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Peter Hammill: The Noise, Fireships & Terra Incognita

Interview | Artist By Paul Tingen
Published February 1994

With the recent re‑release of Loops & Reels, plus a new live album, Peter Hammill found time to talk to Paul Tingen about obscurity, crudeness, ADATs, and their place in his music today.

In the margins of Rock music, a man is working whose artistic influence seems to run in reverse parallel to his commercial success. The contrast here is so striking, and his presumed obscurity with the public at large so complete, that reviewers and journalists tend to link him to the famous names who have quoted him as an influence, rather than describe him on his own merits. This has become tradition to the degree that press releases accompanying the man's new albums start with the well‑worn list of artists influenced by this P. Hammill, 44, of Freshford, Wiltshire: David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, John Lydon, Marc Almond, Mark Smith and so on.

During a career now spanning 25 years and a stunning 30‑odd albums, Peter Hammill has been a pioneer of the one‑man recording approach and sonic studio experimentation; he was one of the first to work with synths; ahead of most, he blended Rock, Jazz and Avant‑garde improvisation with his band Van Der Graaf Generator in the 1970s; he experimented in a highly innovative way with MIDI and live computer sequences (on And Close As This, 1986); and last but not least, he recorded the first‑ever Punk album (Nadir's Big Chance, released in 1975, and quoted by Johnny Rotten as a major influence on the Sex Pistols).

All this, however, somehow bypasses the real heart of Hammill's work. His music and singing are 'intense' and the subject matter of his lyrics "not for the average Joe Public". He's 'even' published two books of lyrics, poetry and short stories (Killers, Angels, Refugees, 1974 and Mirrors, Dreams and Miracles, 1982) — as if it's still considered an anomaly when the lyrics of a rock musician should rise above a variation on the 'lick my love pump' theme. The real point is that Hammill has, in his own words, "long held out that the 'popular song' is capable of sustaining far more in terms of content, subject and effort than it is generally supposed or required to," and has thus consistently ventured into unknown territory, paving the way for others.

Explorations of science‑fiction themes on early VDGG albums soon made way for spiritual and existential questions and observations. Hammill wasn't afraid to address life's big questions, such as the meaning of it all, destiny, the existence of a spiritual world, life after death, the essence of marriage, and so on. Later on, he started tackling political and social issues, most notably on The Future Now (1978) and pH7 (1979). He also questioned the nature of language, chance, synchronicity, and the unconscious on works like Enter K (1982) and the epic A Black Box (1980), developed an odd fascination for the ins and outs of driving cars on Sitting Targets (1981) and In A Foreign Town (1988), and has looked at male‑female relations on all his albums. Arguably one of Britian's best lyricists, most of Hammill's lyrics can stand alone in print.

All Change

Over the years Hammill has toned down the big, epic songs that characterised his early work, and settled for the more traditional four or five minute song format. Even his singing has of late become more restrained and less exalted. As a result, much of the music press has for years been delivering the almost compulsory "Hammill's most accessible album yet" routine with every new release. But it appears that only recently has Hammill finally removed all the main obstacles towards reaching a larger audience. Many of his previous albums were characterised by an uncompromising DIY approach, with Hammill playing almost all instruments, plus doing the knob‑twiddling and production himself in his home studio, Sofa Sound. The result was often a rather crude, under‑produced sound, which had its idiosyncratic charm but left many listeners longing for a more sophisticated approach. But with the recent release of Fireships and the noisy The Noise (1993), it appears that it's all change in the Hammill quarters.

Firstly, he's got a brand‑new studio in Bath, called Terra Incognita. Secondly, whilst his DIY approach has been carried to its extreme with the formation of his own label (Fie!), Hammill's finally released some control: he co‑produced, engineered and arranged Fireships with David Lord (producer of Peter Gabriel's fourth album), and The Noise features a full band, rather than the occasional guest artist.

The two albums sound, by Hammill standards, stunningly sophisticated, and by any standard, excellent. Fireships is an introspective, acoustic sounding collection of (mainly) love songs with masses of MIDI orchestrations, whilst The Noise is a powerful, wild Rock statement, with Hammill clearly enjoying cranking up the volume. Though reminiscent of his Punk excursion Nadir's Big Chance in terms of energy, The Noise is tuneful, grooves infectiously, and sounds massive. Yet ironically, and typically of the way in which Hammill treats the conventions of success, he has subsequently released two albums which are every bit as crude and inaccessible as any of his previous work. A live album called There Goes The Daylight plus a CD release of Loops & Reels, previously only available on cassette, were released last November.

