When the popular English formation Van Der Graaf Generator was splitting up, this news struck like a bomb into the musicworld. Singer / composer Peter Hammill and his friends were standing just short of an international breakthrough and the music experts had seen these good musicians vanishing already through the trap-door. However, Peter Hammill didn't think about leaving the music scene but was setting with his first two solo albums "Fool's Mate" and "Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night" new measures for his musical horizon. About the possible reasons which led to the sudden split of Van Der Graaf, much paper and ink was used by the music press in the last couple of months, so Pierre F. Häsler from MUSIC SCENE was interested in Peter Hammill of the present and the future and not of the past of Van Der Graaf Generator. On the occasion of a Europe tour, he had the chance to talk with Peter Hammill about records and plans of this interesting solo artist.
When listening to your second solo album "Chameleon In The Shadow Of The Night" there is in some songs a sad and depressed mood. Do you have a depressing turn of mind?
PH: This statement is pretty right, with the exception of the odd funny song "What's it Worth". I'm tending to compose sad songs, and you will rarely find happy or funny songs among my compositions. But this will not mean that I only had sad experiences in my life. I see the reason for this strange tendency rather in a kind of averting of life. In this manner, my darker feelings are collecting in my compositions. I also could paint or draw these feelings, or express them in a poem.
But compared to your first solo album "Fool's Mate"...
PH: Ah, this is something completely else. I wrote that album for a completely different reason. I recorded that record during my Van Der Graaf period but the songs were at that time already more than four years old. They are a collection of my earliest compositions. In contrast to "Chameleon", "Fool" is no right solo album as in any case I didn't want to go into the direction of the Van Der Graaf sound, which means that I couldn't engage with my obvious sound. I didn't want to bring unnecessary confusion among our audience. That songs had simple melodies and simple lyrics.
Which aims are you pursuing with "Chameleon"?
PH: When I was beginning with the recording of "Chameleon" I had prepared material for about three or four albums. Then I tried to find the best combination of the songs. Before the recording I had to do a selection, and as it looks a bit sad and drepressing in my life, the record sounds sad.
So your personal experiences are reflected in your songs?
PH: I can't talk to anybody about my personal feelings and my depressing inclination. In other words, I'm forced to eat it in myself without finding contact to other people. I have to manage my problems by myself and I can't help me, and a stranger can't help me either. My only possibility to comunicate to other people are my songs, and these are reflecting my inner conditions. In "In The End" I'm painting a feeling of experience with my music. With "Black Room" I'm projecting my inner life through the music on an invisible but audible screen.
In your songs you often talk about the problem of the relationship "Life - Death". Which meaning has death for you?
PH: I don't have a specific philosophy on that point. Death has no central position in my compositions, as nobody knows anything concrete to say about this theme. In our lives you can go through many deaths - moral - mental - social and physical. A human being is committing many suicides in his short life. Who is giving up his faith also dies a little death - "Dropping The Torch" is touching the theme of death - and is so closing a part of his life. These sections of human life are particularly interesting to me whereby I want to have understood the the word death in a wider sense.
So you are interested in the human being as such?
PH: Not the human being as singular person, but the human being as earthly phenomenon is ocupying me. I try to put the human being in his present situation and to chronicle his changes.
After which criteria are you choosing your musicians?
PH: I don't choose an instrument, but a human being who I want to use for my music painting. On my first two solo records I was acompanied by my freinds from Van Der Graaf as we have a good understanding. I know them for years and this is giving me the possibility to use them right in reason of their former performances.
But is it possible for another musician to interpret rightly your songs?
PH: It surely can happen that there will be a discrepancy between the song and the sound. But I never was confronted with this problem as I always had my friends from Van Der Graaf at my side. Guy, David, Hugh and Nic are playing for four years with me and they know my feelings well. But before the recording I'm playing them every songs and explaining them what I want to say with this or that composition. So their interpretation will get more understanding, but this is still no guarantee if they really have understood everything.
Are you leaving room to your friends for a free arrangement?
PH: Guy and David always are bringing their own ideas. For the recording of the new album we made rehearsals in the country to prepare the recordings. The album will be called "The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage".
How is this new album sounding in comparison to "Chameleon"?
PH: A comparison is hardly to do. But then I will risk the trial of an analysis anyway. It has and has not relations to "Chameleon". I was choosing seven songs and each side will have 25 minutes playing time, which is quite extraordinary for Pop records. With this long playing time we had to look that the quality of the music doesn't suffer under the quantity. The sound is also more uniform than on "Chameleon". All the seven songs are completely different, but we handled them always the same way. On "Chameleon" every song is also different in sound, which we have avoided this time. The sound is building a unity, but the songs and the instruments used are always else. What's concerning the lyrics, I was very often religion.
The "Life-Death" problem...
PH: Yes, of course, because the "life - death" problem is the big question which all the different religions are busy with. The thematical centre to this problem is the song "The Lie" The statue of the holy St. Theresa which is standing in Rome is the main person in this song. This holy was created by a sculpturer in a state of ecstasy, and this religious ecstasy you also can compare with sexual ecstasy.
Should your songs content simply stories or personal engagement?
PH: I don't have a great choice. My feelings are commanding me and my songs. Either I'm narrator or engaged singer. If the lyrics of a song is floating out of my pen and I'm composing the song from my subconscious I am revealing my personality. On the other side I can represent human situations and then I see myself in the position of a narrator, who is reporting to the people about uncommon things. The functions of the composer and the singer are here totally different. As musician I'm drawing at first a sketch of my composition which I will only later finish into a painting. These two steps of the developing process of a song can temporally and locally be wide apart. Also with Van Der Graaf, for instance in "The Lighthousekeeper", I used the formula of the third person and even when I sing "I am the lighthousekeeper!" I don't mean, that the keeper is my person.
Can you reach a wider audience with your sad songs? Today everybody only wants to hear happy music, or not?
PH: I am surviving with my music. Sure, I'm often standing under financial and other pressures. But I don't need to get success for any price today or tomorrow. I don't want to say that I deny success, but I think there are still many possibilities open for me. I don't know exactly what's happening in the music-scene. Because when I'm working, I'm workling alone and far away from the pulse of the branch. I'm only occasionally watching TV, listening to radio or reading newspapers, and what I get to hear then is making me feel rather sad.
Van Der Graaf was nearly at the great success?
PH: Maybe, but I wanted to do my own music. This shall not mean that the music of Graaf was worse than mine. I simply had to develop. Today, Peter Hammill is no more Mr. Van Der Graaf, even if a lot of people don't want it to be true. There never was a Mister Graaf because we were a band and not a singer with background musicians. Van Der Graaf was a good combination between singer/composer and band. We were more than only a band of good musicians, we were an idea. But today we have to keep these two thing strongly apart.
What are your plans for the near future?
PH: I'd like to do some concerts with David on the sax and me on piano. That's an interesting combination. Occasionally I have taken my Van Der Graaf friends on tour to get on the stage the sound of the album. But yet I don't want to fix for backing musicians. In the moment I don't want to be responsible for a band and don't want to get limited by their instruments. In the beginning of 1974 I will take a try on American stages, but I will never neglect Europe, as this continent has given me already so much attention. If I have the money, I'd like to do a record with a symphony orchestra. Well, for this I have to wait a bit.
Interview by Pierre F. Häsler for Music-Scene(Switzerland), November 1973.
(Thanks to Adrian Haegele for the article and translation)