Steve Hackett is the quintessential prog rock guitarist. Starting with his time in Genesis and continuing throughout his solo career, Steve has continued to innovate and amaze. He is about to release his 30th solo record, a concept album called The Circus and The Nightwhale and recently took some time to talk about it. With this interview, Steve also becomes the second member of the MisplacedStraws 5 Timers Club!
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On why he chose now for his first-ever solo concept album – I was thinking about doing (something) that had a narrative thread to it and was autobiographical. I know that some people are engaged by the term “concept”, and others are turned off by that because it’s easy to do something that people might think is a little overblown and they’re interested in individual tracks. The idea came up and I was talking to my wife, Jo, about this. We wrote the stuff together. She came up with the title of the album because we were kicking a circus and what have you and I very much like the title and I thought it was intriguing.
Then, in order to sort of deliver something that was intriguing, I thought it needed to have an intriguing start to the album. So we started with excerpts from radio from 1950, the year I was born. This is the way radio sounded. This is the way people spoke. The BBC had a lady announcer for a program called I think it was called “Listen With Mother” and she would say, “Are you sitting comfortably?” and then there’ll be a long pause and “Now I’ll Begin” or “Then I’ll Begin” and instead of letting her get that far, we had a baby’s cry that’s obviously uncomfortable to create the paradox of then extending the baby’s cry to sound a little bit like a train whistle, then a train arrives. Then a rock band taking off from that. So all these things, these sort of multi-layered or false starts of what characterized the beginning of the album and gave me a way to frame it so it didn’t sound like an ordinary album. It wasn’t, it didn’t go straight in with, here comes the power chord, guys, that’s it, you’re a guitarist, that’s what you do. It just allowed us to go somewhere else from the word “go”, these various decoys. When is it going to start? Is this what it does? Is it a classical album? Is it a nostalgic thing? Is it industrial?
We had all those elements that reappear during the course of the song, “People Of The Smoke”. The smoke is a name for a polluted key placein London. People referred to it as the “Smoke”, that was London, a bit like the Big Apple for New York. So “People Of the Smoke” is about Londoners and about that time, London in post-war recovery, heavily bombed. Lots of places still falling apart, not enough money to fix them all. Heavily, heavily polluted. We grew up opposite the Battersea Power Station, which was the largest building in Europe at the time and it powered half of London. Gave us light and heat. It was a cloud factory. There were four huge smokestacks. When they were belching out fumes, it just went up into the sky. That grey ash went up, went into our lungs, and it created that grey porridge sky thing. Oatmeal, you guys say. Oatmeal sky. That was it. That’s what kicked off the thing.
Now these days you can take a journey up inside one of those huge smokestacks, there’s an elevator that goes to the top, and then you get, it comes out the top and you get this 360-degree view of London, it’s the most exciting journey, and I can look across the river at the apartments that we grew up in, and there it is right there, between the years three and seven years old. That was my view, and of course, that’s what became the most iconic cover for Pink Floyd Animals, the flying pig. It’s the building that was part of. That was it, there were no flying pigs, but it was still a monumental thing to gaze at, especially at night, I’d see it smoking away and the sounds of the barges going and seeing the neon lights snake through the water. It used to mesmerize me. I used to stare at the thing for ages. Now, it’s really part of that song and it’s part of the video that accompanies that song to kick off the album to set the scene, a kind of film for the ear. It was as if I was trying to come up with something, an imaginary film, and I was trying to come up with a soundtrack that might accompany this imaginary film. That idea went through all the songs that were on the album, so they were largely all written to order like that. A self-commissioned film.
On the meaning of the title The Circus and The Nightwhale – Ever since I joined the music business, as a professional, I realized I was involved in a traveling circus. So rock and roll is a circus. The nightwhale is another aspect. My wife and I were thinking of stories that used the whale and being swallowed up by it. We were thinking of Jonah. We were thinking of Pinocchio. We were thinking of all of these ideas and heroic journeys and everything and making a leap of faith as indeed does Pinocchio. It’s facing your fears. It’s also the people have used the expression, “the dark night of the soul” when you are most troubled and you’re close to a nervous breakdown. That’s what I wanted to convey with the idea of the nightwhale.
