Published on 2nd February 2014
Peter Hammill & Gary Lucas Interview
It’s doubtful that any introduction is required for Peter Hammill or Gary Lucas as both men have long, successful and well charted careers within the music industry. Peter with Van der Graaf Generator (VdGG) and Gary perhaps most noted for his work with Captain Beefhart and Jeff Buckley. Both musicians have pursued fruitful solo and collaborative careers – one such project is the Other World album, which brought the two musicians together for the first time in the studio. With the imminent release of the album and initial “one off” show at the Union Chapel (22nd February 2014), TPA managed to catch up with both Peter and Gary, who offer an insight into Other World.
We posed questions to both musicians as to the background of this collaboration and an insight to the recording process. We also took the opportunity to ask Peter and Gary individually about the collaboration and Gary also spoke briefly of his times with Captain Beefhart and Jeff Buckley.
TPA: So who approached who about this collaboration and why now?
GARY: Well I think I might have first suggested this in an email correspondence I had going with Peter, can’t really recall for certain, I think I suggested going into a studio in London and just seeing what transpired. Peter was into the idea and very graciously invited me up to work in his home studio in Bath.
PETER: Gary approached me … and why not might well be the answer!
TPA: Were you aware of Gary and his previous work before you collaborated?
PETER: I was certainly aware of Gary but not completely au fait with the breadth of his work.
TPA: Prior to the recording you hadn’t exchanged any material we are led to believe – was this a deliberate ploy?
PETER: Just the way it happened. Deliberate by omission I suppose, neither of us felt the need (or the fear) to make any plans or reservations in advance …
GARY: Perhaps it was. My feeling was: let’s see what kind of energy is released in the moment on the session. I wanted to see how Peter would react when I first played him some of my compositions as I’ve always favoured that kind of spontaneous combustion face to face as it were as a good way to get the best results from a collaborator. If I had sent Peter music in advance it might have been anti-climactic when we finally did get together in his studio, to the detriment of working the songs up.
PETER: I think we’re both open enough to deal with things like that and to accept whatever might, or might not, ensue.
TPA: Once you found yourselves together in the studio, how did things evolve?
PETER: Pretty quickly. Gary came with several instrumental pieces which he felt might benefit from some input from me and was very well prepped to play these as backing tracks. He also laid down a number of pure-sonics soundscapes, live.
GARY: Things evolved incredibly rapidly. I played for him all this music I had brought with me, music I had composed and selected intuitively as believing it would work well with Peter’s voice and sensibility. And he recorded it all, on the spot listening attentively. This is how I always worked with Jeff Buckley, giving him finished instrumentals for him to add lyrics and a melody to.
PETER: In turn, I had a couple of song-like ideas and had also prepared some wilder aural stuff. Gary overdubbed onto both these forms, very much in an instant reaction, improvisation style
GARY: I left Peter with a lot of music he could or could not choose to embellish at his own pace once I left. He also played me some instrumental pieces he had prepared for our sessions that I improvised to on the spot—it sounded incredibly spacious in the playback and right away I think we both knew it was all going to work out really well.
TPA: Similar question – were any of the tracks that appear on Other World prewritten or pre-conceived?
GARY: Not as songs, no. But several pieces I brought there were as mentioned finished instrumentals of mine that I felt sure would be good candidates for songs once Peter added his own parts to them, in his own time frame.
PETER: Only as basic skeletons, as above. It took a while to find out what need to be added … or left out.
TPA: Modern technology would have allowed you to record separately, however you chose the more organic approach. Do you prefer working this way?
GARY: Yes absolutely. There’s nothing like being in the same room with a collaborator to further inspire one creatively.
PETER: I think it was essential for this project that the initial stage was with both of us in the same room. It made it instantly clear which areas of music we were mutually interested in exploring.
TPA: Did you ever consider working separately on the project?
GARY: Well we shared our thoughts and ideas regularly as the album evolved – I could hear some more guitar parts I wanted to add in places, which I eventually did at a second session with Peter some months later. As I live in NYC, Peter by necessity did a lot of work on his own, coming up writing lyrics and melodies and some guitar parts and adding them to the tracks.
PETER: No. Apart, of course, from the fact that when Gary left after the initial sessions I had quite a lot of “separate” work to do in singing the vocal lines and lyrics.
