playing peter hammill

I’ve been thinking lately, about my long, long association with the music of peter hammill (and of course, his band, van der graaf generator), and I am finding it a bit difficult to comprehend just what an effect his music had on me back in the day, and how it still resonates so very strongly with me, now, many, many years later.

it all started with a “bootleg” – a live vinyl recording of van der graaf generator called “fellow travelers (all watched over by machines of loving grace)”, a band I’d heard about, but hadn’t ever heard.  this was a strange bootleg, with just three long live van der graaf tracks on it, and then some  rarities or what were rarities at the time: “firebrand” – a very early van der graaf generator single from about 1968 and also it’s “b side”, “people to you were going to”.  sandwiched in between those two songs, are three live or possibly “live at the bbc” peter hammill solo tracks, “rubycon/a louse is not a home” and “red shift” – live; with david jackson on some or all of those 1974 tracks.

but the songs that were on this record – wow.  “man-erg”, “w”, and “killer”.  that’s all I remember really, I played side one of that record over and over and over…  I set out to learn “man-erg” on the piano, and many, many days or possibly weeks, I am not quite sure – later, I could actually play it.  that’s a track that I do intend to re-work, and I have done rehearsal versions of it quite recently…but it is not an easy one, I can tell you that much for free.  I do have it written out, chords and lyrics, but having it written down is one thing; being able to play and sing it live – is quite another!

those three live tracks had a huge effect on me, so I immediately went out and bought a studio lp – which was “h to he who am the only one” (because I wanted to hear the studio version of “killer”, mainly…).  this album, then, did not leave my turntable for many months, and I very quickly acquired all of the other van der graaf albums as well.  where I could – I tried to learn or teach myself how to play the songs.  “man-erg” was probably the first van der graaf song I ever attempted, followed by “w”.

following that, I remember tackling the songs from “still life” – including the rather difficult to sing title track, and the rather difficult to sing “my room (waiting for wonderland)”.  I learned those, then, “the undercover man”, which I spent quite some time trying to make a decent recording of (playing real piano, real hammond organ, and singing) and then finally, I got up the nerve to try something really difficult…

much, much later, perhaps a year or two later, I approached “the siren song”, a song which haunts me on two levels, no, three levels – one, it’s a very, very difficult piece of music to play and sing, perhaps the single most difficult of any ph or van der graaf generator songs that I have attempted…two, it’s personally haunting, musically and lyrically, and three, it haunts me because so far, well I am not quite sure, because the last session may have yielded a take, but this is a song that has proven very, very elusive in terms of getting a live take.  then…and now.

in fact, many if not most peter hammill and van der graaf generator songs are very difficult to perform unless you are peter hammill – that’s all there is to it.  I am the first to admit that I am not particularly good at it, however, I love these songs, I spent a lot of time learning them, and I am determined, after all that work, to try and capture live performances of at least some of them.

I’m happy to say that I’ve recently re-recorded three tracks from the ph/vdgg canon, which were “flying blind”, “my room (waiting for wonderland)” and most recently, “vision”.  two peter hammill tracks and one by van der graaf generator.

I am currently rehearsing three van der graaf songs: “the siren song”, “man-erg”, and “still life”.  these are all extremely difficult, and I may rehearse for many months and still never get a decent take.  in some cases, I may eventually be forced to record the piano on it’s own, and then record the vocal live – so far, I’ve avoided that, but there may come a day.  right now, my feeling is that if I can just get through one take of “the siren song” (from 1977’s “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album – a re-jigged van der graaf without the “generator” in their name – stripped down and with graham smith absolutely wailing on massed electric violins) where nothing goes disastrously wrong, I will be very, very pleased.

why is that song (“the siren song”) so difficult?  well, I don’t really know, it’s not in an “easy key” for one thing – so I am not really used to playing in d flat (or c sharp, I don’t actually know which it is – only peter hammill knows for sure), so it’s physically challenging on the fingers – and of course, it has quite a few “odd chords” i.e. chords that have an unusual bass note – a third or a fifth in the bass, and that takes some getting used to (strangely, todd rundgren also uses this musical device a lot, many chords where the bass note is NEVER the root note of the chord – always something else! – so I do have some experience with this, but it’s still very awkward and often quite tricky to execute these special chords) and then there is that “solo section” which is just bloody difficult!  I have now (after MUCH rehearsal!) got it down to a science, but of course, if I play through the solo section correctly (something I do about one in ten tries, if I am honest!), invariably, I mess up the final verse – you know how it is.

