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Educating Peter

Peter Hammill

Hammill’s unique style is examined in print and on tape

Chris Shilling talks to Peter Hammill, cult hero and home recording veteran.

Peter Hammill's records rarely infiltrate even the lower regions of the charts, and the average record-buying punter is probably about as familiar with his work as he is with marriage rituals in northern Zambia. Yet, his influence is felt throughout a surprisingly diverse spectrum of performers. The Sex Pistols' Anarchy In The UK had its blue-print in Hammill's early seventies album Nadir's Big Chance, his songs have been covered by the likes of Marc Almond, and he has influenced people as diverse as Bowie and Marillion. On top of this he produced Random Hold's first album and has worked on the solo projects of artists such as Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp.

Hammill is a great innovator. Whether he's pummelling a grand piano or building his synthetic sound collages, he always manages to sound challenging - and often a little disturbing. Although his work has a reputation for one-dimensioned gloom, its diversity is its most surprising feature. He is also very English - a euphemism for eccentric, sharing more than a little in common with Tony Hancock, who is the subject of oblique references on Hammill's masterful Black Box (really!). Now, with 23 albums under his belt (some solo and some with early seventies band Van Der Graaf Generator), Hammill is sitting in front of me explaining how late he stayed up the night before finishing tracks for this month's ES&CM tape. His enthusiasm is catching. Before we get to discuss the tracks, I ask him for a rundown on the equipment in his home studio - Sofa Sound - where these were recorded with the majority of his output over the last few years.


"Well, it's a Soundcraft one-inch 16-track and the little Soundtracs 16-in, 16-out desk which is great value money-wise and for what it can do. It's pretty much the ultimate for home studios and I suppose it's just about workable as a commercial studio. That's my basic set-up, with Dolby Noise Reduction on the 16-track, Little Red monitors and a Quad amp. I don't have many mics, just the UH7, C451 with C85 capsule and a PZM. I've got a few other things in operation, but as it's basically a one-man operation, I'm unlikely to need more than those three mics. If I'm doing drums I have to beg, borrow or whatever. I've also got a Drawmer compressor/limiter and Drawmer Gates - which are the best - and an Ursa Major Space Station, a Rebus rack and a couple of gates and a delay package. Then there's a Dimension D, a TC stereo parametric, Klark Technik Graphic and a Sony PCM F1 for mastering."

That sounds pretty advanced to me, for a home set-up.

"It's about as advanced as you can go with a specifically home studio. Obviously it wouldn't take much to turn it into a proper studio but that would mean changing how I look on it. I try to see it as a tool rather than an end in itself, though it's just grown and grown over the years. Originally it was a TEAC four-track and progressed from that to an 8-track half-inch. All this was sometime ago when they first came out. The 8-track was ITAM in fact, though it was more or less a stack Revox. I still like to look upon my studio set-up, in spite of its certain degree of complexity, as being stack Revoxes. At the other end of the studio I just have a Drumulator, DX7, grand piano and various guitars. Obviously there's a constant pressure to update. When this article comes out I'll probably leaf through the rest of the magazine and see about ten things I suddenly feel I could do with."


Perhaps surprisingly, Hammill has so far resisted the lure of the Fairlight and contemporaries. "I haven't really got into sampling as such yet. It's more than likely that it will enter my world on the next album which I'm kind of doing now. I'm writing it, maybe recording it, maybe demoing it. Obviously the beauty of having this Sofa Sound installation is that I try to get things to a certain level that'll be useable later. A good friend of mine in Bath has got a Wave and I think I'll probably do a lot with that. The world of sampling is a very grown up one now, not just the very top end of the market which it was in the beginning. I can't speak with any authority about it at all, because I remain an absolute neophyte, though maybe by the end of the year I'll be more involved. Being an intuitive musician I want to keep a sense of urgency there, but that seems much more possible these days."

However, if 'sampling' as commonly defined has remained outside Hammill's studio walls, a less hi-tech understanding of the term has not. Much of his work is with tapes - recording found sounds and then 'hand-rolling' them through the machines, reversing them, editing, changing speeds and so on. He often refers to this as 'sampling'. Such a process was used on two of the three tracks he prepared for the ES&CM tape.

"The Moebius Loop is all tape-derived. It was originally from a loop of a piano. The 'pling' noise that occurs is basically just a loop that's varisped for key changes which means that the time changes too - but there are musical allowances made for that. The piano is recorded by a 12-string over it, so it's recorded from the twelve string's pick-up rather than a mic, which is a bizarre transduction! That became the original track and then I began making up lots of loops of voices. As I say, to me there's no difference whether you're dealing with actual sampling or tape loops which is effectively sampling... So I put all that on to multitrack, made lots of choir loops and spun them in as well. It was then that I discovered the actual melody line of the piece. Writing to tape is just like ordinary songwriting - you get something going and gradually discover what the song is all about."

One characteristic of your music is the way you play various vocal lines off each other, a notable example being The Jargon King where all sorts of voices are flying around.

