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Talking Beatles, hi-fi, and subwoofers with Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.

“It’s so cool hearing music at different times of the day and getting a different feeling from it — even records you know really well.”

When it comes to getting good sound, Albert Hammond Jr. will be the first one to tell you he likes keeping it real. “To me, modern high fidelity records can sound boring,” he explains. “I don’t understand why people get into it about lo-fi vs. hi-fi, but high fidelity became this term for being ’clinical,’ so you went against it. But I do believe vinyl and even CDs sound better than MP3.”

Good sound is something that’s always been on the mind of the rhythm guitarist for The Strokes, a band known for having perfected its own downtown New York brand of angular, catchy indie-rock jangle on indelible tracks like Last Nite, Someday, 12:51, and Juicebox.

And though The Strokes are still a going concern as they continue to perform festival dates both here and abroad, Hammond is currently focused on his new solo album, Momentary Masters — out now from Vagrant on various formats — and it’s anything but a temporary pleasure. In fact, it’s the perfect soundtrack for a smoky nightclub or a late-night drive with the windows down, as it veers from the bass-driven dance fever of Power Hungry to the churning rhymes-with-smokes vibe of Caught by My Shadow to the spitting thrust of Drunched in Crumbs.

Recently, Hammond and Digital Trends got together for a light midafternoon lunch at The Smile in Greenwich Village (delicious!) to discuss his Masters sonics, the right albums for specific moods, and what he thinks of streaming.

Digital Trends: There’s a lot of good channel separation on Momentary Masters. We get these really cool guitar lines in the right channel, and then some interesting fills in the left. This album has all the audio hallmarks of your other solo records and what you’ve done with The Strokes.

Albert Hammond Jr.: Thanks. You try to give it that charm. It was mixed by Ben Baptie, who’s a genius. He worked with Tom Elmhirst for five years, like his protégé. It was the first time I trusted someone to just mix it, and it was a total relief. We sent him Caught by My Shadow first, and after hearing what he did with it, I didn’t have any changes; I couldn’t believe it. Every time I heard it — he just had it. He had this vibe that added another layer. This record was going to be different because of it, and not be just another version of what’s in my head.

He was all about giving it space, but pushing it super-loud. I never heard so much bottom end and drums, and yet be able to still hear my guitars and vocals breathing. I’d never worked with someone who could do that.

“I want you to hear the record the way it sounds through my speakers back in the studio.”

Did you record in high resolution, in 96/24?

Yeah, we did. We have an analog board, but I like the digital world — holding all the information there and not having to deal with setting up tape. And I have to say, I think the new UAD plug-in is mind-blowing! I don’t know if I closed my eyes if I would know the difference with analog. It’s getting pretty close.

When you get the chance to listen to music in its highest form and not do anything else at the same time, it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.

That’s so cool. That’s like being in a meditative state. This hi-res talk is exciting me so much that I almost want to get up and say, “I’ll be right back,” and then go listen to it.

It is hard to listen to anything in the MP3 format at this point.

What was awesome about MP3 was I could hear something right away when I got it, but the bummer was you didn’t understand the value of it, the artist’s work — it’s so easy to throw it away.

And it’s compressed. I master for vinyl differently, but when I’m listening to a mix, I have to make sure even though it sounds good coming out of my big speakers, it also has to sound good coming out of computer speakers. A lot of times, people just hear it that way, which is weird to me; I can’t imagine wanting to listen that way.

Sometimes I want to tell people, “I want you to hear the record the way it sounds through my speakers back in the studio.” When I listen in that room, it’s loud and clear! But there are still going to be listeners listening to things on crappy headphones. I think people think they don’t care — until they experience it at better quality. That’s the problem.

Momentary Masters is such a great album title. It makes me think of you carrying around the masters under your arm until the album was finished.

I feel like it’s a title that has many meanings for me — and I never even thought about that one, just holding the masters!

There are some amazing bass moments on this record, like on Power Hungry.

(smiles) That’s just what I was going to say! It’s very driving. I really love that bass line.

I also love what you did with Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice (It’s All Right). If people didn’t know it was by Bob —

Oh yeah! It’s reached the point where someone who’s 16 wouldn’t know who Dylan is. How would you begin to explain who he is? I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I’d put on that documentary of his, No Direction Home (2005). I also love the (D.A.) Pennebaker one [Don’t Look Back, 1967], but the (Martin) Scorsese one is just so good. So good. And the one in color —

Eat the Document?

Yeah! I saw that one at the Museum of Television & Radio [now know as the Paley Center for Media] when I first moved to New York. I’d do these solo trips to New York and go, “Wait, you can just walk in and go see these things?” I saw Richard Pryor live stuff there. I was by myself and I’d go, “They have videos! Bob Dylan is hanging out with John Lennon! And no one told me about this?” [Eat the Document, which chronicles Dylan’s 1966 tour of the U.K., has never officially been released on home video, but some of its footage appears in Scorsese’s No Direction Home.]

“When it comes to The Beatles, I get it all.”

But that version of Don’t Think Twice that I did — most people know it as acoustic, but I wanted to modernize it without, uh, ruining it. (chuckles) That one’s my middle-of-the-record palette cleanser.

