Innerviews, music without borders

Peter Hammill
In the now
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2013 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Peter Hammill has nothing to prove to anyone—except himself. At 64, Hammill remains in his creative prime, recording and releasing some of the finest music of his 46-year career. The British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is a fixture of the progressive rock scene as the co-founder and primary songwriter of Van der Graaf Generator. First established in 1967, the group is the epitome of art rock without compromise. The band’s adventurous, genre-defying music, featuring complex lyrics and Hammill’s dramatic vocals, has earned it immense critical acclaim and a hardcore global cult following.

The group initially disbanded in 1978 and reformed in 2005 to record Present, a reunion album that featured Hammill along with keyboardist Hugh Banton, drummer Guy Evans, and saxophonist David Jackson. The band slimmed down to a trio in 2008 with Jackson’s departure. For most of its existence, the group prominently featured Jackson’s sax work as a signature element of its sound. Long-time fans pondered how the band would transform itself after the personnel change. They were pleasantly surprised when it reemerged with two of the strongest efforts of its career in 2008’s Trisector and 2011’s A Grounding in Numbers. The albums focus on tightly-arranged, expansive rock pieces brimming with creative arrangements, dazzling group interplay and ferocious energy. The records showcase musicians in their 60s continuing to forge ahead without a trace of nostalgia or resting on their laurels. In typical Van der Graaf Generator style, the band took another detour with 2012’s Alt, an album of experimental instrumentals.

As a solo artist, Hammill has released dozens of albums reflecting an incredible diversity of musical directions and interests. He’s explored the worlds of improvised music, solo keyboard- and guitar-based songs, opera, soundtracks, electronic music, and straightahead rock. His most recent releases include 2012’s PNO GTR VOX BOX, a seven-CD set of solo performances, and Consequences, a dark, moody studio album that explores the perils of assumptions and insensitivity, and the chaos that can ensue. The disc is an entirely solo effort, with Hammill situating piercing truths within minimalist guitar and piano accompaniment, occasional percussion, and cascading vocal layers.

You’ve been on fire, creatively speaking, for the last several years. Give me some insight into the well of inspiration driving all of your activity.

I think it’s possibly to do with finding myself in my golden years. I’m also involved in two different halves of a career. One is the solo work and the other being Van Der Graaf Generator trio work. Together, the activity has reinvigorated me. Going from one thing to another is an energizing thing.

Describe the creative process behind Consequences.

Every time I do a record, I try to do something different. That might seem a bit absurd after a 46-year career. You might think a record is a routine effort, but it isn’t for me. A unique element of this record is I had all of the songs written before I started recording, although it’s still a slightly fluid process. For instance, the minute I sit down to record a rough piano part, that part might still be there on the final effort. In general, in the past, I’ve had three or four tunes and then trusted the muse that along the way other things would appear in whatever form as I made a recording. This time, all of the songs were there, right down to the running order. This produced a unique effect. Historically, I would have a piano, guitar or piece of noise, and a basic backing track, and work from there. This time, because the songs were completed, I did the lead vocal first. Typically, the lead vocal would go down during the last 100 meters of the 1,500-meter dash. Because the lead vocals were there from the outset, everything else in turn was built around them, instead of the vocal going in and sitting on top of everything. This was very interesting when it came to backing vocals. I’ve always enjoyed doing backing vocals and in this case, I had lots of different cantorial ideas I could invoke because the main lead voice was already there. The same thing happened with guitars. They’re supporting the lead vocal, drifting in and out. So, fundamentally, that’s how Consequences came together over a course of six-to-eight weeks.

I discovered, as always, that the subject matter reflects what I’m fascinated by during a particular juncture. I’ve never gone into making a record or writing a body of work thinking “These are the things I want to say.” I discover the things I want to say the minute they’re coming out of my mouth. That’s when I discover the stories and areas of human interaction that interest me at any given time. In this particular period, I think the writing had an even more unified aspect to it. The album includes a few slightly bizarre, stalker-oriented stories which took me by surprise. I hasten to say I have not been subject to stalking in the last year or so, nor has anyone I know personally, but it is an aspect of modern life people have to deal with.

How prevalent a problem has stalking been for you in the past?

