Sweetly off his Strokes

By Nick Duerden

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. This is the one with all the hair and, until lately, a cigarette protruding perennially from his mouth. He is Albert Hammond Jr, and he looks older than his 26 years.

He is sitting with Josh Lattanzi, 34, and Matt Romano, 28, his project band's bassist and drummer, respectively. 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 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 are different, you know? There is more satisfaction here 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."

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 say so.

Yours To Keep is a delightful record, playful and relaxed where his other band's last album was taut and coiled. Some of the songs 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, but that side of me has never really been utilised before.

"That's why being able to do this now is just so liberating." He unveiled the record to the four other Strokes recently. Each one gave him their blessing, and said they liked it.

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 70s New York was ignored in the States, but they became stars in Britain, their delightfully mannered art-rock posturing no doubt responsible for kickstarting Britain's obsession with the genre.

But 2003's Room On Fire was 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, suggesting their time had come and gone.

The five members did a convincing impersonation of a group unhappy with their success, and continually at odds with one another.

"Were we miserable?" Hammond muses. "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, 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 "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), quit smoking and is undergoing something called "the Master Cleanse".

As he gears up for his album's release, Hammond's record company points out he hasn't left The Strokes, and has no intention of doing so. The band will reconvene next year to record their fourth effort, and the guitarist will be with them.

I ask him why he would consider rejoining the band he has all but admitted restricts his newfound 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 day job? "What I mean is, you never know what's going to happen, do you? Time changes a lot of things. We'll see, yeah?"

- INDEPENDENT

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