Van der Graaf Generator
Live in Boston 2009
Photos by Tim Bugbee
No More Waiting for WonderlandThursday, June 25, 5:30pm, several hours before Van der Graaf Generator were slated to go onstage, and the atmosphere in Cleveland was electric. I was soon to have the privilege of interviewing the members of the band--Guy Evans on drums, Hugh Banton on organ, and Peter Hammill singing and switching between keyboards and guitar--but for the moment my goal was to find a convenience store and buy a bottle of juice.
interview by Dan Coffey
The sun shone almost too brilliantly as I walked out of a bodega and straight into the path of a peripatetic Peter Hammill, James Ellroy book in his hand, notes stuffed in the pages. I greeted him "Hello, Peter!" He flashed me a warm but cautious grin that he probably practices more than guitar chords for situations like this, when a fan of as-yet-unknown zeal recognizes and accosts him. I quickly introduced myself and was amazed when he pulled out a piece of paper from the pages of Ellroy with my name and "6:30" written on it. So the e-mail response from Hammill wasn't a complex practical joke--the interview was actually on!
With some time left to kill, I stopped into a record store a few doors down from the concert venue and, after browsing through the Hs and the Vs, commented to the clerk that I found it odd that there were no Hammill or Van der Graaf Generator CD's in stock, considering that they were practically playing next door this very evening. She replied that it's precisely when there is a band playing locally that the CDs don't sell, usually because the concert-goers are fans who already have everything. This made sense to me, especially when I later stood in the entryway of the Beachland Ballroom and saw many VdGG fans carrying plastic bags bursting with LPs, CD's, and even posters for the band to sign.
Approaching 6:30, the electricity in the air was even more powerful, and heavy clouds replaced the sun. Hoping this wasn't a bad omen, I took refuge in my car as the rain started. Finally making a run from my car to the open back door of the venue, I, and several roadies, bore witness to some incredible lightning flashes. Yes, I was entering the world of omens and electricity: Van der Graaf Generator was waiting for me.
But one of the abiding characteristics of VdGG has always been the tempering of the darkly powerful with self-effacing earthy humor. This is, after all, the band that, in 1971, would stun audiences with the relentlessness of "Darkness 11/11," a song about numerology and the implacability of fate, and then encore with their playful version of "Theme One," a tune written by Sir George Martin, which the BBC used to signal the station's sign-off.
This was toward the end of what is known as the first period of VdGG; they split up in 1972. Hammill, the frontman (although, behind the scenes, not the leader, as such), went on to release several solo albums in the following few years, to which the other members of the band (Evans and Banton, plus saxophonist David Jackson) would make important contributions.
When Hammill's fourth post-VdGG album was being recorded, it became apparent among the four musicians that it was time to get the band back together again, and 1975-1976 proved to be an incredibly fertile period. The band had composed enough music for three albums released in two years: Godbluff, Still Life, and World Record. After 1976's World Record, Banton left the band, followed quickly by Jackson. Evans and Hammill recruited Nic Potter, the band's bassist from the very early days, violinist Graham Smith, formerly of the band String-Driven Thing, and cellist Charles Dickie. They shortened the band's name to Van der Graaf and released one highly regarded studio album, The Quiet Zone / The Pleasure Dome, and a live album, Vital, before splitting up for good.
From 1978 onward, Jackson and Evans were frequent contributors to Hammill's once-a-year output, Banton much less so, only appearing on one album each in the 1980s (Skin, 1986) and 1990's (Everyone You Hold, 1997). They played publicly as a foursome twice: once at a gig in London's Union Chapel, for one song, "Lemmings" (this can be heard on The Union Chapel Concert, the album credited to Peter Hammill and Guy Evans), and in 2003 as a surprise encore at a solo Hammill performance. All along, however, questions about a VdGG reformation were dismissed out of hand.
