In celebration of the 50th anniversary release of the debut Van der Graaf Generator album “The Aerosol Grey Machine”, we here post an unpublished interview with Peter Hammill made in August 2016 about what at this point remains the group’s last studio album, “Do Not Disturb”.
The article was written by Michael Björn and originally slated for publication in Japanese music magazine Strange Days in the autumn of 2016. However, the magazine was thrown into a cash flow crisis as a result of the sudden bankruptcy of its main distributor and publication had to be halted. After a long struggle to try to get back into circulation, the magazine eventually folded.
R.I.P. Strange Days, you are dearly missed.
Copyright © Michael Björn 2016
After having been active for over a decade, the current incarnation of Van der Graaf Generator is the longest in the band’s career. But all good things must end. “Do Not Disturb” is a concept album about the life, and ultimately the death, of the band itself. Even though Van der Graaf Generator have always challenged themselves and evolved their music rather than fall back on past victories, this new album stands out as a true late-career artistic high that will deeply touch fans.
We meet up with a very thin and fragile looking yet friendly and quite relaxed Peter Hammill in his home town Bradford-on-Avon on a sunny and warm early autumn day to discuss the album and its severe implications. So severe, in fact, that the article draws to an end when this interviewer becomes so emotionally affected that continuing the interview becomes difficult. Lost for words – yet, as a fan, unable to let go.
The current incarnation of Van der Graaf Generator is now officially the longest one…
Peter: We only go for a month or two months a year. But, having said that, the period from “At least we can do…” to “Pawn hearts” was only two years. So, it is right. And certainly, making three studio albums is as much as any previous period. We are kind of astonished by that ourselves, actually.
“Do not disturb” sounds very organic; it really sounds like a band playing. Could you talk a little about the writing and recording of it.
Peter: We try to be very civilised these days. We meet, have a meal and discuss what happened in the last round. And then go: “OK, so what might we do in this coming year?” This time, we decided that we would be making another album.
But along with that, there is the checking of the medicines, there is the fact that we are all of a certain age and all of us are losing friends year by year. So we had a kind of acknowledgement of mortality, and of capacity, and very specifically said that maybe this will be the last record that we make. That put a particular spin on what the material was going to be.
Another thing is that – and I don’t think I have done this before – I asked Hugh and Guy if there was anything that they thought I ought to be writing about. They had a couple of ideas that went in.
Then there was a period of about three months or so when I was working almost continuously on this.
The demos you sent to the others were in the exact order as they appear on the record.
Peter: That is right, yeah. I started sending them two or three tunes. but then, once we were into the second month, I started sending them complete CDs, which from the outset were these songs, in this order. More and more worked on; lyrics more and more final. A new part here or there. But they went out in this order, as on the album.
Very early we also decided to rehearse the entire thing before we recorded. We haven’t done that for years and years; with “Grounding in Numbers” and “Trisector” we’d arrange, rehearse and record all at the same moment. This time we actually met and worked it out together. It was very intensive, but also quite interesting for us, because it was a bit like playing live without you having to get it absolutely right. In turn that produced a bit of a challenge when we came to record it: A lot of it is actually really quite complicated stuff – and a lot of it just comes once.
We had a week in between to worry about it, and to assemble all our bits of paper. Hugh said actually that for this record, he had more written down notes than for any previous Van der Graaf record from the earliest days on.
Then you went into the studio.
Peter: An interesting thing is that the songs were basically short, but with many different parts. When we finished the backing tracks, everything was still in little bits, very much in the ways of a 70s recording. In the 70s you would have the individual multi-tracks and they would never come together until the final mix; these days you can of course do it quicker. So when the backing tracks had been recorded, the first thing was actually to put the entire songs together. That was sort of like an old school thing redone.
To me, this is a concept album about the group Van der Graaf Generator. Each song tells a specific chapter in that story.
Peter: Naturally, having had this decision that it might be the last one that we make – yes – it had to be that kind of record. We have had this communal life experience, and although we are certainly trying to play with a degree of youthful enthusiasm, it is an older man’s record, effectively saying: “Once it was like this, and we are here to give testimony.”
The first song, “Aloft”, to me it is the story of artistic awakening.
Peter: I had this idea that our career is like being taken up in a hot air balloon. You go up, you can’t go back; you are going to go wherever this thing takes you. With the slight difference that your voice is the hot air that goes into the balloon that is carrying you.
The next song is “Alfa Berlina”. This is in 1971, and you are in Italy.
