Peter Hammill is on a serious roll. Van der Graaf Generator, the band he co-founded in 1967 and who spluttered to a halt in the late 70s, are very much back on the agenda; as is his prolific solo career, a fascinating body of work that offers more than 30 albums’ worth of intense avant-rock and distinctly personal musings on life, love and all things under and beyond the stars.
Yet it’s debatable whether Hammill has ever synchronised both factions of his art to such telling effect as he is right now. Van der Graaf Generator’s last album, 2011’s A Grounding In Numbers, was a career peak. While 2012’s Pno, Gtr, Vox Box, Hammill’s terrific seven-disc set of live recordings from 2010, proved that despite edging closer to a free bus pass, the man steadfastly refuses to rust.
Hammill’s new solo album, Consequences, is another wonderfully literate record full of disquieting sonics, dark moods and fiercely expressive lyrics. Like vintage claret, Hammill gets better with age. “I think that over the last few years, both the Van der Graaf stuff and my last couple of solo albums [2006’s Singularity and 2009’s Thin Air] have been right up there,” says Hammill.
“There’s been a particularly high standard with those three. The interesting thing is that, strangely at this late stage, I’ve got these two simultaneous careers. And in the latest incarnation of Van der Graaf, we’ve broadened the area in which we work to encompass some of the places that might traditionally have been regarded as solo territory. When I come to make a solo record these days I have to have a blueprint that’s well away from the Van der Graaf one. It’s absolutely hard and fast.”
The blueprint for Consequences was certainly different. Built around Hammill’s voice – backed by guitar, piano and very little percussion, there’s a shift of emphasis from his other recent work. “I try to do something different with each album,” he explains, “to keep myself awake and on the ball as much as anything else. First of all I actually finished all of the songs for Consequences before starting to record, which is unusual for me and the first time I’ve done things that way since back in the 70s.
“Then I decided it’d be great to have the lead vocal down from the very start. Which means it becomes an entirely different thing because you’re heading for less-is-more. A large element of what comes out is due to the fact that I write for my voice. Some of it’s very quiet and intimate, but a lot of it is pretty stentorian. Some of the song structures are pretty mad, even by my standards.”
If Hammill’s vocals act as the central pillar, the rest of Consequences is supported by sturdy narrative themes that sometimes reference his own past. Two songs, Eat My Words, Bite My Tongue and That Wasn’t What I Said, deal with the ramifications of saying something you later come to regret; a situation the uncompromising Hammill has experienced more than once: “Communication and miscommunication came up as one of the main things,” he says. “I’m a man who’s been known to rant and rave at certain times. And I am a man who’s sometimes been injudicious in running off at the mouth. The thing that interests me is the idea that once you say something, it’s there. And that applies more now than ever before. Interviews I did 40 years ago still come up. I was a very young man when I was doing them and had no idea that my words would be hostages to fortune.”
So can he sometimes be too exposed for his own good? “No. In my view it goes with the territory. I’m not totally a confessional writer. I do invent characters and situations. The stuff that’s pinballing around my head is not necessarily my life, but having spent a long time as a writer it’s important to tell the truth as much as possible. I used to worry about being misunderstood, but I feel differently these days. Songs are less precise than the written word and somebody else can get an entirely different interpretation than what you intended. That’s the magic of the thing.”
In keeping with some of Hammill’s best work, Consequences has some genuinely unsettling moments. Your New Pen-Pal and Close To Me suggest that being in the public eye invites a certain breed of obsessive stalker; both tunes essaying tales of women full of “malevolent fantasies” and with scant regard for conventional boundaries. Has Hammill ever fallen prey to a stalker fan himself?
“I wouldn’t say I was stalked,” he replies, after a pause, “but in the past I’ve had equivalent experiences – though not as extreme as the ones depicted here. That kind of thing goes with being a public figure; particularly back in the day, when I was comparatively more famous than I am now. But I wasn’t taking it so much from direct personal experience. This is another flipside of lives being completely out in the open these days. Internet exposure means that this kind of stalking is not necessarily just the preserve of famous people. It can happen to anybody. We’re all, in a way, making ourselves more available to this sort of thing, and peering over each other’s shoulders. It’s the modern world and I’m making fairly extreme suggestions of it in these songs.”
That said, Hammill admits that a sweet little ditty called Scissors does relate to a specific incident he witnessed in New York in the 70s. “We were driving through Times Square, which was a much wilder place than it is these days. There was a woman holding up a cardboard sign with the usual kind of message: ‘Please help. Kids to raise’. And as the car moved away and I looked backwards, I saw that she had a pair of six-inch-long scissors hidden behind the cardboard sign – obviously just waiting for somebody to wind down the window. This struck me as something I ought to translate. Originally I was thinking of a short story, and then in the course of writing it suddenly came to me that it was appropriate for this album. It fits into he ‘something might happen at any moment that’s a little unnerving’ side of things.”
There are, in true Peter Hammill fashion, occasional moments of uplift – tenderness even – to counteract the more menacing aspects of the album. The parting shot A Run Of Luck ends on a philosophical note: ‘Life’s still great, though the wick’s burned up’. “It’s upbeat with some downbeat notes,” chuckles Hammill. “It’s classic, late-period Hammill, that’s what it is! I decided from the outset that I was just going to use piano and voice as a sign-off.”
Whatever its merits, it’s unlikely Consequences will suddenly foist the 63-year-old Hammill into the spotlight his talent has often warranted. But, given his propensity for pulling together the disparate threads of free jazz, art rock and classical music, it’s been a career that could only have flourished in its own private patch. “The thing is,” he offers, “you don’t start doing this without wanting to be successful. But in the order of priorities, I’ve always been more interested in actually doing the stuff than in being the interest.”
Did any record company executive ever take him aside and offer to make him a star? “Happily I was never in the position of having that poisoned chalice pushed towards me. Looking back, maybe people never really thought there was big bucks in either mine or Van der Graaf’s career, but if people think there is, then it can be very difficult. What happens with successful bands at that point is that a lot of pressure comes in.
“So because of our comparative lack of success, that never happened to Van der Graaf or me. And for that I’m quite thankful. I’ve been able to spend my entire working life doing something I’m enthusiastic about, to have travelled and to have had an audience and the acceptance, and still be fired up about it.
“To have this strange double career with Van der Graaf in the twilight years is both energising and challenging. It’s a big ask to do Van der Graaf Generator, for all three of us, but it’s a privilege and a joy to still be doing it and discovering new stuff. I really am a very lucky guy.”