An interview with
Peter Hammill (1991)
By Beppe Colli
April 26, 2005
say that Peter Hammill's solo career was commercially damaged by the
work he did with the group Van Der Graaf Generator may sound a bit strange:
Hammill is not a Mick Jagger or a Trey Anastasio, obviously, and the
appeal of his group was a lot more "selective" than it is
the case with the Rolling Stones or Phish; but there is more than a
grain of truth to this, if we consider that while every "story
of prog" worth its name gives due space to VDGG, the leader's discography
is known only to a few (sure, it could also be argued that VDGG's brief
career is the only reason why his name is still mentioned). But this
much is certain: those who know nothing about him could discover something
very interesting (and, of course, wonder how come that in an age when
everything has been rediscovered - sometimes more than once - Hammill's
name is so rarely mentioned).
While Van Der Graaf Generator's career was in full steam, Peter Hammill
released some very good albums: Fool's Mate (1971) is one for completists
only, while Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night (1973) and The Silent
Corner And The Empty Stage (1974) are mature and complex works; "In
Camera" (1974) is the first example of a studio experimentation
that will give better results on later albums; Nadir's Big Chance (1975)
- an album that's said to predate punk - has a lot of Sixties energy;
Over (1977) is a nice synthesis.
Hammill's "second stage" started with the excellent The
Future Now (1978) and PH7 (1979); then we have A Black Box (1980) and
the more rhythmic Sitting Targets (1981); a new "rock quartet"
- the K Group - released three albums that in my opinion are the last
ones that can be considered as "essential listening": Enter
K (1982), Patience (1983) and the double live album The Margin (1985).
Here something changed, maybe due to an impulse to use the "modern
technology" (= sequencers & drum machines) that at the time
seemed to define "the new sound of a new age" - but isn't
it true that most of the 8-bit works that came out in the UK in the
80s today sound the same, horrible and quite dated? (Not to those sick
with nostalgia, of course...) Here things got confusing: Skin (1986)
left me cold; And Close As This (1986) successfully returned to a more
intimate dimension; In A Foreign Town (1988) was the lowest point; Out
Of Water (1990) was a successful compromise. The live double Roomtemperaturelive
(1990) was an excellent work by a trio, with bass and violin.
It was this double CD that was the starting point of the phone conversation
that took place on February 25th 1991. At the time I curated
and hosted a radio program called Tough, broadcast by Catania Teleradio.
The interview was broadcast in two parts, on March 7th and
8th. The text later appeared in print on the Italian magazine Musiche,
issue #10, Summer 1991.
The English text appears here for the very first time. The album discussed
at the end of the conversation, Fireships, was released the following
year; a more monochromatic dimension - here a "meditative"
one, a "rock" one being chosen for The Noise (1993) - told
me of a path that was understandable but in my opinion not as good as
the previous chapters. While later albums - for reasons of space I'll
only mention Roaring Forties (1994) and This (1998) - told me of just
too many albums for that language and ideas to produce fresh results.
first question is about the new CD, which is the outcome of a tour.
I think the line-up for the tour is a pretty unusual combination: how
did you get the idea for this line-up?
of course traditionally I like to change line-ups, so there's an element
of coming fresh to whatever the tour that's being played; Nic Potter
I played with for many years; Stuart plays on a number of albums - never
actually played live with me before; but it seemed that it potentially
would be a trio which offered a lot of possibilities to perform reflective
stuff and also more aggressive material; it is unusual, I know, particularly
in it not having any percussionist as such, but in a way this provided
a great deal of freedom to play an over-active music and that's really
what was the prime reason to going for it.
the new CD: usually the previous two double records you put out in previous
years, the Vital Van Der Graaf album and The Margin with the K Group
seemed to signal the end of a period...
So you are asking if this is the end of a period as well?
Or is it a new beginning with this new line-up?
