SXSW Interview: Albert Hammond Jr. discusses Francis Trouble and the importance of failing

While at SXSW, we caught up with Albert Hammond Jr. – an artist who needs no introduction. What was being introduced during the festival however, was AHJ’s fourth studio album Francis Trouble, an album that has recently seen him on tour with The Killers and further expanding his live set up on huge stages.

I think the last time I saw you here was a few years ago, and you were playing Stubb’s on the Sunday after everything had died down.

Oh, yeah! Yeah, that one. Yeah, I remember that one. That was right after SXSW, yeah? That was a fun show.

I think it was when you released your last record. It was 2015.

Yeah, Momentary Masters.

So we’re now three years later, got another record under your belt, and how … I guess the first question is between then and now, when did the process for Francis Trouble start?

It started as soon as I got back from touring Momentary Masters. So I scored it as soon as I got back. I started making demos and I was done with it about a year before. I was done about a year before it came out. I think I finished … March 3rd was when it was mastered.

So you’ve been sitting on it for a little while? When did Red Bull Records come into the mix? Was that after the album was done?

Yes.

You were looking for a new label?

Yes. Gus and I had been wanting to be on Red Bull for a while and we felt like this was a record that they would be excited about. An old friend of ours gave the record to a guy name Tick there, who’s our A&R guy, and then played to Greg, who’s like the head who oversees everything. And they loved it. Yeah, I basically signed to them. It was very, very exciting time. Still is, just started.

The album came out on Friday, so you’re basically kicking the album off here in Texas.

We’ve been on tour since February; we opened up for The Killers and then Franz Ferdinand, and did a few shows in Europe. Then started the tour March 5th on James Corden. It feels like we’ve been doing it for a bit, but the album just came out.

So you’re already like, “All right, ready for the next one now.”

No, definitely not ready for the next one yet! I feel it’s too excited to play this one live, you know?

So what’s the live setup for you this tour? Are you playing solo? Do you have a band with you?

I always have a band. It’s always bass, drums, guitar.

Couldn’t do it any other way? You did a solo tour, didn’t you?

The music lends itself to human beings. [I] found a cool band from the Valley in Los Angeles, where I was born. So it kind of has made me feel full-circle, which is great. I feel like it’s the best band I’ve had so far.

Well, you’re sort of going back to your childhood a bit with the record, so that feels like it’s appropriate.

Yeah, it definitely fits. It was not intentional, so it’s great how things seem to fall into my lap when you’re kind of in the right place.

You ask, and the universe delivers.

In so many ways. It’s not like a next day kind of thing. The change you start today, in a year or two, leads to where you want to be. It’s a slow progress. That’s what the whole arc of my career has felt. It’s been a slow progress to get to here. It’s nice to be here.

The process behind writing for your own music, does it start out just you and a guitar and lyrics, or do you create music with the band? What are the origins of the songs?

Lyrics, as a whole, are last. You might come up with a line, but you’re constantly writing. You have little bits, piano, guitar, acapella stuff, whatever, whatever you have in the moment.

That’s what you need, an acapella record.

I definitely don’t need that, but sometimes melodies come to your head and you don’t have an instrument with you. Or a word or something that you like or titles, and then you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to make some demos to kind of pull these things apart a little bit.” That’s where it really starts to take place and you start to find where the vibe’s going to go of the song or where it feels like it’s going to go. Then when it’s in a good place like that, then I’ll bring in a band and play it and try different stuff so I don’t have to cut and paste on a computer. “Oh, let’s try four verses or …” You know?

It’s fun, when someone’s playing it then I can try singing parts with it just being looped in the room. It’s nice. It’s like, “Let’s just play this verse 20 minutes straight,” and then sometimes you can find a groove in that.

Developing it live, how is that gone about for this record?

I mean, once it’s on the record, it’s developed live. It’s about finding players to play it.

Oh, that helps!

