The Steve Hackett Interview
As the guitarist for Genesis from 1970 to 1977, Steve Hackett brought a refined sensibility to the music with an understated, yet calculated style. Genesis’ progressive leanings of the times allowed a lot of latitude and Hackett continually honed his chops and expanded his palette even as his stake within the group slowly diminished. When he left, he’d already dipped his toe in solitary waters with his first solo album Voyage Of The Acolyte. He didn’t hesitate in pursuing a variety of avenues to test the limits of his capabilities, issuing over 20 solo albums, collaborating in the 80s with Yes guitarist Steve Howe in GTR, and more recently, with Yes bassist Chris Squire in Squackett.
He has not enjoyed the commercial accolades of Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel, but respect for Steve Hackett has never waned. The classic lineup of Genesis that included Hackett is still revered by many as a sacred cow, something that cannot be replicated without careful attention to detail and care. So far, the guitarist has been the only one of the five (Hackett, Collins, Gabriel, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks) who has dared to reintroduce that music to the public with his Genesis Revisited tours. Since 2012, Hackett and his crack band playing Genesis music has been welcomed with open arms and now a regular part of the guitarist’s repertoire. At the same time, that step back has only inspired him to move forward.
For 2015, Steve Hackett has unveiled Wolflight, his first new studio album in four years. Overflowing with allegory and strange, exotic instrumentation, it may be his most ambitious album yet. During our half-hour chat, Hackett took me through the process of making Wolflight, name-checking historical and geographical points of interest, along with the many musicians who appear on the record. It was daunting to get it all down, but I couldn’t resist the rich embellishments at each turn. As he would tell me, “it’s really about the music,” and in talking with Steve Hackett, it really is about the music and little else, especially the glitz, ego and competitive nature of Genesis that revealed itself in Sum Of The Parts, the 2014 documentary about the band. Oh yeah, we talked a little about that too.
Wolflight is your 26th solo album and your first since 2011. With all the touring you’ve been doing, how did you manage to find time to get in the studio and cut this record?
It was a close call. There wasn’t as much time as I wanted. A lot of it was planned out on paper. I don’t think recordings are always made in the studio, or even on the computer. They start in the imagination first of all. The small team that made it managed to turn in an extraordinary job, I think.
I have heard Wolfight described in a couple of different ways: the light before the dawn, a struggle for freedom on a journey travelling through both inner and outer space. Can you elaborate on what it is all about a bit?
Certainly. Many of the songs are really stories. I have to say we didn’t start out with the idea of a concept album. In terms of “Wolflight,” the earliest reference that we could find to that was Homer talking about Odysseus waking up in the “wolf-light,” in the hour before the dawn. Beyond that, wolves, in a way, have been a kind of a…I was thinking there’s a totem aspect with this. The title track, “Wolflight” itself, my wife Jo and I were writing about early people, the tribes that made up Europe and parts of Africa. They are the people who took on the Chinese — the people for whom the Great Wall was built to keep them out and the people who eventually brought down the Roman Empire. Those nomadic tribes adopted the wolf as totem. The wolf was man’s best friend long before the dog. Part of the history of this was looking back at those people and trying to write something convincing that might have been a snapshot of their lives in various stages of development. That might sound like a rather complex idea for a song, but in a sense it’s a little bit like doing a film, but a film for the ear rather than the eye.
These people had their outer journeys with the wolves when they befriended them and showed them shelter and showed them to food and water. They also had this inner journey where they adopted the wolf as totem and it became an important part of their culture. So I was trying to encapsulate all of the actual stuff and the mythological stuff into the song as well. So “Wolflight” is really about that. That’s some of it and then, of course, the aspect of freedom that runs through. And not just that song, but in other songs — the song that follows, “Love Song For A Vampire,” is really about freedom in another sense, from abusive relationships. It circulated into this idea of the Stockholm syndrome, you know people who side with their captors. I think many relationships can turn bad with one overly dominant character. It’s something that starts out perhaps positive and ends up being extremely negative. It was that idea — a love story gone wrong. I was really interested in that. With those two tracks, we’ve done videos of both those tracks and they’re both very long. What started out as a film for the ear has also become a film in another sense and I’ve never really done that with albums before. We have that, and the track that follows, “The Wheel’s Turning,” there’s also a lyric video for that.
Yes, I have seen those videos.
