As unbecoming as self-deprecation can be for an artist of such caliber, Steve Hackett seems to have only recently realized how solid is the body of work he’s created over the last 40 years – or even more if we take into account not only the guitarist’s solo oeuvre but also GENESIS canon. The resurrection of the band’s spirit was central to our previous conversation yet, since then, Hackett shifted the focus towards the albums released under his name. From today’s perspective, those records expose arcs, recurrent themes and bridges which make it all a whole. Deep and philosophical, Steve’s compositions are firmly rooted in his past – that’s why the veteran so often, without prompt, recalls his former group – although Hackett’s core feelings usually come hidden in complex, multi-layered imagery. But when we cut to this core, Steve opens up, shakes off the tour fatigue and goes beyond the music, and you can see his inner child, one that fuels the tunes and makes the guitarist hungry for what lies in the future. Here’s perhaps his most revealing interview.
– Steve, you’ve been on a solo path for four decades now. During this period, did anything change in your perception of your own music?
Well, after 40 years you tend to change: techniques change as did, musically, my ambitions. I see music in a different light, too. The very first solo album I made was largely written on the Mellotron – I was in love with this instrument – and I still have that idea of the orchestra at your fingertips but with a wider variety. I’m very proud of what I did then, and I’m pleased that it worked then and I’m pleased it works now. It’s a continuous process I think. Now, I’m trying to work with as many different instruments as possible, and I’m trying writing in a different way – it’s a more unconscious process rather than sit down and try to write a tune. I let it write itself, I yield to it much more, I don’t force it at all. I’m a more passive kind of writer now. Once it’s started, once a song is up and running, then I can add things to it. I like to think it comes from somewhere else.
– Through all these years, you worked with singers and released instrumental records. Sometimes, you handle the vocals yourself.
Oh yes, yeah. Sometimes, I do the singing; sometimes, someone else does, or a team. I like the idea of a vocal team live. But “Wolflight,” the latest album, has probably got my best singing on it. I’m proud of the things I did in the past, pieces like “The Golden Age Of Steam” with a good vocal tune, but lots of the time I look back and I think, “Why did I record my vocal like that? Why didn’t I change it?” But when I listen to the new album, I think I’m listening to someone else singing and I think I can be objective about it.
– But if you want somebody else to sing your song, do you try to distance yourself from it somehow?
Usually, if it’s my own songs, I sing it myself, but I find that one male singer plus one girl singer, like Amanda [Lehmann], is very good, too – that works very well. Sometimes, it’s good to have another harmony singer, like Gary [O'Toole]. And then there’s Nad [Sylvan] doing GENESIS stuff, obviously: he has more of a GENESIS voice than I do.
– Now that you’ve been revisiting your old songs to select pieces for this tour, were there any surprises from the past?
Yeah, I think so. Because I’m celebrating 40 years of "Voyage Of The Acolyte", what I’m finding surprising is that we can do those songs – and do them in such a way that they seem to get reinvented. There’s something about it when I play “Tower Struck Down” now: it’s much more powerful than the original arrangement of it. I use effects on the guitar that are very demonic-sounding, very unnerving, very dramatic live, doing that piece; there’s hell of noise that everyone does with it. (Excitedly.) This team, this band, everybody on-stage does something extraordinary on it.
– You’re a very approachable person, and now there’s a biography DVD out. Has there been a process of demystifying Steve Hackett going on? Shouldn’t there be a whiff of enigma about an artist?
Um, probably, yes. Ideally I think, with documentaries, if there’s more music, it’s a better illustration rather than talking as much as I did. I would’ve edited it differently if I had been the director, but I wasn’t the director – I was the subject. There’s a big difference between an autobiography and biography: if you take a self-portrait, you might paint yourself differently, you might talk about yourself differently, from the inside outwards, without a question being asked. It’s probably the process of revealing yourself. But I’m working on an autobiography at the moment that will, perhaps, be what a spontaneous work lacks, because it’s not a response to anyone’s questions – it’s a response to everything you have experienced in terms of priority from the word go. The way I saw London, for instance, after it had been heavily bombed from the war; that’s not something I can really ask someone to ask me about, but it’s something that’s important to me to try and paint the picture of the time that I grew up in. I was born half-way through the last century, so to make it interesting without being a total anachronism is the challenge.