Literally, it reminds me of when I was an adolescent, and I used to get this feeling of something sitting on me and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t move. I was thinking that when circumstances literally grind you to a halt, or you’ve got to say, “hell with this, I’ve got to be myself, I’ve got to be free, I must have autonomy”. That came into my life in several stages. One stage it came in was when I was in Genesis, but then I was suddenly being prevented from working outside of Genesis with a parallel solo career. That was a very difficult decision to make to leave what was arguably I thought the world’s best band. But I had no guarantees that my creative ideas would be used. That was an awkward offer, but they wanted to change my status from being a full partner to being an employee. That really rankled with me. So autonomy, it comes back to that.
Then later in my life, I was in another situation which was both a personal and a management situation, which became very claustrophobic and was really grinding me to a halt, very much getting me down. There was also my relationship with Jo as my second marriage was falling apart and Jo and I were becoming closer and closer. We had a work relationship, first of all, and we had a wonderful marriage of ideas, and I needed to have that and when I did my autobiography, I did the book she’s a writer, she’s written books, she’s made films, done various things…there was self-commissioning going on, but also she said to me, “You’ve got to have a thread, you’ve got to be able to do this, you’ve got to be able to do that in order to make it work”. Of course, she knows me very well. She knows the ups and downs that I’ve had. It was quite a few years before we were able to establish ourselves as a couple in the face of quite a lot of complication and mixed business interests and what have you, but it had to happen.
So quite a few of the tracks, there are love songs that are dedicated to her, but I like to think that there’s a paradox because if you’ve got a rock song, normally a rock song is not a love song. It’s “What’s wrong with the girl, devil woman”, and all that. Well, she’s completely the opposite, she’s been my guiding light for years now. So I wanted to be able to honor that with certain things. So there’s the paradox in the song. For instance, the second song to be released as a single is “Wherever You Are”. I really wrote that about her. That she’s such an expansive person, so generous and light literally shines out of her at times, I think. It seems as if there’s a whole sort of universe that goes on. So that’s why the song is both personal and universal and indeed talks about universal themes and also spiritual themes as well. The idea of hopefully love surviving. I might sound very romantic here and very dreamy, but I do believe there’s a world of spirit. I do believe we do shine on as John Lennon said.
On the record being musically as well as lyrically autobiographical – Well, I think it’s nice that you said that. Yes, I think that that’s true. So it’s a kind of companion piece to the book. I think that sometimes you can say things musically even if it’s something that’s just instrumental. Music is many things. Of course, it’s a healer. It’s a language of the heart. Music is a thing that when you’re watching a movie and you might just have a still of something that the music is the thing that sets the tone, it’s telling you that there’s either a threat or there’s something peaceful. Right at the beginning of “Angel Heart”, I think that’s the movie, there’s something, it’s just a nighttime scene, but there’s something spooky going on and without that, you wouldn’t have that sense of the film expanding out of the frame that contains it. But, there’s something about, about film, you don’t really want to see the edge of the screen with film. You want something to transcend that. Music is the transcendent language that informs film.
So, for all filmmakers, the great movies have great music, and to have great music, you need to allow time. Don’t keep your composer up all night for two weeks and think you’re going to have a great score, give them what the Hollywood guys had. Miklos Rozsa, “Ben Hur”, Dimitri Tiomkin, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, that stuff, where obviously those guys had those things tailor-made, they couldn’t have been off the peg, although I think Max Steiner with “Gone with the Wind”, I gather he got on three or four different movies at a time and pilled up to the teeth to try and get through. When Hollywood comes calling, that’s what you got to do.
On what fans can expect on Cruise To The Edge – Well I’m hoping to include, we’re going to rehearsals with some of the new stuff. So the solo half of the show, I think we’ll have stuff from Circus and The Nightwhale. There’ll be some other things as well. The band particularly like playing certain things such as “The Devil’s Cathedral” and “Camino Royale”. They’ve become workouts for the band.
It’s an interesting time. I’m spread very thin with a number of projects at the moment both acoustic projects live and also visiting Norway, a quick one there to be with Javi, a fusion band to do that. The northernmost part of freezing cold Norway. I think it’s the furthest town into the Arctic Circle. I believe so. Once more, having been to Iceland and being very close to the Arctic Circle, “50 miles from the North Pole”, I did a track called that once. So that was an interesting adventure. Hope we get to see the Northern Lights. It’s a very, very interesting time and the response to the album. So far, it’s been media that’s responded. People have not heard the album. They’ve heard two tracks so far. One of the videos has gone viral and the other one seems to be catching up.
