On a recent Sunday night in March, Albert Hammond, Jr. reconnected with his high school self. Forget for a minute that we’re talking about the guitarist of The Strokes, themselves one of the most popular and influential rock bands of the last 15 years. For 41:13, Hammond drove through the streets of New York listening to Alien Lanes, the 28-track freak pop opus from indie rock stalwarts Guided by Voices.
“I used to always smoke cigarettes, drive my car, and listen to GBV really loud,” Hammond said of the iconic Dayton, Ohio, band.
In commemoration of Alien Lanes’ 20th anniversary, we talked with Hammond about how the album inspired The Strokes’ early work, drunken van rides with Robert Pollard, and how the record continues to grow on him after all these years.
How did you first find out about Guided by Voices?
I remember reconnecting with a friend of mine. We were friends in lower school. He was a year or two older, like 15 or 16. He was really into music. He was this guy that would get into music and not tell people about it, but if he told you, it was like you earned the right to know about it. He was playing Vampire on Titus. There was this one night at his house where we played “Donkey School” 100 times in a row. I was listening to Alien Lanes last night on my drive home because I knew I was going to do this, and it reminded me of a time that felt so long ago. When you’re younger, you have your older idols. But they were like my modern idols who made me feel like I could do it.
There’s definitely that Ramones quality to them, where part of the appeal is how approachable or down to earth they make rock and roll seem.
To me, it was more about melody. They were like my Beatles. I was like, “Wow, I didn’t realize that bands were still doing melodic things. It was so pretty to me, that’s the thing. I didn’t know who they were or what they were. Up until I saw the video for “Watch Me Jumpstart”, I didn’t really know much about them. Then you found out they were from Ohio (laughs).
Right, one of the last places you think to look for good rock and roll.
Yeah. There are some people that look up everything and know everything (about their favorite bands), and there are other people who took a little longer. I was in that latter category, so, to me, for a long time they were like these mythical characters. But they had incredible melodies. I couldn’t believe it.
It seems like it always comes down to Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes when people are asked to name their favorite GBV records. What was it about Alien Lanes specifically that jumped out at you?
There’s one song called “Always Crush Me”. I think it’s called “Always Crush Me”? I’m never sure (laughs). I don’t know. There’s just all these songs that even if they came out now, they’d still sound so modern, weirdly enough. I feel like it came out at a time when it didn’t fit. If it came out now, I actually think they’d be a bigger band. I remember a cool moment playing (Alien Lanes) for The Strokes guys and it having a big effect on Julian. He’d always say, “Wow, it sounds like futuristic music.” We were telling (Is This It producer) Gordon Raphael when we were doing the first record, you know on “A Salty Salute” the way the guitar comes in with that big chord, like 10 or 15 seconds after the opening bass line? That’s the way we wanted “The Modern Age” to come in with the chord. So we used a lot of references and stuff we learned from Guided by Voices.
You hear that in a lot of places on Is This It, those common threads between the two records.
Oh, there’s a lot of stuff. Like “Game of Pricks”. In my perfect world, that would have been super successful. It changed my world. A lot of times it was just the things they were doing with melody. It just makes you think differently. That band and that record made me do that, and I never understood why it didn’t have more appeal. All people talk about is hi-fi and lo-fi, all this bullshit that people don’t understand. It just confused me, because it was so beautiful. For me at 16 years old, it was perfectly romantic.
So you were the guy who got the other Strokes into GBV?
Oh yeah, for sure. Are you kidding me? Hearing them, that was like my big push. It was like, “I’m gonna do this.” I told everyone that, so when I joined The Strokes I was like, “Have you heard these guys?” We even went to a GBV show and threw our CD onto the stage. On our first or second tour, we played with them and found out that they actually heard the CD. We brought Bob (Pollard) up onstage at Reading to play “A Salty Salute”. We talked about them all the time, but the problem is people just write about what they want to hear.
What was it like to cross that barrier, to go from being a fan to actually playing with and getting to know those guys?
How we ended up opening for them, I honestly don’t remember. I’m sure we jumped at the opportunity. We were young, and they were older, and we just admired their music so much. You just sat quietly while Bob told stories, I guess. The best thing you can do when you meet someone you admire is just let them be, you know what I mean? In the beginning, your interaction is mostly just listening, watching, and observing. It’s like, “What can I take? What small moments can I walk away with that will be mine forever?” That’s all your brain can really grasp. I mean, what can you say? Ideally you’d like to say something witty where everyone laughs, but chances are that’s not going to happen.
