Albert Hammond Jr. Comes Clean: Addiction, Music, and Making Out for the Camera
"Aside from The Strokes [drugs were] probably the second biggest thing in my life, changing-wise and discovery-wise." The guitarist talks turning points, The Strokes, and overcoming addiction.
Photo by Jason McDonald.
Albert has been working out. I know this because he shows up at the Wiz Kid Management offices in New York’s East Village, in black gym clothes. I can also see the effects of this because his t-shirt is shorn of its sleeves and his upper arms are actually pretty ripped. They’re certainly more cut than when I met first met him on a frosty February evening in Brighton, England, in 2001. Back then he was wiry and a few months shy of his 21st birthday, and The Strokes— particularly when intoxicated—were like excitable puppies, hugging and partying and falling over each other while England fell in love. Back then I was so nervous I forgot to unpress the pause button on my dictaphone.
That was the beginning and in the 12 months that followed, New York became the epicenter of cool, with one Converse-clad foot kicking the door closed on the 90s, nu-metal, and jeans wide enough to house a family of four in one pant leg. Over a decade later, the band’s impact on the landscape of modern rock (and yes, the way people dress too) cannot be overstated. Earlier this year The Strokes released Comedown Machine with little fanfare, zero press, and no tour dates, yet it still feels like their story isn’t over. Maybe that’s just my wishful thinking, but as Albert puts it, The Strokes are “very much still a band,” and the future is wide open. In any case today I’m here to talk to him about his new EP out on Julian Casablancas' label Cult Records (listen to it in full here). Recorded at Albert’s home studio upstate with his best buddy (and Strokes producer) Gus Oberg, it’s his first solo release since 2008’s ¿Cómo Te Llama? A five-song collection where dancing guitar lines are offset with punchy downstrokes, Albert’s exacting compositions excel in the moments where the basslines have time to breath (47 seconds into “Stranger Tidings”), and in that sweet spot that hovers between disconsolate and content. When I ask about the lyrics for the EP’s standout track, “Cooker Ship,” Albert explains that the title came to him randomly, and only later did he connect the words to The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” where Lou sings: “I wish that I’d sailed the darkened seas/On a great big cooker ship.” (In fact Lou sings “clipper ship.”)
“Sometimes the best lines create meaning around it,” he says. “Afterwards when it was done, my mom said, ‘Oh, that line “How did I get in a jam like this?” felt so drug related.’ I was like, ‘Huh?’ I didn’t think so. Maybe I should just be like, I totally wrote it about that. Maybe subconsciously it was there.”
You could also attribute, “Self-inflicted nightmare/Lately I’m just not quite myself,” as an allusion to Albert’s addiction to heroin, ketamine, and coke, which at its peak saw the guitarist shelling out “a grand or two at the weekend” to get his fix. Now clean, with even alcohol off the table, it’s only in the last few months that he’s started discussing his struggle openly.
“I can’t tell yet—I guess I’ll know when I’m older—if creating a myth through interviews is what my personality wants,” he says. “Some people are really good at that, but if I’m being totally honest, which I don’t mind being, I always like being myself. Why would I be fake to create a weird quiet myth about me?”
Noisey: Let’s talk about the video for “St. Justice.” I was like, woah, Albert’s got his top off, he’s got his guns out, there’s a bedroom scene…
Albert: I made a joke, like wouldn’t it be funny to do a video where I was just making out with someone and then coincidentally, Julian was like, “You know you should do a video where you’re making out with someone.” It’s unexpected because usually that sort of thing is reserved for pop bands and we thought that was funny. It was just the director and myself and Nina [Dutch model Nina de Raadt], just three people, gorilla-style video making. For what we were doing it feels kind of innocent. Weirdly enough, I learned a lot about making out on camera.
What are your tips?
When you do it realistically—we tried it first, as you would if you had a girl over—and it looked terrible. I’m serious. You’re just watching it and you’re like, “We can’t put that out!” It doesn’t feel like what you’re doing in your head. When you do it more like a dance with the camera, with all the angles and it feels more fake, it looks so real. I watched it for the first time and I was like, “Did I do something with her? Is this going to be bad?”
So you had to do lots of make out takes?
Yeah, we discovered a lot of things—kind of like how the EP came about—while we there in the moment. Like the director Laurent [Briet] doing the spinning technique. It took five or 10 times before we could get the focus right, which was good because we felt more natural by the time he actually got the takes. It’s was weird though, like all of a sudden, now we’re going to do the kissing scene! I almost wanted to say, can we kiss for a second so this is more normal.
How did your girlfriend deal with it?
Well Nina has a boyfriend too. I imagine they're both not going to see it.
