As anyone who has ever been in a band can likely attest to, the complexities of creative personalities working in close quarters can often lead to tension, argument, and outright dissolution if the situation gets out of hand. Steve Hackett knows this all too well. From 1970 to 1977, Hackett was a member of one of progressive rock’s most influential and enigmatic bands—Genesis.
|image by Armando Gallo|
Hackett brought his unique brand of musical vision to the mix, and was eager to contribute more of his own material to the band’s studio albums. To his dismay and eventual disgust, Hackett found two insurmountable obstacles which prevented him from achieving his goal: keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist/12-string guitarist Mike Rutherford exerted a form of control over the band which ultimately led to not only Hackett’s departure in 1977, but also (according to Hackett) Peter Gabriel’s exit two years earlier and, in 1996, the loss of Phil Collins.
Steve Hackett is the only member of Genesis who has warmly embraced the band’s musical/historical record, and has toured the world several times performing selections from the seven-year period in which he was involved with the group. The global success of these tours bears witness to the enduring popularity—and importance—of the music to millions of fans. Hackett returns to the Long Island area on November 8 for a performance at the Westhampton Performing Arts Center and on November 11 at The Space at Westbury. This time around, fans are in for a multi-course feast of both Genesis gems from 1970-1977 and material culled from Hackett’s solo career which now spans 40 years and 24 albums, up to and including his brand-new release, Wolflight. The current tour is dubbed From Acolyte to Wolflight with Genesis Revisited—the Total Experience … which may be a mouthful but it’s an accurate description of what to expect when Hackett and band take the stage.
I first spoke with Steve Hackett in October 2014, not long after a much-covered incident concerning a Genesis documentary DVD which, to the majority of viewers, turned a blind eye toward Hackett’s solo career, resulting in a public demonstration of indignation during which Hackett vowed not to offer the documentary DVD for sale on his website. In conversation, Hackett’s tone was neither bitter nor petulant; rather, his voice conveyed mature wisdom interwoven with a dry sense of humor. Not only is the man a creative genius, he also possesses a keen intellect that encompasses art, literature, and science in the true form of a Renaissance man.
This year, I had the opportunity to speak with Steve Hackett twice during the past few months—once at the end of August and again in mid-October—to cover even more ground than our expansive conversation of last year. Hackett was friendly, candid, and eager to talk; in other words, an interviewer’s dream subject.
Once again, for his candor, friendliness, and most importantly, time, I thank Steve Hackett for spending part of his time with me.
Read on and enjoy!
PART ONE: AUGUST 20, 2015
Roy Abrams: The title of this upcoming tour speaks to the enormous volume of art you have produced during the course of your career. Given that sheer volume, what were the logistics like in terms of putting a set list together?
Steve Hackett: Well, I think people have been aware, they’ve been following the stuff I’ve been up to in recent years, but I devoted two years or so to doing exclusively Genesis work again, the stuff that was created in the ‘70s, mainly with Peter Gabriel and myself. The thing about that is, a number of other people who were interested in my Genesis afterlife were disappointed that I wasn’t doing anything from Spectral Mornings or Voyage of the Acolyte or Please Don’t Touch, all of those albums, so the tour, for me, is how to celebrate 40 years as a solo recording artist, and at the same time, promoters and agents (were) asking me to do Genesis Revisited (tour) again, because it did very good box office. So the solution to that was to divide the past up into two separate sets, one of which is vocal solo material, and the second set (is) Genesis songs, ones that I haven’t performed before in recent years, such as “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” and “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, “Cinema Show” … so I’m trying to celebrate both halves of this history and make it totally immersive by giving them surround sound. We’ll be using surround sound; it’s part of the flight back of audio, I keep thinking (of) a kind of audio crusade, I ought to really go for that with people who are prepared to accept narrow bandwidth and the kind of disposable aspect of music these days, (I wanted to) celebrate it ever more so. It’s the equivalent of the wide screen.
RA: Personnel-wise, are you bringing the same people out who accompanied you on last year’s (Genesis Extended) tour?
