The difficult fortieth album in the critical fiftieth
year after the thirtieth anniversary of becoming (some might
say) a professional musician...well, all the numbers seem to
be running along nicely, don't they?
So: number 40, "This", will be out just before I hit the
half-century mark, as I'd hoped. The official release date
is October 26th, but copies will be available from Sofa
Sound as soon as you get this newsletter.
What kind of album, then? As ever, I know the stuff so
intimately by now that, while it feels utterly natural to
me, it remains strangely difficult to define. (How often
have we been here before: if any new piece of work could be
summed up in a few pithy words, either by myself or in a
review (haha), questions would have to be asked about the
very reason for its existence....) An effort at definition,
though: in view of the coincidental significant numbers
involved I had the idea from an early stage that I should
put together a collection of songs which showed my continued
intent and interest regarding music - its styles, its
subjects, its possibilities, its making. The result is a
broad spread across various genres, with (I hope) coherent
echoes of past, present and future in unity. Such skills as
I now have or have retained have been applied to make the
musical journey, although varied, as seamless an experience
Lyrically (for once, I'll start with the words) the subject
matter is fundamentally the passage of time (shock!),
nowness and the singularity of our individual lives. If this
sounds as though I'm just going over familiar ground I can
only say that this IS the ground upon which everything else
stands or falls and therefore continued visitation to these
themes will always produce different angles, wrinkles and
results. So here one will find admonition and/or exhortation
(either to oneself or imagined others); the slow shocks of
various recognitions in moments of clarity or darkness; more
on the mysterious processes of parenthood; more on the
sudden absoluteness of now. Little by way of whingeing or
complaint, I hope; lots of with-eyes-wide-open.
The contributors are, in modern terms, the usual suspects:
Stuart, Manny and David. At times the sound combination is
that of the pH Quartet, applying all the knowledge which has
been accumulated over the period of playing together.
Elsewhere things are rather more broken up into
near-string/wind chamber music or strangely rooted
I play a great deal myself: guitars both electric and
acoustic, bass, keyboards of various ilks and, of course,
As you'll know - even if the boundaries are not always
absolutely evident - improvisation plays as important a part
in the making of a record for me as the strict application
of structure. There's plenty of that here, most notably in
the fourteen-minute long piece which closes the CD, "The
Light Continent". This grew into the tone poem which it now
forms from a (very long) single pass of playing at the
keyboard. Thereafter, under editing, words and vocal
melodies gradually made themselves apparent. The final
contributions of David and Stuart were made without their
having had the benefit of hearing a note of the track played
to them in advance. If anything on the recordings is NOT
quite like stuff I've done before (or, indeed, stuff that
anyone else does...) it's this. If you expect a PH "epic" of
multiple themes and time signatures when you see 14 minutes
listed on the credits, you'll be disappointed; it's an epic
of a different kind, stretching and extending the sentiments
of a moment.
Other areas of improvisation are less immediately evident;
deliberately so. I've tried, as ever, to make the moments
and sources of inspiration as imperceptible as possible, so
that the results have an absolute and finite definition.
In general there are many echoes of times both distantly and
recently past, since I've tried to cover several of my
bases. The most significant of these is "how did we get here
from there...?". There are several such moments of
(unlikely) congruence. The electric guitars are nasty in an
almost Nadir-ish way with the added veneer of control which
those of you who've seen my live performances lately will be
(?!) so aware. The acoustic guitars perhaps harp back to an
era between, say, "Chameleon" and "The Future Now". The
overall sound world is a smear between and across ALL of the
work, Sonics included. This is not, then, such a neo-calm
ride as was "Everyone you hold".
Seven songs altogether, with three short instrumental
"fragments" tying them all together. The latter are "lifted"
elements from the assembled pieces, although by the nature
of things it may not be exactly clear where they've come
Song 1 is "Unrehearsed": get on with this life, this action,
however unprepared you may feel yourself to be - it's the
only chance you'll get. "Stupid", which follows,
acknowledges the fact that we accumulate that which we call
a life as much by our mistakes as by our best-made plans.
"Since the kids" is both post- and because of children. The
word-play, one hopes, leads to some kind of
self-realisation: you can't, you don't hand on the world,
only such apprehension of it as you've managed over your own
time. But, in hope, life goes on....
Both "Nightman" and "Fallen (the City of Night)", which
follow, are snapshots of passing moments of clarity. In the
former, there is a waking into full and bright
mid-night-time consciousness in which all is clear,
including, of course, the knowledge that things will be
occluded by tomorrow. In the latter, the ghosts of cities
and lives past brush past the cheeks with unmistakable
portent for future as well as past.
"Always is Next" is, after the subjectivity of all that's
passed before, an objective story - and quite dark. In the
midst of life and all that. The last conventional song
Finally comes the aforementioned "The Light Continent". An
Antarctic of the soul? Or the feather-light touch of toe and
heel on the impermeable ice? A lifetime, or one second in
the life? I remain happy to admit that only gestures and
questions, not answers, fall into my hands....
Enough of my (current, as of today) takes on the songs.
Naturally, there's more complexity to them than these
thumb-nail sketches allow...or they wouldn't exist.
Certainly, though, there's some element of journey involved
as one trails along with them.
For myself the "how" of things remains an intrinsic,
essential and informative part of the process. The nature of
production goes beyond the mere recording and arrangement of
sound and is inextricably bound up in it.
The whole thing was, naturally, recorded at Terra Incognita,
with location work being restricted to the piano on "Since
the Kids" - my Gors & Kallmann still going strong. The
recording is entirely digital; since I actually master the
CDs at Terra this means, for instance, that any word I sing
remains pristine, clear and unsullied by translation -
unless I screw up Big Time - from its reception by the
microphone (Neumann U87, by the way) until its transmission
through your speakers.
ADATs remain the main tape system, Cubase the sequencer. (As
I've said so often before, the use of a sequencer does not
mean slavish devotion to the whims of a computer - it CAN be
just another form of recording!) In the course of these
sessions I've moved more and more into the realms of
hard-disc recording, using Cubase as the platform. This is a
really suitable system for me: modestly hi-tech, but still
metaphorically held together with string and sealing-wax.
The opportunities for experimentation and discovery are as
limitless or as limited as you want to make them. It was
possible to make quite radical moves regarding arrangement
and song structure even at late stages of proceedings. The
recording and mixing were, therefore, somewhat liberating
experiences, bearing some similarity to the old 4- and
8-track analogue days. Recording, like live playing, remains
Serious Fun! So....
By now I wear so many hats - writer, composer, musician,
arranger, engineer, producer, A&R man (?) - that it's
vital that the (changing) head under each of them retains
interest and excitement. In the end there has to be one
unifying person under all the millinery...the "Peter
Hammill" who finally puts his name to the stuff. Readers,
you will find "Him" present in these recordings!
That's it; I've rambled away enough. What it is "This"?
Until you actually hear it, I've told you all I can.
Ultimately all I can say is that I'm still trying to do the
best work of which I'm capable and still loving the effort.
I guess it's self-evident that all the hats remain important