Friday, February 28, 2020

Mild-Mannered Superman: A Conversation with Steve Hackett

Steve Hackett
image by Lee Millward

In the five years that have passed since my last interview with Steve Hackett, the iconic English guitarist/composer has been on a nonstop flight of creativity that has taken him, both literally and figuratively, to the far ends of the earth. With a career spanning more than 50 years, Hackett’s imagination has cultivated a loyal global audience that eagerly looks forward to each album and each tour. Best known for his innovative lead guitar work with the progressive rock pioneers, Genesis, Hackett has spent the decades since his departure from the band in 1977 pursuing his muse, a quest which has proved insatiable and lifelong. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 as a member of Genesis, Hackett allows his music to speak for itself. However, in conversation Hackett is revealed as a true Renaissance man of culture, a quiet genius whose words reflect a deeply intelligent, profoundly spiritual soul.

Catching up with Steve a few days before he and his band headed across the Big Pond to begin their North American tour, we talked at length about many things past, present, and future. Grateful thanks to Steve for his time and his candor, and for gifting me with years of musical inspiration and wonder. Read on and enjoy!

Roy Abrams
: Very psyched for your return to Long Island on March 8th at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury! This is going to be a special tour for you in that you’ll be performing Selling England by the Pound, the 1973 Genesis album you’ve referred to as your favorite from that group.  Are there any new band personnel who are joining you this time around?
Steve Hackett: Yeah, we have two new guys; Jonas Reingold, on bass, from The Flower Kings, and Craig Blundell on drums, who most recently played with Steven Wilson. It’s an extraordinary rhythm section. Apart from that, it’s pretty much the same band as we had before. Nad Sylvan, the other Swede, is on vocals. Roger King is on keyboards, Rob Townsend on woodwinds, brass, extra keyboard, bits of percussion, and myself.

RA:  What is it about Selling England that makes it resonate so strongly with you?
SH: Well, you know, I think it came out of left field. Back in the day, I don’t think anyone realized how popular it was going to become. I think that’s the best atmosphere and attitude to undertake an album. We didn’t realize that John Lennon was going to say that we were one of the bands he was listening to at that time. It also had an unlikely hit single in it, in the UK we had a single, “I Know What I Like” … again, an unlikely song, because we weren’t known at the time for doing short songs. Everything tended to be epic length; the musical continuums were roguish at the time. People were making albums as audio journeys and it was only really in the 1980s that the idea of doing a collection of 10 short hit singles, MTV-friendly, was starting to supplant the idea of the album as a force in itself. But I think that the band’s playing took a quantum leap forward on this one. (There were) lots of instrumental passages. I was very proud of its quirky Englishness. It’s still my favorite Genesis album; I think it’s better written than all of other ones. I’ve made a couple of changes to the solo stuff; I’m doing (material from) Spectral Mornings, and it’s the 40th anniversary this year of Defector, so we’ll include some of those things.

RA: “I Know What I Like” was a collaborative effort between you and Phil (Collins). The bonus track from the album, “Déjà Vu,” which you’ll be performing on this tour, marks the only occasion where you’ve written with Peter Gabriel.  Was there ever any discussion between the two of you, post-Genesis, of working together again?
SH: I never really tried to hit Pete up for that. I mean, we’ve helped each other, swapped phone information and all that. We’re basically pals, but I think I’ve always been aware that he wants to distance himself. There were very few occasions, like in the early ‘80s, when we got together to do the Milton Keynes show, and everyone was a part of that. (Other) creative collaborations … there was a band reformation in 2005 but there just wasn’t enough common ground. From my end, I was very much up for it. Everyone had achieved so much collectively and individually, but the thing is, it takes a band to tango, to make that work. It doesn’t always come easily, if it comes at all. I figure my job, or my pleasure, if you like, is to take the early music from the classic period of the band, when we were a five-piece, and honor that. I don’t mind if it’s a song of mine, or a song of Mike’s, or Tony’s, or Phil’s, or Pete’s; it doesn’t really matter. The thing is, there’s a lot of great music there that came out of a bunch of guys, all of whom were songwriters, and as much as any band could share, we managed to share that.

