DPRP's Dave Baird speaks with
VDGG & Solo Artist Peter Hammill
As a genre, progressive rock has been around for 40 – 45 years, and Peter Hammill is one of that small group of artists that have been active for most of that history, either through the hugely influential group Van Der Graaf Generator or via his solo recordings. Through all this time he has remained true to himself and his fans, never ‘selling out’ to commercial pressure and maintaining the intensity of his compositions – no prisoners asked or taken. His voice is one of the most distinctive and powerful in any genre and his lyrics are as profound as you could wish. When he announced his European tour I cheekily sent him an email requesting an interview, to which I expected a polite ‘no’, but to my delight he accepted. So here we are, chewing the fat at Verviers Spirit of 66 ...
This tour you're on, it's pretty big compared with what you've done in recent years
PETER: Yes it is, three weeks is quite a long time, it's about the outer limit to be honest of what I can do in one consistent go
DAVE: So how come?
PETER: Well it's not my fault. I said to my agent that I'd like to do a maximum of two weeks please, and he came back with three weeks
DAVE: OK, but even two weeks is a lot as your live dates have been quite sporadic. We saw you in Belgium with VDGG a couple of years ago, before that I think you played the Dour Festival, then the closest you got was at Tilburg in 2001
PETER: Yeeeeah, what have I been doing the last years? I've been to the States a couple of times, two or three tours, and it's quite a long time since I've done a solo, real solo tour in Europe, I guess that's really the point
DAVE: Indeed - no Stuart this time?
PETER: No Stuart, no, which isn't a point for the future or anything, nothing to read into that, I really hope to be working with Stuart again, live, recorded or what-have-you. But at the moment I'm in this strange position of having two independent semi-careers with VDGG and solo. Particularly as my band-type-experience is obviously being pretty well fulfilled by that at the moment, and because it has been quite a long time since I did solo touring, and because I'd done a couple of tours in the States and Japan, it was becoming a little bit unfair that I hadn't been here for some time. In terms of there being 'nothing out' (new album that is), this has never been part of the plan, insofar as there is a plan… it's just the time rolls by to do stuff and so-on
DAVE: I guess in the old days with VDGG you were touring to support new albums?
PETER: Yes, but we used to make a new record every ten minutes, at one point I think we made four in the one year
DAVE: You were very prolific, also in your solo career, I think averaging about an album per year, up until, dare I say it, 2003, and since then just the two, Singularity and Thin Air ...
PETER: Yes, but in that time there's also been two VDGG albums
DAVE: OK, is that purely the reason?
PETER: Yes, I mean it's not that the drive isn't as strong, it just takes time to write stuff basically. I'm not the only writer in VDGG, but I am the principle writer so I effectively have to come up with an album's worth of material, whether it's VDGG or solo is immaterial
DAVE: OK, so no link to your medical episode then?
PETER: No, no, not at all, the VDGG thing has been going almost concurrently and between the two of them it really quite enough for an old bloke to be doing to be honest
DAVE: Do you find these days, with modern technology, that the process of recording is lighter than it used to be?
PETER: (lots of umming and ahing) In some ways yes, but now it very possible to postpone decisions. In the old days you would do a take and that would be *the* take, maybe on track would be available for a solo or another musician and that was that. Aerosol Grey Machine, the first album which started as a solo and became VDGG, was recorded and mixed in 12 hours, whereas now the VDGG have been perhaps quite quick in terms of recording but somewhat longer in terms of overdubs and mixing. I think that's because we regard ourselves as a sort of play-live type band so it's quite fast, but solo recording takes on average about four months or so. A lot of that, as I said, is a question of decisions, there are so many ways one can take things and a large part of this decision making process in recent years is more and more about how much I can leave out, rather than how much I can put in, so in solo recording at least I'm more interested in the leaving-out-ness of things than the putting-in-ness.
DAVE: Does the facility to be able to do "one more take" complicate matters in the hope that the next one will be better?
