From his early days with Genesis through his latest solo explorations, the British axeman has fully earned an additional label: legend.
BY BILL KOPP
Steve Hackett is best known as the lead guitarist in Genesis from 1970 to 1977. He embarked on a solo career while still in that group, releasing his first album, Voyage of the Acolyte in 1975. since that time he has continued to work as a solo artist, in collaboration with others and (briefly in the 1980s) co-fronting GTR with Yes / Asia guitarist Steve Howe. I first interviewed Hackett around the time of the release of his 2010 album Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth. That album – featuring guest appearances by King Crimson’s John Wetton, among others – was informed by Hackett’s then-recent breakup of his marriage.
These days he’s on much happier footing, and married to Jo Lehmann. A 2015 biographical film, Steve Hackett: The Man, The Music brings his story up to date, and his current “Acolyte to Wolflight” tour with Genesis Revisited ties together the disparate strains of his fascinating musical career. I spoke to him as he readied himself for the tour.
BLURT: I think it’s interesting that so many of the most highly-regarded British musicians of your generation (and even those a bit older) grew up with music in their homes. Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney both had dads who were semi-professional or professional musicians, John Lennon was taught guitar by his mother, and your dad played harmonica. What qualities in your own music do you attribute to that background beyond an awareness of and appreciation for music?
HACKETT: You’re absolutely right. My dad was able to get a tune out of a number of things, really. He was good on harmonica, and he dabbled with clarinet and bugle. He could do one-finger piano. I was very impressed, as a kid. And I think like the people you mentioned, when your introduction to music is via your father, and it comes from within the family, it just seems to be as natural as breathing.
Also, many years later after harmonica, my dad brought me a guitar from Canada. By the time I was 12 I was able to get my arms around it.
In The Man, The Music DVD you discuss you early love of classical and opera, alongside blues and rock ‘n’ roll. That’s fairly unusual for a musician of your generation. Do you thin it was the sort of wide-screen appreciation for different musical genres that led to you getting involved in progressive music?
I think so, yeah. The best of progressive combines genres. It’s a collision of so many different styles. And it’s an attempt, I think, to bridge a generation gap or two. So I don’t have a problem with listening to pretty much any genre of music; it’s who’s doing it for me. If it was country, then I’d be thinking of Roy Orbison or k.d. lang, and loving that. And early records – things like Slim Whitman – that my dad had around.
The Genesis: Sum of the Parts documentary DVD that came out last year was remarkable in that it brought all of the Genesis guys back together, if only for the discussion parts of the film. I think that without explicitly stating it, those group conversations illustrated the tensions that led to the classic-era group splitting…
I think there always was an underlying tension within Genesis; it was always a very competitive band. I think that sometimes that competition produced very good work. Other times, I think that it managed to block very good ideas coming out not just from me, but from everybody.
You’ve had a long and very successful collaborative relationship with Roger King. The Man, The Music discusses that, but it doesn’t explain how you got together. Tell me a bit about that.
We met several years ago, and originally I was going to do some writing for a German artist. It didn’t come to pass. Roger happened to live round the corner, so that was the qualification. Of course I found out over time that he was brilliant at a number of things. He had been a classical organ scholar, playing cathedrals. He was also an engineer; we shared a love of all sorts of things. He was particularly keen – at least when I first met him – on Stravinsky and the atonal stuff, the more experimental end of classical. And he professed not to enjoy the romantics at all. But in recent years he’s gone back to taking piano lessons; he’s trying to get a grip on Chopin, on playing very, very quietly. And he tells me how difficult it is to do that, to put the exact right amount of pressure on the piano keys. So I think he’s got a sneaking respect.
I found it interesting that in The Man, the Music, you characterized Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins as being a self-contained “power trio” within Genesis, and you seemed to characterize yourself and Peter Gabriel as being musical outsiders who had to struggle to find a way into the arrangements. Am I summarizing that accurately?
I think you are, yes. Often the three of them would come up with very dense arrangements: busy keyboard parts, busy drum parts, not to mention bass or 12-string. If you’re a singer, you’re going to end up – I’m trying to put this politely – it’s a bit like throwing up all over it in order to make your presence felt. For me as a guitarist, I realized that I was not going to be allowed to play heroically over everything. So I had to look for a way that the guitar could be used in a subtle kind of manner.
A few years before we got a synthesizer – it’s a very old word now, synthesizer; it was ’73 when we first got one – then it was my role to do what synths would do later. In other words, it was an attempt to be all sorts of things, to imitate all sorts of thing. Take a musical box, or the human voice or a violin from time to time. So that colored my approach, and I know that Peter Gabriel called me a “colorist.”
