“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” – Carl Sagan
In a portion of his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, astronomer Carl Sagan explores the vastness of the universe and the unique position of the human race in relation to it and within it. The phrase “momentary masters” resonated with Albert Hammond Jr.—at first he found something humorous in this egotistical notion that one could fully master anything, but it also underscored the truism that every triumph is fleeting.
“I feel like the best songs I’ve written, as soon as I was done, I was like, “Oh my God, I did it!’ But in that split second that it comes, that feeling goes,” he explains. “It’s the same thing when you find complete happiness, you find this complete low. I feel like that’s what being creative is: It’s you bouncing with emotion and what you capture in those bounces. Accept where you are and use it.”
Thus Hammond Jr. has called his third solo album Momentary Masters—due to drop on July 31st in the US via Vagrant Records. Many years have passed since the release of his two solo records, 2006’s Yours to Keep and 2008’s ¿Cómo Te Llama?, and truthfully, the person who created those songs is in a very different place now. Back then Hammond Jr. was swept up in a whirlwind, one-fifth of The Strokes, indulging in an intoxicating cocktail of excess and all-consuming romances. When he finally sobered up, getting back into writing music was a daunting challenge.
“A year and half after rehab I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it again,” says Hammond Jr. “The first thing I wrote was ‘One Way Trigger’ for Comedown Machine, but before that nothing came out of me for a year and a half. If like life was a river flowing and I felt like I was on the edge. It was a case of, ‘Everyone’s in there, how do I get in?’” he continues. “Then when I got in, it was terrifying. Now I find it funny, like what was I so scared of? You can get the most of what you want if you’re there and present.”
The kernels of this new full length began with his five-song strong EP, AHJ, released on Julian Casablancas’ label, Cult Records, back in October 2013. AHJ showcased a bolder stance, his vocals are deeper, pulled to the fore, with less effects applied, each song is anchored by a more muscular rhythm section. Crucially, his approach to music has shifted; he’s flipped the page.
“I feel like my writing, for the most part, has been emotion and excitement and I just ran with it and where it stopped, I let it be—either due to being fucked up or laziness or whatever,” he says. This time around his compositions were more sharply honed, fired by a desire to write and rework his music until he was 100 percent satisfied. Additionally these songs were brought into focus with the help of Grammy-winning producer Gus Oberg—who’s worked extensively with The Strokes and happens to be one of Hammond Jr.’s closest friends; he was the album’s benevolent taskmaster.
“If I wasn’t getting it right he’d make me do it over and over and over again,” he recalls. “He was really hard on me—harder than he’s ever been. It was fun though, I’m not complaining. If anything, it’s nice to have someone who pushes you and I could tell how excited he was about it.”
Initial sessions for Momentary Masters began as a three-day stint in June 2014, an experimental getaway to test the water with his new band. Having established a solid unit touring the AHJ EP, he was keen to see how Hammarsing Kharhmar (the frontman of Mon Khmer; who’s been playing guitar with Hammond Jr. since 2008), guitarist Mikey Hart (Bleachers), bassist Jordan Brooks, and drummer Jeremy Gustin (Delicate Steve, Marc Ribot), would work together on his new material. Along with Oberg they convened at Hammond Jr.’s home in upstate New York, a converted barn he calls One Way Studios became their HQ. The space is half gearhead heaven, half welcoming living room, with high ceilings and windows that look out onto the woods. First up: working through demos for “Born Slippy,” “Caught By My Shadow,” and “Drunched in Crumbs.”
The sessions were extremely relaxed—they’d wake up, go for a run, play frisbee, maybe chop some wood, and then get down to it. Work days were followed by big family-style dinners cooked up in the evenings by Hammond Jr. and his wife Justyna; they’d all unwind watching John Oliver, Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire. It was this summer camp-style environment that encouraged space for creativity and collaboration, which continued when they returned in September to lay down the rest of the record. (Apart from Bob Dylan cover, “Don’t Think Twice” which, with addition of a few overdubs, remains largely in its original, bedroom-demoed form.) The result offers a new kind of dynamism: you can hear it in “Power Hungry,” with its Morricone-esque grooves and a Mellotron manipulated to sound like violins; or in the aggressive stomp and anxiety-inducing guitars of “Caught By My Shadow.” Even on “Side Boob”—titled so because, hey, why not celebrate a good thing?—there’s a jittery energy that leaves the listener excited.
With the instrumentals largely complete, it was time for Hammond Jr. to retreat and write melodies, pouring over notebooks filled with impressionistic scraps, observations, and oxymorons, which he set about stitching together in lyrical form. The presence of these notebooks at all is thanks to a friend whose influence imperceptibly threads through much of Momentary Masters. A voracious reader herself who was constantly jotting down her thoughts, she encouraged Hammond Jr. to do the same, turning him onto poetry, and Anne Sexton in particular. She swooped into his life by chance—bonding initially over a mutual appreciation of Richard Pryor—and two short weeks later she passed away. This record is dedicated to her: Her name is Sara.
“I was already in that spot where I was really soaking things in: you’re sober so that’s what happens; you’re absorbing everything,” he explains. “She started showing me stuff that changed my idea of how to write and how to come up with ideas. I’d have never guessed I’d be talking about her now, but it was so magical that she came into my life for those two weeks.”
“Coming to Getcha” sees her presence expressly addressed—an imagined conversation between them sketched out, fragmented emotions that left an imprint, captured here so they’ll never fade. Momentary Masters is a record about finding a new curiosity in life as a result of the loss of the innocence that knowledge and time create. The music might be largely buoyant—spry, breezy guitar lines locking together and dancing apart—but melancholy frequently seeps into even the sunniest of toplines. It’s a record of acceptance too. Tucked in the song is an exploration of the reconciliation of two halves: the best self that you present to others, and the self that slips through and lies exposed when your guard drops.
“You know how you hang out with someone and there’s things you wouldn’t tell people? You portray that one side which you find to be most attractive, but eventually, if you become close enough, you reveal another side. Most people want to push that away and pretend it doesn’t exist. As good a person as you are, there is also darkness, and if you don’t believe that, you’re just lying to yourself. To be complete, you need to integrate that into your life and accept it as a whole.”
For Hammond Jr. there’s an unwavering thrill in creation and completion, and a hunger too for what’s next: he’s excited to get these songs on the road. Momentary Masters may be concerned with the duality of the human condition, and the recognition that life with all its peaks, plateaus, and lows is a mere blip—“enjoy the weirdness, because it’s all so fleeting”—but ultimately, in these succinct rock songs he’s communicated something that will morph in meaning through time, both to himself and to those who are listening.
- Kim Taylor Bennett