Q&A: Albert Hammond Jr. on Addiction and the State of the Strokes
In 2009, when the Strokes began working on 2011’s Angles at Albert Hammond Jr.’s upstate New York studio, the guitarist was regularly spending up to $2,000 a weekend on cocaine, heroin and ketamine. “Everyone saw me at my worst,” he says. Hammond realized he needed to go to rehab – where, he says, “you spend hours crying and in pain.”
Today, Hammond – who just released a new solo EP, AHJ, on bandmate Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records label – is feeling way better. “Being sober, weirdly enough, you’re more creative,” he says, sitting on a couch surrounded by Strokes memorbilia at the band’s Wiz Kid Management offices in downtown Manhattan. In this exclusive interview, Hammond Jr. opens up about the making of the EP, what song Julian Casablancas thought was about him and the future of the band. “We’ve passed the point of like anger or breakups,” says Hammond. “We know fans love us and we love them and we are gonna be there with interesting and cool music.”
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I love the EP – the melodies, the arrangements, the way the solos come in and out – you just have a very specific style that no one else does.
Thanks. That was the biggest comment from people in the band, when we were mixing stuff. Like, “Wow, you really know how to fill all the pockets with these cool little riffs,” you know? I’m not the most proficient guitar player, so I’ll figure something out that is almost above my ability. So I almost have to shed it. I’ll do steps and steps and it’ll get better and better and I’ll figure it out more and more as I go in the studio. That stuff just gets you so buzzed, when you do it right.
Did these songs start before or after [The Strokes’ 2013 album] Comedown Machine?
I probably had some stuff. I didn’t have full songs. “Cooker Ship” was the first song we did. I thought it was going to be a one-off. I sent it to Julian, he really liked it, and we just started doing it and back and forth, the conversations went well. We just stopped at five because it was, you know, let’s just make an EP, do it slowly. Now, I might just try to do another one even if I start doing stuff with the Strokes again and I can’t tour the second half of it. I’m already working on some stuff. It almost feels better than making a record, because instead of spending twice the amount of time, it’s much less time.
You know how most people have writing partners? [Gus Oberg] is my engineer-producer partner. We both trust each other so much that I let go control of certain things that he’s guiding because I’m focusing on. He was a really good friend first. I mean, we started working together just because he worked at a studio. But we became friends so fast. You know when you become friends with someone, you don’t even remember? When you weren’t friends? You’re just kinda like, “When were we not friends? When I met you, weren’t we just already friends?” I have the same thing with the Strokes guys.
Speaking of the Strokes, are you still close friends?
Yeah. I mean, we’re people who have worked together for 12 years and grown up and had families and successes that have given us the ability to enjoy or do certain things or have families in general. I’m not saying you can’t have a family if you’re not successful. [You can] have time to sit and talk to yourself and ponder. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts you get if you’re successful at something like music or film or photography – any of the arts – you can sit there and think. It’s so much fun to sit there and think and wonder about the world and the universe.
[Those things] give you less time than when you were 18. When you were 18, you want pussy, drink, and your friends, you know? Conquer the world, get drunk, find a girl. You have that bond. Everyone is just like, “We need to make it.” So you’re always together. It’s the same thing when you get married and you’re like, “We’re gonna have a family.”
When we’re together, we’re like brothers. That’ll never go away. I cannot see them for forever and still, they’ll always be the biggest thing that I’ve ever had in my life. I love them all and I think, when the time is right, and we say what we’re gonna say, it’s gonna be good and then hopefully it’ll have a different story.
Did you bounce a lot of ideas for this EP off of Julian?
Yeah, for sure. I would email him stuff. It first started as e-mails because it was like, “Where are we starting from?” And then it was like, “Oh my God, I’m so excited – these songs!” Then he’d come in and just hear when we’d have it, like, 75 percent done just to get an idea and then, when we thought we were done, he would be like, “Oh, why don’t you try this part?” And sometimes it would work or sometimes it would just be terrible, but we had that openness.
Is Julian working on music?
I think he’s doing stuff. I don’t really know what he’s doing, to be honest. I don’t really ask, but it’s not because of any other reason than just usually in a positive way or you’re just selfishly working on yourself.
You’ve opened up about your addictions to cocaine and heroin in the press recently. I’m curious, how do you get to such a bad place?
If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. [Laughs.] No, I’m serious. Looking back on it, with my head on my shoulders, when you’re young you first get buzzed and it was kind of fun to try different stuff. I was always open to all of it, and then something just clicks. “This helps me focus, this helps me shut down the voice in my head.” I found this thing that helped me do that. But there’s all these other side effects that you don’t feel at first, [but] after years and years of doing it, I finally realized, “If I start doing drugs in the morning, then I don’t feel bad from the night. It all kind of weirdly so innocent at first. Then eventually you just don’t do anything. You’re just really fucked up for a chunk of time and then you just have to stop, because you have to do something. Or you’re just tired.
I was never a “maintain” guy. I was never, like, “Let’s just do just enough so that no one notices.” I was always, like, “I’ll just destroy myself for as long as I could, and then I’d be like, Ok. I need a break.” And the break wouldn’t be stopping everything, but it would just be stopping shooting up. I’d be like, “Oh, I’ll just drink, and smoke, and take pills. I’ll just slow down.” And that’s the only way you can function. Weirdly enough, whenever I’d go tour with my solo stuff, I’d always stop everything. So I’d always be in the worst place on tour. I’d be broken.
It was just a mess. I really don’t look back on any of it as romantic in any way. It hurt my relationships with people. It took you to a place where it helped you focus or it helped give you something, it then took all that away as well. You couldn’t even play music.