Yeah I don’t know, maybe in time. In their heads I think it was weirder than it actually was. It’s not romantic. It’s not like when you have someone over to your house. Or you made out with someone for an hour and then they left. That would be different. This is very, 'Should we do it more like this or that?' I mean sure, it can be arousing, I’m not gonna lie, you’re lying on top of a naked girl. I am a man afterall. Haha!
You also invited the world into your home! Bold.
Yeah, I didn’t really even think about that to be honest. Technically that was just budget stuff, which is cool. There’s a lot of restrictions when making videos in today’s world. They don’t give you what they used to, especially if you’re on an indie label.
Jules is holding the purse strings so tight!
Come on Jules! Nah, but it’s the same as shooting the “Carnal Cruise” video upstate. My apartment looks cool and in a weird way that’s kind of why I didn’t even ask my girlfriend to do it. A few people said, “Why don’t you use your girlfriend?” But that just feels so personal. That’s who I actually make love to, do I actually want to fake show that? This is just acting, it’s whatever: we didn’t do anything before, we didn’t do anything after.
What inspired it?
We were watching these foreign films like Breathless and this other one. I can never remember the name. Burt Reynolds did a remake of it, but that’s not the good one, the good one is the one from the 70s. It’s about a man who likes women and he’s just walking around looking at women on the street and it reminds me of what you think of when you’re walking around in the streets! [The film he’s talking about is: L'Homme qui aimait les femmes aka The Man Who Loved Women].
The title “Carnal Cruise” makes me think about an orgy on a cruise ship with some old age pensioners. Of course that’s not what’s happening in the song… or is it?
Ha. No, no. The title just originated from the opening guitar riff. It sounded raw and carnival-y, but carnal sounded better. Also, when we play it live, with the drums and the riff and everything’s pounding away really hard, it’s intense. It’s only a two-minute song, but after we’re done everyone’s dead. It felt like the rawest song I’d made at that point. Also a cruise is a journey. Raw journey wouldn’t have been as good.
No. It sounds very wrong.
Raw journey just sounds like you masturbated all night. Haha! The Tale of a Pre-Pubescent Boy and his Raw Journey!
On a par with an old people orgy on a cruise. So you’re about to go on tour and the first time you performed solo in four years was at Ben Curtis’ benefit show on in August. How was it playing again? [Ben from School of Seven Bells was diagnosed with T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma earlier this year.]
I’m glad I got to play that, it’s so close to home. It’s also hard—like, should I play —but at the same time, no, it should be a festival of survival and positivity. I could have left that night and played another show. It was surreal. I felt like I was tripping. I was looking around and everything looked too real, almost like I was on drugs, it was very strange.
Were you surprised it inspired that reaction?
I mean I’d like to say I’m pleasantly surprised by any good reaction in my brain. There’s nothing really higher than being buzzed off a show. I think that’s why people keep performing. When you’re there you’re like, “What the hell am I doing? I don’t want to do this!” And then when you’re done or you have a good show, it’s the best, when the audience understands the music and it all came from a weird little ego spot where you believed you could do something. It almost seems pretentious, like, "I can write songs!" I feel pretty comfortable saying that I’m not an amazing guitar player, but I know that given the time I can come up with something that’s interesting and something that sounds like me, and that’s hard, to sound uniquely yourself. For what we do in rock. It’s almost more important than sounding amazing.
A few months back you started opening up about your addiction to drugs and you could have not said anything. Why did you decide to talk about it at all?
I could have not said anything, but it would just seem weird for where I am now to not explain the past—in the same that I end up going through Strokes stuff to explain where I am now. I just felt comfortable saying it. It didn’t feel therapeutic, it just felt normal. "Where’ve you been, what’ve you been doing?" "I did this for a while, it didn’t work out, thank God I got out of it.' Sometimes when you get out of it you find little cues to help you stay on track, little disciplines. You almost feel like you want to share and the problem is, let’s get it out of the way, the first little chunk of it and then in time I can start sharing other things from it. But it was a huge part of my life. Aside from The Strokes it was probably the second biggest thing in my life, changing-wise and discovery-wise. It wasn’t until looking back that I realized, I did do a lot of drugs. Even before I was doing a lot, I was doing a lot. It’s interesting when you find out you’re a person who is curious about discovering such a path. There’s people who can keep it in line and they don’t want to push it.
Did you get involved with that stuff because you wanted to escape something or because you were curious about what it would bring out in you…
I think you start in celebration. You’re young and it’s just fun to get out of your head, you play shows, and it’s fun to party. It opens new doors, sure, but if you don’t stop you can’t use those new doors it opens. And then you find one [drug] that works a bit better, that maybe quiets your mind or you haven’t really understood why you think a certain way. You haven’t really spent too much time working on yourself, so you just find these things to go by, and then you just take it somewhere else. That’s when it’s no longer a party, that’s when you wake up in the morning and you do it. And then you don’t even really function when you do it. Why are you doing it? Because you’ve reached a point where you just don’t care. People are like, “Don’t you know you’re hurting yourself, you’re gonna kill yourself?” And you’re like, “Eh, good.”