I do have one more day’s worth of takes to listen through, having already been through two or three “siren song” sessions and found all the takes wanting in one way or another…some are close, but none close enough for my demanding ear – so, it’s once again, back to the drawing board…and, I insist on a completely live performance, so that really leaves no margin for error – it has to be right, vocal and piano.  and for that song – well, let’s just say, I am really struggling to achieve that!

but – I persist, and as I persist, and, luckily, my knowledge of the song increases with each rehearsal (I feel I actually understand it much, much better than I ever have before – in my head, I “know” how it goes!), and eventually, I will win.  I hope 🙂

now – in sitting down to reflect on the music of peter hammill, and his amazing group, van der graaf generator – I know that the start was that live bootleg, but now, after some 30 – 35 years of listening to this man’s music – what songs did I learn, and which ones can I still play – I am not even sure, so I am going to attempt to document this now – just so I can see where I am with this remarkable body of music – one of the most unusual and varied I’ve ever heard, from any artist.

figuring out the songs I’ve learned from the van der graaf generator part of my peter hammill repertoire will probably be the easier task (as opposed to the solo canon! which is massive…) so I will tackle that first.

from the first van der graaf generator album, and the second album, just one track each, and then, none from the third (although I did used to play parts of “house with no door” and “lost”, and even a few bits of the remarkable “pioneers over C” on the piano, but I never learned a whole song from “h to he” unfortunately – possibly because they are all bloody impossible to play!).

from “pawn hearts” – just one, although you could call it two as “w”, a single, is roughly from that period  – so approximately one song per album seems to be the pattern.  I also learned a few portions of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” but of course, not enough to play through even a fraction of the whole piece.

honourable mention:  from “the quiet zone/the pleasure zone” I did learn how to play “last frame”, but not well enough to consider it complete, so I’ve left that off – unfortunately, since I really love that song – a classic!  I learned fragments of songs like “patient”, and I also worked on “lifetime” from “trisector” – the only “late” period van der graaf I have ever attempted, but I never finished learning it so that’s another one I started, but can’t really claim, as I never did finish learning it 😉

I was quite certain that the van der graaf list will end up to be considerably shorter than the peter hammill list; and indeed, it did – here is the van der graaf generator list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. afterwards
  2. out of my book
  3. refugees (added to this list on 20130101)
  4. man-erg
  5. w
  6. the undercover man
  7. still life
  8. my room (waiting for wonderland)
  9. the siren song

remarkably short, really, but then, these are not easy – I sometimes think peter saved up his most devilishly impossible-to-play songs for van der graaf, keeping the “easier” ones for his solo catalogue – but that’s probably a fallacy – I am sure that some of his solo pieces are just as difficult as the most difficult van der graaf generator piece.

here is the peter hammill list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. vision
  2. the birds
  3. the lie (bernini’s saint theresa)
  4. forsaken gardens
  5. again
  6. been alone so long (chris judge smith)
  7. shingle song
  8. airport
  9. crying wolf
  10. time heals
  11. the mousetrap (caught in)
  12. if I could
  13. mirror images
  14. flying blind (being a portion of “flight”)
  15. stranger still (added to this list on 20130101)

I think that’s it – I seemed to have just stopped at the tenth album – which will roughly hold true for van der graaf, too, I stopped with “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” which will be just short of the tenth van der graaf album (it’s the eighth, apparently)…although you could argue that since that album is really a different band, “van der graaf” that it’s the first of two – it, and “vital” – but, a moot point, in any case, no matter how you argue it; with the release of “vital”, in 1978, the band stopped playing for a long, long time!

I’ve never done this before, sat down and tried to figure out what peter hammill songs I’ve learned in total, this is the very first time I’ve attempted to compile a complete list – which turns out to be, in the end, well, this number keeps changing, so I will give you the current figure here: twenty four tracks, nine van der graaf and fifteen solo peter hammill works – all learned when I was a young man, from perhaps age 20 to age 30 – which for me, is the decade between 1978 and 1988.

for many years after that, I was without a piano and without any 88-key keyboard, until very recently (february 2012) so for many years, I didn’t really play the piano – which meant, I did not play these songs.  in some cases, not since I first learned them.  not playing really, really complex pieces of music for thirty years – well, I can tell you – re-learning them in some cases is almost as difficult as learning them the first time – it wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now!

so at this point in time, I would say that from the above list, that I can still perform the following (so far):

van der graaf generator songs:

man-erg

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

peter hammill songs:

vision

the birds

again

shingle song

airport

time heals

if I could

mirror images

flying blind

…so thirteen of the twenty-four have survived the passage of time, and if I were to sit down and work at it, I am sure I could relearn most of the others.  however, for some songs, in some cases, I am no longer sure that my voice can hit the high notes any more, particularly in pieces like “the undercover man” where even when I was young, I could not hit the high notes, so it would be impossible now – even if I could relearn the keyboard part.

so I would probably leave “the undercover man” out, which is unfortunate; because I really love it…I love all of these songs, they are like old friends that comforted me then, and they still comfort me now, but in a different way…they are a link to an emotional kind of song writing that I personally never really embraced in my own musical career, I opted for guitar craft, the ebow, and years of looping, and more lately, to rock and prog guitar with the release of “gone native” – so sitting down at the piano or acoustic guitar and “writing songs” is actually a fairly alien process for me – I can do it, but I really don’t do it – or at least, not often.

being able to sit down then, and bash out a peter hammill song on the piano, is a great, cathartic, experience, and I can happily re-live all the feelings and emotion of these songs from a place of maturity and relative calm – at the time, when you are young, things are a bit tumultuous and turbulent in your life, and these songs helped me through many a dark night – but I needed them then, now, I merely want them, just to remember, really.  and they do bring back a wealth of amazing memories, each time I play them.