Back to the idea of freedom as a central idea, we have “Black Thunder,” which is about slavery in the old South. The way I see it is something that relates to the civil war. That was written as a result of going to Martin Luther King’s birthplace in Atlanta and seeing the house that he was born in and seeing the bed that he was born in, and visiting the church (Ebenezer Baptist Church) where he used to preach. His mother, who was playing in the church, was assassinated there. Someone just walked up to her and shot her while she was playing organ. So it seems as if, that struggle still goes on. The other day, someone gave me a two pound English coin and it had 1807, and it’s got a zero on either side of it, up and down, which looks like a chain link and that was the year slavery ended in England at that point. There is an idea of the underdog running through many of the songs.
It seems like you are weaving historical and literary themes with various places you’ve traveled to.
Absolutely. There’s an aspect of travelogue about it. Not just the places that we’ve traveled literally, but also the places that we’ve traveled — Jo and I because we write the lyrics together — the places we’ve visited in our imagination and the ancient places that we’ve seen. Obviously, when you’re a touring musician, you end up visiting places in Italy, and Italy is littered with extraordinary archeological digs and sites. Downtown Rome, of course, the Coliseum is still there. But she — my wife — showed me Greece as well, and we went to the Corycian Cave where divinations first took place just around the corner from Delphi before Delphi was really set up. So the track “Corycian Fire” is really about ancient rites that were involved with the women that became known later as the naiads, from which we think the word “mad” came from.
Musically, the record has been described as “primal and orchestral.” I think that’s apparent in the title track with both the orchestrated parts and then the tribal drums during the refrain, when the wolves are running in the video.
Yeah, we had all of that. The orchestral side of things has been a really important on the album. Normally when people usually use orchestra with rock music, it tends to soften up. I wanted to use the darker side of the orchestra. I don’t think it loses tension when it goes over to orchestra. It just takes on another character, which at times is quite malevolent, I think. There’s a sort of dark, brooding energy that comes through the orchestral salvos that run through the album. We didn’t just want to do something that was a romantic use of orchestra. But it certainly helps. I suspect that this kind of music is for people who get bored very quickly. It’s as if we have different teams and different genres so it’s almost like a relay race, where you have one genre handing off to another genre and to another. You put the aspect of the wolves making their noise and then that hands off straight away to a sort of frozen reverb note from the wolf cry, which goes to a seventh. And then you got the drums and then other things kick in as well. You got a rock band that kicks in plus an orchestra and a choir. It just keeps breaking down, this idea of genre hopping, as it were. I wanted to keep it motoring, so rhythm was very important to the whole thing, even when you have those slow, powerful songs like “Love Song to a Vampire.” The rhythm there is all important; the fact that it keeps up the tension. It’s a pretty intense experience until the album starts to wind down more. By the time you get to “Earthshine,” which is a nylon guitar instrumental, it starts to ease up then, but I had all this kind of stuff that I wanted to get out beforehand. Some people have described it to me as progressive metal. It’s probably the most intense album I’ve ever done.
Your guitar work is magnificent throughout. And there are a lot of other textures that add to the album’s international flavor. You have musicians you’ve been touring with, like Roger King, Gary O’Toole, Nick Beggs and Rob Townsend. I also know Chris Squire plays bass on “Love Song To A Vampire.” Who are some of the other musicians on the record?
Once a year, I go to Budapest and I work with a band called Djabe over there. They work with musicians from all over the world; they’re a continually evolving workshop and a kind of a crossroads and meeting place for people from England, from the States. There’s John Nugent, who organizes the Rochester Jazz Festival, a wonderful sax player that he is. I’ve worked with Malik Mansurov, who is from Azerbaijan, and he plays an instrument called the tar. The word means “gut.” It’s the same root that runs through “guitar” and “sitar.” He comes from a place where fifty percent of the people are nomadic. He doesn’t really speak English. He speaks a mixture of French and Russian, so we had to kind of reinvent some kind of common ground of a language to be able to speak. I met him through Djabe and I thought his playing was exceptional. They said he is the world’s foremost player of the tar; he’s the most famous guy who plays this little instrument with sympathetic strings. When you twin that with violin, it sounds like a whole orchestra. It’s an uncanny kind of combination. So we worked with him and the girl Sara Kovacs, who was playing the didgeridoo at the same time. We slightly altered the tuning of the didgeridoo and mixed with it with a string drone. But when she played it, she breathes psychically and she sits down and keeps going and doing different rhythms with it. So we worked with the tar and that. Malik played far more than what you hear on the record. His is the sound that starts “Wolflight” itself. I felt that with him, it was a little bit like seeing someone play who has the virtuosity of a John McLaughlin and the spiritual side of Ravi Shankar. He just had this extraordinary thing, very approachable guy, lovely guy. And he played in a style of music that is common to four areas — Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Iraq — a style of music known as Maugham. Now, as far as I know, I think that’s an improvisational style. He sometimes works with a trio. But I think when he’s playing on his own that it’s really stunning. It’s extraordinary, it sounds Eastern and exotic. He works with scales that are very mystical and evocative. He’s able to play it very gently, and he has these very fast trills. You can’t really tell how he’s doing them — if he’s just hammering them on and off or if he’s doing it with the plectrum. It’s an extraordinary thing. He plays with a pick, but he plays incredibly fast and incredibly accurate. And you’re think: “How the hell is he doing this?” So he’s one of the aspects on the album. That’s what kicks off Wolflight.
