An interview with
Peter Hammill (2000)

By Beppe Colli
July 29, 2003

It was about three years ago that I first read about a new Van Der Graaf Generator box set - called The Box - that was about to be released. So I got in touch with Peter Hammill - the man who had composed (and sung!) the largest part of the group's repertoire - to see whether he was interested in a conversation about the group's career. He agreed to do an interview after finishing a tour of Italy and Holland. Back home on October 28 - "bask (but not yet rested...)", the interview was conducted (by e-mail) during the days of October 30, 31 and November 1.

I had already interviewed Peter Hammill, by phone, on February 25, 1991 for a radio program that I hosted. On that occasion I had restrained myself from asking him any questions about his old group, concentrating my attention on his solo career. While Van Der Graaf Generator were still active Hammill had released very good albums such as Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night, The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage, Nadir's Big Chance and Over, which are a de facto part of the group's history. But as required listening I'd also suggest later solo titles such as The Future Now, PH7, Sitting Targets, and those albums recorded with the K Group (Enter K, Patience, The Margin), adding the (bass and violin) live trio of Roomtemperaturelive for good measure.

(A little biographical data: Hammill was about twenty when the group started, twenty-two when masterpieces such as H To He, Who Am The Only One and Pawn Hearts were released, thirty when Van Der Graaf Generator split. Of more or less the same age were people like Jimi Hendrix, Robert Wyatt, Nick Drake, Robert Fripp, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, John Martyn, Jeff Beck...)

Van Der Graaf Generator had been quite a famous group in Italy during the early '70s - can you picture their long pieces being broadcast on National Public Radio at 4.00 in the afternoon? I was more than a bit puzzled while reading the profile/interview that appeared in Mojo at about the same time of this interview (which, by the way, appeared in Italian in Blow Up # 32, January 2001, but is published here in English for the first time), the UK mag suggesting that the music in question was very good indeed, but... well, pretty difficult. Well, I beg to differ, Sir.

Some of my questions here are maybe a bit too long. Please consider that: a) I wanted to simulate the "feel" of a live interview; b) I wanted to give readers - who for the most part had not been present at the time when those things happened - the most complete picture I could.

The first VDGG track that I heard was Darkness, off The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other - the album had been released not long before. It came out of my tiny transistor radio: the sound of the wind, the voices, the rhythm section, then your vocals... By the time of the organ solo I was completely sold: it was so strange! Very beautiful, but pretty peculiar - up to that point, most organ solos I'd heard had been in a decidedly gospel/jazz/blues vein - Jimmy Smith, Brian Auger, The Doors' Ray Manzarek Chicago roots... The players in VDGG seemed to come from very diverse musical backgrounds, which was not so uncommon in those days - I'm thinking about, for in., Soft Machine or King Crimson, i.e. groups whose goal was to create something original which was definitely more than the sum of its part... Would you mind talking about your - and the other group members' - influences and about your expectations at the time when the band was formed?

You're quite right to mention Soft Machine and King Crimson. All three bands were going prior to 1970, or whenever "Progressive" became the catch-all tag; initially we were known as "underground" groups.

Briefly our influences were:

Jaxon: mainly Jazz, particularly Shepp and Coltrane. But he'd also played in a few soul groups, as part of horn sections rather than soloing, I believe, and had played in the national youth jazz orchestra.

Evans: his father had a big band and he was also into jazz. He had a wide knowledge of US psychedelic groups as well as a pretty catholic acquaintance with anything in the rock (left-field) vein.

Banton: classically trained organist, of course. Also into the harder end of rock/pop and soul music.

PH: Blues, r&b, british beat groups (esp. Who, Kinks, Animals) and, again, soul music.

We were all into the Beatles and Hendrix. As time went by our interests cross-pollinated, both in enthusiasms of listening and playing and we arrived at a coalescence of taste, which also included classical music in its early, romantic, symphonic and experimental/avant-garde forms.

We had no more expectation, nor drive, than to try to make an original music which built upon our differences as much as our similarities. And to explore and make extreme sounds!

