[q&a] The Strokes' Albert Hammond Jr. on 'Angles,' looking cool, and hitting the head on the hammer

Truly, if you've never been in a band yourself, it's hard to fathom what's so hard about it. So your average person hears about the new Strokes album, their first in 6 years, and thinks "How on Earth can that take that long? They don't have day jobs, they should be putting out an album every week!" But really, the songs that wind up on the laser circle are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of not only the effort, but the emotional compromise that makes a band a band, etc. And with a band like The Strokes, comprised clearly of at least five strong personalities, it is that much harder, right? Right. Anyway, who cares about the process when the result is as sweet as the band's new Angles, right? Pretty much, although the process is at least somewhat interesting; or at least I thought so when I got the chance a little while ago to talk about it with guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. Last week, we ran a feature on the band and the album-- but enough of the convo hit the editing room floor inside my computer that I thought I'd let you check out the rest. At the very least, it presents a different perspective than the scads of other pieces on the album that have since come out that seem to insinuate that the band all hate each other and that the album was pure torture, etc. Checkitout:

So Angles is your first album after a five year silence-- was this material that was worked up over that whole time, or did it all come about in a rush more recently?
Well, I mean, music is a constant, you know, so you never really start from scratch. We had gotten together twice before we actually worked together and knew we were writing the new record. We finished touring October 2006, we got together in 2008 for a little bit, and then in January 2009 was when we sat down and began putting it all together.

In the interim between your last record [2006’s First Impressions Of Earth], you did a lot of songwriting yourself, releasing two solo albums. In working on music between 2006 and this album, how did you determine what material was for the Strokes, and what might be solo material?
The best way that I can put it is that you take songs and you make them Strokes songs. What would make it a Strokes song or not is having everyone around you excited to work on it; maybe you bring something in and no one’s excited at first or it takes time, or maybe they like only a piece of it and it gets put on the board and someone else brings something else in and it becomes a song. There are so many different variables but basically it’s turning all these different pieces or songs into Strokes songs.

The new album is really interesting-- I’d almost say it’s moodier, and less busy at times than previous Strokes albums.
Uh, I don’t understand. Less busy?

Yeah, definitely-- at least at times.
Interesting... I’m just asking because we’ve been getting the opposite response, that there are so many parts back and forth. I mean, I definitely think it’s our most complex record in structure, in terms of parts. Playing it-- I mean, we play the first two albums and there’s definitely more attitude and more space, you get to the third one and that’s the beginning of it, and this one-- I mean, every album becomes harder to play. I don’t think it’s, uh, subconsciously or consciously trying to be moody, I think we’re constant in trying to grow, you know? Sometimes you take baby steps, sometimes you take a little more. And it becomes part of your filter, you know? Sorry to sound so vague, but when I’m in the process I don’t think about it. But looking back, it just seems like you put five guys together and have pressure, influence, life, and they become filters that you run everything through, and you can’t separate it. And that kind of creates what we do, which has always been, I think, very very thought out. Definitely very thought out.

That’s a really interesting way to put it-- do you think, when you listen to the music you guys have made, that your music reflects what you were all going through, at those various times?
I think that just reflects the uh-- I mean, you push the songwriting into everyone’s best abilities. You want to sound the best that you can, and not by doing something that you can’t do well, so you start off at a certain point, and as you grow and challenge yourself, it changes and becomes exciting. It’s like that thing they always say about healthy competition.

With each record, you guys almost sound more modern or futuristic-- does that seem apt? Because with your first album, you guys were hyped as a throwback to this or that, and with each new album of yours it seems to become harder for people to do that.
Yeah, that is definitely-- you hit the head on the hammer, the hammer and nail, whatever. That’s been our goal since the beginning, though-- to sound like something that felt warm and connected to something you know, but futuristic. Yes, yes, for sure, we definitely try to think that way, in the hopes of making something that will stand the test of time. I mean, not saying that it’s going to, just saying that that’s the goal!

The record is definitely different sounding, it almost sounds like there are even synths on it, which will probably silence those who wish you were more of a garage band or whatever.
Yeah, there are two songs that have synths: the song “Games” is really heavy on that, we wanted to make something very cold. It’s my favorite song on the record, just really cold, different and distant. And “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight” has some keys to enhance it-- I mean, it’s not that we were ever opposed to synths, but it’s just that our songs worked just fine, as a band, without them. And then we got to this point where we’re like “Uh, do we just ignore this stuff?”

But I have to say, this album, to my ears, is by far our most produced album. And that’s a positive thing: it was produced by Gus Oberg, our engineer, and ourselves. So it’s our most produced but not, like, by a big name producer. I mean, when I say “most produced” you’d think this slick, stale sound. But it’s more like it’s produced in the sense of having a branched-out sound. As you learn recording, you can start to put things in there that enhance the sound, rather than it just being rudimentary.

We had our hands all over this records, which was the part that we felt was missing from some of our older recordings. And we’ve always been about that, like you put on a record of ours and it feels like we were there and we had a big part of everything. Sometimes over time you can lose that, people start to question your success, what you did or what you didn’t do. Which is always a bummer, and it would nice if you didn’t have to pay attention to that, but it’s hard, being five people, it’s easy to be swayed.

