This is the transcript of my interview with Peter Hammill. As Ed Clarke has pointed out, there’s room for a rather more than usually long account of the circumstances under which this interview came about. That’s available here.
The interview took place in Peter’s conservatory.
Pete Langman (and Ed Clarke) meets Peter Hammill on April 15th, 2005
The story after the QEH ‘reunion’ gig
Shortly thereafter, in the way of things, basically over the last thirty years, people say will you do a show, da-dee-da, so after the QEH, there were a couple of offers that were not really serious, so once I sent an email to the others saying, ‘i’m not saying we should do this, specifically I’m not saying that we should not do it, I’m just letting you know that these kinds of things come in.’ they were offers that were sort of in the artworld as opposed the the Mannfred Mann, 10 Years After kind of thing, so we started exchanging emails, back in, this is immediately after the QEH solo show. One of the fundamental points of it being that we had remained friends throughout this period and have met up several times, but in the last three or four years, the most frequent meetings have been at the funeral of our road crews. Morbid but true. so, one of the subtexts of these emails was ‘if we are ever going to do it, maybe we’d better pay attention to the ticking clock and the fact that we are all comparatively hale and healthy at the moment. So these round robin emails continued for about six months or so, expressing all our hopes and more particularly our fears, and then finally we agreed that the minimum we should actually do was meet and have a meal. So we did in September 03. As I say, we knew that we got on in a social sense, but that’s an entirely different thing to making any kind of commitment to play together let alone actually do anything in public together. So we got on fine at this meeting, and decided that the next best thing to do would be to actually have a go at playing together, still without making any sort of public commitment, even any communication that this was happening to anybody, at all, there was a complete omerta, literally only immediate family were allowed to know about this. o we agreed that we were going to be going down to Devon in feb 04, and that was all booked up and so on, then, of course, I had my heart attack in december, so there was through december and january there was the question is this going to happen… from me as much as anyone else…
It certainly accelerated, it was an endorsement of the basic premise under which we were working, effectively. It was also, going away to do this work, or meeting was the first bit of work that I’d done, it was only a couple of months afterwards, so I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d stand up to it, but, on the other hand, it was clearly following the original premise, and it was a case of ‘if I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to do anything. So, we went for it. I was allowed to go…there was a degree of trepidation from family, I dare say. So we were there a week away entirely by ourselves,
Were you trying to recreate something you had before in rehearsal terms?
To be honest, we didn’t even start with an A4 sheet of we are going to try to do this, we are going to try to do that. Obviously there were some songs ready, which had built up over the preceding period, that I thought would have a chance of being VDG tunes both in terms of what they were, and what their subjects were and so-on and that they would be capable…
The ph morphing into VDGG tunes, like Emperor. Where does PH end and vdgg begin?
I’m not the one with an emperor fetish in this country!
If it’s been worked on there’s the arrangement, this is clearly the case with emperor, nutter alert is another example, initially that could have been a H tune, but by the time we start changing key several times, dropping numbers, going in and out, then having a chaos section, what have you, that’s clearly VDG, so there’s an element of arrangement. There’s also a fundamental thing, particularly with the four of us, but it does apply to other formations of VDG, but this four was the end of the first period, the beginning of the second, but when the four of us play together, there is, for better or worse, something that happens. The noise comes up. And in terms of … this was just immediately clear. We didn’t have an a4 sheet but there were these tunes, I think first of all we set up and had a bit of a play, and then you know, what shall we do, and I think nutter alert was the first one to go, and immediately, it was, ‘that’s that noise then, isn’t it’ and obviously partly in terms of the instrumentation, there isn’t another organ with bass pedals, sax, electric piano drum group, so that’s the noise.
Can you put your finger on the interaction that happens, beyond the mere physicality of the instruments?
It’s just the noise, to be honest I’d rather leave it mysterious for myself as well, and equally it’s something that’s not static. This obviously is the first time the four of us seriously have played together for thirty years and it was, it was kind of magical to discover that without, it will happen with concentration, but not with specific work, that it was just there, immediately, and even more surprising then was the fact that when we were just playing, there wasn’t this conscious attitude ‘ok, we’ve learnt a bit of that tune, now let’s have a bit of a play, it was just completely natural ‘we’ve got this room, we’ve got this week, we’re musicians we might as well play’. Completely natural fall-in. This was part of the previous VDG incarnation, the improvisation was always a part of it we never revealed. It was an entirely natural process. We went through the week, doing a bit of rehersal, learning something then have a play, then ended up playing everything that we’d woked at on the last day or so, it was diligent, and very hard work, as well. Hard work but fun.
The styles, ph vs VDG. Dates and albums, Godbluff and Nadir…
That whole period, there was the period that went Nadir, Godbluff, Still Life, Over, World Record, I think that was about two years, that period. It’s simply clear, in the middle of doing something what project it is, if it’s a solo album the responsibility and the decision making would be mine, if it’s a group project, it goes into that ghastly tumbrel of ‘somebody’s got to make a decision around here. In the course of working on something it becomes clear. You always know which project you’re working on
Even though you have effectively the same band?
The one occasion where this division is a bit more opaque would be chameleon and silent corner, particularly with black room and louse, because we played black room and louse before, slightly differently, but we had done them as VDG, but even there there was a division between this as a solo album, we won’t do them exactly as we did them with VDG. And them, of course around the course of the Godbluff re-formation, I think we tended to play live more things from the solo catalogue than from VDG 1, I think we weren’t doing killer, we might have been doing man erg and lemmings, but we certainly were doing Black Room, Louse, Gog, but they became VDG tunes when VDG were playing them.
Different structures between these tunes.
