From the archives of oblivion: Every week GARY STEEL rescues a story from his bulging back pages. This week it’s the turn of the King of doom, Peter Hammill, one of the most fascinating figures of ’70s rock and leader of Van Der Graaf Generator.
Rock history is littered with merchants of misery and harbingers of doom: Joy Division’s Ian Curtis took the cake by topping himself, but there’s a long roll call. Nick Drake, Morrissey, ‘Laughing’ Leonard Cohen, on it goes.
The King of doom, however, is singer/songwriter Peter Hammill, whose angst-ridden existential anthems and unique, edgy, semi-operatic vocals have cast a large shadow over fellow artists such as David Bowie, while barely touching the greater public consciousness.
While Hammill has 50-odd solo albums spanning 1968 to the present, it’s the stop-start ten years he spent at the helm of Van Der Graaf Generator (1968-1978) that made the most waves. Loosely part of the progressive rock underground of the late ‘60s with its tendency towards 20-minute song-suites and fiddly time signatures, VDGG broke the mould. Hammill’s band-mates came up with a unique and dynamic sound to vividly portray their lyricist’s dark preoccupations, featuring the frightening wail of an amplified double sax and wildly modified electric organ. Years later, Hammill and mates would escape ‘dinosaur’ chastisement from the emerging punk firmament. Hey, even Johnny Rotten was a fan.
A fan since the mid-‘70s, there’s one question on my lips: Peter Hammill, are you a miserable bastard?
“I try to keep my spirits up, but on the other hand, writing songs is the serious bit of my life and what I do, so you have a natural tendency, if you’re doing that, to write songs about darker stuff, and just get on and live through the light stuff and enjoy it. I’ve always taken the view that writing and performing is a cathartic activity. So it’s partly through working through this stuff that I’m liberated in a way to be lighter or good humoured, so far as I am (chuckles) in my normal life.”
Hammill’s solo work is filled with his literary preoccupations (adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, etc) but despite his lyrical eloquence, VDGG’s biggest audience awaits in Italy, a vindication of the group’s musical strengths.
“In Britain particularly, there can be an element of ‘my God, there’s a bit too much going on with the words here’. People are rebuffed by that. Italy, of all the European countries is the one where people speak English the least. It meant that the first thing they ‘got’ was the music. And of course the sound of the words… obviously a part of writing a decent song is not only to have meaning of the words, but also that they SOUND correct. So effectively the immediate response was emotional rather than intellectual.”
Describing VDGG’s sound as “ugly but natural”, and a “force rather than too much filigree or delicacy”, Hammill insists that their reunion has not a whiff of nostalgia. Rather, having suffered a recent heart attack, the reformation was more the realisation “that time is marching on and that if we were ever to do it we had better do it sooner rather than later.”
“If they don’t want to look, then that’s fair enough. Everybody’s made up of their own composition; the periodic table of intellectual interests, spiritual interests and what have you. Happily (laughs) that’s what makes us what we are.”
* This story appeared in Real Groove magazine in 2005 around the release of VDGG’s comeback album, Present, and reissues: The Least We Can Do Is Wave, H To He Is The Only One, Pawn Hearts, Godbluff, Still Life. All Charisma/EMI.
The Conversation, In Full!
And now, for a special treat, here’s my full, unexpurgated INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT with Peter Hammill:
Gary Steel – Were you surprised that someone from little old New Zealand requested an interview?
Peter Hammill – (Laughter) I was, to be honest. Of all the places we might end up playing, not to be of any disservice…
Gary – You’ve never played down here, have you?
Peter – No.
Gary – Have you played Australia?
Peter – I’ve done just Melbourne and Sydney. Once.
Gary – This is very much an aside, but very many years ago your brother used to write for my magazine. We’ve fallen out of contact now, but back in the early ‘80s he wrote theatre reviews…
Peter – Oh yeah…
Gary – …for a little magazine I was doing at the time, and I remember him saying to me: ‘You probably won’t have heard of him but my brother’s in a band, they’re very strange and obscure…” of course I had all the records. Is Andrew still… whereabouts is he these days?
Peter – I’m afraid he died some years ago now. Yeah, I’m afraid so. It’s the way of life, isn’t it.
