Interview with STEVE HACKETT

May 2015

Steve HackettJuly 2015 will see the last of Steve Hackett’s “Genesis Revisited” shows marking the end of the trek the guitarist has been on for a few years now. All of a sudden – for many but his most loyal followers and Steve himself – Hackett became an avatar of progressive rock who simultaneously taps into the music’s past and the future while remaining relevant at any given moment of the present. More so, this tour saw the veteran play venues he hardly thought of performing at, yet such a success has a solid background, and that’s what was the focus of our conversation which had taken place before Hackett’s new album, “Wolflight,” hit the shelves and before the news of a forthcoming box set emerged although the end of the interview leads exactly to that place… through many a turn showing how Steve arrived there.

– Steve, you’re wrapping the “Genesis Revisited” tour. Weren’t you trying to get away from it all? You even wrote “Walking Away From Rainbows”…

Oh, absolutely! Yeah, I walked away from many things: I did many different albums and I am continuing to do it. There was a new record coming out, so I stopped doing the “Genesis” thing. But I’m doing it because there’s so much interest in it, and I don’t see why I should just leave it to the other guys to play the music that I wrote with them. I think that most artists eventually do need to play the songs that they wrote even if other people may have sung them back in the day. At the end of the day, so many people recorded that stuff, and there wouldn’t be a market for it if they weren’t all beautiful songs.

Once you reach the age where you’re no longer in your twenties and you’re past your prime physically, I think, what’s left is the quality of the material: that’s why there’s still an interest in GENESIS stuff. And it’s worthy of that because it’s more than just pop music, it’s more than just a band who had the hits many years ago; the way the songs were constructed was the kind of music that turned on other musicians, it’s the kind of work that made other people learn to play drums, learn to play guitar, keyboards and want to get out there and be Peter Gabriel or Phil [Collins]. And it’s the quality of the ideas in the first place that makes it possible. And I love doing it, I love playing this stuff live, to the audience: it feels they would like to see the original band, but the original band is not going to do these songs in their entirety – even when the original band was still together, and that’s some years ago now. I can’t remember when the last tour of GENESIS was: 2007, 2008, something like that. There are tribute bands, but if you play it yourself you can’t be a tribute to yourself. I played it with a certain band, and they play in a certain way with a certain fire, and it sounds normal because they love doing it, so I enormously enjoyed that. But they do it as themselves, they don’t do it in order to recreate 1973 – the look, the sound and the equipment are not slavish in that way.

But there’s also an afterlife, of course: everything I did since GENESIS is an afterlife. I don’t have an afterlife which stops now, as a new album is an afterlife, too, and I’m very pleased with it. Again. I’ve done a lot of different albums in a lot of different styles, and one of them, “Tribute,” is classical, with six pieces of Bach – most difficult but beautiful stuff, and I’m most proud of it. I’m most proud of the stuff that’s the most difficult! (Laughs.) But I don’t enjoy difficult music just for the sake of it – Bach’s stuff hasn’t survived because of its difficulty, it hasn’t survived because of its intricacy, but because of simplicity that runs throughout it.

– It’s completely different from Satie, right?

It’s the other end of the scale, isn’t it? The minimalism of Satie and the virtuosity of Bach, but there’s a hidden line between the Bach style because it’s all embroidery, it’s all detail – extraordinary, unimaginable. [GENESIS’] “Horizons” was based on a Bach piece: I heard the Bach melody in the distance and I didn’t even know who wrote it, but I thought, “It’s beautiful. Maybe I could do something like it”? And then, after I’d written it and recorded it, some time later I heard the original piece in its entirety. Obviously, it’s very thorough and composed in the way the Bach stuff is, but mine was more of a variation, a very simple variation.

– To me, your return to the GENESIS material seems like a logical continuation of it all. Over the years, I’ve heard people divide the band’s line in “with Peter Gabriel” and “post-Gabriel” parts, but I’ve always mantained that it was your presence where the division went.

