Interview with Steve Hackett...

Interview with Steve Hackett...

Words: Anthony Firmin | Photos: Tina Korhonen

Steve Hackett came to prominence as the guitarist for Genesis yet for the last 40 years he has operated as a solo artist releasing a large number of interesting and diverse albums from prog to classical to blues as well as his Genesis Revisited project.  Prior to his upcoming gig at the Manchester's Bridgewater Hall on 5th may 2017, Anthony Firmin tackles Mr Hackett on a wide range of topics...   

Hi, it is Steve Hackett here the person on the other end of the phone says.  That is good because if it was Rick Wakeman I would have been very worried and I wouldn't have any questions.  Talking of whom you appeared on his TV show Gastank, it seemed a very alcoholic affair…

All I can say is I was sober and I am not going to talk about anyone else.

We have actually met before on several occasions when I was a spotty obnoxious teenager thrusting albums in your direction for you to sign outside the stage door at the Manchester Apollo…

Well I am still a spotty of noxious teenager and I smell too. I don't smoke and I don't drink very much so there is every chance that I have cleaned up my act since then.

Talking of smoking I was watching the video of you and Richie Havens performing How Can I? and he seemed to be puffing away all the way through it.

Yes he was which might be part of the reason why he is no longer with us but he was fantastic, what a voice, what a singer, what presence, what a hero and the chance to play with him.  Even in Genesis we absolutely loved him and were completely blown away by the power of his voice, what a resonance, something else entirely.

Please Don't Touch still remains my favourite Steve Hackett album… 

Thank you, it is Steve Wilsons too, he said that album was his Sgt Pepper. And considering the album didn't sell a lot in its day, its predecessor and successor did better. But it's about it touching people and working with others.  Everything is a stepping stone, a blueprint to somewhere else; next time we will do it differently, it is also about the variation in variety of songs…

You also brought in people like Randy Crawford which to many may have seemed strange choice.  Was this a hit back at the pigeonholing you may have felt within Genesis and to show that there was more to Steve Hackett that we had not seen yet? 

Yeah, I think that it was quite anti-prog in many ways, I was after working with as many Afro Americans as I was white Europeans and I wanted some of those songs to have a soulful feel to them and they came out almost gospel in a way.  It certainly wasn't laid-back soul, I was ambitious for a different kind of music.  What would her take be on this music from a white boy? So when we were recording Randy Crawford’s vocals we had all notes written, the melody was all locked down and she was doing her thing and it sounded good but the chorus didn't really work, it sounded stiff.  She was about to walk off and a huff and I said 'forget the written notes, just make it your own, do it like you would do it live, when you are jamming with the melody’ and the moment I said that the magic started to happen and she had this beautiful quality and basically she sang the balls off that song and she made it her own and that works for me.  I am pleased I stuck my neck out, like I was with so many things on Please Don't Touch. 

And it was the same with Richie Havens, we hadn't intended to have him sing on the end of Icarus Ascending but he was like ‘hey I could sing on that’ and he just floated off into the distance with his soulful wooooaaahhhaahhh and its flying and it's doing all those things that makes that track work.  When I was jamming it with the team before we had even done the backing track there was something about those chords where I thought I don't want to stop that because these guys are grooving and they like this.  But I started thinking this isn't going to work, what am I doing, I feel exposed, I feel naked, I'm not steering it, when I get those feelings now I think just let it happen and you can sort it out later or you can bin it if it doesn't work. 

Pretty much like on Till We Have Faces, I had to fight all my instincts, forget about writing proper tunes, forget about everything you've learned, just learn from others and give them the space to do what they do uniquely and keep what works, throw away what doesn't.  Let it happen.

Musical variety is something you seem to aim for with your albums…

I do believe in diversity and in recent times it has turned into a multicultural diversity when I do invite people in from all over the globe, particularly with the recent album which had 20 people from the four corners of the world.  We got Israeli and Palestinian musicians, Icelandic, Hungarian, Swedish, Azerbaijan, English and Celtic…

But you have always seemed to embrace this because you used a koto (Japanese guitar) on Spectral Mornings and the Brazilian themes on Till We Have Faces…

With Spectral Mornings we have the inclusion of koto and what was later to become some flamenco influence.  I remember Armando Gallo telling me of his assessment of Spectral Mornings, that it was like a trip from Brighton Pier to Hong Kong harbour and I was chuffed that he said that as it was about the journey.  At the time I did Please Don't Touch I remember Tony Stratton Smith saying that its diversity was both its strength and its weakness and I was thinking what does he mean by weakness?  We played quite a lot of it live when we toured it and it took on a different significance, right up to the present day as I don't feel the need to do anything in one style.  I am not after remaking Rumours, what I want is something that has a pan genre approach - the element of surprise, gorilla tactics, they are coming down from the trees when you least expect them.  In a way I feel like I am continuing a tradition that started on British radio in the 1950s when you would get one style next to another, next to another etc. and I think that coloured The Beatles approach where you couldn't get two songs more different than Eleanor Rigby and Roll Over Beethoven, all part of the Beatles recorded cannon.  I thought that if they can do that why can't the rest of us do that?  Beyond that I also think that the idea of harmony I feel that it is apropos in these times of demonising foreigners, decrying refugees, all the hatred that is around at the moment that to do something with 20 people that are scattered around the world shows that we can be musical migrants and that we can ignore borders and produce something that I am certainly proud of for its sounds if not for its social comment, political stance.

