An interview with
Peter Hammill (1991)

By Beppe Colli
April 26, 2005

To 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.

My 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?

Well, 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.

About 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?

Well... 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.

There are no lyrics on the CD, no booklet...

No 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).

I'd like to ask you about some mistakes and strange things I heard...

Time 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 change it.

At first I though it was a new track.

(laughs) I'm afraid not.

This 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.

I 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?

No, the violin goes through Stuart sound system, which has a Midiverb, and there are three multieffects processors.

So it has only effects.

It 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.

I 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.

No, 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.

At the end of The Unconscious Life there is a sound which sounds like backwards cymbals.

Yeah, it's the one sample! It's indeed backwards cymbals, and that's me! (laughs) It's played from the keyboard.

Is it a sample or a program from the synth?

It's 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.

My 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.

What about Out Of Water?

Out 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.

That's 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.

I 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.

If 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 you?

Of 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, yes.

So 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.

Nowadays 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 it depends?

It 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.

I'd like to ask you a question about your relationship with record companies.

A-ha! Yes! (laughs)

Were you expecting this question?

No, I wasn't, but it's a good question.

It 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?

It's 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.

There 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.

Well, 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 actually quite innovative, really, in terms of use of sound and the 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 battle, warfare.

Right now, are there any musicians whose work you regard as being important or inspirational to you?

In rock music, jazz music, or...

Whatever field.

I 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.

Hemlock has a blues feeling.

Yes, 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.

Are there any new recordings in the can?

Well, 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...

Are there people we know on The Fall Of The House Of Usher?

Well, the singers are Andy Bell, from Erasure, Lena Lovich, Sarah Jane Morris, Herbert Grönemeyer, a German singer, and me.

Will there be other people playing on the new album?

Certainly - 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 not.

One last thing: were you happy with the way your last album was received?

The 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!

There is a really nasty effect on the CD in the song After The Show (at 7' 33").

Ah, it's not the CD!

I imagined it had something to do with the master keyboard.

That's 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!

So it was done on purpose?!

Yeah! (laughs)

© Beppe Colli 1991 - 2005 | April 26, 2005