A Conversation with Hall of Fame Guitarist Steve Hackett

Very few musicians are as prolific as one-time Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. Earlier this year he released the beautiful, classicly inspired Under a Mediterranian Sky and now he is about to release a new rock record called Surrender of Silence and, once again, took some time to talk about it.

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On whether he is embracing the new way of recording in a pandemic – Well, yeah, I think so, the idea of working at home, and it’s almost like being a satellite, isn’t it? Performances are being beamed in from everywhere, and whereas at one time, records were made with people face-to-face, when you’re trying to work with someone from Azerbaijan, who’s connecting you with someone from Tajikistan and you’ve got a drummer the States, you’re working with this kind of United Nations approach. To travel has been a musician’s birthright for hundreds of years, and then suddenly we’re, in terms of social conditions, we’re back in the era of the Black Death, the plague. Do we allow ourselves to be ground to a halt? How does it work for filmmakers, God knows, but one’s studio is the size of one’s computer. It is possible for people to fly in their performances, and many of these performances have been world-class, and so it makes a record possible under these conditions, but it’s had to be more of a test tube baby, than the act of getting together or making love in one run together and making music together, it’s not being quite like that. These are different times, but it’s made for some very different kinds of sounding efforts from us all. :53

On whether the classical elements of the last record bled into the writing of this record – Well, if I’m honest, ever since the Beatles started working with orchestras, it changed my mind about what was possible, what was credible for a rock act to do. It might sound like heresy, but I grew up listening to rock and listen to blues, R&B, that was the position I came from, but at the same time, I was listening to Segovia and classical music, like a guilty pleasure thinking, “Yeah, I love this stuff, but it’s not gonna impact upon rock”, and then it did towards the end of the 1960s and really from ’67 where people were sharing their classical leanings. I thought in a way that music will continue in that way, but instead of which it becomes ever more home-grown. So most people these days make a record of just two people. The programmer is probably the producer and the singer is someone else, and they come together and they make a hit record. That’s what they do. Where does that leave the rest of us who spent a lifetime working on our craft? Where does it leave music? It leaves music impoverished. You have to look to these other journalists to address the music differently. Then there’s been the whole sort of phenomenon of so-called World Music. I allow that to affect me because I love working with friends from all over the world. A lot of the (instruments on my records) may be unfamiliar instruments to some. So it’s been an education for me. We’re just working with pals all over the world and different styles. On one level, I’m working with a Vietnamese instrument. I’ve learned to play on the beginning of one track, and so it goes on. Then the fact the same to them is taking that by a lady playing the viola an oriental style. It makes almost like a soundtrack to an imaginary movie. The movie is for the ear rather than the eye, I’m involved, funny enough, in videos these days. A lot of the time it gets fouled up because I can’t possibly do everything myself, but there’s been some interesting videos that have come up already around this album, and there’s a new one that I’ve just seen in the cartoon maker has done around the track “Natalia” and gone to town with the Russian progressive Regine thing, and that looks really quite stunning. I’m interested in the different approaches that different filmmakers have to be these things. 3:03

On whether his love of travel is influenced by World Music or vice versa – Where does one begin? Is it the journey that makes the song or does the song facilitate the journey? The world beckons. It’s a strange thing, I first are traveling when I was a seven-year-old boy, my parents immigrated to Canada, they didn’t have any money. It was assisted passage. Mother became instantly homesick, knew she wanted to return, but in a way, in my imagination, I couldn’t forget that extraordinary journey across the Atlantic. Seeing icebergs firsthand, seeing the Rocky Mountains, traveling through them from the observation dome, and seeing the world, the prairie, the ocean, the sky. I grew up in concrete London. There were very few trees. We lived opposite the Battersea Power Station, made famous many years by Pink Floyd and their flying pig, but we were in the middle of pollution central. Since then, partly as a touring musician, I have visited so many parts of the world, but there are many things that are not on the touring metal musicians but are equally fascinating to visit…China, Ethiopia, Greece. Places that I have not performed in, but nonetheless, influenced the music, the Orient certainly. I’ve traveled not just with my band, but also with a world fusion band called Javi, Hungarian guys. So we were in Malaysia, in Penang Island, and you hear music and it’s very different from the kind of stuff that you go and see at your local blues club, and it’s very different, nothing wrong with the local blues club, I love it. All the sonic developments that happened with the guitar happened around blues, largely in London when I was growing up in the mid-60s. But beyond all of that, I got introduced to so many other things, despite myself, at times, whenever I thought to myself, “I don’t really wanna travel”, something will always happen, an offer will come up. My wife will say, “Let’s visit Borneo let’s go to Vietnam”. These things are on the list, but so far, she managed to take me to India, to Cambodia, each one of them, a trip of a lifetime, Egypt. Some of it influenced Under A Mediterranean Sky. We were able to inform that with musical styles from that region, and again, as I said, unfamiliar instruments. So it’s a leap into the unknown, and it’s wonderful, it’s a bit like the toys or the instruments lead the dance. That’s lovely to create space for them to do the thing. Much in the same way as when I first joined Genesis and even before. If I got a new fuzz box, I would wanna write “An Ode to a Fuss Box”. Now it would be, “Well, you’ve seen things beyond the fuzz box that are equally enthralling”. I come back to the same humble instruments that I always had beforehand, but I used to think that anyone who owned a Marshall Stack and a Les Paul had already made it. You’ve already climbed Everest, you got the tools. This is what it’s all about. I was young and very much hungry for it then. Perhaps priorities change over time, and I’m not that kid looking at that shop windows thinking, “I can’t afford that, I desperately need it. When is my fairy Godmother gonna wave the magic wand?” Over time, you beg, borrow, if not steal, to get that stage. 7:07

