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Monday 14 January 2019

Interview: Progressive Rock Linchpin Steve Hackett Talks Genesis, Creativity, Travel & The Future

Brighton-based musician, promoter and studio owner, Stuart Avis, recently sat down with Steve Hackett, who, as one fifth of Genesis during their 1970's prime prog phase, has gone on to build himself a reputation as one of rock's leading and most innovative guitarists. 
Steve Hackett photo by Tina Korhonen

Steve will be revisiting his past in November when he brings a complete performance of his former band's seminal album, Selling England By The Pound - along with selections from one of his major solo works, Spectral Mornings - to Brighton Dome Concert Hall.

But far from being a just a heritage act, Steve is preparing to launch his new album At The Edge of Light (released 25th January 2019) which reveals a musician still experimenting and moving forward, whilst retaining a trademark sound familiar to generations.

Having just returned from an extraordinary family holiday in Ethiopia - which may well provide fodder for a future travel book that he plans to write with his wife, Jo, a former Brighton alumni - we instantly head down a path of digression after lamenting the continued intake of malaria pills.

Steve Hackett (SH): "My wife and I, Jo, tend to write songs but she's written a couple of books in her time and made films and various things so, whatever we do we always think on one level "this is a human experience" but then there are other means of taking it public. 

"So we've got an idea of a book once I've finally done my autobiography, which is a long time coming. 

"Once the pressure of that is off I think [there is] the idea of doing a book that is about our travels, because we do a lot of that. 

"Ethiopia is the kind of place that you can't possibly get across in one blog or even if a song emerges, or whatever, it's much, much broader than that. 

"The feeling of going back 3000 years in some places, visiting separate tribes, they've all got their own worlds really so it is an extraordinary visit. 

"You have to be dedicated to the idea of travel because the roads, to say they are rough in places is a complete understatement. 


Stuart Avis (SA): There is a preconception of Ethiopia since Band Aid and so forth bought it to light but apparently it's come along in leaps and bounds since then?

SH: "Yeah, I think it has. I mean it is still economically challenged but beyond that there are certain things, for instance the Acacia tree is everywhere and they make this extraordinary wine from it. It's the best red wine I've ever tasted. 

"There's so much that they've got to offer but you've got to deal with the landscape as it is - they were hunter gatherers , now it's agricultural pretty much everywhere."

SA: It appears to be much greener than you would expect now

SH: "In places, but it is essentially very dry. We went through a lot of dried up riverbeds and the difference between a riverbed and a road, it's a fine line the distinction between the two, but I'd thoroughly recommend it."

SA: It's a country that I'm familiar with due to Bob Geldof and co and the news growing up

SH:"I did meet Geldof in Bermuda just after he'd done Live Aid and congratulated him on such a fine effort but by that point he was, not surprisingly, more interested in talking about music."

SA: Was the opportunity to take part in Live Aid ever mooted?

SH: "Well the funny thing was I spoke to Tony Banks about it at the time. He said "well I think Phil's doing it but Genesis haven't been asked" and "it's great that you're pushing for it". 

"And when I spoke to Geldof I said "I did try and stir up some enthusiasm within the ranks" and he said "If I'd known you were doing that I would have pushed from my end too" so that was a missed opportunity." 


SA: Moving on to the new album, "At The Edge of Light", it kicks off with three instrumentals, are you one of those guitarists that sits at home on the sofa with a guitar and noodles away until something materialises or do you push yourself into a studio and say "right, I've got to come up with something"?

SH: "I think I've tried all approaches and I continue to use all approaches, all roads lead to Rome eventually if you're lucky. 

"So, you might be noodling away one day, you've got to doodle, the first thing is, yes, a portrait is in mind but you've got to start off with scribbles in order to find out where the line wants to go. 

"Other times I might wake up in the night if I'm lucky enough to dream something, or when travelling just always have a notebook, always scribbling things down. 