We’ve got a few other instruments enlarging the orchestra into world music areas, regional areas, folk music. The Arabian lute, I bought one. I traveled to Morocco and I saw some incredible lute players, which just blew me away and I wanted to get an aspect of that. I bought one in London, a fretless lute. I found it incredibly difficult to play, but we got some phrases on “Dust And Dreams.” There was also some darbuka that I heard when I was in Morocco. A hand drum idea. We did some samples of that and used that on “Corycian Fire.” It’s a hand drum; it’s got such a crack on it. We used it to front the drums when we had tons of drums playing at once. I’m trying to think of other things we used…the duduk originally from Armenia — Rob Townsend played that. He’d never played it before in his life, but he did an extraordinary job with that. I wrote some phrases for the duduk and I played them on guitar. I was trying to make the guitar sound like a duduk. The second appearance of the duduk on “Corycian Fire” where you got the darbuka stuff going, I did it on guitar first clean with an EBow to make the strings sustain. But when we had the real thing, he (Rob) was able to play exactly the phrases I played, doubled them, and I just said, “Well, why don’t we leave the guitar in, to sort of ghost the duduk.” The duduk’s got this sort of female voice kind of quality to it and the guitar sounded a little like that. It has this kind of singing quality to it. I don’t know anyone who has that combination together — an EBow and a duduk. You know, these hybrids, they come up every now and again. The whole experiment of the album is really what it’s all about.
You mentioned writing with your wife Jo. How does that collaboration work?
Jo is always keen for a song to be about something. I think in the past, I always thought if I find a line and then I find another line, they don’t always have to talk to each other. I often think vagueness is a good thing in a very dreamlike manner. I think stories have been very important to her. And a lot of what I really like, with the lyrics that I really love that other people have done, I have to admit, it’s usually about something. You know, whether it’s the Beatles. I was talking to my mother about this this morning and she was saying how wonderful the song “She’s Leaving Home” was. And then she mentioned “Eleanor Rigby.” Now, those are two extraordinary songs with orchestras that the Beatles did. But that was my mother’s experience. She did leave halfway through the night literally from home for whatever reason it was at that time. I said, “That could have been your story.” I always thought the Beatles’ great strength was to be a kind of camera obscura looking into other people’s lives, sometimes the flashpoint of those lives, the great moments of change — the death of an old lady, a young woman leaving home for the first time. I think if I’m honest, I would love to be able to write about ordinary subjects extraordinarily. I think that’s the challenge for all songwriters, whether you’re writing about love, death, war, anything. Dylan’s done it. I think occasionally Genesis did it. Ordinary subjects about ordinary people. The great challenge is to be able to tell any story convincingly authentically.
You’re constantly touring. I see you recently completed some dates in South America. According to your website, these shows were billed as Steve Hackett Genesis Extended. The show I saw was Genesis Revisited. Is there a difference between the two?
There’s a correlation. I was going to play the Genesis stuff for a year, which is usually the lifespan of any album, but I ended up doing it for two, almost three years playing the stuff live because there had been such interest in it. When we revisited some places, we called it “Extended” rather than “Revisited.” In some place in England, I ended up doing a second tour of it. We ended doing larger places — we did Royal Albert Hall, having done Hammersmith, which is a big rock gig for us guys. Lovely to do the Royal Albert Hall and do a DVD from it. Lots of guests doing the Genesis stuff at various shows. In London, we had tons of guests who came on stage with two of the London shows. I think a lot of people are drawn to it and I guess I’ve made a lot of friends over the years. That’s been very nice. The New York show, Bruce Willis came along, which was extraordinary. I didn’t realize he was remotely aware of what we did, but we ended up talking about harmonicas and all this kind of stuff (laughs).
