Veteran prog-rockers Van Der Graaf Generator has had a tumultuous 40-year history characterized by break-ups and reunions. Now, however, the classic lineup featuring singer-guitarist Pete Hammill, drummer Guy Evans and organist Hugh Banton has gotten back together to record the mind-numbingly abstract Trisector, an album that recalls the heady days of King Crimson and ELP. About to embark on what’s essentially the band’s first-ever U.S. tour, Hammill talked to us about the band's long history. —Jeff Niesel
Take me back to the band’s formation in 1968. You were a student at Manchester University. How’d you meet the other members?
Basically, I’d been writing songs for a couple of years. I had the inclination to work with other people and form a band. I ran into a couple of people at school, and 40 years later, here we are.
You took the band name from a device that creates static electricity, is that right?
Yes, the name had a good rhythm and an angular look to it. The machine itself gets people’s hair to stand on end and shoots out sparks. It seemed like an appropriate image.
The band got big in Italy?
In Italy and throughout most of Europe. It was just one of those things that we happened to go [to Italy] at exactly the right time when they were ready for something like us. There was a grand gesture to the band’s music that particularly chimed with the Italian mentality.
The lineup has never been stable. Why was that?
I guess it could be something to do with the fact that we have a low boredom threshold. Certainly in the ’60s and ’70s, we were a very combustible unit with quite opinionated and strong-willed people. Also, we never wanted to keep on doing the same thing. Sometimes that means people going as well as different styles of music going.
Did financial hardship come into play?
Obviously that comes into it as well. As everyone knows, running a band isn’t a sensible route to good fortune. When your equipment gets stolen and held for ransom, that doesn’t help either. We had that experience back in the ’70s. Happily, we’ve managed to stay in touch and still be friends.
Talk about your style of playing guitar a bit. You’ve never been really keen on guitar solos. Why is that?
I’m not a guitar soloist — it’s as simple as that. Guitar solos are alien to my fingers. I liked the idea of being a rhythm guitarist. I like a riff and being able to play one here and there. With our trio, that’s quite interesting because Guy [Evans] the drummer is very fluid and very expressive. We’ve got Hugh Banton on organ and playing bass on his feet. They’re both virtuoso musicians. My role is to stick some spine in there that’s going to be stable. The last thing they need is my going off on a wobbly. I like the whammy bar and doing a bit of improv. But don’t expect any shredding from me.
Tell me about Trisector. How does it compare with the band’s previous albums?
I think it’s a very, very interesting record. We’re older guys now. Not that the subject matter was ever about going off to the clubs. But we have different concerns now. We want to make music that’s complex and aggressive and sometimes comparatively simple. We had a great chance to cultivate these things. The previous album was more of an instant affair. With Trisector, we could examine dense territory. Now, we have the chance to do it live. It’s a challenge sometimes but challenge is the name of the game, really.
I think the recording quality is really great and that first instrumental, “The Hurlyburly” kicks the disc off with a bang.
Well, yeah, it’s quite unusual for us to do an instrumental. We set up in this really big room, almost the opposite of most modern recording rooms. We learned the stuff and then built it down. There was a certain degree of post-overdubbing and what have you. But one thing that we were keen to do was to say, “All right — this is the sound of people playing together in a room.” “The Hurlyburly” is a strange, mutant tune.
“Interference Patterns” paints a dystopic picture of the future. Do you think the future is looking pretty bleak?
Um, the future gets more and more complicated and more and more simple at the same time. A lot of that comes from what we know about science at the moment. I remain a more glass full than glass empty kind of guy.
You’re about to go on your first tour of the US since 1976. What do you anticipate in terms of audience reaction?
Yeah, and that was hardly a tour in 1976. That was just New York City. It’s a delight to be able to do it finally. I don’t know about audience reaction. Some people have traipsed around the world to see us. I think it’s only fair to return the favor. Some will know what to expect. For those who don’t, it’s a really interesting and unique group. Some of the music is very strong and aggressive and some of it is really quite delicate. I hope it’s all life-enhancing.
Van Der Graaf Generator and Acoustic Strawbs, Thursday, June 25, at the Beachland Ballroom. Tickets: $33 advance, $35 day of show.