of course, I might well decide to learn some “new” van der graaf or peter hammill songs, there are so, so many I would love to tackle, including some very unusual ones, like “the jargon king” – I’ve often performed this a cappella, but I am mentally preparing some kind of live version involving heavily treated vocals, loops and I am not sure what else.  it may never come to pass, but I’d love to do some version of it – in fact, I’d really like to learn as much as possible from “a black box”, the tenth peter hammill solo album, from 1980, which might be my single most favourite peter hammill solo album…and I had made tentative starts to learning “golden promises” and “the spirit” – two fabulous songs from that period.

then there is the question of “arrangement” – when you go to perform a peter hammill or van der graaf song – what “model” do you use to arrange the piece?  the studio version?  the live version?  the bootleg live versions?  alternate versions?  your own arrangement?  I think the answer is clearly, “all of the above”.

early on in my musical life, I worked very, very hard at very literally, “imitating” the music of others – I felt that if I was going to play a piece of music by anyone, that it “should be” “just like the record”.  that works sometimes, but other times, it can be a disaster, and part of learning to be a better musician was letting go of ideas like this, learning that actually, it doesn’t have to be “just like the record” at all – in fact, sometimes, that’s the worst thing you can do.

so if we listen to early recordings of my peter hammill covers, they sound very much like his versions, as much as possible given the modest gear I have compared to what he has available…I can remember recording “airport” using a borrowed steel string acoustic guitar – something I couldn’t afford until a decade later.  to my eternal shame, I didn’t know the words, so I just sort of made them up – incorrectly, it turns out – but, oh well, live and learn.  I didn’t have a sax and couldn’t play a horn part, so I used an organ horn stop with a chorus pedal to emulate a horn part.  it’s actually quite a spiffing version of “airport”, considering the limitations of my gear and experience.

back to arrangements – I feel I am very, very fortunate here, because not only do I have the records, and the live records, and even a few live recordings of peter hammill and van der graaf, I am also lucky enough to have seen/heard peter play in many, many situations, from solo guitar / piano performances at the roxy in los angeles, in the late 70s/early 80s, or performances with nic potter on bass and the amazing stuart gordon on violin, and later still, with the reformed van der graaf generator – so I’ve been very fortunate in hearing many, many different arrangements and techniques – many possibilities – for arranging these songs.

and the way I play them, is a total hybrid – part studio, part live, part made up – I tend to play the piano in my own strange style, so some of my idiosyncrasies creep in, too, so you get “dave stafford” flourishes and arpeggios thrown in where they really do not belong, or silences, or bass notes that “aren’t on the studio version” – some through design, some, probably through accident, because, perhaps, I don’t totally understand a certain chord or passage (bear in mind, that with no peter hammill songbook, that I’ve learned every one of these 24 songs “by ear” – and with songs as complex as these…well, it’s not straightforward much of the time!) – although now, I do try to make sure I am at least playing the right chords and the right bass notes, regardless of flourishes, embellishments, and mad arpeggios.

speaking of arpeggios, they form a huge part of my odd arrangement of “vision”, the track I just completed a few weeks ago, at the end of november, 2012, and released on the “ablackboxhd” channel on youtube, and I really worked hard on that arrangement – I could have played it safe, with a very minimal piano part, but I wanted to do something creative with the piano part, while leaving the basic structure (hopefully) intact.  so that’s a case where I play fast and loose with the arrangement, whereas on other tracks, for example, “the siren song”, I keep such changes to a minimum, well, maybe not a minimum, but with that song, it’s hard enough just to play it through unembellished, much less play it with additional, difficult piano parts added – well, either way, to be truthful, it’s just bloody difficult.

what was required there, though, was rehearsal, and lots of it – and now, after two months of practice, I can play it fairly well – and I may have captured it in my last session, I can’t wait to find out.  if I did not – well, it’s well-embedded in my memory now, so I can sit down and perform it again with no problem now – I am sure I will “get it” eventually, through repetition and rehearsal, if none of the takes from the other day are any good.

unlike many artists, who publish song books of their music, there is no “101 peter hammill classics” for me to refer to, so of course, the only way for me, is to use my ear, and teach myself each song, chord by chord, note by note, using only my ear as a guide.  I wish there was a song book, but maybe I should publish one, since I already have “24 smash hits by peter hammill” learned – which I could “write down” courtesy of the notation view in sonar – if I can capture a decent performance of each one, I suppose I could publish a ph songbook – what a strange idea !!!

other artists whose songs I learned, I was fortunate enough to find an actual song book – so I learned a lot of todd rundgren songs from my “best of todd rundgren” song book, including many I might not have taken the time to learn by ear, so I am very thankful I had that book – but it gives me an unfortunate advantage, and having song books for todd, roxy music, steely dan, and even artists as unusual as allan holdsworth – remarkably, there is an allan holdsworth song book (believe it or not!) – although I could only learn tiny bits of songs, never a whole song – from that one! having those books was a real help and a real blessing…but when it came to van der graaf generator or peter hammill songs…I was totally, totally on my own.