This comes down to the what is the difference when VDG is playing. I think what we try to do, is obviously do stuff with a degree of complexity, often just for the sheer craic of it. Obviously, we have now rehearsed, well, not obviously, we have now rehearsed for the festival hall and what follows, it’s a fascinating process going back and thinking, what happened there…oh yes, but why did we drop a beat there, well I think it must have been because it seemed like it would be fun, and all that sort of thing, so there is that fun element, so we want to play complex, structured stuff, but we want to get the the point where it feels quite natural and that one can sort of ignore it and jump off it, and a lot of the improvisational stuff comes out of somebody just going slightly astray, it’s wrong to say taking their eye off the ball with what the arrangement should be, but trusting the arrangement and trusting each other enough just to go on a flight of fancy, and say, miss the signal, and well, somehow we’ve got to get back together without the smoke and mirrors falling away.
Did it take a while for it to become natural again?
There was a sort of curve in it, I mean we had all prepared before the week, we had our spreadsheet of these are the tunes we’re going to look at and we all had looked at all of those tunes, but probably on about at least a third of them, the minute we started to play, my brain certainly went completely to blancmange. Hugh had more of a grip on everything but even he in certain places went …urg …um, and he was magnificent. So there was that ‘um, gosh this is difficult’, then there was a middle period where there was a lot of analysis of what exactly was happening, what was the signal, whose signal was this, who is – within the old VDG stuff, there is an extraordinary amount of stuff where it only works if you and I are playing together, and you are soloing, and you’re doing something else, and if one of us two who are meant to be together are leaning too far one way or the other it simply doesn’t work at all, so we had to re-establish what those axes were…
So there’s never a central axis, it changes depending on the circumstances
Exactly, sometimes it changes in mid-phrase, actually, the responsibility passes from one to the other particularly in terms of some of the ending, um, so then we had that hard work phase, in which we were working at each song individually as we went along, got up to a certain level with each song, of being able to be playful with them, and then obviously in the last couple of days we had to start doing them without gaps, without time to contemplate and go hmm, let me just visualise – there’s sports analogy here, you have to be able to visualise that ball flying into that hole at the end of Scorched Earth or whatever it may be in order for it to happen. But when it’s actually going one after another, you don’t have the chance.
So that was hairy, at the end, I would say that our competence was greatest somewhere in the middle of each individual tune but that’s not the acid test, firstly the acid test is deciding still exactly what we’re going to play, we haven’t decide that yet but yeah, we’ll be there.
VDG spirit in one track?
There really isn’t one, and I think I’ve realised that more having done this later rehearsal period, we are choosing things from all over the place in terms of the career, but as we went through, the 19-20 tunes that we were working on, it became clear that each one has its individual character, and we’d go through a guitar based one and then through something lyrical and then a melodic keyboard, very hard keyboard, absurd complication, still by the end suddenly remember, oh, there’s this kind of thing as well. It’s a very broad church, happily, the easy introduction to VDG life in a side bar, I’m really not sure. Also we did do, in the past, we packed in a lot in the two periods and each record is different. I think there’s a clear division in period one culminating in man-erg, lemming and lighthouse keepers, which is one kind of VDG and everything up to that point had led I think as a vector towards that record. The second period is more complicated, but I can’t define it, and then. Always, there’s been the fact that the live performances are fundamentally different, anyone who knows us will know that it was never our ambition to present records onstage exactly as they are on record, which of course was generally the ethos of the seventies, generally if you were a group playing music of any kind of complexity, you were meant to sound exactly the same onstage as on record and that’s not interesting, never was interesting, still definitely isn’t interesting now.
The retrospective pairings of albums.
There are certain seams that happen like that, there’s the godbluff still life thing, there’s chameleon silent corner in solo terms, future now and ph7, every so often there’s a pair.
Why do you find a direction and then move off
Fundamentally a fear of boredom – yours or the audiences? – I assume that if I get bored then the listener will surely follow. And, so I don’t want to do the same thing immediately after having done one thing, and after thirty-five years or so I don’t actually remotely imagine that I’m going to suddenly start doing something entirely different and new, I think there’s a certain something, I have a certain grammar, a certain vocabulary, a certain syntax of the stuff that I’m interested in, and the stuff that I write and perform and produce. And VDG has a different agenda in all of those, but the sources and the touchstones are quite broad enough to put together different combinations.
I’m not going to suddenly start cooking thai food if I’ve been doing traditional english food, but there’s still quite enough english food to do, and again in exactly the same way, however fantastic something may be, a great loin of lamb or whatever it is, you don’t want to eat it every day, you want to shift. So I think that’s the fundamental reason for it.
Nadir and where did that come from…
Maybe this is why there is a justification of having me in a guitar magazine, I have no pretensions as a guitarist’s guitarist, I have reasonable pretensions as rhythm guitarist which is a very specific role, and that’s the one that I’ve always liked, but all that nadir stuff I think it’s the fundamental that comes from when people first start learning guitar, possibly first start laying a tennis racket, ‘I want to learn three chords, play them not very well but very enthusiastically, and that’s it,’ and I assume that there’s an element of that in people starting to play, and that as where I started when I was fourteen, fifteen, it’s I’m a Man and Smokestack and Lightning and all that sort of stuff it’s the Who and it’s the Kinks, very very simple, well, deceptively simple because it’s not very simple at all. You know, John Lee Hooker…in terms of the basic Nadir stuff there’s nadir, birthday special, two or three spectres, to a certain extent, and they do have the common thing of they’re just two or three chords: whack it. Electric guitar, wow. How exciting. And er, to be honest, absurd as it may seem, there is still an element, more than an element, that’s the main drive in my guitar playing, that’s what I like I like just three chords that are played just slightly off kilter, I like John Lee Hooker type riffs that are just ‘hang on, that’s not exactly a twelve-bar is it, you know’, people often say, ‘what do you mean JLH, it’s bleeding obvious to me, where do a lot of those VDG riffs come about, they’re not coming from the conservatoire, they’re coming from JLH, that’s why there are those kind of skipping beats every so often, and therefore they’re following that blues and r’n’b traditional rather than a classical tradition. Honestly that it’s something that was and remains continually there, and is common to all electric guitar playing, until you reach the level of fantastic dive bombs and rrhr-rrhr-rrhr and all that sort of stuff. Obviously it’s fantastically skilfull but it’s not something that remotely interests me, really.
