The new Albert Hammond, Jr. record was almost called Cockpit Voice Recordings if you can believe it. But the curly-headed guy with the guitar worried it wouldn’t be light enough; too “serious in the wrong way,” even. He worries about these things.
In fact, the process of naming his fantastic sophomore solo record, ¿Cómo Te Llama?, says more about his personality than his fan base might realize. It began with a typically light-hearted conversation with his close friend and drummer, Matt Romano, about what to call the band they had all formed since the release of Yours to Keep in 2007.
“We can’t change it, so we thought ‘Albert Hammond, Jr. and some kind of band name’ like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. So we were thinking of band names, and he (Romano) said, ‘Vino Tinto,’ and I was like, ‘What? In Spanish? Red wine?’ and he [said], ‘Yeah! Como te llamo? Me llamo Vino Tinto?’ Like, ‘What’s your name? My name is Red Wine,’” Hammond explains.
“When we saw the record cover with the cutouts, you don’t know who’s who, and there’s my name, and we’re all this band. It makes you ask questions. With ¿Cómo Te Llama? you almost answer,” Hammond says. “The picture was taken in my living room, so it’s very personal, you see inside my house, kind of voyeuristic without seeing so much that it takes away any kind of mystery. Sometimes you all work on the same page and you get happy accidents. You gotta learn how to just take ‘em.”
Keeping things positive and happy is right up Hammond’s alley these days. In conversation, the 28-year-old who claims to write the majority of his material in the bathroom, is sweet and funny, and refers to the importance of personal and professional growth several times throughout our chat. It’s a great way to indirectly fend off inevitable questions about the status of The Strokes. To name an album with a question about your name, or what you are called, can also be interpreted as a way to silence impatient fans or naysayers that believe The Strokes is the only thing Hammond can, and should do with his life. In fact, I don’t even go into Strokes territory during our conversation. It didn’t seem fair to the guy who is so earnest about his desire to “try and do something new and change and grow.”
The recording sessions for ¿Cómo Te Llama? began in late 2007 at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. Hammond, who was taking on chief production duties for the first time in his career, and his bandmates Romano, guitarist Marc Philippe Eskenazi, and bassist Josh Lattanzi, along with engineer Gus Osberg, essentially “moved in” for five weeks. Hammond readily considers the time spent at Electric Lady “one of my favorite times in the studio,” although production was “very, very intense.” Next time however, things will be different, as Hammond has now purchased land in upstate New York.
“I just got some land to build my own studio, so next time we won’t have to worry about the clock. I feel like it would give us some more creative freedom at the same time. I’m slowly building up to the dream of being able to make records for the rest of my life without having to go by someone’s schedule,” Hammond says. “If I have my own universe to record in, that’ll just grow and make the creative process a lot more fun. Even the rehearsal process before tour is more fun. To go upstate the week before you go on the road and rehearse, it seems like a peaceful way to start a hectic time.”
Like its critically adored predecessor Yours to Keep, ¿Cómo Te Llama? boasts a breezy, Beach Boys/Eagles easy-going vibe of pick-up jam sessions, beaches, the air before it rains and porch barbecues with friends. This assessment does not make Hammond bristle, but rather results in acknowledgement and agreement.
“Some things are happy, some things are sad. Deep down, I have a positive, optimistic view of things. I know there is bad in everything, and it’ll come, but since I know I don’t have control over it, I do have control over being happy. I guess I just choose to be happy. Happiness is a choice,” Hammond states. “I feel that that kind of music is there for, to me, to bring [out] this invisible emotion in us all.”
The first song written for the album was “GfC,” which also ended up being chosen as the lead single – not by Hammond’s druthers, mind you, because he happily gave his label that choice, feeling like that decision was not his right at this stage.
“They’re the ones who are going to be investing the time into it. [Often] when artists first start they feel like they have a right to say what they want, and in some ways I feel like I haven’t earned that right. Maybe if I sell millions of records I can give my opinion. I’d rather them be excited about something than me pick the song and then it not work. It doesn’t seem worth the fight,” Hammond explained.
That Hammond loves “GfC” is a bonus, as is the consensus with the label over the proposed second single, “Victory at Monterey,” a punchy gem that he constructed around a riff and feels is “moving…and flowing constantly.” The original rough cut of the tune clocked in a eight minutes long, including an uncharacteristically spacey intro, but was eventually scaled down to three minutes “so it made sense.” At a recent, private show at New York’s Mercury Lounge, Hammond seamlessly previewed “Victory,” (along with its partner track “Rocket”) to loud cheers from the sweaty but ecstatic audience.
“It was a song that we could start [live] and if the bass and drums wanted to play a minute or two at the beginning and just create this atmosphere with no lights, we could do that. I didn’t have a song like that before.”
Hammond performs at a recent show at New York’s Mercury Lounge
Another type of song that Hammond hasn’t had before is “Spooky Couch,” a blissed out, seven-minute instrumental written at 7:30 in the morning, evoking sunrise, slowly building with sparkling guitar and strings. He considers it “a nice palate cleanser before the end” of the record, though for Hammond, it serves a more genuine, utilitarian purpose.
“My favorite part about it is when I’d walk down the street when I was mixing. I thought it was an amazing song to walk somewhere to. By the end, you feel like you want to run to get where you’re going. It’s really cool [to] feel like you have your own theme!”
The closing song of the album, “Feed Me Jack or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Peter Sellers,” garnered much attention when the track listing for ¿Cómo Te Llama? was announced in early May. During a brief stay at an uptown New York hotel before entering the studio last year, Hammond found himself watching Dr. Strangelove and singing Peter Sellers’ famous “Feed Me, Jack,” line as an idea for a chorus. The tune that resulted was a different take on the standard love song, with Hammond’s best friend John serving as its unlikely inspiration, instead of a girl.
The late Charles Bukowski also serves as a well of inspiration for Hammond, who has completed a screenplay based on the author’s final novel, 1994’s Pulp, with permission from Linda Bukowski, whom he met with last year.
“I can already see it in so many ways. I have the idea of getting some big actors to do small roles because I’ve always liked that. When you get the right actor to play the lead it just makes the movie, some guy who is a complete loser but you love him anyways,” Hammond describes. “It’s about private detective, kind of like a Humphrey Bogart guy from the 50’s except that he lives in LA in 1993, so it’s a dark movie but we didn’t want to make it a typical Bukowski, you know because it can draw on some dark things. Every time we read the script, people are just laughing out loud, not because there are jokes, it’s just that life can be really funny when told in the right way.”
Before our conversation wrapped, Hammond shared a funny anecdote with me about getting recognized driving in his car recently. A car full of high school kids had rolled down their window to ask directions, surprising the affable singer with what transpired:
“They didn’t seem like someone who would really be listening to me, or someone who would like me, but the girl [asks], ‘Are you Albert Hammond, Jr.?’ So I said, ‘Yes.’ And they were like, ‘Oh my god, Oh my god!’ and then the light turned green and they drove away. I [thought], oh, that’s so funny! It’s like when someone [says], ‘Do you have any Grey Poupon?’ ‘Are you Albert Hammond, Jr.?’ Why yes, I am.”
–Carrie Alison, Cover photo and band photos by Valerie Jodoin-Keaton, live photo by Carrie Alison