I can remember, too, the titanic struggle, the hours and hours of patiently writing out chord charts, again and again, the agonising work of trying to understand and get written down, for example, the bizarre and strange series of chords at the very end of “man-erg” – that really took some work and a lot of patience. it’s amazing how patient I was, how endlessly willing I was to spend unlimited time working on these songs, just so I could play them, not for any other reason but my own enjoyment of them.

nowadays, I wouldn’t take that much time, I can’t imagine spending not just hours, but actual days of work on one song, trying to work out what those odd bass notes are, or how a linking section works, or what on earth is that melody – and songs like “man-erg” were so, so hard to work out, because part of me wanted to play the piano part, another part of me, the hammond organ, that beautiful organ part; and another part of me still thought I was david jackson, playing the beautiful horns in between the verses…so my arrangement is actually part piano, part organ, part horn…because I tried to get the whole band into my arrangement, to get it to sound like the song the way they played it on that live recording.  and not really succeeding, except in the most rudimentary way.

“the undercover man” also gave me a lot of grief, now, in that case, I was, at the time, actually making a four-track multitrack recording of it (on my TEAC 3340-S 1/4 inch reel to reel deck, of course!), with piano, organ and vocal – so I first had to play the piano part correctly, and then go back and overdub an organ part, and when I say “an” organ part, I mean that literally, I couldn’t really play what hugh played, I am sure, so I just did the best I could with the skill I had at that age (mid twenties, perhaps).  working out the chords, working out how the piano and organ worked together, was both fascinating and very, very difficult – but very rewarding in the end, because I did learn it, I could play it all the way through…and I did get it recorded, although that was one where my vocal range just could not quite cope with one of hammill’s amazing vocal performances – I just couldn’t quite hit the notes in one part of the song, which is such a shame.  but the music was enormous fun to learn, practice, arrange and record – what a beautiful song!

“still life” is the third in the “very impossible” category, I loved this song from the moment I first heard it, and I was determined to learn it, and learn it I did – every word, every chord, every screaming emotion – a raw, passionate poem of questioning, questioning – demanding an end to all things of infinity.  this song, perhaps, has the best hammill lyric ever – it asks so many important questions, questions that I still want answers to today – and will never get answers to.  it’s such an amazing musical observation – and one of peter’s most emotional and most amazing songs, ever.  I love performing “still life”, despite how difficult it is to play.

as with “man-erg” and “the undercoverman”, “still life” took an enormous amount of time, and effort, to learn, it was really a challenge, but eventually, I worked it all out.

“my room” while perhaps a little bit “easier” than “man-erg”, “still life” or “the siren song” was nonetheless not easy to learn, not easy to sing, and I immediately put it into the “quite difficult” category with the other four difficult pieces I decided to attempt.

so those four, plus the very difficult “the siren song” were the most difficult to learn, meaning that these five, then…

man-erg

the undercover man

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

…made the other four that I learned “seem easy” by comparison:

afterwards

out of my book

refugees

w

although to be fair, really, only “afterwards” is “easy” – and that’s because it’s a very, very early song, when peter had only strummed a few chords, although his development on piano and guitar over those first few albums is absolutely astonishing to witness – so I would expect “afterwards”, from the very first van der graaf record, to be “easy” (relatively) – but for example, despite being from a quite early period (1970-ish) “out of my book” is actually very difficult in it’s own way, the vocal is not easy, and it’s one of those that seems simple, but when you try to play and sing it, you find out it’s actually not that simple…

conversely, the fifteen peter hammill “solo” songs that I learned, were relatively uncomplicated (of course, with a few exceptions) when compared, in general, to the selections from the van der graaf generator canon, those exceptions being “the lie” (which I’ve forgotten almost completely by this time), “forsaken gardens” (many, many chord changes, none difficult in themselves, but getting through the whole piece is a real challenge – I’ve also, unfortunately, lost my ability to play this – although I have it written down) – and, for me, a rare guitar song, “if I could” – that’s fairly tricky, and also, of course, “flying blind” – very, very challenging indeed, approaching “van der graaf” level of complexity.

the rest of the ph songs I have learned are relatively simple, but really, none of peter’s songs are that simple – it’s just relative.  after the hellish progression that is “the siren song” – well, if I then sit down to play “vision” – well, it does seem easy by comparison!

I have noted that the majority of these 24 songs are “piano songs”, with just a few being “guitar songs” and I was wondering why that was, and I just don’t have an answer.  I think possibly, for me, it’s simply comfort – I am quite comfortable just sitting down at the piano and singing a song, whereas, I am not quite as used to singing while playing guitar – sure, I can do it, but, normally, I always played lead guitar, and when you are playing lead guitar, it’s not always easy to sing at the same time, so that may go some way towards explaining why I didn’t learn more peter hammill “guitar” songs.

two out of nine of my van der graaf generator covers, “out of my book”, and “w” are guitar songs, while a more respectable six peter hammill solo pieces are guitar songs:

“again”

“been alone so long” (which is really not a peter hammill song, but a chris judge smith song)

“shingle song”

“airport”

“crying wolf”

and the exquisitely beautiful “if I could”

