Words Karen Schoemer Photography Noah Kalina

On an unseasonably warm late winter day, at the top of a low hill near the southern edge of Sullivan County, a minor war is taking place. Singer/guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. watches from the front window of his house like a general. He wears skinny black jeans, a close-fitting dark blue shirt and combat boots; he leans intently forward, scrutinizing the terrain. Outside, tree service trucks plug the driveway. The yard is littered with freshly cut stumps. We hear the constant buzz of chainsaws and the occasional gruesome crack of a trunk. “I don’t like pine trees,” he explains. “So I’m cutting them down.”

alberthammondjr_3In the annals of celebrities decamping from city pressures for the mystique of the woods, Hammond is among the more unlikely suspects. Since 2001 he’s been best known as one of the guitarists for the Strokes, the New York City band whose 2001 debut album, Is This It, led a new generation’s rock and roll revival and sold over two million copies worldwide. It isn’t just that the Strokes are irrevocably associated with the jitters, grime and sneer of a millennial-era city that doesn’t exist anymore; they were the last distorted gasp of a storied downtown tradition that spawned the Velvet Underground, the Dead Boys, Television, Talking Heads and countless more. It’s that Hammond, with his nonchalant chic, biting riffs and hitmaker pedigree (his father, singer-songwriter Albert Hammond, wrote ‘70s and ‘80s mega-smashes like “It Never Rains In Southern California” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”), seems like the last guy you’d expect to go rural-awol. He’s not one to dispute this. “In 2008, when I came up here, I didn’t know anything about upstate,” he says, seated now by a fire in the bright, open living room. “My friend David Cross, the comedian, has a place up here and he told me about it. I came up and walked the ten acres. There was no road here, nothing. Trees. A lot more then there are now.”

“In 2008, when I came up here, I didn’t know anything about upstate. My friend David Cross, the comedian, has a place up here and he told me about it. I came up and walked the ten acres. There was no road here, nothing. Trees. A lot more then there are now.”

At the time, Hammond was in the process of winding down from the Strokes’ early burst of success, as well as several years of addiction. He bought the land, built the house plus a recording studio/barn, and didn’t use it. Then he went into rehab, came out clean, and still didn’t use it. “When I first got back, this place was too much,” he says. “I wanted to be in the city, because you don’t know who you are and what you want to do. I felt kind of bad, because it’s this great house and it was just sitting here, doing nothing. I’d come home from tour and just go to my apartment. Coming up here felt like leaving home.”

alberthammondjr_8Slowly, though, Hammond grew inwardly stronger. In 2013 he married Justyna Sroka, a Polish restaurateur, and recorded a four-song EP, AHJ, his first solo work done sober. In July 2015 he released a new album, Momentary Masters, an even-more confident mix of pop jangle and throbs of funk, recorded in his barn; around that time, he and Justyna gave up their New York City apartment and moved to Sullivan County full time. “But when I say full time, the longest stretch is two or three weeks. Then I’ll be gone for a bit. I’m never here 365 days a year.” On the up side: quiet, privacy, no obstructions to a creative routine. “I feel really good when I go to sleep early and wake up early. There’s no better place to do that than the country.” On the down side: isolation, and long drives to decent restaurants. Justyna comes along when he tours; he says he wouldn’t dream of leaving her here on her own for extended periods. Another peeve: “Deer. I hate. The rats of the country. People come up and they’re like, ‘Oh, deer!” God. Disease. They eat everything and they poop everywhere. Get ‘em out of here.”

“I feel really good when I go to sleep early and wake up early. There’s no better place to do that than the country.”

Hammond’s flashes of New York attitude alternate with moments of reflection. He’s a formidable mix. There’s an air of privilege about him, but also an earnestness and lack of guile. When the interview wraps up, he goes back to the window to see how his pine tree war is progressing. Without irony or a hint of defensiveness, he points toward the eastern rim of the yard: “The sun comes up, like, right there. It’s incredible. Now that we’ve cleared this area, you can see the horizon.” Then, to the south: “In the summer it’s going to be beautiful with all those oaks. They’ll get even bigger now that the pines aren’t eating their water and their sunlight.” He sighs. “It’s really coming clear. I love it. I love it so much.”