Fireworks Magazine Online 69 - Interview with Steve Hackett

FROM ACOLTYE TO WOLFLIGHT

Gary Marshall in conversation with Steve Hackett

I never need a second invitation to chat with Steve Hackett who has been a musical hero since I discovered Genesis way back in 1973. Whilst guitar is front and centre of his work he's more than just a guitarist. Having spent the best part of three years recording and touring his Genesis: Revisited enterprise Hackett remained creative throughout the period composing and recording his wonderful new album, 'Wolflight', (reviewed in the last issue) during gaps in touring commitments.


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After the massive investment in time and energy with the 'Genesis: Revisited' I wondered whether it was good to get back to being Steve Hackett the solo artist?

"I want to keep making albums" asserts Hackett in response, "it's important to me to carry on being creative. I do like to make album after album and be making decisions; I couldn't work at the pace of some people who produce one album every ten years. I don't enjoy the recording process that much, but one of the joys of being a solo artist is that you alone get to make those decisions really quickly whereas in a group situation there's compromise and sometimes arguments that lengthen the process. Also, it's too early in life to be pensioned off even for something as glorious as those golden moments ('Genesis: Revisited') and it is nice to do something new as well; I'll be touring both, in a way, later in the year."

Does he see a return to the full 'Genesis: Revisited' shows at some point?

"I'm not thinking that far ahead at the moment and for now I'm concentrating on the solo stuff and all that that entails; which songs are performable live, which is a very hard choice with so many albums to choose from. Plus some of the early stuff is being remixed by Steven Wilson which will be out in a box set later in the year and ahead of my tour so I need to give some thought to introducing or reintroducing some of that into the set."
He must have been delighted by the reception to 'Genesis: Revisited' and doing sold-out shows in major venues again. "It's been terrific" he responds in a tone of quiet humility, "I've had a very good year and more. Last year we did twenty countries and there was a lot of touring and travelling and many high points. It took two and half years out of my life not least because it takes about three months to learn a Genesis set from scratch and not much less even if you've played it before (laughs), that's simply what it takes, you can't busk it."

The fans don't like those songs messed with do they?

"They don't, no. What I've done is play the tracks as they were written and recorded but in certain places, such as the end of 'Supper's Ready' I'll do an extended guitar thing that takes it to other areas, so you get what was on record plus a bit extra and I've not had any complaints about doing it that way."

One issue for Hackett is filling the position of bass player in his touring band with the place alternating between Lee Pomeroy and Nick Beggs depending on availability throughout the various sections of the '...Revisited' tour. Does Steve know who will fill that position come October? It appears that question is yet to be answered with Pomeroy returning for the final leg of the '...Revisited' tour in South America. Clearly both are highly revered by Hackett.

"I am incredibly fortunate to be able to call on both Lee and Nick; to find a bass player who is equally adept with double-neck, twelve-string, bass pedals as well as singing harmony is quite a tall order."

It appears the instruments they use represent another challenge and not just because Pomeroy is a left-hander.

"We had to have the double-neck instruments custom made for them" confides Hackett with a laugh in his voice.

It appears that the success of 'Genesis: Revisited is something of a doubled edged sword as Promoters are trying to twist Hackett's arm to include as much Genesis material as possible in his solo set despite a new album to promote.

"I don't want to be pensioned off and just thought of in terms of the Genesis material, but to be seen as vital and coming up with new stuff because I am moved to do new stuff, it's not just about number crunching and selling CDs for me it's about being creative and also about changing people's minds and surprising yourself and others."

A point well made when one considers that Hackett has been more prolific than his erstwhile bandmates, 'Wolflight' being his twenty-third studio album.

"The plan is to present the 'Wolflight' shows in a different kind of way so that I use some Surround Sound because no one has heard either my stuff or the Genesis material in that way live before other than on some of my live albums that have been remixed. Some things will work better than others, the non-percussive elements, the floaty things seem to work very well and effects work particularly well in that medium too. However, that's technology we've yet to address but that's the plan anyway." Yet another sign that Hackett is not prepared to sit on his laurels or rely on past glories.

To my mind Hackett is more than just a guitarist, first and foremost he's a song-smith where the song is more important than his guitar dominating; how does he feel about that?

"They are probably of equal importance" is his considered reply, "because it's the details of songs that really turn me on and I could sound really boring saying this but I don't think there's any such thing as a really bad song but it's down to bad arrangements and if you have a great arrangement that can save a song. I realised that there as so many great salvage moments from the past where a song has been saved by a great sound, a great solo or a performance by the singer. Listening to those Beatles anthology albums for instance and you hear the first versions of their songs and you think my God is that how '.....Walrus' started out and look what happened to that?"

Hackett recently visited Iceland and performed with a massive orchestra and choir, there being seventy people on stage, which flies in the face of the advances in technology that have made so many things possible.

