Van der Graaf Generator at the Theatre Maisonneuve, Montreal, Canada
Thursday July 9th 2009

Interference Patterns
(In the) Black Room
All That Before
Childlike Faith in Childhood's End
Over the Hill

The Sleepwalkers

Interview in the Montreal Gazette Now ...: A new Q and A with Peter Hammill By Jordan Zivitz, The GazetteJuly 8, 2009 Van der Graaf Generator was praised in the 1970s for its dramatic strain of progressive rock, which often veered closer to punk. The classic lineup reunited in 2004, soon downsized from a quartet to a trio, and is now on a rare tour of North America, which brings them to Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts on Thursday at 6 p.m. (Tickets cost $26.50 to $38.50. Call 514-842-2112 or go to The Gazette’s Jordan Zivitz spoke to Van der Graaf singer/guitarist/keyboardist Peter Hammill prior to the North American tour. Here’s a transcript of the interview. Gazette: I interviewed you in the fall for your solo tour, and it didn’t sound like this was something that was in the works at all at the time – that it was just something that you were possibly maybe thinking about looking at. So what made it finally happen? Peter Hammill: Well, I’ve got to say that our agents did a good job. First Nearfest in Bethlehem, Pa., were keen to get us over, and they did a lovely early arrangement. And then, remarkably, the time table filled up and it seems to be an economic trip. As always with the way of touring, you never really know until you finish, but it looks as though we won’t lose money, anyway. Which makes it a change from last time! Gazette: You didn’t tour in North America extensively last time, right? Hammill: We only ever did one tour, which basically was Quebec. (Laughs) We did Quebec and we also played Toronto, and then just one show in New York. That must have been back in ’76, I think. Gazette: So this tour is going to be quadrupling or quintupling the amount of Van der Graaf shows over here. Hammill: Absolutely, yeah. Gazette: This might be a facetious way of putting it, but do you think Van der Graaf would have gone through with its reunion if it wasn’t for your health scare some years back? Hammill: Well, we had actually decided that we were going to give it a crack, and we had got everything booked in for February (2004). And then, obviously, my health scare came in at the start of December. On one hand, that gave us a further bit of pause; on the other hand, we thought if we’re ever going to do it, we’d better do it now. When it came around to February, we didn’t change the dates that we arranged, especially because we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do. We didn’t know how successful or unsuccessful it would be on a personal, musical, any kind of level. Obviously, with my fragility at the time, it made things even more uncertain in a way. But yeah, it was reinforced. But I must stress that we had decided beforehand. It wasn’t like I have a heart attack and go, “Whoops, we’d better do it now.” Gazette: Was there anything specifically that did lead to you guys deciding to give this another go? Hammill: Basically, without being too flippant about it, it was the fact that a few years ago we found that we were meeting most often at the funerals of our old road crew. I mean, in a way the crew have a harder time of life and generally hammer themselves a bit more than even musicians, I suppose. Especially back in the day. So yeah, we realized that and over the years every so often people would get in touch – usually with me, because I was the most visible one in the business – and say, “Any chances of a Van der Graaf show?” Perhaps a tour, but at the minimum a show. And none of us were that keen on doing it as a kind of exploitative, money-making venture. Although that’s a bit of a laugh in any case, because it was never really was a money-making venture. But with mortality knocking on the door, the indication was that we were getting on ourselves, and we thought, “Well, if we are going to do anything, we’d better have a go at doing it now.” And again, I have to stress that we did this entirely privately at first, and had we met up for that week – and we were fairly sure that we got on and so we’d have a reasonably fun week – but we had ventured into it with the agreement that if anybody felt it was wrong, we all had the right to walk away. But obviously the story has turned out entirely differently. Gazette: I think I remember you only announcing the reformation around the time that you had Present completed, right? Hammill: Yes. Gazette: With this turning out to be a pretty fruitful second or third run, depending on how you count things, do you stand by your decision not to have reformed Van der Graaf earlier on? Hammill: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it’s been a strange and bumpy road even in this second or third incarnation, whatever it is. It’s not been exactly straightforward. But I don’t think we would have been equipped to do it at a previous stage. And also, let’s face it: We’re not spring chickens. We’re guys over 60 now, which gives us an entirely