SH: It’ll be Nad Sylvan singing the Genesis stuff; I’ll be singing the solo stuff, and it’ll be harmony singers with the band. (Keyboardist) Roger King works as my collaborator and musical director. We also have Rob Townsend on saxes, flutes, and additional keyboards, percussion, and various other things. We have Gary O’Toole on drums, who is a singer as well, and on bass this time it’s going to be Roine Stolt, formerly of Flower Kings and Transatlantic. For lack of a better word, he’s going to be doing the Mike Rutherford parts, the double neck bass and 12-string stuff. He’s also part of the harmony-singing team. I’m hoping to hand over some of the bass duties so he doesn’t get saddled with them all, so that he and I can so some twin lead stuff, and kind of get the best of the whole team.
RA: “Wolflight,” the title track of the new album, is a marvel that I cannot stop listening to. It combines virtually every element of what makes Steve Hackett a unique artist, highlighting what, to these ears, is compositional genius, instrumental mastery, and stellar arrangement and production skills. Can you talk about the process of writing and recording that piece, as well as the rest of the new album?
SH: My wife, Jo, we wanted to lyrically celebrate the early history of the tribes that eventually (spread across) part of Asia and even part of Africa; the people for whom the Great Wall of China was built, in order to keep; them out, the Golden Horde; the people who brought down the Roman Empire eventually; the early guerilla fighters. They didn’t play by the rules, but they were great survivors. The more and more I read about their history, I find it fascinating. So “Wolflight”, the title track, was really designed to celebrate that. Those people used the wolf as a totem, very often they befriended wolves and (developed) a symbiotic relationship between those animals and humans, which formed the basis for their mutual survival. Compositionally, I wanted to work with a guy called Malik Mansurov from Azerbaijan, who plays an instrument called the tar, and working with him is a bit like working with a guy who’s a cross between Ravi Shankar and John McLaughlin. (He has a) wonderful spiritual quality to his playing and a fluidly fast technique; quite extraordinary. I worked with him, first of all, live, with a Hungarian band called Djabe, and I was thrilled to work with him in Hungary, get him into a studio, fly him in from Azerbaijan, and I have much more stuff recorded with him. So that was part of it, the world music aspect, I thought, how can you have acoustic music, folk music, world music, regional stuff, and rock, and orchestral stuff all in one piece? So that kind of pan-genre approach, working almost like a wrestling tag time where as soon as the energy might start to flag, the other guys kicks in, another team takes over. These different genres, I wanted to be able to fire salvos from one to the other.
RA: It’s one of the most remarkable pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
SH: Well, thank you! I’m glad you like it! I followed my instincts on it, and I really didn’t know whether people would like it or not, but it has had a great reaction. This aspect of something Slavic and Nordic and elemental with the orchestral bit … I always thought, what would it be like if guys like Tchaikovsky and Grieg and Borodin, what would they do if they got hold of a rock group? I was thinking along those lines, those dark elemental forces that they were so clever at conjuring with orchestras, where the orchestral stuff that they did rarely sounded flaccid; it retained that tension and that interest, it seemed to be highly charged emotionally, and very exciting. Having an orchestra is exciting; that’s the real challenge for us rockers. All of those elements came to bear on it.
RA: You have mentioned that songs will often be conceived out of dream experiences. What are some of the most notable examples of this?
SH: Funnily enough, on the first Genesis Revisited album I did, there was a track called “Valley of the King” where the music came complete in a dream, and I thought, I’ve got to try and do something like that. I had this sound in my head that sounded like a cross between the string instruments of the orchestra, and what the guitar could do. It makes up another kind of hard-edged sounding orchestra; a bit distorted, a bit raucous, but it’s got the size of an orchestra. It’s kind of cinematic rock, in that way.
RA: What are the similarities and differences between writing from the dream experience to writing from inspiration through books, films, fine art, or nature?
SH: I think what happens is, in my case, I work on paper; memory is fallible. I like writing things down in books, and I hope to God that I don’t finish the book before it’s time to do the album. I think to myself, God, if I spread this out over a number of books, I’ll never go back to Book One. It’s actually a diary, this thing. It’s got that idea of 365 pages (and) some of those things might be of relevance, if I update them as I go. It’s crawling around in the dark, really, and catching chinks of light, and stitching those into a pattern, working out which pieces of the jigsaw puzzle bear relevance to each other. Or, if they aren’t relevant to each other, how might they work ….
