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Peter Joseph Andrew Hammill (born 5 November 1948) is an English singer-songwriter, and a founding member of the progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator. Most noted for his vocal abilities, his main instruments are guitar and piano. He also acts as a record producer for his own recordings, and occasionally for other artists.
Peter Hammill was born in Ealing, west London, and moved with his family to Derby when he was 12. He attended Beaumont College, Old Windsor, and Manchester University, where he studied Liberal Studies in Science.
Hammill's solo career has coexisted with Van der Graaf Generator's activities. The band was offered a contract by Mercury Records in 1968, that only Hammill signed. When Van der Graaf Generator broke up in 1969 he wanted to record his first solo album. In the summer of 1969 Hammill had a residency at The Lyceum and played weekly solo concerts there. Eventually the intended solo album was released under the Van der Graaf Generator banner as their first album (The Aerosol Grey Machine). Hammill's first real solo album was Fool's Mate (1971), containing songs from the early (1967/68) Van der Graaf Generator days.
Van der Graaf Generator and after:
When Van der Graaf Generator broke up again in August 1972, Hammill resumed his solo career. Songs that were intended for Van der Graaf Generator now ended up on his solo albums, notably "Black Room" (on Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night) and "A Louse Is Not a Home" (on The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage). This makes it difficult to separate Hammill's solo work during the 1970s from his work with the band. For the majority of both his solo songs and the band's songs he is credited as the sole songwriter, and some of his solo albums feature all the members of Van der Graaf Generator. In general, Hammill's solo work is thematically concerned with more personal matters, while the band's songs deal with broader themes.
Nadir's Big Chance (1975) was a great change from the preceding In Camera. Whilst In Camera is characterised by extremely intense and complex songs and even has some musique concrète on it, Nadir's Big Chance is notable for its anticipation of punk rock. In a 1977 radio interview, John Lydon of the Sex Pistols played two tracks from the album and expressed his admiration for Hammill in glowing terms: "Peter Hammill's great. A true original. I've just liked him for years. If you listen to him, his solo albums, I'm damn sure Bowie copied a lot out of that geezer. The credit he deserves, just has not been given to him. I love all his stuff".
Over (1977) contains very personal songs about the break-up of a long-term relationship.
Hammill's first solo-album after the 1978 break-up of Van der Graaf was The Future Now. With the next albums, pH7 and A Black Box, the sound became more compact, more new wave. On those albums, Hammill played the drums himself. What followed was the "K group". In later years Hammill would sometimes refer to the band as a "beat group". The K group consisted of Hammill himself on guitars and piano, with John Ellis on lead guitar, Nic Potter on bass, and Guy Evans on drums and percussion. This group recorded the albums Enter K and Patience.
Live concerts by Peter Hammill are characterised by a degree of unpredictability, in terms of the songs played, the arrangements and the players involved. Hammill generally does not undertake live-tours to promote albums. Whenever he plays with a certain predominant line-up, almost always there will also be concerts interspersed with different permutations of musicians, so the word 'tour' is not always very applicable.
From September 1981 until September 1985 Hammill played with the K Group, playing raw, energetic, new-wave rock. A live recording of a number of these concerts was released as The Margin. In March and April 1983, Hammill with John Ellis was the support act for Marillion on their UK tour in support of their debut album Script for a Jester's Tear.
From February until October 1990 he played with Nic Potter on bass and Stuart Gordon on violin. A live recording of these shows was released as Room Temperature. From April 1993 until August 1996 he played with Nic Potter on bass, Stuart Gordon on violin and Manny Elias on drums. A live recording of these shows was released as There Goes The Daylight. From October 1994 until August 1996 Hammill played with David Jackson on flutes and saxophones, Stuart Gordon on violin and Manny Elias on drums (this line-up is sometimes informally referred to as the Peter Hammill Quartet).
From January 1998 until November 2006 Hammill played with just Stuart Gordon on violin. Of these shows the live recording Veracious was released.
From 1969 on, Hammill has also performed solo concerts, with just guitar and keyboards.
Hammill's early records, like the Van der Graaf Generator albums, were released on Charisma Records. He parted company with them after pH7 (1979), and then released albums on a number of small labels. A Black Box came out on S-Type, a label run by Hammill and his manager Gail Colson. Enter K and Patience appeared on Naive, Skin and The Margin on Foundry and In A Foreign Town, Out of Water and Room Temperature on Enigma Records. In 1992 he formed his own label, Fie! Records, on which all his albums since Fireships have been released. The label's logo is the Greek letter phi (Φ), a pun on PH-I. Ever since the 1970s he has also had his own home recording studio, called Sofa Sound. His website was later named after the studio.