No. I never seemed that bad, because, I’d hide in my apartment, but I never ran out of money. I was close. I never lived on the street. But people’s bottoms are always different, you know what I mean?
How much were you spending on drugs?
I’d buy in bulk. So, a grand or two on the weekend? Coke and heroin and ketamine. And then pills to come down. It was such a positive struggle for me, coming back up, and I learned so many things about myself, and got so excited about life again, that just all these things I get to do now. Motorcycles. I’ve got my advanced scuba diving license.
I’m playing tennis and exercising. I ride my bike everywhere. I’ve been finding new things. I’ve been more creative in music and doing different videos. And just meeting different people and being around and present. I’m wonderful when I’m just on nothing. I don’t need anything to take any of the edge off. The edge is just great.
In the early days especially, 2001-2003, you guys were expected to be wild.
Well, that was still an innocent path. In 2003, that was just still cocaine and booze. Maybe that’s just what you can do, but that’s the only time you can really get away with it. It’s kind of hard to be an obnoxious punk at 30. You just become an asshole. At 19, they’re just like, “Oh, whatever.” It’s the time to do that. I had fun during those times, but I’d probably be a better guitar player, I’d probably be a smarter person, I’d probably have written better songs had I done less.
Did your addictions drive you away from the band? It’s been cited as one of the reasons for the big gap between First Impressions and Angles.
No. I think it’s easy to throw it to the guy who’s doing drugs, for sure. But life’s complicated and there’s a lot of things and there’s five different emotions. It’s like a family. I was just one of the members of the family.
Now I look back, I can’t believe I thought that was okay. You just get to a point, how many times can you do it before, one day, you just push yourself over the edge? You don’t know where that edge is. I remember sometimes just convulsing. Just trying to hold myself straight. I’d feel like I’d done too much. Just so many times, just going a little too far, and somehow making it. So that’s why I felt positive about talking about it.
Rock and roll’s relatively new, in the sense of the Fifties, Sixties, right? They invented the first sort of rock stars and they took it to excess and then the excess became bitter, tormented. Then it became okay to succeed. And we kind of brought back some of that youthful thing, that charm. I think our charm has nothing to do with the drugs or anything. I think our charm was the music. How we interacted with each other. If we didn’t do any of that, we still would have been awesome, personally.
When did you decide that something needed to change?
2009. We had been working on new stuff for Angles and I had just gone through one of my weekends again. I guess bad timing and everyone kind of saw me at my worst. I just clearly could not continue like that.
It was upstate. We were about to record some stuff at my studio upstate. When you’re that gone, you’re, not even there. So god knows what they saw. When I was showing up at the studio, I would have been up all night. I’d slept a few hours and then I’d smoke some crack or shoot some coke and I’d be like, “Too much, too much.” So I’d take a bunch of pills. You cannot do both. It must have been terrible. It must have been frightening. I was just emotionally unstable.
After that recording, did they confront you and say something needs to change?
No, it was obvious. No one who goes out even night and drinks is really that happy. But, for some reason, every once in a while, you get these bursts of light. And I’d felt that before. I’d felt that two years before. I got this burst of light and for three or four months, it was like nothing. And the problem is when you do that naturally and you’re just kind of doing it yourself, when you come back, you come back twice as strong. The same strength. If anything it’s probably more dangerous to do that. You end up doing too much. It was terrible. The withdrawal and the rehab, you just spend hours crying and in pain.
The Strokes really means something to people. But it’s surprising you haven’t done a real U.S. tour in years. Why?
Just to lay low. [Laughs.] Um, it’s not against the fans. It’s not against them. I mean, we feel that way about each other and the songs, so it’s amazing to hear that fans feel the same way. I don’t think that’ll go away. I think it will only make it better when everything starts, you know?
[Comedown Machine] was the last record for RCA, so now you can do whatever you want.
Yeah, I mean, I guess so. In so many ways, yeah. I think we’re still playing with that idea.
What do you think the future of the Strokes is?
You’re asking the wrong guy, man. [Laughs.]
But you’re in the band!
I’d ask the captain of the ship.
But you guys are still an active band, right?
Yeah. I mean I wouldn’t be sitting here in an office filled with Strokes stuff if we weren’t an active band [Laughs]. Who do you think pays for this? We’ve passed the point of like anger or breakups. We know fans love us and we love them and we are gonna be there with interesting and cool music. I can’t imagine how much time that takes, I’m not even suggesting that it’s gonna take long or it’s not. I think in the long run that might even be a big attraction for people who like us. I feel like, enjoy it, cause at some point it won’t exist anymore.
I think the ultimate thing would be is if I could open up for the band. That would be really cool. I think people would enjoy that. I haven’t even brought that up to the guys. I mean there is no, there’s no dates. I’m just booking this American thing. I can’t think further and I don’t want to like give any weird positive or negative feed on it, besides the obvious positive that we haven’t gone anywhere.
So the Strokes might tour again?
Yeah, yeah. People like watching us live. I just think when that machine starts up, it’s a Titanic you know, so it moves slowly so you just, you want to be pointing in the right direction, and when you’ve done something for 12 years in a certain way, you need to reprogram everything. And that takes time to eventually get around and figure out, and since we realized that we actually have a little bit of time and a little bit of wiggle room. Julian can foresee his stuff with Cult [Records], which makes him creatively very happy, which means he’s going to write cool songs. But other people spend time with their kids and do music and Fab is doing some amazing artwork. And I get to do this and it’s just wonderful. You get a little bit of everything. Talking about it, I feel like such a lucky asshole.