What was the tipping point to stop?
Everyone who does it will tell you that you hit points where you’ve just done so much and you’re so broken, one day your body decides: “I can’t.” Then you deal with the withdrawal and you stop for a few months and then you slowly drink again, so you’re not really stopping. I hit a point where it was just very obvious. It was two roads: they were both leading to places I didn’t know, but one looked very negative. And for whatever reason—the way I grew up, something in my DNA, a thought I had—I felt very clearly through whatever pain I knew I was going to go through, I had to take the other one. It’s like a self-inflicted pain. You don’t want to feel pity because you caused it to yourself, but it’s also something that’s hard to get out of. At first you kind of get courage from it, “I’m so fucked up and I got through it,” which is kind of silly that’s not really courage.
What’s your relationship with New York these days? Is it hard to be in a city that’s perpetually so adolescent, or not adolescent but…
I know what you mean. The beauty about every big city and New York is that you can pick and choose the different worlds you want to live, the many worlds that New York offers. Not because I don’t want to, but when I’m working or busy I find it hard to have the energy to stay up all night and still have all the energy to do what I’m doing. When I do go out, it’s fun, although I definitely don’t do it as much as I used to. More because I don’t find the same enjoyment out of the repetition. When I was younger the seven days a week thing was amazing—it was what I strived for. Now I enjoy it, I interact with people, but I don’t need to do it all the time. If you’re not drinking you realize a lot of the time it’s the same conversation so you just do other stuff! At first it’s hard to break any kind of cycle that you’re used to. I still love it, I just use it in a different way.
And sometimes I enjoy getting out of the city to my place upstate, but I was like that when I got that place and I was still partying. People always say about The Strokes, “Oh you’re different now,” and it’s like, maybe that would have just happened going from 20 to 30 anyways. People say, “Oh you’re not a gang like you were when you were 18.” Well yeah, everyone besides Fab and me is married with kids. If we were like that they would be the worst fathers ever! You can’t be the same person all the time and would you want to.
Do you miss that period?
I miss that like I miss anything, because life is a series of things that go away.
No—but in a beautiful way! And then you get something new and it’s different and you enjoy that. I bet I’ll be 40 and it’ll be, "Do you miss when you were 30?"
Yeah! Thanks! I like to think that if I make it to 70, I’d miss all these different times, but also, I’m happy with where I am now because I’ve acquired all these aspects of life and understandings. Even though it might not culminate in a certain answer, it’s still part of what that journey is. I don’t think I’d want to live in a groundhog loop of being 18. I like to think about how I’m spending the moment so I don’t miss that. You never know how it’s going to… I say this stuff and people get bummed out, but I think that’s the awe I have with life and why I’m not religious. Everything is so amazing: the trees, the mountains, the stars, the chemicals in us that make us, the impulses in our brain that seem magical but at the same time are making us do this, yet we feel like we have free will. It’s pretty spectacular.
Albert upstate. You're welcome. P.S. Those are slippers not Crocs. Phewf.
Albert Hammond Jr. Tour Dates
11/04 – New York, NY - Marlin Room at Webster Hall *
11/05 – Teaneck, NJ - Mexicali Live *
11/06 – Philadelphia, PA - Johnny Brenda’s *
11/08 – Boston, MA - Brighton Music Hall *
11/09 – Albany, NY - The Bayou Café *
11/10 – Toronto, ON - Phoenix Theater *
11/11 – Detroit, MI - The Magic Bag #
11/13 – Chicago, IL - Double Door #
11/14 – Minneapolis, MN - Varsity #
11/15 – Kansas City, MO - The Riot Room #
11/17 – Denver, CO - Moon Room #
11/19 – Santa Ana, CA - Constellation Room #
11/20 – Los Angeles, CA - El Rey Theater #
11/21 – San Francisco, CA - Slims #
11/23 – Portland, OR Hawthorne #
11/24 – Seattle, WA - Chop Suey #
11/25 – Vancouver, BC - Venue #
* = w/ Nightbox
# = w/ Rathborne
12/2 - Paris - Maroquinerie
12/3 - Amsterdam - Bitterzoet
12/5 - Brighton - The Haunt
12/7 - Glasgow - Broadcast
12/8 - Manchester - Night & Day Café
12/9 - Leeds - Brudenell Social Club
12/10 - London - XOYO
12/12 - Milan -Magnolia
12/13 - Rome - Circolo Degli Artisti
12.14 - Bologna - Covo
Kim is Noisey’s Style Editor. She’s on Twitter - @theKTB