"Stumbler In The Dark"
Interview by Jorge Luis Fernández and Robin CookSome call him The Voice and still marvel at his thunderous, operatic rants and his celestial falsetto. Others follow him as a good-natured English philosopher, a wise, unassuming man who can express our feelings better than anybody, especially when trying to untangle the mysteries of love, memories of childhood, the castrating shadow of religion, the perversity of politics, or the doom of mankind, often portrayed as a spaceship drifting along, worthy of a Stanislav Lem story.
And so, almost 40 year after The Aerosol Grey Machine, the debut album of his recently reunited group Van Der Graaf Generator, every Hammill gig or new release is revered by hundreds of fans as a religious experience. Luckily for them, there're few artists in popular music as active as Mr. Hammill, and he's not showing signs of weariness or of letting his public down--not even after a heart attack, suffered in late 2003. Instead, like Neil Young following his brain aneurysm, Hammill has proven able to return from a near-fatal experience with his creative spirit as potent as ever.
Hammill's work is spread on over thirty albums, both solo and with Van Der Graaf Generator; both recorded in studio and live –where, bare to the bone, his art is more than often at its starkest. From the trail-blazing and abrasive prog rock of VDGG's Pawn Hearts to the punk rock prototype Nadir's Big Chance; from the deceptive simplicity of Fool's Mate and The Love Songs to the Fall Of The House Of Usher rock opera, each one of his works demands a compromise, an effort on the part of the listener to comprehend the essence of his music and lyrics; to take hold of his heart, in a word. And if it proves effective, it is worth the effort: far from being fleeting happiness, the pleasure's resilience will last for the rest of our lives. Therefore, Hammill fans return to different sides of his discography from time to time, just as the sorcerer looks for his oracle in search of magic.
After a strong output in the eighties (at odds with the general complacency of many rockers), Hammill's career lost focus during the nineties, but he returned with his vision revitalized at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Along with the VDGG reunion--the first time they've played since the band's break-up in 1978--Hammill started the millennium with a couple of intimate recordings, Cluth (2002) and Veracious (2005), recorded alone on piano and acoustic guitar, with only assistance of violinist Stuart Gordon. Both albums rank among the best in his career–especially Veracious, which dissects the nineties material as he previously did with the eighties in the indispensable Room Temperature: Live (1990), also with Gordon and longtime VDGG bassist Nic Potter.
More recently, the mellow qualities that marred some of his nineties recordings matured in the spiritual overtones of Singularity (2006), coupled with the edge and experimentalism of late seventies masterpieces like The Future Now and PH7.
PSF: We think you had a lot in common with David Bowie during the seventies. Not coincidentally, perhaps, about the same time Bowie released "Space Oddity" you came up with "Pioneers Over C", being both songs about solitude, with the sci-fi reference mark as a cloak. Do you think the 'progressive' tag prevented you from having access to a broader – or modern – public, as Bowie did?
Over time I have come to realize that some people have a clearly defined drive to be personally famous and some do not. I am one of the latter. Some people who would have been numbered among the former would also have been labeled "progressive" and this movement was, for better or worse, once a significantly successful one. My regrets about not reaching a broader public – though I have some – are minimal.
PSF: Your flirting with science fiction has been very well documented in your discography, from early songs like "Pioneers" and "Red Shift" to the lyrics and oblique sounds of the albums you released with the K group, in the early eighties. Which were the most appealing aspects you found in sci-fi?
The '70's, of course, were a great time for science fiction and all of us were enthusiasts for it, especially for those writers who were using the form to question matters of reality and philosophy... Like Philip K Dick.
PSF: Artists like director Andrei Tarkovski found interest in science fiction as a means to express transcendental things; others, to amplify social dysfunctions, where 'ideological' criticisms are cloaked under the guise of futurity. Do you think that science fiction is still a fertile ground as it was then?
No, I think that the golden age of science fiction is passed. In general, it seems to me to be more about hardware than ideology these days, though that element was always present of course. But I'm not much of a reader of sci-fi these days in any case.
PSF: Christianity also has permeated in your art, your good-natured character and even the harrowing highlights of some songs. Religion remains a topic of interest for you?
Religion per se has not been a concern of mine for a number of years. I had my time in Catholic – and specifically Jesuit – instruction but have not been a Catholic since teenage years. I remain interested, of course, in matters of spirituality and most notably in the "What is It All for?" But I am fundamentally a stumbler in the dark.
PSF: The fear of growing old and the questioning of existence have been your obsessions in Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night, The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage and In Camera, the three albums you released in a row at the beginning of the seventies. Why did you change in style since then, even though those records remain a cornerstone in your discography?
Well, I've never wanted to stick with one particular style or to make "repeat" albums. Also, the ongoing career has been a continual process of self-education. I appreciate the fact that these are central records for many people but I'm not in competition with them or with myself.
PSF: Those records showed a transitional move, from the acoustic ennui of Chameleon to the apocalyptic overtones of In Camera. How did you evolve, or what did influence you towards this abstract approach?
I was exploring. If I took an influence from anywhere, it would have been from modern classical music. In general, though, I was being led along by the sounds and songs themselves. They all made sense to me.
PSF: Over, from 1977, was one of your most intimate, personal albums. What was it like to commit such deeply personal songs to record? Did you experience any apprehension about this?
Since by then I regarded myself as a professional writer. I felt it incumbent on me to write some of these songs, which document events and emotions which probably come to everyone at some time or another. By the time they were recorded I was not in the same emotional state as when they were written, so this was not a problem.