Back in the day during the ‘70s, there were quite a few wacky people around. Those were wackier times and I was a more visibly public figure then. I wasn’t exactly stalked, but there were some fairly crazy people in those days. I’ve packed the stories into my luggage of “back then” and stashed them away. One incident that is real is described in “Scissors” from Consequences. It took place in Times Square, back in the day when it was really Times Square. I did see that—the massive six-inch pair of scissors threateningly held by a lady as she was begging for food at the traffic lights, just as we drove away from her. That was back in 1975 and it has been with me since that time. I’ve made countless albums since then, but it never popped up until Consequences. Maybe it was because I thought I ought to write a story about it rather than a song. Perhaps it was because I never found the musical thing needed to turn it into a reasonable story. I’m not mad keen about going “Here’s this thing that happened to me” in a song. I’d much rather have the idea emerge mysteriously, but sometimes the process takes decades before it’s ready to be in a song.

What evolution as a songwriter do you feel the album reveals?

I think one of the things that has energized me as of late is that I’ve let go of having to have an evolution as a songwriter. I don’t think about it. I try to make each album different. I don’t do that by looking at what I’ve done in the past. Obviously, I have an inkling of what the last record has been and I’ve created a decent body of work, particularly in the last five or six years. When I started doing absolutely solo recordings in the ‘70s on a four-track recorder, one of the things I wanted to do was strip out the idea of recording a performance. In those days, when you went in to record, it was the thing for which you signed away your life and soul. The contract allowed you to go into the studio for six hours or what have you. I think everyone was sidetracked by the fact that you were actually performing for the rest of your band, the producer, engineer, and your friends who were there. They were aware of your emotional and mental state when you were waiting to do a track. Their evaluation of that track would be colored by knowing how you were feeling. When I started doing solo recordings, I gradually realized I could strip all that away and just try to have the pure performance be the important thing. That’s the result of a lifetime’s learning. These days, I’m still excited about what I do. However, I’m not trying to show off to anybody through performance. It’s more about the act of songwriting and the playing. I’ve always considered being a musician the third thing on the list of things I do. I’d put songwriting first, singing second, and musician third. I say that because I’m completely self taught. I’m a rhythm guitarist and a rhythm pianist rather than any kind of lead player, but I really like playing. I also really like the experience of learning how to play and continuing to discover what my voice is. It’s not a virtuoso voice, but there are definitely things I can do better than a lot of people who are virtuosos. So, I’m trying to explore those things simultaneously, but not actually trying to track myself and where I think I’m going. To be honest, I’m just still delighted to be in the moment of doing it. It’s still an exciting thing to go “Wow” when something has really worked out, like finding words that work with a tune, or finding the right tune.

Last year, you released PNO GTR VOX BOX, a seven-CD set comprised entirely of live solo performances, segmented by themes. It required you to come to terms with your back catalog en masse. Describe the process of putting it together.

The box set was led by live performance from the start. The idea started before I did a solo tour of Japan that was focused on Tokyo. I had been there a number of times playing solo and this time it occurred in tandem with the resurgence of Van der Graaf Generator. That presented me with some interesting options. I was playing a very nice, but very small jazz club in Tokyo with a grand piano, rather than an electric piano, for four nights in a row. A large percentage of the audience was exactly the same every night, so that also produced certain demands and responsibilities to vary things.

A couple of hours before the gigs, I would start ramping up the repertoire. Each time, there was a certain number of new songs to play, but I’d also go back and rediscover older songs I’ve liked. I’ve never done the same show in succession. As I was building up the repertoire this particular time, I thought maybe I needed to have some theming in advance for these shows. I came up with four. The first was “What if I forgot my guitar?” The idea was that I might have left it in the hotel or at home, which meant I was just playing piano songs. Another one was “What if there were no piano?” That’s something which has happened a couple of times in the past. Either the piano was completely unplayable or it was forgotten about, so I played only acoustic guitar songs. That was an unusual one, at least for me. “What if I played only Van der Graaf Generator songs?” was another theme. Those songs aren’t things I’ve particularly played during my solo career. The last theme was the most interesting one: “What if I knew this was the last show I’d ever do?” I don’t think any performer likes to consider that idea. But when I considered it, it produced a number of curious ideas for me. The presumption was that I was going to be fit, as opposed to being in some kind of declining state, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing the show. [laughs] So, I had these four show themes, but I didn’t decide what I was going to play before I left for Tokyo. I did what I always do, which is put the show together an hour before, sorting out what a dynamic flow might be in terms of a mix of songs new and old.

