The Steve Hackett Interview
While talk pops up from time to time about a Genesis reunion of one kind or another, the band’s one-time guitarist Steve Hackett continues to crank out one adventurous solo album after another. In 2015, he released Wolflight, a musical soiree described as "the light before the dawn." Two years later, the follow-up, The Night Siren, responding to a world teetering on the edge of uncertainty, is more of a “wake-up call.” In the midst of keeping the creative juices flowing, Hackett tours around the world, mixing his own music in with Genesis classics — songs his former band mates rarely revisit.
Having immersed myself in Hackett’s vast catalog in recent years, and interviewing him in 2015, I was happy to hear he was on the bill for Cruise to the Edge this past February. The four-day excursion, cruising from Tampa to Cozumel aboard the luxurious Brilliance of the Seas, and starring Yes and a host of other like-minded progressive rock artists, gave the guitarist and his band a chance to road-test the new material (The Night Siren wouldn’t drop for another seven weeks), alongside a healthy chunk of Wind & Wuthering (celebrating its 40th Anniversary) and other Genesis nuggets. The set I saw was one of the highlights of the cruise.
I tried to interview Hackett on the boat, but he was dealing with a bout of bronchitis he got in Serbia and kept a low profile. When we finally spoke a few weeks later, he told me he enjoyed the experience, despite battling fatigue, sickness and the rigors of being a traveling musician. Now fully recovered, Hackett was finishing up the first leg of his U.S tour, and settling into a groove with the songs from The Night Siren. Before departing to Europe for more dates, he and his band played “Supper’s Ready” with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. By all reports, it was a raging success. Genesis as a working band may be history, but thankfully Steve Hackett is keeping the music alive.
My first impression of The Night Siren is that it maintains that high level of musicality that you consistently bring to any record, and it is also very topical, in terms of lyrics and some of the subjects you address. The album’s title itself, The Night Siren, has been described as a wake-up call… the warning of a siren sounding in this era of strife and division. Can you talk a little about that?
I know I’m sounding like a political commentator here, but I really do think tracks such as “Behind The Smoke,” which stresses the question of refugees, is as relevant today as it was back in the day as when my own family in the late 1800s escaping religious persecution coming out of Poland and making their way through Europe to the UK. The world is at a very dangerous point right now. I keep thinking about that wonderful King Crimson tune “Epitaph” — “the fate of whole mankind I see is in the hand of fools.” Pete Sinfield’s lyrics seem to hold so true. Prophetic words indeed, it seems to me. I’ve never watched TV so avidly as I do at the moment. I see politicians getting away with so much stuff, it appalls me.
You mentioned “Behind The Smoke,” which I recall you saying on Cruise to the Edge that it’s about refugees, which, as you know, is such a hot-button issue here in the United States.
It is. I’m prepared to talk about it. The United States is founded on the precept of the Pilgrim Fathers escaping religious persecution. America is a nation of immigrants. This is nothing new…First generation, second generation. America is the “United States,” it is not the “Divided States,” but it may become that. But it may break away from the union because of the way things are going, unless things regress. I think that are many, many issues that are part of it.
I’m probably more in touch with the politics in this country than back at home. I wonder what is going on at home while I’ve been away, and I imagine that it’s heading toward Brexit in a lemming-like manner. I noticed Brain Eno said something that was very articulate that was printed in the Guardian and his take on things. I have worked with him very briefly, but he’s a bright guy and I think he said many true things. I wish the politicians were as honest or perceptive.
Apart from that, I’m proud of the new album. It does have a couple of tracks that address those issues. And I think the wake-up call factor is part of it. We have two tracks on the album. We’ve got “Behind The Smoke,” which deals with the refugee issue. “West To East” is basically a plea for peace. We’ve have 20 people working on the album from all around the world. It’s kind of a united nations of an album. We’ve got Israel working with Palestine; Iceland working with Hungry, with Sweden, with the UK, with the United States. Many different world instruments, as well as people. I just wanted to show you can have multicultural diversity and still come up with something that’s cohesive, and still have a house band that’s at the core of it, but move it into other areas, expand it to have orchestral aspects and cinematic aspects, too. It’s a rock album, but it’s more than that. It’s a hope for the world’s future, which does trouble me greatly. I do think we’re heading into the dark ages once again.
Do you believe that, as a musician embracing this multicultural diversity of incorporating musicians and instruments from different parts of the world, you’re speaking to the universal power of music?
I certainly hope so. There are influences as diverse as Peruvian-Andean styles of flamenco. Something of soundtracks, something of a film for the ear perhaps, rather than the eye, although we are doing a video or two for this, nothing finished yet, but we will get that done. Many different things. Malik Mansurov from Azerbaijan, we’ve got him on the album again. Malik playing the tar. In some cases, I’ve collected data around the world of different performances of people, playing either on their own or in small groups. And we try to incorporate that into the holes, if there’s an interesting rhythm, we can use it.