…are guitar songs, leaving a remarkable nine as piano songs – that’s a lot!!

in total then, for all 24 ph/vdgg pieces learned, 8 are on guitar and 16 are on piano – so my repertoire is seriously biased in favour of the piano songs – that’s just the way it’s worked out.

maybe that’s telling me that I should learn more peter hammill guitar songs 🙂

moving back now to the question of arrangements, in thinking about the way I approach the performance of these songs now, I think it’s a really good thing that I’ve totally “let go” of that early view that the song should be as much like the studio version as possible, and I’ve instead, embraced a very free and very unusual style of performance with these pieces – which in a lot of cases, is more about my memory of the song, my impression, my emotional take on the song – rather than re-creating every single note, nuance and vocal twist – I just try to sing and play these songs with the kind of passion and beauty that they deserve.

I think in the end, that’s all you really can do, and if you are just true to what you know, what you know you can play, and what makes you feel good about the song – if I play this a certain way, if I leave a long silence here, if I sing this note here instead of here…that your own flourishes, embellishments, and changes actually make the performance better, because you are taking a good song, and making minor changes that hopefully enhance and grow the song, making it more than it would be if left “exactly the way it is on the album” – there would just be no point in that!

also, if I sit down and do a very serious, analytical “comparison” of my version to peter’s version – well, it’s immediately hopeless – my versions are so incorrect, they are just impressions…I didn’t write these songs, so I can’t possibly play them like peter does – so they are dave stafford impressions of peter hammill songs, rather than really good copies of peter hammill or vdgg songs – I will leave that task to someone else !!

I look back at my career of learning, performing and recording many van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, as quite strange – it has almost nothing to do with any and all of the other music that I play and record.  yes, I am a bit diversified, what with the many different types of guitar I play, and the various synthesizer, application and kaoss pad pieces too, and all the hybrid combinations thereof – somehow, this catalogue of vocal and piano, or vocal and guitar, pieces by the amazing peter hammill, sits in there too, as part of the basic dave stafford musical dna.

for me, after initially being caught up first by the music of yes, and then, by early (peter gabriel period) genesis – I then found van der graaf generator, and their music was unlike any I had ever heard, and in a way, classing it in with “progressive rock” didn’t make a lot of sense, but I suppose it was closer to “prog” than many other forms of music.  but it turned my head around, it wasn’t “nice” or comfortable, at all, it was edgy, uneasy, uncomfortable – but, at the same time, brutally honest in a way that yes and genesis possibly were not.  and I found that very attractive, and that changed me, it brought a more dissonant playing style to me on the keyboard and guitar, and a more dissonant vocal style too – peter hammill did things with his voice that were like nothing I’d ever heard any singer do – so that also had a profound effect on me.

but, curiously…it didn’t really make me want to write songs that sounded like van der graaf or peter hammill, I just wanted to play those 21 peter hammilll songs (and one chris judge smith song), because I loved them, along with the other piano/vocal and guitar/vocal songs I knew from other artists, such as todd rundgren, steely dan, genesis, bill nelson, roxy music, roy harper, nick harper, peter gabriel, beatles, and many, many others – but out of all of the “covers” I’ve done, it’s the peter hammill/vdgg catalogue that has had the most unique effect on me, because it’s such a remarkable canon of very, very special and extraordinary music.

when I did finally get a decent keyboard again, and “had back” the full scale piano (but now, it’s a sampled grand piano, not a tired old out of tune upright) I began the slow, slow process of re-learning the first few hammill pieces – of which I’ve managed to complete three in less than six months, and a couple more are very close to being “good enough” to publish.

I will continue with this process (of attempting to capture live performances of van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs) until I reach the point where I feel that I’ve done the songs justice.

back in the day, I couldn’t always record, so some of these were never, ever recorded, while some of these do have existing tracks from back then (usually recorded under the worst sonic conditions imaginable, using the most primitive equipment imaginable, I am afraid); some useable, some, probably not – so eventually, I will publish the “old versions” too, for comparison – which will be odd – to hear first, the 1979 or 1980 dave stafford cover of a peter hammill song, and then, the 2012 dave stafford cover of the same song – that will be very, very strange!

that will demonstrate something interesting, though, the effect of aging thirty-three years in an instant; the effects of age, the effects of maturity as a musician and as a pianist (certainly, my skill now must exceed my skill then, on the piano?), my ability as a vocalist (questionable at all times, which is why I play instrumental music in the here and now) – all of these will factor into the “33-year test” that I am apparently (unconsciously) conducting.