For the box set, I reduced the shows down. Each show was 90 minutes long, but I wanted to reduce them to 60-70 minutes for the CDs. I started with those four themes, and because there was a lot of material left over, and also because I had been touring a fair degree in Europe and had ramped up the repertoire, I thought there were another two CDs of songs there, which I called “What about songs I didn't play in Japan?” and “What about songs I dropped from the setlists?” For the seventh CD, I used things that were real contenders for the first set, but were quite radically different versions of songs. I thought they deserved to have their own voice, which resulted in the “What about the best alternate versions?” disc. The chap that did the album cover, Paul Ridout, said to me “This is a bit of a retrospective, isn’t it?” And it is some kind of a summing up to that point, having rediscovered the responsibility of doing these things in a completely solo setting in a bare bones format. It’s like hearing what the songs were like before I recorded them, though not exactly.

I had a conversation with Leo Kottke in which he said “After doing this for 40 years, I’ve realized that even before I enter a venue, there’s an electricity in the air. Depending on the nature of that electricity, the performance can rise and fall, independent of what I bring to the table.” What do you make of that?

I agree with that, in a way. But it’s also about something you carry with you. As I said, I get into gear for a solo show only in the hour running up to it. I get into the whole showtime area at that point, and it’s usually about a 90-minute performance, but feels about five minutes maximum to me. My only evaluation of the show as to whether it was good or not will be down to five or 10 seconds of that. I’ll think of that five-minute show as being fantastic or execrable. That’s for my solo shows. In band terms, things are a lot slower. There’s a slower ramp up to it, because it involves soundcheck and there’s usually a bit more nervous energy in the last 10 minutes leading up to the show, with Hugh Banton and I tending to pace around.

I’ve done this a lot of times at a lot of venues. For anyone that’s done this for a period of time, you develop an understanding that still lets you make sense of your life. Most people who are still touring after all this time like me probably have families, even if the children are grown up. You’re off somewhere for 90 minutes and then you have the other 22-and-a-half hours of the day that you have to make sense of. So, you conserve energy and look forward to that time, with everything ramped towards the performance. And then everything is ramped towards leaving it behind, which is a whole other interesting area. Different musicians deal with that in all sorts of different ways. But to Kottke’s point, yes, there is an electricity in the air. Things really do depend on where you are.

You mentioned the “What if I knew this was the last show I’d ever do?” evening. What influence does mortality have on your writing and musical psyche?

I think the intimation of mortality has always been there in my stuff from quite a young age. I think Trisector and to a certain extent, A Grounding in Numbers, have it as well. My function as a lyricist is totally different in Van der Graaf than it is outside of the band. For my solo stuff, I can write whatever catches my fancy and follow it wherever it leads. In the group, there is a responsibility to come up with something that has subject matter that creates a quorum within the group. A quorum is easier to reach if there are just three of us. [laughs] We are all 60-year-old guys who have been given this fantastic opportunity and great privilege to play this still interesting music and continue to discover the energy we create together. Obviously, there is an awareness that we’re 60-year-olds, meaning there’s a certain absurdity about it all. It’s almost my responsibility to document some of the absurdity about the fact that the body is not as young as it used to be. In the song “All that Before,” I talk about how we lose our glasses and car keys. During the very first recordings we did when we committed to having a go at the trio, “All that Before,” or “Specs” as we often call it, was the first piece we started work on. I had the idea that it should be about that topic and I had some proto lyrics for it, with many of them ending up in the real thing. I remember Guy Evans saying “Is this really about losing your glasses?” I said “Yeah, I think it might well be.” He replied “Good.” [laughs] So, there’s absurdity and joy in what we do. It has resulted in some fiendishly-complicated music which is about being unable to deal with the basic things about life at our age. One has to accept that even the vast majority of people who are really into the slightly more complex end of music have never been able to get a handle on Van der Graaf, and probably never will. Most people think it’s all very gloomy, glum and not much fun at all. But as far as we’re concerned, it’s serious fun, but fun nonetheless.

