Peter Hammill: "I've been doing what the hell I like for 50 years"
Evocative of his late-70s solo work, From The Trees is an album that only Peter Hammill could make – and it’s his 35th solo one at that. We catch up with him to find out about the new album
Peter Hammill is now very much an elder statesman of progressive rock. Setting up as an independent at the turn of the 80s with his own studios and label, he has continued to amass a challenging, never-less-than-fascinating body of work. For the past 12 years, he has run his solo career alongside that of his old band, Van der Graaf Generator. From The Trees is Hammill’s 35th solo album. If you add in his live albums and work with VdGG, he has released over 60 records since 1969.
It’s impossible to write a Hammill feature without using the phrase ‘cult artist’ – and what a cult he is. At the most recent Progressive Music Awards, there was a veritable queue of fellow performers waiting for an audience with him. “There were lots of people coming up and being very nice to me,” he tells Prog.
There’s always the incredible disconnect between the charming, affable individual and the barking, coruscating artist. Although the days of him slipping into nightshirts and swigging from brandy bottles to deliver his vocals are long behind him, From The Trees maintains his high standards of uneasy listening. “I’m very pleased with how it turned out,” Hammill says.
Here his words are set amid tender, often pretty melodies that evoke cherished songs from his back catalogue, such as Ophelia and If I Could. It’s a more straightforward work compared to the multi-release …all that might have been…, which was built from the bottom up in the studio.
“I decided I wanted to do that old school thing of having completed songs before I went into the recording process,” he says of From The Trees. “I wanted to start with a collection of songs that were built from scratch: I didn’t refer to anything else that I’d done at all. I just had a guitar and a voice, or a piano and voice rather than doing any other superstructure on top of it. It was something I hadn’t done for years.”
On top of that, he road-tested the material, playing six of the album’s 10 songs at his three-night residency at London’s Cafe Oto in March this year. “As I happened to be doing a few shows, I ought to have a go at doing them live. Those I played live did inform the recording.”