"Yes. I apply things from different areas. The voice thing has come from multiplying lots of instruments. Now, if I'm working on choral stuff, it's quite easy to make myself a synth. I just keep going around and around, dropping in until I get the harmonies just right. For the last three or four years I've become more of a keyboard choral singer, if you like, so that I can remain steady with five or six voices going and the modulation just notching, so they all go together nicely."

The Bells, the Bells, which Hammill has also produced for the tape further demonstrates his experimentation with tape loops.


"I can't remember what the 'bells' are... they're certainly far from being bells. I think it might be another use of the piano into guitar thing at a very different speed. There's also a very old Roland drum machine playing very slow. They've a sound I still like. I use it very little now because of the Drumulator - and Synsonics as well - but I think I might come back to it. We've moved very far away from 'rhythm boxes' now, but they can be used very humanly... They're honourable things really. The weird swoops on it are just tape rolling. The whole point about all these pieces is that they're not particularly electronic, but they are using exactly the same technique, so a lot of the swooshes are just hand rolling tape into the Ursa Major Space Station to produce those very very long echoes. The other element is guitar which is lifted - a bit of Randy California actually - off multi-track and slowed down immensely. That actually formed the melodic basis of the entire thing, appearing and being reversed and so on.'

Ritual Mask as it appears on the ES&CM tape is an edited and remixed version of the song that appeared on the WOMAD benefit album. "Well, all these are extracts rather than being finished pieces in themselves. Obviously I've tried to edit them down to being reasonably cohesive. Ritual Mask, I suppose, is quite funny in terms of cultural imperialism. I felt very ambivalent really, and I suppose that comes out in the song. But I did try to be as varied as possible in the instrumentation. The basic drum on it - the one that sounds absolutely massive - is actually a tiny Chinese drum. The massiveness is in fact courtesy of David Lord (engineer for Peter Gabriel amongst others) and the wonderful AMS. So that was the basic track, and I did two or three of those just to get a bit of range in them. Then the bottom end is actually a bodhran - the Irish hand-held drum. So I had these two - the Chinese and the Irish - and it emerged as something a little more African. So I was drawn towards that tribal thing really. When I started I was using that four-inch diameter drum and the rhythm was there but the total sound wasn't. The main melodic instrument on it is the kora which is Ghambian.

It's one of the few ethnic instruments I have, and it'd been sitting around for ages but then with this project I tried to find at least one of the tunes that might lie in it for me, though that is made less kora-like because of the 'bamps' on it. Then there's the percussion! If you want a particular sound you don't have to go down to the local percussion shop, but to the larder and get the dried lentils and experiment with those in a variety of old coffee jars until you get the one that's just right."

You've worked with David Lord a great deal. Was Black Box the first time?

"Yes. Basically that was just taking everything in and mixing. Then I worked with him on Enter K and Patience which were both semi-studio albums. Though he's seen as more of a producer these days, he's a marvellous engineer. Obviously it didn't mean that I was disallowing any input from him - far from it - but what we did do as co-production was the widescreen single version of Just Good Friends. In terms of the division of labour sounds are really down to him. He was originally a classical composer so he has a total understanding of harmony, tone, colour and so on. Obviously he's a totally trained musician, a totally trained engineer, and I'm trained, but in a bizarre way by myself and the years in Van Der Graaf, I suppose. I maintain a large amount of intuitive feeling. It's a problem for a writer to have too much awareness because it becomes difficult, if you know a certain sequence is meant to go to this chord, then you know you're taking a positive or negative decision depending on what you do with it. I don't have the knowledge, but out of the limited amount of notes and chords I know new tunes still keep popping up which is remarkable after all these years."


On the writing front, Peter has been working on an opera for some time now. Based around Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, he has slowly been piecing it together in between all his other projects.

"Well it's been underway ten years now. It will be at least another three years before it surfaces in one form or another. How it will turn out is somewhat mysterious at the moment. It's actually a project that, with the advent of sequencing and sampling has become more feasible since we started doing it. Originally it was hard to imagine that I'd have enough success to afford to pay thousands in session fees and what have you... Now I'II just have to pay thousands of pounds in sequencing fees!"

Will you appear yourself? I can imagine you as Roderick Usher. "Probably. There's obviously a great tendency to write myself into a role by virtue of bizarre vocal lines, and I do actually fulfill the written requirements for Usher, so it's more than likely I'll sing something or other, though it's not something I'm absolutely set on. However, this will be a long time coming — the next "normal" Peter Hammill album is long overdue. I shouldn't be at all surprised if there's a positive flood of new stuff over the next year."

It is to be hoped that this new material will gain Hammill the wider recognition his work merits. Though he comments, jokingly, that his audience is "infinitely smaller than I deserve" even the most impartial observer must go along with this considering the often breathtaking quality of his work, not to mention the large number of musicians benefiting from ideas borrowed or stolen from him. Paul Morley once called Fish of Marillion "the bastard son that Hammill never wanted". With the said group currently enjoying vast success, it seems only just that the infinitely more innovative and powerful music of Hammill should ascend from the cult status it's been languishing in for the last 16 years to a more elevated position within the echelons of pop.

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Studio Scan

Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


Electronic Soundmaker - Sep 1985

Donated & scanned by: Chris Strellis

Interview by Chris Shilling

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