Peter: Yeah, the great Mauricio Salvadore who was our first promoter in Italy personally drove us around in an Alfa Berlina.
The song starts with Italian-sounding noises.
Peter: Highly specific noises. You know, particular cities in Italy… yeah! We had no idea of what was about to hit us. We thought: “Oh, we are going to Italy for ten days, at the very least this will be like having something of a holiday.” We went and did a sound check in Milan, went out and had a coffee, came back and there were the riot trucks and the tear gas going off, and thousands of people outside who couldn’t get in and so on… From then on it just went very crazy. And also of course the Italian lifestyle was very crazy and… just driving around madly in the Alfa Berlina!
If “Alfa Berlina” was the high of touring, then next song, “Room 1210”, is the low of touring. If you have seen one hotel room on the road you have seen them all.
Peter: Yes – and no. Of course a hotel room can be very boring. But it is also kind of a place of safety. All the rest of the time, you are in public view. But you equally know that you have to, at a certain point open that door. Quite specifically, it is about Tokyo. Because after the last time the band went there, Guy said: “In a certain way, I still want to be back there in room twelve hundred and whatever it was because I didn’t have any complications. Now I am back and I have to deal with all the stuff in my life; tax, family and what have you.” The fact that it is boring is the great thing about it as well!
That song also contains the album title in the lyrics.
Peter: Although lot of people don’t think that we have a laugh, those who follow know that we are quite a humorous group. There is, on the one hand: “Leave me alone, do not disturb”. But we are also saying that Van der Graaf generator are not a troubling group in any way, and there is no reason to feel disturbed by us, ha ha! So there is that flip flop.
The song is also inspired by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who was the writer in “Bunsho” on the previous album. He has a fantastic story called “Spinning Gears,” set in the 1920s, about an author cracking up in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
“Forever falling” is about the band developing conflicts.
Peter: Yeah, and not quite connecting, and what have you. And not only – I think it is also about split personality, and you not making a connection with yourself.
Then we get into an instrumental with a Japanese title, “Shikata ga nai”. Is this is about the break up of the band after the Quiet Zone era?
Peter: I won’t say yes or no because even though I spent much more time in Japan than the others, the title comes from Hugh, whose son is learning Japanese.
I think this is not entirely a concept album – it is not as rigid as that. This track is a pause for breath; all the four songs before have been about what has happened in the past. What goes on from this point is in the present.
And maybe starting from “Present” in that sense. So the first half is about the old incarnations of the band, and from here on it is about the new incarnations?
“Oh no (I must have said yes)” seems to take place between the recording of “Present” and the show at the Royal Festival Hall on the 6th of May 2005.
Peter: Yeah, kind of, as a peak example – because it is the principle that however strange or uncomfortable or regretful the circumstances, if I end up anywhere, I must have said yes. Again, you can go back to various Italian events, all sorts of events. There is always the option to say yes or no; so it is my responsibility and I have to go through with it, because I must have said yes. Guy suggested it as a title and said: “You should do something on ‘Oh no I must have said yes.’” Because I so often have stated this.
But yeah, you are right, particularly that waiting at the side of the stage at the Royal Festival Hall. It had been a sequence of yeses all the way back into discussing in 2003, rehearsing in 2004 and recording “Present”. So yes, now we had to go through with it.
The song has kind of these rushes of energy in it.
Peter: This is one of the extremely difficult musical bits, the way it rushes. Such very funny time signatures, almost not quite time signatures. The middle section I also think is one of the most interesting bits in our entire story, because it is totally different and I wrote it as a really hard riff. We started rehearsing and Guy was saying “We’ve got all that hard stuff going on at the front, why don’t we just go jazz trio on it?” And then this great idea, again, that Guy had: “You’ve got all those pedals sitting down there – wouldn’t it be great if every so often you just hit a couple of pedals and go ape for a couple of bars?” So we did it and that section is entirely as played!
In “Brought to book” you have already left the current phase, and think about the totality of what Van der Graaf has accomplished.
Peter: Signing off and taking the responsibility for it. Brought to book as a phrase normally means you are held responsible for your sins, or at least for your actions. So you are right that there is this loose concept about the album, because it has gone from “Aloft” with the force of my will and imagination and the fact that I am hot airing away, I’ll lift this thing up in the air and the balloon will go where it goes – and where it lands, that’s where you have to sign off: This is what we did.
What is your judgement then. What was good and what was bad?