Gary – I had no idea, that’s very sad.
Peter – There you go.
Gary – Oh, well I’m sorry to revisit that then.
Peter – Such a downbeat note but ah… but life goes on, yes?
Peter – To be honest I’m somewhat shocked by it. Part of the deal of all this is that we knew that we had a certain legacy to deal with, and that if we were to do anything we had to be very sure in our own minds that we weren’t cocking up the past as well as the present. And we fully expected that we’d be in for a bit of a kicking from some people, now just as we used to be in the past. But generally there’s been a fantastic response, firstly from the people who are into us, but also generally in the media. I think it’s kind of a strong understanding of why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it, that it’s neither a joke nor a puppet theatre (laughs).
Gary – What really provoked your interest in playing with these guys after so many years?
Peter – We always stayed friends and had seen each other on a social basis, and all three of them at different times have played on my records. There’d been the odd kind of get together at birthdays and that kind of thing. So we still had that respect, BUT to actually do something as Van Der Graaf is obviously entirely different territory. We did realise that time is marching on and that if we were ever to do it we had better do it sooner rather than later, and the initial [idea] of doing it was ‘we won’t tell anybody, we’ll just go away for a week and have a play and see whether it’s a goer or not’. Part of the condition of doing that also was that if any one of us for whatever reason had felt wrong about it, then we all would have said ‘no, we won’t do it’. So in a way it was the playing itself that led to the possibility of doing it, if you see what I mean.
Peter – It’s modestly sane this time. Just a burst of activity, because it would be inimical to the spirit of Van Der Graaf past and present if we were to say ‘alright now this is our big opportunity to BE A GROUP in capital letters again. So first of all we had the meet up and the recording, then we’ve just done the one festival hall show, and we’ve got a weekend in June and all of July and some of August we’re dedicating to this, and then we’re going to stop and take stock and decide exactly when we’re going to have the next bit of activity, IF we’re going to have a bit of activity and so on. So it’s going to be a rather unusual stop-and-start career I believe.
Gary – You’ve got quite a few dates in Europe, haven’t you? Was that your centre of… I don’t know if popularity is the right word
Peter – (Laughs) The place we were most successful in the past was Italy. But there have been various epicenters of success at different points. Assuming we get to Greece and Portugal and Spain, that will be interesting because of course it was not possible for us to play there in the time we were going before, and there was quite a strong audience, a slightly political connection, but it’s to do with the history of nations as much as our own history, so that will be interesting. But fundamentally, Europe was the stamping ground.
Peter – In Britain particularly, and possibly the States to a further extent, there can be an element of ‘my God, there’s a bit too much going on with the words here’. People are rebuffed by that. Particularly what happens in Italy, and of all the European countries it’s the one where people speak English the least. It meant that the first thing they ‘got’ was the music. And of course the sound of the words, which… obviously a part of writing a decent song is not only to have meaning of the words, but also that they SOUND correct. So people got that is the first thing, and then if they were interested they could find out about the words either by themselves or getting somebody to read them. So effectively the immediate response was emotional rather than intellectual, which is something that… They’re pop songs, in a way, they’re not normal pop songs, but that is their function rather than being high literature.
Gary – Do you think that also in Italy they’re maybe more attuned to your singing style?
Peter – The kind of semi-operatic… Yeah, they do like the grand gesture. My singing style, and the double horns of Jackson, they like the grand gesture and what have you. I’ve got to say I’m very much looking forward to going back there, it will be quite interesting after all… Obviously I’ve played solo many times over the years, but to go back as Van Der Graaf will be quite interesting I think.
Peter – It sounds ludicrous, but when the four of us have been playing together, there is a Van Der Graaf thing that happens, and it’s partly a function of the instrumentation, and partly the style and that sort of thing, and it does just happen.
Gary – Do you think the audience you have for your solo work is primarily the same one?
Peter – Ummmmm, I think the Van Der Graaf audience is potentially larger. Ummmm, it’s a complex area, because the solo audience I have now is not one that’s desperately waiting for a Van Der Graaf reunion. They’ve a full understanding of Van Der Graaf, obviously, but also of what I’ve been doing in my solo stuff. A lot of them were actually quite shocked I think when this came up. It remains to be seen, to be honest, it’s very early days. Maybe I’ll find out about this when I go BACK to doing my solo career.