The Least... was recorded in four days: were you happy with the way the album came out? I see that in The Box you've included some alternate versions of some tracks that appeared on the album...

At the time, we thought four days was a luxury! So, as with all the albums, we did it to the best of our ability at the time and are therefore happy with the results.

The alternate versions are from live radio sessions, of course.

At first, I thought VDGG was a group from Holland! Where did the name come from?

It was Chris Judge Smith (who founded the group with me at Manchester University) who came up with the name. Robert VdG was an american scientist who invented the piece of (electrostatic charging and storing) equipment. The largest one in the world is in the museum of science in Boston.

References to hard sciences in rock groups were not common... I'm thinking about the Albert Einstein quote in After The Flood (The Least...), the formula that appeared on the cover of H To He, Who Am The Only One (and, of course, the album title), a song title like Man-Erg (Pawn Hearts), the story in The Pioneers Over C... Ha! W, of course. Where did this interest in sciences come from? And what were your motivations in exploring this topic?

Well, in my university days I was a student of "Liberal Studies in Science". I had then and still retain an interest in science for its own sake and as a metaphor for our current lives. Being used to scientific terminology and theory it was always natural for me to push this stuff into songs. If I'd finished my studies I should have been someone who understood enough about science to communicate it to society and vice versa. Maybe I've done a little bit of that anyway...

VDGG studio albums from this period were very carefully produced, but you've said that the live band was a very different (and unpredictable) animal. (Robert Fripp has said exactly the same thing about the '69-'71 King Crimson and he has tried to redress the balance by releasing live tapes from that period.) Being of an age at which one was not considered old enough to travel alone, I never saw the '70/'71 VDGG live. Would you mind talking about the group's attitude with regards to live playing?

Very wild indeed. WE never played the same set and each song changed radically from night to night. We also very loud! No one ever knew what to expect, which was an attraction for us as players and people. We definitely did NOT try to recreate the studio sound on stage. In this we were, perhaps, liberated by our line-up. Again, we were going for extremity.

H To He... was the first VDGG album of which I tried to translate the lyrics, my impression being that all the characters portrayed in the songs were placed in situations of very deep loneliness (an oversimplification, I know...). There's a lot of variety in the music; the songs are pretty complex, and things change, sometimes quite drastically, within the course of the same song: a trait that was (almost) taken for granted at the time, while nowadays, at least judging from my personal experience, most music listeners seem to prefer albums that are more "stable" and homogeneous from start to finish, and whose songs don't have much internal variety. Your opinion? And: am I painting too rosy a picture of the past?

Certainly more experimentation was allowed or demanded in the past by both musicians and audiences. But music meant something different then, I think. It was "owned" by its audience, rather than being furniture in their lives, as seems to be the case today.

I continue to believe, contrary to the given wisdom, that it's more interesting to have an album - or, indeed, an individual song - which has variety rather than homogeneity...

At the time it came out, I found Pawn Hearts to be an album of almost intimidating complexity, though after quite a few spins it became my favourite one (in this respect, albums were almost like books, a place where one would return to revisit one's impressions). In the appendix to your book Killers, Angels, Refugees, talking about A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers, you wrote: "I will, therefore, let it speak for its clandestine self, save only to say that it is a cinematic presentation of 'self' in several possible matrices". Now - and the point I'm aiming at is much broader than this particular reference - this is the kind of scope that in the years since has very often been ridiculed as being "pretentious" and "too intellectual". Meanwhile, I think that this "ambitious" approach, though it can sometimes backfire on you, would be very welcome in today's "rock scene" of severely diminished expectations - and I'm not talking about Britney Spears...

Um, and the question? Seriously, these days I tend to shut up in terms of external analysis and DO try to let things speak for themselves, while still trying to get some depth into them. Now, as then, I believe that something of real worth, in whatever sphere normally will require a degree of work in order to be fully appreciated... or "got"... or to become, as you say, effectively, a part of their lives. But generally, hey, Big Mac thinking rules, no?