Did you record live at One Way Studios upstate with most everybody in the same room, looking at each other?

There’s a video of us doing these live sessions where we’re together in this circle, and then it would depend, as the song came together, on the parts and sounds and where the bass and drums would go together.

That’s what’s fun about recording. Even if you tamper with how the room sounds, it’s still always how the music bounces of the walls and how it’s picked up by the mike. It’s unique to each recording.

Even though things tend to get smushed down for some of these formats, we do the mixes now as big as possible, because hard drives aren’t as expensive as they used to be. Terabytes are cheap! Fifteen years ago, it would have been unheard of, but now I’ve got six terabytes at home, for just a few hundred bucks.

You’re a big Beatles fan. What did you think of LOVE? The surround sound mix Giles Martin, the son of Beatles producer Sir George Martin, did for it is incredible.

I couldn’t believe how good that LOVE project sounded. I have surround sound in my house, and when I got that record, I could not believe how good it sounded. Just the tones alone — the songs are awesome, of course, but the tones made me go like, “What??”

And just imagine the pressure Giles must have been under, coming from that pedigree with his dad, and all that history. If I were in Vegas more often, I’d go see that show [at the Mirage] every time I was there, and then go sit in different spots.

The Beatles have been amazing with that level of consistency throughout the years. Even their Rock Band thing is awesome, you know what I mean? (laughs)

Did you get The Mono Masters when it came out?

Yeah of course, and I buy all the vinyl. When it comes to them, I get it all. I gotta have it. I don’t know what it is with them. (laughs)

Do you have a favorite Beatles song or album?

The problem I have with answering that is it’s always changing, you know what I mean? Like last year, I had this craving for Let It Be (1970), just playing it as a complete record over and over again, not skipping any of the songs. It just felt right as I was walking around the streets. But just to put something by them on, I don’t know that that would be the one I go to.

Tell me about your surround-sound set up at home.

Well, I have a PlayStation as my source unit. The speakers are Jamos, and they’re the first things I bought when I made money. I wanted surround sound since I was a kid! (laughs) And my subwoofer — that sub changed my life.

“My subwoofer changed my life.”

Yeah? How so?

The thing about bass is, you don’t know what you’re missing until you hear it, and then you take it away. It brings all of the high end into the picture. It’s this amazing blanket for everything, the louder you go. I live in the country upstate, and I put on Stand by Me (1986) one morning, and it was so loud… (pauses) it was amazing. There are no other words. This is probably the first time I’ve used the word “amazing” and actually meant it. (both laugh)

What kind of turntable do you have?

Technics. I really like it. I wish I understood more about the weight. I always put it where it won’t bounce if it’s too heavy.

Not to worry; I’ll give you a tutorial later.

(laughs) OK, deal! Once I get to know a record, I do change the sequence of listening to it. A lot of times now, I start with Side B or I only play the B-sides, because I get to them less frequently.

What I used to do before going to school as a kid was figure out which 10-minute song I could put the needle down on and hear all of before I had to go get the bus.

That’s amazing! I would do that for getting dressed. I would get dressed to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata — which is a moody piece, I must admit, but it was the perfect thing for that time.

It’s so cool hearing music at different times of the day and getting a different feeling from it — even records that you know really well. When planes are taking off, I like to figure out what song is the best “take off” song. I guess I just love music. (chuckles)

Nothing wrong with that. What would you consider to be a good “nighttime” album?

Ummm… (pauses) I liked The Cars’ Panorama (1980) at night. You know what I put on a lot? Elvis has this record with red and gold discs. Can’t tell if it’s a greatest hits record, but I have it on vinyl. Elvis and Bobby Vinton were my come-home-from-a-date put-on music. You could chat while they were on. You wouldn’t want to put on something that was too intense. No Metallica, because you’d try talking over it and you’d both be going, “What???” (chuckles)

What else did I love to put on? When I was 19, there was a Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds record called Boatman’s Call (1997). That was one I just got on vinyl. Also, the Elliott Smith record where he’s falling off the roof [Elliott Smith, 1995] — it’s cool, because he recorded it at like 3 in the morning and it sounds like someone’s sleeping. It’s super-compressed and it’s quiet —

Yeah, and you always felt like you had to lean into it…

That’s what I did! I put the speakers next to my head like headphones, and I put on the black light in my room.
Now that’s cool. Finally, your thoughts on streaming?

I’ve never thought to myself, “Do I want to own it, or not?” Of course I do. It’s like putting a picture up on a wall, or owning a book. Streaming to me — maybe that’s fun when you’re having a party and you put something on and stream it. But getting home and putting a stream on — it just seems wrong. I don’t know why I don’t get it. I feel like the grumpy old man. (chuckles) I don’t understand why music is one of those things where if you ask people to pay for it, they go, “How dare you!” I don’t know why people do that.

I’ve never gone to see a band live and then felt bummed that I bought the record. If anything, I get the vinyl first and if I like it, I’ll download the thing so I can have it on my phone. That’s exciting.

Listen to Momentary Masters on Spotify.