Surprising fans old and new, the band issued a press release in 2004 stating that VdGG had reunited, with the purpose of recording new material. 2005 saw the release of the album Present, and they followed that up with 2008's Trisector, losing David Jackson in between. In 2009, Van der Graaf Generator, now a trio, seized the opportunity to play a dozen or so shows in the United States and Canada. Until this year, VdGG had played exactly once in the U. S., in New York City in 1976.
During Van der Graaf Generator's existence in the '70's, it was accepted among those in the know that there was no band quite like them. Often lumped in with bands labeled as progressive rock, they nevertheless stood apart from groups like Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. VdGG were noisy, discordant, often pushing themselves to the edge of their abilities in performances rather than relying on a well-choreographed and rehearsed show that offered no deviation from night to night. They even, in the early days at least, eschewed the electric guitar as lead instrument. That role was given to saxophonist David Jackson, whose electrified horn-produced sounds were legendary. Hammill, the band's lyricist, was nicknamed "Dr. Doom" for his dark, brooding, and sometimes painfully self-aware lyrics. Yet, paradoxically, the band was known for their onstage clowning between their often lengthy and intense songs.
As Hammill put it in the liner notes to a retrospective collection of BBC sessions, VdGG was all about "Serious Fun." Their albums, and their concerts, following the 2004 reunion, blur the lines between serious and fun even more: the lyrics that were once darkly introspective now have a palpably self-effacing sense of humor. Hammill still has an acid pen and tongue when it comes to the state of nations however (c.f. "Every Bloody Emperor," from Present), and his lyrical interest in philosophy and science hasn't waned either. The compositions, with one or two exceptions, are decidedly shorter than the VdGG songs of the 70s, and, for the most part, they sound different from anything the band has done before, but, at the same time, completely retain the VdGG spirit of restless experimentation and that thing that can make you think, even if for a moment, that lightning storms have meaning beyond the meteorological.
That evening, before the concert, the band looked happy but tired, Evans particularly so. He and Hammill both commented on the crazy weather that was assaulting the northeast and midwest US, making it very hard for the band to travel. Fatigue notwithstanding, Evans and Hammill welcomed me warmly into the building and down to the basement where Banton and some of the roadies and sound crew were having a quick dinner. Banton joined the interview about halfway through.
PSF: How did the group of songs that populated the first post-reunion album, Present, come into being, and how similar was the composition process to that of the '70s'?
Peter Hammill: It was completely different from the 70s, partly because Present was in fact a document of our coming together for the first time.
Guy Evans: We decided to do a feasibility study of what this band was going to be like and how it felt. And then as the time was coming that we were about to [reform], there were various urges to do a bit of recording just for documentation, and as the time to [record the album] approached, that became even more serious. We started playing, and we didn't play any old material for three days.
PH: It was clear that if we were going to be doing anything, it had to be new stuff, so this initial meeting-up was just to play, and that's why there's so much improvisation--which was always part of the thing--and then to start playing new stuff. "Every Bloody Emperor" was the only actual song that I had that was a finished song...
GE: ...and "Nutter" [aka "Nutter Alert"]...
PH: ..."Nutter." "Nutter" was a finished tune, but the lyrics were unfinished.
PSF: So the other four or five you'd written after you got back together?
PH: Well, kind of... "Abandon Ship" was your [Guy's] riff and tune, so you know it was a very different process from back in the 70s where we'd rehearse and then we'd record... more spontaneous, basically.
PSF: So it's not so much you coming to the table with the unfinished product and then the band fleshing it out... more of an organic...
PSF: Because the lyrics seem a lot different from your latest solo stuff.
PH: Yeah, I mean that's always...
PSF: You're writing for...
PH: Exactly, there is and always has been a consciousness when writing for the band. There has to be some, not necessarily agreement, but the songs have to be kind of about stuff that we're all interested in. I mean, obviously since we are now at a certain age, it's only correct to address that, which of course applies to Present and to Trisector, maybe more in the case of Trisector.
PSF: What made you guys decide to put fully instrumental tracks on the albums? You'd never done that before.
PH: We'd never done that before, but it's always been a part of the band's playing.