Yes, it’s a continuation of a style of music that tells a story. And because GENESIS used allegory and story with a form of romanticism that was often based on books and drawing on classical roots such as Greek mythology, the band’s music is peppered with references from writers whether it’s Homer or beat poets of “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”: there’s an academic thread that seems to run through this. So much of what the band did was symbolism… The track “Watcher Of The Skies” came from a science fiction idea, its story was based loosely on Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” and the enigmatic character we called The Watcher. I think The Watcher in the “Watcher Of The Skies” version that we did is not necessarily based on that – it’s ambiguous, of course, it doesn’t quite tell the story – but I did love the idea of the evocation of it, using the Mellotron in a very orchestral way to create something that sounds machine-like and, to me, sounds like a spacecraft with this engine-like quality. Then you have the aspect of the crescendo which rises up and almost feels like a craft coming into land. You’ve got two separate things: you’ve got the adagio aspect and then you’ve got the syncopated one – two separate world of music coming together to collide in that difficult rhythm. But it’s the aspect of a story that I think unites it.

– A couple of years later, you would discard your professor-ish look: a beard and glasses. Did you want to break away from this image of an intellectual?

Yes, it’s funny, isn’t it? I’d been wearing glasses ever since I was an eight-year-old child, and then, of course, the Sixties arrived, and I would have long hair. I always wanted to look older when I was in my teens, I though the ideal age to look was probably about forty – I had this idea in my mind that someone who was forty looked like a guy with experience and knew what he was talking about and what he was doing. So yeah, in the early days [of GENESIS] there was more than intellectual look, and I wanted the band to have an intellectual appeal, I must admit, I wanted it to sound more intelligent and not completely dumb.

– How do you feel now being the sole keeper of the band’s legacy?

Well, perhaps, the keeper of the flame of the early work… It’s a strange thing: it feels like a responsibility because I’m still very proud of it, and at the same time there’s something else. The songs were quite wonderful, and I took it a little bit further on down the road. When the other guys in the band, some of them, talk about songs that we did at that time, they disparage them somewhat, criticize them, because that was all about being young, but I think it’s wrong to be overly dismissive of these songs ’cause it appealed to a huge public then. Many people are coming back to these songs now, and I accept as the fact that they want to see it live with the same sort of intensity, so they should have come to one of these [solo] shows.

A lot of fans lost interest in the group when it became something else, when it became a more simplistic proposition, less adventurous, and I think that they felt that they lost the vote, that they felt they would disenfranchise, so the band that they once had enjoyed and supported had decided to go and embrace some other kind of ethos entirely. I think those people are the ones that what I’m doing now appeals to. Of course, it can’t be the same as the original – because it necessitates having a different singer, a different drummer, a different keyboard player etcetera, etcetera – but I can try and imbue the team with the idea of how should we do this. But they do it instinctively; they realize what we should keep and what we shouldn’t. Occasionally, just occasionally, I’ll say to Gary O'Toole, “Here’s an idea of a drum break that you could do” – but it’s very rare that I come up with drum parts, believe me, I’d rather have someone else do it as I’m writing my own stuff – but, other than what we did in the day, there’d be other things that Gary would do on the bass drum, for instance, that are really good. Whenever I hear him do that, I always compliment him, because he adds to the original and becomes part of the [GENESIS] family tree, and when I hear the original versions I think sometimes they lack something that’s been gained in recent years. These songs continue to evolve.

– How did you choose players for the “Revisited” albums? On the basis of who would perform best on a certain track?

Yeah. There are two “Revisited” albums, and the first one was done back in the Nineties with a smaller team, but it also had an orchestra on it, because I thought that GENESIS’ music – at least, the aspect of GENESIS’ music that I like very much – had an orchestral spirit running through it. In the very early days, when I first joined GENESIS, I wanted to work with a Mellotron. I thought, why other bands had a Mellotron, and I realized that it completely transformed the sound. And I made up my mind: if GENESIS didn’t get a Mellotron in the first year I was working with them, then I was going to have to work with some other band in order to play one.

– You thought of going back to QUIET WORLD?