– When do you plan to have the book out?
I don’t know, because at the moment we’re doing so much touring; it means I’m not able to really concentrate on that, because we are very stressed to make the distances, travel, set up, check in hotels… The process of being on tour is also meeting people, doing interviews and so on: there are many things that get in the way of writing a book. There’s a need to sleep and recovering. But I hope it’ll be out in 2016.
– You mentioned self-portrait. Is there any particular song of yours that you could call a self-portrait?
Oh, it’s difficult to say, isn’t it? Possibly, out of all the current songs that I’m doing from “Wolflight,” the one that’s very autobiographical is “The Wheel’s Turning” which, in a sense, is a cross between a pop song and a rock song, but it also is a celebration of a time when I was a young boy looking at the fairground at Battersea Fun Fair, and what that meant to me at that time. It was a combination of many things: it was a place where you could dream – you could still be a child there. In a way, you could be an artist there, because so much at a fairground is put together by a number of individuals; it’s a show made by various people, from the Nineteenth century carousels and calliopes through to the ghost trains and the things that I think of as a post-war ideas of fun. So that’s an important one for me – it tells part of the story – but there are other songs that are autobiographical: “Loving Sea” that we do live, and “Every Day.”
– The fairground theme links this album to "Please Don't Touch". So is there a common thread to your records?
(Brightens up.) I think it is the common thread, yes. I used a real pipe organ on “Please Don’t Touch,” and organ is a big part of it; it was even when I was working with Tony Banks. But it’s the sense of wonder, of what you feel as a child. When I first went to Battersea Park – I must have been about three or four years old – it was a perfect sunny day: lots and lots of color and smells, sweet smells, everyone enjoying themselves. You have to remember I grew up in London, in the midst of industry, with lots of smoke and grey skies so, in a way, it was a bit like the world bursting into color for the first time. And I think that’s where it comes back, in the music that I do; I’m always using that as inspiration – sometimes quite literally – the thrill of that.
It’s like your very center of gravity has been changed, sitting up on your father’s shoulders, watching everything that’s going on around you and seeing the world from a different perspective. Even as a child who is always dreaming with open eyes… it was a place to use as frameworks for future pieces of music. I wasn’t really aware of that at the time, but I got to work in the fairground when I was twelve years old, and it was great fun for me – and an important influence, as it was a place where I heard lots of music, sweet music of the early ’60s. Of course, I was still a child, so I enjoyed going on the rides. And it was that time when you’re just getting interested in all the things that teenagers do.
– Were there any other milestones like this?
Everything was an inspiration at the time. Music was just starting to change then. It was a time in England when conscription was over – people were no longer required to go into the army; socially, there were changes; fashion was starting to impose itself in a more worldly way; the world was starting to open up for us. It was the beginning of the influence of the biggest bands – THE BEATLES and THE ROLLING STONES; influences from all over the world were starting to creep into the music. The charts in England before THE BEATLES were dominated by America, so all of the music that I was hearing was from America in one shape, or form, or the other, and most of the English artists were basing themselves on the American model, covering the same songs, the same tunes. With THE BEATLES, suddenly the focus shifted to England, and in a few years’ time – should we say, less than five years later – the world music began: the influence of India and many other things. So the concept of the global village was starting to become a reality at that point.
– So did GENESIS become a conduit for you to manifest this Englishness?
When I first met them, I played to Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks a mixture of influences: there was something that was pastoral and very English, there was something slightly jazzy, something which was bluesy, and something which was atonal. The atonal influence originally came from Europe, via Hungary, from what Bartók was doing and, arguably, Stravinsky. Then, there was all of the Messiaen, and what John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were doing was very similar to each other: free jazz and atonal music within classical music. That was something that had been around for several years, but rock ‘n’ roll was just starting to take it onboard, and there were bands that had the influence from both sides. So I think that progressive music really was born out of this fusion of opposite cultures from either side of the Atlantic; the European influence was as strong as the American one.