different perspective. And we do really regard it as a joy and a privilege to be doing it, and I think that’s because of the fact that we got the chance, unlikely as it seems, to do this at this stage in our lives. It does put a definite different sheen on it. Gazette: Did you see it as a joy and a privilege in the initial stages of the reunion as well? Hammill: There was a bit more trepidation, I think, the first time around. Obviously we rehearsed, we didn’t know how we would be received; we were doing new material as well as old. It was quite fearful, I think. Well, no, fear is too strong a word. Trepidation is the right word, I think. But in a way, to have learned the stuff again after all this period of time, there’s a certain amount to be said that we actually started playing it properly this time. (Laughs) Many things which had just kind of fallen through the cracks in the original versions were sorted out. Then once we were under way, it’s not simple music to play…to play properly, at least. So for 2005, that went along fine. Then obviously since then, we had the bizarre experience of suddenly discovering that we’re a trio rather than a quartet. And there again, trepidation, because how are people going to take us? We’ve got to come up with new material again – a further set of new material. But on the other hand, to be honest, this is Van der Graaf’s way. It’s never been a simple life, and in a way that makes it more interesting rather than less. Gazette: Since you mentioned going down to a trio: Is there anything that you’re able or willing to say further than what you said on your website at the time about why David Jackson left? Hammill: Maybe one day we’ll expand on it, but we’d rather just get on with life as the three of us. Gazette: Sure. Sorry, but I had to ask. Hammill: I appreciate it, and I’m sure you appreciate it as well. Gazette: Of course. Was it a given that you would continue as a three-piece? Hammill: Oh, no. No. No. At the start of 2006, we met up in January, and we were in this position of “Well, are we going to continue as a three-piece, or is that it? And that would be a bit of a shame, wouldn’t it, chaps?” It was clear at that point that there wasn’t any question of continuing with the three of us and adding anybody else either as a permanent member or as a guest. The circumstances were such that the Van der Graaf story would be in our hands. So once again, it was a question of going off and seeing for ourselves whether it was a feasible working unit. Self-evidently, we decided it was, and then the following year, in fact – because it took that long to sort it out – we went out and played live again. As I said, with even more trepidation. But also with new material. And then finally got around to recording Trisector the year after that. So yeah, when we originally got together, it was once again completely exploratory and in the correct Van der Graaf spirit, I think. Gazette: When you said that self-evidently this was a feasible working arrangement … just how self-evident was it for yourselves? Did you fall into a new way of working fairly naturally? Hammill: Almost immediately. In our very first meeting we looked at the list of songs that we had been playing live as a quartet, and I think we reckoned that about half of them we wouldn’t be able to play, and in the end we ended up being capable of doing about 90 per cent. But in fact, that first exploratory meeting was just a week. And we did look a little bit at a couple of the old tunes, but in fact we started immediately both improvising and working on new material. On that very first meeting, we started working on what eventually became All That Before, from Trisector. So we were going straight in with not just trying to retrace old steps, but trying to come up with new stuff as well. That, again, is Van der Graaf’s way. Gazette: In that 10 per cent that you could not play in the trio, any particular titles? I remember you saying Killer and Darkness were off the table, I think? Hammill: Killer and Darkness were particular ones. It’s not that we couldn’t have done them – we could have done them, but the decision was taken that we were definitely not going to address those. Those two tracks, we had to do them in the reformation, I think, because they were such a big identity with the original band. Also, of course, both of them feature very, very strong sax solos. I mean, there are very strong saxophones in lots of other pieces that we did do, but in a way we felt that they had been played again, back in 2005 on the tour there, and there was actually more interesting stuff that we could play. And to be honest, stuff that was more about where our lives are now and where I suppose you could say we are creatively and artistically. So we decided they had been played, we’re not going to go toward them anymore. And we don’t. Gazette: Were there any songs that you could not or did not do in the quartet that you found you were able to do in the trio? Hammill: Ah! Yes, actually. I think in the quartet we probably wouldn’t have done Meurglys III; we certainly never