When I say viral, in my world, I’m happy if 5,000 people get to listen to something or watch a video, but this time it’s 130,000 plus that have been watching “People of the Smoke” and the other one is up to something like 80,000, 87,000. So I think the power of the song with the second one, it’s finding its audience. So if only I can access a wider audience. It’s very easily said, to do that, to penetrate the marketplace to that degree. It’s what it’s all about, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to make the kind of concept album I know that people do, or did at one time, particularly in the 80s, in order to fit the mold. I think it’s so important to break the mold, because audio has been marginalized so much in favor of visual. So I want to put visual back into audio to be part of the fight back of audio when I find it hugely interesting that there’s Atmos, Surround, etc., and we’ll get to all of those things. We will release them in all formats at some point.
On if he plans to bring his Lamb Highlights tour to the US – I think that’ll happen next year. The thing is, I was advertised to bring Foxtrot, and we’ve done a two-month tour of the States doing Foxtrot, but now we’re playing in the main, it’s entirely new places that I’ve not touched for quite a few years. But what’s on the packet is Foxtrot. So I’m happy to deliver that, because I consider that with Genesis, there’s a golden period, 1972 to 73. That’s a long time ago. We’re talking over 50 years ago, but somehow it’s timeless. Foxtrot meets Selling England by the Pound when they were first touring in America and John Lennon picked up on the band and said he thought we were true sons of the Beatles, which is a lovely thing for him to have said. So I’m very proud of those two albums back to back. I think it’s the golden period for Genesis. I don’t think there’s a weak track on Foxtrot. I don’t think there’s a weak track on Selling England by the Pound. And for me, those albums are intensely vibrant. There’s just something about it. A young band who were desperate to make it, who hadn’t made it at that stage, and were allowed their first chance to go to The States, all of that is part of it.
The excitement that went with that playing to small audiences, but word of mouth was what was selling Genesis there. Maybe I would be naive to trust in word of mouth now, but I like to think that word of mouth might come into play with something like we have. We’ll see. It would be lovely, yes, of course, to have the machinery of an Atlantic Records or, or even Arista with GTR, of course, to launch it. InsideOut is a smaller company, but they have integrity. They release stuff, stuff that they like. Trevor Rabin released stuff on that. Ian Anderson’s releasing stuff with them. It’s hugely interesting, and if there’s a sort of Genesis revival of what’s classic Genesis, they funded that and made that possible.
On if he would ever collaborate with any of the members of Genesis – Well, I think I’ve suggested anything. Even if it’s as much as, “Oh, I could get up on stage with you and do “Firth of Fifth””. I seem to be turned down lock, stock, and barrel. I was asked to rejoin the band with Peter Gabriel to do Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. To do it as a musical, and then it just all fell apart. I was extremely flexible and I was hugely enthusiastic. I just come off the back of having done an acoustic tour and reaction was stunning to that. I thought, “Well, imagine if you could put this back together again, Genesis, this would be fantastic”. No, but I sensed a reticence within the rank and Tony didn’t want to do Lamb Lies Down on Broadway as a musical. He thought it was too complicated. So, to find common ground is very difficult for guys who worked together 50 years ago. Do you know what I mean? It’s people change. The goalposts have shifted. There is band politics, power play, all of those things. I think it’s a great shame that they haven’t been able to bury differences. So much as I would like to, that would be great, but I don’t think it’ll happen.
I would say I honor the work of Genesis, what I consider to be the best work that I did for Genesis. Playing it with people who relish it and reinvigorate it rather than to have to be dragged screaming back into the old routine. I don’t think that that really works. Let’s reinvigorate it, reupholster it, revisit it, add instruments, stick an orchestra in there if you like, a wider thing, when it was classical, give it the works. So that’s why I did two studio albums of Genesis Revisited. I haven’t got any plans to do a third Revisited at this point. I haven’t got any desire to do so, but I like to think that there’s a future for Genesis-inspired stuff. So that the instrumental aspect becomes as important as the song, the aspect of surprise becomes important, the pan-genre approach becomes as important as those in that period that John Lennon liked the band, when all was risk and nothing with certainty.