Steve Hackett (and Rob Townsend)

QUIET WORLD never worked with a Mellotron. They were brothers who did exactly what they wanted to do and we played what they wanted us to play, so I wasn’t a writer with QUIET WORLD. I wasn’t there for the writing [anyway]; I was there to get an experience in the studio, as they had a [recording] contract. GENESIS were something else – their stories were ambitious, but in order to be able to tell the story the band had to be able to go from a whisper to a roar, from a rock band to something sounding orchestral and huge. I wanted those wide dynamics, and I thought a Mellotron would give it.

So, moving back to “Revisited” Number One, I worked mainly with the guys who’d worked with GENESIS in some way or another, who had some kind of GENESIS connection: I thought they’d be sympathetic to the music and would be authentic. But for the second album, all those years later, there were two singers I spoke to that I would have liked to work with – one of them was Steve Winwood and other was Steve Hogarth. But in different ways, they both felt that they couldn’t tread on the legacy of Gabriel and Collins, so I thought for any singer that was going to be a problem, as any singer who walks into this is going to get blasted by the fans even if he’s turned out to be wonderful. The singer always comes under most criticism – it’s not the drummer or guitarist or the rest of them – he’s going to get blamed, because the singer can’t be Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins. Even Phil Collins was hugely criticized when he took over from Pete, when we encouraged him to take over. So on that album there’s lots and lots of different singers, most of the personnel is made up of them, so that no one singer has the responsibility of carrying the record on their shoulders.

My idea was “safety in numbers”: if you don’t like one singer, we have another one, and another one, and another one. Some guys sound a little bit more like GENESIS, while other people sound completely different – right up to, and including, Amanda [Lehmann] singing a song you’d never do with a woman’s voice. So that’s heart of the reason – and I’m talking about that defensively, of course. But the other way, like, for instance, Jeremy Stacey on drums, on one or two things, I knew he was tremendously good, because I worked with him on the SQUACKETT album with Chris Squire. Same for Gary, as I’d been working with him for years, yet again, I wanted to make sure that people didn’t feel it was just one person replacing the original team. And then there were the Hungarian guys, Djabe, playing some of my solo material which was in the style of GENESIS: I’ve included things that were written in the timeframe of when I was in the band such as “Shadow Of The Hierophant” and “A Tower Struck Down” from the first solo thing that Mike [Rutherford] was on, and he gave that input (He co-wrote “Shadow.” – DME.), so there was a connection.

– You had John Wetton on both of your “Revisited” albums, who was also a part of your supergroup when you played Japan.

Yes, that’s right. For those huge shows we also had Ian McDonald, a gifted, bright, influential guy, who basically invented KING CRIMSON along with the others.

– Looks like every time, save for those Japan shows, you share a stage with Wetton, you do “All Along The Watchtower” – but why?

Well, he asked me to play “All Along The Watchtower” with him, on a show of his, many years ago. Now, I don’t believe anyone recorded that but, ever since, he and I have worked together, we’ve done either GENESIS songs, or ASIA, or his solo stuff, or KING CRIMSON stuff, but to be able to do “All Along The Watchtower” is something that guitarists understand very well. And when I had the chance of having both John Wetton and Chris Squire on-stage, on the cruise (“Cruise To The Edge. – DME) which we did a while back, that was interesting. I knew that nobody had time to rehearse and learn each other’s numbers, so that it was never going to work, so I just suggested doing “Watchtower.” I said to Chris, “It’s only three notes. Do you feel like doing that?” They’d never worked together before, but we got them on-stage for a short while, and it’s up on YouTube somewhere.

– If you had to choose some other cover, what would you play?

Oh, goodness me!.. I remember that people like [David] Bowie and Bryan Ferry did covers of their favorite things, “Pin-Ups” and what-have-you, and my favorite tunes – oh, my goodness! – was “MacArthur Park.” Funnily enough, I heard Thijs van Leer singing and playing the entire length of it, with the whole arrangement, on piano, solo, in a place called “Trading Boundaries,” in Sussex, in England, which is owned by a friend of ours. I think that’s going to be released as an album. That was just perfect, just to hear Thijs play it on his own, it was absolutely wonderful, extraordinary stuff. I don’t know what I would do with “MacArthur Park”: whether I would want to be the singer or probably stick a guitar solo in the middle, but that would ruin it, as it’s such a beautiful song, I love that one. And it was one of the GENESIS favorite tunes.