Zappa quote…what makes you decide a song needs to be played on a guitar…
The song finds me, I don’t decide on the song. There are guitar songs and there are keyboard songs, you know, maybe, perhaps I deliberately kept – I am also an operator though at a rather lower level than Zappa, obviously – but I have kept my level quite low, possibly consciously, in order to surprise myself about guitar.
If I sit down, I don’t know about that music, I don’t write, I don’t read, I know don’t know chords, I literally don’t know what chords are, I know what work, but I don’t have any technical knowledge there, don’t have an technical knowledge on guitar so tunes actually do still fall into my hands if I pick up the guitar, particularly if I give it a funny tuning, without knowing, that’s a D major, dummy, but it doesn’t look like a D major, that sort of thing happens. The same thing happens with keyboards, so the songs, basically, determine themselves. There’s a later decision should especially if there are hybrid songs, should they be played on one or the other, sometimes it’s even interesting to say that was a keyboard song I’ll play it on guitar. But generally they determine themselves, because they’re found on whatever the instrument is.
Some. I have a couple of favourites. The real favourite one is, is, well I don’t know what other people have it as but I know it as a Sarod tuning which is DADGBD, so, GBD? No, GAD, so it’s semi twelve string and just a couple of moves … Boat of Millions of years, a couple of the old ones, also some on Quiet Zone. Quiet Zone has quite a lot of open tuning, I drop the D, bottom D, quite often, because I quite like tunes in D, so Lemmings, for instance, is dropped. When she comes is a G, that’s favourite. Not that Arcane, they’re the tunings that move towards semi-twelve string feeling.
Sound – different styles, different sounds …
In that era, (World Record) it would simply have been the set-up I was working with, which in turn would have driven me to write that kind of material, over the last ten or fifteen years it’s become much more conscious, particularly over the last ten years I have got interested in the idea of multitracking guitars in a kind of orchestral way, absolutely no guitar flash involved but a lot of layering which produces something like an orchestra, just by combinations of this fuzz, that fuzz, that clean…
The same as voice and keys…
That’s slightly different. That’s the recording / live element, and in the old recordings the VDG recordings, it was effectively live all the time, especially from Godbluff onwards, the backing track – each song was ten minutes long, and that was the backing track that existed and there was no editing beyond that. Wereas the modern world is a little bit different – and it’s not as loud…
If you’re trying to do that orchestra thing – the world of Glenn Branca does not go particularly well. It’s great for Glenn Branca but it’s not very good when you’re trying to meld in a saxophone and violin onto a bed of guitars.
The mixture of guitar organ, sax…swirling together
Good fun … it’s just completely natural, even more so in our original Pyeworthy run, a couple of times, when I was playing keyboard, I happened to be overdriving it through an old schaller rotosound box, which I still have, which was one of the staples of VDG I think hugh had two of them and I had one, and that’s the sound of many of the solos of VDG, and it’s completely what I had to put my hands up and go no, this is definitely not my department, this is mr banton is meant to be there, so I think it’s a natural choice … also the fact that within that VDG sound there’s a given sound palette, and at any given moment there’s going to be an available space into which somebody can go, that perhaps needs to be filled in order to continue to make the VDG sound, so if somebody’s coming out of it, somebody else should go into is in order to retain the overall picture, but it’s subconscious rather than conscious.
[the VDG stuff is designed to be there, whereas the solo stuff is much more] studio designed, and obviously over the last few years and probably for the foreseeable future there’s an entirely different division between and recording, VDG stuff, there’s the record, it’s a bit more than a blueprint, that’s something and then it will be expanded upon live, but with the same kind of sound although with stripped down instrumentation. With solo records, there’s the record, and certainly with some of the recent ones, they’re not orchestral in the sense of trying to ape an orchestra, but I try to have something of the attitude of orchestral tones, but then when I play live it’s going to be either solo, giving the intimation of the bare bones, or, I’ve done a lot of tours Stuart Gordon the violinist, where it’s taking an entirely different attitude, but again I think the avoidance of boredom attitude comes in.
other guitarists – John Ellis
He’s a guitarist … some of the lead riffs are his lead riffs, again it’s, as with any musician, unless you’re Zappa, don’t employ a musician to do what you tell him to do, because you’re employing somebody, or working with somebody, in the hope that their personality, as exemplified in their music, will come through. Without analysing exactly which riffs are which on Patience or Enter K, I can’t honestly remember, some of them, like, on 7 wonders, the fast riff on top, that’s definitely his, but the roaming riff is mine. That’s kind of normal. But as you say, he’s a guitarist, so he has to be allowed to play the guitar!
Did you employ him as a sound tool…?
With Fury, of course, the initiation of the K group was after sitting targets, because evidently ST was, if it was to be played live, it seemed at that point to have something that was at least half a beat group, the two guitars, bass, drums. In fact it started with it being about 50/50 the two guitars, bass drums and keyboard, cos also we played Flight in the early days, the original was then, and after ST particularly for things like My Experience, ST itself and so on. So, in terms of his guitar role it was a combination of the Ur-guitarist, which of course he’s extremely capable of, but also, it’s another one of his skills, the big arrangements man. Then when we started going out and playing live, it became obvious that there was a potential slightly off-kilter beat group there, hence Patience hence Enter K, hence eventually the Margin, and hence there were at least a couple of tours where we didn’t even take the keyboard, but just became a two guitar, bass, drums, group for the only time in my life, which was good fun. In that, in a two guitar bass drums group you’ve got to have a rhythm guitarist and you’ve got to have a lead guitarist, [do you see the demarcation that strictly] yes, you know, the rhythm guitarist sometimes can take solos, it’s a different thing if you’ve got two lead guitarists, even if one of them’s a slide guitarist, one’s a fret blitzer, that’s a different thing from ‘a beat group’, and again going back to this original where did this guitar come from, it came out of blues, rhythm and blues and british beat groups – my formative influences.