Gary – Some of the early solo stuff had contributions from the band, didn’t it?
Peter – It was very close, yeah. Particularly in the Chameleon/Silent Corner era, that was very close. But over the years there are quite a lot of differences.
Gary – One of the odd things to me about the record, in terms of the instrumentation and sound of it, it could almost be the next album. You haven’t added all the new electronic elements and the trip-hop production and…
Peter – We didn’t make any prior decisions collectively before meeting up to do this, but independently we all decided that we wanted to be down to the bare minimum, and just use… there are lots of instruments in quote marks one could use these days and be much more flash in a technological way, but that’s not really what we ever wanted to do, we wanted to explore within the given palette that we had. Part of this is that Hugh would definitely be an ORGANIST rather than a keyboard player, which is an absolute distinction, especially with him playing bass pedals. Because my main function is singing rather than instrumental stuff I didn’t want to be too distracted by having loads of keyboard things, so basically I just had a couple of keyboard sounds, and Jackson had to create an equivalent rig of what he used to have in the old days, because that’s much changed. The most radical one that could have been is Guy, because obviously there’s lots of extra percussion and sampling you can use, but he decided just to use a kit, so, as I say without any prior discussion, we decided that this was the way that we ought to go. I think the proof of it is that literally the moment we kicked off with those instruments in that room, BAM, there was the Van Der Graaf sound.
Gary – I have to say it’s a fantastic album.
Peter – You do like it?
Gary – Yeah. I edit a technology magazine, and handed the CD to our young reviewer, and the first day he came to me and said this is TERRIBLE, and ‘oh, that guy’s singing!’ Then a couple of days later it was: ‘I can’t stop listening to that album’. And he’s been raving about it ever since! There’s a sound there which is quite ugly, do you know what I mean?
Peter – It’s ugly but natural. As the French say la jolie laide, pretty-ugly. It’s certainly very angular and what-have-you, but it is natural, we didn’t get together and say ‘how do we make that Van Der Graaf noise?’ We just started playing and there it was!
Peter – Is that the way we discovered the sound? Particularly in terms of the organ, developing the sounds of the organ, with various fuzzboxes and echoes and things. That was the thing that really extended the sound. And at the same time the electricity of the horns was being developed. But there was a kind of maturing process. I think it was being drawn on towards this beautiful-ugly all the way.
Gary – I suppose in the ‘70s it was very much going against the prevalent ornate style, and now funnily enough it’s much more in keeping with ‘alternative’ – it still sounds utterly unique!
Peter – I think that’s the odd thing about it. So far as I can have an external view. The old stuff doesn’t sound so 1970s now… because I’ve also lately been working on the remastering of the original records, which are about to come out. So I’ve not only been listening to the new stuff, but the old stuff as well. So that doesn’t really sound ‘then’, and this doesn’t really sound ‘now’… there’s a strange kind of timelessness about it to be honest.
Gary – I was going to ask about the remastering. In revisiting all that, how has it been for you? Has it been a huge nostalgia trip?
Peter – The real nostalgia trip, and the thing that’s maybe significant in terms of all of this, was that two years ago the box came out. That was when we were all going back and listening to the old stuff, and deciding what would be good to go on it, and most significantly meeting up and discussing exactly what happened for the first time in 25 years. We never did at the time, we just kind of wandered off into the sunset. I think it’s quite interesting getting everybody’s angles 25 years later on exactly what went on. That was pretty nostalgic. Obviously there was an enormous amount of nostalgia in going back through all this, but it was kind of bound up in the fact that we were going to be doing it for real in the present as well. All this remastering stuff was going to happen in any case, it was part of Virgin’s plan in any case. But we couldn’t tell them that there was a strong chance that we would be playing as well. There’s a degree of synchronicity about that.
Gary – Is there going to be a radical change to the sound quality of those records?
Peter – Basically the way these things came out before in common with much of that stuff was that it was just taken from the masters that were intended for vinyl, and banged on a CD, so obviously that’s not an ideal way of approaching the CD medium. It’s a degree of compression degree of limiting degree of eq, just make them sound as loud and exciting as they were in the first place. There are of course some extras that are dotted around as well, but for me the real point is to have the original albums in a much better sonic state.