On having Phil Ehart of Kansas on the record – Just after I left Genesis, Phil Ehart and Steve Walsh of Kansas were working with me on an album called Please Don’t Touch, and we became pals. We’re on opposite sides of the pond but Phil stayed in touch with me and said, “If you have any songs at any point, we’re on the lookout for that”. Then we were doing the cruise, we were doing Cruise From The Edge in recent times and we always said we’d do something again at some point. So I sent him the track “Shanghai To Samarkand”, and he said, “I really like the track”, and he sent me some drum work on it. It’s a very kind of ambitious track, it’s a kind of travel log, but it has to be a virtual one because those places have been inaccessible. Everyone knows all about the way lockdown is impacted on their lives, but it doesn’t mean to say that we have to stop work, luckily, we’re not slaves to the idea of going somewhere else, into someone else’s recording studio. A lot of us can work at home or in nearby facilities and then we get our performance, somehow make it work by osmosis with the ideas that already got. I think people are very used to working in isolation these days. I’ve worked on lots of other people’s albums myself, and they sent something that’s unfamiliar and they don’t have to sit there while I get to grips with the unfamiliar. I just send them the finished thing, the finished idea. If they like what I’ve done, they use it. Most of the time, I find that it can almost be a distraction working with the genius who has written something who knows exactly how it ought to sound. That could be a hindrance. Whereas I will color it in my way, and I leave other people to do the same thing with just the briefest idea, “This is an energetic drum type. Would you like to play busy or slow or atmospherically?” Just let people who are world-class get on with a job and I get something once they find out all the wrinkles. 12:25

On whether he still enjoys being a guitar hero – I think the playing has gotten more heroic in recent times. I think the playing has probably gotten angrier as I’ve worked in more and more techniques, things that I couldn’t do at one time. I’ve allowed that to be the case. There are still the melodic things, melodic playing is where I came in, but sometimes I like to just have a complete rant on the guitar. If it’s an angry song, like “Foxes Tango”, you mentioned where there’s social comment, various things, or “The Oblierati”, which uses tapping. It was something I was doing right back in 1971, that technique, and I thought, “I’ll do something that’s a nod to that early era of the early 70s”. When I was doing Acolyte I used the sort of phase thing, I used an MXR phaser, which is an old piece of kit now, on it so that it’s kind of going through this phase shift while your tapping, so the sound is being colored by repeat echo, probably repeat, echo, reverb, and distortion. So there are all of those things and the notes are flying thick and fast and the changes are almost Wagnerian, to be honest, more than rock and roll. It’s got the support strings. But there is still a rock and roller in there, I’m still an electric player, I’m still a guitarist, is what I’m trying to say. 15:51