Hendrix – not to play like him, it was a total thing, JLH, Muddy Waters, again I’m not sure whether this writing influences or actual guitarist influences, the things are blurred together somewhat, Randy California great guitarist, again, Randy was by the time in which I’d become nominally actually a working musician and I think influences become a difficult word once you’re actually doing something and you begin to know kind of how it works, even if you’re a complete incompetent at guitar, you might be competent at something else a little bit, it’s not quite the same, once you walk inside the shop, it all looks entirely different to peering in at the window.
Now, I hardly listen to other music at all. I go and work and still, without being madly egotistical about it, I try to make the music that I want to hear. [I’m going for that which] is fun and expressive. For me.
How did that happen?
How did you manipulate him, if you see what I mean (he laughs…) as a unit of guitaristic intelligence
Well, the first time actually was on Fool’s Mate, rather than on VDG stuff, and that came, which was a loose combination of one or two bands that were playing more or less live, I think originally the contact was via John Anthony who was producing and it was a social contact, because in those days the music industry was music business and people would kind of run into each other and so on, and because of the nature of fools mate, which was sort of a holidays kind of record, these are light stuff, short tunes, nobody’s sticking their big reputation on the line or what have you, and he came with that attitude as well, and was actually particularly keen to dust off a Mose Allison riff as opposed to bringing the whole KC stuff, it was just kind of da-d, da-da, which he was totally comfortable with and I was totally comfortable with, so that was the first thing, then his VDG contributions were much more in overdub world and and again, he’d come in and just play, be given pretty well a free reign, be given a bit, we want you to go from here to here, this is kind of semi solo, this is actual solo, do what you think will fit because that’s why you’re here. And this, having done a little bit of singing and playing for other people, it is very interesting, when you are on your holidays, you’ve been asked to do something for somebody else because there’s something they like about you’re playing or there’s some contribution that they think you can give, you’re not responsible, even if you offer something and they don’t like it, there’s no blame towards anybody on that, you don’t like that, let me offer you this…even if they don’t like anything there’s still no blame, so that’s very nice to go and do something like that because there’s no responsibility…I later did the same thing for Robert on the singing front on exposure. And it’s exciting, and often you will come up with something that’s not obvious or apparently within your catalogue of skills.
I haven’t done very much…I’ve enjoyed my couple of guitar bashes, as well … the last one was live for David Thomas in Mirror Man, which was very very funny, that was harmonium and a bit of guitar. A long time ago, I was thinking about it this morning as I was bringing the Casio along, I once did a full on, Casio Midi guitar session for a German guy called Christian Demant [???] that’s about it on the guitar front, a few bits of singing…holidays.
[we decamp to the living room] Run me through the set-up.
The live set-up? The studio set-up is variable, obviously, the live set-up with my stuff is a Peavey Studio chorus 210, with a quadraverb GT. Boss tuner, and that’s the simplest thing…the QGT is completely programmed up, oh and a Rolls midi controller. The peavey on its one setting…there’s sometimes DI taken out of the GT, sometimes the peavey’s miked as well, it’s a variable process, and it’s some time since I’ve done a band show, so this is thinking about the future, rather than the past. In the studio, it’s any combination of that, and I’ve also got, actually yes, since we’re into guitar porn, I’ll just go and get a couple of other things.
We have the old Boss chorus ensemble, we have an original Big Muff, and we have here, the best wah-wah pedal on the planet, the electro-harmonics. Ever seen one of these? They are the best. That doesn’t go on tour. Fundamentally, live, I try to use as few sounds as possible, I try to do it by playing, the GT peavey combination is not really to have this bit of this tune has got to have this effect or what have you, it’s just got two or three things that are variable, I can just go into panic mode or in normal mode, and just do the rest of the stuff from playing or pick-ups. Because the nature of all three of thee electrics is that they have all got extremely variable sounds, and I guess that’s what attracts me to these sorts of guitars as opposed to the strat, the tele, the gibson…I had a strat that had a gibson middle pick-up, which is a bit bizarre, I’d love to know where that one is, it’s somewhere in Italy…it was borrowed in Italy on VDG duty. And the strat was particularly good, too. All of these have extremely variable sounds. And so I try to, I suppose this is possibly an unfashionable route these days, but I do try to change my sound by my hands on the guitar, whether its actually doing tones or changing pick-ups … [that’s the point] exactly, particularly for the rhythm guitarist, it should be unfashionable because it is feasible these days for people to have a zillion different sounds set up and if you’re a lead player you should really.
In the studio I also use E-Bow, and both metal and glass slides … usually on Muerglys. This one, the De Armond is new, I got this for VDG, specifically. I’m taking Meurglys and the De Armond, and I might take the Casio as well, but that is as back-up. I have used the synth, I have used it to trigger MIDI, I used it when I had a complete rig of a Roland, super Jupiter rack, I think, I was just patched into the keyboard and could really go wild, I was using it as pure sonic brutality, as opposed to all that horror well, it’s great to have midi guitars, but it was never intended to be alright, now we’ll make a midi guitar so you can play flute, I don’t think that’s what they were for. I got the casio… the postman rings once…
1.…this is a big moment..that’s the first sight of it
The actuality. Yeah oh yes, very appropriate, there you are, there’s the room.
P.That’s a good photograph. So where’s your rig in the middle of that?
