We here at DPRP Towers are honoured to be interviewing none other than Peter Hammill, who, to borrow a phrase from Mr R Fripp, kindly participated in the following stream of “e-flurrying” with our very own Roger Trenwith.
Over the last 40 plus years some 50 or so albums (who’s counting?) have been issued either under his own name or that of his iconic band Van der Graaf Generator (VdGG), and the Poet Laureate of underground music shows no signs of slowing down, as 2012 has already seen 10 CDs and a DVD’s worth of music hit the shelves, and later this month sees VdGG’s latest offering ALT hit the racks. Hammill’s latest solo album Consequences continues his superlative use of the English language, on an album thematically dominated by the trouble caused by… err… language, and we discuss this and much more here. Read on!
OK, let’s start by getting the dreaded “P” word out of the way. Were you and the rest of Van der Graaf Generator aware back when you started that alongside your contemporaries like King Crimson, Genesis, Yes etc, regardless of dissimilarities in styles, that you and your fellow musical travellers were forging a new kind of peculiarly English rock’n’roll for the head, or, heaven forfend, “prog rock”?
Well, certainly at the time it seemed that “anything goes” and, indeed,that there was something of a responsibility to push the boundaries. In common with most bands of the time, we’d been fired up by, variously, blues, beat groups, soul and r’nb, as well as jazz and various shades of classical music. But it would have been a bit rich for us middle-class boys to go all Delta on ya at that point (not that I’m decrying earlier bands’ work by any means).
It was, of course, all very English, you’re right.
VdGG is known for marrying intelligent music to literary lyrics. I often feel that the 21st century VdGG is far more accessible than its 70s forebears and your VdGG lyrics on the whole seem to be more direct these days. That’s not always the case of course, as songs like Mathematics and 5533 would indicate for example, but the lyrics do seem more “instant” on the whole than in days gone by. On the other hand your solo work continues its exploratory feel. Am I imagining that or is it a conscious decision to make the modern VdGG more… well not mainstream exactly, but maybe less contrary than before?
The lyrical aspect of VdGG has always depended on finding things to write about and ways of writing to which the group as a whole could give their approval, even if not absolutely unconditional. So back in the day SF was a common interest of ours and therefore a fertile ground.
These days we’re slightly more elder-statesmen like so our common ground is, indeed, the loss of glasses and car keys inter alia. That does make things a little bit more approachable I think.
Your lyrics are always searching, always asking the big questions. As we all get older and hopefully wiser the existential angst of years gone by is tempered a little by experience of life. Can you discern a pattern in this direction, or indeed any other developing themes over the years in your writing? Apologies for the verbose nature of the last two questions by the way!
The raw certainties of youth are naturally overtaken by a more measured, uncertain tone as one grows older. And where one might have rushed into accusations and declamations, these days I find it more interesting to take a more quietly reserved position.
And, for me, it’s all the more interesting for that….
Singers as diverse as Marc Almond, Mark E Smith and John Lydon have all been fans and one can certainly see where your style comes through with those three. How does it feel to be influential?
Since such influences as I’ve had are way back in the past – and, indeed, my influence on those you mention will be back in their pasts – I always find it hard to respond to this one. I like to think that what was taken from me was as much to do with attitude (especially towards Music Biz) as with music itself.
There are those who would have you, along with Robert Wyatt, elevated to “National Treasure” status for services to underground music, although I suspect it would not be an accolade either of you would be comfortable with. Obviously you can’t speak for Robert, but what’s your take on your place in the cultural scheme of things?
I’m very happy to be anonymous to those who don’t know about me. Obviously any artist would like to have a bit more success, a slightly larger audience and sales. But fame for its own sake has never been the drive.
Let’s move on to the new VdGG album ALT, out on 25th June. I have to say that it is probably the most obtuse work the band has created to date. Totally improvised and a cousin, albeit fairly distant, of the second CD of the Present album, this is different in that it is an album in its own right rather than a bonus disc and as such is a brave move that may put some fans off. Why did you and the band decide to release a stand-alone album of improvised instrumentals?
Yes, it does what it says on the tin, doesn’t it? Collectively and individually we’ve got form for this kind of thing. As you say, the second disc of Present is a relative of this stuff. Back in Pawn Hearts days we had various elements of musique concrete intruding through the songs as well. I’ve had my own Sonics series and collaborated with Guy on Spur of the Moment, while his Echo City work is really quite out there…
So it’s kind of known territory for us, but we’re keen that people don’t think it’s “just another VdGG album” (whatever that might be…)
Basically, we accumulated this material over a number of years and decided that now that it’s achieved album length (and more) it’s really time to put it out there. Important to note that some of the more considered pieces were originally in the frame for inclusion on Trisector, before we realised that we actually had a complete song-based album…
Elements of ALT put me in mind of Popol Vuh and Can at their more ambient, especially Repeat After Me. Presumably a Deutschrock (hate the “K” word!) feel was not intentional?
