Uncommon currency

Peter Hammill has created an impressive catalog of unconventional music, both as a solo artist and as the front man for Van Der Graaf Generator.

In 1977, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols played guest DJ on a British radio show. He called Peter Hammill a true original, saying, "If you listen to him, I'm sure [David] Bowie copied a lot." At age 60, Hammill has not achieved the fame of some of his progressive rock contemporaries such as Genesis, Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. However, over the course of more than four decades, he has created an impressive catalog of unconventional music, both as a solo artist and as the front man for his band, Van Der Graaf Generator. He has also developed a loyal fan base around the world. On December 2, Hammill performs here, with only a guitar and a piano, at Reading 3 at the Tel Aviv Port. It is his fifth show in Israel featuring music from some of his 30 plus solo albums. "I always enjoy performing in Israel. The audiences are very diverse and enthusiastic," he says in a phone interview with Billboard (this one, not the other one). Despite the notorious obliqueness of his lyrics, he says, "People know the words to my songs." Hammill usually determines his set lists about an hour before taking the stage, selecting 16 to 17 songs from the nearly 70 that he can play at any time. "I try to create a dramatic narrative from a variety of my music. Each show is ultimately an expression of where I am at the moment. So in a way, this will be a distinctly Israeli concert," he offers. An individualistic approach to music has dictated Hammill's entire career; his influences are blues, soul and British beat music. However, he says, "I have always tried to put a personal spin on everything that I do. As it happens, my personal spin tends to be outside of the norm, which is something that I have never been uncomfortable with." In fact, throughout his career, he has consciously defied convention, rarely producing an album that sounds like anything else - including his own prior work. Although his music is often considered progressive rock, he says, "the closest that I've come to describing it is 'unpopular commercial.'" One constant in Hammill's desultory discography is his unique vocal style. Singing in registers from baritone to high falsetto, he growls, croons, shrieks and shouts in ways that have drawn comparisons to the work of Jimi Hendrix. Neither Hammill's range nor his willingness to experiment appears to have diminished much over time. Both of these attributes are on display on VdGG's latest album, Trifector, released in March of this year. Uncharacteristically, the record contains several relatively conventional and uncomplicated tracks. "At this point in my life, I do not always feel the need to be entirely original. I have realized that there is a lot to be said for writing a simple song," he explains. In the context of his career, though, even traditionalism is rendered avant-garde. Currently working on a solo album, which Hammill expects to release in the spring of 2009, he is doing the vocals, music, engineering and production himself in his studio "Sofa Sound" and with the record label "Fie!" "When I started independently making music in the '70s, it was considered unconventional. Now, it's common currency," he says. Based on his track record, the only thing certain of his upcoming shows is they'll be anything but common. Peter Hammill takes the stage at Reading 3 twice, on December 2 and 3 at 9 p.m. each night. Tickets cost NIS 220/270 and can be purchased at (03) 604-5000.