project differ from working with The Strokes on a song you wrote?
I’m working with different people. I feel like I’m a different person. When I’m writing with The Strokes I’m a little more shy, I don’t know. Less myself. It’s different. Julian is the main songwriter in The Strokes, even though we’ve all written a few things. I feel like on the most recent ones I was just trying to add things I could add. Most of “One Way Trigger” was done by the time it went in. I never brought a song too raw to The Strokes. [Momentary Masters] is the first time ever – because everything turned out so well in the demo process of the first two songs – that I started bringing the AHJ band guys more raw stuff, and then that turned into really exciting things that I hadn’t experienced before.
I read that you’re really inspired by the poetry of Anne Sexton. How often do you look to non-musical sources for inspiration, and what do you tend to look to when you do?
I think there are different kinds of inspiration a lot of times. There are things you read or things you hear that just get you excited to want to create something. And then there’s music you hear that gets you excited as well, you know. It’s two different things. One of my biggest inspirations is Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot.” I’d always listen to that over and over again at different times in my life and, you know, it was inspirational in the sense that it put my head in a different place. I imagine that had some kind of effect. R. Stevie Moore and The Wipers and The Misfits have been a huge inspiration in the past couple years in the kind of energy and excitement that they have. And the emotions that I felt when I heard them, you know? And movies will make you feel something. When someone does something amazing, it gets you excited about doing something as well. As I was writing, sometimes I’d just get stuck, where I wouldn’t know what I was writing because I was trying to say something but also put words to a melody, and a melody can add meaning, so it’s like a different structure than just speaking words out. So sometimes I read different literature. I was reading Joseph Campbell and Anne Sexton and others. You just get a sense of story, a different sense of rhythmic patterns, a line here or there, just like they’re describing something and it sparks something inside you and you go from there.
How much does your live performance work its way into the writing of your songs?
This time around that was definitely more in mind. I mean, we had just come from touring and the EP was something that was received well live and played really well live. I just felt like I was missing certain songs in the set, so I completed this set for myself in my mind. That idea was definitely there. I don’t know if I thought it about so much while I was creating, but I definitely thought about it beforehand, so it’s somewhere in there. But it’s definitely not like, “Oh, that song’s really cool, but I don’t want to do it because I don’t know what it’s gonna be live.” That never comes up. In the back of my head, I knew I wanted to make something that would come across well live. I didn’t realize I would actually do it, that it would work that well. But, I had some… I don’t know how to put it. So many different layers of thoughts. But yes, it’s definitely thought of for sure.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Lennon, McCartney, Lou Reed, Beethoven, Bob Marley, The Talking Heads and David Byrne, The Zombies, Beastie Boys, David Bowie, The Clash. It’s so many. It’s like an endless list. Sometimes someone might have a bigger catalog that you follow, someone might only have a song, but that song in the perspective of you writing could be just as big. There’s a song by Wire called “Champs” that I love very much. Obviously, their repertoire in my head isn’t as big as, let’s say, The Beatles or Guided By Voices, who I grew up listening to and had a huge impact on me. Or Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison. But, in the perspective of creating, they have the same influence because they’ve given me something new, you know what I mean? You keep on adding all of these things and you end up writing better songs because you have not better quality, but a lot of different things to filter yourself through when you’re writing.
How long have you been writing songs?
I wrote my first song at probably 12 or 14. Somewhere around there. I was probably 15 when I four-tracked a few of them and I thought to myself that it was still terrible, but it was getting better. I just remember falling in love with it and trying. I remember the first time where it actually felt like, “I’ve got something different than whatever crap I had before.” All those little baby steps took me to a different place, ever so slowly.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I think so… kind of. I’m certain my dad might remember it more, or my mom. It was probably like a Buddy Holly thing.
What do you think is the most perfect song ever written?
Wow. That’s tough. It all depends on emotions, which are constantly changing. I’m going to go with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. I think it’s perfect. I think it’s absolutely perfect. If anything can be.