For me, being in London meant that I was exposed to all of this and, of course, I’d loved pop music but at the same time I’d been listening to Nineteenth century Romantic music and Baroque music before that, and been equally impressed and influenced by all of those things, all of those composers who could write wonderful melodies for orchestras. That was something I thought would never influence rock ‘n’ roll but it began to happen from 1967 or even from 1966, and London was at the forefront of democratization of music the world over. Suddenly, you no longer had to be English in order to be accepted; music always was the international language, so the walls of the City started to shake and come down in many cases. There was the breakdown of the things that government imposed upon us – emigration happened via the mind before it did the body.
– Obviously, the sense of freedom that runs through your music comes from that time.
Well, I think so. There was a sense of freedom. I didn’t feel that free as a young teenager, of course: just like every other teenager, I felt extremely shy and desperately keen to be able to talk to girls, but I had no experience in that area, so it seemed a very big deal indeed. Any time a girl strayed into our company, it was something very rare – an extraordinary thing!
– Was “Icarus Ascending” a reflection of that experience – you being scared to fly too close to the sun?
Ha, it’s a good way of putting it, but yes, the Icarus idea came from many things at the time – I wasn’t being literal. Icarus was a symbol of the ambition, as far as I was concerned, all sorts of the ambition – romantical, musical – and also of the idea of no longer being conditioned by others but studying to condition yourself, which I think is a natural process as you move from childhood to adolescence and then to adulthood. Who knows where we’ll go next, after we shuffle off this mortal coil? But I’m getting philosophical here.
– You wrote “Icarus” – which is part of your set now – before you’d left GENESIS. But how did you manage not to be mixing your solo material and pieces you wrote for the band between 1975 and 1977.
I was writing a number of things that I thought might be right for GENESIS: some of them were used, but many ideas weren’t, which didn’t surprise me. I think that anything that I had that was either rejected or potentially rejected from GENESIS I amassed for “Please Don’t Touch” and I was well aware that I was writing outside the confines of an entirely male European group. At the time, I was writing for international situation, which had black American performers, for instance. First and foremost, head and shoulders above the rest, was Richie Havens – a complete genius and a wonderful guy; and I was also working with Randy Crawford, which was tremendous; and Chester Thompson – again, outside the confines of GENESIS [Thompson played live with the band. – DME], I was working with him in a more creative way where he was not a hired gun but a collaborator on that album. So I was very pleased to do that very ambitious project.
– In your opinion, did the “Genesis Revisited” album and tour urge people to investigate your solo stuff?
There was a reappraisal of early GENESIS and a reappraisal of my early solo work and my later solo work, so actually the key to the future seems to have been investing in the same lot that was in the past, as that was my introduction to people – it opened doors yet again for me. I’ve been doing purely GENESIS material for two or three years live, and then in more recent time, in 2015, I started to tour a mixture of things, so I went back to doing solo work, but the idea was that I would do two sets: first one would be solo work – very early solo material and then later solo stuff – and another set would be GENESIS stuff. Essentially, it was the idea of presenting two different bands live, and I think the band that I’ve been touring with did it very well, with great responses to it, particularly from American and Canadian audiences.
– How did you pick and choose solo pieces for the current tour?
Well, it was a 40th anniversary of my first solo album, I wanted to celebrate that. It’s funny how some songs seem like their time is now, and I think many things nostalgically seem sweeter now, so doing many of those tunes again… they felt absolutely right. I felt that the world had caught up with them rather than the other way around. I’d noticed that now there are some tribute bands around that start to do not only GENESIS material but my stuff too, and they do very good versions of my early things, they even make videos of them. It’s not instantaneous, like when it has to do something that’s perceived as international success; some things take a while to burn themselves into the consciousness. So I’m very proud that people decide to do their versions of these things. It’s extraordinary, the way it works, isn’t it? Who would have thought that one time… There’s this box set of mine, “Premonitions,” and I’d like to think that it’s not so much the case of whether one album did better than another or one had a hit single on it and another didn’t; with the passing of time, it all becomes one, really – it’s all retrospective, it’s all historical – it all becomes iconic in its own way. But I’m proud of it all, and my version of blowing my own trumpet is to go out and play that stuff live all over again, and see the reaction of people, which is stronger than it was when it was current.