I found out many years after the event that John Lennon worked in that way. He said, you have ideas, and you join them up later. [laughs] That’s a very good way of working! It’s nice to know that The Beatles didn’t get it all at once. It’s very easy to assume, “It’s written from beginning to end.” Neither do filmmakers work in that way. If things don’t happen sequentially; you arrange that, that’s part of the arrangement of a song. No one can teach you how to write a song, and I don’t think you can even teach yourself. If you’re going to surprise yourself, you’re going to have to allow a certain amount of passive gestation.
RA: You have collaborated with an astonishing array of artists during your career. Two in particular I am most curious about: Richie Havens, who appeared on “How Can I?” and “Icarus Ascending” on 1978’s Please Don’t Touch, and (original Genesis guitarist) Anthony Phillips, who appeared on “Emerald and Ash”and “Sleepers”on 2009’s Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth. Can you talk about how those collaborations came to be, and what the experience was like working with each of those artists?
SH: Genesis were great friends of Richie Havens and we used to listen to him on the way to gigs. Particularly, with Richard MacPhail (former Genesis tour manager); sometimes I used to travel with the road crew, and he had tapes of Richie Havens. I was struck with what a marvelous voice he had, and I remember seeing him live at Jimi Hendrix’s last big gig at the Isle of Wight in 1970 and Richie was on a couple of acts before Jimi, and there was a thunderstorm raging at the time, and his voice just raised above the storm, and I said, “My God, this guy has a voice that has the power of the storm!” It all became one to me. If I can mythologize this slightly, it seemed as if the thunder and lightning were his percussion, almost Godlike. He was an immensely nice man. By the time we were playing arenas in London, we were doing three nights, sellout shows, to 18,000 people per night in London. We invited him to be the opening act. Unfortunately, the audience was keen on seeing Genesis. I went backstage and met him via his keyboard player, Dave Lebolt, who also worked on Please Don’t Touch. We shook hands and I said, “I’m sorry that the audience reaction in no way parallels the quality of your performance.” And he held my hand and shook it for a very long time. And I said, “Look, would you like to come to dinner at my home?” My mother was living there at the time; she had just broken up with my father. He helped her wash up; that’s the kind of guy he was. That was just great! At the end of the evening, he suggested, “Why don’t we work together?” I phoned him up three months later and said I’d written something with him in mind and he said, “I can hear it already. It sounds great, man.” He was so positive—he was the real thing. One of the most positive, wonderful characters I’ve ever worked with.
RA: What a great description! I had the pleasure of meeting him many years ago—
SH: It’s unforgettable, isn’t it?
RA: How did you cross paths with Anthony Phillips?
SH: Although we never played in Genesis during the same era, he and I became very good friends. We see a lot of each other, we have some mutual friends. He’s also very humorous, very talented, and a very nice man. I’d been trying to get him to play on something for quite some time. He said, “What do you need me for to do this?” I said to him, “Because I’ve got a feeling that you’ll come up with something that I wouldn’t think of!” Sure enough, that leap of faith was recorded. He showed up at what he thought was going to be a rehearsal at my home. I happened to have Roger (King) there, who was recording, and I said, “Look, I’m going to get out of the room, and if you record anything you’re happy with, just tell me, because you don’t need another guitarist looking over your shoulder when you’re doing that.” Ten minutes later, he’d come up with this gorgeous double 12-string part which fitted with my guitar part, this arpeggiated picking thing on the chorus of “Emerald and Ash” and it brought it alive, totally. He used open tuning because he figured it would make the notes ring on more. (He was) absolutely right and had done the thing I had predicted, which was something that I hadn’t thought of. That combination of chiming guitars was very much like Genesis; it very much captured that Genesis spirit. And then he did the same thing on “Sleepers” and I thought it was lovely. Over the years, I’ve tried to talk him into doing an album, with the two of us; so far, I’ve failed. He might just say to me one day, “Hey Steve, maybe it’s time we should do that!” [laughs]
RA: Listening to “Wolflight", my wife and I were struck by how eerily akin to Peter Gabriel’s atmospheric aura, if you will, the track was in parts. You and he seem to possess much in parallel in that regard. In all the years since you left Genesis, did the two of you ever talk about working together? If not, would you consider it now?