After Pawn Hearts the group split up, causing much consternation in Italy - where it was assumed (maybe a bit too optimistically) that VDGG was destined to get "big". But all the other members of the group contributed to the solo albums you recorded after the split. What had happened?

Life, stuff, madness. Reasonably documented in The Box, I think. We remained (remain) friends, though, of course and with the level of personal and musical understanding between us it was natural that we should continue to play together. In the case of my solo albums/tours it was always clear between us that we were VdGG musicians but this was NOT VdGG work.

Additionally none of us were in it for stardom per se. We wanted the music to be successful, of course, but didn't particularly want the trappings of fame for ourselves.

More or less in that period there were singers that explored - each in his own, personal way - the voice and what could be done in that area: off the top of my head I'd say Robert Wyatt and Jack Bruce in his post-Cream solo mode. Were there any singers whose work you regarded as being distinctive?

Clearly those two. It's a long way back now. Personally I was absolutely trying to stretch what could be done with my voice. A lifelong search.

Many singers from the folk direction also explored things, in a different way. You have to include Bowie as well, of course. Maybe a big distinction is that at around that time a number of people started to sing in English rather than American. A trend which has sadly reversed today.

The only time I saw the group live was in London, in 1975: I attended the New Victoria Theatre gig on August 30th. I definitely remember that the first song was The Undercover Man, from the yet-to-be-released Goodbluff, and that besides old favourites like Lemmings and Man-Erg the group played some songs from your solo albums (Forsaken Gardens, In The Black Room and A Louse Is Not A Home, if I remember correctly) that were in effect "VDGG songs". Why did the group decide to re-start the engines?

Again, life, stuff, madness. This aspect is, again, documented in The Box. Briefly, though, the time was and we as people were right to re-enter VdGG world. When we did so we had no intention of looking backwards, or of trying to pick up from where we'd left off. Therefore when we voted on the songs we were going to play (apart from the new ones) the old faves didn't get any votes but "solo" ones (including Black Room and Louse which we HAD played in the last days of Mk I) got the thumbs up... to be done, of course, in a VdGG way.

In my opinion, the albums recorded in that period and produced by the group - Godbluff, Still Life and World Record - tried to bridge the gap between the "studio" and the "live" dimensions that had previously existed: they are more direct, more "streamlined" (I'm not too happy about my choice of word here) though no less ambitious for this. Is my impression basically correct?

I think we felt that "Prog" was getting a bit convoluted at best and pompous at worst. We therefore wanted to use our skills to show that we were a playing group rather than one dictated to by time signatures and complexity and tapped, once again, our roots in soul, jazz, and r&b. In general, by this time, if we were playing something complex we wanted to make it sound like 4/4... and vice versa.

Of the three albums I just mentioned Still Life is the one I like the most, the title track being one of my favourite songs ever (I remember when I finished translating the lyrics: was I scared!). World Record is the album I like the least, Meurglys III being the only song by the group that I consider being "too long". So, in a sense, I was not surprised when the group split again. What happened?

The usual, but more so. Hugh and David didn't feel capable of continuing and, again, things had got mad (see The Box as usual). Van der Graaf, with G Smith and the return of a Potter, was a logical, if different, route to take. World Record was, even in the cases of overdubs, very much a demonstration of this-is-the-sound-of-the-live-group, albeit in the semi-controlled arena of the studio.

In general, by this time we were approaching the end of the natural lifespan of the group(s). I regard it as a highly positive thing that we never compromised or did anything which would discredit the past work which we'd achieved. The record stands...

The first time the group split was at the time of the "glam rock craze". The second time, it was on the eve of punk. According to Rolling Stone (so it must be true...) "Hammill's relentlessly bleak visions were later cited by some members (e.g. Johnny Rotten) of Britain's late-Seventies punk-rock movement as their inspiration, and in fact Hammill created a "Rikki Nadir" persona for a solo album that presaged punk". Would you mind talking about that period - and that album? (... for which I have no lyrics yet - and I still have to understand the spoken segment at the beginning of Two Or Three Spectres which ends with "... Little Stevie Wonder", followed by laughter.)

