Van der Graaf Generator routinely challenged listeners and confounded critics with their uncompromising musical aesthetic. Formed in 1967, and fronted by iconoclastic vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Peter Hammill, the band evolved out of the musically fluid British underground scene, in which rock freely mingled with folk, jazz, classical, electronic, and other styles. Van Der Graaf became one of the most innovative and original-sounding bands of the era, playing intelligent, edgy music complemented by Hammill’s literate lyrics and soaring multi-octave vocals. They released nine albums before disbanding in 1978.
Van Der Graaf is typically lumped in with so-called progressive rock bands, though their sax and organ-driven sound was considerably more chaotic and rough-hewn than that of most of their contemporaries.
“There was something genuinely scary about both us and King Crimson,” relates Hammill. “Not in a horror way, and what we did wasn’t necessarily shocking, but both groups were trying to do powerful music. We wanted to play ‘Foxey Lady,’ because that’s what fired us up, but we were, in reality, white, middle class, English boys. So it was a question of finding something that had that power, but that was more in tune with the people we actually were.”
In addition to his involvement with Van Der Graaf, Hammill has released 34 solo albums since 1970, as well as appearing on recordings by Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel, the Stranglers, David Cross, PFM, and others. John Lydon and various rock historians have credited his 1975 release, Nadir's Big Chance—on which he performs mostly three-chord rockers under the guise of his alter ego Ricky Nadir—as the prototypical punk album.
The classic lineup of Van Der Graaf Generator—David Jackson (saxes/flutes), Hugh Banton (keyboards), Guy Evans (drums), and Hammill—reformed last year, performing several sold-out shows and releasing the two-disc Present [EMI], which features six new songs and ten entirely improvised instrumentals. Hammill also released a live recording of his solo material titled Veracious [Fie] earlier this year, and is currently completing his next studio album.
You have said that people’s memories of their experiences with Van Der Graaf’s previous music factored into your decision to reform, because you didn’t want to sully those memories by presenting something that didn’t measure up. Why was that so important?
It really goes back to what our attitude was in the first place. Remember that we are from the late ’60s/early ’70s era, so there was a degree of idealism around that isn’t quite the same these days, and it was possible at that time to be interested in doing music simply for the sake of the music. Not that we weren’t hoping to make a living at it, but things such as stardom and financial success weren’t really on our agenda. So we were ultimately able to look back and say that we had made a very decent job of doing things for what we regarded as the right reasons. And the fact that none of us had traded on the name afterwards, or made any kind of an effort to sell out, meant that there was something to preserve.
Nearly 30 years have passed since the band quit playing, but the music on the new album picks up roughly where you left off. Does that suggest that creativity exists outside of time?
It definitely does—both in terms of bands and individuals—as long as proper respect is given to the muse. I think this is crucial. One has to make a leap of faith and trust in the muse, while simultaneously not assuming that it is always going to be there. If you “over” trust in something, there’s a good chance that it’s not going to be there one day when you go for it. Having said that, it was surprising to all of us when we got into the room and started working. The Van Der Graaf sound was there immediately.
Present contains ten entirely improvised songs. How do you experience improvisation while it is occurring?
I try not to be thinking about anything, as improvisation is not really a conscious process in my experience. Although improvisation has always been a part of the Van Der Graaf ethos, it is not something that we’ve ever presented publicly before. When we got together for Present, we immediately started playing without any kind of direction. And then, there’s this instinctive thing that takes over—to call it a conversation would imply a little too much rational thought—and something emerges. As for what actually happens, I’m not sure. It’s very much akin to a dream state.
So, thinking is inversely proportional to the process?
It’s exactly so. The minute the conscious mind starts realizing what chord you’re playing, or whether it might be time for somebody to take a solo, that’s usually the point where the car crash occurs. That said, the crucial thing to remember is when to shut up. When it comes to improvising, you’re trying to guess what somebody is about to do, and there is nothing worse than two impassioned soloists meeting head on.
There’s a nod to Miles Davis on Present entitled “Homage to Teo.” What affinity do you feel with the music Miles was making during the ’70s?
Oh, a great affinity. The only thing we were listening to during the week of recording Present was Miles’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson, and that was partly because it was a seminal record for us even the first time around. Santana’s Caravansarai was also very important. Of course, none of us would even remotely pretend to be near the capacity of Miles’ band, and certainly not in the rhythmic and groove world of Santana. But there is something we could recognize that paralleled what we were doing in the past and the present. So it’s not like we’ve taken something specific, but there is a certain kind of spirit one can emulate or aspire to.
Briefly describe your songwriting process.
In my view, the process of songwriting is largely a matter of being awake, sticking your hand in the air, and grabbing whatever is passing. I don’t mean to be self denigrating, because obviously there is some skill involved in first of all catching what’s in the air, and then managing to get it into reasonable shape. But that is the process, rather than starting with clay and making bricks. In general, I start moving toward writing when I know it’s time to make a record, and then I’ll write everything within the same period so there will be cohesion to the songs.
Critics routinely cast you as excessively negative, most recently citing “Every Bloody Emperor” on Present. Is that fair?
It’s a role to which I’ve become accustomed—despite my best efforts to inject a degree of humor at times. Obviously, I was driven to write that tune, and it was a classic case of sticking my hand up in the air and coming down with something. I don’t find it overly negative or castigatory. But in order to be true to the thing, I couldn’t duck it. This is one of those songs where the title and the first line—“Every bloody emperor has his hand up history’s skirt”—came to me, and it was just a matter of filling in the blanks.
In the moment of writing something, I really don’t give a damn what anybody thinks. Even when I’m recording I don’t give a toss, because it is fundamentally just a question of doing the thing right. Sometimes people think that I am unbearably dark and overbearing, but I can’t afford to worry about that. In terms of one’s relationship with the muse, you cannot let what other people think interfere.