You’ve said you have no interest in religious matters, but spirituality remains an area of fascination. Did your health crisis in 2003 affect your take on those realms?

After my heart attack that year, the spirituality interest may have gone down a bit. I left Catholicism behind in my teens, but retained an interest in the question “Is there a purpose to life?” When I was flat on my back for four days, not knowing what was going to happen, that was kind of the acid test. I went “Hmm. I could turn back to offer prayers to the anthropomorphic almighty.” Clearly, that was not the case. During the first stages of the heart attack, it was made clear to me by the paramedics that my job was to stay in the moment and awake. Over the years, my sense of spirituality gradually has come around to performing and making music. That’s always been the higher level of what my life is about and what my contributions are about during my time on the planet. Music in itself is not an act of worship, but I believe that there is something worthwhile to be done within it. I’m completely outside of any formalized spiritual thing, but I’m aware that all of this is slightly moving towards Zen Buddhist territory. That’s the area I retain an interest in, but I retain it by action, rather than contemplation.

Away from the question of performing, I’m also aware of the finite nature of life. I have to say, having a heart attack is brilliant for understanding that you are not, in fact, immortal. My feeling when I finally got back home, which is documented on the album Singularity, was “Wow, I am alive.” That sense of vitality is fantastic, but it’s astonishing how quickly you become immortal once again. [laughs] The sense of a finite stop has fed in a way into every album and tour that I’ve done. I’ve had the feeling of “Might that be it?” in terms of a continuing career for decades. [laughs] That’s also a particularly strong thing in Van der Graaf. Hugh Banton never wants to know if there is a chance that any show might be the last show. Then there is the stuff of life, like my middle daughter getting married last year. It’s something where you go “This is happening and it is not going to happen again”—or at least one hopes it’s not going to happen again. [laughs] So, the goal is to just be aware and live in the now.

I found it interesting that after releasing Trisector and A Grounding in Numbers, arguably the two most accessible Van der Graaf Generator albums ever recorded, the group chose to release Alt last year, a disc of abstract instrumentals. Tell me what drove its creation.

It was a long time coming. It’s almost unconscious music. It’s like it was made while the right side of our brains were disengaged. A lot of this goes back to year zero of Van der Graaf. There has always been a lot of improvisation and strange playing going on—strange, even for Van der Graaf. [laughs] There has also been a prior history in my own work of instrumental pieces, including the Sonix series, Loops and Reels, The Appointed Hour with Roger Eno, and Spur of the Moment, the album I made with Guy Evans. Alt isn’t exactly about R&D, but rather music that is well away from a conventional format. That has been part of the Van der Graaf DNA and can also feed into the normal stuff for us. These days, if we’re rehearsing, we record at the same time. Some of the moments captured are wonderful and some are absolutely execrable. Each of us goes back and listens to whatever we’ve got and out of that comes ideas that get fed into the repertoire. “Interference Patterns” from Trisector, for instance, came directly out of that. It was discovering in the space of a minute, a riff that had morphed from one thing into another, while overlaying on the other, that made the piece emerge.

Alt includes a bit of stuff that came from the very first time we went down to Cornwall to rehearse as a trio. We made the decision that we’re going to have a go in the trio format and we wanted to see what noise we could make. There are things on Alt that are from that moment of discovering. It’s stuff that’s the precursor for what came after. When we came to make Trisector, we weren’t sure what kind of record we were going to make. Some of the things prepared were obviously the songs, but there was other material as well that went unused. At the time, we thought “Maybe we don’t want to make an entirely song-based album. Maybe it’s time to do something more improvisational as well.” As it happens, that didn’t work out. So, there were things left over from that and used on Alt.

Essentially, this project existed from the time of Trisector. We had various other improvisational things and more structured pieces that were created along the way. It was album length awhile ago. We had it there and asked ourselves “Is this any good?” We thought about putting it out before A Grounding in Numbers, but chose to look back at it some other time. Then we felt “This is a little bit too weird even by our standards.” [laughs] So, we did A Grounding in Numbers, and had other pieces that dropped from it. After that album, we decided “This music is something from somewhere else, but it is actually the stuff we do. Now is absolutely the time to do it.” In a way, it clears the decks for whatever comes next.

