Peter Hammill Greek Interview December 14/15 1986
From "Rock and Pop"
(Translation by Kathy in Athens)

Three days in Athens (and one interview)

No introductions needed for Peter Hammill. A founding member and central figure of Van Der Graaf Generator, with a 20 year presence, he’s already celebrated on the merit of his work – which includes 27 albums, 2 books with verse and short stories, and numerous live performances with various line-ups.

After the success of his 2 shows (October 14/15, 1982), PH found himself once again in Athens for 2 more dates – this time without the K group. His arrival – on the evening of December 14th – was not previously announced so the few aficionados awaiting him at the airport in ’82 were not there this time. Only 3 photographers and a journalist. Peter came out smiling and friendly, photographers started flashing, onlookers were asking who the gentleman was and so forth… He granted one interview – always smiling – and left…

On Monday 10pm, approximately 1500 people applauded enthusiastically when he came on stage and sat at the piano. The first notes of My Room filled the room and slowly, through Vision, Too Many Of My Yesterdays and Time Heals the audience became silent, attentive, captivated; without interrupting with shouts or clapping. The performance continued with songs on guitar and then on piano again. After closing the set with Still Life, the audience gave him a huge ovation, so he did Stranger Still for 1st encore. More warm applause.. then Again sung acapella on the edge of the stage… the silence in the audience was complete.. almost “religious” …. It would have been the perfect finale for a concert, had the audience not cheered insistently for yet another encore. But PH saved the magic by playing Sleep Now, and finally left the stage for the last time for that night.

The following day I had the opportunity to meet the man, about 5 hours before his second performance. The first thing one realizes when speaking with Peter Hammill is how very straightforward and friendly he is. He gave extensive answers, using the rich vocabulary he’s had us accustomed to though his lyrics.

Q: Your studies at Manchester University were fairly unusual; what exactly did you study?

PH: I attended Liberal Studies in Science – an idea of a Hungarian teacher who wanted people with scientific and sociological knowledge who could explain science to society and vice versa. For a year I attended classes in Physics, Physiology, History of Economics, Mechanics and others, but the most interesting lesson for me was Philosophy of Science. It covered subjects that were relevant to science as well as social studies, such as the development of the atomic bomb, for example.

Q: In 1982, when asked during an interview about the new music scene, you mentioned the Cure, Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. What to you think of these bands today?

PH: (hesitantly..) ..I guess that I’m rather disappointed. I don’t like the work by New Order, even though they are in a way a continuation of Joy Division. The Cure and the Banshees seem to have a lot in common. My disappointment stems from the fact that the music scene a few years ago seemed full of potential but not much more came of it. However, I listened to more music four years ago than I do today. What I mean is that it is impossible for me to listen to any type of music without filtering it through my knowledge and experience as an artist/musician…so I listen “differently” than most people, and I think that happens to most musicians.

Q: In your new album there are for the first time two optimistic love songs…and although you use modern technology the end result is pure, unadulterated…

PH: About optimism first: there have been other positive love songs, i.e. Vision. I generally find it much easier to write about the uncomfortable rather than the happy stuff…as I think is the case with most songwriters – one sits down to write, or contemplates when feeling dissatisfied. When one’s happy one just lives the moment, that joy… the same goes for me.

Secondly, about technology…it’s something that does, of course, interest me. Though not when used to declare “I’m clever, I’m brilliant, I’m a machine”, but rather as a true instrument in the hands of an artist. Part of the beauty of recording “And Close As This” when running the tracks on my computer, was trying through very modern technology to achieve a profoundly human result.

Q: What stands in the way of completing your project for “The Fall Of The House Of Usher”?

PH: Until last year I was quite busy and hadn’t finished writing the music. Now other problems arise – mainly how the work will be presented. My initial idea was to present it as an opera; but the financial cost would be too high for me. It would more easily be made on video, with a possibility of airing on something like Channel Four. Also, it could be presented live by 4-5 people with the help of technology and mixed media. The simplest and most economical way, if all else fails, would be for it to be recorded as an album. At this point, the only thing certain is that the music will be by myself and the libretto by C.J.Smith.