I think it's a new beginning, really; or rather than a new beginning
is a snapshot of a situation; you're right that Vital was really at
the end of Van Der Graaf and The Margin was at the end of the K Group;
this time it's very much in the middle of things, really; definitely,
it doesn't signal the end of a period: I think it's a middle point.
are no lyrics on the CD, no booklet...
booklet, no; well, probably of course it is because... again the correlation
it does have with Vital and The Margin is that it is completely as it
is live; now, recording of this was done straight to DAT, so there are
no overdubs or changes; in fact there are no... I mean, one song I can't
remember which one it is, there is an edit between two different performances,
but generally they are complete performances; in general my thinking
about live albums as opposed to studio ones where obviously the lyrics
are very important and should be with it... my attitude at least to
live recordings is that they should be warts and all, including the
mistakes, because if you take away the mistakes (laughs) then you are not left with
the high points you reach because they are not gonna have the information
you need to get along to them; and similarly it's in a way right that
lyrics shouldn't be included with the package because nobody can sit
down at a live concert and read the lyrics while watching the show (laughs).
like to ask you about some mistakes and strange things I heard...
To Run is the greatest mistake on this one, I think; it should be Time
To Burn (laughs);
that's entirely down to the label copy all going to California and then
they sent the proofs back and were told to change it, but they didn't
first I though it was a new track.
(laughs) I'm afraid not.
question was motivated by the fact that your old albums have been reprinted
on CD for the most part with no lyrics, which is no big deal for somebody
who has your old albums...
But for somebody who is getting them for the first time it really is;
well, the only thing I can say about this is that possibly sometime
in the next year or so once again there'll be a book published with
the lyrics; I think that possibly is the answer to this, because of
course when the CDs are released it's something that's not in my control
at all; really, the extent the record companies as when they want to
release them, and how they want to release them, and how much packaging
they want to put in and so on; to be honest I still haven't a couple
of the CDs that are being re-released, so it's entirely beyond my control;
but I think this is possibly the answer, that there should be another
book of lyrics, because of course there were two originally, which now
have long since been out of print, and this is something I've been thinking
it should go someway to solving this problem.
noticed that in the booklet there is a little map of the stage with
some sound modules for the keyboard; are any of these modules connected
in any way to the violin?
the violin goes through Stuart sound system, which has a Midiverb, and
there are three multieffects processors.
it has only effects.
just has effects, but the effects are quite extreme; again, the bass
goes through effects, as well; going back to this earlier question about
the nature of the trio, as I said it's possible with a trio like this
with such a broad tonal range, but also with kind of, if you like a
lead instrument at the top and at the bottom, and with a rhythm by my
guitar and keyboard still in the middle area, it's possible to play
both the placid stuff and the aggressive stuff; something I was keen
on was having both Stuart and Mozart playing with effects so that at
certain points it's impossible to tell, really, what is playing a certain
line, whether it's a violin, or a bass, or indeed keyboards. And sometimes
when we were on stage we looked around and weren't sure who was playing
what, which is bizarre but quite exciting at the same time.
asked you this question because on some of the tracks, like The Comet,
The Course, The Tail, or Happy Hour, at some points there seems to be,
like, a sax sample.
it's entirely the effects of the violin; there are no samples as such,
in fact, at all, no samples, no sequencing; the sound modules I use
are Roland digital piano, Yamaha TX and Roland D110, but sparingly,
and everything else, all other sounds, are simply derived by effects.
the end of The Unconscious Life there is a sound which sounds like backwards
it's the one sample! It's indeed backwards cymbals, and that's me! (laughs) It's played from the keyboard.
it a sample or a program from the synth?
the D 110, so it's partly sample and partly synthesis; the master keyboard
is an Akai MX 73; the TX is in a rack, which has a lot of customized
sounds in it. Again, I mean, most of the time I use these things more
or less to play pianos, because when I first started (I've used this
system now for quite a long time) when I first started using it I had
lots of effects, lots of different sounds all of the time, but I realized,
especially in a way... to restrain this thing, that the effect is more
powerful when brought in occasionally, rather than all the time.
next question is about technology; I received for a long time your newsletter
from Sofa Sound...
Oh, yeah! Which also at Sofa Sound probably is gonna start again this
year as well, so...