went towards playing Gog – and of course, I’m mentioning these songs, but we still don’t have a regular set list, so I’m not saying we’ll definitely be playing anything when we get there. But yeah, there are at least two or three songs that we hadn’t really considered in the quartet form, but actually they come out very strongly in trio. It’s quite a different group, the trio. Obviously, as a musician I’m not at the same level of virtuosity as Guy and Hugh, and certainly David, so I’m not trying to replace anybody in those terms. But I do have a certain dogged tenacity of hitting a riff and holding it. (Laughs) And that certainly gives a strong spine to things. Gazette: Were you hesitant at all to take on more guitar duties? Hammill: I was not. Particularly in terms of where there were recognizable parts or functions that had been fulfilled by sax lines, in places I do actually have to learn those and play them on guitar. It’s not a complete stretch for me – I’m not saying I’m a complete ham-fisted incompetent – but there was a degree of challenge involved. But yeah, that was just part of the ’do, really, and each of us in a way had to take on extra responsibilities. Sometimes in terms of playing much more quietly and much more dynamically than in the past, I dare say, and that probably applies to both HB and to Guy as well. So yeah, challenge is involved, but that’s a good thing as far as we’re concerned, I think. Gazette: It’s funny, in terms of playing more quietly, because it doesn’t sound like being a man down made the sound more limiting. I have to confess I was a little cautious when Trisector came out, before I heard it, but I was surprised at how wide the variety of work is on that album. Hammill: Oh yeah. In a way it’s much, much wider these days. Something like The Final Reel … Obviously, Van der Graaf has touched on lots of things along the way, but yeah, it’s a very, very wide palette now, I think. It’s a bit wider a palette, in fact, on record than it is live, but still, the palette is wide. Gazette: Do you find it hard live to get into the nuances of the music? Are you more inclined to go toward the thunder-and-lightning side of the band? Hammill: Umm … Well, that certainly used to be the case, but these days, a lot of the stuff that we’re doing involves quite a high degree of precision. There are a number of pieces that simply do not work unless we’re all in the right place at the right time. That sounds like an idiotic thing to say (laughs), but it’s very, very much the case. But being in the right place at the right time can involve all three of us being off in entirely different spaces only a bar or so beforehand. There’s a lot of stuff that we can do where we’re actually all playing something entirely at odds with each other, with the intention of meeting up at a certain point and then going forward. It’s hard to explain this, but I think it will be fairly obvious when we’re actually on the stage. Gazette: I’m curious that you’re saying this, because – having never seen you live – Van der Graaf has always struck me as a band that needs a fair degree of chaos. Hammill: Yeah. And there still is. And some of that chaos is genuine, absolute chaos, where it’s completely open-ended; some of it is utterly designed chaos where, as I say, we just have to hold on to what we’re playing individually in order to arrive at the point where it unifies again. It’s fun. Gazette: (Laughs) It sounds like it’s very psychologically taxing, too. Hammill: Oh yeah. We don’t mind that. (Laughs) Another thing about it is, of course, that although we rehearse, it’s always been a group idea – this kind of applies even to solo shows – that it only actually works when it’s really the live thing. So we know in principle what we’re meant to be doing, but it really only comes alive when it’s in front of an audience and under the pressure of “I’ve started this song and I can’t stop until it finishes.” Gazette: So, some bands worry about things falling apart too easily; do you worry about things coming together too neatly? Hammill: (Laughs) Good point, actually. I think what we tend to do – this also has some kind of relevance in terms of Darkness and Killer – even though we know it can have something of an emotional effect on people, if we reach that stage where something is actually too easy to play, then we do tend to back away from it, to be honest. Gazette: Is there anything that’s too hard to play? Or would you not shy away from anything on those grounds? Hammill: We haven’t met anything too hard to play…obviously, there’s lots of music that would be too hard for us to play written by other people (laughs), but in terms of our stuff that we’ve recorded or gone toward, so far we’ve managed to come up with ways of playing everything. So not yet. Gazette: What’s the proportion in the shows of Present and Trisector songs vs. the older material? Hammill: There’s usually round about half and half, I’d say. Maybe slightly more of the older stuff, but not much more. It’s usually round about half a dozen new, half a dozen old, something like that. Gazette: Do you find the audience is equally receptive to both? I’m not sure if nostalgia would be much of a motivating factor at your shows, certainly not for the band and probably not for the audience. Hammill: No, that’s absolutely right. To be honest, there’s now – particularly because both Present and Trisector had such a positive response from people – there’s a very welcoming response to those new tunes when we play them. And also, to be fair, I’ve never been one terribly big on the grand announcements (laughs), so we tend to go on stage, start, and then an hour and a half later we stop, leaving precious little time to pause for breath or thought in between. Gazette: Is there anything from the original run of the band, in terms of either albums or songs, that you feel especially affectionate toward or especially not affectionate toward? Hammill: Um…not really. Obviously there are favourites and un-favourites. We don’t get to Lighthouse Keepers, because that would be too complicated, I think. Well, we might be able to manage it, but it would be too much of a chunk of the show to decide to do it. Gazette: In terms of the new period of the band: When I talked to you in the fall, I think your exact words were that Trisector was “infinitely superior” to Present. Hammill: I think so, yes. Gazette: Would you mind elaborating on that? Hammill: Well, Present was kind of found, really, because we did record it in our first meetings, and obviously there were certain songs that were written and others that we worked up. I’m not meaning to diss Present, but it does consist of a short-ish album of songs which were not really developed that much, but just kind of learned and played – and then the improvisational stuff, which is good to get out, because it has been and continues to be a part of the band’s world and work. But Trisector was a much more intense process altogether, both in terms of the preparation of material before we went down to the recording, and the recording. Everything was fantastically fast, in fact, but also very, very intense and extremely rigorous. But only this morning I was thinking, gosh, Hugh did work out that complete contrapuntal line over the course of just a day on a particular piece. So there was that kind of rigour involved. And I think the songs are better as well, to be honest. Gazette: Do you think that kind of rigour is the way the band can function most effectively? That it does mean a self-imposed deadline? Hammill: I don’t know. There are different ways. And also, we are drifting toward whatever the next recording will be, and we don’t know exactly how we’ll do that or when we’ll do it or where we’ll do it, but we are equally happy being loose. A combination of looseness and rigour is, I think, the best way for us to go forward. Gazette: So there definitely will be another album? Hammill: We certainly hope so. Gazette: Have you started either writing or setting stuff aside for it? Hammill: Since I’ve just finished a solo album, now is just the point at which I’ve begun to think about it. There are a couple of things that were too much in a Van der Graaf direction for the solo album, so I do have a certain amount of material, but I haven’t really started working on it yet. But the next month or so is going to be playing live, and then we’ll get the chance to work on some things in sound checks and so on. We’ll see. But some time after that, we’ll decide our next period of activity. Because that’s something that keeps us sort of awake: We’re not doing this constantly. We work for about a month or so, and then have maybe four or five months away, sometimes working at a distance with each other, but it’s always a specific event that we come together for, which I think is a very good way of working for gentlemen of our age and distinction. Gazette: I imagine it’s also a good way to keep things fun. Hammill: Fun and sane, yes. Gazette: When you were working on what became Thin Air, I remember you saying you were questioning to yourself “Is this something I should do on a solo album or is it more Van der Graaf?” Did that always resolve itself easily, or are there some things on the solo album that could have gone either way? Hammill: No, with that consciousness it did work out very much as being a solo album. Now, there are some things on Trisector that might have been more in solo territory before, but now they’re part of the band territory. But no, Thin Air is very much a solo record. Gazette: Is it just you all the way through? Hammill: Just me, yeah. Absolutely. Gazette: Were you happy with how your solo shows in North America went last year? Hammill: Yeah, I was delighted. I mean, it’s rather bizarre: Over the last year, there’s this Van der Graaf one coming up and then two solo tours. I’ve hardly been in Europe like this over the last couple of years. So it’s quite amusing. But yeah, it went well, and I’m obviously very pleased to have put a physical presence to the voice that some people had been listening to over the years. © Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette E-mail this ArticlePrint this