Albert Hammond Jr. on new EP AHJ , 10th Anniversary of the Strokes' Room on Fire

To know Albert Hammond Jr. is to know his appearance just as well as his anthems. You might remember the heels of the frizzy-haired rocker's white sneakers curling in as he unleashed a napalm nightmare of a guitar solo on "Take It Or Leave It" during the Strokes' Late Show with David Letterman set in 2002. Your humble journalist's memorable Albert Hammond Jr. image was ingrained during the Strokes' 2006 performance at Club Cinema in Pompano Beach, Fla., when a robin's-egg-blue Fender Stratocaster was held against his black vest, bound by a cherry-red strap with a white lightning bolt.

Longtime fans and new ones caught Hammond on this year's feature story with NME, which showed a picture of him glancing soberly at the camera as he divulged his former heroin and cocaine habits in syringe-sharp detail. So when I spoke to Hammond over the phone -- as opposed to in person -- this past November, I knew I'd receive something beyond the bold attitude and telegenic charm of which I was accustomed. Our interview took place as he rode his tour bus up the open highway from Madison to Minneapolis, surrounded by nothing but arid vegetation and the occasional pit stops for gas.

Because shrubs and 711s aren't usually hooked up to 3G networks, our call dropped twice. Half a bar of cellular reception be damned, Hammond was sharp and eager to reminisce about the 10th anniversary of the lads' superlative but slept-on sophomore album Room on Fire as well as this year's Comedown Machine, his latest solo effort AHJ, and the dynamic of playing in a band versus venturing out on his own. It's apt that he spoke as the van was in forward motion, as it unraveled the journey of a man possessing a focused rear-view mirror when it came to his past and polished dashboard when it came to his future.

What's the biggest realization you've made about yourself since becoming sober?

It's hard to categorize life into big statements. Hmm... I've never really thought about this. I guess just learning how to be with one's self. Anything that's good takes a while.

Do you believe that sobriety has lessened your creativity? Do drugs make you more creative?

No, drugs definitely don't make you more creative. You don't give drugs that kind of power. I think they bring you into different places. If you stop using them you can still go to the places you've been with them. But I think it comes to a point where they affect the work and leave you less creative. I'm much more creative now than I've ever been.

Moving on to your solo career, what inspired the cover of your new EP, AHJ?

Oh, the dog? It seemed striking. It felt good. The cover is a mixture of an old German movie poster that we turned into our own thing. Warren Fu did the album art.

How have you grown as a songwriter between this year's EP AHJ and your previous album, 2008's ¿Cómo Te Llama?

Well, there is a pretty far gap in between them. [Laughs] In the time between those records, I wrote some songs on the two Strokes albums [2011's Angles and 2013's Comedown Machine]. In terms of growing as a songwriter, I'm just a guy who understands the craft better. I understand what I want to do with it. I think that's where I've grown. Have I fully achieved that? No, but I don't think you ever do. There's always room to grow.

In the beginning of the Strokes' career most of the songwriting credit went to frontman Julian Casablancas, but Angles and the new record Comedown Machine have shown more of a group effort. How have the band's songwriting dynamics changed over the years?

It seems like a natural progression, but Julian was always ahead of us. He never let anyone play him anything; we had to like it in the end. He had this thing and we were all attracted to it. It was powerful, and we helped in every way we could. It was his brainchild. And then as we became better musicians as time went on, it became more of a writing process between us. It's a learning curve to throw that into the mix after having defined a sound from one person's head.

The Strokes' sophomore album Room on Fire celebrated its 10th anniversary this past October. How do you feel about that record now?

I loved it then and I love it now.

What memories, whether it was from recording or touring the album, stick out to you the most?

What I remember most was that it was frustrating, because I thought we made something better than the first one. The music to me sounds different and the songs are great, but people kept comparing it to the first one and saying we didn't challenge ourselves. It was just frustrating.

It was always funny to me that critics weren't saying the album sounded bad, just too similar to Is This It.