PH. I’m here, there’s the PV – keyboard
P. Do you know if there are any photographs just of your rig?
PH. No I don’t think so
P. Would there be any of these that it might be on
PH. Yeah, possibly. Yes. Remind me of that and I’ll um..
Looks much bigger..
So yes the casio, I got the casio on a whim basically because it was a midi guitar, but I thought that would be useful and interesting because again there is this…I mean my attitude to guitars has always been from the very earliest days, and again this may not be particularly normal things. I just want each guitar to be a specific friend to me and that will involve finding certain tunes, getting songs out of an instrument is one way of friendship and the other one is just the comfort.
So I have gone that route rather than the… certainly the value or the authenticity or the age or what have you, and it is a fact with guitars, I mean you can tell, even with an electric guitar, you can tell the minute you sit down – you don’t even have to plug it in – I think, you know immediately – who knows what it is, you know immediately you get something, it just feels, oh yeah this one is, yeah?
So the casio was like that, but I was fundamentally buying it for, for its midi-ness originally, but no actually I really really like this as a guitar, and for a long time that was favourite, cause, particularly because of its whammy, it’s a floyd rose (?) whammy so obviously kind of slightly different territory, and that kind of took over from Meurglys, cause all of these guitars, apart from anything else, they do get extremely beaten up, I mean none of them have had great care taken of them, but on the other hand I can tell you, well this lot, that’s enthusiastic Israeli lighting man
P. Ah! Ha
PH. Over enthusiastic.. ILM suddenly decided that a follow spot right down to the front of the stage right where the guitar is would be a really good idea so…that’s that, and there’s a bit of a split down here which is kinda over enthusiastic, no not over enthusiastic, upset guitarist in Ibiza after a disastrous performance, and the one time actually, this one did get thrown across a room once. So..
P. It survived..
PH. It survived yeah yeah. Meurglys 1 and 2 incidentally..
P. I was wondering about..
PH. Meurglys 1 and 2, do chime perfectly with this rather idiosyncratic choice of guitars, it just shows I was there with it from the outset, and Meurglys the first was a Vox Teardrop with built in fuzz and repeat..
PH ..on real kind of Roberts radio type buttons (laughs) and it was covered in rabbit fur, it’s the most un-PC record (laughs again)
P. (laughs also) did you know the rabbit personally or..
PH. Judge and I decided that we were going to cover this, we would personally cover this thing in scraps of rabbit fur and glued them onto this vox – I don’t know where THAT one is. So that was Meurglys 1 and I can’t remember when that went or maybe the rabbit fur was just too much at a certain stage.
Meurglys 2 was Hagstrom (?) exactly Franz Ferdinand world. Now I think somebody in Manchester actually does own that one cause they wrote “is this, could it possibly be” I think that’s right. So that was 1 and 2.
The Strat, the ice blue strat which is the one with the Gibson pickup, never got the name but this one did
P. Why the name then? What qualifies a guitar?
PH. I don’t know, it’s like (Track 2) some kind of real friendship thing I think .um. and the Casio sort of pretty well qualifies as 4 to be honest…
P. So you can have two at the same time?
PH. Oh, well they’re different, they’re successors and, yeah. When they’re worthy, well, kind of weapons basically. The axe is a correct thing for guitars because of the relationship, and the naming of the guitars, I mean the reason for the naming, and what the original Meurglys was, the original Meurglys was the sword of Bishop Turpin in the Song of Roland because in all the romances, as in sagas, the protagonists had names for everything. I mean you knew you had a serious relationship with something when you gave it a name, so your horse had a name and your sword had a name, if your field had a name then this was something that was very much bound up with you …that’s kind of the theory about it.
I haven’t really studied the Norse sagas nor indeed the romances for a very long time but that’s where the thing comes from originally.
P. So what was your set up in the early Vandergraf.. how much did it change with the different incarnations? How also did that influence the particular things you were coming up with?
PH. Well in first VG I only played acoustic of course, and acoustics were just acoustics in those days so it was a [Unisphere] and sitting there as far as I remember, and the keyboard would be Clavinet or [Rhodes] through Hi Watt you can get a shot of the High Watt as well, actually I’ve been using it in rehearsals, um, [??? era] then it was the same High Watt, Electric mistress, which again has gone ages and ages ago, and again a pretty simple setup. Then at a later stage I had an H&H with a powered H&H flanger and that’s about it, you know, so it was never very complex at all.
P. So what was the Baldwin..er strange, bleuargh..
PH. It’s a Baldwin [double 6]
P. How long have you had that for?
PH. Um, since mid seventies. Its on…one thing I know its on, I have used it in kind of rather bizarre ways, like to mic up a piano and that sort of thing. But the one thing I know it’s on, it’s on the comet, the course and the tail I had it from that era. Because the [rj the comet] was partly to do a guitar quartet, like a string quartet so there’s a base, there’s the electric, whatever the acoustic was at the time, and that, and that’s that.
P. we were wondering why you were never tempted to play some bass with VG…or is it just an inappropriate voice?
PH. Yeah, I mean the HB has it with his feet for a start, um, I don’t think my bass playing – I mean I do like playing bass but I don’t think would suit VG. Apart from very very specific kinds of things. Something like bits of Meurglys I could do bass on, but um, no, I’d rather, it’s enough to, I mean actually to be honest, I do quite like the idea of just being a singist, it makes a nice change after all these years just to have that thing the only responsibility, so …
P. How do you find that singing and playing impacts upon each other – is there a compromise that you make?
PH. Erm… I compromise on the playing if I’m concentrating on the singing. But you know if I’ve got a complex bit of singing I won’t be trying to do a complex bit of playing, at the same time – on guitar at least. Keyboard is something else. To be honest, they’re both part of organic wholes, I don’t split my mind between one and the other. I mean obviously I do try and throw a few curves in the singing all the time, so my playing will follow that, but er..
