Catch Albert Hammond Jr in L.A., Taking Guitar Lessons

The erstwhile Strokes guitarist talks to GQ about his latest solo album and life after NYC.

Catch Albert Hammond Jr in L.A. Taking Guitar Lessons

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Strokes lead guitarist Albert Hammond Jr helped define NYC cool in the ‘00s with his signature three-piece suits—typically accessorized with a cigarette and a “what, me worry?” grin—and guitar leads that were flashy but perfectly synced to his band’s impeccable minimalist songs.

Hammond moved to Los Angeles in 2019 and became a father two years later. (He’s married to restaurateur Justyna Hammond Jr) But he has maintained his unflappable cool even while keeping extremely busy. In 2018, he released his power-pop solo album Francis Trouble, inspired by his twin brother who died before they were born. In 2020, the Strokes released the Grammy-winning, Rick Rubin-produced album The New Abnormal, which proved to be a comeback for the band after close to a decade of relative inactivity. And now he’s returning with the new Melodies on Hiatus, a winning 19-song reflection on mortality that mixes elements of new wave and indie pop while keeping room for the type of just-bombastic-enough soloing he made his name on.

Hammond, who first stepped out on his own with the crisp 2006 album Yours to Keep, has remained prolific ever since, recently expanding into co-writing songs for the likes of Natalie Imbruglia and acting in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. GQ Zoomed in with Hammond to talk about his new album and what he’s learned in his two decades as a public figure.

GQ: So you’ve been very prolific in the past few years. As you get older, do you find yourself wanting to make the most of your time?

Albert Hammond Jr: I don’t know. I don’t feel prolific. I actually feel quite lazy. I think I like getting lost in song. Ideally, I’d really just like to practice guitar and play (for) the Strokes and maybe try to write songs for other people. But I do love music and it’s not lost on me, the time I have to explore the instrument.

You feel you are still exploring your instrument?

Yeah, always. I feel close to reaching a point where I’m going to change if I put in the work, I just gotta not procrastinate. I found this really cool guitar teacher, so maybe that’ll help me do it. I’m definitely not bored of learning things.

I think some people are virtuosos and that’s definitely not me. I think I’ve done as good as I could with what I know. But I always say, I think if I could do that good with what I know, if that was better I could do even more. But to be honest, to be really great at something, you gotta sacrifice quite a lot. And so it’s hard to find that balance because most people who are really great are kind of viewed as dicks because you have to be a little bit of a dick and be a little selfish.

Is taking lessons humbling?

I don’t know. I don’t walk around thinking about all that I accomplished. If what I have is what people think of being a rock star it feels very different than how I imagined it when I was a kid. So I don’t know if I need humbling. I don’t really feel like my ego’s that big.

The top tennis players have coaches—like, the number one tennis player has a coach, a mental coach, all this stuff. When I’m learning stuff with a teacher, it’s just like having mentors in your life. I feel like that’s for some reason—frowned upon isn’t right. But for some reason, it’s maybe viewed as you didn’t figure something out.

You have a song on the album called “Old Man.” Has aging been on your mind?

Time is kind of an equaling factor for everyone. No matter what you feel or say when you’re young, eventually you’ll get older and look back and be like, Oh, shit. You’ll see it from so many different points of view.

As you get older, you realize, especially now, we really live at a time where people love to point fingers at other people and forget how human we are and fallible and the mistakes we make. And in time you can kind of get the ability to see it. You create a lot more room for love and understanding as time goes on, the longer you’ve been here. So it’s more just not having the same judgment I did as when I was younger.

I read an interview with you where you said that The New Abnormal gave The Strokes a new, younger generation of fans, but sometimes when you play older songs, those fans don’t recognize them. How does that feel?

Yeah, it was just funny, because you expect Oh, when we rip into this song, it’s a crowd favorite. Honestly we could go and just do the new record and then fill in with stuff. We don’t play much from the fourth and fifth album and I, when I look at our top 25 [on Spotify], there’s actually quite a bit from the fourth and fifth album.

So it’s pretty cool to see. I guess for me what’s exciting is though there’s such great success for the first three [albums], the later three have as much success in [terms of] people wanting to hear certain songs. So we just noticed, if we were to play [New Abnormal cut] “Selfless” right off the bat, or even like a song like “Chances” from Comedown Machine, I think the crowd would erupt more than hearing “Hard to Explain.”

On The New Abnormal, you gave Billy Idol some royalties on the song “Bad Decisions.” Was that out of an overabundance of caution?

Yeah, I guess the world sits in a space now where you deal with it beforehand instead of after. I don’t know. It’s not something I think about or care about—there’s certain things that are gonna have inflections, whether you’re trying or not. There’s times where there are similar melodies and you’ve never even heard the song.

It’s not the centerpiece of the song for me. So I feel like as long as it’s not the centerpiece, it’s kind of all right. I see it in comments where people hear songs and, “Oh, this sounds like this.” And I don’t think they have any idea what they’re talking about. Sometimes, they’ll be so off.

Did you pay attention to the recent copyright lawsuit with Ed Sheeran and the Marvin Gaye estate?

I was gonna say I try to avoid anything with Ed Sheeran.

I did not. I mean I remember, I think suing someone for a vibe is very weird. I thought [the lawsuit against] Robin Thicke was bad. That shouldn’t have happened. That was just strange, especially [because] that’s been happening for so long with sampling.

I don’t think it diminished Marvin Gaye. When I heard it, I wasn’t like, Oh, I just wanna listen to this and forget Marvin Gaye.

Switching topics a little bit, what do you remember about playing the Bernie Sanders rally in 2020?

I remember everything—I’ve got a pretty good memory. It was amazing to meet him. It was amazing to actually meet—[is it] name Cornel West? He came backstage and we just spoke for like 10, 15 minutes.

It felt electric—like you were in the middle of something that was alive. You can feel that at a show, but this wasn’t because we were playing. There was just an energy that was already there when they were speaking, and that comes from people. People bring that.

When that happens, they’re having a conversation in between their gut or their subconscious or something ’cause like, the crowd sends out something, it goes with the speech, people feel feelings, it goes back, that’s how the room feels electric ’cause it’s stuff that’s being said without words.

Like many people who loved your music from the start, I started dressing like the Strokes. So thank you for that. How did the band come upon a signature look? Was it something you guys talked about or does it come naturally to you?

I mean it’s so tough to talk about, because things are organic that you can’t explain. When you’re a group of people, you share dialogue, you’ll share reflections of how you speak, how you walk and just like things mesh all together when you’re that young and you’re hanging out all the time. Do you talk about that stuff when you’re younger? Of course.

It’s not just based on, you wanna look cool, you’re trying to, exude something, to women or to people in general, that we’re a band. You’re 18, you’re gonna talk about your stage moves, you’re gonna talk about your performance. What part of the show was boring. The same way you would about songs.

At the time there were a lot of bands where it was a dude and out of focus people. We want it to be perceived as the way pop groups were perceived back in the day where you knew everyone. It seemed more interesting if you knew everyone. You could like the band because you liked one [member]. So you had more of a chance to be liked, if people knew five people than if they just knew one.

It felt really cool to be 18 with those guys, before anything was going on. We were just playing music. It still can feel like that sometimes backstage. We’re just in a different room and a lot of time has passed.

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