Interview with Peter Hammill

Przemysław Stochmal

ImagePS: You’re very near the release of your newest album called “A Grounding in Numbers”. It was recorded by the same trio-line-up, just like the previous one, “Trisector”, but with a new producer, the well known Hugh Padgham. As far as I know, you’re not very fond of telling about music not yet available, but anyway, could you reveal anything about that album – what can VDGG fans expect?

PH: First of all I should say that Hugh Padgham mixed the album rather than produced it – and a very  fine job indeed he did of that!

PS: The backing tracks were recorded at The Propagation House Studio in Devon in April 2010 and overdubbing took place over the next months in our own studios.

PH: The tracks are short this time, the longest being six minutes, and clover a very wide range of styles. As always with us, it's not exactly the same as anything expect some familiarity and some differences

PS: I would like you to tell me how it came to a collaboration with Hugh Padgham, why you decided to work with a producer from outside the band.

PH: I've been in touch with Hugh for some time. He came to both the Festival Hall reunion show and to the first London Trio show in Shepherd's Bush. Also his studio is called Sofasound, which many will know used to be the name of my own studio. We decided quite early that it would probably be beneficial to have somebody else take charge of the mixing for an external view and, as I say, we're all absolutely delighted that he accepted the job and did such wonderful work on the material.

PS: After parting with David Jackson you decided not to involve anyone else and now you’re about to release the second studio album as a trio. Have you considered filling up the line-up with a new saxophonist or, like you did in the past, another instrumentalist? I’m asking about it, although I must say that the music from your old albums made live without  saxophone, sounded complete already – we could experience that during your phenomenal shows in Poland four years ago…

PH: We were initially clear that we didn't want to replace David with another player but that we should explore what we could do as a trio, both live and on record. Actually, we think there's still quite a lot more to explore! But that doesn't mean that we wouldn't consider having guest appearances  by other musicians at some later date.

PS: By the way, what are your memories about that Polish VDGG shows?

PH: I particularly remember coming across the statue of Marian Rejewski in Bydgoszcz – I hadn't known of his breaking the Enigma code before then. Shows, as always, remain something of a blur!

PS: In 2004 Van Der Graaf Generator reunited after over twenty five years of silence, now you’re making the third studio album after that hiatus. Not many reunions of the classic rock bands look like yours – usually there’s one album or a tour, a couple of shows… However, you not only still exist as a band, but you still make music, record seriously intriguing, really fresh music. What is the method? Do you think  that maybe such a long interruption in your collective work as VDGG helped you to save energy and freshness for the present phase of Van Der Graaf’s career?

PH: We're very lucky to still feel so enthusiastic and, indeed, to have such new and fresh work to do. Making it's because we were put so much on the spot in becoming a trio. Of course, we hope to carry on as well....

PS: I conclude from your newsletter at SofaSound from the beginning of the year that what bothers you is the fact that last year did not give any album with Peter Hammill’s name on it. I have an impression that this is too much of a critical judgement of the situation, because it is not very easy to find such prolific classic rock artists as you are, especially considering your publishing and touring plans for 2011. Many artist of your age just say to themselves “That’s enough”, you don’t. You must love making music, don’t you? Would it be hard for you to stop doing that?

PH: I don't intend to stop as long as there's music to be found and work to be done!

PS: When VDGG came back to life several years ago, it occurred in completely different phonographic situation than it was in 1978. What do you think about a situation when the Internet plays a very significant role in promoting music? Apart from safety and theft issues – don’t you think that the Internet and mp3 age has power to finish the stage in the history of music where albums are works of art consisting of three layers: music, word and image or maybe traditional albums will never disappear, just like books?

PH: There's a place for different music across all the available media but I remain a firm believer in the physical form of a release, be it on CD or vinyl. I believe that connects the listener to the music in a way which stuff downloaded to a hard drive does not.

PS: Your entire extensive discography consists of a very diverse material. You inspire artists from various circles – we’ve all heard Johnny Rotten’s positive remarks about your music, while the esteem for your work coming from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ex-guitarist John Frusciante in his solo works is much more tangible because it is reflected in his music. Despite your musical universality, for many people you are just one of the progressive rock icons. Do opinions of that kind hurt you? Do you think that genre-tagging of music is useful in any way?

PH: Obviously people will tag music with genre terms but I don't find it particularly helpful myself. And I simply regard myself as a maker of modern contemporary music and VdGG as a modern group.

PS: It’s great that you still have power to make new, terrific music. Anyway, it is beyond doubt that the die-hard fans of VDGG long for the release of some materials from your archives, especially on video. Do you have any plans to release something more than is already available?

PH: No, we're going to get on with releasing the new stuff and there isn't really anything left of past stuff for release in any case!

PS: Apart from the new VDGG album an album by Memories of Machines with your appearance is going to be released. Could you tell me something more about the collaboration with Tim Bowness of No-Man and Giancarlo Erra of No Sound – what it will be like and how your participation will look like?

PH: Well, I'm waiting to see/hear myself. I've known Tim for many years and it was a pleasure to be asked to contribute, especially as the brief was very broad. In the end I sent him some guitar parts but with the instruction that he could use as little or as much as he liked and, indeed, treat and mangle them as much as he liked. So...we'll see!

PS: The founding of supergroups and projects consisting of musicians from various circles of art-rock is very popular nowadays. You also did not avoid collaborations with artist from other groups such as Robert Fripp or Peter Gabriel. Do you treat these projects  just like a kind of favour, or do you still draw inspiration from collaborations, even those made with much younger artists?

PH: These collaborations were really a bit like working holidays. It's nice, sometimes. Just to do the work without having the ultimate responsibility of choice and decision. So, exactly the same as with Tim.

PS: What do you think about the present condition of prog rock? Do you think that there are still young bands able to prove that the recipe for this genre still works? Which young bands do you consider the most interesting?

PH: I don't really follow things enough to have a valid opinion on this.

PS: Can you name your favourite VDGG and solo albums or do you rather think that every work expresses the spirit of its times and favouring any of your works  would be a mistake?

PH: Each one is of its time and done to the best of our abilities at the time. Each takes something from its predecessor and gives  something to its follower.

PS: In the name of Polish fans I would like you one more question – will there ever be any chance for us to see and hear you live in Poland?

PH: Oh, we hope so, either solo or with VdGG. But who knows the future?

PS: Thank you very much.

PH: A pleasure, thanks for the questions.
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