I remember one time after a show in Chicago, (Strokes drummer) Fab (Moretti) and I were in the back of the van with Bob, and it was just so funny. He was drunk and kept coming up with all these different band names for us. I don’t know, it just felt like being a 12-year-old hanging out with your cool uncle or something. He’s just a nice human being, and he’s made some really great music.
Has your impression of Alien Lanes changed at all over the past 20 years? Can you still listen to it now and pick up on things that you didn’t notice before?
That’s a good question in general. I guess it depends on how you listen to records. Sometimes you take time off from a record because you’ve absorbed everything you can. The repetition becomes too much. But I listened to it last night all the way through for the first time in a very long time in my car, and there’s all these small moments from different songs that came back to me. It was like, “Oh yeah, this is great.” They’re just these little, melodic moments. You forget sometimes that there would be a drum playing or whatever. That’s why I say that they remind me of The Beatles, because you can still look back, and they always give you some new source of inspiration to start with. Everybody wants to start from scratch, but other bands always leave these great little clues, and it’s better to take those clues and branch off from that. I just feel like all their records, Alien Lanes and whatever, they’re all filled with these little reference points that inspire you. My wife was telling me I was acting like a 16-year-old (while listening to Alien Lanes). I was like, “I feel like I’m 16!” She said, “Your energy is like that of a 16-year-old.”
Isn’t that the mark of a great record in and of itself, the way it can make you feel sort of ageless?
Yeah. I mean you could argue that that’s ideally the point of it. A record captures a moment in time for them, and then it captures a moment in time for you hopefully. It’s pretty amazing that someone can make something and then you can take that and make it a part of you. That’s the whole fabric of music, you know?
What’s cool is the record had that impression on you, but you were then able to turn around and make music with The Strokes that has had the same effect on others.
Well, when you do it yourself, you don’t feel it the same way. When I heard them, I said, “I want to make someone feel the way that I felt when I first heard GBV.” But that doesn’t feel quite the same as it did when you felt it. There’s just something so awesome about them, and I just can’t understand … I just feel like if more people made music as interesting as theirs, the world would be a much more interesting place to live in. Their music should be up there with other things that people are really interested in.
You mentioned clues and points of inspiration. One of the things I love about Alien Lanes is how they pack so much into these incredibly short songs. It’s easy to miss things because there’s so much going on in 1:30. It rewards repeated listens that way.
Oh, yeah. When you listen through the whole album, you’d be surprised how something you might not have understood at first become really melodic and catchy. That’s what’s so fascinating about listening to it 20 years later. You hear a song that you haven’t heard in so long, and it hits you. “Oh man, that’s so weird and cool.” I forget what song I was listening to, but I was yelling that out last night.
It’s hard to stay on top of GBV song titles.
I know. But I definitely have those moments with some of their songs. “Donkey School” was my first moment. Then in LA, Julian and his girlfriend at the time and I were all up late. Somebody had given me this box set on the road. I hadn’t heard it, but we were listening to it, and this song called “Liar’s Tale” came on. Once again, it just moved me. We couldn’t stop listening to it. It was like, “What? How have I not listened to this before?”
But (GBV) came out in a weird time for rock music. In the mid-’90s, it was like it was cool to not be successful. It was the opposite when we were coming out a few years later. It was like, “Fuck that. I might fail, but I want to be successful.” But I know for sure that (GBV) wanted to be successful. Not that they weren’t. You know when I say that I’m not putting them down. But bigger, like on radio. I think they became more of a cult college thing.
In the ’90s, there was just so much guitar rock. It was hard to really get noticed on a wide scale.
That’s what I mean. That’s why I think there was a lot of, “Well, fuck trying to get noticed.” It was maybe cooler for some people to treat things like a secret. Like my friend would get pissed if I tried to tell someone about Alien Lanes. It was like, “You’ve got to keep quiet.”
But oddly enough that cult status has really served them well over the years. They’ve got one of the most unique and loyal fan bases in all of music. I’ve been to GBV shows where total strangers bought me beers, just because I was there and that alone made me part of some club. It’s like some unspoken society.
Sure. Don’t you get excited when you hear someone say, “I really like this band Guided by Voices”? It’s like, “Holy shit.” It’s like you’ve found someone else in your tribe. I’d like to make my own mix of that band. I know they put out a greatest hits, but after listening to all of their records for so long, I’d like to just pick out my favorite gems and weirder ones. It’s like that Bob Dylan series where they’ve had step one and step two. I think the fifth set was just weird live stuff.
I think you should curate your own Guided by Voices series.
(Laughs) Yeah. Maybe I will.