– Another piece that seems to be special for you, and for your fans who admire that soaring solo, is “Firth Of Fifth” – but what’s so special about it?

I remember the way this song took shape. I was talking to Pete and he said to me, “I think that Tony [Banks] has finally written something that sounds a bit like a blues” – he meant the verse melody – and, listening to that, I said, “I think it’s kind of blues-meets-gospel, it’s got a sort of hymn-like quality, but then there’s something of the old American South in it as well, something of ‘Gone With The Wind’ in it.” And then there was just a piano solo section which, when Tony first played it, I thought how could that best be interpreted by the band. We did it with piano, we did with flute doubling the piano, but one day at rehearsal I started playing the melody with the sound that it’d gotten bending the notes, and very soon it took on that epic kind of quality. It’s a beautiful melody and it suits guitar wonderfully – it’s almost like Erik Satie-ish, it’s a little bit like some of the “Gnossienne” melodies; there’s something of the East in there, something of…

When I was working with QUIET WORLD, three brothers wrote this stuff together, and their father was a medium who used to send tapes to them from South Africa that they listened to, and, through him, spirits were supposed to be talking. Now, would you buy this idea or not did not really matter; the thing is, he spoke about music as the idea of the sea and the bird flying high above it, and used this idea on this particular song, so the sustained notes, the high F-sharp, are like high winds and the chords hold them together. It comes back to that programmatic idea of classical music – I mean program music in classical terms, which I’m sure you know about – and it’s the same as what progressive music does: it’s music that tells a story. When I played that with GENESIS, I felt: that this is exactly what the band should be doing and this is my role within it. When I played this song myself, when GENESIS still existed, I felt like that one needed to go on, and nobody objected. It wrote itself in a way, it sounds like one of those things that was always there, doesn’t it, and you can’t imagine the world before it.

– More so, it took on its own special life in concert, and recently you released two live albums in succession. What was the reasoning behind that decision?

I was playing “Hammersmith” again, after many years, the “Apollo,” and InsideOut, our record company, said to me, “We should try and record and film the gig, and release it as a DVD,” and that became a 5.1 surround mix. Then, because of the success of that, I was encouraged later the same year to play “The Royal Albert Hall,” and on both occasions we sold out. We realized that it’d be largely the same material, but how often do you get to play “The Royal Albert Hall”? Not that often in the course of a lifetime – that’s a very special place. So we filmed it again, again mixed in 5.1 but also Blu-Ray. That’s the reason for that. It was at the label’s suggestion that I did it.

– Did you expect that the “Revisited” tour would result in such a huge success and your profile would be on the rise again?

No, I didn’t expect that. It was a huge gamble, really, because if the public didn’t accept the idea of this new team doing the GENESIS stuff… I was talking to [tour manager] Brian Coles about it, and he said to me, “You’ve got to be better than the tribute bands. You can’t just be as good as them.” I said, “Yeah, it needs to be all the bells and whistles and not just a recreation of what that was back then. Yes, the idea of bigger and better and all of that, it’s been wonderful to bring back the dream for people, the dream that was GENESIS, the dream that I had of a band that was going to play the clubs first of all and then played to a few more people. It did more than that, it more than lived up to my expectations – the group GENESIS, that is. And then, doing this thing ourselves, it more than lived up to my expectations once again.

– Do you hope that your next tour, with a new album, will be on the same level as this one?

Well, I’m being offered the same places to play in many places, and in the other places I’m being offered more shows. For instance, in England I’ll be doing the biggest tour that I’ve done for years and years and years, so it has actually widened the audience. In terms of my popularity or whatever it is, it’s the kind of industry that conspires to make you keep real auditioning: you have to keep proving your validity over and over again, you have to show that you’ve got what it takes at the box office – either that or you’ve got to retire yourself for ten years and then come back with something. This industry is also about bringing rabbits out of the hat, it’s the magician’s art. It’s not just about the music – I wish it was!