In 1991, Hammill released the long-awaited opera The Fall of the House of Usher. He had written the music and Van der Graaf Generator co-founder Judge Smith the libretto, and the two of them had been working on it since 1973. In 1999 he released a reworked version, The Fall Of The House Of Usher (Deconstructed & Rebuilt).
Hammill survived a heart attack in December 2003, less than 48 hours after having finished the recording of Incoherence. He was awarded the Italian 'Tenco Prize' for songwriting at the end of 2004.
In 2005, Hammill announced the reformation of Van der Graaf Generator. In 2004 they had recorded a new album, Present, which was released in April 2005, and from May until November 2005 played a series of well received concerts.
Between 2005 and 2007 Hammill oversaw the remastering of almost all of his pre-Fie releases, and also carried out similar work on his more recent catalogue. The last of the Charisma remasters was released in September 2007.
Hammill's solo career did not end because of the Van der Graaf Generator reunion. He released an album Singularity in December 2006. It was the first solo album he completed after his heart attack, and for a large part it deals with matters of life and (sudden) death.
In 2007 several gigs by Van der Graaf Generator as a trio (minus David Jackson) took place in Britain and Europe; their new album Trisector was released in March 2008.
In the summer and autumn of 2008, Hammill did a tour of solo dates in the U.S. and Canada which included a performance at the legendary progressive rock festival NEARfest. He also played his only ever professional "parlour gig" at a private residence in Holland, MI.
In the summer of 2009 Van der Graaf Generator toured the U.S. and Canada, which occasioned Hammill's triumphant return to NEARfest. Thin Air was released on 8 June 2009. This was followed in October 2011 by a live double CD Pno, Gtr, Vox, recorded at performances in Japan and the UK in 2010. An extended 7-CD box set, Pno, Gtr, Vox Box was released in a limited edition of 2000 in February 2012.
Consequences, a new solo studio album was released in May 2012. Again Hammill played all the instruments. The lyrics deal with conflicted characters in various scenarios.
Other World, a collaborative album with guitarist Gary Lucas, was released in February 2014. The album features Hammill's vocals, Hammill and Lucas on guitars, and Hammill's sound treatments, and is a mixture of conventional songs with extended avant-garde instrumentals.
Hammill's new album All That Might Have Been is scheduled for release late November 2014.
Musically, Hammill's work ranges from short simple riff-based songs to highly complex lengthy pieces. Mainly because of the diversity of his compositions, his refusal to make anything resembling middle-of-the-road music, and the general absence of any smooth or glamorous sounds in his music, there is much debate amongst his admirers whether Hammill is to be considered a part of the so-called progressive rock scene. In many interviews however Hammill himself has stated that he does not want to be put in the progressive rock music label, or any music label at all.
Hammill's output is prolific. Many different styles of music appear in his work, among them artful complexity (for instance Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night), avant garde electronic experiments (Loops and Reels, Unsung), opera (The Fall of the House of Usher), solo keyboard accompaniment (And Close As This), solo guitar accompaniment (Clutch), improvisation (Spur of the Moment), film music (Sonix), band recordings (Enter K), and slow, melancholic balladry (None of the Above).
Hammill's voice is a very distinctive element of his music. He sings in an emotional, often even dramatic way. As a former Jesuit chorister, his delivery is usually Received Pronunciation British English -- notable exceptions are his Afrikaner accent on "A Motor-bike in Afrika" and his Cockney accent on "Polaroid" -- and ranges in tone from peacefully celestial to screaming rants (which are nevertheless highly controlled). Singing in registers from baritone to high falsetto, he growls, croons, shrieks and shouts in ways that have drawn comparison with the guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix.
Hammill's lyrics are another distinctive feature of his work. He has visited a number of recurring themes including love and human relationships, ageing and death, human folly, self-awareness and introspection, politics, and religion. His lyrics often include scientific, literary or historical references. For example, the Norse names mentioned in the song "Viking" on Fool's Mate (co-written with Judge Smith) are characters in the Icelandic Saga of Eric the Red. (Hammill's source, judging by the spelling of the names, seems to have been Magnus Magnusson's 1965 translation.)
The science fiction themes of Van der Graaf Generator's lyrics are mostly absent in his later work, but there still are many science references, especially to physics (for instance in the song "Patient"). In 1974 Hammill published a book, Killers, Angels, Refugees (Charisma Books, London), a collection of lyrics, poems and short stories. This was later reissued by Hammill himself (Sofa Sound, Bath) and was followed by a sequel Mirrors, Dreams, Miracles (1982).
He has been married since 1978 to Hilary, who is credited with taking the picture for the cover of In A Foreign Town. They have three children, Holly, Beatrice and Phoebe. Holly and Beatrice Hammill sing soprano vox on one track of Everyone You Hold and on two tracks of None of the Above. Holly Hammill wrote the song "Eyebrows" (on Unsung) and co-wrote "Personality" (on Everyone You Hold). He is fluent in Italian.