Some of it was recorded in Siberia with the Djabe guys with some Icelandic influence from Gulli Breim who plays with a band called Mezzoforte. Interesting rhythms from him. I have extra stuff that’s recorded. These things don’t always show up on the album that I’m doing at the time. I have some stuff there, and I think this would be very interesting to incorporate into the picture, so sometimes these things go back. These things were recorded at the time of the Wolflight album, and I wasn’t able to incorporate them because of time constrictions. This album, in a way, was much less rushed. We were able to devote more time to things, such as the surround mix, which is the best that Roger (King) and I were able to come up with.
I loved the surround mix you did on Wolflight.
Yeah, that’s interesting. The new one I’m particular pleased with. Roger did a great job on the Squackett album with Chris Squire. That’s an interesting surround mix. But this one was done in a more measured way. I think it’s the bravest of all the surround sound mixes. There were surprises from everywhere with the sound of that. I simply love the idea of things firing off all over the place.
When you’re working with musicians from other regions of the world, what sort of challenges are there?
To work with someone like Malik from Azerbaijan, for instance, he can speak fluent Russian and French. My French isn’t wonderful, but we get the idea along the way. Working with him, as we did in Hungary, it’s a mixture of French and Russian, because the Hungarians speak a little Russian. They had their oppressors for years, and it makes them fluent in languages that you and I might be less conversant with. For all I know, perhaps you speak fluent Georgian, I’m not sure, or Ukrainian. It’s basically an interesting mix. Sometimes, you’ve literally got to invent a language between you that works. Many years ago, when I was working in South America, I couldn’t really communicate fully, I couldn’t nuance language, so it had to be by demonstration; you had to show what you want. Other times, you just have to back off, and let people get on with what they do best. There’s no amount of directing that can do it. Sometimes you feel like an absolute fraud leaving people to their own devices. Unless you create those spaces and allow people complete freedom, then you won’t get the best of what they are capable of doing themselves.
Along with cultural diversity, this record has a lot of musical diversity. You’re playing the sitar on “Martian Sea.” You have that cool twang on “Fifty Miles From The North Pole.” And, of course, the acoustic work is phenomenal. It’s almost like the cultural diversity works hand-in-hand with the musical diversity, and they’re both equally important.
That’s right. And there’s a little bit of harmonica on “Anything But Love.” Those are moments are important to me. That’s what I started out playing first of all before the stringed instruments. It allows me to play the charango from Peru as well, and twin that with the tar that Malik plays, so you get those cross-pollination influences that are perhaps a far cry from the shores of London town, where I’m from. I think maybe the overall effect is something that sounds close to Middle Eastern or a little bit like Turkish music at times. Sometimes, it’s lovely what an Indian orchestra would do, or what a Turkish orchestra would do and the way they manage to things with extraordinary bends and slides. And when a whole orchestra doing it, it can be extraordinary. It’s surprising. It’s like having a whole bunch of soloists all the same thing. I found it very exotic and thrilling.
You’ve said in terms of production and drive, this is your best record.
I think in terms of production, it’s the best record I’ve done. In terms of writing, I’d have to say that’s entirely subjective because I write this stuff with Jo, my wife, and with Roger King and with the input with many people who are on it, such as Troy Donockley playing Uilleann pipes, the Celtic influence at the end of “In Another Life.” I think it’s the best produced record, I think it’s got the best drum sounds, and the best orchestral sounds, and probably some the best guitar sounds I’ve done. It’s a personal best. It’s up to anyone else, what ever they think, you know, if they prefer the Genesis stuff, or Spectral Mornings or the classical stuff. There’s certainly a lot of different styles involved with this, and I’m proud of the fact that its diversity is the calling card of this album.
Like I said, I was saw you on Cruise to the Edge, and I was wondering if you got a chance to talk with Steve Howe about staging a mini GTR reunion?
I’ve tried to talk to him into the idea of a reunion of that, but so far I think he’s resisted. But he has some film footage of what we did at the time, and I think he wants to try to rationalize that. Not having seen it, I don’t know what it’s like, but I think it’s a film of us recording in the studio and who knows how that came out. I don’t know if it has any sound whatsoever. All I know is it will be a bunch of guys 30 years younger, so no matter what it sounds like, it’s always a thrill to see yourself, from one day to the next, 30 years younger.
I remember on the cruise, along with playing a lot of material from Wind & Wuthering, you also played the song “Inside And Out” from the Spot The Pigeon EP. Was this the last piece you recorded with Genesis?
Yes, that’s right… the last album I did with Genesis. There are two tracks I did with Genesis — “Inside And Out” and “Inside Out” — but I’m playing the original “Inside And Out.” It is a good tune, and the band play a very good version of that. It feels really good to play that live. We’ve been doing it on this tour, and people absolutely love it. It’s an old friend, but a less familiar one to some people.
Was this recorded during Wind & Wuthering?