PETER: If I'm doing something like a solo for instance, not that I do those much, then what I tend to do is four or fives takes in one go before even listening to anything, because also something that I've been very keen on for, well almost the whole forty years, is to, well this sounds a bit perverse actually, but to take the performance out of the performance of recording. Now that's not to say that I don't want the performance to be on tape or whatever the medium is, but particularly if you're in the studio with other people they know what you're like when you're going in to do the take, they know the frame of mind you're in, they know what the previous take was like, they know what you're trying to do, they know what you're not trying to do and so-on. So potentially there is an element of you performing for them and that aspect of human performance is something that doesn't go onto whatever the medium is, it stays there, human and personal between people. And this actually applies even if you're just alone in a room by yourself, you have the opinion that the last take was better, or worse, and maybe you're feeling you've got a headache or whatever, and I've really tried to cut all that stuff out and just deal with what's there.
So it's never really the case with me, although you're right to the extent that what can happen is that I can do those four or five takes then go "Yes, they're OK" and chop them together in one way or another, but then I can think that I'd better do another four or five and end up with something totally different.
DAVE: You talked about the energy in the room when you record, between the people, this is hidden from us, but when you're on stage then you appear to put an awful lot of energy into the performance. I guess that's all genuine or you're bloody good at faking it!
PETER: Well if I'm faking then I'm confusing myself a great deal ...
DAVE: Well you're no whipper-snapper any more, it must take it out of you?
PETER: Well it's very energizing to go on stage and obviously part of the process of going on stage is getting your head and your body to the state where you're up for it. I feel lucky and privileged that in both of my careers I'm able to do it. In fact it's probably more taxing to do a solo show because obviously it's just me 100% of the time and there's no kind of escape, and also there's an element of repetition of songs, but not that much. I've now done, oh, I think this is the tenth show of this tour and I'm now up to 68 different songs I've played. By now I'm probably going to be repeating, I might have reached the critical mass ...
DAVE: That's fine for me as I didn't see any of the previous shows
PETER: Well there is an aspect to that. On the one hand I'm trying to dive myself and keep myself sharp, but I also have to be aware that, well there is one couple who have been to every show so they kind of have the whole picture, or one version of the whole picture. However most people are probably going to just be seeing the one show, so there has to be a balance between styles, between ages, subject matter, all that sort of thing you know. But in a way, having the luck to be able to do that, which in turn partly comes from the fact that I'm not in the position where I have to play certain songs - or else the punters are going to go away very unhappy - it is possible to do that, and that in itself is also revitalizing.
Same thing applies with VDGG of course, we change around the tunes and of course obviously, by now in terms of the last touring we did which was in the States, it's pretty much 50/50 between old stuff and new.
DAVE: Last time when your toured Belgium you played two tracks from the as-yet unreleased TriSector
PETER: Yeah, we played the first two tracks, but since then obviously the album has been integrated, and now, well perhaps then, as it was last Summer it was the main-stay of the set. And I have to say that I don't actually ever get the feeling that 'this is an old song', and that also applies to the solo world. I rather see it as 'these are the songs chosen for tonight’. Another important point in all of this is that after all this solo stuff, and I'm doing some shows in Britain in May as well, but the next thing on the agenda is making a start on the next VDGG record. Now I, and we, are looking at the writing for that. You know it's very exciting and we're very keen on doing it.
DAVE: Still as a trio?
PETER: Yes, still the trio, and for the moment, obviously since the initial stage where we were going to be a trio, the question was as to whether we have any guests invited or not. But it was clear with the touring and also with the recording of TriSector that it was something we had to do with just the three of us, in order to kind of be ‘real’… Now it has gone beyond that stage and it has become really a very, very interesting group, quite an odd area of music. So we want to explore it more and I suspect the next album will be just the three of us, although there's not any in-principle thing saying we'll never have anyone else playing with us, but for the moment it's just very interesting working with the three.
It was interesting seeing you live, these three 'old buggers' up on stage, what an energy you push out!
PETER: Well we do goad each other on…
DAVE: When you look back on your career, of which there's quite a bit, do you have any favourite periods, or conversely any albums or songs that you're happy to never play again?
PETER: Oh no, no, no. Obviously there are a number of songs I don't play live for several reasons, but very few for that kind of reason. Some I wouldn't want to revisit, maybe because they're just a bit too extreme in one way or another, but no I don't reject anything because I've been doing my best at each stage basically.
