Peter Hammill Interview

The following is not an IRC Chat Log, but rather a question and answer session between Peter Hammill and the members of the PH7 Mailing List with The Artist Shop as the mediator.  The members of the mailing list put forth various questions to be voted upon by the list as a whole to select the top 10 questions which were then submitted to PH.  On Monday, March 31, 1999 after much touring throughout Europe, PH gave the following reply.  His comments are in bold.


Hi Gary

Well, at long last I've got round to the Net interview! As follows....


1.    On top of the fact that every album is a necessary part of an ongoing process - where one can learn as much from successes as from failures - it is often stated that albums are like children, and that as such it is impossible to say that this album here and now is better than that one there and then. Still: - is there an album (apart from the obvious last one, or even next one) that gave a particular fulfilment in terms of the enjoyment of making it or the quality of the finished product; - is there an album - band or solo - that you feel was better off not made, or that could have been done better?

Part 1 a): The "enjoyment" of making any given record resides, I suppose, in the private and personal realm of things rather than the public.  Having said that I also suppose that it's obvious that the very first recordings seemed the most exciting at the time, since these were The Chance. (And one didn't necessarily know that another chance would come....). Apart from those, I guess the Nadir & Godbluff sessions stand out, being the effective start of complete autonomy. Each set of recordings, though, has its own charm and its own grief.

b) The quality of finished product is the sum of material, capacity, skill, personal, wisdom-at-time and so on and so forth. One may as well ask which is The Oner Song above all others. Sorry to be blank.

Part 2 a) No album would have been better not to be made, since each informs all the others.

b) They all could have been done "better", but only in retrospect. Retrospect would naturally include their own making. So, no. On the other hand it's clear that what I might regard as being "better" today would not necessarily be absolute-"better". As in I couldn't make a 19-year old's album today if I tried. Yes?

2.    It is often stated that your music once was *ahead of its time*, whereas it is rather *out of time* now, bearing little or no resemblance to current trends or hypes, so that one can only believe you when you say that you don't listen to music a lot these days... But how do you manage this with three upgrowing girls around?

As in, they must be listening to music so I must hear it?  It's true that they do, but generally on their own systems, in their own rooms. (Or in the clubs!)   Of course I get to hear some of it. Generally American stuff.  Lauryn Hill a good example. (Well, she is, isn't she!!)  At the same time they also perform and listen to classical. But they're not particularly inclined to play stuff to me which might result in yet another cynical paternal rant. They're quite (realistically) cynical enough themselves already.

3.    Apart from "My Room" (and some very very exceptional appearances of "Out of my book", "Still Life", ...), you never play any VdGG live anymore. Can't you relate to those songs anymore, or is this your perennial contribution -even after more than 20 years now- to make people understand that the VdGG days are definitely over and out?

I don't really think about the origins of songs when considering what to play live.  An absence of VdGG stuff is *not* for the final reason; it's simply a case of choosing songs with which I can interact and of which I can continue to make something new.  In many cases the VdGG songs were already defined in that era.  I can't imagine, for instance, a solo version of "Pioneers". Perhaps, though, on the farewell tour (not yet!) I'll play the whole damn catalogue, in order. A week-long residency at each venue, I suspect. Don't hold your breath.  (PS "Siren Song", "Last Frame", "Habit", the "encores" on Typical?? And I'm sure others crop up, or will do so, from time to time.)

4.    Even though you are a forward-looking artist: is there any possibility (is there any material?) that you would release live material of VdGG? Do you know if VdGG video material exists apart from Robert / Theme One /Plague / Godbluff songs ?

i) So far as I know there isn't any live VdGG material of suitable quality. I do hear of things from time to time so don't make that an absolute. In any case we were so (wonderfully, if I may say so) erratic that any representation would only be a half-truth at best.

ii) None whatsoever. *Somewhere* there must exist a copy of a promo film we did for "Wondering"; in typical style this was before there existed any real possibility of using it! I don't have a copy myself.

As regards both of these questions if you're reading this at all then you're surely only a mouse-click away from finding out all you need to know and all that's "available" anyway....

5.    As you are your own record company , where do you go for advice? Is the final product completely your own, or are there persons that can affect what you had in mind? Are there people you play provisonal versions of your music to, or are you yourself your best critic and able to analyse on the basis of experience what is good and what is not? Have you ever considered the experiment of letting someone else produce an album for you?

