“IT’S not that crazy for someone in the band sounding like the band they’re in.”
This is Albert Hammond Jr’s response when I bring up the fact that ‘Set To Attack’ – the lead single from his fourth solo Francis Trouble – sounds a bit, well,
“Sonically, if you were to look at it – like looking at DNA – it’s very different,” he explains, “and I don’t think they [The Strokes] do harmonies and I don’t even know if they would have that kind of song, or that kind of chorus. But I do appreciate it. I understand the sentiment.”
If you’re reading into Albert’s use of “they” to describe The Strokes, I’ll save you the time. He assures me he’s still very much part of the band who have been keeping a relatively low profile in the years since 2013’s
Albert doesn’t explicitly say this, but speaking about The Strokes in abstract terms may be a subconscious way of differentiating that project from his solo work. More overtly, he has left his name off the cover as a means of freeing himself of the shackles of being in a famous band, but also being the
“I didn’t want the baggage of my name to come with it,” he says of the album’s title.
Francis Trouble is more than just an alter-ego though. It’s the name of his stillborn twin, who he only found out about two years ago at age 36. That news was revelatory to Albert, but in a positive sense. “I was able just to see a whole unlived life,” he adds.
Backstage at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall – a “beautiful venue” that kickstarted a tour that will head to Australia in July – Albert talks at length about ‘Set To Attack’, a moody mid-tempo number that dredges up repressed teenage memories as a means of writing “something that really felt like me”.
Was it obvious that this song was going to be a single?
No, definitely not. Not to me. When I’m trying to find a home and found Red Bull [Records], it was very exciting and they fell in love with the record. It was this song and ‘Tea For Two’, ‘Muted Beatings’, and ‘Far Away Truths’ that they really just fell in love with … It’s not one I would’ve guessed [for a single] but I’m also really excited about it because it was [pauses] something that really felt like me.
So tell us the story behind this song. What was the starting point?
I usually try to go to bed early and I’ll play some guitar before I go to sleep … I started to play guitar in the bathroom because the acoustics were so nice and all of a sudden the chorus came. I didn’t really think much of it and the day we had to do the song, it was all there. It’s so hard to remember how things come together. Honestly, I barely remember yesterday … It’s like when you’re in the moment, if you try to ask a kid, “How was your day?” On a really fun day, he would just be like, “Oh, it was really fun.”
All songs come in different stages, you know? They grow. It could be a riff, it could be a line, it could be a melody, it could be two songs coming together to make a better one, so you don’t really remember how it came about … I just remember being in bed and playing that riff.
Is that something you usually do before going to bed?
It depends. When I’m working, yeah. I don’t think that’s an usual thing to do. I do like creating in the mornings but I work in spurts. I try not to work past a few hours because you end up needing a break. That’s why I like recording at home, because you can stop and just enjoy life. Remind yourself that there are other good things … So I usually take a day or two just to get into the groove. You almost write all of this stuff and you have to throw all of it away cause it just sucks. [Laughs] I think I finished the lyrics on that song in Spain when I was visiting my parents.
Did you end up playing the track to your parents when you were in Spain?
No, I don’t think so. I usually don’t play people the beginnings of stuff because there is a lot of imagining they have to do … That moment isn’t the right moment to get feedback. There’s different stages in the song that you can ask for feedback and that’s important, and then there are other stages where too much feedback could kill the song.
“Hold on” is a pretty life-affirming hook. It sounds like you’re in a pretty good place?
You know what it felt like to me? It felt like a triumphant song of another youth. Not my time. Just that feeling of when you’re a teenager and any emotion could be the world to you, or it can just positively blind you from anything, from a love or an ambition and it becomes your air. I just love that idea. A lot of times you’re just trying to project so you can tell more, so you can say more about stuff. You get richer meanings when you talk about something that’s more understood than just trying to explain certain feelings without some kind of theme, you know?
I was so quiet
But you were excited
Waiting for the dance
They all just waltzed in
A second behind me
I stood there like some dumb kid
There are a lot of allusions in the song to teenage years, to childhood.
Yep, sure … I don’t think I had an overall thought about it. I think it just started forming. I think it was something in the melody that felt so innocently carefree and wonderful, just exhilarating.
Oh, absolutely. And then it’s got that really kind of cathartic guitar solo as well. I was wondering if that was an off-the-cuff moment?
That’s a great way to put it. “Cathartic guitar solo.” I came up with that melody when I was writing the lyrics … It was just a different melody than the other verse and it was really exciting when that melody came. It was a “Eureka!” moment.
Was the recording experience for that particular track any different to the rest of the album?
It’s hard to remember. I would like to say that every song, recording-wise was different. That’s just the nature of recording. Even if you were to record it again the next day, you could have everything set up the same way and it would be different, you know?
And you also sing in response to how the music sounds and how it feels and you’re kind of interacting with that. So it’s always different. That’s kind of why it’s never about being played perfectly, but about different takes having different feelings or energy. Is it pushing and pulling in the right spots? I feel like that’s big. Sometimes the pulling or pushing can cause good tension, or bad tension. It’s all hard to really know until you do it. They’re all different, like Schrodinger’s cat.
Where was it recorded?
I have a studio, upstate [in New York], at my house. It goes with not wanting to do long hours, or have to, but I have a little house where I live and next to it is a barn that has a studio. I put the control room upstairs, overlooking the studio. It takes a while to put a studio in place. I feel like it’s finally found enough vibration in that room to settle.
What other personnel are involved in that track? Or is it pretty much a solo thing now, the studio experience for you?
Well, [Strokes collaborator/engineer] Gus Oberg is overseeing the engineering, so he’s at the helm and the band is well prepared, and my wife’s helping make lunch and then I make dinner. That’s about it. [Laugh]
I hope you don’t mind me saying this but it is the most “Strokesian” song on the record, and I really mean that in the best possible way.
It’s funny because I was talking about it with Gus ‘cause someone else said that about ‘Far Away Truths’. I think it’s just – there hasn’t been a visceral guitar album with parts in a while, so I think that’s what reminds people of it. Sonically, if you were to look at it – like looking at DNA – it’s very different and I don’t think they [The Strokes] do harmonies and I don’t even know if they would have that kind of song, or that kind of chorus. But I do appreciate it. I understand the sentiment.
I feel like that’s where it comes from, maybe just the excitement the early Strokes had of awesome guitar driven music. It’s fun music because it’s very visceral and sexual and violent … I’m also in the band so it’s not that crazy for someone in the band, sounding like the band they’re in. But not purposely – except for wanting to sound exciting and guitar driven.