Critical Questions: Peter Hammill
The voice of Van der Graaf Generator.
As the frontman for Van der Graaf Generator, Peter Hammill started out as the fire-breathing voice of U.K. prog's dark side. His simultaneous solo career showed him to be sort of a thinking-man's Peter Gabriel, bringing his arch, intellectual approach to art-rock songcraft, while Hammill albums like 1975's Nadir's Big Chance were famously influential on a young John Lydon. In recent years, the reunited VDGG has emerged as an older, wiser, but still intense outfit. As Van der Graaf's new album, ALT, and Hammill's latest solo effort, Consequences, make clear, the 63-year-old singer/songwriter has lost nary a step along the way.
A lot of your early material was very dark, but a number of your more recent songs are oddly hymnlike and feel more hopeful.
I had been singing in church [as a child], and obviously Hugh Banton, the organist, did a lot of church things. Over the years, this area of things [developed], there's kind of strange songs, almost Zen hymns, they're not offering an actual redemption, but they are hoping for a kind of calm, I guess. Nobody should be writing the same kind of songs in their sixties as they wrote when they were 19. Or else there's something sincerely wrong there. But yeah, that has grown up over the years.
When you write something new, what determines whether it's a solo tune or a Van der Graaf song?
Particularly these days it's always clear what project is coming up. It is the case sometimes, and this was the case with [2011 VDGG album] A Grounding in Numbers, that there were some songs that I presented that didn't go on in the end. I don't have an absolute control over what a Van der Graaf song is or isn't, particularly these days, because we've got a much broader range of bases that we touch than we have in the past, I think. I've subsequently used a couple of them on Consequences, but in any given period, we know or I know what the next recording project is, and that's what the writing is headed towards. Sometimes on a solo album, this happened I think in the one before, there were a couple of pieces that I began writing and I went, ‘Oh hang on, this really is kind of Van der Graaf material, it should be offered to them first.' The other important thing [for a VDGG song] is that there's nothing going on in the lyrics with which Hugh and Guy fundamentally disagree. I'm trying to write lyrical songs which support all our attitudes.
Between the band and your solo work, you've amassed a huge discography over the years; you must be writing constantly.
It's directed towards recording projects, I don't write all the time. I do work a lot I guess. My wife says that I work far too much, but it is the thing that sustains me and makes sense to me. I don't for instance have a whole hoard of songs I've never recorded.
You have a very singular style. Are there other songwriters you feel any kind of kinship with?
The people who were my peers and contemporaries who are still going generally are much more successful, and almost as a result have a much lower output than I have. I'm thinking of people like Peter Gabriel, Bowie, and so on -- those essentially were my peers at the outset. Of course, it's incredibly hard for anybody who's come after that period to find an audience the way I found an audience, which, small though it is by comparison, has sustained me. But in terms of contemporaries, maybe Robert Wyatt might be somebody who, if not the same, is something of a peer. I'm only thinking of people who are still around from the time I originally came from. But there aren't many of us.
What was the music that inspired you when you started writing in the ‘60s?
Early days, a lot of the R&B/soul artists, Beatles obviously, Townshend, Ray Davies, Rodgers & Hammerstein, loads of people really, but obviously it's 40 years ago. But clearly you don't get into music unless you've been fired up by other people and think that it's the most fantastic thing -- that it's what I want to do. You have to have that kind of fire to put up with some of the knocks that are inevitably gonna come your way in your own career.
Your song "Stranger Still" [from 1981's Sitting Targets] is a classic example of the way you like to take a comparatively conventional idea and tweak it into an odd shape -- it starts out as a melodic piano ballad and then things get strange.
That's fun, I think. Fun and true in a way, and those are the two things I and we am and are chasing after all the time. There has to be an element of playfulness, even if that playfulness actually is doing something that's pretty cacophonous and violent. And there has to be something that has an element of truth about it. If it had stayed being a piano ballad like it starts, there is a place for those kinds of songs, but I don't think I'm the singer to sing them, to be honest. For me there has to be something else going on. That's not to say that every piano ballad that I do has to end up with a violent kind of contra coda, but particularly these days, where there are piano ballads there's kind of a voice of uncertainty rather than calmness lurking around in them, I think.
Late last year you released PNO GTR VOX, a collection of live, literally solo recordings. What prompted that?
The live stuff is the bedrock of what I've been doing over 40 years, one of the angles is actually just going out on stage by myself with a guitar, with a piano, and with my kind of basic musicianly skills. Because I'm far from being the musician that Guy [Evans, drummer] or Hugh is, for instance, but over the years I've kind of worked out ways of using those skills, and fundamentally stripping the songs down, stripping down things which on record have a complexity and a wall-of-sound effect, just to an instrument and a voice. And I do still find that interesting. And over the last few years I've been increasing my repertoire so I know have an available list of 80 or 90 songs that I can do with not very much preparation. So as a result of that, and having done a whole series of concerts that cover this spread of things, it seemed like the right time. Especially, without undue false modesty, I think I'm in pretty good form in terms of doing these things at the moment, happily. I am a 60-year-old guy now and I guess I almost would have expected that some vocal bits would be falling off by now but they don't seem to be, so it seemed right to have some recorded documentation of that coming out.
If you had to pick one song to play for someone who had never heard you before, what would it be?
The one that springs to my mind straight away is "A Better Time" [from 1996's X My Heart], which is another one of these Zen hymns. I think if I was trying to draw somebody in to say "You don't know anything about me, but give me a try," that's one that offers an invite rather than a confrontation, and actually I'd be happy to take on that challenge. In a way it actually is the case that most of my solo shows, most of the Van der Graaf shows, most of the audience know most of the stuff, but that's not the attitude that we go onstage with. I think I'd play "A Better Time," which is actually now 10, 15 years old or so, but it's another one of these that goes "Hang on, we are here, let's get on with it."
|Peter Hammill -- The People You Were Going To|