It was something that was recorded at the time of Wind & Wuthering. We recorded it in Holland as one of the potential tracks for that album. I think it was one of the stronger tracks that didn’t make it onto the album. I think it should have been because it has a very beautiful sound to it. Right from the word “go,” it’s got that Genesis multi-jangle thing where it sounds like one guitar but it’s a whole bunch of guitars all playing the same thing. I think we’ve achieved very much the same effect live with all of us chiming away on stage — me with an electric, Nick Beggs on the 12-string, Roger King on keyboards. When you get three things all chiming away, but slightly different, it can really sound spectacular. I’m very please with the sound of it.
I really thought your performance on the cruise was fantastic.
Well, I enjoyed that. These were the first shows of the new set. Since then, it’s been more in the pocket. It takes about three or four shows, to be honest, before something clicks and you go “Yeah, that’s what I wanted it to do.” You get a degree of certainty about it, and a degree of confidence where you can juggle with it. We’re at that point where the band knows the material really well. They’re doing extraordinary performances.
After playing the U.S., you’re back in Europe, playing dates through May. Any plans to return to the States for some west coast dates.
Yeah, I think we’ll be back and probably on the west coast later in the year. We are touring other territories as well in the summer after we do the UK and Europe. We’ll be doing some Far East stuff…we’ll be doing Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Singapore. These are all new areas that we have not done before. We’re talking to the South Americans about stuff. I think we’ll be back, I imagine it’s probably going to be in the fall, but I can’t say with absolute certainty. But to do both coasts is terribly important.
Before we go, I had a handful of Genesis questions I wanted to ask. None of these address a reunion, which I asked you about before and I think we all know that the clock’s ticking and it may or may not ever happen. These have more to do with your role in the band. For example, how would assess the chemistry between you, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks? Was it something that was cultivated? Do you feel it was strong?
In terms of personalities, we weren’t close. I think they, very often, were the keeper of the keys and sometimes it could be difficult to penetrate that. Once I realized there was a resistance at the core of it, then I realized I had to function in a different way, which was to try to bring out the best in those people. So whenever I found any of those guys were doing anything remotely interesting, I pounced on it and said, “I think we should do it.” Enthusiasm always managed to draw me into the fray and ignite the flame.
I think my role was to be a constructive critic. Right from the word go, I was interested the band progressing from semi-pro status to becoming professional, and pushing the envelope, making everyone play to a high level. I wanted it to be more virtuosic. Not just playing for its own sake and firing off rounds, but just to incorporate things that were more unusual. I think it might have nestled me, uncomfortably for me, into a sort of folk rock style if I wasn’t careful. Their guitar-based songs were normally what consisted of 12-string to the exclusion of the electric. I knew that too much of that was losing the interest of audiences.
I worked really hard…I worked on them a little bit like a Chinese water torture — I had to wear people down in order to get my way. Eventually, I got my way, which was to have a light show, have a Mellotron, and have a synthesizer. All those things — you have to work on people. I say black and you say blue. The whole power play aspect of the group functioned like that. Nonetheless, it was a strong team in the end.
Watching the Sum of All Parts documentary, it seems like Tony Banks was in charge. I know he and Peter Gabriel had issues.
Yeah. To be honest, I think Tony very much regarded the band his baby. He wrote some wonderful things for the band, but so did other people, too. I got to write “Blood On The Rooftops,” “Los Endos,” “In That Quiet Earth” — these were all my melodies. A whole bunch of things…parts of “Supper’s Ready.” Would “Firth of Fifth” have taken off without a guitar solo? I doubt it.
Most groups seem to have someone like a Tony. Mike used to stack Tony most of the time. To Peter Gabriel’s obvious frustration at times, they would tend to vote in a block. It sometimes produced a cold war. It was OK in the short term, but it didn’t keep the band together forever and a day. There is no Genesis today because of that kind of thinking. All I can tell you is I did the music free of the politics. There’s no agenda, I just do the best stuff I consider we wrote together.
Last one about Genesis. When Peter Gabriel would come out in some outlandish costume, like the Slipperman, was it hard to keep a straight face when you were playing?
Yeah, it was hard to keep a straight face, but I think it was an important part of what went on because it gave something people to write about. Without the media writing about something, there’s only a certain amount of things you can say about juts the songs on their own. It gave it that focal point so I don’t resent that. It gave it something, by living and depicting the action of the songs while the rest of us were sitting around like a pit orchestra, it created the show. He was the showman; the rest of us were writing the music.
You’ve been so prolific since leaving Genesis. Is it too early to ask if you’re planning your next record?
I try and write every day if I can. I may have stored a couple of things once I was on the plane. But I’ll have to go back to that and see if it still makes sense in the cold light of day. A lot of things come along, and you think, it sounds good at the time, but then I play it back and think, “My God, what was I thinking of? There’s nothing there.” Or another time, I go, “Yeah, I’m glad I managed to squeeze that out.” Ideas that come along at the most inconvenient times, like just when you’re leaving the plane. You go to pick up your bag — suddenly an idea. Write it down or in 30 seconds, it’s gone.