Gary – So you haven’t been tempted to do SACD versions?
Peter – No no, I think that would be a step too far. One has to remember that a lot of this stuff was recorded on 8-track, so keep it simple.
Gary – Are you looking at reissuing a bunch of your own albums down the line?
Peter – I think that would be a good idea, but to be honest the early ones are all in the hands of Virgin.
Gary – One thing I’ve always wondered about in terms of your lyrics and the darkness, I suppose, is ‘what’s this guy really like… is he a miserable guy?’ You don’t sound like a miserable guy to me!
Peter – I try to keep my spirits up, but on the other hand, writing songs is the serious bit of my life and what I do, so I have a natural tendency, if you’re doing that, to write songs about darker stuff rather than light stuff, and just get on and live through he light stuff and enjoy it. I’ve always taken the view that actually, to a certain extent writing and performing as well as a career is a cathartic activity. So it’s partly through working through this stuff that I’m liberated in a way to be lighter or good humoured, so far as I am (chuckles) in my normal life, and in a certain sense, this also applies to the audience, that by dealing with something in a painting, in a film, music, theatre, that one then achieves not a total understanding but at least a degree of acknowledgment of the fact that that stuff is there, and also part of life. And should be celebrated in a way as part of life. But then you can get on with the more fun parts, I suppose.
Gary – I guess some people are simply light people… they don’t seem to have these demons.
Peter – If they don’t want to look, then that’s fair enough as well. Everybody’s made up of their own composition; the periodic table of intellectual interests, spiritual interests and what have you. Happily (laughs) that’s what makes us what you are.
Gary – So basically over the years you’ve continued to cultivate an interest in the… you’re still an existentialist rather than a new age person.
Peter – (Laughs) I’ve come further and further away, being born in ’48 and being a child of the ‘60s, obviously there’s a hippy gumbo back there, but I move further and further away from the new age, and hopefully I’m still in there with the questions, because that’s the interesting stuff, the stuff of life.
Gary – Do you see it as angry music?
Peter – Van Der Graaf music is more angry than mine, or more aggressive than mine. Although I have my aggressive moments in mine as well. It’s FORCEFUL. Viewed internally it’s forceful, but WE regard a lot of it as fun. I know this sounds strange to a lot of people but it’s FUN for us to play this forceful stuff and get a ‘wow’ reaction from ourselves. So we just accept that.
Gary – I guess over the years, at least in terms of Van Der Graaf, back in the ‘70s, you would have had a certain kind of heavy metal fan, to some degree.
Peter – Yeah. We had a much more mixed audience than people think. There certainly was a kind of heavy metal element to it. There was force rather than too much filagree and delicacy.
Gary – Is there any possibility at all that we would see you at least in Australia?
Peter – I would certainly hope so. A band is naturally massively expensive thing to transport anywhere, even within Europe. At this stage I would say it’s unlikely that Van Der Graaf would make it. For myself I’d be very very keen, and New Zealand at some point before I finally stop. But no immediate plans right now, I’m sorry to say.
Gary – Obviously you’ve stopped your solo thing for a brief period to do this, but you’re continuing?
Peter – I reckon I’m going to be starting another album right after August. Which I’m keen to do. I don’t resent not doing it in any way because of the Van Der Graaf stuff because it’s very, very exciting, but on the other hand, it’s rather odd, but that is my day job!
Gary – You must have close to a hundred albums by now…
Peter – Oh no it’s not that many, it’s around 50 or so.
Gary – You’ve certainly been not just one of the more prolific but consistent album artists over the years. There are very few people who were active in the ‘70s who have continued to release records through the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Peter – It does still make sense to me, and I do still enjoy it, basically.
Gary – Are most of your solo projects on labels and still available?
Peter – Since the early ‘90s I’ve had my own label over here. The ones for Virgin, I think a number of them have gradually been getting less and less available, which may well be to do with the fact that they’re going to remaster them, but I don’t know whether that’s entirely the case. There are still a LOT of things out there.
[EMI guy interrupts to say interview over]
P – Once again I’m sorry we got off to a… on a downer note about Andrew. It’s life stuff and there you go.