But I remember that in the early days of GENESIS, when we were playing these songs for the first time, audiences didn’t want to understand [the music] and used to walk out. So what was the difference? What made it a success? It was the show, it was the lights, it was the costumery of the singer: it was all those aspects of theater that made it possible for those songs to become well-known and not only survive but continue to grow in popularity. So I’m always aware that the ideal world would be one where everything you did was assessed on merit; in other words, if you wrote something that was as good as Bach (sniggers), then it would sell as much, but it doesn’t work like that.

– Mark Twain wrote about that in “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” where people, after they died, were hailed for what they had been capable of before that, not for what they actually did.

That’s it, you see. In the ideal world, there wouldn’t be any need to huddle with other things that help to sell the music. Because music is a very visual thing: when I listen to the orchestral works of Grieg, for instance – I’ve got a box set, I think, of all the orchestral stuff that he ever did, including “The Holberg Suite”; beautiful, beautiful melodies, just gorgeous, and wonderfully played by The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and spectacularly recorded – that’s the perfect world for me, it’s timeless. And that’s what attracts me to classical music: it’s the idea that it stretches across time, doesn’t it? (Dreamily.) When you listen to the Bach music, it’s as if he’s sitting right there, and he’s not just playing to you but he’s teaching you – it’s wonderfully thorough and intricate. I help but keep coming back to Bach, but it’s not just about those people; it’s also about Mussorgsky orchestrated by Ravel, and many Romantic 19th century composers. So all that on one hand, and on another level I’m interested in all the spontaneous blues work.

"Blues With A Feeling" is one of my favorite albums of yours. I never expected classical blues to be played with a harmony guitar: it’s very, very interesting.

Oh, thank you. I tried to make it as energetic as I could, although I think I could do it better now, because I’ve discovered certain things since and it’s easy to do with equipment and technique and what-have-you. But I simply love that. I was a huge fan of John Mayall with Eric Clapton, and Paul Butterfield playing harmonica just absolutely masterful, and Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix, and Peter Green. Rory Gallagher was a great player as well. We had so many great guitarists in England! Some of them I met over time.

– You and Rory played on a BOX OF FROGS album, and Jim McCarty had some nice words to say about your contribution.

THE YARDBIRDS were a hugely influential band, and not just for me. All this is music from the time when my ear was glued to the radio and to the people’s record collections, and the number of records being sold by even top artists was very small. Singles were selling – THE BEATLES were selling millions of singles – but albums were just beginning to take shape. In fact, I was listening the other day to one of the first albums, maybe even the first album, to sell in stereo over a million copies: it was Mantovani. Remember that very lush, big string sound which was basically a walk-in music into cinemas? It’s a particular sound of using divisi string sections, and there’s something interesting about it. On one level, it sounds kitsch; on another level, sonically, it sounds brilliant. It was stereo, it was big, it was wide, and it was extraordinary sounding. We’re always trying to make music sound bigger, aren’t we?

The "Genesis Revisited" band:<br />Rob Townsend, Roger King, Nad Sylvan, Steve Hackett, Nick Beggs, Gary O'Toole

The “Genesis Revisited” band:
Rob Townsend, Roger King, Nad Sylvan, Steve Hackett, Nick Beggs, Gary O’Toole

– Speaking about quality and seriousness, how do you feel having this band of merry pranksters behind you?

Oh well, I enjoy that! I like them doing their thing and leaping all over the place. “Merry pranksters”… That’s it, yeah, I think you’re right. [Singer] Nad [Sylvan] is flamboyant and theatrical; his natural home is on the stage, he’s a total exhibitionist. As is [bassist] Nick Beggs. And [reeds player] Rob [Townsend] is a complete musical genius and a music professor, but he’s also a great comedian, he has this comic side. And [drummer] Gary [O’Toole] in his bowler hat… It’s a band of personalities! I just stand there and play.

– Given most of the band have been with you for quite a time, how would you describe the difference – on musical and personal level – between Nick Beggs and Lee Pomeroy?

They’re both brilliant! Brilliant players. Lee plays with everybody, he knows everyone’s catalogue; Lee is a walking encyclopedia of music. When I first worked with Lee, on the very first day of rehearsals – we rehearsed about an hour’s set to play in Japan – he said, “I know your stuff,” right after we went through it. That was it: he got every note absolutely perfect, and that was extraordinary. He’s worked with TAKE THAT who were huge in England, and with ELO recently.

