I was supposed to interview Albert Hammond Jr in 2007, some time around the release of his catchy second record ¿Cómo Te Llama?. But that interview was mysteriously cancelled and never rescheduled.
The cancellation always hung over me. AHJ was someone I was interested to speak with, given my admiration for his influential guitar-work and songwriting. When I heard news of long-awaited third solo record, Momentary Masters, I again threw my hat in the ring for an interview. When a time was scheduled and then cancelled the day before, I considered an unidentified curse at work. Fortunately, history did not repeat and a new time was organised. I’m glad it did, because AHJ was polite and gave thoughtful answers and generally seemed humble for someone who is a member of one of the world’s biggest rock bands.
Here is the full transcript of our interview, in which we chat would the making of Momentary Masters, his approach to lyrics, battling self-doubt and how he fell in love with music all over again.
The album has been out for about a week now. Have you been happy with the response?
Yeah, it seems people really like it. So that makes me happy, for sure.
Does the week leading up to the release of your own record feel any different to that of a new Strokes album? Are there more nerves?
I don’t really like to compare things like that. It doesn’t really do anything for me, you know?
You release your EP, AHJ, in 2013. Did you view that release as an opportunity to set the tone for your next full-length record or did you wipe the slate clean after that?
I don’t ever really wipe the slate clean, I always feel like you learn stuff then you go in a different direction naturally. You kind of do throughout a whole record. On Momentary Masters, ‘Power Hungry’ was the last song we did. And it was in a different place in the sounds we were getting than other songs that we were doing.
I guess I never really think of it like that, it’s just a consistent thing. I don’t think I need to erase anything. It always starts new in a way, but in the knowledge of having done it many times before.
Are you conscious of avoiding repeating yourself as a songwriter? Does that factor into your thinking?
Let’s see… I never fully go, “Let’s go and make a record.” Maybe that was the idea in the back of my head, but that seemed like a lot of pressure. I just had songs I was excited about that felt different. And this band was exciting me how we were playing together. So the idea was, “Let’s see how these songs, which are exciting already, mix with this band. Let’s see what happens with that.” That started a chain reaction for things to make place. I can look back at it now and say this happened and that happened, but at the time it’s just a process.
So it was just a case of getting together with the band and seeing what came out?
Yeah. I have songs for another record but I’ll just never fully say it out loud. I just see what happens. Maybe it all falls apart and nothing good comes out of it. And I think, “Shit, why did I tell everyone I was making a record.”
That’s why I’ve said in press that I feel like more of a frontman now, more of someone who’s confident in wanting to get out in front of the crowd and say, “Hey, I’m here, check me out.”
Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
I’m never really a perfectionist. I’m really neat and aesthetics are important, that definitely comes into tone and how songs are pieced together, and parts. But never a perfectionist. I don’t know if I believe in that. If anything [this time], I was more focused in my process, I gave it more time. I tried it a different way than I had in the past.
When I was 26, 27, when I started with my first solo record, I just wanted to get out of my apartment and finish songs. I didn’t even think I’d tour it or finish a record. I’d already played shows and was in a big band, and I remember playing my first secret show just to feel how it was, and I felt like it was the first time I was ever on stage. So I bloomed late, I had to go through all these things that created this record.
Do you feel like you’ve pushed yourself vocally on Momentary Masters?
For sure, I feel like I always do though. Even on the first one I was pushing myself even on my four-track recordings. When I’m left alone, from when I was younger, they would sound like this Jay Reatard song ‘No Time’ and I would just sound like I was on a cassette tape and all distorted – I love that sound. Most people hate it, but that’s me if I’m left by myself. Gus, who is my best friend but also produced and engineered the record – and more than that, I feel like he’s a continuous person who always pushes, and we trust each other in a way that we get to focus on the things that we do. But we’ll always help each other out. We’ll come in and help each other out, like “What were you doing there? That was cool.” If it was something I was doing. That’s what happened when we did ‘St. Justice’, we had the song and I had a distorted keyboard over the whole thing, and I started playing an outro part and he was like, “Whoa, what was that!?” And that got me more excited and I was like, “Oh, shit, maybe this can go over the whole song.” Then the whole song changed. It went from being this droney thing to having this riff over the whole song that doesn’t stop. Stuff like that.
But on this record [Gus Oberg] wouldn’t let me do just whatever. And I feel like I was ambitious in some of my melodies. I know I was because I’ve been practising since the album’s been out and only now can I begin to sing them well. On record it doesn’t matter so much because you can spend all day doing it and shred your voice and just be like, “Okay, let’s just do it again tomorrow.” You can’t do that if you want to tour [laughs]. That’s why I’ve said in press that I feel like more of a frontman now, more of someone who’s confident in wanting to get out in front of the crowd and say, “Hey, I’m here, check me out.”
So you don’t give any thought to how the songs might translate to the stage?
You can tell. It was more [like that] on the other times I was recording because I didn’t have a band. With my first and second record, I had that the most. I didn’t have a band so I was making ten demos and playing with just a drummer. Gus and I made demos of every song on the second record before we went into the studio. So that’s where you can lose what it’s going to sound like live. But from the EP and this album I knew kind of right away. You could tell. You might have to tweak things slightly, but I had a whole band here so we could play the song in the studio before it was recorded.
Now that the album is finished and there is perhaps more objectivity, waht are your favourite aspects of Momentary Masters and what you have achieved on it? Both sonically and lyrically, are there particular moments you’re proud of?
