Founder member of Van der Graaf Generator and unique singer-songwriter Peter Hammill has been making innovative, interesting and constantly evolving music since the early seventies. In the past couple of years interest in his solo and Van der Graaf Generator work has grown: his seventies and eighties solo material has been remastered and reissued by Virgin/EMI, the entire VdGG back catalogue has been remastered, and the band have reunited to release three highly acclaimed albums, the last of which, A Grounding in Numbers, appeared earlier this year. Peter now has a new two-disc live solo album, Pno, Gtr, Vox, and was kind enough to talk about it and his career with me.
I started by asking Peter about the concept behind the new two-disc album.
The concept follows a couple of themes from one of my four-night stints in Tokyo. As it says on the tune, "What if there were no piano?" and "What if I forgot my guitar?
When you have such an extensive song catalogue to choose from, how do you go about deciding what to play, and how fluid is your set list on any given night—for example, if something has happened in the world that resonates with one of your songs, do you juggle the set list to fit it in?
I usually decide what to play—even with strictures such as this— an hour or so before the show. I'm less concerned with events that resonate than with putting a set together that has a good dynamic and emotional flow, which acknowledges different eras and usually doesn't repeat too much of what I might have played the night before.
Since Van der Graaf Generator has recently released A Grounding in Numbers, its first studio album not on Virgin, how different is it dealing with a smaller specialist label like Esoteric, and how does the current VdGG trio differ from previous lineups?
It's been a very good experience working with Esoteric—though we had a good relationship with Virgin/EMI as well. We'll always be niche, of course. The current trio lineup is particularly strong. We've had quite a lot to get through to reach this stage. Everything from now on seems like something of a bonus.
Virgin recently released all your Charisma solo albums in remastered and expanded form, and you were heavily involved in that. Was the project driven by you, or were you approached by the record label?
They approached me. In turn, I think, the impetus first came from EMI Japan. Also, they were massively encouraged by the (relative) success of the The Box set.
The majority of your solo albums were all recorded in your own studio at the dawn of home studio technology. Given the limitations of the time, are there any albums that you would like to rerecord in their entirety with all the current technology at your disposal?
Oh, absolutely not. All the albums of the past are rooted in the technical stuff available at the time-and my own technical abilities. And each one's been something of a learning curve. I'm still on that curve. Also, I'd always much rather go forward than look back.
Your solo work in the seventies also involved various members of VdGG. How did making your solo albums differ from band albums, and how was it decided that certain songs were VdGG material and others were Peter Hammill solo material?
In general if it was a solo record I'd (obviously) be in charge, while VDGG was always—still is— a democratic unit. So on solo stuff the decisions would be mine. While VdGG was going, generally I'd offer material to VdGG first, and only if it didn't go with the band would it become solo stuff.
As you have an expansive and diverse back catalogue, what albums would you recommend to people interested in investigating your career but not sure quite where to begin?
It's actually a tough question. The way that people come into things inevitably colours their subsequent route through the material. So, maybe, start with the present and work back. If working from the other end, then for VdGG I suppose I'd say Pawn Hearts or Godbluff. [As for] solo, it's far too diverse, far too difficult to say...
As a performer you seem to have a lot of control over your material, from your own studio to your own label, including your involvement in the remastering of the Virgin/Charisma records. How important is it to you to keep control over how your material is released and represented?
If I hadn't done that, from many, many years ago, then the Music Biz would have had no need of my services long since, I think. (Not that it has much need of them, not that I have much to do with the Biz anyway...)
On that topic, lots of other artists have their material licensed and re-licensed until you find the same album repackaged and distributed under different titles. Do you ever get approached by labels to put together budget priced 'Best Of's, and what's your take on this approach to marketing material?
Virgin have released some. Actually I don't object to this approach, it's a way to introduce people to the music who might otherwise be scared off.
You've always been a songwriter whose material is influenced by current events, personal and public issues, and you aren't afraid to tackle 'big' subjects, such as in Sci-Finance or Porton Down. Do you feel that as you've matured you've become more or less political, and where do you see the role of the songwriter fitting in today's climate?
I've never thought that songs should be dogmatic, so my 'social' songs have actually been few and far between. I think with my advanced years I've become more than ever concerned with the internal life rather than the external.
