Published in Issue 2 of Mous. Magazine (print), September 2016. Feature Image by Caitlin Low.
Everyone has their favourite Stroke. Rarely in a band does each member play such a seminal role, be it the lazy rasp of Julian Casablancas or the Aragorn-esque charm of Nick Valensi. But for garage-rock revivalists The Strokes – even two decades since their skinny-jeaned formation – all five of them have a permanent residence in fans’ hearts. The one fifth I’m chatting to today is Albert Hammond Jr, guitarist and acclaimed solo artist in his own right.
Up the stairs of this smallish Brisbane venue, Albert is sound checking for tonight’s headline show. His wife of three years and lighting engineer, Justyna Hammond Jr, is making tweaks behind the sound booth as the stage is drenched in red and blue and red again. I take a seat at a booth near the back and watch as my favourite Stroke – the six-string dexterity behind my adolescent soundtrack – banters with his band.
A while later, Albert joins me at the bar on the balcony. I ask if he wants anything to drink, but he’s fine with his bottle of Fiji Water. He’s been sober for several years now.
The 36-year-old’s history of drug addiction has been well documented, thanks in part to his brutally candid introspection and music media’s hedonistic obsession with, well, hedonism. In a 2013 interview with NME, Albert revealed the dark depths of his dependency. He would shoot up a grim concoction of cocaine, heroin and ketamine 20 times a day, hiding purple-veined arms with long-sleeved shirts.
Today, incredibly, the man in front of me is healthy, happy and clean. He scans the venue that, in a few hours, will be full of fans. “I wouldn’t be able to handle this,” he says of the drug-fuelled haze. “I could barely handle it on my first album.”
“I had a lot of issues that I should have sat down and spoken to a therapist about, like my brain and having the anxiety to start work. Then, with heroin, I was able to do everything. As soon as I started to realise that the way to feel better was getting fucked up in the morning, that’s when it really took on a whole new level.
“I’d just always be in a lot of pain and then at night, do it again. Nothing good came of it. Except realising it was bad.
“It was so self-inflicted that it’s hard to feel courageous about it.”
I ask if he regrets the drug use, or even the public nature of it all. “You can’t really regret the stuff you did because that makes you who you are,” he says diplomatically. “You would have just done something else.”
“There’s a part of me that wishes I never ingested anything, because the brain is so wonderfully interesting. Ideally, I would have liked to try one or two things, to understand, to open my eyes. But then you need to do work to figure out the rest. And that didn’t happen.
“I’d much rather have my mind than these really crazy stories.”
Albert makes it clear he’s not trying to set an example, positive or otherwise. “I don’t feel like I know everything, and maybe someone laughs at me at first, but it sticks somewhere in there. I probably would have laughed at me, my younger self, but it’s okay. He’s an idiot.”
While ‘addict’ has been Albert’s defining label throughout at least the latter part of his career, I sense there’s more behind that white Fender Strat. Our time is ticking and I want to get to know Albert, sans the rock-star-substance-abuse narrative, so I start asking him rapid-fire hypotheticals. While some artists cringe at the thought of answering what is basically a Buzzfeed personality quiz, Albert seems to enjoy his time off from being an anti-drug PSA.
I learn that Albert is a history buff, a joker, a licensed scuba diver. He’d choose to wake up in the body of one of his female friends (“kinda fun”), and he’d choose to eat Japanese forever (just leave out the ramen – “it’s pretty heavy”). He’d choose silence over listening to one band for the rest of his life, and as a superhero, he’d choose to have the ability to create things that give him powers (“like Ironman”). Back in school, he was “a little skater surfer dude in Stussy, with dead straight hair parted in the middle”. I tell him I can’t imagine it. His favourite subject? Probably history or science.
Albert is a person with little to hide. His Snapchat, for example, offers a glimpse into his life beyond professional performance shots and backstage poses – snippets of his upstate New York home with Justyna, backyard barbeques with his band mates, selfies from a landing plane.
Just then, Justyna enters the room, excuses herself, and whispers something to Albert – where to meet the crew for dinner later, perhaps. It must be incredible to share touring life with a significant other. He’s beaming. “It’s amazing for when I feel shitty, or if I have doubt. She helps solidify and keep things positive. We’re a really good working team.”
“We were gonna walk the Sydney Harbour Bridge tomorrow but I have press,” he sighs. I have the sudden urge to throw my voice recorder out the window. “Everyone’s done cool stuff but me. On their days off, they hug koalas, go to cool beaches. I wanted to go to Cairns to go scuba diving, but I need to go home and work on music.”
He says the highs and lows of touring are extreme, surprisingly even more so sober. “You feel it a lot when you’re not getting fucked up. You feel the toll it takes emotionally more than physically.”
“I did a show in LA and it was the peak of performance. We were in the middle of this song and everything I’d ever done in life reached a point and it just exploded. It was just the most magical thing I had ever experienced. And it was so quick. But that’s what it is.
“There are the really great parts, and then the parts you deal with because you like the great parts.”
A while later, an hour before he’s set to take stage, my phone beeps with a message from Albert. “Read a great piece in the magazine you gave me – your magazine,” he writes. “A woman’s sexual adventure. T’was great.”
I picture him – iconic guitarist, wild past, crazy stories – sitting quietly backstage and reading poetry about female promiscuity. I can’t help but chuckle. ♦