P. One thing I’ve noticed with the tunes is with, (track 3) especially with piano tunes, you tend to have the melody of the vocal played which is slightly more difficult to do on the guitar. Is that something that affects the way the tune works
PH. It probably affects the way it’s written in the first place, I mean I do have that tendency to either be arpeggiating or stating the melody when I’m playing keyboards and that isn’t an option on a guitar. Guitar, the fundamental options are, well there’s this riff or there’s this, you know just strum or chop, guitar things and never play it, so in a way that’s a definition of the different kinds of tunes and how they arrive in the first place
P. Which ones crossover, which ones can you do both on?
PH. Erm..mmm…Childlike probably, um, now, with a bit of work I could probably do them all now, cause I am, I don’t mean to be entirely bashful – you know I am much more of a confident musician than I was 30 years or so ago, so with a degree of work I could probably do most of them there are some that wouldn’t work but m..yeah most of them I could do now.
P. So which, also going back to guitar, which tunes – is it just Meurglys on the album or…
PH. Er, yup. Yeah.
P. So the [De Armond] is er…
PH. The De Armond is new, Bigsby is a completely different kind of whammy so, again, it’s a different kind of whammy but the nature of the thing is it’s kind of closer to the [Guild] than it is to the Casio. Um, yes, just a different voice, basically. That’s since the album. I did have the Casio down there but it had a bit of a dicky jackplug at the time so I didn’t play it at all and Guy particularly was encouraging me to, you know, he’s always liked Meurglys so he’s encouraged me to go with Meurglys.
There is of course, there is a degree, in terms of the slide N ebow stuff and on the second side there is a fair bit of that which is on Meurglys.
P. What would you have liked to have had gearwise back in say ’73?
What would be the one thing you think would have made the difference?
PH. That exists now?
PH. Um…(thinks) Jam Man. Not that I have a Jam man.
PH. Well because everything else was there! I mean, fundamentally you’ve got time modulation, reverb and repeat. Virtually everything is a variant on that, isn’t it. All your modern rigs, you’ve got sharper and sharper – you can now do reverse things and what have you, but that is still a variant on that, but those three things, time modulation – oh and of course distortion, solid state valve or amp, you know, those are the givens, but everything else since then, have been variants on that and of course we’ve reached the stage as with everything else, now it’s various, trying to, the big muff they are, I believe now made in Russia and electro harmonics are now making them again in the states, maybe even the electro-harmonics wah wah is now being made again, although they won’t be the same, because that chip doesn’t exist anymore.
So we’re back into that retro land, but the Jam man, that wasn’t something that was around at the time, so, but no, you’ve got to work with whatever there is. Even now, if you had a limitless budget, obviously you could … and I’m sure with Guitar Magazine, the readers are like “if only I had everything I could get this [stomp] box, and that guitar and that amp and I’d feel” but you can only work with what you’ve got, and ideally, the playing is the playing, not the sound and when you’re playing guitar, and admittedly I’m coming from the incompetent wing rather than “I can do all of the scales la la” but still, the fundamental thing is, you’ve got to (Track 4) feel the note before you hit the note, however blistering a run you’re doing, you know there’s – the whole point of that guitar, you know is it’s percussive, it’s exactly where your hand is. I think it’s exactly where your shoulder is, and in fact, yeah that’s also true, in this rehearsal period, when we came down to actually doing “right now we’re gonna go through actual sets without pauses in between” it was the first time we were getting to the ends of numbers when I was not looking at guy obviously cause I’d be…or else I’d be, or even the middles of numbers and we’d be “when do we gonna go with this”, and after we’d done a couple he said “you know it’s really quite strange, it’s so engrained that I can look at your right shoulder and know that you’re going [now/there]. And I think that really is a real fundamental part of guitar playing. And that’s more important than having all of the boxes, whether it’s studio or live, all of the amps, all of the guitar, unless you actually got that physical relationship right, nothing happens – and that’s the important thing.
P. How does that change in the studio, and also what is the studio setup that actually records the guitar?
PH. It’s the same basically, but with a sometimes DI straight out of a quadraverb… Quad has different sets of sounds for recording and for going into the PV, sometimes I mike up the PV or it’s usually necessary to get into something like in the frame of mind for playing live. I mean it’s usually necessary to get a little bit out of control and to forget what I’m meant to be doing basically, that’s a fundamental part of my guitar playing! You know that I don’t want to know where I am because that’s how it works. So I have to get into that, so I’ll start quite calm and I’ll be on the edge of my seat at certain times.
P. how much has recording technology changed the way you can have that attitude in the studio?
PH. Obviously it’s hard disk and what have you and in theory one could just play and play and play and then comp and play for an hour and then spend five hours comping or then decide it doesn’t work and then go and play for another hour and then spend another five hours comping which obviously doesn’t work, there is a temptation to do that because you have now the potential to capture that amount of stuff. So I have pulled back from that, and you know I won’t do more than three takes of something now, before saying “alright this isn’t going right” and try again. So, really the fundamental system of recording actually has not changed that much since the old tape days, or at least it’s gone through various loops, in terms of my own studio I have been through everything from a four track and then taking it into a multi track up to 8 up to 16, across to A-dats a combination of A-dats and sequencing and running midi live, now entirely hard disk, but the fundamentals remain the same whatever the actual medium of the system is, the fundamentals remain the same I think.
P. Do you find it influences your recording in the same way as a guitar…?
PH. No, no no. Only in terms of the number of available tracks and that’s in turn limited by the number of available channels – I try not to go above 24 faders because that’s the amount that I have and I’m mixing, so…I will do stereo submixes and what have you, but again that’s simply. the period of time in which I’ve been using studio technology obviously makes me quite comfortable with that, whereas somebody coming in now, it’s a daunting task to come into you know the ‘other mags’ on the racks recording mags saying “come on look you can have 74 tracks with automated sub-mixing and lalalala” and somebody who doesn’t have any experience of basic recording when they come into that, it’s just gonna be hopeless – of course they’re gonna end up trying to doa final mix of 72 tracks and they’re doing it all on the computer – what – you know what planet is that remotely working?
