Thirty-six albums into his solo career, with another dozen Van Der Graaf Generator discs, and a whole heap of live-and-otherwise too, it’s always surprising when a new Peter Hammill record appears, and you realize that he has still to start repeating himself.
Of course, you know it’s Hammill from the start. The voice alone is so uniquely distinctive that even when it starts its signature gymnastics, you’re not going to mistake it for somebody else. “Ah, I see David Bowie’s found a new way to tighten his trousers,” for example.
But he writes and records at such a breathtaking pace - and here, let us pause to reflect that those forty-eight albums bridge forty-five years, a pace that would probably kill most of today’s active artists - that he could surely be forgiven if he forgot, once or twice, that he’s already broached that subject, tortured that chord, echoed that melody some place else.
No. Maybe the occasional album winds up disappointing; maybe the odd song seems a little throwaway. But if there is any other currently-functioning artist who has remained as consistent, as prolific and, so unflinchingly original as Peter Hammill... and Neil Young and Richard Thompson maybe come close... then he/she obviously needs to get out more. And remind us who he (or she) is.
Other World is Hammill’s latest offering, recorded with former Magic Band alchemist guitarist Gary Lucas, and across fourteen tracks that seem truly collaborative, as opposed to one guy doing what the other one says, it finds our hero touching peaks that reminded these ears, at least, of that end of the seventies burst of energy that produced Ph7 and Sitting Targets. Just in terms of delivery and sound. Nothing tangible, nothing obvious and nothing, says Hammill, that he would agree with.
“Actually, no, I didn't have the particular feeling that any of the solo albums were being referenced.” And he is equally vague on the subject of reference points. “I suppose [they] were, quite simply, our mutual enthusiasms.” Which, from Lucas’s point of view included a long time admiration of Hammill; and from Hammill’s, a long time not-really-admiration of Captain Beefheart. “Full respect to Don, of course, but I wouldn't say I was a *fan* exactly. (I'm not, actually, much of a fan of anyone).”
GM: What prompted you to work in such a collaborative setting?
PH: Gary suggested that we have a try at "finding something." And if you're going into something like that, then it's probably best to start without any preconceptions. This, in turn, meant that we were fully collaborative from the outset.
GM: How did you and Gary meet in the first place?
PH: We actually met way back in the 70s, when he came to a gig of mine, even interviewed me. Thereafter, or rather, more recently, we'd been in e-mail and Twitter contact.
GM: You talk about the collaborative process in the album’s liners, and on your blog, but were there many moments when one or the other of you just stopped what you were doing to marvel at what the other was doing? Or, vice versa, to run horrified from the room?
PH: Ah, well, the actual process was that we made our contributions solo, and then each reacted to the other afterwards. The improvisation was distanced-in-time, as it were. (By now, of course, we've proved that we can do it in real time on stage as well, as if there were any doubt...)
So I'd prepared a couple of (near-) song baking ideas and some loose soundscapes. When Gary came in, he did several versions of his song ideas, from which I could comp or choose master takes, and then a couple of ferocious live improvs.
And actually, one of the fascinating things about it all is that now, it's sometimes hard to say exactly who's playing what!!!
GM: The music industry has changed so much since you began, but you really do seem to have turned that to your advantage. With the best will in the world, I can’t imagine even Charisma having okayed something like the Pno Gtr Vox box [a seven CD box set focussing on Hammill’s 2010 Tokyo shows]! What do you think are the best aspects of the new “system”... and what are the worse?
PH: I've been in the new "system" as you call it from the 1990s, when I started [his own label] Fie!... as If I hadn't already been nudging towards it before then. But control has certainly been mine since then.
Certain responsibilities, and potentially many pitfalls, come with that, but it's suited me. And even the old system would have long had enough of me if I hadn't distanced myself from it.
GM: You recently said in one of your on-line postings, “I’ve noticed... over recent years that I’m definitely slowing somewhat in both word and deed.” But reading through the monthly missives, you seem as busy as ever. You may not be pumping out an album or two every year, but who is? If you were just starting out now, we’d be lucky to see a new LP every three years. How do you deal with “downtime”?
PH: As my wife would tell, I'm not actually very good at "downtime" at all. Happily, I still find things to absorb me in making music and discovering new pieces, of whatever ilk. And it still makes more sense to me than most other things.
I suppose that when that stops, I'll stop....
Okay, a quick pause. On top of all the regular albums, band and solo and live, there’s also a bountiful stash of what we’ll term archive releases - early compilations rounding up even earlier singles, a couple of discs of radio sessions, a Van Der Graaf box set that cherry-picks the bootlegs, a dark room full of the bootlegs themselves. And the wealth of odds, ends and out-takes appended to the last batch of CD remasters.
Next down the turnpike, Hammill reveals, is a fresh collection of Van Der Graaf live material, being assembled by Hugh Banton even as we speak. Comparing it to the aforementioned Pno Gtr Vox, he admits “I don’t think... it'll come out as a mega-box, but it'll be something of a document.”
So what is his relationship with his past, and what are the possibilities of seeing more from the vault?
PH: As a matter of fact, there's really not that much [left] in there. I've always believed in pursuing something through to a full conclusion, if it's worth working on at all, so there aren't a whole load of out-takes or abandoned ideas.
GM: With so much of your back catalog available again, remastered, bonus tracked and so forth, do you ever go back and wish that you could (for want of a better expression) “relive” any particular periods, following different trains of thought or directions? Or is the past best left in the past?
PH: Nope, what's done is done. Always, I like to think, with the best of intentions, and using the best of abilities, experience and technology available at the time. I'll stick with that.
And finally, your December 2013 blog promised “more, different, work to come in 2014.” Can you give us a clue as to what that might be?
PH: Apart from the live VdGG - which will arrive in its own good time, doubtless - I'm in the last month or so of recording the next solo disc.