ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 11, 2006
By Steve Newton
Apparently, no one ever told Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. that you shouldn’t speak with your mouth full. When he hooks up with the Straight from his band’s management office in Manhattan, the 26-year-old rocker communicates around a bulging mouthful of salad from the Italian restaurant down the street.
On this end, his chat ‘n’ chew approach comes off as slightly rude, but hey, it is the guy’s day off. And besides, at least he’s eating healthy.
“I try to be as healthy as I can,” he claims. “You know, the healthier you are the more fun it is to fuck yourself up.”
Hammond has been fucking himself up in the company of the other four Strokes since he moved to the Big Apple from L.A., where he was born and raised. He’s the only band member who’s not a born New Yorker, actually.
“I moved to New York to go to school here and see what New York was like,” Hammond recalls. “When I ran into Julian he was already playing with them, but they needed another guitar player, and I happened to play guitar, so… I came in and auditioned and—I say auditioned, but I guess it wasn’t really an audition. They dug me, so there was the band.”
For those unhip enough not to know, the Julian that Hammond refers to is Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, son of millionaire modelling guru John. The charismatic Casablancas is the visual focus of the band, and has kept a pretty tight rein on its songwriting, although he has shown a growing tendency to share.
The first Strokes CD, 2001’s Is This It, was completely written by Casablancas, but its follow-up, 2003’s Room on Fire, featured one tune cowritten with Hammond, the standout “Automatic Stop”.
On the band’s third and latest CD, First Impressions of Earth, the three other Strokes—guitarist Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti—scored one cosongwriter credit each.
Casablancas’s willingness to let his bandmates partake in the creative process comes as a bit of a surprise, since it was his self-penned material that first caused the Strokes to be proclaimed as the saviours of 21st century rock ‘n’ roll. After the January 2001 release on Britain’s Rough Trade Records of its lo-fi three-song demo, the quintet rode a tsunami of hype from the U.K. music press that most new acts would die for. If it weren’t for that huge early boost, would the Strokes be where they are today?
“Good question,” Hammond replies, “I have no idea. I hope so. I imagine we’d probably still be playing music. But everyone gets their way that they happen, and that’s the way we happened.”
Rock scribes are a notoriously fickle bunch, though, and many of them complained that Room on Fire was simply a continuation of the Velvet Underground–inspired garage-rock heard on the multiplatinum debut. It’s clear from the opening track of First Impressions of Earth, “You Only Live Once”, that the band is looking beyond the ’70s art-punk heroes of CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City for inspiration.
Gone is the tinny production and Casablancas’s trademark vocal distortion; the formerly no-frills guitar work of Hammond and Valensi now features soaring melodic leads that sound like Tom Verlaine updated for the MySpace generation. The tighter chops, cleaner production, and more ambitious arrangements of the latest CD have drawn renewed critical praise.
For the first time, the Strokes no longer sound like the Strokes; check out the metal-glazed “Juicebox” and the stomping “15 Minutes”, the latter sounding more like the work of black-Irish pub-dwellers than blue-blooded New Yorkers.
“It definitely has different aspects to it,” notes Hammond of the current disc. “We always try to keep it to where we sound like us—I don’t think that’ll ever go away—but it definitely goes into different areas that we haven’t done. It was always in us; we were just finding the right moment and right place to say it.”
Even though tastemakers may have favoured the stylistic growth of First Impressions of Earth, it hasn’t been a massive success saleswise.
“It’s done poorly,” confesses Hammond with a laugh. “I mean, to me it seems cool, but to everyone else who expects multimillion-platinum-gajillion sales, I guess it doesn’t. But my main focus is always like, ‘Well, as long as it still makes us enough [money] to make records, and we can make them, it’s fine.’ Whatever happens happens. We should just work on gettin’ better as musicians.”
The Strokes will be doing just that, and enjoying themselves all the way, as they continue on their current world tour, which brings them to the Plaza of Nations on Wednesday (May 17). As someone who takes pride in partying, Hammond has previously sampled the infamous B.C. bud (“You’ve got very good grass up there”), but he’s not overly impressed by that fact that our beer sports a tad more alcohol than your typical Yankee brew.
“Yeah, yeah, okay—it’s stronger by a percent,” he scoffs. “I usually just drink Coronas, anyway. I like to change my latitude with a few Coronas and then move on to Greyhounds.”
Albert Hammond Jr. sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know:
On the guitar heroes he had as a kid: “I guess I liked songs more than I liked guitar players, you know. Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and John Lennon were my heroes growin’ up.”
On who he likes to listen to in his spare time: “The four new CDs I just bought was Built to Spill’s new record [You in Reverse], Flaming Lips’ new record [At War With the Mystics], My Morning Jacket, and Arctic Monkeys, so I’m listening to those right now.”
On enjoying the company of other rock groups while touring: “We made friends with the Kings of Leon and a band called the Eagles of Death Metal. We’ve been on the road with other people and haven’t become friends, but for some reason with those two bands we just clicked.”
On the strangest gig the Strokes ever played: “Probably all the strangest gigs had to be the ones we did before we were known. In Delaware we played at this lobster restaurant, and people were eating and then telling us to turn our instruments down. It’s like, ‘Well, why did you book a band, then?’”