P. Do you have a teleological approach to recording soundwise, are you envisaging what …
P. I think of the earlier stuff like (Track 5) ‘Flight’ where there’s all sorts of vocal stuff going on and obviously must have been pretty hard to record all this without knowing exactly where you were going.
PH. Well in those days, in a way it was easier because you would take the decision, particularly in period of Future Now and Flight then there would be a question of “alright you’ve got to do the backing vocals before anything else because there isn’t gonna be space later” or you have a piano and a lead vocal doing the backing vocals now because then you can get enough of them [dats ] them down and leave them – which is very useful in terms of being led on – I mean I always am with recording, still, led on – I don’t have a view of “I want it to sound like this at the end” when I start, I want to be surprised by it and I don’t even know when I start a track I don’t even know what instruments I’m going to be playing on it at all. But it was useful in the past to have to make those early decisions and sometimes, having made the decision, discovering that it’s wrong, just get rid of it, now that again is the problem in this marvellous world of three zillion virtual tracks, you don’t have to get rid of anything and you don’t ever have to make up your mind about anything, so there’s not that authoritative..
Ed. Do you need to impose limits on yourself?
PH. You need to be aware of when you’re spoiling it, either by being too precise or too random I think on any given day there’s the potential for really spoil something and you have to be prepared to work on something for quite a long time and then go “it doesn’t work”
P. Was that painful when you were just working on tape and it had to be wiped? Or were you glad when you were wiping something because you couldn’t think about it anymore because it’s gone.
PH. Yeah. Well the great virtue of tape is there is this sense.. in modern recording you’re almost never in the present, you’ve always got this virtual thing going on because you can drop in on something that you did six months or a year ago and that would sort of all be absolutely fine – that’s great in its own way, but the old days of tape…that solo is not quite good enough, think you’ve got a better solo in you, yes you’ve only got one track so we’ll go over it, yeah? Or, right, we are now going to edit the Multitrack, are you quite sure about that chinagraph mark? I think so! Yeah? And all that is great and it did focus the mind wonderfully. It’s a bit of a problem I think, potentially. I mean, if it’s just me working by myself, there’s not the horror moment of everybody..”I hope this is going to be alright, let’s hear it back then”
P: Are there any times when that’s gone spectacularly wrong..
PH. Oh yeah yeah, we have had the experience, with VG particularly there was one night when we’d been mixing all night and it got to the stage of (laugh) doing the cross fade and I think there was an inexperienced tape op who not once, but twice went in to record on the wrong machine, over the mix that we’d just completed, instead of on the machine we were trying to … but again you just have to go “right, ok, just have to do it again then”. But as I say, I’m aware of this, I’m as guilty as anybody else I’m sure of being anally retentive on keeping all of the stuff, but I do try at a certain point to focus and then just forget about it, exactly do the equivalent of wiping stuff once I’ve done a stereo mix of one whatever it is, I very very rarely go back and say “ooh that isn’t working I’ll just go and push this up or that up, I’ll try and deal with it as something that now exists independent of what was there before.
P. Are you the same with sounds as well? If you think a sound that you had on an instrument now isn’t working…
PH. It does happen sometimes yeah, and I tend to print. I tend to print rather than just leaving things and going you know “I’ll be able to get that back, that sound, that combination”, especially with midi-world that combination of sounds, it never really works, you know if you go in the next day and nothing has changed, it’s never ever ever quite the same. So I print stuff a lot rather than saving it as dedicated.
P. Can you think of anything else that might be interesting to our readers? Yes you can…
PH. The work of the great Andy in Bath, and he takes care of this, the Washburn, and again, you know, like other guitars, this one doesn’t get treated with a lot of respect and here – I don’t know if you can get this, this, I was about to go through the guitar simply by the force of years and years of playing, and Andy has done an absolutely fantastic job, I’m not sure what exactly he’s used…
P. Has he french polished it up?
PH. No no, it’s actually got some kind of resin – can you feel it, some kind of resin that has stabilised this which is absolutely …
P. Has it changed the sound?
PH. No no no, well the sound’s changed because he’s also set it up and given it a good seeing to…It’s much better than it was anyway, new strings and all that sort of stuff, but no, because seriously I was not gonna be able to take this out anymore. So yeah.
P. How long have you had that one for?
PH. K group. I got this for that beat group era when I needed to have a second guitar and so on.
P. And you’ve never seen the need to try another
PH. Er no, well I’ve got a Tanglewood that is the only Ovation type of guitar that has ever spoken to me when I’ve picked it up, you know really cheap, well not really cheap but comparatively cheap, and that I’ve been using a lot recently, I’ve been using that in preference to the Washburn, partly because I’m the one that’s gonna have to go through it…I’ve got an old Morris that I got in the States when I went to play in Los Angeles which also bears a few signs of wrath (laughs) that’s got a big crack in the bottom where the strap peg has kind of driven in as a result of your guitarist’s wrath at finding himself unable to play a riff correctly after several hours of trying while recording it and I did actually go “raaaah” oh bugger! But it still plays alright actually.