TPA: Tricky one – but had you worked separately do you think Other World would have been the same album?
PETER: Emphatically not. But it was never on the cards.
GARY: No – and I doubt it would have come off as well as it did had we worked that way. Part of the joy of collaboration is, as mentioned, being in proximity with your collaborator. It affects the way things come out, for sure.
TPA: The original recordings took place in 2012 – can we ask how they have changed from the original framework?
GARY: They haven’t changed much at all, except they sound more spacious and 3D – which is a result of being mixed through a great new board Peter acquired for the last Van Der Graaf tour.
TPA: Have there been any subsequent recordings?
PETER: Gary came back, finally, to overdub and/or change some final parts but that was about it.
GARY: Not since we finished the album per se – but I think we could handily do more, and we should do more! It’s a very fun and fulfilling collaboration working with Peter.
TPA: Tracks such as Cash on Other World have a distinct VdGG flavour to me Peter, do you have a pool of material that you utilise where it will fit, or do you write specifically for the project at hand?
PETER: “Cash” is, indeed, pretty much straight down the line of one style of my writing. The treatment, though, is quite a long way from VdGG. Also I was conscious that I should only bring stuff to the table for this project which, it seemed to me, fitted in neither with current VdGG world nor with my current solo stuff…
TPA: Although Gary’s credited as the guitarist, there is some guitar that is distinctly Hammill-esque, did you play on the album too Peter?
PETER: Oh yes, I played quite a bit in the overdubbing stage, as well as (of course) doing all the early structural stuff on those pieces I instigated. Naturally, Gary really is a genius virtuoso guitarist while I’m bit more of a blue-collar guy on the instrument(s) – but it takes all sorts, though, to make things work!
TPA: After listening to Other World you two seem to be a match made in heaven. What do you see that you bring to each other’s work?
GARY: Well I think we both inspire each other. Without ever really discussing it (as it’s hard to talk about these things!) I think we share the goal to further try and bring “rock”, or whatever you want to call it—let’s say “new music” –-to new heights of creativity, into hitherto unexplored and uncharted realms. This is in the tradition of the best psychedelic music, which has always been an impetus behind my playing and writing, and is what drew me to Peter and Van Der Graaf in the first place in 1969.
PETER: There are some styles and attitudes, which we share. Openness being one of them, I’d hope. What I think is interesting about the album is that we clearly both show “normal” elements of our (solo) work, but there are also quite a few surprise twists which may take people back.
TPA: Who would you like to collaborate with in future and who do you wish you’d been able to in the past?
GARY: Hmmm. Dylan and Van Morrison in the future. Sun Ra and John Coltrane in the past.
PETER: I don’t hanker madly after collaborations, but I’m very happy when they come along, especially when they work as well as this one has done … and especially when they’re at some distance from my other work.
TPA: Peter – the last time we spoke together you talked about the importance of spontaneity and performance; did this work the same with Gary?
PETER: This was absolutely the case. The music on the record is highly spontaneous rather than over-considered, I think!
TPA: There’s a myriad of shimmering effects and lush tones in use on the album Gary, can you give us a quick run-down of the gear you’ve used?
GARY: Hmmmm – as my late father used to admonish me, “a magician never reveals his secrets”!
TPA: OK… can we ask instead – who were your main influences when developing your guitar style?
GARY: I loved British blues early on such as Clapton, Beck and Page – and Peter Green may have been my favourite . Also psychedelic madmen like Syd Barrett and Davy O’List. Also English folk players such as Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, the guys in the Incredible String Band. But when I joined Beefheart I went back to American country blues – folks like Skip James, Blind Blake and Son House.
TPA: And how did you meet Jeff Buckley and was it obvious during his time in Gods And Monsters that he would go on to become a well-known and individualistic artist in his own right?
GARY: I met him at a tribute to his father Tim Buckley and the producer Hal Willner suggested we try and collaborate. He knew my past work and was very enthusiastic about this. I always thought he was an incredible talent and deal extensively with our relationship in my recent book “Touched By Grace: My Time with Jeff Buckley” (Jawbone Press).
TPA: Gary you originally saw Peter perform in the 70’s with Van der Graaf Generator, but as far as I can tell your own career has never veered into progressive rock territory. So a general question, are you aware of the genre or specific bands?