Q: Your books are out of print. Any plans for another?

PH: It is still too early [to plan], but that may too materialize. There is a possibility of removing the short stories and gathering all the lyrics in one book that would span from 1966 to 1980. I’ve also thought of doing something with all the lyrics after “Mirrors, Dreams, And Miracles”. They are exactly fifty. I may include explanatory notes instead of stories. Not to explain the songs of course - because I believe a song explains itself – but to clarify scientific or mythological or other terms that might not be common knowledge to everyone. That’s a form the book could take but it’s still far from over.

Q: What drives you to perform in front of a live audience?

PH: (hesitates for a moment..)…It’s complicated. One of the reasons, maybe the most important, is that this is happening NOW. It’s THIS song, that I’m singing THIS moment. And there is no safety net there. I’m committed to that note and I must deliver. It might sound funny but I enjoy the privilege of being able to do this. I know well that most people don’t associate the word “enjoyment” with Peter Hammill, but that is the case. When I’m on stage time has a different nature. I have a very strange memory at these moments; time goes by so soon, and when it’s over I remember what songs I played but I don’t have a recollection of the precise moment I played them. One more reason is that songs and their meaning change when played live, instead of being left static on the album. In the final instance, if one wants an answer to why I play live, I’d have to answer: because it’s live, it’s here and now. That’s what compels me to do it.

Q: What reaction do you expect from the audience when you’re on stage?

PH: It depends on the nature of the performance. Especially for the solo shows, I expect them to listen and to be aware of the here and now of what’s happening. I don’t necessarily expect a fantastic applause. There might not be any applause and people may just leave in the end, but it still may be a good performance. But you can also tell by the encores. You know, I don’t pre-decide on encores when writing a set list. I only write the set list about an hour before the show, and I never play the same set on two consecutive nights. Of course I do play encores, but only when the audience wants it. So I never pre-plan on playing one, two or three encores or what songs those will be.

Q: Yesterday you sang without instruments or microphone…

PH: Yes. It’s something I've done the past four years, in about one in four or five shows, if the circumstances allow for it. But I must be careful not to do this too frequently because it is something that could easily turn into a trick. You know, people at rock shows are accustomed to microphones and amplifiers and are impressed when someone does something such as this. For me, it is interesting and it’s one of the benefits of playing solo. You see, that way you can achieve complete silence and heighten the audience’s attention. Contrarily, when playing with a band, in order to get the audience’s attention one must play louder.

Q: You rarely sing other people’s songs and only one has sung yours. What do you make of that?

PH: Yes, only during the last tour did I play Fripp’s “Chicago” once or twice; and I realized it’s a very interesting song to perform, even though it’s quite a difficult song on record. On the other hand it disheartens me that other artists don’t sing my songs; because when I write I don’t write for myself alone. I believe there are many songs that could be sung by other artists. But because I compose, play and record my songs alone the result seems too personal and that may discourage others from trying…I would be very interested in having others do the singing; in fact I always had it in mind to put out an album with other vocalists and myself at the piano or guitar. Until today only Marc Almond has done Vision and Just Good Friends… and there might be a third. I say this because he got in touch with me and asked for a new song… I gave him Too Many Of My Yesterdays. Six or nine months went by without hearing from him; in the mean time I was recording “And Close As This” so….

Q: It is well known that you’ve worked with Peter Gabriel (on his 4th album), Robert Fripp (on Exposure) and Colin Scott (on And Friends). You never in the past collaborated with Keith Emerson; how did Empire Of Delight come about?

PH: Keith composes but doesn’t write lyrics. About two and a half years ago he got in touch with me and I went over to see him. He had three songs, one of which was Empire… so I wrote the lyrics. It was interesting; it was a professional and an artistic collaboration. He wrote to me a year ago to say that he wouldn’t be using it but that he thought it was good. He also sent me a version with lots of keyboards and when I saw him again played it on piano. He’s a wonderful pianist.

Q: Your fans seem to believe you are perfect…or almost perfect. What do you believe about yourself?