In reverse order...

iv) In the Charisma days they constantly suggested it but then couldn't come up with any suitable names. On a practical level even in thoser days a situation of all the eggs and all the future budgets being put in one basket would have arisen. With the best will in the world, I have to say that I think I understand better than anyone what an album of mine should be (of whichever style) and I don't really have the inclination to have that essence filtered through someone else's sensibilities...or put through their personal wringer. The closest I've come to in this is working *with* David Lord.

iiia) The other musicians, obviously, and people around the studio. I grow less and less inclined, though, to play unfinished things. The demo, or the half-done piece, does not show either the result or the final intention.

iiib) Whether or not I'm my own best critic I still go for instinct in terms of what is good or not.

ii) The final product is entirely my own. Others may sway my attitudes along the way, sometimes making me more pig-headed rather than malleable.  Still the things themselves make themselves known....

i) I have to rely on my own instincts. Gail remains my manager and of course we discuss things; but there are whole areas of my work which she neither pretends nor has a desire to understand. We both regard this as a positive. The fact that I am the record company, though, does mean that I take a step back to look at the thing as would a painter his canvas rather more than of yore.

6.    Thinking particularly of the recording process: what is the balance between passion (which you've always espoused) and craftsmanship - e.g. long days polishing the finished work, and do you feel this has changed over the years?

Achieving a balance between these things is the essence of the modern recording process, especially if one has one's own studio. Increased control over all parameters has in fact meant more time being spent on things. The possibilities of postponing decisions has grown out of all proportion as well. I therefore make an effort to decide things as early as possible and wipe the alternatives, living with the consequences. A lot of time is spent on slow and painstaking "brickwork", of course; but on any given track there'll also be a minimum of stuff which is, if not quite off-the-cuff, then certainly instant, immediate and, one hopes, passionately inspired. Vocals & electric guitars especially. All-singing, all-dancing, all-digital and all-recoverable as modern recording is, it's still important (for me at least) that the technology's prime purpose is to capture the breath of the moment.

7.    You often stated that there are no more songs left in the "vaults", but if every song you write sees the daylight, doesn't it ever happen that you are dissatisfied with a song and want "to throw it away"?

There are no songs in the vaults but there are lots of "bits" - musical and lyrical. They get culled from time to time, but some survive, although not in any catalogues or immediately applicable form. They haven't, though, become *songs*. When this happens (the final full stop, the final grace note) it means that I have reached a given level of satisfaction and the light of day is (nearly always) immediately seen.   Doesn't mean to say that I think every one is the equal of every other, of course. Sometimes the "bits" almost reach that point and are then rejected - or left to be reworked or cannibalised later. This would be the moment of dissatisfaction to which you refer.

8.    What makes a song unsuitable for a live performance (Have you ever considered doing a live version of "The Light Continent" for example) ?

Generally, difficulty - of interpretation, of sound, of playing &c &c. I need a *certain* comfort zone out of which to spring in song and performance. Don't rule out "The Light Continent" yet!

9.    You have done quite some co-operations with other artists recently. What criteria do you use in order to accept or refuse such a request?

Quite simply, whether something is worth a crack, whether I feel there's something I can give to & take from a project and usually whether it'll be something which puts me into an unfamiliar role or unfamiliar territory. Some kind of "Art Glue" is also normally required. Anything to stop myself simply continuing to tread on well-known ground.

In these terms, of course, I'm often effectively doing "collaborations" with myself.

10.    Does it embarrass/disappoint you - who never stopped telling everybody that you are a forward-looking artist - that you're often asked more questions about the VdGG period than the work you're doing now ?

Actually, I'm not so much these days. Naturally I understand that for many people VdGG is the key or at least the door to it all. For them as well as me the period is also, perhaps, easier to discuss: my motivations and opinions about my own work are buried deep in the work itself and I speak about it as much as an observer as a creator.

But I'm happy to say that VdGG is not a monkey on my back, maybe because I've never tried to trade on it. It's funny, though, that it's still easier to characterise me as "ex-VdGG" than in any way which comes close to encompassing the stuff that I've done since the band.


Thank you and good night

Peter H


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