I think this is also the case for the early GENESIS stuff: when this stuff was written and first recorded and played live, the reactions to it may not have been that strong but, of course, it’s tremendously strong now. If I’m honest, I think there was great reaction to my solo work when it was first out, then, after a while, it had slipped away from the public consciousness, and now it seems to be back again. The whole of progressive material seems to be undergoing a reappraisal with the public: people have come to the end of the idea of rock as consciously simplistic and rootsy [form] and that seems to be no longer a qualification in rock ‘n’ roll. Yeah, rootsy, simple stuff go down very well with people but, at the same time, stuff that had a certain degree of complexity that wasn’t interesting for people who were into jazz or into classical music seems to have found its place again, it’s found its niche. What I’m saying is, I’m still flying my own flag here as I was back then, but I like to think that it’s gotten broader – I’ve done work that’s been acoustic sometimes, I’ve done work that’s classical, I’ve done things that are slightly jazzier, I’ve done things that are progressive, and things that are, perhaps, more based on world music – and I’m not averse to the old short songs myself as well. It’s all under the heading of popular music, isn’t it?
– The same “reappraisal” situation can be applied to GTR, right? Many people derided the band for years, but now there’s a well-received reissue of its only album.
Yeah, that’s very good. I enjoyed working with GTR, and I think there were some very good songs there, particularly “When The Heart Rules The Mind” that became a popular, hit single at the time: it was great fun working on that. Of course, after GENESIS, it was great to enjoy that success again on that level, and to be involved with America in that way was good. It’s great it’s been re-released, and there’s the live album that’s been re-released with it, so people get a very honest second look at what GTR was all about. So although it was an album made by two guitarists, we were both trying to do the right thing for the song, so we weren’t always playing heroically; at the same time, we chose a keyboard player as a producer, and Clive Davis with Arista Records did a tremendous job promoting it. I was very pleased that it received so much attention, and now it seems to be receiving that again with its anniversary coming up. It’s very interesting: my original thing was my solo work which started in the mid-’70s, and then GTR was in the mid-’80s, with GENESIS straddling the two. So I’m very happy if someone says to me that the GTR album meant a lot to them at the time.
– Well, it meant a lot to me in the ’90s; that’s why I bought this live album the first time around when King Biscuit released it.
Yeah, those King Biscuit releases had been very good. Of course, [radio program] King Biscuit [Flower Hour] was responsible for the “Genesis Live” album as well: originally, when that was recorded, we didn’t think that that was going to become an album, so we were all being ourselves, and sometimes that’s very freeing. These King Biscuit things could be live albums recorded by stealth, but I think that spotlight has often shone on them, with people who were recording them often unaware that those were going to be albums in the making, and that’s been great. At the same time, when GTR had an album out and a hit, all of the members of GENESIS were enjoying some kind of solo success in the American charts, riding high; that was something remarked on by “Time” magazine: there was something from Peter Gabriel, from Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Phil Collins and myself – branches of a tree were stretched wide – and it was having quite a degree of influence.
– GTR was the first time when you worked so tight with somebody from the YES camp…
Actually, it was the second time I worked with someone from YES. I had worked with Peter Banks, their first guitarist; I was on his first solo album, "Two Sides Of Peter Banks", along with Jan Akkerman and John Wetton and Phil Collins, and I enjoyed doing that. Also, I’d done some live TV work [for the “GasTank” series. – DME] with Rick Wakeman. So working with Steve Howe was one of many associations I have with YES. Of course, I worked with Chris Squire on the SQUACKETT project and several solo projects as well.
– …but I was going to ask about your work with Roger Dean. For me, that was cognitive dissonance: to see a Steve Hackett product, the box set, with a typical YES visual manifestation.
When “Premonitions” came out, I was looking for something which was typically ’70s for the cover, and Roger Dean was becoming increasingly a close friend. He said he would love to do something together and he produced I think one of his best covers ever for it, so I’m very proud of the way it was done. It was very much a collaboration, and we took a lot of interest in that, my wife Jo and myself. He wanted to know what our favorite colors were, down to the lettering, so it was a very fruitful collaboration. If it looks a little YES-y, it’s certainly one of the best cover that we managed to get for music that was from that era which was 1975 to ’83. I also think that YES… let’s put it this way: I really enjoyed the GENESIS music but, in terms of the covers, YES were perhaps a little better in many cases. So that collaboration is something that we could have struck out in the early days but, of course, YES pretty much had the monopoly on Roger’s time at that time.