DAVE: When you're writing, what is it comes first, the lyric or the melody?
PETER: Usually it's the tunes, although sometimes it's the other way around, no absolutes. Sometimes, for instance a couple of the songs on Thin Air, are both tunes and lyrics that have hung around for six or seven years until the moment came where I felt ‘OK, this has now made itself known to be a song’. That is very much the process for me, rather than sitting down to compose - about ‘this’, in ‘this’ style. I still basically just find songs and usually if it's a phrase that just comes into my mind then that's that, the other way that things happen is just by improvisation and then something makes itself known, almost literally falls into my hands and somewhere in the improvisation something comes out where I think ‘Ah, that is something’. Then the chipping away at the stone starts.
DAVE: I ask because you lyrics tend to be quite profound
PETER: Well I do my best to get a bit of sense in there…
DAVE: They're generally quite poetic, and, erm most of them are quite miserable...
PETER: They're dark, in comparison with a lot of things yes, but I've always contended that if you don't look at it, it's not going to go away.
DAVE: It doesn't necessarily mean you're a miserable person though?
PETER: No, not at all
DAVE: So where does it all come from?
PETER: It's all basically from the idea that the unconsidered life isn't worth living. And if you're considering life then the things that are generally worth mulling over are on the darker side.
DAVE: If I try to count the happy songs you've written I think I can get them on one hand: My Favourite perhaps, Sleep, that was a nice one…
PETER: Well Sleep is actually one of the more bitter-sweet songs… In general, if there's one thing I've been going on about really since the off, it is really about the passage of time and the changing nature of things
DAVE: Nothing is permanent
PETER: Absolutely, nothing is permanent and obviously part of the nominal drive for human happiness is that people want to grasp something and have the habit of remaining the same all the time
DAVE: Which brings unhappiness of course
PETER: Exactly. One has to go forward, be in each moment, but not try to cling onto it. And it's just for that reason that I don't reject or have any favourite periods from the past
DAVE: Sure, I guess miserable wasn't perhaps the right word, it's more loss or fear
PETER: Yes, Loss and change
DAVE: When you write a song do you ever write for the listener or are you writing for yourself?
PETER: I'm really writing them for the song. I'm not trying to preach to, or target anything to the listeners. I'm trying to find out about the song for myself. I don't think songs should be dogmatic and didactic, and just be about ‘this thing’ in a straight vector. I want to have an open-endedness to it, and to achieve that I have to find out about it, what it's telling me. My hope is that if this exists then it will be possible for the audience to have the same kind of experience with it, although not necessarily the same thoughts that I will have had.
DAVE: Once upon a time you wrote a couple of books…
PETER: Yes, a long time ago. They were a mix of lyric, poetry and short stories
DAVE: Did you ever consider reprinting them or perhaps writing again?
PETER: Well no. In principle when I started this nobody had really been doing music for more than 5 or 10 years, apart from blues guys obviously, so if I had an image of myself at that time it probably would have been as a novelist. But from the experience of writing short stories I realized that I infinitely prefer writing music, it's far more instantly gratifying. It does also tend to take place in a room alone, but you have the gratification of the music coming straight back at you rather than at the fourth or fifth re-write when you know everything that's happening. So no, briefly.
DAVE: OK, but you do like to conjure with words, don't you?
PETER: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I don't know, maybe if for instance I went deaf, or got arthritis, so could play or hear then that might be an outlet for whatever drives me. But while I can do this I prefer to do this.
DAVE: Then you're a happy fellow
PETER: Well I wouldn't go that far…
DAVE: OK, sure, but you don't have to do it, you're not doing this to make a living?
PETER: No, sure, absolutely, although I am lucky as it does make a living. In turn that means there has to be quite a strict consciousness of being correct about it, because I have been graced with that and I've been able to do more or less what I wanted and I have made a living from it.
DAVE: Have you found with the advent of the internet that you've had to completely change your business model?