GARY: Actually I didn’t see Peter with VdGG until their reunion show at Royal Festival Hall in 2006 or thereabouts. I saw him perform solo at the Friar’s in Aylesbury in 1973, but to answer your question – a lot of my favourite bands back in the late 60’s might fit into that Prog category, such as Family and The Nice. Some of my own Gods and Monsters songs might also. But my whole ethos musically is kind of based on Don Van Vliet’s album title “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” – which he explained to me as meaning “Get rid of the labels”. It’s a big world of music out there, and I find to be pigeonholed by genre, one way or another, very limiting. If you look at my own discography, I’ve released over 20 solo albums in a variety of categories, including psychedelic rock, world music, folk, electronic and classical. I think the common thread that unites them all is my guitar playing, my eclectic musical sensibility – and a broad-minded view of what guitar could express.
Now this might have confused the general public in terms of a marketing strategy in trying to sell them on me as a guitarist, but so be it. I loved making all those albums, and I loved playing all that music. And I guess I just assumed that anyone with ears would recognise the overall quality of my work, and want to hear more of it. I’m very proud of those albums, hey all received 4 and 5 star reviews from the critics and accolades from the people who sought them out and got to hear them. I wouldn’t have changed a thing if I had to do it all over again.
TPA: Obviously Gary you are a long-time fan of Peter, if you had to pick five favourite tracks from his career, which would they be?
GARY: “Afterwards”, “In the Black Room”, “Killer”, “House With No Door”, “The Future Now”.
TPA: I would imagine working with Peter Hammill is a somewhat less challenging experience than being slave-driven by Captain Beefheart?
GARY: Well Peter is a lot of fun to be around and a gentleman always, you couldn’t really compare the two experiences. But as much as Don Van Vliet could be a pain to work with at times, I don’t regret any aspect of my association with him, I am very proud of it. It gave me a thorough grounding and a real baptism of fire in the alternative music business.
TPA: What were the high points of your time with The Magic Band?
GARY: You mean with Don Van Vliet? Just talking on the phone with him, never mind being around him, was magical and fulfilling. I loved touring the UK, US and Europe with him in 1980-81, and the recording of “Flavor Bud Living” and “Evening Bell” was some of the most exciting moments in my life. Particularly recording the first piece, in 1980 – I took a taxi from LAX to the studio in Burbank right after stepping off a plane from NYC, and was ushered into the studio. I nailed that one in the first take, I was “o” and had rehearsed it like crazy for months.
TPA: If I understand it well, you played solo pieces on both Doc At The Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow, how come you weren’t fully inducted into the band at that time?
GARY: Well I was for “Ice Cream for Crow”! I am a full member of the band there, and am featured in the “Ice Cream for Crow” video. Unfortunately Don didn’t want to go out and tour that album, but I would have gladly, as would the other guys on the album.
TPA: Both Peter and Beefheart are icons for both their lyrical content and vocal style, how does working with each compare?
GARY: Well to be fair I think its apples and oranges to compare them really. Peter did all his work with the lyrics and vocals on his own in his own studio, and I didn’t observe this process. Don on the other hand was always gushing out ideas spontaneously and dictating his poetic imagery or whistling or scatting his melodies into a tape recorder – or writing his lyrical ideas down on the spot, and would often work out /compose whole songs that way, quite out in the open with the other guys hanging around. He kind of liked to be “on” performing for us all, all the time. Peter plays it much more close to the vest!
GARY: Well sure!
PETER: We have a show in London in February and we’re hoping to do further stuff later in the year.
TPA: Peter – are the inspirations that drive your solo and collaborative work different from that of VdGG?
PETER: The inspirations are the same but the stylistic and philosophical differences are great.
TPA: You seem to have complete freedom within the career you’ve carved out for yourself. Are things planned ahead in detail or do you move where the muse takes you?
PETER: I pretty much stumble along, led by the nose by whichever project I’m doing. Having said that, of course there’s a degree of planning involved in mapping out the various time periods of the different activities.
The Progressive Aspect wish to express their thanks to both Peter and Gary for taking the time to speak to us. We would also like to thank Vicky Powell and the Esoteric Recordings team for coordinating this interview.