The Strokes: who needs 'em?

For Albert Hammond Jr, his solo debut has been 'heavenly'. He's in no hurry to return to his day job.
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At an outdoor table of a restaurant in New York's East Village sits one member of The Strokes, perhaps the city's most venerated band of recent times. This is the one with all the hair and, until recently, a cigarette protruding perennially from his mouth. His name is Albert Hammond Jr, and he looks older than his 26 years would suggest. He is sitting with Josh Lattanzi, 34, and Matt Romano, 28, bassist and drummer, respectively, for his band. But for strictly commercial reasons, Hammond has effectively become a solo artist, and is about to release his first album, Yours To Keep, the discussion of which gives rise to more smiles than he ever managed in the promotion of three Strokes records. "There is nothing I want more than for this album to come out, like, right now," he says, beaming. "I can't tell you how excited I am about it." More excited than he was over the last Strokes album? "Ah, oh - well..."

And here is where things become awkward. Hammond was never a particularly willing participant of the rock interview. About his solo project he is as voracious as a Labrador puppy, but mention The Strokes and the shutters come down fast.

"I wouldn't say more excited necessarily, just that things in The Strokes were - I'm sorry, are - different, you know? There is more satisfaction here - it doesn't even compare, truthfully - because I'm writing the songs and singing them, and not just playing guitar. The vibe the three of us have created... well, it's heaven, really. I love it. That's not to say I'm frustrated with being part of The Strokes, but just - oh, you know."

Read between the lines of this painfully delivered monologue, and you could conclude that Hammond hates his day job and at least some of his fellow band members. But, of course, he isn't about to make any such statement to the press. Not yet, at any rate.

Yours To Keepis a delightful record, playful and relaxed where his other band's last album was taut and coiled. Some of the songs here boast the buoyancy of early Beach Boys, and even their titles sound happy: "Cartoon Music for Super Heroes", "Blue Skies", "Holiday". It lasts 35 minutes and is full of sunshine.

"I've been writing songs and playing them since I was 15 years old," Hammond explains, "but that side of me has never really been - well, utilised before, I guess. That's why being able to do this now is just so totally great for me, so liberating."

He unveiled the record to the four other Strokes recently. Each one gave him their blessing, and said they liked it. "Unless they were lying," he adds, suddenly concerned.

Back in 2001, The Strokes released their debut album, Is This It, now regarded as one of the best rock records ever. Its faultlessly cool updating of the sound of Seventies New York was curiously ignored in the States, but they became stars in the UK, their delightfully mannered art-rock posturing no doubt responsible for kickstarting Britain's own obsession with the genre. But 2003's Room On Fire was perceived as something of a disappointment - sounding either too much like its predecessor or not enough, depending on your viewpoint - and last year's First Impressions On Earth sold poorly, rather suggesting their time had come and gone. All along, the five members did a thoroughly convincing impersonation of a group unhappy with their success, and continually at odds with one another.

"Were we miserable?" Hammond muses, nervous and fidgety once more. "Well, I can kinda understand why you'd think that, but it wasn't really true of all of us as much as it was for one or two members." Which members? "Well, you know - all I can say is that me, personally, I had a blast. The others? Ask them."

They nevertheless conducted themselves like all leather-clad rock stars should, and went down the celebrity girlfriend route (Fabrizio Moretti with Drew Barrymore, Nick Valensi with Amanda de Cadenet). But Hammond, now free from, as he puts it, "all that", seems keen to draw a line under the glitz, the glamour and the excess. He lives a determinedly unstarry life with his girlfriend (singer Catherine Pierce) here in the East Village, quit smoking recently and is undergoing something called The Master Cleanse.

As he gears himself up for his album's release, Hammond's record company is at pains to point out that he hasn't left The Strokes, and has no intention of doing so. The band will reconvene some time next year to record their fourth effort, and the guitarist will be with them. I ask him why he would even consider rejoining the band he has all but admitted restricts his new-found creativity.

"Look, don't get me wrong, I do like Julian's music and I do like playing with them, so it's not like I have to choose between them, right?"

So he'll willingly put the solo career on hold for the sake of the day job he really doesn't seem to enjoy much? "Well," he says, attempting a smile and then watching it fade, "I can't, here and now, say... No, what I mean is, you never know what's going to happen, do you? Time changes a lot of things. In fact, time changes everything, so... so we'll see, yeah?"

'Yours To Keep' is out now on Rough Trade