PETER: Not completely because my mail-order has run for years and although it's shifted now to the Web it's fundamentally the same model. I don't do downloads on the site, although there are some other semi-official outlets that do like Burning Shed along with some of the other well-known sites. In common with everybody else I notice that CD's don't sell so well any more, but that's the life and we're heading towards a wonderful world where all musicians will have to survive on absolutely nothing, thin air in fact, and everyone will make loads of money from touring (laughs)
DAVE: I think that what some of the bigger bands are doing
PETER: Of course it is, but the bigger bands can, they make the money on touring and merchandise, whatever, of course Madonna or Coldplay are going to make money, but I'm damned sure it doesn't make much sense to the little band who are trying to play in their own province, let-alone in the capital city
DAVE: I'm not wondering if the pirate culture isn't beginning to change though, people are now beginning to buy their downloads, from iTunes for instance?
PETER: Yeah, possibly. I think it's interesting times. A bonus now it stuff like those Russian MP3 sites have been closed down, although they do keep popping up. That was really the dark side…
DAVE: No copyright in Russia so we'll just sell them on…
PETER: In fact they were even more cunning than that, there's no copyright in Russia so we'll invent a copyright society and therefore we'll say that we're paying a penny to the copyright society - who never passed that on ether. This was allofmp3.com - and we said, why didn't we think of that? Well, because we couldn't, but this was Russia.
DAVE: One of the things I find great is YouTube, well it's a curse and a wonder at the same time. There's quite a bit of footage of you there, some more official than others. A lot taken with people phones, but others stuff, for instance there's a really nice version of you singing This Side of the Looking Glass with an orchestra, I think it's on German TV, but there's nothing official on DVD
PETER: Well now there is, "Passionskirche" is now available, it was on VHS before, it's a show in Passionskirche in Berlin and it has just been released about one month ago on Voiceprint
DAVE: Aha, that explains why I wasn't aware of it
PETER: And of course Voiceprint have also release the VDGG Paradiso show
DAVE: I think there's still quite a market for video, if you were to release a solo show like the one you'll do tonight, I think there's quite an audience for that?
PETER: Yes, but slowly, slowly, and then I'd only have the problem which to decide which songs to put on it, I'll have to put out a special box set
DAVE: OK Peter, just to finish up, I have a few questions coming from fans
DAVE: Ignacio Vassallo from Chile asks - and it's a bit of a grim question I'm afraid, but - "if you had died in 2003 and had met God, would you have felt guilty for The Lie?"
PETER: Well, I think I can answer that by saying that as I was lying the in the emergency ward I had no sudden recant of my position, I didn't suddenly feel "Oh my God, there might be a God"… In any case, The Lie is not an anti-religious song as such, Comfortable is an anti-religious song, but in relation to humans and the dogma. The Lie is about the confusion that someone feels themselves about it all. So briefly again, the answer is no.
DAVE: Leo Korperdraat, a DPRP colleague, asks if you've heard any stuff by Discipline or Matthew Parmentier?
PETER: Well actually yes, I've done a number of shows with Matthew both solo and with Discipline. I think Discipline played at the first NearFest that I played, but I've also met Matthew quite a few times now
DAVE: There's a lot of VDGG influence in their music, and on that matter Jerry Van Kooten asks what's your view on your influence on other pro artists
PETER: I don't really go there, sorry, no
DAVE: OK, that was quick. Finally I had a lot of messages from people just asking me to thank you in person for all the wonderful music over the years
PETER: Well it's a pleasure, and sincerely it's a joy, honour and privilege and I'm very lucky to still be doing it
DAVE: Thanks Peter, have a great show tonight
Interview & Live Photographs for DPRP by Dave Baird
Photographs of Dave & Peter by Luc Poncelet
Peter Hammil Official Website
Official Peter Hammil VDGG Website
Van der Graaf Generator Website
DPRP Concert Review - Spirit Of 66, Verviers, Belgium - January 2010
DPRP Review of Peter Hammill's Thin Air 2009
DPRP Review of Peter Hammill's Incoherence 2004
DPRP Review of Peter Hammill's Clutch 2001
DPRP Review of Peter Hammill's None Of The Above 2000
DPRP Reivew of VDGG - Live At The Paradise 2009
DPRP Review of VDGG - Tresector 2008
DPRP Review of VDGG - Present 2005
DPRP Review of VDGG - Live At Godbluff 1973 - 2003