RA: Your fans truly span the globe, a fact I know firsthand through reviewing the web analytics of our past published conversations, in 2014 and 2015. The only continent that is as yet unrepresented is Antarctica!  The same global reach applies to the diversity of artists with whom you’ve worked in the recent past.
SH: [Laughs] Well, that’s extraordinary! Yeah, the last couple of albums had 20 people on them from all over the world. This time, we managed to incorporate India into the mix. Sheema Mukherjee, she plays wonderful sitar on “Shadow and Flame,” so for the first time I was working with a real sitar virtuoso rather than trying to do an impression of it myself. It’s my proudest album, I think, as a convincing travelogue, a journey. I think that album doesn’t really falter. That doesn’t mean to say that everyone’s going to love every track; I loved every track, I loved everything about it. It had so much variety, so many different genres. “Shadow and Flame” is based partly on my wife Jo’s experience in India, where she described the Ganges, watching the dawn over the Ganges and seeing wonderful things: candlelight gave way to daylight, but at the same time with these beautiful visions of people bathing, there’s dead bodies floating down the river (wrapped) in shrouds, so you get the sublime and the ghastly side by side. I got to travel there with her many years later, and I saw the most stunning things … and frightening things. It’s an extraordinary place of extremes. Indian percussion (is great); it’s not just the tablas and the gentle lilt of the talking drum, there’s (a lot) of unlikely stuff. It’s a fascinating place, if you like to visit colorful places; the whole place is a riot of color. (We visited) temples that were carved out of caves, and temples carved out of monoliths! In other words, their idea of sculpture is, you take a mountain, and you carve it into a building, you carve a herd of elephants! We can’t possibly (duplicate it) with the technology of today, and they (achieved this) at least a thousand years ago. For all sorts of reasons, it’s stunning, it’s mind-blowing, and in a way, you can see the seeds of the ‘60s. You see the seeds of Pop Art, all the colorful things that the 1960s were all about. You see it on the temple ceilings, the walls, the figures, the detailed carvings on the front of some of these places. It wouldn’t be out of place on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band if you just stuck in a stray photo!

RA: You recently said that it was very important to make albums with people from all over the world. When did that perspective begin to solidify?
SH: I think that the more I started to travel, not just on the rock and roll touring but beyond that, to explore other places. In recent times we’ve been to India, to Egypt, China, Ethiopia … you travel, you make friendsthat’s what happens! And also my contact with the Hungarian band, Djabe, who also work with people from all over the world, so they introduced me to people from Africa, Azerbaijan, (and) the United States. (Hungary) is a real melting pot, a crossroads of Europe. It’s been extraordinary working live with (these people). We didn’t start out with the idea of trying to build bridges between cultures, it just happened naturally. In other words, the rise of right-wing politics and nationalism seems designed to drive people apart; I think it’s an opposite direction to the way I’ve been working recently. I feel that my albums celebrate the best of whatever people are capable of; it doesn’t matter where they’re from. I’m very happy to work with people all over the globethe United States, the U.K., Iceland, Africa. If not people from those places, certainly instruments from those places, which the guys in the band have adopted and adapted to, so it’s a very wide church.

RA: Your music can be viewed as world music in the highest possible relief.
SH: I certainly try!