Well, to be fair I think "one of the inspirations" would be more accurate for JR among others (Mark EW Smith of the Fall, f'rinstance...). Nadir was recorded, in fact, before the 77 thing got under way and received something of a critical bashing at the time. It was the first time Hugh, Guy, David and myself went into the studio having already decided to reform VdGG and doubtless the directness with which we played on Nadir had an influence on what followed (see answers above). Since VdGG WAS about to reform I didn't want to do anything close to it and so the songs were pretty simple and (mostly) quite old.

One of the main things I wanted to do was express that 16-year-old "I just want to play the 3 chords I know on my electric guitar very loud!" spirit which I still try to conserve in my 51-year old self in some way. Essentially, that's the punk spirit (before punk got hijacked by The Bizniss). So I, for one, didn't feel alienated by what happened in 77. Also, as I've said before, there was a lot of pomp around at the time, as if to say "no, you can't go and form a band with your mates in a garage. Well, you can!

btw Hugh says, at the start of "2 or 3", a propos of how I'd been trying to get him to play, "why didn't you say, more Stevie Wonder!" Again, I don't suppose S. Wonder would be a reference point that most people would think we/I might use.

I'd like to ask you about Nic Potter. I don't know whether I can trust my memory here, since the only time I heard this conversation was one night in (1972?) when the band - minus Potter - was interviewed on the Italian National Radio. After a broadcast of Darkness there were some comments about the bass parts for the song not being that good. Potter was not part of the band until The Quiet Zone - The Pleasure Dome, though he played on your solo albums. Imagine my surprise when I saw the new line-up in '77 and I noticed he was in! That record was much more rhythmically "grounded", and there were songs (for in., The Sphinx In The Face and Chemical World) when he sported an "almost-Hugh Hopper" fuzzy tone. You produced the album, so I imagine you called (most of) the shots. What changed with regards to your concept of the groove?

The interview sounds more than a tad unfair on Nic and I suspect that we were larking about just a bit!

Nic was in the band for The Least... and half of H to He. He left somewhat mysteriously, and now says (this, after the various interviews we did for The Box) that it was because he was still very young (absolutely, 17 when he joined) and couldn't handle what he saw as the ever-increasing madness and obsession surrounding us. Hugh thinks the building of an extra bass output on the organ might not have helped, either.

Anyway, at the outset he was probably bang in that blues bass player mould, having played with Paul Kossof and The Misunderstood (with Guy). By the time VdG came round he and we were looking for something else from the bottom end - space having been freed up by the absence of organ and the shift of soloing into violin territory. Again, to be fair, he found and embraced the aggressive sounds, albeit with a measure of encouragement! And this band was in the wake of 77 and we felt, perhaps, that we could apply some of the aggro of punk together with some more developed music than just those 3 chords.

Nothing could have prepared me for the harsh, brutal sound of Vital, starting with Ship Of Fools. A new line-up, that in the liner notes to Maida Vaile you described as being "atypical". A lot of unreleased material. Then?

Sorry, I seem to have covered most of this one in the last answer. I meant atypical in terms of the VdGG history, obviously, since we'd swung completely away from what we were known for, sonically. At one point Jaxon was going to stay in, making it a 5-piece with more continuity, but eventually decided to leave as well. So Guy and I, particularly, felt it incumbent upon ourselves to push forward and continue the story in true VdGG spirit. Hence this version. Not much extra recorded though!

To close this conversation I'd like to touch on a few more general topics. As you well know, the so-called "progressive" period has been subjected to pretty heavy scorn - Robert Fripp has written many times about this in the liner notes of his releases (Ha! I have not asked you about his contributions to the band albums! And your contribution to Exposure!). I saw Genesis live at the time of their Selling England By The Pound tour and they played the record exactly as it was. For me, groups like Genesis, EL&P or Yes lacked the exploratory spirit, the complexity, the not-playing-it-safe factor that was so integral to VDGG, King Crimson and, later, Henry Cow and Hatfield & The North. So I'd like to ask you about your point of view on "Progressive".