I am not sure just how many songs, or which songs, I have recordings of (certainly, “out of my book”, “airport”, “the undercover man” and a few others), from “back then”, and how many I would/will also be able to play and record in the “here and now” – so it may be a very short-lived experiment, but even if I can’t do a direct comparison of certain songs, at least we can compare over all…

I look forward to seeing where things go with my 24 piece catalogue of peter hammill songs in the coming years, and I am hopeful that perhaps some of the “new versions” that I manage to capture (and any “old versions” I also put up for comparison purposes), will be enjoyable to fans of peter hammill’s music – I am sure they are, as the videos of the ph songs I’ve done so far have done quite well over a very short time, as enjoyable as playing and singing them again has been to me – I love these songs, and I am hopeful that my affection for them will be self-evident from viewing and hearing the performances – these are good songs, meaningful songs, songs that endure, and by playing them, I am stating that, I am saying “this work has value, please listen to it” – meaning, the songs of one peter hammill – which have had such a strong and lasting impact on my musical life and even my personal life, and very nearly sent me onto a whole new musical course…but, luckily for the world, I opted to be an ambient loop guitarist instead of a prog rock/singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist like peter hammill.

that’s very probably, a very good thing 🙂

you can hear the latest dave stafford “cover version” of a peter hammill song here, in this instance, “vision”, originally from “fool’s mate”, 1971, peter’s first solo album, which also happens to feature one very young robert fripp as guest lead guitarist on a few tracks.

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scorched by the sun – “dreamtime”

as you may know, over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on the final mixes of “dreamtime”, and a few days ago, I completed the first full mix of the piece (which is a long-form ambient work, 50:57 in length, conceived as one piece but built from 13 distinct parts) in a long time (other commitments have kept me away from working on the album and then, the album mixes) which my partner in “scorched by the sun”, bryan helm, and I, are listening to and considering now.

I’ve been living with this new mix (the first for almost a year I am afraid to say) for about a week now, and the more I listen to it, the more I am convinced that it is the definitive mix – I am merely waiting for bryan to confirm this.  any minor adjustments needed won’t affect anything (and so far, I can’t detect the need for any) – because this piece of music pretty much mixed itself, I was only on hand to oversee.

I did do quite a few adjustments to both levels and reverb levels, just looking for the right balance between clarity and atmosphere, and I believe that with this latest mix, I’ve achieved that at last.

this is the first time we’ve built a piece like this, and it’s been a fascinating experience for me – starting out with 12 tracks from bryan, which I then arranged into a random sequence in sonar, setting them out across two tracks, criss-crossing them, and then, I began the overdubbing process.

I’ve described elsewhere my initial experience of trying to do the overdubs on this record, how I tried some energy bow guitar, I tried some guitar synths, and nothing sounded right to my ears.  then one day, I quite suddenly realised exactly what I needed to do: “play the mellotron“.  something about the quality of the tracks that bryan had submitted, said to me “mellotron will work well with this”.  fortunately, this hunch or idea turned out to be right – very right, and indeed, it turns out, the mellotron, coupled with the brilliant “breeze” reverb, proved to be exactly the right instrument to make this track a unique and successful ambient masterwork.

the overdub process was one of extremes, really – I went from the most basic voices – “basic flute” to some of the most unusual and bizarre sound effects that the m-tron pro can produce, depending on the requirement.  so I became a flautist, and I play quite a bit of flute on this album, and in one section, I play a melody that recalls early camel to my mind – and I never dreamed in a million years that I could produce something that sounds like that – but the “basic flute” voice is powerful and expressive, and I knew it would be effective, because I’d used it before on tracks from “gone native” such as “force of nature”.

a few of bryan’s pieces involved scenarios where the music would fade up slowly, then fade down to almost nothing, then fade back up slowly, then down to almost nothing again, wavelike, several times – for those tracks, I first played a normal mellotron overdub, and then built volume envelopes that “mirrored” or “followed” the amplitude of bryan’s pieces – so that my parts would “ebb and flow” in the same way as his.  that worked extraordinarily well, although it made for some strange-looking drawings in the audio monitoring tracks for the MIDI tracks.

other tracks of bryan’s with perhaps, a darker ambient nature, needed something more extreme, and I then turned to some of the stranger sounds that the m-tron can produce, and I also made good use of the pitch bend wheel on one of the pieces.  coupling these unusual mellotron voices with the right reverb, meant that in many cases, one overdub, of one mellotron, was all I needed – and in fact, there are only a few sections where I did multiple overdubs, because most of bryan’s tracks were quite dense to begin with, so I didn’t want to clutter things up with a million unnecessary overdubs.

this is a record of transitions, too, and the beauty of building it up in one massive session is that I could create linking parts that actually overlapped two of bryan’s tracks, and this simple device blurred the edges of where the actual transitions are – which worked out really well. sure, you can tell where it changes from part to part, right enough (and I’m not wanting to hide those transitions, but rather, enhance them) but, there are cases where the starting piece continues on into the following piece, and musically, that essentially “glued together” the sections in a very organic and natural way – it made the record flow.

for one track, I got a sinister, creepy mellotron sound, sort of a modified “watcher of the skies” tone, and played a simple, repeating bass line over bryan’s atmospheric track – and that worked really well – then, I held one note which then overlapped into the next track – always at least a slight overlap – so that your attention stays on a melody or a bass line that seems continuous, and you almost don’t really quite notice that a new song has begun!

in another case, a very atmospheric, very simple mellotron melody floats over a super ambient bed of sound from mr. helm, and I really think that the “less is more” principle is hard at work on this record – I don’t believe I’ve ever done such simplistic, yet effective, overdubs on any record up until this one – and most of them were done very quickly, including some “take one” takes – where