image by Tina Korhonen

RA: We’ve spoken before about the cinematic aspect of your writing. You’ve described your work as “film for the ear,” adding that “it’s quite common for my music to have a lot of drama, as it the case with most of the best music.” As you compose these “audio films” is the process an entirely visceral one or is it a combination of gut-level intuition and brain logic that informs your muse?
SH: It’s the hardest thing to explain, because there isn’t really any formula for writing songs. Music doesn’t appear on command. There’s a certain amount of waiting, but I think that when an idea is in the air, if you can preserve it in some kind of way, whether it’s some recording device or pen and paper, the main thing is to get the idea down. I’ve got books of unfinished things; riffs, songs, symphonies, all sorts of stuff. Often, I have to remind myself to go back to rejects, pretty much in the same way that Genesis used to go back to rejects, (to find that) this idea is pretty damn good, let’s run with the ball, and until you actually start recording, you don’t really know how far it’s going to go. The strengths and weaknesses of an idea show themselves once you start baking the cake! You have all the ingredients; you think, this might make a nice, big, glorious sponge (cake), but you don’t know how sweet it’s going to be, how moist. So yeah, it’s pretty much like cooking a meal, in a way! It’s an inexact art, and I’m very happy with that.

RA: With regard to your live performance arrangements of the classic Genesis material, aficionados will discern occasional slight variations in instrumentation or song structure. While the majority of fans welcome this exploration, we both know that there are devout purists who view any departure from the original version as sacrilege. What is your philosophy regarding evolution versus preservation of the original recordings?
SH: If you look back at the early recordings and you contrast them with the live versions, we’ll have a certain amount of evolution. It just has to be that way. It can’t be cast in stone. With Genesis, we did tend to segue ideas, messing around rather a lot. I try and do authentic versions; I try to be authentic to the spirit of the song. For instance, if I’ve spent a long time getting a particular guitar solo together, I’ll be thinking of it as not just an instrumental part, but part of the writing of the song. If I play “The Musical Box” I play exactly the same notes because it’s all about not being spontaneous. If something is composed, and if you’re still proud of it, stick with it. But then, at the end of something like “Supper’s Ready,” I’ll do some of the existing phrases but then I’ll go off on a bender, maybe going on for another couple of minutes, until I’ve had enough. I think you have to be flexible. I think (on) “I Know What I Like,” which started out as a small little tune, when we were doing it with Phil Collins (on vocals), it facilitated some of his antics. When he was doing the tambourine dance, it reduces the song to a virtual handclap, so that we’re accompanying the visual on Phil’s terms. With my band, there’s no point in doing a tambourine dance or trying to be Peter Gabriel, running around with a lawnmower onstage! What we do is we have a sax solo that gets very jazzy, but then I go into a very rocking guitar solo and start playing fast triplets so that it takes off like a rocket in a different kind of way, but then we bring it back respectfully at the end. This stuff continues to evolve. Of course, the diehards, they might want to go and see any one of a number of tribute bands who faithfully reproduce everything we did, including the limitations of that time, but techniques and technology improve and it makes it possible to have a band ofdare I say—virtuosos, like my guys. It takes us off into another direction, at the drop of a hat, I think it’s all the better for that, and I think the audience usually suspends its disbelief. They pick up on the interaction that goes on onstage between the various characters who are talking to each other, and there’s genuine spontaneity there.

image by Lee Millward

RA: In July, you’ll be publishing your autobiography, A Genesis in My Bed. Pardon the pun, but what was the genesis of the project, and how did it come to fruition?
SH: I’d done a series of interviews way back in the past with Alan Hewitt, and people were referring to it as “my book” and I kept saying to people, well, actually it’s not my book; it’s Alan’s book, and I was the interviewee. Doing that is not quite the same as doing a much more considered, in–depth thing, where you’re having to think about why you did something, how you feel about it now. I wanted it to be more revealing, and not just a complete collection of anecdotes. I didn’t think that was going to do the ideas justice. I’ve really gone into the music in a big way, and I hope people like that. There are the jokes and asides and all those other things, and I’ve hope I’ve been fair about all the people I’ve once worked with. I don’t think there’s anyone whose praises I didn’t sing. There might be the odd criticism, but in the main, I’m overwhelmingly positive about everybody. I might tweak the noses of a few, but, you know, that doesn’t matter. I think it’s been fun doing it, and we are still at the stage of putting in some extra things we haven’t thought about, so over the course of the next month or so, we’ll add stuff. Jo will ask, what was it like meeting Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney?