"What is writing? I can't tell you, who decides somebody that's written something what's a complete mess and complete noise? 

"It's so subjective but somewhere along the line a decision has to be made to say "I think I can go with this" and it may be sufficiently original, it cannot be totally original, all it can be is authentic emotionally. Does it stir the soul or doesn't it."

SA: There are various moods on the album, the song "Hungry Years" (named after Brighton's legendary rock and metal club no less, as frequented by Steve's wife Jo in the late 70's and early 80's) is almost a kind of poppy song, was that a conscious effort to do something outside the more proggy elements of the album?

SH: "I think so, yeah. Shock, horror I'm going to admit to people that I like Peter, Paul & Mary because of the extraordinary harmonies and, at times, the choice of songs. 

"Nobody did Dylan better than Peter, Paul & Mary and so I wanted to do something with my own female voices and have jangly guitars and keyboards that you couldn't quite pin down. I can't quite pin it down. What keyboard? What guitar backing is that? You've got the arpeggiated stuff, but essentially it's as jangly as The Byrds and the harmonies are essentially three part on most of it just like Peter, Paul & Mary. 

"And then the end turns into something else where it goes rockier and is more of a nod to the 70s in a way. I'm very aware that it's 60s, 70s." 


SA: The album has a very contemporary feel and the drums on some of the tracks almost sound heavy metal, they're very powerful

SH: "They do don't they, I'm very proud of the drums, they are very powerful, the drums that are played by people and the drums that are played by Roger using samples and soundscaping those drums. 

"On the first track we used Gary O'Toole's drums and we put them through a Marshall cabinet to mess them up so it sounded destroyed from the word go."

SA: So you're still experimenting sonically, still trying to find new ways of creating sound?

SH: "I think so, yeah, to turn it on its head. I think the older you get the harder it is to find something that has not been done so I come back to this idea of authenticity, that's really it. 

"I would always say "it's got to be felt, it's got to haunt me". So I stick around with an idea and if it keeps me awake at night that's a good thing and I really won't do anything unless it's really badgering me to be done. 

"There's no two ways about it I've gotta be haunted by it and in a sense I've got to hear it internally before I commit to it. That's the overall structure of something. 

"Within that I can afford to do a solo and be spontaneous or as crafted as anybody. You've gotta have that contradiction in there somewhere, it's gotta address the two extremities at the same time."

SA: So are you trying to create a balance of what people might expect of Steve Hackett but be a new Steve Hackett still, which I think this album accomplishes

SH: "Yeah, I think it's the best produced of all the albums I've done and again I have to stress that it's a team that's built it. 

"The team is myself, Jo - my wife, in terms of the writing team, Roger King, [also] part of the writing team. I tend to take ideas to him once Jo and I have kicked the football and then it gets passed three ways and then around all the people that take part in it and the people who have, I think, performed wonderfully on it. 

"Hardly a day goes past that I don't stick it on at home and stick it on loud and listen to at least part of it, if not the whole thing. 

"I'm still at the stage of going "wow", I'm still at the honeymoon stage and thinking "oh what fine curves". 


SA: You write with your wife, Jo, does she write the lyrics?

SH: "Well, we're both capable of writing lyrics and we do, and we're both capable of writing top lines and we do. I tend to be more the chordsmith and that gets developed more when I'm working with Roger. 

"We get down to the fine detail with Roger when it's taking something to the orchestral stage like on the beginning of "Those Golden Wings" where the orchestra sound like 19th century, early 19th century perhaps, there's something of Tchaikovsky about that.

SA: On Golden Wings is very much the centrepiece of the album, it's a big 11 minute track, how do you even begin to approach an 11 minute track? Is it a natural evolution or do you pull different parts together because it is very much in segments, maybe not to the extent of something like "Suppers Ready" but there are segments to the track

SH: "There are yes. What I find is ideas don't come along chronologically. You amass enough ideas and then you bolt them together down the line. I tend to kind of have an imaginary number in my mind, I might have a thousand disconnected bits that are going round my brain and in various notebooks and what have you but I let things surface. 