After Skin came out I sent a letter to Sofa Sound lamenting the use
of the stuff that was used on the record; the point, of course, is not
of being anti-technology, but I think that the new record, or an album
like And Close As This, even if they use technology, the way it was
applied was more appealing to me than Skin or In A Foreign Town.
about Out Of Water?
Of Water, I think, is much better; I think that the technology is used
in a more and more personal way, going from Skin to Out Of Water.
an extent in which I agree with you; so, without justifying myself too
much, of course, the point is that playing music and recording remains
a process of exploration to me to a certain extent; and really it was
only with Skin that I begun to deal with the new technology per se;
even if I obviously had done experimental work in the past, actually
directly using modern technology, the first time was Skin; And Close
As This as you say is somewhere further outside, because I tried to
apply something theoretical to the technology, so the humanity was imposed
from the outside. But to be honest I think that... I don't myself denigrate
the two albums so much, but I think that in the course of doing Skin
and In A Foreign Town a large part of the work was learning to use the
technology; at first, everything new, I think possibly I was seduced
by the immediacy, or seduced by simple sounds in a technological way,
and perhaps was kind of over-rigid in that respect; but now I feel very
comfortable with it, and also feel... it's transparent, really, for
me, no different than, say, playing guitar, or playing keyboards live,
or recording things using the technology; but of course I wouldn't reach
this stage (laughs) unless I had gone through the
process of Skin and In a Foreign Town, you know what I mean? In order
to reach the stage of comfort and, I hope, personalization that I am
now at, I had to go through that stage and... I was desperately trying
not to be mechanic, but there's an element, you know, when one starts
using the technology, where things tend to sound mechanic, particularly
in the rhythm area.
wasn't denigrating these two records, by the way...
But in terms of the sounds and the use of technology, yes...
'cause, for instance, you've been very creative in the past on records
such as Sitting Targets or Enter K; there's a track like Accidents,
which uses a lot of strange sounds from the drums (like backwards and
double speed kits) and sometimes I think that the old tape recorder
in conjunction with...
With few instruments can do... yeah, I see the point you're driving
at; it's one I thought of a great deal in fact, because there's a whole
aspect of all this new technology; in theory the possibilities of making
sounds are very much wider; in a way, when the palette becomes more
restricted, simply because of the breadth of the sounds that's immediately
available... I mean to say that if you have very few instruments you
have to go for, in a way... one arrives to the more experimental sounds
sometimes simply by searching for them; I have another couple of albums
in this area, The Future Now and PH7, when really the instruments I
had at my disposal were very limited, so in order to create different
sounds I had to be extreme with them. These days there's so many available
sounds that there's the temptation not to be extreme, which I think
I'm now working away from; particularly I would say (I'm going back
to "Is this a middle stage or an end stage?") I think that
the point I'm now, as an artist, I am comfortable with the technology,
starting really with a new phase, I think, with Out Of Water, where
my contact with the technology is such that I can use that but then
put other instruments, other strangeness on top of it, and carry on
working like that; that's certainly what I'm doing at the moment, the
next one, of course.
you don't mind I'd like to talk about the way your work is received.
In the past you've talked about the way a song - Four Pails - was in
a certain way misread because some people had taken the first lines
for the totality of the song. Is it something that happens often to
course I think that in any song it's unlikely that anybody at all would
get all of the allusions that I'm trying to draw myself or get the exact...
well, the first thing I should say is that there are very rarely precise
and exact simple meanings for any song that I write; I think when I'm
meaning to write a song is usually because there are a number of meanings
that I'm going at; so, having said that, I think it's very unlikely
that anyone will get all of the allusions that I'm drawing; that's all
right, because the whole nature of writing songs or even of playing
music is that you're trying to do something to which people relate,
which has to do with them, rather than to do with "me", if
you know what I mean. I think most of the time the Four Pails case is
very extreme, where the whole drive of the song is one thing and because
of only one line people take exactly the opposite meaning; that kind
of thing doesn't happen so often, but generally I think that songs are
mysterious things in any case, so often there is misinterpretation,
you say that Four Pails was like an extreme case, not your average response.