I would just set up the mellotron, hit record, play the part – and that would be the take.  reverbs, of course, were added later;  in some cases, quite extreme, again, (intentionally) blurring the lines of the melody a bit, but increasing the “atmospheric” factor of the record through the stratosphere.  there is nothing on earth like a beautiful mellotron sound run through a beautiful reverb – wow.

keen observers will note that I’ve mentioned the album is one long piece arranged from thirteen “parts”; while I also said that bryan submitted twelve tracks originally; the reason for this disparity is that at one point in the process, when I was working on finishing up track eight, I began to conceive of a different kind of transition – a longer one – and that actually eventually evolved into an entire track, which became part 9.

to create part 9, I dialled up another flute sound on the mellotron, something a bit more like a chorus of flutes, and sat down – with the end of part 8 playing out, and played a live improvisation with this eiree, lush flute chorus sound – it took one or two tries, it was wholly unscripted, melody and chords just appearing from nowhere – and that was that.

part of the reason I wanted this “solo” piece if you will, was that I felt something a bit “lighter” – less dense – was needed at that point in the album’s development, and I believe the beautifully sparse “part 9” works perfectly to achieve that – a quiet moment of solitude, and then the album proper returns – as if, on a journey, you briefly took a side-trip to an idyllic spot, and then – got back on the road.  and that’s how it feels to me when I listen back to it – it’s a very gentle, lovely piece of music, and it sits very well in between two much denser pieces of music.

speaking of the “denser pieces”, one of bryan’s pieces – which became part 12, the penultimate track on the album – is extremely atonal and odd,  so my response was to overlay one of the oddest overdubs I’ve ever done, strange screeching, bent sounds that I’d previously never got out of the m-tron pro, but once again, it came to the rescue with just the right sound for that particular track.  that rather extreme piece, became doubly extreme once I’d added in my part!  mixed, it sounds like a blender blending up mechanical parts, on top of a hill full of screeching birds – with a slowly, ascending, ominous winding sound that is absolutely fabulous.

and then – the final piece, part 13 – we return to a very, very serene, quiet, beautiful mode – bryan’s backing track is absolutely exquisitely beautiful – drifting in and out, a lovely, lovely chord sequence… I had to work really hard to find the right overdub for this.  while not normally a big fan of “choir” voices, I eventually found a voice on the mellotron that I really, really liked – and then I designed a six-note melody with a couple of different pitch permutations – and I just played this “singing voice” over the piece, in an abstract “no time” way, over and over, with slight timing variations – bryan’s part drifting in one plane, my ghostly reverbed choir “voice” floating in another plane – and the overall effect is just so, so serene, like two spirits drifting is all I can say – a great ending to an incredibly atmospheric record.

I knew when I set out to do this final mix, that the record would come out well, because, the playing is good – from both of us, but I did not expect it to come out this well.  the sense of going on a journey, of being taken from mood to mood, place to place, dream to dream, atmosphere oozes from every track – and I really am very excited about this new band, and this new album.  it’s not unlike an interesting night full of interesting dreams (with one or two nightmares included for good measure, like part 12); including the way dreams shift suddenly, or gradually, from one to another – hence, “dreamtime”.

and for those of you who are familiar with the other two bands that I’ve been in with bryan helm – “the dozey lumps” (acoustic crafty guitar duo) and “bindlestiff” (ambient looping duo) – well, “scorched by the sun” is absolutely nothing like either of those bands!  this new group has the sound of quietly confident experience – we have both been doing this for a long, long time, and also, with, ahem, some seventeen years since our last proper recordings – in 1995 – (“quiet” and “LOUD” by “bindlestiff”) – well, it was bound to sound different.

for starters, I didn’t own a mellotron or mellotron software back in the mid-90s, and my focus then, as it’s mostly always been – was guitar.  at this point, after so many years, we had agreed we would make a new album, but we both agreed that it really should be nothing like the music we made previously – and we’ve held absolutely true to that agreement – this is nothing like those bands!

for one thing, it’s a mature work, and, it’s an all keyboard work too, OK, bryan and I did do one or two ambient tracks where we both played synths back in the day, but never an entire album, and certainly never a conceptual piece like this, one nearly hour long ambient work, but made up of 13 discrete parts or sections…that is a new idea for us.

my energy bow guitar and loops (conspicuously absent here on “dreamtime”) were also part of the bindlestiff “trademark sound” and without those energy bows, this record has a completely different feel.  I knew that we could manage a very ambient feel by using the mellotron – because I’d managed to make a complete solo album with it (which was recently released as a “download only” on bandcamp – “sky full of stars” – a complete ambient album made solely with the m-tron pro mellotron) – and that turned out to be just as beautifully ambient as any record made with looped energy bow guitars (such as “the haunting” – also just released as “download only” on bandcamp).

part of me believed that for the most beautiful ambient music, that I would need to play energy bow, but another part believed that I no longer needed to or should depend on the ebow – because in this case, the mellotron did an equally beautiful job of complementing bryan’s beautiful synth work.