Loops & Reels is subtitled 'Analogue Experiments 1980‑1983' and contains exaxctly that: strange, analogue sound manipulations, tape loops, a song featuring only Kora, percussion and voice, and two instrumental ballet pieces. There Goes The Daylight is a recording of a concert Hammill played in London in April 1993, and is only marginally more civilised than his previous live albums, both double LPs: Vital (1978) with Van Der Graaf and The Margin (1985). It illicited only one star from a bewildered Q magazine reviewer, as did another radically uncommercial work by Hammill, The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1991). Usher is an opera, based on a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, that was 19 years in the making. It features Erasure's Andy Bell, as well as Lene Lovich, Sarah‑Jane Morris and Herbert Grînemeyer on vocals, plus Hammill on guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and more MIDI orchestra.


In a press officer's living room in central London, Peter Hammill is sitting, ready to answer questions as well as explain the recent radical changes in his 'normal' solo output. For someone who's graced with such a powerful voice, he looks amazingly thin and frail. But there is firmness in his handshake and openness, curiosity, and amusement in his eyes — defying expectations of the tortured artist which some of his art could easily suggest. His dark hair is greying strongly, and he very much comes across as the proverbial English gentlemen as he speaks and laughs with his deep, sonorous voice.

So why all these extremely different albums, with a new sound on some and an old sound on others, and his own, brand‑new, record company? Hammill decides to tackle the easiest question first, explaining that his record company is the result of him being pretty fed up with endless changes of record company (he's been with Charisma, Virgin, Naive, Foundry, Enigma and Some Bizarre over the last decade).

"Well, 'Fie!' is an old Shakespearean word meaning 'basta!' or 'enough!'. None of the labels I've been with have done any promotion, so there really didn't seem to be much point in carrying on with that line. I can under‑promote myself better than anyone on the planet, so I decided I might as well do that."

It's much easier to be creative and leading edge when the only available instruments you have are a Revox, a piano, an organ and a guitar.

Hammill is quite happy to admit to the element of "crudeness" in his previous work, in some cases even calling it "brutal". There were several factors which contributed to his new sonic sophistication on Fireships and The Noise, the main one being the consumer switch from vinyl to CD.

"Together with the all‑permeating presence of hi‑fi systems today," he explains, "it imposes a greater sonic responsibility on artist and producer. The Future Now (1978) and pH7 (1979) were revolutionary albums — recorded with one monophonic synth, a piano, guitars and a Revox — and their crudeness is part of their identity. But these albums sounded unacceptable to many people even when they came out 14‑15 years ago, and it would certainly be unacceptable to me today to record like that. But it wasn't until Out Of Water (1990) that I became fully aware of the CD aspect and started to consciously work on a different sound. That album is definitely a bridge between my older and newer work."

So, having tried to reach new audiences with these albums, why release There Goes The Daylight and Loops & Reels, both bursting with his familiar 'crudeness'? Isn't this defeating the purpose a little?

He laughs: "I admit that it looks a bit like reversing forwards. But Loops & Reels is released purely because it was never available on CD before, and when I transferred my original analogue masters to DAT for preservation, I found that there was enough there to warrant a re‑release, even if it's whacky stuff. The point of Daylight is that it's a live album. My live albums are by their very nature rather brutal, because I want to capture what really happened on stage. So there's no overdubbing or sweetening later on. It does mean that I have to live with the critical response, but I suppose it's really a kind of back‑handed compliment that after 25 years I'm still capable of making an ugly noise and upsetting a reviewer, rather than making a smooth, dead, middle‑aged noise!"

Rough Diamonds

The other point about There Goes The Daylight is, according to Hammill, that it's recorded entirely on Alesis ADAT. He's got three ADAT digital 8‑track recorders in his studio in Bath and declares himself "a big fan". Now halfway through the recordings for the follow‑up to The Noise, he declares enthusiastically: "Using three ADATs has many advantages over normal 24‑track. One is that I can now take a machine home and record my piano there. Another is the options they give for digital comping and editing. I will often have six or seven takes for each song, with rough guitars on one, rough drums on another and so on. I will also have one rough mixdown of everything, which will be the guide to which I'll be writing and playing. With all these 'virtual tracks', it's like having 48‑track digital but for a fraction of the price. It does require discipline though, so I'm back to having markers around and big charts on the wall to make notes of what I've already recorded and where, and what I still have to do."

