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Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes on Being in a Band With Staying Power

The first member from the iconic rock band to go solo talks about the ins and outs of touring, crying to Wheatus, and what it means to pull a “Cologne”

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hello, friends, and welcome “The Annotated Road Taken,” Episode 8. This week, we’re talking to Albert Hammond Jr. from the Strokes.

The Strokes are canon, and arguably have been since the moment their debut album Is This It Came out in September 2001. Their combination of a seemingly effortless charisma and undeniably great musicianship and songs sent them straight to the pantheon. To be in any rock band that has existed in a post-Strokes world has meant that you had to reckon with their influence, either by defensively and ineffectually trying to negate their power or by admitting a defeat of sorts and just accepting how fucking awesome they are and then doing your best anyway. In the early Vampire Weekend days, the Strokes were always a reference point and a lodestar, not only musically but for pretty much every aspect of how best to approach the act of being in a band.

One drawback to being an important member of an iconic institution, however, is a certain surrendering of one’s personal narrative to that of the group. As the first member to release music outside of the band, Albert combated a perception of him as simply “a Stroke” and presumably some peoples’ preference that he remain only that. Thankfully, he has put in the hard work both personally and professionally, and he’s now four albums deep into a solo career that he has built into something admirable.

I have to admit: I was nervous heading into this conversation! Baio had met and hung with Albert before, but I had not, and even though I fancy myself a professional at this point, it’s still intimidating to meet someone who you’ve looked up to for years. Albert, unsurprisingly, was very sweet. We covered his recording for the next Strokes record after a recent neck surgery, how digging into his dreams helped him discover his solo onstage persona, and that one time Wheatus made him cry.

Let’s get into it!

11:03 “This is a classic Baio thing: he’s Team Billions, not Team GOT ...”

This exchange really dates this conversation! We talked to Albert this past April 28, which was right before Baio and I left for Vampire Weekend’s first big tour of the year and, more importantly, smack dab in the middle of the final season of Game of Thrones. No matter my feelings on the last season itself, I was completely on board with all things Thrones (particularly all the attendant coverage on the excellent website theringer.com). Not sure exactly what Axe Capital and Paul Giamatti were up to, but later that evening I definitely watched the army of the dead lay siege to Winterfell, and it was awesome.

13:18 “I’d finished Francis Trouble a year before Red Bull put it out …”

Albert joined us in C&C Music Factory just a few weeks after wrapping up his long cycle of touring to support his latest solo album, Francis Trouble. I think we caught Albert at an interesting time, just off the road with his solo project, with all the triumphs and trials still fresh in his mind, and not yet in the weeds of rehearsing for a big summer with the Strokes, getting a very balanced perspective on the full range of his touring experience.

17:16 “My favorite shows are the ones in the middle of nowhere and no one’s coming …”

This is a fascinating topic of discussion for touring musicians: Do you actually like it when a bunch of people you know come to your shows? That anybody comes to any of your gigs is a blessing; that person choosing to spend their time and money on a live performance of your music is the truest foundation of this whole lifestyle and career. However, there is also a point past which there is too much social energy and action and it prevents you from properly preparing to get on stage. Albert’s point here, and one that rings true for me, is how easy and satisfying it is to focus on a show where you have no guests, with no responsibilities other than getting up there and giving it your all.

22:30 “I follow MotoGP …”

Fun fact alert! Albert Hammond Jr. is into motorcycle racing and only fully realized he was in Malaysia after he recognized the track next to the Kuala Lumpur Airport. I mainly think of MotoGP as the sport where I get really stressed about the well-being of the riders’ knees on every turn, but I respect the athleticism and fearlessness it takes to compete in the sport. And congrats to Maverick Viñales, who won the most recent Malaysian GP race earlier this month.

27:50 “This is a good place to get in the ‘hubbing’ conversation …”

Hubbing can be seen as the pinnacle in balancing the geographic demands inherent in touring with the comforts and stability of remaining at home, since you are essentially doing both simultaneously. Basically, the operation is based out of a centrally located “hub” city, to which you return every night by plane or car after playing somewhere farther afield. For someone at Coldplay’s level, who are about to enter their third decade as one of the biggest bands in the world, this involves private jets and placing as little stress on the band as possible. Albert here describes his experience of joining Coldplay for one such hub tour in Europe in the fall of 2008, which is also featured in this video which balances just the right proportion of general nonsense, various time-killing techniques, and raucous performances. Surprisingly to me, Albert’s ping-pong opponent at 19:12 is actually Richard, Vampire Weekend’s first tour manager who gracefully shepherded us around Europe in 2007-08.