What territory do you feel the trio format opened up for the group?

The trio’s method of working is a very odd one. I’m absolutely not a musician on the same level of the other two, but I have my function and responsibilities. In fact, I personally have much more responsibility in this unit than I ever have before. That happened from the moment we began as a trio, particularly in terms of determining what we were going to do with all these parts that up until then everyone thought of as sax parts. I get some of them, Guy Evans remains the freewheeling percussionist, and Hugh Banton has all the responsibilities of bass, chords, shapes, tones, and color. We also pass responsibilities around between each other all the time. Sometimes we have moments in which we completely crash and somehow have to recover. That’s something that’s always been part of Van der Graaf—when the riff has gone completely awry and the one doesn’t appear anywhere, whatsoever. At some point one of us goes “It’s okay. It’s here, I’ve got it! Don’t worry guys.” [laughs] It’s really delightful stuff and exciting when that happens. The group remains a developing thing, which is fantastic. I don’t think anyone could have imagined in 2004, when the whole thing started again, that we’d be here now, having made so many records and done all of these tours. It’s just a great, great experience.

Trisector and A Grounding in Numbers are superb records—some of the best music the group has ever made. There’s nothing nostalgic about them. They’re very forward-leaning. My assumption is the group has a resolute desire to not look backwards at all.

The emphasis wasn’t remotely on that when we got back together. In 2004, during our initial week together, we didn’t play a single old tune. We didn’t start playing any old tunes until we started rehearsing for the Royal Festival Hall show that came later. When we went with the trio, it was a kind of rebirth. It was a major thing to go out that way when our signature solo instrument was the sax, previously. We didn’t have any idea how people were going to take to this format. Our perspective was we had a commitment to the future. It’s really interesting to play old stuff, but there is more new to be played than old. On tour, we’ve been doing 80 percent new stuff and only 20 percent that is old. That’s absolutely crucial. None of us ever had the feeling that it should be a nostalgia fest. This goes back to the ‘70s. Our first success started happening in the U.K. back in 1972 with “Killer,” which was the big song at that point. We had the feeling that it was already beginning to be a ball and chain then. When we reformed for Godbluff in 1975, we sat down in an entirely democratic way with a list of the new songs we were going to play. Some people don’t think Van der Graaf is a democracy, but believe me, it’s entirely democratic, with everyone having very vocal and forceful opinions. So, we voted on what each of us wanted to do play. “Killer” didn’t receive any votes, so we didn’t play it for a few years. We didn’t play it until people stopped asking us for it. [laughs] At that point, it was possible to reintroduce it as something we wanted to play. So, the particular restless ethos you’re describing has always been part of Van der Graaf.

Tell me what “Mr. Sands” from A Grounding in Numbers is about.

If you have a concert hall or place where there’s a large number of people and potentially could have a panic, the venue has to have some way of alerting the staff that something has gone very wonky, without panicking the crowd. In Britain, one of the code names is “Mr. Sands.” Someone will announce “Can Mr. Sands go to the box office?” It could refer to something like a fire or bomb scare. Once the staff at the venue hears the name “Mr. Sands,” they’re gradually going to try and get people out or move them to emergency stations. I was actually in the Underground with my wife about six months after the record came out. Just as we were moving towards the exit, we heard “Would Inspector Sands please go to the ticket office?” We started moving rather quickly! So, that’s the root of the name of the song. It’s all part of the mysterious world of being backstage and on stage, where meanings aren’t as transparent as they appear. At the event, the magic might come and go at any moment, so one must be constantly on the high wire about it all.

You remastered the Virgin-era Van der Graaf Generator recordings in 2005. Describe the approach you took and what you make of modern mastering techniques.