PH: Well, that I’m not perfect, I make mistakes, I try not to mess up, nevertheless I do - just like everyone else. People might have the music in mind, and say “yes, that Peter Hammill is brilliant” but they know that there also is this ordinary person, who is not brilliant or perfect of course…and that shows through in the songs, at least I hope it does, in some way…

Q: Your success is measured in depth [of quality] not in width [of quantity]. How do you feel about that?

PH: For me, the fact that after so many years I can still enjoy making music and have the same passion for music, and never felt like I’m doing the same thing over and over, is a measure of success. Clearly it’s not the same type of success as selling so many records, fame etc, but it gives me a greater freedom. I can do pretty much what I want. I would of course like to sell more albums, and my ego would enjoy fame…but not too much of it. After so many years I know that, unlike others, I never aspired to be a star. What I want is to do my work for as long as there is something that I should be doing. So the fact that I’m still here, that I continue and have an increasingly positive perspective on what I’m doing, is a success that I feel proud of. But to continue working you cannot allow for pride. When I’m working I don’t think at all about what I did in the past or who I am or how many copies I’ll sell. It’s just this song, this recording, this performance and I have to do it right. I’m confident that for as long as I feel this way, creating will continue to fascinate me.

Q: You know, this qualitative success of yours seems to bring people closer; those who listen to your work are in a way friends even though they don’t know each other…

PH: Yes, that happens…they don’t know each other and many times their ages and lifestyles differ. I feel that may be because my work, I think, is like a book in a library: different people pick it up and read it….but they have something in common in order to be attracted to it….and that’s because my songs are very personal of nature and each person listens to them alone. So when they meet at a show they have something personal to share.

Q: I can’t avoid asking a typical question: what are your plans for the future?

PH: We spoke about “Usher” already, and that’s one of my most important plans. Tonight is the last night of the tour, which lasted two and a half months. Christmas is coming up of course, so my immediate plan is to return home and be “Daddy” for the holidays. In the new year, apart from Usher and the book, I’ll be working on recordings. I’ve got quite a few ideas in my head; I might pursue any one of them. Naturally there is touring, there are many places I didn’t visit this year that I should try and make in the next…many ideas, but nothing is certain. I like working…my wife always says that I should just stop for a month, because for as long as she’s known me, whenever I’ve had two – three days to sit down and write, I get an tingling itch in my fingers, and I start humming tunes and finally I end up going down to the studio. But right now I’m just thinking about the end of ’86. I’ll think about ’87 when it comes around….

…..And the interview ended somewhere there. PH has – among other charismas – the ability to enjoy the NOW, and that may be part of his artistic success. We said warm goodbyes and wished each other happy holidays.

A few hours later Peter Hammill was once again on stage for a fantastic second night. The audience now knew what to expect and behaved accordingly. The blinding lights of the television broadcasting crew that both PH and audience had to suffer the previous night were absent, and in their place was a lighting at times dramatic, that added to the atmosphere. PH, in a very good mood, gave a startling performance, playing old and new songs (Don’t Tell Me, The Birds, Other Old Clichés, Mirror Images leading up to an outstanding version of This Side Of The Looking Glass. On guitar, after Been Alone So Long and Ophelia, he continued with Skin, Happy Hour and Modern…and returned to piano for The Lie and then Faculty X, Porton Down and After The Show. He finished the set with an excellent Refugees. The audience insisted for an encore, so he came back to stage, put his just-lit cigarette out and played Time For a Change. The cigarette scene was repeated twice: first with Too Many Of My Yesterdays and then for Chicago – sung a capella and then for Again (which some overenthusiastic people in the crowd unfortunately interrupted with cheers)…And thus closed the second night of Peter Hammill’s altogether very successful visit to Greece. Words can hardly describe the atmosphere in the room.

We all certainly felt his presence and his music warmly and tenderly embrace us, most were very moved (many to tears), many got lost in their thoughts, but no one , no one was left untouched. And how could he when this marvelous man, Peter Hammill, was on stage…and either on guitar or piano or with his voice alone touched our hearts and minds so uniquely a love filling the room and leaving us entranced…and in the end searching for words to say what we felt, yet at the same time feeling happy that we couldn’t find those words…