"Somehow the idea comes up "this idea might go with this idea" and we try it out and we sometimes throw things away, we have to. I've gotten to that point in life where I won't work an idea to death if I don't think that it swings. 

"Again subjective, you can't teach anyone to do this, it's just that I think there's a confidence over time, there's also blind sheer panic, especially if you've done a good album last time. 

"Funnily enough I was watching something, it was one of the great Hollywood directors, I was watching an interview with him saying: "Usually if I've had a big hit with something I go and do something completely different, do not try and top yourself". 

"I think I've employed that without knowing there were others who thought along…in other words if this one goes five billion worldwide then do a little acoustic album next, don't try and repeat yourself. Don't try and follow "Sgt. Pepper" with "Dark Side of the Moon.""

SA: With the songwriting process with Jo, and speaking of "Dark Side of the Moon", David Gilmour famously works with his wife Polly. He gives her demos and she'll go for a wander along Brighton beach with headphones on, comes up with ideas then goes back to David with them. Do you sit down with Jo or do you give her something to think about in terms of music?

SH: "Well, she's a very busy girl and very, very hardworking. Sometimes I have to say to her "I'd like half an hour of your time over breakfast". 

"It sounds like we never talk, which isn't true, we talk all the time but specifically I'd say "I'm having a bit of a problem with this, I think it needs 'X'", and she might come up with X and Y and sometimes she comes up with a great melody line because she was trained as a violinist when she was very young. 

"She wanted to be better at it but she said she never lost the ability to come up with melody lines and some of them are absolutely killer. 

"She's happy for me to add the chords so you'd be surprised, some of the heavier lines she comes up with, for instance the bass line on the second part of "Beasts In Our Time",  which is a very simple line but it's very driving for the shuffle that's there."

SA: Whilst we're referencing Pink Floyd, you have Durga and Lorelei McBroom longtime Pink Floyd collaborators) on the album as well, how did that come about?

SH: "I believe I was introduced to Lorelei, Jo's reminding me that it was a guy called Robert Juckett who's just passed on, he's just died, he was a friend, he was a photographer. 

"But I remember meeting Lorelei with Tom Lord-Alge, a producer. I think they'd just sang on an album of Dave Kirzner's and I said to Lorelei "Oh, are you the one with the really high voice?" and she said "No". 

"But then I worked with them live, with Dave, on one of the cruises, it would've been a midnight show poolside and I thought these girls have got fine voices. 

"I had an idea of this song that was part gospel about the slaves, "Underground Railroad", and I thought "we really need to be authentic here, it's not gonna work if this is just samples, we've got to have the real thing". 

"So, the two soul sisters as I describe them at the moment, I know they're much more than that, it wasn't really until we were doing it in practice, until we were recording it, and they understood immediately what it was all about. 

"The idea of gospel, as far as I can see it, it sticks to form as we know it, but then there are variations away from form. It's a bit like a drummer holding a groove but then there are also variations. 

"So the vocal variations, ad-libs, all that stuff is what we're after. They immediately went straight to it, there were just some great vocal moments from them. I thought "is this really my album here", in a very good way, let the reigns go, let others shine because […] they've all transformed it with such muscle, it's been extraordinary."

SA: It sort of seems to defeat the object really of asking someone to play on your album and not let them do what they do

SH: "Exactly! I found that out many years ago when I worked with Randy Crawford. I had a song and it wasn't working, I was a very inexperienced producer at that point, even though I'd done all these albums with Genesis I didn't know how to direct other people, and really the best way to direct other people who are extraordinary and skilful and soulful is to let them be themselves. 

"She was just about to walk out the studio and say "Why don't you get Shirley Bassey to do this?". I said "Hold it, look, forget the melody, just make it your own, work around it" and then suddenly it all happened. 