"Technology presents so many opportunities," confirms Hackett, "it also means that studios are getting smaller and samples are so very good now you can reproduce almost anything. To get convincing orchestral moments I use a combination of the two, the samples to give it weight and the real musicians to provide the definition at the front. I'm proud of all those orchestral salvos. I'd love you use the full orchestra every time but it's a small mortgage job every time you choose to do that and you have to be practical about things like that. Also, you have the immediacy of working with samples. I use them as a sketch initially yet often that's what ends up being part of the finished track; it's one of the miracles of modern science frankly."

The track 'Loving Sea' is a flavour of Hackett rarely heard before, strummed acoustic guitars redolent of Crosby Stills.

"For years I didn't really understand strumming, I'd spent so much time concentrating on lead work that I didn't know how to write a song with the strummed guitar. Funnily enough I've started work on the next album and there's another song in that style that's coming together. So after all these years I've finally learned how to strum (laughs). On 'Loving Sea' there are four acoustic instruments with some pitch shift and domestic stuff like a salt cellar and Roger King (keyboards) did some backwards piano to fill out the song. The track came to fruition as a result of a holiday in Mexico. "It was a sunny day we were on a boat going in and out of the mangrove forest and it was the first time I'd seen dolphins, hearing then breathe was incredible. The melody just popped into my head and it got refined into a song. By the time we got back to the Hotel I was writing it out."

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I remind Steve that at the album's playback it was Jerry Ewing (Classic Rock magazine) who commented that despite the variety inherent in the tracks the album sounds like a musical journey as they flow together so well.

"That's good to hear. I think it is possible to link any two pieces of music no matter how different they may be provided you have a strong enough bridge passage or something strong enough atmospherically. Sometimes I write acoustic pieces that are tailor-made to link rockier things because you are your own boss with a nylon guitar in your hands. I do this thing where I'll refer to a previous track with an acoustic echo of what you've just heard and line it up with a key change perhaps in order to take it into the next thing. There's 'Earthshine' on this album where I was trying to write something that reminded me of a Chopin piano work and I wasn't sure it would be right for the album but it turned out to be the glue that links the tracks either side of it, the thundering 'Corycian Fire' and the acoustic based 'Loving Sea."

Wolflight is a reference to the hour before dawn is the time when Hackett seems to be at his most creative.

"I tend to find that if I wake early and realise I'm not going to get back to sleep because my brain is working I will get up and find it to be a particularly creative time; it's a bit like down time in the studio when you're not expecting too much of yourself. You're not actually trying that hard but it means you can really play with ideas and logic isn't throwing up too many obstacles to what you are creating. Some of my most cohesive ideas have come at this time, sometimes they feel outrageous and I think I shouldn't be able to get away with this but they do."

The aforementioned 'Corycian Fire' features another new element to the Hackett palette a massive choir element. It transpires, unbelievably, that technology is behind this too.

"It's done with software that sings consonants and vowels," he confirms, "and we think it was originally designed to sing in Latin but it means you can make up your own words then becomes a jigsaw piece choir really. The phrases are all ours as are the harmonies but the dynamics are really convincing. It's singing in ancient Greek which is courtesy of Jo (Hackett's wife), who is a great grecophile." Hackett goes on to describe their visits to Delphi which gave rise to this piece and the most magical natural amphitheatre that inspired him.

Another new aspect to his sound is the almost Dream Theater-esque section late on during 'Love Song to a Vampire', I wondered if Hackett was influenced by Prog Metal.

"There's no influence from that, but there's an aspect of the riff that is more elemental to the Slavic or Norse moments of Grieg or Tchaikovsky. That was the kind of sound I wanted to bring to the piece."

Hackett isn't known for this style but it seems that much of that is down to expectations.

"If you aren't careful you can always end up doing stuff that is characterful and melodic; if people ask me to play on their albums they want me to play something slow and majestic but I did start out as a Rock guitarist and I can't help wondering if I'd been born five years earlier perhaps the Blues boom wouldn't have died out on me and I might have been doing a lot more of those moments. I can deal with the fast and furious stuff it doesn't always have to be melodic but I think it's nice to have contrasts."

That to me is the watchword for Hackett's considerable output both solo and with Genesis, contrasts.

"Exactly," agrees Hackett "I think the Genesis material was deliberately full of surprises, the best things certainly had surprising moments; I think we allowed things to meander. I used to think that we'd allow it to meander too much but on reflection that worked very well and to allow a song to slip off the rails was a good thing as sometimes you have to break things down so you can to build them up again."

Given how quickly some of the songs on the album switch between electric and acoustic guitar, and back again, I wondered how he was going to achieve this live.