It doesn't to me. It didn't then; it doesn't now. It sounds uniquely on its own. And what's funny is to hear everyone say that, and then you do change, and hear everyone say, "Why can't you be like that?" [Laughs] I don't think people know what they want. I think that's what I've come to learn.

One of the heroes of the Strokes, The Velvet Underground's Lou Reed, recently passed away. What was your reaction when you heard the news?

Yeah, I mean it was a very sad thing. Besides being an amazing musician, I imagine he did everything to fight for his life. It's not a nice thing for his friends and family. He affected my life very profoundly.

I remember the Strokes performing a cover of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" in 2006.

Yeah, we played it live with him at a Rolling Stone party [to honor the magazine's 1000th issue]. We shared the same booking agent, and the agent told us that he was really moved at the way we played one of his songs. He was touched, which in turn touched us, because we were trying our hardest to do it justice.

We were never close friends or anything like that, but we knew and supported each other. I think now in the later years of the band, maybe we would have been friendlier, but obviously that didn't work out.

What are some of your favorite Lou Reed songs?

"Street Hassle" is my favorite solo cut of his. As far as the Velvets: "New Age," "Pale Blue Eyes," and the album Loaded.

One thing that was always cool to me about Loaded was that even though Lou Reed was the front man who wrote all the songs, he handed off lead vocals to bassist Doug Yule on four of them because Doug could hit a higher octave. As a singer, you can reach notes that Julian can't. Have you thought about switching up the vocals on the next Strokes album?

Yeah, for sure! It's just, the politics of the band and everyone who has gotten so comfortable with Julian. But I've talked to Julian about me getting to sing a song on a record. Obviously I've made solo records so it wouldn't be that weird now [laughs]. But yeah, there's a possibility for everything. If you continue through the challenges of life you can end up doing some pretty cool stuff.

Your father is an esteemed songwriter on his own right, writing hits like "Down by the River" and "It Never Rains in Southern California." Has he imparted advice to you as a musician?

Mm, not really. We haven't bonded over music yet. I guess maybe when I was young he didn't realize how much I loved doing it, so I guess he wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons. He would push me to work harder, and say there was nothing he could do to help me. I'd be like, "Yeah, it's fine! I wasn't asking!" [Laughs]

But yeah, we haven't really bonded over music yet. When I fell in love with it, it was my own thing. Maybe that's how I was even able to do it. I don't know.

A major music mentor for you during the Strokes' early days was JP Bowersock. He was even credited on the sleeve of Is This It as the "guru." What's an example of him pushing you to do something better?

JP would always say, "It's not what you know, it's what you do with what you know." I think he's always tried to instill confidence in me. Cause when I first met him, I just wanted to learn some lead guitar stuff for fun, because I didn't see myself as a serious lead guitar player. I didn't know it then, but his goal was to change that. In early Strokes stuff, I ended up doing a lot of lead work and that instilled a lot of confidence in me.

I remember writing the "Last Nite" solo and we were figuring out something, and JP helped write the last part of it. But he was an all-around teacher. You could talk to him about music history. I remember him showing us the Mississippi Sheiks's "I've Got Blood in My Eyes For You." He showed us a different insight. You could take what you wanted and leave the rest behind.

Going back to your solo work, the AHJ EP is your first release in five years. Is there a full-length LP coming out in the near future?

I'd like to not make LPs anymore. They get a little old-fashioned. So I'm going to try to release enough songs to add up to the length of an album in a year. That's the way press and television works; you don't get too much attention. It's a little bit of a bummer.

These days, do you prefer to release solo records more than working with the Strokes?

I like both. I mean, it's not 100 percent my decision when I'm in the band. So when we're deciding stuff and what I contribute doesn't go into the Strokes, it goes to my solo work. I figure stuff out from there, and then go back to the band stuff. It's an amazing thing to have. If I have an audience, I'd like to make music for my whole life. But it's not really up to me.