PSF: Thirty years after you wrote VDGG's "Childhood's Faith In Childhood's End", we're living this apocalyptical postmodern world in which we seem to be accustomed to hear about famines, genocides and ecological downfall. Have you still some hope in the fate of the "grown up" man of the future?
Well, the song's title shows that I've always been a bit 50/50 about this hope... But there is really hope for the oncoming generations! Now, I don't think that we're going to stream off the planet in elevated consciousness, though.
PSF: Van Der Graaf Generator was one of the few progressive bands that the punks admired. At what point did you become aware of the emerging movement in Britain and the fact that many of these punks – who were wearing "I Hate Pink Floyd" t-shirts – held you in high esteem?
I guess we clocked it fairly early. We never felt threatened or even disliked though. Perhaps because it was clear to us that we were playing – a different music but – with some of the same sense of chaos.
PSF: And how was your relationship with the most adventurous groups of the period, like Wire, This Heat or The Fall?
All three of them were very interesting groups of wildly different style. But I never really lived in the world of musicians, nor did I ever really follow what other people were doing.
PSF: You've worked with similar textures on "Fogwalking" and "Accident", two densely layered tracks in which you successfully experimented with electronics...
Both of these were effectively sound sculptures where, by experimentation, overdubbing and editing, I eventually chiseled out and discovered the songs. I am fond of both these tunes.
PSF: You're certainly one of the most distinctive, emotionally powerful vocalists in rock. What do you do to take care of your singing voice?
There's nothing specific. Over time I've learned how to look after it, I suppose. Gargle with warm salt water for a sore thread, or honey and lemon. That's about it. I try to treat it with respect and so far it's seen me through, surprisingly. At the start, I used to blow it up every third gig or so, but that was before we had anything like a decent PA. Of course, the vox has changed a bit over time, and the areas of singing which interests me have too.
PSF: What is the songwriting process like? Do you start with lyrics, melodies or both? Do you feel you need to be in a certain frame of mind to write songs? And how do you overcome writer's block?
In all ways, I work at it. There is no standard order, no standard process. But I have to put myself into the position where I might receive a song or so, from wherever they come. I don't worry about writer's block; I know that sometimes things come quickly, sometimes very slowly indeed. And if I finally run out of songs I think I've caught a fair few along the way.
PSF: You've worked with Robert Fripp and released an album on his label –X My Heart, from 1996. What was that experience like? Could you see yourself collaborating with him on any projects?
Working with Robert was interesting and challenging, what one looks for in any external work. I'm completely tied up with work at the moment and can't see any projects.
PSF: And there are plans for more VDGG albums? When does the band find time to compose new songs?
Yes. Now, as soon as I finish this (laughs).
PSF: What motivated you to start your own label, Fie? What are the advantages and drawbacks of doing it yourself? And would you recommend it to other artists?
When it began I half-jokingly said that I could under-promote myself better than anyone else… I liked and like the responsibility and of course the independence and complete artistic control. Yes, I'd recommend it, though you have to keep your eye on the ball. Sometimes I'm guilty of not doing so. You also have to be ready to criticize yourself.
PSF: Since the nineties, some of your lyrics have addressed contemporary events –for example, the lyrics in Clutch, with songs about sexual abuse and images of women in the media. Do you actively seek to address these topics when you sit down to write songs or do you find the lyrics just come to you without you consciously thinking about it?
It's always been the case that web I finish a record I will discover from the lyrical content what are the things which I have been interested in the course of writing. It's that way round rather than through conscious planning.
PSF: Both Clutch and Veracious have received rave reviews, pointing out that your music remains in good shape when reduced to raw elements, in contrast to late studio material. How do you react to such criticisms?
Calmly, I hope. Good or bad critics can't be allowed to affect the oncoming work. And it's all illusion anyway!
PSF: And how did you come to conceive Veracious, in that it's basically a reshaping of your nineties output in unplugged form? Did violinist Gordon Stuart had some input in the arranging?
I though it was about time that this particular line-up, the one I've played in most consistently in the last few years, had a recorded airing. Happily, Stuart has always entered enthusiastically into the work of making songs work (and be exciting) in this set up.
PSF: Your vocal style has always had a theatrical aspect to it. What was it like to adapt The Fall of the House of Usher to music? Had you read a great deal of Poe or horror fiction? And could you see yourself working on similar theatrical projects in the future?
Usher was very specific, of course, but naturally suited my style. I'd read a fair bit of Poe. Can't see anything similar in the offing….
PSF: About the VDGG reunion: the instrumental CD is quite impressive; it shows a level of improvisation, both inspirational and demolishing, to a degree never captured before on vinyl. How did you work on those instrumentals?
They were straight improvisations in the purest sense, no set direction, no constraint, just start playing and go. It's something we've always done but (evidently) privately until this collection came out.
PSF: As you've been performing live with VDGG, what has it been like to perform some of your material for the first time in decades? Do you feel as 'revisiting' these songs or do they still feel fresh and immediate?
There was a difference, I think, between the 2005 reunion as a 4-piece, when there was a sense of revisitation and rediscovery, and the recent trio shows which are, if anything, much more exploratory in terms of old material as well as new.
PSF: Finally, you are one of the few rock artists who dared to maintain a high level of quality throughout your career. How does it feel to be a grown up man in rock & roll?
It's very amusing. And still serious fun.
Also see our previous Van Der Graff interview, Van Der Graaf article and our article on Hammill's early solo years
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