Neither yes nor No. Guy’s the one with a full knowledge of Deutsch Rock, I’m not so familiar. But see “anything goes” up above. It’s still like that for us!!!
I must ask you – how did the opening track Earlybird come about, as birdsong is not something one normally associates with VdGG!
It was a late addition, captured by Guy as he got up one morning. The original birdsong, percussion track and coffee percolating went down in one take. Then various strange overdubs of course.
It was widely reported at the time that the 2004 VdGG reunion was a case of “now or never” yet here we are 8 years later and still going strong. Presumably there is more still to come?
We certainly hope so though we continue to take nothing for granted. It’s been a surprise and a great pleasure for all three of us to be honest. And I don’t think we’d have managed this amount of work or creativity if we’d stayed as a four-piece…
You’ve also recently released your latest solo offering, Consequences. Do you have a set way of writing and recording solo albums that has developed over the years, and if so, how does Consequences fit into that process?
I try to change it each time so that it’s not just routine. On this album I had all the songs written before beginning recording proper. And the first real act of recording (post a gtr, a pno of course) was The Lead Vocal. That produced a quite interesting and different process, I think.
The first five songs on Consequences are cautionary tales that deal with various compromising situations caused by misunderstandings, deliberate and otherwise, in the use of verbal and written communication. Presumably this was a deliberate theme?
I think the linkage of themes came about because of writing all the songs together. Obviously what I was interested in at the time came to the forefront, as always….
Following those five songs is the slightly worrying All The Tiredness. From a fan’s point of view I hope that there is at least some dramatic licence there, as it presents a very world-weary view, almost as if the protagonist has had enough!
All the tiredness rolls in when you stop. When you pause some of the tiredness rolls in. But I haven’t stopped yet 😉 !
Bravest Face is another fine example of the intensely personal writing we’ve come to associate with your solo work. Do you set out to be cathartic in your songwriting or is that just what happens?
Still trying, as ever, to express something uplifting while staring my own – and what I prersume to be others’ – demons down. The stuff of life!
Your other solo work out recently was the 7 CD Pno, Gtr, Vox Box. How did it get to be so big from the humble beginnings of a double CD?
It sprang, really, from a set of four Japanese shows that I did. Each of those would have been an hour and a half rather than the hour of a CD, so the extra CDs covered extra material…
From its sheer size to its “epitaph on a tombstone” cover art it would seem to be a fairly definitive statement, but are there songs you have since considered you might have included on it had you done it again?
Oh, there are always songs, new and old, to play. At the moment my solo list runs to around eighty… I’ll hope to add those as I go along. But still, I have the view, Box notwithstanding, that each night up on stage is a thing in and of itself. Only those who are there are really there…
Finally on the product front, and hot off the presses, we have the 2CD & DVD Van der Graaf Generator Live In Concert At The Metropolis Studios London, a recording of a gig in front of an invited audience back in December 2010. I’ve yet to hear this, so tell us something about how it came about, and are you pleased with the end result?
The offer to do this was serendipitous. It got us up to playing speed for the “Grounding” songs and was a pretty unique event, up close and personal, no safety net and so on, classic VdGG territory. And obviously good to have another live document, they’ve been lacking in most of the VdGG history. London was snow bound for the event and both band, crew and audience experienced signifcant difficulties in getting there and getting home…
So, what’s happening next for Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator?
A couple of shows in Japan in the summer followed by some European solo shows. After that, who knows?
It’s kind of a wonky world, but it’s also kind of the way we want it….
What was the last CD you bought and what’s been spinning most recently chez Hammill?
Answer’s the same for both, Strauss’ last songs, sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Fellow DPRP colleague, Mark Hughes, asks about your appearance on Playaway (BBC chilredn’s TV program in 1980). Were you friends with Brian Cant? Did you write the song performed (Tintagel)? And what ever happened to the bright purple thing you wore?
Nick Wilson, the producer/director of Playaway at the time (later in charge of childrens and sport broadcasting for Channel 5 here) was a University friend of mine. He’d always wanted to do something at Tintagel and this was his opportunity.
Yes, the song was mine. The crew thought I was a jobbing actor rather than a muso, as they would. The pruple thing was *not* artist’s own, so it went back to BBC props
Secondly, Mark asks: how about releasing a true rarities collection with stuff like Old School Tie, Firebrand, Just Good Friends (instrumental), Painting By Numbers (12″ version) etc?
I don’t know, I’d rather keep releasing That New Stuff to be honest 😉
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions and we wish you and the band all the best in the future and look forward to hearing much more of your highly individual yet entertaining music.
Thanks very much, Roger!
Peter Hammill Official Home-Page: http://sofasound.com/
Up-Coming Tour Dates
August – VdGG in Japan
23rd Club Citta, Kawasaki
25th Prog Fes Hibiya Open Air Theatre Tokyo
October – Hammill solo
5th Pamplona Chamber Music Hall of Baluarte
6th Madrid Sala Clamores
7th Bilbao Sala BBK