On the track “Devil’s Cathedral” – I’d say there’s one song that is, I would say typically Genesis. I think it’s the sort of thing that would have fitted perhaps into the era of Selling England by the Pound, 1973. The idea of narrative, an invented story. A character who wants to take over the life of somebody else. They are an understudy, a stand-in. In the story, this guy ends up taking the life of this particular person and then marrying the wife. But the implication being that the wife had no idea that this guy was responsible for that. It’s a kind of demonic idea, a demonic story of unbridled ambition, but at the same time, we’ve used some typically Genesis devices of something that starts off acoustically and then becomes a full-on electric band. But it also has a pipe organ at the beginning and soprano sax. They’re doing this thing called octotonics. They are runs that I didn’t recognize at first. Rob (Townsend) and Roger (King) were doing together, I thought, “I’ve gotta have some of that”. It sounded like some of the most dissonant stuff imaginable. We were playing it pretty loud at home and the dog next door was barking furiously. It’s the thing going on and it was usually entertaining but it was very, very challenging, then it becomes a song. The rest of the band kick in, and I gave it to Nad (Slyvan) because I said, “Nad, you might be good at this, you could use your theatrical style on this”, whereas I do some of the rock singing on this album myself, but also, I think that I’m part of a team of singers, where I have Amanda Lehmann twining me on a lot of things, so we get the male-female thing. So at times, we sound a little bit like, Yes, together when we’re doing these harmonies. Other times that I’ll do some full-on rock singing myself. But it’s kind of horses for courses, I think, “Nad will be right for this, it’ll have a Genesis feel”. No one’s really heard this yet other than yourself and a few others, so this is not released yet, but we’re doing it as part of the new show. We’ll be doing that one and “Held in the Shadows” is another one from the new album, plus some older solo stuff, plus the whole of Seconds Out, which is a very long double album and we’re doing full-length versions of those Genesis tunes. I try to address the present and the past to keep a balance, those who like their music to be familiar, they will have that for those who like their music to be challenging and cutting edge, I believe we deliver in that too. 18:40

On the influence of literature on music – Well, when I met my wife, Jo, originally, she was making movies and I said I would be happy to do music for her with that, and she ended up writing a couple of books, and I would encourage that as she encouraged me with my thing. So we’ve talked about collaborations beyond the collaboration that goes with the songwriting. I think I’ve realized that the songs that perhaps I’m most drawn to, the ones that really last for me have a kind of narrative quality to them. I was reading an old interview that Paul McCartney gave in the 1960s, I think it was for Life Magazine. He was saying something about he’d gone somewhere and he’d taken along John Lennon to a place, I think it was the Times Book Shop or something. They saw the original manuscript for Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. “Elenore Rigby” has a quality to it. The famous line about “Wearing a face that she keeps a job by the door” is something that was very Dylan Thomas-esque in a way because he would allude to certain things, the use of metaphor was important for him as a writer, whether it will be as innuendo because there’s a lot of it in Under Milk Wood because it’s essentially the subconscious, sensual life of a Welsh town or village. I found it fascinating that he would have certain things like this woman who never goes out, this woman married to a man, never takes her out and he’s the milkman, and one of the characters says, “I think he keeps her in the cupboard with the empties”. The aspect of what informed the Beatles is there in this literature, maybe a few years earlier, not that much, just the difference perhaps between the 1950s in the early 60s. By the mid-1960s, the influence of other Dylan, of course, is paramount upon the Beatles and narrative seems to be so much a part and parcel of really good writing. Genesis addressed that. Sometimes it was deliberately obscurantist, but other times you would get the idea of what that’s all about without needing to have something written underneath to tell you what the lyrics were all about because I think that ideally, some should be self-explanatory. Once you catch their words, and I try not to write too many words that are impossible to catch on first listening, but I think you could be inventive with the stuff you could push the boat out. You can make it your own. It’s a folk tradition in a way, telling stories. 23:04

On the passing of Charlie Watts – I met two of the Stones over time and spoke with them. One was Mick (Jagger), and the other one was Bill Wyman. I found them very talkative, very communicative, and it was nice that were childhood heroes of mine. I was listening to The Stones very, very early on, and I love their work and practiced along with it relentlessly. The passing of Charlie saddens me because when I was a kid, I desperately wanted to have the long hair that they had, and I thought out of all of them, Charlie was the most handsome. He had this kind of face that could have been an Indian brave. I mean, he looked like he could have been an honorable Chief of some tribe that we could only guess at. His face really personified the Stone Age aspect of them, he looked chiseled. So to see him pass it’s sobering, but obviously, I still have a soft spot for the Stones. I think that there was a side of me as a kid who was always hoping that the Stones might give me a call one day. It never happened because there were a thousand other guitarists keen on getting the job, not to mention harmonica players. I possessed both skills. The early Stones, I think were perhaps a tad more experimental, and I enjoy them for that. I love “Paint It, Black” for instance. Love to use of sitar. The whole rhythmic thing, it doesn’t put a foot wrong, it’s absolutely in the groove, it’s in the moment, it’s in the pocket with a very dark lyric and a fantastic groove. I think he was a great drummer, jazz drummer, and I think his love was jazz. I can understand that because you’d get a pulse from something which would seem impossibly fast, and I suspect that energizing jazz was perhaps, maybe what he was all about. I don’t know him well enough to be able to say, “Was he of the Alvin Jones school, or the Buddy Rich school”. All they know is that most drummers that I’ve talked to mentioned Buddy Rich in terms of saying, “Well, yeah, this was the gospel handed down”. Anyway, the passing of a great. I shall be listening to all those Stones gems ever more fondly thinking, “Yep, I missed my chance to work with the great Charlie Watts”. 27:14

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