31:11 “In the Strokes we call it ‘a Cologne,’ because that’s where we did it the first time …”

What the Strokes call “a Cologne,” where the band members walk offstage immediately into a waiting vehicle and leave the concert’s premises, is more generally referred to as a “straight runner.” Straight runners can happen for all kinds of reasons: needing to quickly get to another performance or obligation, certain after-show security precautions, or an artist just does not want to hang out afterward. I think the best straight runner I ever saw was Jay-Z at the aptly named Hove, a Norwegian festival, in 2008. A luxury SUV pulled up after the band had already started playing and Jay-Z walked directly to the stage from the vehicle, proceeded to crush his 90-minute headlining set under the never-setting Norwegian summer sun, then walked back into the SUV (you can see its waiting tail lights here at 3:32) before the band had finished and drove off. It was sick.

35:00 “Oh shit, we’re doing Open’er too! ...”

Both the Strokes and Vampire Weekend performed at this past summer’s Open’er festival, which was held outside of Gdynia, Poland. I thought our first set in Poland, despite some delays in our gear arriving, went really well as we played under a noticeably beautiful twilight sky. Unfortunately, as often happens, we had moved on to our next show by the time the Strokes headlined the next day, but it looks like they crushed.

36:40 “I got banned from Airbnb …”

Now, we don’t normally get into personal story lines on The Road Taken, but this one is too bizarre to ignore. As he tells the story, my guy Baio either got scammed or scapegoated at an Airbnb in Amsterdam, which resulted in an irreversible lifetime ban from the service. While his life continues apace and he can certainly survive without renting rooms in other people’s houses, I still don’t like that he took the fall for someone else’s misdeeds. Got to #UnbanBaio!

42:55 “I think we still get Vampire Weekend fans straggling in from Step Brothers …”

A “sync,” which is short for synchronization license, is when video-based media asks to feature a musician’s song, usually for a fee. Historically, the decision to grant such a license was fraught with concerns of “selling out” and dishonoring the original spirit of the recording. However, as more traditional means of exposure grew harder to capitalize on, like, say, getting on the radio, these syncs became more and more attractive. Although it was not our first granted sync, a big early one for Vampire Weekend was the use of “A-Punk” during the opening scene of the now-iconic movie Step Brothers. The final decision to let our song be used was reached after a lot of differing opinions and lengthy conversations, but I remain really glad we agreed to it. Not only does the movie hold up comedically, there continue to be people who become fans after first hearing our music as the soundtrack to Will Ferrell’s cheese-heavy nacho construction.

44:00 “As the plane was taking off, it was playing the chorus from ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ and I just started crying …”

After completing what must have been a satisfying run at the traveling Australian festival Big Day Out (RIP!) in 2004, Albert had a truly transcendent moment while heading back to New York City. As Albert describes, the soaring, snarly chorus of Wheatus’s song “Teenage Dirtbag” hit his ears just as his journey began and that confluence moved him to tears. Beautiful! Perhaps Albert was then grappling with similar questions to Strokes singer Julian Casablancas, who was asking himself and the gathered throngs “Who am I? Why am I here?”

50:00 “I’m going to release a song every couple months …”

And indeed he has! Despite his busy touring schedule with the Strokes this year, Albert has still released some great new solo songs, “Fast Times” and “More to Life.”

50:35 “I’ve bought a few Vampire Weekend records in my day …”

Despite, or perhaps because of, the ongoing transition to the digital future of music, the pleasures of a physical, real-life album never cease to move me. To hold in your hand an object, the product of months or years of labor and love, is really quite extraordinary, and even more so if some of that labor and love are your own. I have bought every single album that I’ve been a part of at the record store that raised me, the Princeton Record Exchange, and each purchase has been very meaningful, affording me a moment of reflection and hopefully a validation of my small place in the larger musical continuum.

53:50 “You’re together with people for so long, there’s nothing more special than that …”

Here Albert discusses the social intricacies and oddities of being in a band that has staying power. There exists a deep bond of mutual experience, of sharing in rises and falls, great triumphs and innumerable, shitty days in a van, that is almost familial and never really goes away. As time passes, however, personal lives and time outside the confines of the band necessarily grow and, no matter how close you are, a group of people who interact in certain ways at age 23 will do so differently at 33, 43, etc. This point deserves more depth than I can really give it in this space, so instead let’s celebrate one of the early triumphs of the Strokes, their legendary MTV $2 Bill concert, a performance whose unwavering cool inspired at least Kings of Leon, and presumably countless others, to pick up instruments.

56:20 “Stage is just two hours, touring is fucking everything else …”

I think this quote from Albert is essentially the thesis statement for The Road Taken and I couldn’t have said it better myself! Much like the video of his 2008 tour with Coldplay featured above, so much of the act of touring has nothing to do with music, which is unfortunate but also just inherent to the process. Touring is logistics. Touring is vehicles moving bodies and gear from one place to another. Touring is keeping your body and mind healthy enough to perform as best you can. And finally, if a million other things work out, you get to go on stage for an hour or two and do the thing that you love and that brought about the other million things in the first place. It was awesome to have Albert share some of his particularly crazy experience and help us make more sense of our own.