SH: It came close, at one point! At one point, we were sharing the same phone book with regard to Latin musicians, and I’d recorded some stuff in Brazil and he wanted to go there and said, “I guess you’re the guy I should get in touch with” with regard to that. I did an album (in Brazil) called Till We Have Faces. Funnily enough, I got Pete a copy of that, and I was hoping to play harmonica for him on one of the tracks, because he was also interested in blues harmonica. He was another Paul Butterfield fan, so we had that in common. It hasn’t happened so far, but maybe at some point that might happen. Again, we have friends in common and we’re interested in several of the same issues that concern the world, not necessarily in purely musical terms, but in other aspects as well.
RA: In the video presentation for the Tribute album which you released in 2008, you voiced your love of Bach’s music, saying “It’s like Beatlemania to me.” What lies at the root of that relationship?
SH: I think, if you were criticizing it, you’d say the complexity of it, but it’s not that, it’s the completeness, the self-sufficiency, that fact that you can conjure a world, with one instrument. Bach’s music is entirely indifferent to whatever instrument it’s being played on. It sounds wonderful on guitar, cello, violin, any number of keyboards, be they steam-driven or electronic.
RA: 1999’s Darktown seemed to have been a watershed moment for you as a lyricist. You were quoted as saying, “It was the beginning of a new way of looking at things.” Many fans view this as your Plastic Ono Band album. What forces coalesced to make this album such a pivotal experience for you?
SH: Darktown was kind of a hiatus for me. I was dealing with the fact that, in the 1980s, there was a high level of creative restriction for guys like myself who had grown up as an album artist, and I still felt that what was most commercial wasn’t something that record companies were necessarily going to understand. What (record company) people thought of as esoteric in fact was the very thing that was going to fire up fans. So there was this divide between the two. I’d like to think it was the first of many albums where I decided to go my own sweet way and let the publishing be damned. It was an album that was bringing me back fully to myself. I thought, the pursuit of excellence is really what it’s all about.
RA: You were credited with orchestration on that album. Is that area still under your exclusive creative domain?
|image by Armando Gallo|
PART TWO: OCTOBER 12, 2015
(A day off between shows in Southampton and Basingstoke, UK)
RA: Thank you so much for speaking with me again! How’s the current tour going?
SH: It’s my day off today, but I’ve got interviews! [laughs]
RA: Well, thank you for taking some time on your day off and speaking with me! I’ve got a few more questions for you to wrap it up, OK?
SH: Sure thing!
RA: Fans of your music are not casual listeners; this music matters to them in a way that is more the exception rather than the rule in today’s everything-is-disposable environment. You have made it your business to connect with your fans throughout the world, from your personal involvement with your website to your global travels to perform for your fans in far-flung locations well off the beaten path of most tour itineraries. There is obviously a deep level of commitment displayed towards your fans. Can you talk about that relationship and the role it plays in your life?
SH: There was something a while back when I first met Jo, who became my wife. Basically, we started to run the business as a couple. I’d worry that she hadn’t really had experience in that area. Suddenly, we were self-managing, and I would say to her, “Oh, we may have to be a little careful here about the way we go about this.” But in the end, it proved to be the right thing. I’m talking about making no distinction between fans and friends; as much as possible, to let the people in. All those social networks that you talk about, (they all shared with us that) it’s really cool, what you do. Basically, before shows, we do a meet-and-greet; there’s an after show, there’s a few people who get invited to that, and I sign things for people outside the theater on the way in, and on the way out. There are more things besides meeting the crowd proper, (by) doing the shows. Largely, I owe it to her. She hasn’t really had any experience at this, and I thought, first of all, that we wouldn’t be able to maintain that level of accessibility. It’s completely opposite to this sort of Greta Garbo/David Bowie kind of approach. You know what? It’s actually worked really well for us. It’s increased the fan base and it means I’ve got a lot more friends! It’s actually worked out very, very well.
RA: I’ve seen your website and your Facebook page; you are continually dialoguing with people from all over the world.
SH: We get back to people, inasmuch as is possible, and it’s been extraordinary. We’re about six weeks in to what is basically a three-and-a-half-month stint on the road and I’m still standing! [laughs]
|image by Armando Gallo|
- Roy Abrams
Long Island, NY
©2015 by Roy Abrams
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