On the other hand, I have to say there have been cases where I've written
a song and I think it's about one thing and then later somebody comes
up with a different interpretation entirely, which can make sense to
me; I'm thinking particularly of a song like When She Comes, that somebody
came up with an entirely different picture of what it was about, and
once this had been explained to me I can see that also is in there.
I don't intend to kind of back off the responsibility of being a songwriter,
but the whole nature of writing songs is that one is dealing with mysteries...
I'm trying to make things clear to myself. This is really what I mean
to say: in writing a song I'm not trying to say... I don't have the
idea and think "right now say this to other people". I'm trying
to explore an idea, or a combination of words, or an emotional picture;
I'm trying to explore it for myself, so equally other people can come
up with their interpretation which is as right as mine.
sometimes it's said that audiences are more used to a more rigid format
both in terms of lyrics and music (this is a point you made in your
newsletter), and so things that go out of the "normal" tend
to be regarded as strange and misinterpreted more often than not. Do
you think audiences in the 70s were more receptive than today's? Or
depends. I think in a way today's audience is more receptive musically
to a certain extent; lyrically it's more difficult these days simply
because they haven't the habit of having lyrics that are complex or
challenging in any way, so they just haven't the habit; I was saying
in fact that this is not just a question of music, it's a question of
most art forms, it's a question of cinema, of painting or even novel
generally; people want things packaged more and more these days, or
rather people are used to having things packaged for them, and so they
appear to want things to be packaged. I think in terms of simply musical
terms I think there's now a minority audience, but an audience which
is prepared to listen to a lot of different kinds of music, which maybe
is more so than it was in the 70s; but in terms of the ideas behind
the songs I think probably less.
like to ask you a question about your relationship with record companies.
you expecting this question?
I wasn't, but it's a good question.
seems that you have a great deal of independency, compared to what is
a typical situation nowadays; how do you obtain this, in today's market?
very, very difficult in today's market, and really the only reason this
happened is the fact that I've been doing it for such a long time; with
any recording, I make the recording and then present it to whatever
record company I happen to be with, so in terms of independency, of
doing what I want to do musically, that's clear that I have absolute
control and freedom, within the limits of time and budget and so on;
that's the positive side. The negative side, of course, is that I've
been with so many record companies because it's very hard for them to
deal with that; and certainly it would be very difficult, I think, for
somebody who started in the last five or six years to get away with
it, if you like, because the system is much more in place these days,
whereas it's what I've always done and so it's very hard for somebody
to come along and change this. But the result is that it's very difficult
for record companies to work on my material and so I keep changing record
companies, or having them leave me. So, as with everything, there are
positives and negatives involved with this. I mean, to be fair to record
companies, it's very difficult for them to work on my material because
to a certain extent they don't know what's gonna come next or even...
on any given record there's usually at least three or four different
styles of music, which is definitely not what people are "supposed"
to do these days.
was another reason for me asking this question: there are people who
were already recording in the 60s - like Dylan or Joni Mitchell - and
sometimes when one gets a new record by them and there are drum machines
or sequencers one is never sure whether this is due to a process of
artistic growth - after twenty years one can be fed up with playing
the acoustic guitar, and wants to experiment; but given the fact that
the market is what it is and the record companies are not charity institutions,
sometimes one wonders whether the use of certain instruments which are
à la mode is dictated or chosen.
I think in these two cases, the specific ones you mentioned, certainly
in terms of being a mainstream artist Joni Mitchell has done a lot of
quite experimental work at different times in the past; I'm thinking
about, going back to The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and so on, which was
way of use of technology; so I think in her work when there is a new
technology generally it's trying to find a different focus, and probably
directed more or less by herself. In Dylan's case, I think when new
technology appears it has more to do with who's producing, because he
seems to work in a way that he'll go with a different producer and go
with what direction the producer wants, in order, again, to change his
scene, his focus; of course I don't know about anybody else's individual
circumstances, but I do know that even people of this preeminence to
have difficulties with record companies; or, say, Neil Young would be
another example, I know he's had kind of difficulties at times, of people
wanting him to go in a certain direction or another. About other people's
circumstances I simply don't know, I guess there's usually a lot of
now, are there any musicians whose work you regard as being important
or inspirational to you?
rock music, jazz music, or...
think... at the moment really in terms of the music I listen, because
of course I work most of the time and now I have my studio here in Bath,
and I come in and I work usually all day... in a way my time for listening
to music is rather more restricted, and also of course I'm a family
man these days, which starts to make a difference, having young daughters
running around the place makes it hard to sit down and concentrate.
