In London’s Covent Garden, Strokes guitarist/keyboard player Albert Hammond Jr sighs and says: “It’s terrible. Half of you almost wishes the band was over, so you could mourn it, and the other half of you is like, ‘Why are we wasting such an amazing opportunity?’ We are so good together and it’s hard to find that connection with people. I would love to know about the future of the band as much as you would. We would all like to know.”
The source of his frustration is not the future of The Strokes as a live band (later that day, they perform a triumphant British Summer Time set to 50,000 fans in Hyde Park), but getting the band ready to record a follow-up to 2013 fifth album ‘Comedown Machine’. They’re a tight unit again, Hammond says, but there are always complications.
“Our managers make the first contact – they’re running the machine,” he explains, revealing something about the group’s inner workings. “A new album has been in the works since we did [New York festival] The Governors Ball last year; it’s just been figuring that out and doing more shows in the meantime. We went into the studio, but it seems silly to even speak about that because nothing’s set. The machine behind us is even further behind wherever we were – at the beginning of writing, I guess.”
In this period of uncertainty, Hammond has taken fortune into his own hands and made a third solo album, ‘Momentary Masters’ – his first since 2008’s ‘¿Cómo Te Llama?’ That’s a long time between records, but in the intervening years much has happened to Hammond: two Strokes albums have been recorded and released – 2011’s ‘Angles’, as well as ‘Comedown Machine’ – and he’s got off drugs. A year after ‘¿Cómo Te Llama?’ came out, he was admitted to rehab, later revealing had been injecting a combination of heroin, cocaine and ketamine up to 20 times a day.
“Nothing can be more dangerous than injecting drugs,” he says, “and I was mixing drugs. As you get higher, you end up shaking uncontrollably because you’ve had too much. I started hearing voices, too. That was weird; I’d lock myself indoors for days because I thought could hear people outside.”
Asked how he managed to get clean, he says, “The Strokes and rehab,” which is also his reason for the gap in his discography: “I spent a year or two getting fucked up, a year of undoing all that and then we wrote ‘Angles’.” He avoids laboured post-rehab talk, but he unquestionably found life hard without the routine that daily drug use offered him. As a replacement, he would fill his diary with mundane tasks – go to the shops, ride the subway – in a bid to fend off the darkness he was taking drugs to avoid.
“I felt mildly retarded when I first stopped doing drugs,” he continues. “I couldn’t make a decision for, like, the first year. I was just lost. I remember crying at TV shows like How I Met Your Mother. You can spiral down into thoughts of not wanting to exist so easily. It’s crazy how fast your mind can go to the dark part of your soul.”
These days, Hammond is a picture of health. He plays football between gigs (a game the night before in London saw Strokes members playing the Foo Fighters – minus Dave Grohl, obviously) and seems at peace. He returned to his solo career with the 2013 release of his ‘AHJ’ EP on bandmate Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records label, and by summer of 2014 he had enough material written to record a full album.
Did quitting drugs spark his creativity? Eventually, but he was initially concerned: “At first, I thought, ‘How can I be creative without drugs?’ I actually find that existing in a place where you think about things logically, as I can now, can cause more creativity than when you’re on an emotional rollercoaster [caused by drug use]. You live in a space where, if you’re happy, you just enjoy that, and if you’re sad, you just hate it. You end up doing nothing.”
Perhaps inevitably, ‘Momentary Masters’ was written and recorded in fits and starts at his home studio in upstate New York and, as an overarching theme, it tackles the polar opposites of the human psyche. “The record is about trying to understand that you can have two sides that exist in you – one pulling you towards something good and one pulling you toward something bad,” explains Hammond. “You have to learn how to use them both to your benefit. In the process of gaining knowledge, you lose innocence, but in that you find curiosity and that is where I’m sitting with this record. I’m curious again. I started listening to bands that I missed when I was teenager, like Minor Threat and the Wipers. I’ve also had The Police’s first record on repeat.”
‘Momentary Masters’ is an album that hums with the new-found energy of its creator – a man revelling in the productivity his new lifestyle allows him. It borrows liberally throughout, from song titles like ‘Born Slippy’ (see sidebar) to the riff of ‘Caught By My Shadow’, a song that Alex Turner may hear and think he forgot to include on the second Arctic Monkeys album. “Everyone said that was Arctic Monkeys when I played it,” admits Hammond of his ‘Brianstorm’ homage. “I have always been a huge fan it was bound to come out eventually, y’know?” When it’s pointed out that Arctic Monkeys probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for The Strokes, Hammond laughs and mimes taking something back that was always his.
“I’m in this place subconsciously where I wanna make things fun again,” he continues. “I like rock music that has melody, but it also makes you wanna get up and dance.” As such, ‘Momentary Masters’ is a rock album in love with pop music – the opposite of ‘Tyranny’, the album Julian Casablancas + The Voidz put out last year. Does any of The Strokes frontman’s experimental, provocative streak lie in Hammond, his former roommate? “I grew up with The Beatles, Bob Marley and Talking Heads,” he says. “I like the melody-with-rhythm aspect of music – there’s so much to discover still.”
Was Hammond not a fan of ‘Tyranny’? “I love the video for ‘Human Sadness’,” he manages. “Also, I love his [Casablancas’] lyrics and I’ve told him that I thought that his vocals should’ve been louder. What he was saying was written so well and the record felt so much about that; I wanted to hear the lyrics better.”
A future career in diplomacy could await, especially if The Strokes fail to record again – the only subject that riles him in the hour we spend together. He won’t be drawn on whether he plans to release another solo album to pass the time; he’s simply living in the moment, acutely aware of how good it feels to be clean and able to have other avenues to pursue ideas while he waits on his bandmates and management. “I’m just trying to stay on my own two feet,” he says. “If anything, this album and 2015 feels like the beginning.”