Name: Peter Hammill
Current release: In Translation on Fie! Records
Recommendations: Janet Baker singing Mahler’s “Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen” / Piazzolla’s “Balada para mia Muerte” sung by Amelita Baltar
Peter Hammill's official website www.sofasound.com contains links to news, works, tours and everything else you might want to know.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Well my first baby steps were at 14 or so. At that time, I’d become a fan of That Pop music, listening to Radio Luxembourg in bed late at night under the sheets. Everything was just so exciting. Then, as a result of British beat groups I found blues and then, idiotically, started trying to write blues songs, just voice and harmonica. Later I got a guitar and stumbled around on that. The first tunes I tried to pick out on piano were Nut Rocker and Theme from Exodus. So pretty much of a mess all told but, as I say, enthused by the magic of it all. I can’t say I really produced much music till a good deal later, but that’s when it started.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
It was stumbling, I suppose. But after a while I began to find my voice and in particular the songs began to become a tad quirkier. At the outset, I was very much a songwriter rather than a singer or musician and my musical skills were pretty basic. But I think I began to go along the right lines with lyrics.
Incidentally I was never much good at copying or covering anyone else and almost from the very beginning played and sang my own stuff.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Hmm, I think I actually hold back from inserting my own sense of identity into the creative act. I try to write from 1) a sense of universality or 2) a state of calm neutrality.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
First of all, not really being able to play things with any level of competence. It took me many, many years to achieve even a semi-pro level of musical skill. Then once I did have some skill it was important to go through a process of unlearning (or perhaps rediscovery of innocence) in order to come up with new things. To be honest this is an ongoing process even after 50 years of doing it.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I realised early on that the Music Industry was probably not going to have need of my services pretty soon, at least to the extent of giving me substantial advances and studio time. So, my survival as a musician depended on getting the means of production into my own hands. Since I’d learned a certain amount from observing engineers at work in real studios I bought a (TEAC) domestic 4 track the moment that they became more or less affordable - still quite a financial punt though.
This was effectively the moment I had my own studio, which obviously has continued to the present day. The minute I got that first 4 track I realised that the whole recording chain was in itself a musical instrument, a means of expression. Also, since I was embarking on this solo recording effort, I was keen to try some stuff which wouldn’t have arrived at all unless it was done that way. Effectively all the instruments and means of recording I’ve used since then have followed the same path.
The big difference, of course, was the arrival of sequencing, which I was introduced to by Paul Ridout, using a BBC computer. For myself I then got an Atari and Pro 16 software. So inevitably (when you learn a piece of software you stick with it unless there are really compelling reasons to change) I then followed the path to Macs and Cubase.
My approach to sequencing, though, remains rooted in my original tape-based work. I don’t quantise, I don’t tempo map, I regard the passage of the cursor as analogous to the tape winding through. Also, I try to take decisions early and not leave myself with a ball of confusion at the end. Working with 8 and then 16 tracks was very useful in that regard – often backing vocals would have to be done before the lead for instance.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Samplers and instrument emulators have been useful tools but I usually try to bolster or augment them with the rough edge of real instruments. Guitar amp and fx modelling has also been good. But again, you’re still working at heart with the same basic set of sound criteria as at the start.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
The kind of collaborations I’ve done have usually involved me being presented with a piece of music that’s already formed and arranged but without any indications of what would be a vocal top line. And I enjoy teasing that line out by experimentation and trial and error (usually recording dum dum type guide vox straight away – often without hearing any of the track first). Then it’s a question of finding out what the lyrical content should be of course...and seeing if what I’ve done fits the bill for the other participant(s). You have to go into these things with the acceptance that even though you think the work is good it might not be so for someone else.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
At the moment, of course the days blur into each other inexorably and suddenly it’s Saturday again. I work in my studio most days and I usually carry around with me the idea of what I’m trying to do in there even when I’m back in the house.Beyond that, abnormal life goes on at the moment.