You run your own label, have your own website, blog regularly and update fans using Twitter. How important do you feel social networking technology is to artists in keeping in touch with their fan base, and do you ever look on online forums to see what's being written about you?
It's all rather dangerous territory, actually. I don't use social networking as a marketing tool exactly: the journal is only tangentially linked to Twitter and the Sofa Sound website. Really on Twitter I'm just there as an individual. The tectonic plates shift under this stuff all the time.
What projects are you currently working on, and are you likely to be touring the UK soon?
A new studio album is underway and I expect I'll be touring early in 2012, probably solo at first and then later with VdGG.
Have you ever considered writing your autobiography?
I think I'm doing it piece by piece, song by song and really don't have an interest in doing it on the printed (or virtual) page.
As a songwriter you've influenced many people. Who has been a big influence on your career?
The people and things which influenced me are so far back in the past that it's not really worth recounting them again (much though I'm in their debt, of course). For at least a couple of decades I've followed the star of my own muse, for what it's worth.
What does the future hold for VDGG?
Actually, we won't know until 2012!
Many thanks to Peter Hammill for taking the time to answer my questions. His blog and more information on his solo and Van der Graaf Generator work can be found on www.sofasound.com.
One of the UK's most distinctive and creative songwriters, Peter Hammill has had a long and successful career both with and without Van der Graaf Generator. This article examines his first eleven solo albums, from 1971's Fool's Mate right through to 1985's Skin. All have been lovingly remastered and released with abundant sleeve notes by Peter Hammill, on Virgin/EMI.
Hammill is a prolific songwriter, particularly when you consider that for large portions of the early seventies he was combining his solo work with his Van der Graaf Generator projects. With the musicians in VdGG performing on his solo albums, the line between group and solo can sometimes be blurred. The first album Fool's Mate (Charisma) is probably the best example of this. Recorded and released between landmark VdGG albums H to He, Who Am the Only One and Pawn Hearts, the album might make one suspect that Hammill had his eye on a solo career, when in fact it contains material that had been written and performed by embryonic lineups of VdGG from the late 1960s: Hammill felt that he had to record this music before he became too far removed from it to perform it. If a term as crass as 'pop music' could be used in relation to the Peter Hammill/VdGG oeuvre, this is probably as close as it gets: the performances sound as though VdGG are having fun and enjoying the downtime between albums. That doesn't mean that this album is either slight or insignificant—instead the record shows how well-developed Hammill's song-writing abilities were at this stage.
Chameleon in the Shadow of Night, his first solo album proper, is like the morning after the night before of VdGG. The band had split, utterly demoralised, in 1972, and Hammill had returned to the UK and started the first of his forays into solo work, utilising the basic home studio technology of the time. The title track is autobiographical, about the collapse of VdGG, whilst Hammill's musique concrète experiments begin here in abundance, and tracks like Easy to Slip Away showcase his troubadour sound. The last track (In the) Black Room/The Tower was a VdGG song intended for the next album that never was, and is recorded here in all its magnificent glory, whilst the bonus live tracks from 1978 (Easy to Slip Away and In the End) demonstrate how the songs transcend the album and become living entities in their own right.
1974's The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage is a logical evolution of the experiments started on Chameleon, and captures the evolution of both the home studio technology and Hammill's confidence. The album is one of my favourites in Hammill's early seventies canon, with sophisticated tracks like Modern and the brilliant epic A Louse is not a Home, which showcases Hammill's vocal gymnastics, from tender softness to harsh intensity. On most of the album he is ably assisted by VdGG refugees Hugh Banton, Guy Evans and David Jackson. (Forsaken Gardens became part of the reformed band's repertoire in their GodBluff era.) In Camera (also 1974) sets the template for future albums, with Peter playing all the instruments himself (bar the drums/percussion), and recording most of the material at his home studio, Sofa Sound, which was getting more and sophisticated as time went on. This is probably one of Hammill's more extreme albums, with heavier tracks like the majestically dark Gog, about a God who doesn't listen or care (which, again, was later performed by a revived VdGG) and its sonic counterpart Magog (in Bromine Chambers)—uneasy listening, if you will.