– Why did you call the box “Premonitions”? Premonitions of what?
“Premonitions” was the original title for “Voyage Of The Acolyte”: what I was thinking of at the time was not just the fact that I was using the oracular symbolism of Tarot cards which formed the basis for the title and the lyrics of the album, but I also felt that, in terms of premonitions, doing it on my own and being the captain of my own ship was the way forward, for the future. Solo work became increasingly important to me, and I enjoyed the process of working with some GENESIS members – Phil and Mike – outside the confines of the band, and also working with other friends and family. I enjoyed the process so much that I realized that, at that point, the floodgates were open. It was a very well-received album, it became a hit, and I don’t think that would have happened if the record hadn’t been good in the first place, so I fell in love with music all over again and, particularly, with not having to take it to the committee of GENESIS to either sanction it or fail it. It’s like the ice-skating judges from your own country who show certain prejudice for other people when they assess the value of an outside clique’s work. When I eventually joined GENESIS I thought, perhaps naively, that I was joining a democracy, and sometimes it worked like that but often it didn’t. That’s why I found the process of bypassing the committee stimulating – no longer were my brain-children stillborn: if I thought that a song or an idea was good enough, it got recorded, it would be taken from inception to completion. And I thoroughly recommend [this method] for anyone who thinks that they’ve got ideas worth recording.
– Can what you just describe be summarized by your song “Vampyre With A Healthy Appetite”?
Yes, of course, there was the idea of constriction behind this song at the time, although I wasn’t thinking of GENESIS then and I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular. But, in a way, in later years, I’ve seen vampires not as literal things but as symbols of things that were going on in my own life, as I feel that some people take more than they give.
– And still you came up with “Love Song To A Vampire” that seems to be linked to that other song.
Yes, it’s complicity in your own demise or complicity in your own destruction, and many relationships can be destructive. I’m not mentioning any names here but I think vampirism is a very good symbol – beyond its obvious sexual connotation, which is a sacrifice in order to gain something – for people that are dangerous acquaintances. That’s the way I’m using it.
– There’s an interesting shift: your early solo work was very bright – and the new box set’s artwork perfectly captures that – but then it became darker, and I clearly see a nocturnal theme there: from “Guitar Noir” to “There Are Many Sides To The Night” to your take on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to those vampire pieces. Where does this gloom come from?
I suppose there’s something in the night about the interest I have lyrically… It’s not that I’m specifically drawn to the dark side; that’s just the things that you often think might be destructive end up being the most fruitful and constructive. And that’s part of the contradiction in the heart of life, with all the things that you learn and all the things you have to un-learn, that often resolves in surprising ways. Sometimes you have to look beyond the facade beyond the light, to find real depth in things, so you might say that the wolf of night is equally radiant.
I have an interest in all sorts of things, and I have an interest in areas of the mind and psychology, and I’m interested in what makes up the light – I think it’s different vibrations of different things that make up light itself – so if I’m often drawn to dark themes, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t constructive. Also my wife read a very interesting book called “Our Dark Twin” which is all about the way the subconscious informs the unconscious mind, and often the things that we reject or try to suppress within ourselves are the very things that we should be looking at and listening to. If we don’t do this and listen to the rebel within we won’t always find the things that we’re potentially capable of doing, and if we’re just a passive character all the time, then you just go along with all the things we’re told to do, and that could be very dangerous, indeed.
– So is that what “Wolflight” is about? This juxtaposition of darkness and light?
Yes, absolutely: it is a juxtaposition of darkness and light. I find that “in between” state very interesting – the time between sleeping and waking and the time between darkness and light.
– Talking of dark and light sides, are you a fan of “Star Wars”?
Yes, I am a fan of “Star Wars”: I think that “Star Wars” had a lot to offer, and I’m obviously not the only person to think so, because it’s been a tremendously successful brand.
Photo: © Eugene Veinard exclusively for DME