PSF: Well, sure, but never in a completely...
PH: Particularly the nutty end of "Instrumental Planet," the nuttiest part being me! Pudding-fingered brutality compared to the rather more musicianly skills... But in sound checks, we always kind of mess around with... stuff. So – and this was just recorded on the fly as we were going along – we realized that on the one hand we had all that material, but on the other hand, of the actual song stuff we did, we only had about thirty minutes. So this seemed the logical – and correct – thing to do.
PSF: Was there a difference with the making of Trisector after you'd already gotten back together and proved to be a viable unit?
GE: There were some similarities. It was different, but there were some similarities in that we did go through the same process because we were going to have to be a new band, so we did have to go through the whole "we have to find out whether this works, or how it's going to work." We went off and did a whole thing of just trying it out as an instrumental unit, really.
PH: And then we toured, of course
PH: So by the time we actually were going to make Trisector we...
PSF: You already had a couple of songs...
PH: Yeah, that we played, and we had something of an idea of what we sounded like. Actually, some of the stuff on Trisector didn't sound anything like what we thought we sounded like! (Laughter)
PSF: What did it feel like to re-enter band mode when you guys decided to become Van der Graaf again and do the touring bit and record as a...
GE: Well, some of it was just like falling of a log, certain elements anyway, but the discoveries were really the exciting and energizing part, I think. We've all been doing different things, but I think one of the things we share is the fact that no matter how much we dissect it... we don't REALLY know why it works, or how it works, it's a mystery kind of thing about this band.
PH: To the extent also that we don't even want to examine it too much.
GE: It was that part that was the most exciting I think, just suddenly realizing that that was still the case.
PSF: So it was really just kind of a falling back into unfamiliar territory, but it was familiar in its unfamiliarity, maybe? [To PH] And I kind of geared that last question more toward Guy and Hugh because you've been in music all along... though you haven't had a band--it must have been different for you, too, to get back into a band like this.
PH: Oh sure, sure, it's different being in any band, but particularly this band, also because – the point is, what's unusual about it is we're not in a band, like, locked in completely. We come together and do some work of one kind or another and then we stop.
PSF: And since he's in absentia, can you speak for Jackson? Was it the same for David coming back into the band, at that time?
PH: We haven't got a clue.
GE: No, we don't know, really.
PSF: This is kind of an open-ended question: What do you feel you're bringing to the table musically now that you didn't have in 1976 or that you weren't thinking about then?
Hugh Banton: I'm better than I was. I can play better now than I did then.
PH: Me too! To a rather greater degree! [Laughter]
HB: It's probably not so self-centered as it was then--"I'm going to be the loudest, and it's MY sound, so shut up!" You are a bit like that when you're twenty.
PH: But you can't, I mean, we are the age that we are, you know, in a way we're here doing this now because of the way that we were. You can't actually strip away who we were as individuals and as a unit, because that's actually what's led us to this now, including all the mystery ingredients that Guy was talking about.
HB: The way we were when we were twenty did obviously lead to some very interesting things, and probably more off the wall than we can even manage nowadays. We can be quite off the wall! But, I think back then just because it was so... it was groundbreaking I suppose--we didn't have a history then.
PH: I think we're maybe more diligent now, I mean we do try to work things out now, which sometimes we didn't entirely do in the past. There was that sort of assumption that: "It works; really, let's not look at it too closely." Now, in fact, we go to the other extreme: we look at it with all due diligence and try to work out what is what, and then go out the other side and deliberately try to mess it up, to arrive at the same process.
PSF: Was there ever a sense when you were writing the songs that they could go either way--that they could go either "solo" or "band"? Did you know that the band was going to put out a second album?
PH: By that time, in fact, although Trisector was recorded quite quickly, there was a process of five or six months of CDs going between us. So, there's this, there's that... you know, I put forward anything that I thought was remotely Van der Graaf-like, no matter how skeletal or developed it was. In addition as well we were passing around quite a lot of much more wacky stuff, some of which has been worked on to a certain extent and might well see the light of day in some future form--which doesn't sound anything at all like VdGG, or does sound like VdGG but not like anything that anybody would know. So there was a lot of consideration. I think we went into Trisector knowing that there were three or four [songs] that we were fairly committed to, yeah?
