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Peter Hammill

Option F2-1985, pages 36-37

Peter Hammill's shows in Philadelphia have been notorious for the strange mishaps that occur at each one. His first, many moons ago, coincided with a blizzard yet still brought out 200 or so of the faithful to be stunned by the man's intense perfomance. His second appearance, over three years back, found Hammill present, but his voice not. It seems that he went on tour, solo mind you, with a bug that didn't want to leave. No matter, a concoction of lemon and honey allowed him to enrapture the audience again.

In the name of consistency, for his latest local appearance this year, while Hammill himself made it to Philadelphia, his guitar somehow decided it would rather see what Billy Joel was singing about and took a trip to Allentown, Pa. But Hammill, armed with only voice and piano, engaged over 400 people who would gladly have admitted their preference for him over U2, who were also performing that night.

The mystique of the thin man with the intense eyes, teenager's smile, and worry lines deeply engraved into his face is earned. Over a 17-year history he's released over two dozen albums, either with his old band Van der Graaf Generator, solo, under the guise of Rikki Nadir, or his latest persona, K. His three-octave voice is closest in quality to his old chum, Peter Gabriel, but with wider range and more emotional impact. One would have to see Hammill perform to appreciate truly the power of the man. To put i bluntly, he's the only man who can make me forget that I'm somewhere surrounded by people I don't normally like to associate with (that is, bartenders, waitresses, and security personnel). He is so charming and dynamic that he makes you feel that he's in performance in your living room, not a bar. Every time I've seen him perform, he's been called back for two, sometimes three encores.

The following interview was done the day after Hammill's last show in Philadelphia. His guitar was well on its way to his next performance in L.A. and he was relaxed (he had the contraption for over a decade and had more than an average attachment to it), friendly and more than willing to talk about himself.

Who or what is K?
K is me or..a version of me. It's a bit like the Nadir name. In fact, it's not one that I invented for myself. Graham Smith (violinist for VdGG and sometime cohort) gave it to me many moons ago. It originally stood for "K is for Keen, the popular, unlikely venture." He kept proposing names like that and bizarre shows to go along with them. It seems that he noted som kind of gleam in my eyes that he decided to call "K." Than also, when I kind of made it public, I was thinking of the mathematical symbol of the constant, "k." You usually put a "k" in the mathematical equation to symbolize it...you don't necessarily have to know what "k" is, but it could stand for anything, as long as it's constant.

Has K taken a life sort of like Nadir's?
Well, I suppose so. K is kind of like a slightly more grown up version of Nadir. And then again, it also got embodied in the K Group (Hammill, Nic Potter, Guy Evans and Dave [it should be John - ktb] Ellis).

So if we were looking for K songs, what should we look for?
A song like Accidents is quite K-like, but again it's more a case of spirit as opposed to form, which was the case of Nadir songs. The double live album (The Margin) has a lot of K manifestations. Anything off there is a true signifier.

Would last night's show be called a K manifestation?
Not really as that was just me alone, although there were several songs from K. As I was stuck with only a piano, I stuck to another side of my "repertoire," you might say...the Love Songs.

What are the origins of that?
That started off as me just wanting to do a "wide screen" version of the song Just Good Friends that involved choir, strings, guitar, bass and drums, the whole works. So i did that and the powers that be thought it would be good that a record accompany it. They actually just suggested a compilation of my work, but my total work is so disparate that when I suggested a compilation of love songs would make for a very good idea, they gave the go ahead. At least everything would be linked together by a theme. Then I took everything and put it together on a take and I began to shudder between the ears. The quality difference between a lot of them was just too great because, obviously, of the way one later hears a sound after it's been in the tombs for up to 15 years. The studio technology alone had changed so much. I distinctly recall when Van der Graaf first stepped into a 16-track studio and it wasn't that long ago! We had to piggyback two 8-tracks together to get the effect.

Just for the record, how long ago was Aerosol Grey Machine (Hammill's and VdGG's first)?
1968, so 17 years? Yes. So getting back to Love Songs, what I decided to do was get all the original masters, with a certain little of surprise that they still existed in near mint condition, and added to them. Primarily in the synth area, but also I did new lead vocals on nearly all of them to give them a more "modern" feel. I didn't do that to Been Alone So Long as that specific song got me, especially the vocal.

Wouldn't you call Over a sort of album of love songs? (Hammill recorded Over after his separation and ensuing divorce from his first wife.)
That's right, but it does have quite a different meaning, doesn't it? That one is love songs for extremists looking at every situation having gone wrong. It was my catharsis. Love Songs is a mix of situations, although Looking Glass is on Love Songs.

One thing I've noticed is a preoccupation with cameras and mirrors in your lyrics.
They're pretty good modern symbols. The songs that deal with those fall into camps. The camera songs generally talk about interactions with other people; society or people. When the camera image comes up, I'm also usually going off about time. For me time is actually one of the big obsessions. So the significance of cameras and photography is you are frozen in time there for a second and obviously I've not contained the whole of you, but you at least remember the moment of the photograph. When you look at the photograph, you remember the second it was taken. The mirrors tend to be a bit more contemplative. The self talking to the self or looking at the self, they kind of fall into that. They're powerful images that can generally be hammered into what you're not. Yet they fall into the world quite naturally. In the way that I use them it's more to tell about the modern human condition.

In what sense?
Well, you know about the old Indian thing of not wanting to have their pictures taken. They felt that cameras captured the soul. So now here we are blithely snapping off disk cameras without any thought about their philosophical implications. In a way, if my work must be categorized, it's much more concerned with modern life than just the generalities of human life. I've been digging up on little moments that we just normally ignore and just let pass by for last three or four years. Normally, we go, "ah, that's just normal," but in a lost of these cases of that clicking shutter, there are very major things going on. The fact of the photograph is that it's exactly a locked-in psychological and philosophical moment. It depends on what you are looking at it for, that decides the meaning of the moment.

I've just been playing Film Noir (off Patience), and I felt that it was kind of taking the camera into new extensions.
Well, Film Noir is actually holding a mirror up at the camera songs (laughs). That actually falls into one of the other categories of my songs, if you will, of what is really just a straight story. It's kind of a mirror story as the actress in the songs contemplates all that's going on while loading a gun, but is the gun filled with blanks or real bullets? In the end, the characters end up in sort of a scenic Hall of Mirrors, looking at themselves as much as the characters they are making the movie about do. The main question is, though, whether they are actually shooting the story on the film or are we filming what the character's actually doing and making that our movie. Are we inside or outside it?

The songs actually made me think of Goddard's Breathless, where the lead character is unsure whether he's a real gangster or a movie one.
Yeah. Actually, I showed the song to a German actor just the other week and he said he got himself in a situation like that once. So that took me back a bit, you know. You could actually end up dead like one of the characters in my song did or something or another.

Copyright © 1985 Steve Fritz - Option

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