I think some of my attitude on this one has been running throughout this interview... i.e an "underground" rather than "progressive" group & c. To my mind, particularly moving into the mid-seventies, there was an air of pretentiousness about many/most Prog bands and a faux artistic intellectual veil. That would have been ok in itself but it was accompanied by a "this is the only way to go" attitude of exclusivity.

Naturally, insofar as we were tagged as being a thing it was as a Progressive group - that was the easy label. But I think we were more chaotic and anarchic than that, playing more in a (admittedly white, english, middle class) rock/jazz spirit. Alas, where most Prog took its classical inspiration from Romantic and showy stuff, we were more likely to refer to Messiaen, Ligeti or Stockhausen.

Hey ho, people will call you what they want anyway...

During our previous interview (about your solo career: February 25th, 1991) I asked you about the topic of "lyrics interpretation", having as a starting point the misunderstanding concerning the song Four Pails. I had asked you if you thought people's willingness to "understand" a lyric had diminished since the VDGG days. During the preparation of this interview I listened to the old VDGG albums again, and a strange thought came to my mind: right now, in many countries in the world, there's a TV program called Big Brother. Many comments I've read refer to the Orwellian aspect and the voyeuristic side, but what strikes me as peculiar is the fact that so many people are willing to watch "themselves", so to speak, doing basically "nothing". To me, the "essence" of Art (literature, cinema, music) is its being "larger than life": transcendent. In this respect, VDGG albums are definitely "Art". But I suspect we're getting more and more used to regard our "everyday life" in its "raw form" as an untranscendable "norm", and that our horizons are shrinking. Do you think we're still willing to walk the "extra mile" to "get" a work of Art?

Actually I think Art lies in both directions - the broad strokes, big picture but on the other hand the minute examination of the apparently mundane. Seeing the whole world in a grain of sand, that kind of thing. The crucial question one comes back to is the examination; without that experience is meaningless. And I think it's true that society is becoming more and more passive, less and less fired up with enthusiasm, in many spheres. So much of life is now to do with "badging" oneself with purchases and enthusiasms, rather than getting really passionate about them.

I said something about the "extra mile" earlier, I think, even before we got to this question?

On October 31st, a deal was announced between the giant entertainment conglomerate Bertelsmann and the file-sharing service firm Napster. When VDGG started the group was signed to an indie label, Charisma - I remember that after the death of Tony Stratton-Smith, the label's owner, you dedicated to him the song Time To Burn. Having seen the music business undergo very dramatic changes during the previous three decades how do you see today's situation with regards to the odds new groups have to produce innovative, non conventional music the way VDGG did?

When we started the Music Business was just that, based around a few streets, bars, pubs and clubs in Soho. Now, of course, it's a global industry. This makes things very difficult for people coming in now and trying to innovate (from the business end as well as the musical).

It costs so much to promote something these days that almost always safety is the preferred option, reference back to things which have been successful in the past. Also, people are simply not given the time to develop and find themselves and their audience as we were.

Nonetheless, some people achieve mainstream success with innovative stuff - Björk would certainly be an example, Radiohead as well. But it's harder and harder and I suspect requires more willpower than ever. If you had any kind of success in our idea it was its own thing. Now if you have a hit you're immediately responsible for about a thousand jobs and probably several office blocks in LA!

Anyway, much, much more difficult these days. I and we were lucky guys to start when we did. These days we wouldn't even get a foot in the door.

Is there anything you'd like to say to somebody who has never heard any of the music in The Box?

I guess it's just here it was, there it went. As I've said before, some of it may be a bit flawed (in retrospect) but everything was done to the limits of our abilities and intentions at the time. So I stand by it all.

© Beppe Colli 2000 - 2003 | July 29, 2003