The ADATs are a recent acquisition and were not used on Fireships and The Noise. Instrumental in the upgrading of Hammill's engineering and production skills on these albums were his move from his original Sofa Sound home studio in Freshford, Wiltshire, to the upgraded Terra Incognita, and the influence of producer/engineer David Lord.

Lord, who produced Peter Gabriel's eponymous fourth album, used to own and run Crescent Studios in Bath and had worked with Hammill on many previous occasions. He engineered Enter K (1982) and Patience (1983), mixed most of Hammill's solo releases of the last decade, and did the live recording of There Goes The Daylight. He also co‑produced one track on Out Of Water, and one track on The Love Songs (1984), a glorious re‑working of a song called 'Just Good Friends' — an early taster of the potential of Hammill's songs when properly engineered and produced. Having closed Crescent, Lord invited Hammill to move into his old studio premises in the late '80s. Both men now occupy one studio each at Terra Incognita; Lord's is filled with an old, high quality KW broadcasting desk, while Hammill's features a Soundtracs MR32 console, with Tracmix 32‑channel automation, a Soundcraft 760 24‑track, Fostex E16 16‑track, ATC SCM100 monitors, and three Alesis ADATs.

"The Soundtracs is an old M‑series, a top‑end home studio desk, probably the only one of its kind with automation. That's the point of not having a commercial studio. Instead of needing the biggest desk to demonstrate your prowess, you can invest in loads of outboard stuff."

Indeed, Hammill has 40‑odd effects boxes in Terra Incognita, amongst them Lexicon PCM70, LXP1, LXP5, Roland delays and reverbs, UREI and Drawmer compressors, and so on.

According to Hammill, Lord's input on Fireships and the continuous cross‑fertilisation of them being in the same building have greatly contributed to his new sonic proficiency, as exemplified on The Noise, which he engineered himself.

"I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to David," he readily admits, "because I used to be very sloppy about noise levels and frequency ranges. David is fanatical about sound and taught me a lot. Particularly working on Fireships, when we were endlessly comparing mixes and recording in the two control rooms, that was a great education for me. In the past I have done a lot of self‑education in public, presenting rough diamonds instead of endlessly chipping and chiselling away. I felt that was an interesting and valid thing to do. Also, I never felt it was my job to present a completely cut and polished diamond."

Golden Rule

Lord didn't only help Hammill to produce much more sonically polished diamonds than ever before, he was also instrumental in the creation of the sophisticated orchestral arrangements on Fireships. Lord was trained as a classical composer and his knowledge of the orchestra proved pivotal in the creation of the very realistic sounding MIDI orchestrations on the album.

Hammill:"David really understands orchestral colours and used many very good samples and the odd synth sound to flesh out the orchestra. He's a real Akai S1000 man and has an extensive library of sounds, large parts of which he sampled himself. Many of his string sounds came from Stuart Gordon's violin."

Most of the sounds were achieved by layering three or four different patches together from different synths. There's hardly anything on there that's only one sound.

Hammill explains that in order to obtain a realistic string sound, they needed Gordon to play some of the lead lines: "just one or two live violins will give it a breadth and vitality. 'Curtains', for example, was a lot of work for David, because it was put together, taken apart, put together, taken apart again and so on. David can score things, but he much preferred to instantly sequence things so that he could demonstrate to me where he was going. He then gave Stuart very specific lines to play. 'Oasis' was done much more intuitively, with David working on the percussion and keyboards. The arrangement of that track was very much a joint effort, like most of the album. We would often be working independently in our own studio rooms, swapping tracks after we'd worked on them for a while."

The Fall Of The House Of Usher, on the other hand, was the usual complete Hammill DIY effort, with him playing all instruments, engineering and producing too. Though the result is impressive, the sound and (orchestral) arrangements still contain much of his previous 'crudeness'. The equipment used on Usher Hammill describes as "very minimal": an Emax sampler, a DX7, a Bit 01 synth, two TX812 racks, an Akai MX73 master keyboard, a Roland MKS20 digital piano, and an Atari running Steinberg Pro24 sequencing software.