I have to admit I am not really a Genesis fan but I am a Steve Hackett fan so I may be a bit of an oddity and talking of oddities do still have the Optigan?

Sadly the Optigan bit the dust. It got mildewed and damp and was unloved for too long so I ended up selling it.  I think it was best described by someone who said it was lo-fi heaven.  You would put the Perspex discs in and it would play all these pre-recorded riffs, much like the left-hand manual on the Mellotron Mk2 but you have the added advantage that you could play the discs upside down which meant the music came out backwards; this resulted in reduced bandwidth and tremendous distortion and crackle but funnily enough that used to give a quality to things that anything you did had this aged quality to it, like a painting that had a deliberately distressed look to it. It was a very useful device and I wish I still had it now.  And when I make billions I shall acquire one again, put it in a side room in the mansion of my soul, and it will have pride of place.  I think it was a great machine.

You played at Reading Festival in 79 and 81 and I have the recordings of the BBC Radio 1 radio shows of your performances, I was surprised they weren't part of the 70s/80s/90s box set that came out…

I did play Reading. And yes, they should have, there is some stuff that has come out from Reading on the retrospective called Premonitions and it has the 81 set on it where we kicked off with air-conditioned nightmare where the crowd is roaring through the whole thing and sounds stonking.  It's probably not the most polished performance but the atmosphere on it is killer, it's an extraordinary sound. 

Listening to the new album I am picking up on sounds and themes from past albums such as Defector and Vampire from Guitar Noir… 

It's probably not a conscious decision, Vampire has a stonking riff really had a bit of fun.  We used to do that live, things with wide dynamics always work well, behind the spoke and west to east have both got that loud/soft element to them.

The last tour, Acolyte to Wolflight, was an absolute joy for me because you delved back into your earlier solo material, are we likely to see a return to a similar level of solo material on future tours? 

It is all down to the way tours are billed.  I will at some point in the future sideline the Genesis material in favour of what I do on my own.  It is a mute point as to what is Genesis and what is me because I tend to play what I was most involved with in writing with Genesis and which most resonate with me.  And thank you for that vote of confidence, I do greatly appreciate it, and I will in the future.  I don't draw the distinction as greatly as perhaps agents and promoters who want to have a Genesis thing up there in lights or with the ads.  It is a very nervous world these days.  When I went to Australia they said they wanted a Genesis show and I said ‘okay’, I am very flexible about it, I think I have to be in order to get doors to open for me that have previously been closed and I can always put in about 50% of my stuff and no-oone seems to mind.  Once I am in the door can do to like!

I got some quickfire questions now as time is running short… Is marijuana really the assassin of youth? 

{laughs} There were a series of films that the Americans made in the 1950s when they had recently criminalised it where kids were going off their heads and beating their mothers with saucepans and frying pans, they were really quite funny films so that track was really a nod to that, and the era of the types of tunes we were hearing nearly 60s, a series of segues of the most unlikely bedfellows, Bach followed by Batman for example but it was just a bit of fun really.

Any regrets about leaving Thotch? 

That’s a good one {laughs}, no. 

Will the sound of children's toys remain in tune? 

I was in the Gibson showroom yesterday doing an interview and I was thinking I'm surrounded by all my favourite toys here so yes they are always going to remain in tune.  There is something about childhood that never goes away, as a kid I always loved guitars and I do now so I am still surrounded by the same toys.

Any plans to record any more acoustic/classical albums?

At some point yes and make it strongly thematic rather than being driven by the need to show off by extraordinary technique.  A good tune goes a long way.

From the Cured album through to the latest, your singing voice has steadily improved, did you take singing lessons or is it just a natural evolution? 

I did take some singing lessons at one point and it was very helpful to me.  I have previously never taken any lessons for anything musically.  I always thought I would learn by example, I learned by watching people.  But my brother's girlfriend at the time was an opera singer and she said I had a very good range but now it's all about confidence and that in itself gave me confidence and she gave me some vocal exercises to do.  I enjoy singing but it's a frustrating thing, I can't tune it like a guitar and the voice will do what it will do and it doesn't sound the same when you first start it up until you've been giving it some welly - screaming into a pillow works sometimes!

Have you kept tabs on Pete Hicks and the human octopus that was (drummer) John Shearer? 

I saw Pete Hicks recently, we had a meal out together with Dick Cadbury and Nick Magnus and we all convened just off Fulham Road, Northend Road in London in fact, and it was great to see them all.  I bumped into John Shearer while back doing a magic act so he had become a magician and I think he is a member of the Magic Circle but he was quite a drummer.

Do you continue to be surprised by the continued success the Genesis Revisited project which started back in 96?        

I had at least one gold album for that (Genesis Revisited II) which for a bunch of re-records you wouldn't think would be possible, that there wouldn't be the mileage in that again.

Finally, not wanting to dwell on the reasons for you leaving GTR this is well documented, yours and Steve Howe’s guitar styles didn't seem that complimentary but it did seem to work, do you have any other reflections from that time?  Do you and Steve still talk? 

We do. And funnily enough he said to me he has some film footage from that time of us recording together and he is just trying to rationalise that now and I think he still has some affection for that time as we all do.  It was a great show, I saw it at the Manchester Apollo… There was a lot of talent in that band and not just from the guitar department, the guys were quite extraordinary. Jonathan Mover went on to work with Alice Cooper, Joe Satriani, Aretha Franklin to mention a few, and it would be nice to reconvene with them musically at some point and if it comes off marvellous, and if it doesn't c’est la vie, the door is always open.            

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