As far as compression, it has all gone completely mad. Mastering is often highly unmusical. On the other hand, in terms of my own aims with Van der Graaf, I was working with material that was originally designed to be on vinyl records. Therefore, it had never been optimized for CD. I wasn’t thinking about stereophiles when I did it. It was regarded as a good opportunity to give the music a bit of beef. But that’s different from having a ramped up, brickwalled sound. I also submitted my mastering efforts to the other members of the group, past and present, and it did receive approval. I was super-aware of the fact that it’s so easy to overcook things. I’ve always been a believer that it’s better to have things quieter and that if it’s a bit too quiet, people can turn up the volume knob and wait for the dynamics to kick in 12 minutes later. And then it’ll be really loud. [laughs]

In 1994, you collaborated with Kronos Quartet on John Geist's "The Music of Erich Zann," performing it several times at the Barbican. Reflect on that experience for me.

I recently had dinner with David Harrington of Kronos and we looked back on the event, which was great and quite fun. Kronos was doing a series of concerts at the Southbank, handled by David Jones of Serious Music, a great promoter. One of the pieces they wanted to do was "The Music of Erich Zann,” which involves a narrator reading the story. Normally, wherever they had done it, the narration was done by an actor—probably one who was also a musician. So, David Jones suggest to Kronos “Why don’t you have Peter Hammill do it?” I was a completely unknown quantity to Kronos, but they trusted David Jones and said “We think he’ll be alright.” I also said yes and it was an interesting match. Prior to the show, the score arrived and I thought “Great! That is, apart from the fact that I don’t read and never have read music.” [laughs] But I thought it would be okay because I was just narrating, after all. That was the first bit of electricity before the shows. Kronos were doing three shows in a row and we had one opportunity for rehearsal at the Barbican, where we had a rehearsal room the day before.

I arrived at rehearsals with the assumption that the narrator would be over on the left, standing at the lectern on the side. But oh no, I was bang right in the middle of the quartet. [laughs] Anybody who knows a string quartet knows that it is a living, breathing thing beamed down from Mars or some other place. It’s a family and siblings—it has all the stuff of living together. So, there was a lot of electricity zinging around, even though they were relaxed. I was the one that was stressed out, because it became clear I actually had to be completely on the money, because there was a point in the narration in which we reach a status and then a note is played, after which I could continue the story. The first time we rehearsed, I was quite a long way off. We were aware that we only had two opportunities to go through it all before the show the next day. We arranged to have Joan Jeanrenaud, the cellist, give me a nod when we reached the point when it was time for me to carry on. We had a run through and it was okay and the timing was right. I looked up, got her nod and it worked. When it came to the performance, I was totally wired. We got to the point at which I was looking for her nod and I looked up and she was looking away completely. It was only a second or so and I thought “What happened here?” Then she turned and gave me a wink and I realized we hit it so spot on that I reached my cue exactly at the point required and missed her nod because it was so perfect. It was great that it worked, because it all came together over the course of 24 hours or so. It was an experience totally outside of my comfort zone, but it was completely in the world of what music is about. A little fear can be really good when it comes to performing music.

You’re a huge sports fan. Do you feel there’s a relationship between athleticism and musicianship?

It’s the same thing. The moment you come on stage, you’re visualizing what’s to come. Everything is happening right now. Many performing artists, be they in music, theater, dance, or film, are interested in sports. I think sports fulfill an artistic function. It’s drama, but drama that isn’t written. The athletes, like musicians, make it all look effortless when it’s happening. It’s the stuff of life. It’s all about being in the moment.

You’re currently working on a new solo album and a project with Gary Lucas. What can you tell me about them?

There's little I can say about the direction of the latest set of solo recordings, except that they don't seem to be heading into whatever one might construe as familiar territory. It's still early days, to be honest, and the winds may blow this project off into lots of different vectors yet. What I can say is that at the moment I'm working away at the material entirely solo and not starting from conventional song building blocks. That, too, of course, might change. As for the work with Gary, that's pretty interesting and also pretty wide-ranging. We were on the same page as each other from the very outset of the project, without actually laying down preconditions, expectations or specific targets. Again, there's a lot of material and it remains to be seen what exactly will come through from it. Basically, though, it’s a couple of guys with a degree of experience at guitar and vocal music. Now, that covers a multitude of sins, doesn't it? And meanwhile, we're thinking about and moving in principle towards the next Van der Graaf efforts. Whether they'll be live or recorded also remains to be seen. In other words, as I approach my 65th birthday, I’m as shy and retiring as ever.

Photo Credits:
Live photos by Lee Millward
Portraits courtesy of Peter Hammill