Peter: The fact that we haven’t done the same thing – I mean that has always been the case with Van der Graaf, but particularly so in these ten years. It is against the odds that we should have learned so much more; but as with everything, the what’s good and what’s bad are just two sides of the same coin. It was terrible to reach the end of 2005, actually having managed to pull off this whole thing of having a go again; making “Present”, doing the first appearance at the Festival Hall and carrying on doing other tours. Having done it, we felt, from pure motives, and having had fantastic reactions – just to come to the end of 2005 and realise – well, actually that might be it. Because Jackson was not there anymore. Having exceeded all our expectations and then just go out like that.
So that was a bad moment. But the point of that bad moment is that it did push us into being a trio. So out of that terrible feeling at the end of 2005 came all of this fantastic stuff. And the three of us have been, at times, quite personally stretched by doing it. But if was easy, then it wouldn’t be worth doing.
But if you have to explain to Saint Peter on Judgement Day?
Peter: The good side is that we never got sucked into the music business. But that is also the bad side, because in doing that it means effectively that the audience has been restricted.
As a result of being in this position, nobody’s jobs in record companies were ever dependent on us. Over the years, I have had friends who have been responsible for whole record companies – and have seen the pressure that they are under. Some of them deal with it fantastically well, but others… what they have to give up is the ability to say no or yes. Once you have become big to a certain extent, you don’t ever get asked that question anymore, it is just assumed that way way back you signed it all in advance. So we were never in that position and that is great. I have continued to have a lot of fun, while being, I hope, comparatively serious. So, all in all, I am pretty happy with things.
Then comes “Almost the words”, which is about almost but not quite succeeding to communicate.
Peter: Almost… I am known as a words chap, but I am imprecise about words. In fact, I’d like to be ambivalent, I don’t believe that I am that original a thinker, but sometimes I see glimmer of language that works. Like a spinning gear. At times I am frustrated by the fact that it is almost within grasp but not quite. On the other hand, that’s a reason to continue rather than a reason to give up.
You could turn that frustration towards yourself as well. What is this crazy thing called Van der Graaf Generator? Do you really understand it yourself?
Peter: The answer certainly is no, because I, Hugh and Guy, we all have our angles on what happened – even on what’s happened in the last ten years, let alone what happened all those years ago.
Then we have “Go”.
Peter: Which is the most unusual song to finish a band record with.
I cried when I heard it the first time.
Peter: When I came up with this, I thought: “Is this a Van der Graaf tune?” because it doesn’t want to be developed very much more. But – particularly in the general concept of what we are talking about – I had to present it to the others at least. I left it to the last one of the demos that I sent to them – and it always stuck in that final position, forever. Hugh went: “Ah, yeah! Fantastic! I have always wanted to do something very very quiet.” Guy said: ” Very unusual… but – perfect, I think, for this band. And for this record.”
One of the sins you commit to on “Brought to book” is self-obsession. Now, this is the…
Peter: …this is the reverse. Yeah. I am not saying that this is the last record we will ever make. I am not saying that. But even if we make another one, mentally this is the last one.
With this song, it is not just only the words, it also the music – it doesn’t stop, it just lets go… there is this feeling of…
Peter: Yeah. It’s air.
And you are left in that space of air.
Peter: And silence. I can’t give enough credit to Hugh and Guy – who always, in the world of Van der Graaf, are the bedrock of the entire thing. Back in the day, everyone would go for the double horns, lots going on, operatic singing and what have you… Of course Guy could have done much more on this… but he just puts in tiny little touches, and Hugh…. I did my original two or three keyboard parts demo, which he took and just arranged for organ. Didn’t add anything else, no more flourishes. It is a hymn – as so many Van der Graaf things have been – a requiem.
I thought that maybe this is a song I would like to be played at my funeral.
Peter: Well, maybe me too.
… sorry I am finding it a bit hard to speak…
Where do you go from here with Van der Graaf?
Peter: Well, literally, where we go next from here is that we will have a meal together.
You could call it “the last supper!”
Peter: Quite so, ha ha! Even if we do nothing else, we will have our lunch. Obviously, the question that hovers over us is playing these things live. We will consider that. I dare say that it might well happen. But I can’t say yes and I can’t say no.
I think that whatever, we are going to remain friends in the greatest of ways. And it is such an unbelievable surprise that we have managed to come through all of this stuff – and a lot of the stuff we have been through with each other going back over the years, from back then in ’68-’69… yeah!
Definitely a lunch! The rest – I don’t know.