"The magic kicked in, she jazzed it, she bluesed it, she went Aretha Franklin on it and I remember the Genesis guys saying "Nice song, Steve". 

"The Genesis team, famously known for being quite sparing with their praise with each other, whether inside the band or out of it, but to a man they said "very interesting" and "is that a future direction for you?".

SA: There's the tour coming up towards the end of the year (Steve will be performing at the Brighton Dome on 12th November 2019). You're doing "Selling England By The Pound" in full, why particularly that album, 46 years is an odd anniversary?

SH: "I know, I know. I had the idea of doing two things. I wanted to celebrate "Selling England By The Pound" for all sorts of reasons, perhaps I'll come back to later, and do "Spectral Mornings". 

"Those two albums that were favourites of mine, my favourite Genesis album and my favourite solo album from the early, early career. 

"The first album I'd done with a band that bore my name, although it's my third solo flight, it was the first band where we've been on tour. 

"Up until then they'd all been wearing other men's shoes and then suddenly it's "let's see what you can do and what you can bring to it"

SA: So they were actually operating as a unit

SH: "Yes, they were a very responsive, energetic, very capable team with great vocal harmonies and all sorts of things that I was so proud of at the time.

"I've achieved a vocal sound here, this rivals some of the best of the harmony stuff that I've heard other people do, this is strong. 

"I had Dick Cadbury who'd been trained as a counter-tenor singing very strong falsetto. He was choreographing the vocal harmonies, arranging them, stacking them up."

SA: It's a good way of describing it

SH: "Yeah, I use choreography to describe drumming as well. I think at times when Roger is virtual drumming, I think of it as choreography. 

"We're both in there talking about the steps and we're both talking about the detail and I'll say "I think there could be something here, some kind of drum break" and I've got usually a very rudimentary one and he'll usually come up with something that's far more believable and then sometimes we'll go through all of that and then take it to a real drummer and go "well, this is our idea, this is our sketch but we feel it needs a personal touch".

SA: Will the new album also feature on this tour?

SH: "Yes, so it's a three-pronged thingy really so I've got to do that. So we're doing the whole of "Selling England"…, most of "Spectral", that leaves room for "At The Edge of Light". 

"If I have a big hit with …"Edge of Light" then we have a bit of a quandary. But this is nice in a way to have a celebrated past, much loved shall we say by fans, to draw from, that whole Genesis canon of stuff. 

"I'm still extraordinarily proud of all of that, I think so much of it was wonderful music and crafted again by a team that really couldn't tell the difference between a verse and a chorus a lot of the time. 

"But, in some ways that was part of the magic that it wasn't formula, that's the thing. Sometimes you can know too much, so being naive is probably the best way to come up with something that's new."

SA: There's a lot of strings on the new album, did the recent tour with an orchestra play a part in that, they're very prominent?

SH: "They are, and not just strings. There are a lot of things that, talking to orchestrators over time, things that you think are strings have been warmed up by brass. 

"Sometimes there's this rich bedrock of low brass, it mixes with the strings and warms them and at times, to get around a string sound I found that by doubling with sometimes one flute, or flute in octaves, it gives the apparent strings more depth and colour, but essentially you'd think "Oh, that's a hell of a lot of violins playing  there". 

"Symphony orchestras work with violins. I have used a lot of orchestra, but, you know, strings with everything."

SA: Of course the Mellotron is very much part of your catalogue

SH: "It is, yeah, that's right and sometimes nothing but a Mellotron will do. A real Mellotron, there you are, an oxymoron there. 

"Three women in a bedroom, apparently in New York state in 1953 being recorded, they still show up on albums all the time and sometimes if you want your strings to have an alienated quality, that'll mix very well."

Steve Hackett's new album At The Edge of Light is available to pre-order now from http://hackettsongs.com/

Steve Hackett plays Brighton Dome Concert Hall on 12th November 2019. For tickets CLICK HERE.

by: Stuart Avis




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