But when I do listen to music it tends to be classical music rather
than rock music or jazz; if there's an influence it really would be
from composers rather than musicians, I think, now; the particular one
that I like at the moment is the kind of 16th, 17th
century English composers, but it doesn't have that much relation really
to what I do myself; this is more listening simply as a member of an
audience. I think... it's not a problem, but it's simply the fact that
if you do something for twenty-odd years as I've done, then influences
are not as manifest as they are when you start; now, my influences when
I started were paradoxically blues music and Hendrix, and stuff like
that, which is obviously not so apparent now. And just as maybe my fans
or Van Der Graaf fans are buying the old records which are released
on CD, I've been going out and buying John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters
and Howlin' Wolf on CD. I was, in a way, inspired by them; it's rather
bizarre that it should be music of, now, thirty or thirty-five years
or so that continues to inspire me but... John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters,
Buddy Guy would be inspirational to me.
has a blues feeling.
Hemlock; I think over the years there have been quite a lot of slight
reworked blues feeling; but this was the first music that really fired
me up and, obviously, there's no way that I would have the slightest
pretence to be like a Chicago bluesman, but I've always tried to put
some element of soul and feeling into things.
there any new recordings in the can?
the next thing that would be released, at the start of April, or maybe
in mid-April is finally The Fall Of The House Of Usher, and that's completely
finished now, it's simply waiting to be manufactured and released. As
I say at the moment I'm in the middle of recording the next studio album
or studio albums, I'm not sure at the moment, I'm working on a number
of different songs, I don't know if I'm working on one album or two
albums or what have you. But that should be finished in the next two
or three months and probably should be released at the earliest, I suppose,
it would be July, but maybe September is more likely. And probably around
September I'll be touring again; I hope to tour in Italy, once again,
it's been a long time again, but as always, as you know, it's not a
thing of my choice, it's a question of finding a promoter and so on...
there people we know on The Fall Of The House Of Usher?
the singers are Andy Bell, from Erasure, Lena Lovich, Sarah Jane Morris,
Herbert Grönemeyer, a German singer, and me.
there be other people playing on the new album?
- so far the other people who played are Nic Potter and Stuart Gordon;
David Jackson will certainly be on it; I'm co-producing it with David
Lord, so he's on it. These are the people I know at the moment who'll
be there; in the next couple of months maybe there'll be others, maybe
last thing: were you happy with the way your last album was received?
live one? Well, to be honest I finally managed to get a copy in December
(it was out in November); ultimately I'm not very happy with the package,
because the graphics... it certainly didn't work out in the way I was
told or imagined that it would. It was my last recording for Enigma,
in fact. I don't know on what label the next one will be, but it was
the last one for Enigma. I don't think they did any particular job of
promoting it and what have you. On the other hand the extent to which
I am happy is that my attitude is that it's a document of a live period
and so it should have a certain degree of longevity. So, not too happy
(laughs) is the answer!
is a really nasty effect on the CD in the song After The Show (at 7'
it's not the CD!
imagined it had something to do with the master keyboard.
right, it's the master keyboard detuning; but it is as it happened on
the show, rather than as it happened on the CD; in fact, when the CD
was being mastered somebody thought that something was wrong with the
master tapes (laughs) but it's not, it's entirely
down to me hitting the detuning (laughs). It's strange but it's deliberate!
it was done on purpose?!
© Beppe Colli 1991 - 2005
CloudsandClocks.net | April 26, 2005