As for Beggs, he’s a very interesting character – he was trained as an artist originally – and, again, he’s a great comedian. But I think he takes a philosophical approach to music, and I have very interesting conversations with him. It depends if he’s going into comedy routine or not, but when you’re talking to him seriously about why he worked with KAJAGOOGOO or why he worked with John Paul Jones, and why he works with Steven Wilson or why he works with me and others, it’s because progressive music was his first love. It dried up as a scene at a certain point – and he’s much younger than me – and he was right for KAJAGOOGOO, for that time, for the Eighties, but then, in a way, he’s returned to his roots. After KAJAGOOGOO, he decided to learn to read music properly and went back to school; he wanted to have longevity and not only be a pop star – he was a god for girls in England but I think he realized that that possibly wouldn’t be longevity in it which, for him, was in serious music. And serious music, of course, means dynamic music, and Nick is terrific player. I’ve seen him with Steven Wilson many times, and Beggs is very dynamic, he’s a big part of the sound – very explosive, very punchy.

There are several bass players I’ve worked with in recent years, and all of them seem to understand the need for having a very distinctive bass sound with a top defined: one of them is Chris Squire, who has an iconic sound, and the other two that we’ve been talking about – Lee and Nick – and they all are like lead players, basically. They play lead guitar but they play bass, so it’s a lead bass that cuts through everything, and it’s a lovely thing. I’ve been very spoiled recently, because it took me years and years and years [to get there]; even with Mike Rutherford who, I have to say, was very creative, but he was a bass player only a part of the time – he wanted to play twelve-string, he wanted to play lead [guitar], he wanted to use bass pedals, all of which was very good – so in terms of a brilliant bass sound, he was always searching for something, whereas these other guys… Nick is an extraordinary [Chapman] Stick player, and Lee does that as well.

– If you mentioned dynamics, may I ask what does Amanda changes in the band’s dynamic when she works with you – save for the fact that she’s a part of your family?

That’s right. She was in the band for quite some time. We did a show with her in Paris, first show I’d done there in many years, and I could hear the difference on-stage that [her presence] made with the vocal sound: it just gave so much sunshine, so much air, she just changed the whole thing, and it sounded wonderful. From where I was standing, I heard not just male voices in harmony but female as well, and it was a big thing for me.

– You like working with other people, don’t you?

Yes, I do. And I also like working with Amanda when she plays guitar with me, so that we could do twin guitar lines together.

Steve Hackett

– If you could play with anyone you’ve never worked with before, who would that be?

Oh, I don’t know at the moment. I think many of the people that I would have liked to work with one time or another, they’re no longer in this world. It’s just the way it is, so I don’t really have ambitions to work with people in quite the way it was. I wanted to work with Richie Havens again, I wanted to make a record with him and Buffy Sainte-Marie on it, but I wasn’t able to organize that in time and, unfortunately, Richie passed on. But I heard a message that he left for me the other day, that he recorded with someone in 1991, and it’s a message to me on this CD I have, and it’s a lovely thing with his lovely voice – he had a lovely speaking voice as well.

– If I’m not mistaken, you were the first progressive rock artist to have invited Afro-Americans on their record…

Yeah, there were two black singers on "Please Don't Touch" [Richie Havens and Randy Crawford. – DME] and also a black drummer with Chester [Thompson] – because I wanted to do the kind of album that was a cross between black music and white music, between England and America, so I wanted this Anglo-American sound. And I think I got it in two places: I got it on “Icarus [Ascending]” and I got it “Hoping Love Will Last,” I got it with all the drum tracks that Chester played. And that’s just being remixed, by the way, by Steven Wilson; I heard the stereo – it sounds very good – and he’s mixing it in 5.1, for a new edition of those albums. I’m now preparing for an autumn tour to celebrate both “Wolflight” and my early solo work, as well as an hour of GEMESIS music including several numbers not played on the “Genesis Revisited” shows! So it’s an exciting new set!

Photo: © Eugene Veinard & Eugene Bychkov exclusively for DME

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