Just as Fool's Mate tidied up some old VdGG songs and represented an ending of sorts, the next solo album Nadir's Big Chance (1975) marks new beginnings. It was the first time that the reunited VdGG played together, prior to their GodBluff reformation and success in the late seventies, and it radically collected and reworked earlier songs with an almost punk-like attitude. Described by Hammill as one of only two collections of truly pop songs that he has written (the other, unsurprisingly, is Fool's Mate) this is an absolute joy of an album. Taking Hammill's alter ego Rikki Nadir out for a spin, this album is aggressive, full of mammoth riffs and a disdain for the music biz that was not just a precursor to punk's year-zero, destroy-everything attitude, but also foresaw the mess that the industry is in now. With sonic assaults like the title track, as well as the old VdGG track People You Were Going To shaken up and thoroughly remade, alongside the beautiful Judge Smith song Been Away So Long, this is a fantastic album and, unsurprisingly, one of John Lydons favourite records.
As the VdGG juggernaut rolled on, Hammill's next solo album was Over in 1977. This, a return to his troubadour side, documents the break-up of a relationship, warts and all. With songs like Crying Wolf, This Side of the Looking Glass and Betrayed he reveals his emotions: like all the best songwriters the world over (Dylan on Blood on the Tracks, for example) he pours his life into his art until the two merge. Relying heavily on Hammill's guitar work, this is one of his more immediate albums, finishing with the rousing and ultimately uplifting and optimistic Lost and Found, reprising VdGG's La Rossa from Still Life.
1978's The Future Now is the album with the striking cover photograph, showing Hammill half-shaven and half-bearded, and the cover isn't the most arresting thing about this album. Again VdGG were on the verge of collapse, and so this marked the next stage in Hammill's solo career: for the first time there was no VdGG as back-up or support. Thus this is quite a transitional album, with a mixture of traditional introspection like Pushing Thirty's line, to the more intense tracks like Energy Vampires, Mediaeval and A Motorbike in Afrika. Mixing musique concrète with the more conventional gives this album a distinct identity far from the VdGG/solo work of the early seventies, and with its more advanced use of home recording techniques it signalled the direction that the inevitable solo career would take.
pH7 (1979) is not the seventh solo album—the title merely signifies neutral—and it continues the experiments and advances in home recording techniques, with Hammill adding drum machines to his repertoire. It follows on from The Future Now, with its mix of traditional songwriting (from the brilliant opener My Favourite to the tongue-in-cheek Careering), with the experimental Porton Down, Mr X (Gets Tense) and Faculty X, suggesting the direction that VdGG might have gone in. This could almost be described as 'new wave' to the casual listener, and is, again, another strong album.
A Black Box (1980) was initially released on Hammill's own label, and is now (ironically) remastered and back on Charisma, who at the time had declined to renew his contract. There are several firsts on this album, not least the epic nineteen-minute Flight (the first time that Hammill had presented a suite of songs of this length that was not originally destined for VdGG), whilst songs like Golden Promises and Jargon King are scathing about the people who are supposed to be running things (and are, sadly, as relevant now as they were in 1980). It was a huge leap from pH7 to this.
There is a distinct sense of progress about Sitting Targets (1982), which was also the foundation on which the K Group was built (but that's a story for another time). It contains a lot of material, again mostly based on autobiographical incidents, that is still performed live today (Central Hotel, Sitting Targets and Stranger Still all regularly crop up at concerts in evolved forms). The beauty of this album is the simplicity of the song-structures. The standout tracks include Ophelia, Sign and the aforementioned Central Hotel, and the album bristles with the confidence of a songwriter who is at the top of his game, knows what to say and how to say it.
Skin (1985) was the first new Hammill material for a while—his energies had been taken up by K Group activity and rerecording The Love Songs. Picking up where Sitting Targets left off, this is another focused set of songs, very much in the style of its day and benefitting from technical advances: Sofa Sound had become a 16-track studio, not bad for the do-it-yourself ethos. Tracks include the fantastic Skin, the atmospheric Painting by Numbers and the brilliant Judge Smith song Four Pails, while this re-issue is rounded off by the brilliantly rocky You Hit Me Where I Live, one of the more spontaneous songs in the set and an excellent way to end the album.
Peter Hammill is one of England's finest songwriters and performers; he and, indeed, Van der Graaf Generator continue to make fantastic records. It is a continuing mystery why he isn't better-known.--James R. Turner