PH: Obviously "All That Before" and "Lifetime" were definites. And "Over the Hill" was going to be... so three or four. Then there were lots of other ones that were there on the table that weren't definite. It was very intensive work.
PSF: To me it's like going out in at least seven or eight new directions, like "We Are Not Here" and "All That Before". "All that Before" sounds like where you might have been at the end of VdG, where you were going with that kind of heavy rock sound... but I wasn't going to talk about the old stuff!
PH: That's all right!
PSF: But "Over the Hill" really sounds like you're trying to... not recreate, but come to terms with the old structured, long-form Van der Graaf epic.
PH: They develop really organically, really.
GE: Well, it wasn't necessarily going to be all joined up, no, they just sort of became... and one thing led on to another.
PH: You're right to the extent that the arrangement work was quite similar to [the old] in that we were taking pieces from one place and using it as a bridge somewhere else, and so on.
HB: It's not inconceivable that the weird bit in "All That Before" could have ended up in "Over the Hill"; sometimes it's that chaotic.
PSF: This leads into the next question: how do you determine which of the old songs to play?
PH: We've obviously got a list of the ones now that we can play. In 2007--when we knew that we were going to have a crack at it in 2006--at first we thought that there would only be about half of the tunes that we'd be able to play, but in the end, we were capable of doing almost every tune we've done in the reformation band--in strange ways, perhaps. A couple of [songs], for us, had lived their span. "Darkness" and "Killer" have lived their span, no regrets about doing them in 2005, I think we almost had to do them, but we've got more interesting things to do than that.
PSF: "Refugees" too?
PH: "Refugees" yeah, although that's still nominally on the list.
GE: Oh yeah? Let's do it tonight! (Laughter)
PH: But basically, effectively, I think we've ended up with a repertoire of things that actually do fit together. I mean, really, I almost don't have a consciousness--it's different for the audience--but during the sets I don't have a consciousness of "this is from Godbluff, this is from Pawn Hearts, this is a new one."
GE: It's more like a balance of pieces--you're trying to build a set that works as a whole.
PH: And even in terms of what the work is, what the sound is, there's not going to be a... "Oh, that's an old one; we're going to play that differently from a new one."
GE: There's a natural restriction, because we do like to play quite a lot of new stuff if we can, so just in the nature of the material, quite a lot of the old ones are pretty long, so we're always going to be leaving some out, and then it becomes quite interesting about--how to juggle them around, where things can fit, how they work dynamically, and also placing them differently so they do have different dynamics, in the way we treat them every night.
PH: Guy in particular, also, is in charge of the Thought Police version of "Those lyrics are too heavy to go... the hair is too big for these songs!" [Laughter]
GE: Yes, I do put my foot down about that.
PSF: So, now that you're wrapping up the tour, in a few days, a few weeks actually, what's the future? Are you thinking ahead, or...?
GE: Well, to a certain extent, yes. Thinking ahead is always quite difficult in this incarnation. It's quite difficult because everything has to be planned around what everyone is doing and trying to respond to interesting things but not tie ourselves into...
PH: We don't, we got this far partly by breaking up, so... without getting on a treadmill...
PSF: So you've all definitely got other things going on.
GE: Yeah, and yet I would say that, without revealing too much, we don't know too much, but we have kind of got to the point of thinking that the main thing we want to think about next is a new album.
PSF: Well, that's certainly heartening to know! One last thing: I know you guys have your set lists chiseled in stone before you go on stage every night, but I could never live with myself if I didn't make the plea that you guys play "Gog" tonight.
PH: Oh, no [laughs]. We are absolutely incorruptible!
Also see our previous Peter Hammill interview, Van Der Graaf article and our article on Hammill's early solo years
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