RA: What was it like?
SH: Extraordinary! Whenever you get to meet people who’ve been a huge part of your early life, first of all, you hope that they’re not going to behave like an absolute asshole, which neither did, and they were both polite and talkative, which was lovely. I don’t think the autobiography is a kind of “who’s who” of everything. Yes, you’ve got a few people mentioned there, and some unlikely ones, too, but in the main it’s trying to create a two-way mirror. If you were a fly on the wall and you saw what I was like at three years old, you’d have an idea of some of it; struggles at school and all that kind of stuff. That’s not all legendary by any means. I want to be self-deprecating and send myself up and say, well, at one point, I had stage fright and I saw a hypnotherapist to get me over it. I don’t have that problem anymore. That’s the sort of stuff I’m revealing (in the book). I want to give people hope and say, it can happen to anyone. Sir Laurence Olivier had suddenly reached a point where (I haven’t mentioned this in my book) he couldn’t look at any of the other actors; he didn’t want them to catch his eye. He wanted them to look to the side, because for some reason (direct eye contact) unnerved him. How is that possible for someone who was seen, to the world of English acting, as lord and master? Even the greatest … Mick Jagger was telling me at the time that he was tired … there was this whole entourage, this whole circus around him, masses of people. It reminds me of a story when I was in Japan for the first time, and Michael Jackson happened to be staying in the hotel, and what a revelation that was! A hundred people gathered at the lift entrance, and the camera light would be above this seething mass of people, it was moved twenty-five yards to the left, and they all moved back, and the lift doors opened, and they were gone. Talk about life in a goldfish bowl! His life must have been like a mobile zoo. I don’t know how you could exist like that, except on your own property, on your own terms, but then it becomes a prison. I wouldn’t want that level of celebrity. I don’t think I’d be able to handle it at all. I think I’d go around dressed as Groucho Marx or something.

RA: Speaking of stage fright, original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips said that stage fright ultimately drove him from the band. When we last spoke, you brought up the prospect of collaborating on an album together.
SH: Funnily enough, we collaborated on two different projects. He was on one of my albums, I think it was Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, he was on a couple of tracks on that, and then we did something recently for an elephant charity called Harmony for Elephants, and we did a track together. He provided a piano part and I improvised all over it, then he did some twelve-string work on it. He and I get on very well, and I’ve often said to him that if we’d been in the band at the same time, I suspect it would have been just fine because we’d be fine with each other’s ideas. He’s very democratic in his approach.

RA: Next year’s tour will feature a complete performance of Seconds Out
SH: —That’s right, that’s what we graduate to!

RA: That album marked your point of departure from the band, and I’ve seen the Tony Banks interview where he said that your guitar was mixed out. So, my question for you is: in addition to anticipating the joy of rehearsing and performing this album, given the circumstances behind its mixing and release, is there any additional sweetness, if that’s the right word, in getting to set the record straight from a musical perspective?
SH: When it comes to Seconds Out, the whole album was a case of cherry picking across the whole of the band’s history, although the current album at the time was Wind and Wuthering. So, until we actually start working on that, I don’t know exactly how that will shape up. But when it comes to Tony, he tends to contradict himself. He tends to praise me on one hand [chuckles] and then criticize. I hope I’ve been generous about him in my book, because I think he’s one hell of a writer and a very fluent chordsmith, no doubt about it. There is no sense of “getting even” … I know they do tend to say (that I’ve been mixed out) but I can hear my guitar on it. I can hear my guitar more clearly on “The Carpet Crawlers” than it was on the (original) record! So, there’s a little bit of creative license, I think, with similar statements. Strange, obviously they called the album Seconds Out, you know, I’m right in the foreground of the album cover, although they asked Armando (Gallo) to darken it so I look like a shadowy figure, so I kind of became the black sheep, somewhat. Sometimes, I think that a band needs someone who’s prepared to say unpopular things and try and drive it forward. It’s a shame that the band weren’t more open at that time for everyone to have parallel solo careers. Once you start growing, people start to have families, divorcing, and various things, you can’t behave like you did when you were all kids together; it just doesn’t work anymore. I have no regrets; I love the music, and I honor it politics-free. That’s my take on Genesis now. I was hoping that Genesis might expand into a band that behaved pretty much like The Beatles. In other words, the occasional use of orchestra; I’ve done that myself. They’ve used the horn section from Earth, Wind, and Fire, but I think there is a bit of a limitation after all that time, I think it is important for there to be some evolution. But that’s just my opinion; a departed band member shares his opinions with you.