It all works, because we played it live. So it all works. I know it already works live, it’s just about practising it with a group of musicians to get it to its point.

And which songs have you been enjoying most on the record in that environment?

Well, we play a big chunk. We play “Dark vs. Light” or “DvsL”, “Muted Beatings”, “Far Away Truths”, “Set to Attack”, “Rocky’s”, “Strangers”, and “Harder, Harder, Harder”. I think there’s only two we don’t play, or three, three now. We’re trying to play one of them. Enjoying a song live, it really depends on the moment. It’s got nothing to do with what I want to enjoy or don’t. Some songs need to be played a certain way to create a feeling, and then when that happens you love it.

Sometimes the response from the crowd is what you love. Sometimes it doesn’t matter their responses, you just know that it’s impactful. It’s a thing that changes constantly based on the emotion of the moment.

With the large amount of touring you’ve done over the years, both your solo music and other guises, do you still get surprised by receptions from crowds that they know certain songs? You know, especially with an album like this, which just came out, there’ll be people at the front row which will know every word to every song already.

I mean, certain things never get old. I think that’s what keeps it exciting. Playing new songs always keeps all of that exciting, especially when you can feel like you have a record that you could just go and tour that and it would be a great show. A lot of times, [with] new records, you just want to play one or two songs, because it’s like you’re leaning on the stuff that people know already. So just in that aspect, it’s awesome.

It’s fun to see people’s minds change over a set or over a song. We played shows where it would be a weekday and the crowd doesn’t know. I’m still at the level where I’m trying to convince people and making it bigger. So it’s fun to see it start and they’re like cold and somewhat timid. And then by the end, people are letting loose a little more and the room is warm and like … I don’t know. I like that. I like that a lot. That doesn’t get old.

I’m glad that it doesn’t, because I know it does for some. So I’m glad it doesn’t for you.

Well, I think maybe … I don’t know. My goal would be to play arenas with this kind of music. It’s where I feel like it sits best, big theatres, big rooms, stages where I have room to walk around. I mean, I don’t know, maybe not … I don’t know. I mean, as long as things move and there’s variety, I can’t imagine wanting to make things get old. There’s always still some connection.

Looking ahead to all the touring you’ve got in the months and year ahead, how is the year looking for you? And are there any chances we’re going to get you down to Australia?

I couldn’t be trying any harder to get down to Australia, besides being like a mascot for some company to help me get down there.

There’s a good music video on that, auditioning as mascot.

 

Touring at that level all has to do with either getting a festival… because things are far away. To make it down, you have to find someone to help fund it basically. I mean, I would love nothing more. I love Australia. I did it once by myself and it was just my favourite. I’d love to go down with this record, just because I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve done. It’s the reason, musically … Not why I exist as a person, because intrinsically I feel like I have worth outside of my music, but musically, it’s the reason I exist.

Listening to it today, it really felt like the product of everything that came before. I don’t know how to put that. Everything that came before led to that.

For sure. For sure it did.

It just feels like it’s an evolution to everything.

I think I just told the last person that, that the hardest thing … She asked me about the highlight of my career, and I was just saying, “Sticking to it,” because I was a late bloomer and I was in a band that was already successful, I had to… as much as they’re good songs, I had to, in my view, fail in front of people constantly to get to where I wanted to be. It’s rough.

I think that’s good advice for anyone here at SXSW, to fail constantly.

It’s rough. I mean, I still feel it. At SXSW, I think I understand when comedians talk about building their show and becoming and figuring out. They probably have it the hardest. You have to build some kind of inner callous and also just understand that there’s different dynamics at different shows and people, and you almost have to … Sometimes you’re going to have to act it, just because it’s not going to be midnight and the light just right. Do you know what I mean?

It’s not going to be a movie. Even the parts that suck, as time goes by, I would go back and do them all over.

Because you wouldn’t be where you are without them.

Of course. It’s just life, which is awesome.

 

Francis Trouble is out now.