so over time, we’ve evolved from an acoustic guitar duo, to an ambient looping duo of bryan on drum machine/synths/loops and me on ebow guitar/guitar/loops/synths, to now, bryan on synths, and myself on m-tron pro mellotron – quite an evolution, really.

depending on schedules, I see no reason why we won’t go on to create more “scorched by the sun” albums – I’ve not really discussed that with bryan, but I am quite certain he’d be amenable, as his reactions to “dreamtime” have been extremely positive.  and yes, possibly, maybe for nostalgic reasons, maybe just for fun – maybe we would do some tracks in our “old configuration” of synth and ebow loops – I don’t know.  maybe.

but – beginning with “dreamtime” – I can see a very successful career in the future for “scorched by the sun” – this is a strong, strong start, and the more I listen to this record, the more I can’t stop listening to this record – it gets under your skin, and the melodies, moods and atmosphere begin to haunt you, including those beautiful reverbed “basic flutes” – and as a guitarist, that is something I just never dreamed I would become – a flautist!  that’s very, very surreal, but I love the sound of it.

It’s a similar sensation to playing the flute or oboe via the guitar synthesizer – as a guitarist, you can’t quite believe that by playing your guitar (or keyboard in terms of the mellotron) you can now play virtually any instrument that can be sampled – and you can play it very nearly as well as you can play the guitar – so becoming good at oboe or flute – when recording – is easily possible.  which is yet another reason why the ebow was made redundant, because the mellotron is so incredibly versatile (much more versatile than the original hardware mellotrons ever were), and because it’s sounds are “real”, their inclusion in a piece like “dreamtime” actually ups the game considerably – and it just sounds great – I am so, so happy that I made the decision to use the m-tron pro mellotron on this record.

so – with the beautiful, dreamlike voice and synths of “part 13” fading into the distance, I hereby declare “dreamtime” to be essentially complete, and once the mix is finalised, and we sort out the artwork, we plan to make it available, as our first new release since 1996, on bandcamp as soon as humanly possible.

the first “scorched by the sun” record is nearly a reality, and I look forward to more ambient and possibly active works, as well, from this new musical entity – I give you, bryan helm and dave stafford – “scorched by the sun”, and their debut album – “dreamtime”.

“sky full of stars” by dave stafford

we are very happy to announce that at long last, “sky full of stars” (an ambient album by dave stafford) is now available for download on bandcamp – as of right now.

working on this upload has reminded me of the making of this record, which for me was an absolutely remarkable experience.

I had always, always wanted a mellotron, but the price tag was far, far out of my league.  I never dreamed that I could actually own one – and I still don’t own one, but, thanks to the magic of software – in 2009, I acquired my very first mellotron – the remarkable m-tron pro mellotron software.  far, far cheaper than the hardware version (and, far more reliable, too), this gave me not just the classic sounds you associate with this famous instrument: strings (“watcher of the skies”), flutes (“strawberry fields forever”), and choir – but so, so much more.

the m-tron pro not only has many, many extra voices created especially for the software version, but it also sports looped versions of some of the classics so you can have more continuous play (beyond the standard 8-second long tapes featured on the original instrument); it features some of the very famous “presets” such as the black sabbath samples (which I put to good use on “gone native”); the famous spanish guitar riff used by the beatles on “the continuing story of bungalow bill”, and so on; but best of all, there is a large library of artists’ patches, and some of those are out of this world.  not to mention that you can tweak voices to your heart’s content and save your own new creations – this is a very versatile piece of kit.

I began to work with the software, and I was astonished at some of the artists’ voices in particular, coming up with such creative hybrids just by combining two standard voices and then tweaking the controls.  I found a particularly beautiful voice one night, and sat down to play an improvised piece with it, that ended up lasting over seventeen minutes.  the moment I finished, I selected another beautiful sound, and did a live overdub of the first part – take one – first try, on top of my take one, first try improv.  these two take one passes of the hands became the title track of “sky full of stars” (which is currently the preview track playing on bandcamp).

over the coming months, a number of other pieces appeared, and very quickly I realised that I could quite, quite easily get more than enough very diverse and very beautiful sounds from the software, to make an entire album of mellotron pieces.  so that’s what I set out to do.  the bulk of the album was recorded in 2009, and then other work forced me to set it aside, with the occasional new piece appearing in 2010/2011, and then, in 2011, I finally sat down to do proper mixes and master the album.

I still am amazing to this day that I could create eight such diverse pieces of music using no guitars and only one instrument (albeit a very capable instrument) – I’d never done anything like this before, and I’ve never done anything like it since – I’d never made a record that didn’t have any guitar on it before, either, so it was a unique and novel experience.

I completed two ambient albums in the latter half of 2011, “sky full of stars”, as well as the all energy-bow “the haunting” (which we are also working on for a near future bandcamp release) but the remarkable way these mellotron pieces came together, and the mood and the sound of the record really please me to this day, I think of the many projects and recordings I’ve been involved with over the years, it’s one that I am very, very proud of, perhaps because it is so unusual in my canon – I have many, many albums of looping, many of ebow guitar or electric guitar, but I only have one “mellotron album” – and that’s “sky full of stars”.

although, there is nothing stopping me from making another one some day – and I think I would very much enjoy that.