"I was thinking I might have to take a leaf out of Steve Howe's book and have an acoustic mounted on a stand so that one can move very quickly between the two, it can be done. It also depends on whether I have another guitarist in the band, with the Genesis stuff it often requires someone who not only plays bass but twelve –string as well, or in our case having worked with some of the newer technology both Lee and Nick have used the Variax on a twelve- string setting; that's worked well. But, these are things I have still to work out, and how much of the new album we want to do, how of it can be done and how we make those joins and what, if anything, needs to be re-arranged to make it work."
So does he ever look at any of his material and think that it's impossible to play live? "Oh, masses of it. There is so much of it is personnel dependent and it's also an authenticity thing."

In the past we've spoken about his apparent fascination with railway themes in his music and on 'Wolflight' there's 'The Wheel is Turning' that makes me think he has a similar interest in Fairgrounds, a view that transpires to be correct.

"Yes, I grew up with my bedroom window facing Battersea Power Station and I could wander to the Park in a few minutes and they had a Fairground there. I worked there for a while too and that's crept into my songs from time to time. I was blown away by the smells, the rides, the atmosphere etc. and I've felt the need to capture those memories in song."

So is he pleased with 'Wolflight'?

"I got a good feeling before this album in a similar way to that before 'Spectral Mornings' in that I'd been doing a lot shows with a band that hadn't recorded an album together and we were getting a great responses to playing materiel in the set that would become part of the 'Spectral..' album and I just had a really good feeling even before we started recording it; when it was done I felt really proud of it and having a band for the first time and in a way it's that same feeling with this album. There is something delightful in the air, which isn't even about how well the album does in the market it just seems to have its own life somehow. I've been striving to do something like this for a while and to come up with musical surprises. It has enough weirdness in it to be interesting but at the same time not enough to lose the listener. One needs those tributaries whilst keeping people on the river, as it were. You do need those digressions but at the same time there needs to be something solid at the centre of it; accessible is a terrible and overused word; I think emotional would be closer to where I was heading with it."

I don't think he has anything to worry about on that score as any Hackett fan is going to revel in this latest offering as it has all the ingredients that make his fans love what he does.

"The idea is to keep the music coming and hopefully if the listener doesn't like one moment there will be another one along in a moment that they do like. I see the album moving between genres or as scenes from an imaginary film where if you don't like that bit here's something else you will; people will be attracted to different elements. Some may be drawn to the Greek idea ('Corycian Fire') or the Mexican one ('Loving Sea') or 'Black Thunder' which is about a slave rebellion which is Bluesy with a Gershwin aspect to it too towards the end. It wanders into Jazz territory too."
It seems wandering off is a trait as Hackett regales me of a childhood where he was forever disappearing when out family trips.

I pick up on an earlier theme and recount the tours when new tracks for the next album featured in the set list such as hearing 'Eric' at Chelmsford Odeon, later to be renamed 'The Steppes' when it appeared on the 'Defector' album.

"I think that tracks are all the better for being taken out on the road and played live ahead of being recorded. Would that one could play all the new songs live in that way and develop them with direct audience feedback."

We then get into a lengthy discussion about that track's development and why I like it so much, but that's for another day. We also digress as he mentions that he's calling me from Hackett Band alumni Nick Magnus' place where the pair are helping with material for Steve's brother John. During this part of the conversation Hackett takes time to say nice things about his predecessor in Genesis, Anthony Phillips and Magnus' 'N'nomix' album.

Finally, I put before him the question of the appalling Genesis documentary shown on BBC4 and which has now made it on to DVD in extended form. Having got my own rant of disgust over I ask Hackett for his thoughts on the subject.

"I've had an awful lot of a correspondence which has been a cross between complaint and condolence and funnily enough the guys from Genesis also wrote to me and said sorry that it came out the way it did. It was intended to be definitive but ended up being patchy." I counter that comment with the observation that he's being overly generous and gracious. "I was trying to be diplomatic (laughs)."

Did any of the guys from Genesis actually come and see his 'Genesis Revisited' shows?

"Not as far as I know, not unless they slipped in in disguise; but they'd be more than welcome. I wouldn't want to embarrass them by offering the Royal Box or anything."

Had any of them commented on the enterprise in keeping the Genesis Museum open (a phrase used by Hackett at his Hammersmith Apollo gig)?

"I think publicly they are unlikely to say anything, the Genesis policy seems to be 'no comment' and I think it's in the nature of being British. If they thought it was rubbish they wouldn't say so and if they thought it was brilliant they wouldn't say so either. I would be interested in what they thought about my re-records of the material and how they feel about some of it having orchestra over it or starting tracks with nylon guitar that wasn't on the original or about having lots of different singers on it. I guess I'll never really know; at the end of the day we all have respect and love for each other. You cannot ignore the combined work that that group of people were responsible for."

A fitting, well-made comment on which to end our chat.

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