RA: The concept of “the music business” has essentially been supplanted by “the musicians’ business,” meaning that musicians earn a living these days primarily by getting out there and reaching their audiences directly through live performances. You recently said that you still felt the need to record and would continue to do so, if only for an audience of one; very much like classical musicians who wrote and performed for individual patrons. What are your thoughts on the current state of affairs, with particular emphasis on the freedom that you have come to experience by managing all aspects of your career with just you and Jo at the helm?
SH: It’s a multi-faceted question! I’d say that there was greater freedom in the 1960s and 1970s. In the ‘80s things were tightening up; things were becoming much more formatted, as I said earlier, (with artists) doing a collection of MTV-friendly potential singles. The magic of an album that at one time changed the world gets lost somewhere, so the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. Now, I think in terms of big business, there simply isn’t enough money in the record business for it to contain anything but enthusiasts. Moguls have moved on to something else. If you want to make tons of money, then go sell baked beans! Someone who’s in the music business who has no love of it has got no place being there, and I think unless you understand music, you aren’t really in with a chance. For me, as a musician, it’s understanding the audience, but also taking them on further than perhaps they intended to, (to) stretch their tolerance, but that’s how music works, because at first everything seems strange. First of all, you say, “This is strange.” Then suddenly it no longer becomes alien, it becomes your friend. The other aspect you mentioned, in terms of self-management, is with Jo, where basically we have a team. It means there’s no Fuhrer; it doesn’t work like that. We just have a team that very often talks things over, saying, “What do you think? This one’s a good idea; this one’s a no-brainer.” We have an immediate understanding. We have a band that wants to work, wants to travel, do as many shows as possible. Luckily, the albums are selling—the physical product—very, very well in an era where everyone’s saying, that’s all over, CDs are over. Well, I like CDs because I like to have a package, and I also like the size of vinyl records because you’ve got … let’s put it this way. The album sleeve (cover) is the best possible advert for a record you could possibly have. The size of the original album sleeve, 12” by 12”, whatever it was, was a piece of artwork or an incredible photograph that you could stick on your wall. Remember those days? I personally love the quality of sound of CDs but we like to release in all formats to keep everyone happy; to keep the vinyl fundamentalists (happy) and the audiophiles, you’ve got to address them too, plus make things available for download. If there’s a new format, I’ll go for it.

RA: As a musician, I have worlds of respect for you, for everything that you’ve brought to the table for decades. As I look at it, you’re a shining example of how to do it, how to keep the fun intact, how to keep your integrity intact. I think for any aspiring musician who wants to learn how to address all the avenues of their career with integrity, with creativity, and with heart, they can look to you and your career.
SH: Thank you very much! It’s very nice of you to say so! I’m sure you share that with your own input to music as well. It’s a natural childbirth every time, isn’t it? That’s how we keep it coming.

© Roy Abrams 2020


  1. Very Nice! I love the uplifting experience of reading.
    Thank you.

  2. Always like to hear an artist talking about his/ her craft.

  3. A great musician, a true gentleman; thank you for all you gave us, Stephen! I've grown up listening to your music, in and out of Genesis, learned to play the guitar just to be able to play Horizons and Blood on the Rooftops, and you'll always have a special place here!
    (please come play in Portugal again soon!)

  4. It's hard not to watch the interview where Tony mentions mixing Steve out of Seconds Out and not seeing at as an attempt at delivering a pithy joke. I really don't think Tony was being serious. As for the guitar being mixed low or Steve being faded from the photo, much as I love his music he had left the band rather suddenly, so you can't really blame them for downplaying his contribution.