P. What’s the first thing that you play when you pick up a guitar
PH. Um…Either.. I don’t know what the chord is exactly it’s either that [chord] or more likely a [chord], it’s a ..you know – i don’t know what it is, it’s an E minor then an A minor shape. Um and then [ums and errs] and in kinda riff terms it’s sort of C [riffs] yeah, actually yeah, usually it’ll get down to E and it’ll be a bit of the [squiggly bluesy riff] – yeah so it’s E minor shape, bit of twiddle… well kind of, it’s blues stuff really isn’t it, kind of noodle around and then [twang] …well, blues cum Hendrix [laughs]
P. It’s odd considering your idea that the guitar is a percussive instrument that you use a very thin plectrum…
PH. Um. Very technical…
P. Jibes away “surely you should use a 7’6 what on earth is going on…!
PH. Well now gradually I have over the years, I have come down and down in weight of strings and weight of plectrum, I do a lot of playing right in between, you can see that you know, there’s a lot of playing where there’s both plectrum and nail, and this obviously is after VG playing, so this fingernail has been [shot] down, and so there’s a lot of the – all that stuff.
Well when I say its percussive I don’t mean that you gotta go “clang” well it’s good fun to go “claaang” but it’s just I mean that it’s that motion, even if the motion is only there, even if it’s your lightest of [gentle strum] still something is being hit and something’s always struck me – well it hasn’t always struck me but it is a bit bizarre that right handed guitar players do all of their work with their left hand, and their [track 7] right hand is actually just doing the bashing, but the lace work…
P. The right hand is much more difficult, I think for a guitarist, that’s where your real music comes in…
PH. What – to play?
P. The plectrum hand is where the sound is, I think..
PH Yes – where this note is being made now, yeah if it’s wrong it’s wrong… but all of the stuff, I mean because if you take the…obviously being a keyboard player as well – flip over, then actually the difficult stuff is with the right hand there – well in my case, cause I’m an even more incompetent keyboard player than I am guitarist! –you know, but the left hand is doing that and occasionally doing a little bit, but nothing remotely like the…
P. Just the thing that you’re doing there, and obviously looking at the Washburn, you spend a lot of time hitting the guitar…
PH. Oh yeah well the Washburn, most of that is actually going through, I mean…
P. Is that plectrum or is that…
PH. It’s plectrum
P. … because what did just then was straight with your nails – actually almost flamenco bizarrely enough is that your dropping on the guitar, which is a very percussive thing to do – it’s very interesting – it’s always interesting to see where people’s guitars are mangled
PH. Yeah, absolutely yeah
P. I’ve got one that’s mangled around the soundhole, because of – actually yours is too, but mine is for a different reason I think, that’s where my thumb has a tendency to…
PH. The other interesting thing is not where the guitar is mangled but where your hands are mangled, like here in my case, I do overdo that sometimes, and I’ve noticed because, habitually I have been playing the casio, but I start to bash myself there because I’m sitting much more on the bridge here, and also because on the other angle, where one’s hands sit, it’s funny, because here, I’m always there.
P. Do you use that as your resting point, just on the bar?
PH. Yeah just there, I’m basically always [plays] there’s always something going there, I mean this has a funny bit of modification as well because the whammy kind of came undone there… it kind of flops out all the time. But yeah that – if there’s a whammy bar around, I’ve always got it hooked in, so in turn that means I’m likely to have the heel of my hand somewhere or other. So there I’m not hitting anything, but the minute I go onto the arm, I’m actually on the bridge – so …yeah funny stuff.
It’s – of course it’s completely subconscious what one does, and I’m sure that applies with your real blitzing guitars as well, guitar doesn’t work unless your mind is turned off, so the great players – it’s just they’ve done all the work, they know everything but it’s just an unconscious flow when they’re actually doing it..
P. We’ve done writing process, structure… the intimate structure of VG, one thing I did mean to ask right at the beginning, different axis of control in the VG tunes depending on the…
PH. Well communication…communication – there’s no control
P. …Is there this kind of hat that goes around where the centre of the tune is?
PH. It’s also subconscious, in quite a lot of the VG stuff there’s … it’s sort of mountaineering basically, advance to [ ] make basecamp, got a difficult assault in the next bit, and you have to sort of, well in my case, I had to concentrate on doing the assault and then you emerge out of the end of that naturally find yourself in alliance, or looking to whoever the person is, with whom the next signal is going to be, and usually what happens then is it’s kind of “is it me or is it you who says or nods” or what have you, and hopefully that doesn’t happen because you can have a little bit of hiatus while you establish…
Because it’s down to signals, that’s the point, its signals in axis..
P are the signals … zappa etc [
PH. The reason was his rehearsals, the reason why he rehearsed people for months and months was so that he could say, number 32 in the style of, di la lala and because they were all such musicians they could just drop onto it. We’re a little bit more specific, and it is often… in this bit the count is…this is a specific count in on the tunes, these are rests, 5-3, 5-3, 7, 7, 5 go – next bit. So if we’re not absolutely clear at the outset we are going for the five now – we’re obviously gonna be done for. So that’s not even a signal, that’s a known arrangement, but it does mean that in that case everybody has to have clocked whoever is going into it, just say “alright, I am with you”, because if there’s any element of “I’m not with you”, then it’s gonna fall apart.
P. there was one on the album we listened to yesterday, drums stopped on the bar…can’t remember, that happens presumably a lot, album recorded live?
PH. Yup, absolutely. And some overdubs … some good modern technology of just sending files here and there which is also great stuff…
P. over the phone…
PH. Not quite broadband, it would just about have been feasible but…
PH. Yah, email saying I’m doing this and then CDs going here and there. But fundamentally live, yeah. I mean we weren’t sure when we emerged that we had made a record.
Ed. Roger [eno]?
PH. Yeah [pointed out] That was quite interesting, that was magical, you never heard it?
PH. It was april 1st.
Ed whose idea was it?
PH. He got in touch to say “shall we do something” and I said yes cause I’d met him at an open event in Lanzarote, – and I said yeah but we need to have some idea, there has to be an idea – I do have a horror of just doing ‘jammin man’ so there needs to be an idea, and this one just popped up – it might be interesting we don’t know what’s going to emerge, but there might be bits that we can then send to each other to embellish…etc etc etc
Text © Pete Langman 2005 – ask nicely before you steal it, thanks!