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
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
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
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