Do you mean “people” in or out of the band?
No, I mean forces from the outside, telling you “Oh man, you should sound like, you’d be a bigger band!” And you know, maybe we’re as big as we’re supposed to be, man! I mean, why don’t you go write songs and be a bigger band! [laughs]

I assume you guys must get tons of that kind of unsolicited advice. Do you have to constantly trump that with your own confidence?
It’s harder because there are five of us making a bigger whole, so you have five people having to trump that, and you’re only as strong as your weakest link. So you come in and someone has been knocked down because of conversations like that, you can totally feel it. That’s why sometimes people will try to get access to us, and they’ll be like “Oh, we couldn’t get in, those guys are rude” or whatever, it’s because in a certain sense we’re trying to stay away from that whole thing. I mean, with the second album and especially the third album, we just had so many people being like-- I mean, I dunno, we were growing slowly and doing great, making money. If you ask someone from a scratch point of view, I mean, like oh my god, it was amazing. But slowly, we kept getting more like “Oh, look what you could be...” or “Look where this could take you”, and then slowly that whole thing just eats you up.

Yeah; I feel like a certain percentage of people who listen to The Strokes who fundamentally misunderstand what you do, or are trying to do. Which is why it doesn’t surprise me if people are constantly trying to get you to second guess yourself and/or do things differently.
Yeah, but I don’t wanna-- yes, but I feel like that happens with many people, it’s just part of creating something, you know? I’ve read many of our interviews and I often think “Maybe we didn’t think well” or “Maybe we couldn’t explain or influences or our whole concept”. I mean, people ask me “What do you think about being in the garage rock category?” And I don’t want to even answer that kind of question, because I don’t really care. Maybe it’s because I’m in the band and it’s my own ego, but I don’t think you can shrink us to that small of a thing, you know? I think we’re a little more varied than that, I think we have something a little more special than putting us in one box like that.

Has the way you guys have gone since your first record, the direction you guys have taken it, been a reaction at all to that sort of thing?
No, I don’t think you can shrug off stuff like that. All that stuff affects you, totally. Like my first solo record, and I made it not really thinking about it, just songs from my living room. And people would go “Oh, it’s so sweet,” and then they’d see it live and they’d be like “Oh shit, this is so loud!” And that in turn made me make a much angrier, darker second record.

With The Strokes, it’s not as direct because there are five of us and it’s more diffused-- but it’s totally there. For sure, I mean you can totally hear the “slow down everything’s moving too fast” on the second record. Because like, everyone’s was saying “Your career’s over unless you put out the album in a month!” And then on the third one, you can hear, in the length of the record, a tiredness, and a heaviness in us. Like “we’re gonna hit a wall, because we have to, because no one can run at that speed for that long”. And we just weren’t prepared for it, you know what I mean? Everything like that affects you, and affects the music. As it should, right? If the negative stuff didn’t affect you, the positive wouldn’t either.

I know that Angles isn’t out yet, so obviously you don’t have the benefit of hindsight, but can you get a read on the new one the same way that you just described the previous three?
Yeah, for sure. The best thing I got from the new one is just feeling, when we were done, having gone through all of this with these guys, learning so much about each other and being proud of our compromises and really happy with the end result. It seems very simple but it’s a very important thing to start something new like that. And when I would play the new record for people, they just seemed... happy. And to me, we have always seemed like a band that made people happy. Like when people see our live shows, people have always seemed happy, our shows brought them joy. So I got excited that people didn’t need to tell me anything, they just seemed happy to listen and the songs made them happy. And that all sounds really simple but I feel like sometimes those are the best things!

Yeah, that makes sense; you guys definitely seemed to stand out, especially at the outset, for your kind of upbeat songcraft. Was that ever a hard thing to pull off, what with the craziness of what you were going through?
Yes, I feel like we’re definitely at our best when we’re doing that live, but there were definitely times when we couldn’t get across our thing live because we weren’t in a good place. We’re an organic band, and we really... feel things. I think as a band, not to sound cheesy, but i think we’re kind of sensitive.

In a certain sense, the music of The Strokes can be described as minimalist-- although less so with each album. Is that something you’re conscious of, or something that you guys have tried to go against at times?
Sort of... I mean yeah, I think variety has always been what we’ve tried to do. And as we’ve gotten better at it, our music has more variety in it. But the goal was always in the songs, and not so much in the parts. And I think in this record we have stronger parts and maybe the songs take a hit on it while we’re figuring it out. I’m not saying they’re weaker songs, but these are things, minor things that I think about. but no, we don’t go for “Oh, let’s go for nothing, let’s do less,” it’s more like a song, in it’s simplest for, can be more universal, so we’re always striving for that. And then you start adding little things that might confuse people at first and take a little longer to get into. And I dunno, it’s all just pushing and pulling, we never really do things one way.

Your music is always so airtight, with such intricate arrangements; it sometimes sounds easy, until you think about all the moving parts and how fast-moving it all is.
It’s always a joke with producers and engineers, that we’re five guys and we’re like “We want to sound like this” and they say “But you don’t leave any space to sound like that!” But I think part of it is that there’s always an intensity in us. Even in the name itself, The Strokes, it’s a powerful blow to the head or chest, that was something we really liked.

It’s definitely thought out, it’s definitely thought out and structured, so we can then sit back and relax and look like we’ve done nothing but look super-cool.
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