Albert Hammond Jr. Reflects on the Late 'Father Figure' Who Helped Him Overcome Addiction
"I liked the idea of a 'muted beating,'" explains Albert Hammond Jr of the frenetic debut single from his new album Francis Trouble. "In a negative sense, silence can be more damaging than being yelled at or being beaten. Positively, silence can also be useful in listening and not always having something to say. You don't need to answer someone right away just because they ask you a question."
On this dreary afternoon backstage in a greenroom at the cavernous Williamsburg venue Brooklyn Steel, Hammond Jr. isn't offering much in the way of silence. In between bites of a sandwich to fuel up for his show later that night, the acclaimed singer-songwriter, clad in white jeans and trademark ruffled hair, is extrapolating the creation of his fourth studio album, which showcases the artist at a personal and creative crossroads.
It wasn't far from here where the guitarist and his like-minded group of musician friends found themselves caught in a lighting bolt in rock n' roll history as The Strokes. The success of the band catapulted them from the grimy DIY clubs of an early 00's New York City to the American musical consciousness (they're regarded as the last great rock band by some), and helped kick off the latest garage rock era, which has been romanticized ever since.
"There's a lot of support and energy and money wanting to be put behind it which is a really nice feeling," says Hammond Jr. of his decision to release the album with Red Bull Records, his first with the label perhaps most notable for being the home of AWOLNATION. "I haven't felt like this with a label since The Strokes signed with RCA and I've never felt so connected with the business side of it. I feel like I know everyone at Red Bull and can text them. It's a weird thing; you're creating something that has nothing to do with the business side of the world in some ways and then their side is seeing what they can do with it. It feels really good."
It was the strength of Francis Trouble, and not solely Hammond Jr.'s street cred, that prompted Red Bull to take an interest in the next chapter of his winding career. A nuanced album filled with deep rumination, its ten songs feature his trademark sound (breathless, guitar-driven tracks filled with earworm riffs) that are all built on a foundation of Hammond Jr.'s inner-most thoughts, with both light and dark themes and personal lessons thrown in for good measure.
"Before you even make an album, you have so many extreme thoughts," explains Hammond Jr. of his initial process. "You can go from thinking you should never play music again to thinking what you've just done is the best thing ever that should be heard. This album started as a few ideas I was excited about making demos into. And it went from that to, 'Wow, the demos are better than I thought they'd be.' They'd sprout on each other and then you start a song that you think is just going to be okay and then within an hour it'd morph into a better song." According to Hammond, excitement about putting out another record kicks in whenever he creates something he likes, then throws away after finding something better. "That gets you going all the way to the end result. It's kind of how the universe starts: there's an explosion and then it's still moving."
That cosmic metaphor perfectly encapsulates Hammond Jr.'s state of mind both currently (he just listened to Paulo Coelho's life-affirming novel The Alchemist), as well as leading up to the creation of Francis Trouble, an album that's dedicated to Andrew Park. A former drug addict-turned counselor who has since passed away, Hammond Jr. describes Park as a "father figure." "The album is so full of life and when I met Andy I was dead, a fuck up, didn't exist anymore" he says plainly of his descent into drug use, which at one point became so dire that he found himself shooting cocaine, heroin and ketamine. "From all of his teachings and all of his words and the time we spent together, I went from a lost cause to someone who rediscovered the fun in things."
According to Hammond Jr., it was Park's unconventional approach that made his lessons all the more effective. "He was bigger than what I feel like the self-help programs that exist today. They have a lot of good things but can become dogmatic; they don't like things to morph. With Andy, I was constantly learning lessons just through talking. It was just time and energy. Energy spent towards something. You can change people's lives by actions, but it's a slow process. He taught me things that he learned. You don't understand them at first, so you sit there patiently."
Patiently simmering from the personal loss he felt from Park's death in September 2016, it was a personal revelation that also altered the singer-songwriter's creative trajectory and general view on life. While Hammond Jr. always knew he was born after his mother miscarried his twin brother (at the time his parents didn't even know Albert was also in his mother's womb), he was recently informed that a fingernail from his twin was found amongst the placenta when he was born. "People kept saying, 'Oh that's kind of dark.' And I guess it was scary for my mom at the time, but for me years later it's weirdly triumphant," he explains. "Since it was something I didn't know, it was a reminder that I lived with another human that didn't make it. It's fun to let your mind go into that. It reminds you of how life could have been different."
It's that mindset which has carried Hammond Jr. from his darkest, drug-induced days to his current at-peace state of mind. It's a perspective that he also picked up while living in upstate New York, not far from the site of the original Woodstock and among the nature of the Catskill Mountains -- another reason cited for his current Zen. "I know it sounds so simple and like I'm a hippie and I'm not one at all, but you see the stars and nature and how everything changes and dies and then it all comes back. You see the cycles."
It's also through this perspective he looks back at his years with The Strokes, which he accepts will always be a point of fascination, most recently thanks to the Lizzy Goodman oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom which zeroes in on the New York City rock revival and shows a warts-and-all snapshot of the time.
"It's for other people," explains Hammond Jr. "If I think about it, I feel dated and over. It's a time capsule. Even the worst times were beautiful. The older I get (makes me think that) I would do it all again if I could. The amount of life is more fun than nothing else. I'm very grateful to have lived a part of my dream of being a band, of actually being successful, and being a part of a time people will talk about. But I can't think about it on a daily basis, or really ever, because I don't know what that would give me. It would only hurt me creatively to get stuck in it. You can learn from it, but if you stay too long it can detract from change."
Of course, all of this doesn't mean that Hammond Jr. -- creatively vibrant, living free of drugs and seemingly at peace -- is done learning. Far from it, actually. "You're constantly learning the lessons," he points out. "Andy gave me this great sheet of life lessons. The last one was, 'Don't worry, you'll forget this every day.'"