You won’t be playing any of Wolflight live until later in the year.
That’s right. It got into the charts here at Number 16, which is very good considering I’m not even touring here. There’s been a lot of good publicity over the years, particularly with the Genesis stuff. I must have played recently to a million people with the Genesis stuff. It’s been rather extraordinary, a second coming with all of that. It’s sort of rekindled interest in other things that I’ve done. Some years, I’ve done very well. Other times, for one reason or another, I would be doing things that were more low-profile. The music is what it’s all about, to be honest. It’s very strange, I was saying to someone today, “You start as a musician and end up becoming a salesman,” you know what I mean?
You mentioned Genesis and I reviewed the documentary Together And Apart, released as Sum Of The Parts here in America. As you have stated publicly, it’s very biased. In fact, it was reported recently that Mike Rutherford agrees it was biased. I’ve also read that you felt it pretty much killed any possibility of a Genesis reunion with the classic lineup. Why do you think that?
Let me tell you, there’s been a development recently. Everybody’s been blaming the BBC and John Edginton the director. John Edginton came out recently with a Tweet and he’s shown some light on why the documentary came out the way it did. I’m not going to quote him, but if you’re interested in knowing a little more about that, you’ll just have to check that out. A little bit of detective work goes a long way. I don’t really comment on it because I’ve already said it was very displeasing to fans and I’ve been fielding that. All I can say is I put a lot work into it. I did a two-hour interview on my own about the time, along with all the other Genesis guys. But I did not have editorial control or even input. So, you have to check out John Edginton because he’s not prepared to accept the blame for it. It’s one of those things I can’t see happening. If anyone wanted me to rejoin Genesis and do it but non-competitively…I wouldn’t be prepared to walk on at the end for five seconds and “Oh why the hell didn’t Hackett get his ass out there.” If I were given a fair crack at it, that’s one thing. But you know it’s a very competitive band and I’m proud of being the black sheep of Genesis, frankly.
They could have at least brought up the fact that you’ve put out more solo albums that all the others combined. Voyage Of The Acolyte was not a commercial hit on the level of records by Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, but you’ve been so prolific in your solo work and I felt that should have been acknowledged.
I had a hit album with that one and I had a hit album with GTR. I’ve had my hits. But you know, it’s never been about the 130-odd million albums sold with Genesis. It’s never been about that for me. It’s always been about the music. It always will be about the music. If it sells, great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean it’s a failure. I just never got involved with the game in that way. I didn’t want to play the game; I wanted to shift the goal post of the game. I wanted to expand the game. I wanted to widen the glossary of tones. That rock was capable of doing this because it’s a very limited genre. It ought to be a genre that encompasses all others it seems to me. That ought to be the strength of progressive stuff. It’s not about having organs and Mellotrons; it’s about so much more. Hopefully it’s about everything that everyone’s done. All of the individuals. Whether it’s me getting some Flamenco aspect into things and using World music and recording stuff in Brazil as I did years ago. And then Peter Gabriel asking me for my phonebook and all the people I know in Brazil — drummers. He and I have been pointed in the same direction for quite some time in regards to that. Progressive ought to cover everything he’s done with all that percussive stuff. It ought to be about so much more.
You and Gabriel definitely took it to a different level while Genesis became more commercial in the 80s. Do you have any regrets about not being part of that?
I don’t think so. I’m fully aware of what makes a hit record. I know how it can be done. It is a science rather than like a complete shot in the dark. I know what it takes to do that; I know what it takes to play the corporate game. But it’s a little bit like being an independent filmmaker. At the end of the day, yes, you could do Hollywood, but you might end up turning your horse into a camel by the time you’ve gotten on board for the ride. There are no middle men to water down what I do. I know it’s tough for younger musicians and it’s a very tough business these days. When I was a young player, I wanted to be a blues player and the blues boom died on me. Fortunately, this idea of music which fused a Baroque influence and a blues influence together came out as progressive and so much the better for me. We all have to make sacrifices. You just have to change people’s ideas of what you’re capable of.
Getting back to your touring schedule, any plans for bring the Wolflight show to America in 2016?
Absolutely. We’re talking to my agent about that. I think it will be a very interesting tour.
I’m looking forward to seeing it. Before we go, I just want to tell I was listening to Voyage Of The Acolyte before this interview. What a great record — just a beautiful record.
Well, thank you for that.
And you’re celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Congratulations on that.
That’s right and I’ll be doing some things from it as well.