Hammill: "The Bit 01 is a monophonic, very crude machine that's a great delight. It's very unpredictable and can't store anything. Initially I sequenced everything on the Emax sampler [via its somewhat limited onboard sequencer], but then I continued on Pro24 and used that to the very end, because the first golden recording rule is: 'never change your system if you're in the middle of a project'."

Fireships sequences were recorded on an Atari Mega 4 with Steinberg Cubase software, a Lexicon MRC MIDI Controller, Steinberg SMP24 SMPTE/MIDI processor and Sycologic M16 MIDI patchbay. Sound sources used included Lord's S1000, plus Proteus/2 XR Orchestral, Roland D50, Korg Wavestation SR, Oberheim Matrix 1000, and Roland MKS20.

Hammill: "Most of the sounds were achieved by layering three or four different patches together from different synths. There's hardly anything on there that's only one sound. That's the way I like to work. I don't like to sample myself too much and don't have the patience, nor the technological aptitude, to get into trimming sounds. Since doing Usher I now use the Emu MPS keyboard, which I also use live. The Akai MX73 still gets used in the studio."

Drum Sequencing

Synth sound sources on the more guitar‑orientated The Noise came from a TX812, plus Roland D110 and the Bit 01. Hammill adds that there were very few, if any, sequences on that album, only to suddenly remember that all the drums were, in a way, sequenced. This raises an eyebrow from me, because although the sonic clarity and discrete placement of the various drum sounds do indeed suggest a drum machine in there somewhere, the infectious basic feel is very much that of a live drummer. So what have they been up to?

Hammill grins: "Well, contrary to how it sounds, the whole album was layered. Bassist Nic Potter and drummer Manny Elias (ex‑Tears For Fears) didn't meet until after the recordings. I had SMPTE timecode and a basic form on tape and then they, and guitarist John Ellis, came in to do their overdubs, after which I took another three to four months of noodling around, shifting things and doing live overdubs myself.

"But Manny's drums are all sequenced. He's an absolute wizard. He has one of those Akai/Linn MPC60 machines and just taps live on the pads. It's exactly the same as when he's using sticks. Even when he copies and edits parts, he never leaves the mentality of drumming, which is why I credited him with 'drums' on the album, rather than 'drum programming'.

"The whole question of recording drums is terribly difficult these days, partly because everyone is used to hearing such discrete, powerful drums. David [Lord] has a heavy reluctance to record a kit now, because of the results you can get with drum machines. Also, there's a lot of the traditional game of trying to make 4/4 sound not like 4/4 on The Noise, so there's much switching of bars going on, like to 13/8 and 11/8. To get drums driving through that you need to be able to examine exactly what's happening, and using a drum machine is very handy for that."

So The Noise and Fireships sound great, contain excellent and meaningful songs, are well arranged and well played. But, although highly individual in their styles, they aren't exactly ground‑breaking. Hammill admits that the days of wild and reckless experimentation appear to belong to the past. This has partly to do with the particular stage he is at in his own artistic development, where fine‑tuning is the name of the game, at least for the moment, but he also echoes observations made by people like Thomas Dolby and Rupert Hine, namely that current technology puts so many options at musicians' fingertips that it's much harder than ever before to be original.

Says Hammill: "I'm very excited by my ADATs, because I have a similar relationship to them as I had to the original 4‑ and 8‑tracks in the past. They're very friendly hi‑tech, and require a similar, focused mentality. But pushing the boundaries is still very difficult now. The main reason is that sequencing and MIDI sound sources have come to the fore so much. I wouldn't know how I'd go about making something like The Future Now today. Leaving aside the brutality of some of the sounds on that album, it was innovative. It's much easier to be creative and leading edge when the only available instruments you have are a Revox, a piano, an organ and a guitar, and you had to really warp things manually. Now there are thousands of sounds and racks full of effects that can do anything. Now anyone can sample and bash something in.

"I don't think it has the same emotional flavour as the days when one was able to realise only 80% of one's original idea, even after a lot of hard work. Now one's tweaking the last 99.23% element. There's so much more control, which is great, but the results people get are less astounding. And of course there's immense pressure to make good, professional sounding things, to have accomplished arrangements. It's a conflict, because at the same time you want something odd and unusual in your music. Maybe the answer is to deliberately restrict one's canvas and only work with a limited amount of boxes, or decide not to sequence? That would be a perverse step for me — but there's nothing wrong with doing it."