Yeah, they always change and fluctuate depending on my mood when I listen to the record. But the chorus in ‘Coming To Getcha’, both lyrically and melodically, is one of my favourites. I love the riff and the harmonies in ‘Caught By My Shadow’. The chorus in ‘Drunched in Crumbs’. There’s a little bit in all of them. There’s definitely a line in all the songs – I could make a collection of all my favourite lines. I felt it as it was happening but when it was done being mixed and I could sit back, before that I was so much in the process that I couldn’t really enjoy it. But after it was all mixed and done and a little time had passed, I got to get excited. Every time we leaked a song or a video came out, I could hear the song as though I was a stranger to it. Like people were hearing it online for the first time, and that would always be really exciting. That would always be really exciting and the fact that I could like it even more was always a good sign. Because sometimes when you realise it’s out, you’re like, “Ooo.” But I didn’t feel that way at all with this record. Something about it feels different.
It’s good that you can listen to it so quickly. I know some artists put out records and can’t listen to them again for many years.
I like what I do and I also like learning. And, also, I can’t help listening to it. I practice it. Trust me, that gets boring. But that’s the whole thing, finally when it’s boring to you it’s exciting to everyone else.
From a lyrical perspective, do you see any recurring themes on the record?
They always change. I was in LA and going through a different feeling – a different emotion – and I was going through one of the songs, and it was almost like my past self was writing to my future self about something, because it made sense in a way that it didn’t before. I thought it was about something else. There were themes and even when I was writing there were things that stuck out. A lot of times your favourite lyrics lean you towards many directions. I never like going through and explaining [songs] part by part. I feel like people get that in their gut or they don’t. It’s like in school when they tell you everything about a book – you never like the book when they do that. “Oh, great. Thanks.” Then you read it by yourself – there’s a gut reaction that you have towards art, seeing a photo or a poem. There’s ways you can take it apart, to see its structure – I understand that too. But for most people, for fans and stuff, half of it has to be entertainment that hits them and the other half that brings you those goosebumps. And you’re always trying to do a little bit of both. Create the excitement and make them feel something. Some times it works better than other, and different people connect to different songs.
That was rough because I didn’t know if I loved my instrument anymore, which was a weird thing. The guitar sitting in my room looked like it was mocking me…”
If a song is open to interpretation it can mean many different things to many different people.
For sure. And they do to me, and I wrote it. But I also listen to other people’s songs and all of a sudden I’ll connect to a lyric and I’ll feel like I’ll understand myself, or the world or that person better. Sometimes lyrics aren’t like that, they’re just a thing to sing along and it’s fun. Not everything has to have some deep meaning, you know.
There was an 18-month period where you didn’t write much at all. With the making of this record, do you feel like you’ve struck a vein of creativity? Have you continued to write new material since making Momentary Masters?
Yeah, those 18 months… that was rough. But that was rough because I didn’t know if I loved my instrument anymore, which was a weird thing. The guitar sitting in my room looked like it was mocking me. I would stress about what I was going to do. What else do I love? It was the same as being alone. Are you going to fall in love again? That’s kind of what happened to me with music, because I fell in love with it. To not have it there felt like a very deep break-up, something that had always been there for me… in my private times.
I don’t go, “I’m going to make a record” and then sit down and write. Obviously now, with all this practising [for the tour], you tend to write a little less because you’re focused on performance. But then that dies down. I have a bunch of songs already for another album just from the constant work, that we never got to doing for this album. But I’ll start putting [ideas] in folders, or start doing my own demos or if I feel like something’s really excited and I want to bring it to [the band], maybe at soundcheck, and go, “Let’s just do this.”
The name of the album, Momentary Masters, references the momentary thrill you have when finishing a song and then how quickly that goes away. Is that part of what drives your creativity? Are you compelled to chase that thrill? Or is it because you feel like your best work is still ahead of you?
All of those sound like good reasons. I don’t think it’s one thing. I think you could be the most excited you’ve ever been and feel like you’ve discovered a song and want to show it to everyone, then a minute later feel like you want to quit. All those emotions go in there, it’s just trying to balance them out. Balance out the confidence to be able to build your ego to be able to do something – why would you believe you could do it? – and then give you enough self-doubt to not make you an asshole.
It just reminds me of when I was a kid and I wrote a melody, there’s nothing better than that first second where you feel this raw melody. If you played it for anyone they’d be like, “What are you doing?” They almost wouldn’t hear it, but you’d hear the beginnings of something in your head. That’s fun once you’re getting to where I am here. I’m a little more confident with stuff because you can believe in yourself at an earlier point. When you first start, you’re scared and you throw things away because they’re very delicate, those early stages. They can be shot dead very easily.
I still get a thrill from it. I feel like a late bloomer and I’ve just begun, as ifthis was my debut record – “Of course I need to write more songs, I’ve only made one record!”
Do you have any plans to tour this album in Australia?
I am trying my hardest to get down in February… they have a festival called…. Laneway?
That’s the one.
Ok, cool. I remembered the name. Jesus Christ. I feel like I’m a Jersey gangster with a bat, trying to get down. Sometimes when I’m trying to get down to festivals I don’t stop harrassing my people who don’t stop harrassing people. They’re like, “Can you book him? Can you book him?” I want to go there more than anything. I feel like Australia is one of my favourite places to be and tour. If I don’t make it then, I’m going to try to make it on my own. Because I’ve never been there [as a solo artist] and I feel like I have an awesome setlist of songs now. I’ve just finished practising and I was like, “Wow, what a fun hour and twenty minutes I can do.” I really want to get down there.