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Dark passage


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Van der Graaf Hammill: Influence doesn't pay bills.
  • Van der Graaf Hammill: Influence doesn't pay bills.

He's released more than 30 solo albums, helmed one of the most adventurous rock bands of all time, and has been praised without reservation by an unlikely range of artists from Johnny Rotten to David Bowie, the Fall to Radiohead as a seminal influence.

"It's very great being an influence, though it doesn't pay any bills," says Peter Hammill. "I think what people have taken, if it's anything, is the drive to do what you think is the right thing for yourself and your music, rather than just following along with what the industry tells you is the right thing to do. That's kind of the way I've gone about things, and I'm delighted if that particular torch has been carried on."

Hammill's Van der Graaf Generator, which reunited in 2004 after a 26-year hiatus, defied the progressive rock era's tendency toward excessive synthesizers and showiness. Haunting, literate and phenomenally talented, its organ-sax-drum arrangements, fronted by Hammill's extremely elastic vocal range, combined the melodic complexity of European music (Hammill grew up singing in his Jesuit church choir) with the anarchic intensity of America's free-jazz pioneers. The result was a sound that has yet to be replicated.

Hammill's solo ventures have been no less eclectic. His exceptionally poetic lyrics have often conveyed a profound alienation, sometimes crossing the boundaries into abject terror, while his mid-'70s albums anticipated both the goth and punk movements.

"It would be logical," he says, "to think that the disaffected or the slightly strange or people who feel slightly strange if they come across my stuff, they would find something identifiable in there," he says. "Particularly among people of a certain aesthetic sense, there is a fascination with death when you are younger the coming to a romantic end due to poison or TV or consumption or what-have-you. But as you bump your way through life and gradually head toward the realization that actually you have not got so many years left, however many they may be, then it does put a different perspective on things.

"Neither one nor the other [viewpoint] is correct there is no correct moment, ever, for anybody it's just the passage of life, which, to be honest, is very interesting stuff."

Hammill himself narrowly escaped a passage from life when he collapsed in the street from a heart attack five years ago. He had literally just completed an album, and the brush with death increased his desire to reunite with his bandmates, which they'd been discussing for some time.

Present, the group's first reunion album, had a fairly improvisatory feel, though the track "Every Bloody Emperor" contains the kind of shout-along chorus that frequently emerges from the chaos. For Hammill, this rare political song attempted to express what both the band and "the vast majority of the population in Britain" were feeling.

"I have three daughters, so I do my best to remain optimistic," says Hammill of the complexity of the times. "In whatever remains of my creative life, I'm sure I'm going to be addressing this stuff more and more. Because what is happening on the planet is extraordinarily interesting, even if it's extraordinarily fearful at the same time."


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