And I think that stood me in good stead, because I’m using that this very day. I’m recording at home with Roger, and sometimes it’s the more subtle things that work. I don’t always power in with everything; I’m not trying to be heavy metal.
Do you think that quality among the three of them – early on – was a key to them staying together long after you and Peter had left the group?
I think so, but it’s getting on 20 years now that that power trio did anything creatively in the studio. We are talking about history here, of course. I think it was easier. You’ve got clearly defined roles: one guy does the chording, one guy does rhythm, and the other guy writes. You haven’t got the competition. There’s not another great keyboard player waiting in the wings, or another guitarist who’s trying to be of relevance without just doubling the bass. Or doubling something that the keyboard’s doing. It does show you that bands don’t need to be any bigger than three.
Although The Beatles would have probably disagreed. But they had all that manpower, from any orchestra you’d care to name anywhere in the world; everyone wanted to work with The Beatles.
Genesis was rather different; it was another school, where it got smaller and smaller and smaller. And eventually, I guess, phase cancellation leads to nothing. So there you are. I think there’s a danger in trying to do it all in-house. Because obviously we know that from Tubular Bells onward, no keyboard player really needs anybody to work on their albums.
But collaborative work is nice; it’s great to work with someone who’s a great singer. Many of my great memories are of working with powerhouse singers. Such as – not just the Genesis guys – but Richie Havens, who was extraordinary. And Steve Walsh from Kansas, and Randy Crawford, who sang “Street Life” with The Crusaders … all on the same album. I like to work with other people, believe me. I don’t like to be doing all of it myself; not every album, anyway.
In The Man, The Music, you set up in the control room and play your “Firth of Fifth” solo along with a backing track. You say it’s your favorite, and it’s my favorite Genesis moment on my favorite song of the group’s. There’s something deeply emotionally resonant about the solo, but I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what it is. Do you have any thoughts on what makes it so special, so beloved by fans?
It might be contentious, but I would say the influences on that solo range form the simplicity of Erik Satie through to some of the kinds of shapes and patterns that Bach used. But there’s a kind of visualization that goes with it. Many years ago – a year before I joined Genesis – I worked with a band called Quiet World. Three brothers had lived in South Africa; they came to these shores – they were signed to Pye Records at the time – and their father was a medium, a psychic. He used to receive spirits, and he’d send tapes over, instructing them on how to record, on what they should do. This was extremely exotic for me, this stuff. So we’d sit around this flat in Bayswater, and this guy would be describing the idea of “imagine a sea with a bird flying high above it.” And I had that in mind when the solo starts, with the F# sustained note. The idea that you’ve got that tranquility underneath, this thing that just sits there, riding on the top of it. There’s a high F# before the theme kicks in.
So that’s part of the history. Then of course you’ve got the Mellotron, you’ve got organ, you’ve got the band sounding quite symphonic. The band plays a supporting role as they let me have the longest guitar solo on any Genesis track before or since. It’s arguably the most famous Genesis guitar solo, but I think the reason why it works is because the melody was good in the first place. And that I can’t claim credit for, because it was Tony’s melody. And my interpretation of it, of course.
In their review of your 2011 album Beyond the Shrouded Horizon, Allmusic describes you as being at the peak of your powers. That goes against the conventional wisdom in rock, that it’s a young person’s game. Even though you often focus on playing music from your Genesis days, obviously you still have a lot new to express musically. From where do you draw your inspiration?
I do travel a lot. It’s a byproduct of being in the music industry. And in the past year I’ve traveled to places as far flung as Peru, for instance. Listening to the marvelous music there, I had a charango (a little stringed instrument) and a kind of flute that you play with that very shrill, fast vibrato. And all of that is marvelously evocative.
And in recent times I’ve worked with a guy called Malic Mansurov from Azerbaijan. He’s someone who’s like a cross between Ravi Shankar and John McLaughlin. He’s got this mystical element and this bulletproof technique, lightning fast. It’s very magical.
I get inspired by other people on other instruments. Just today we’ve been working on a rock song. But it’s got a lot of flamenco elements. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Spanish guitarist – the flamenco guitarists, the Gypsies – are the best rhythm guitarists in the world. Perhaps that’s not a revelation to many people, but there, I’ve said it.
And I’ve been trying to work in that genre, taking in what I saw when I was in Seville. I was very, very taken with all of that: watching the Gypsies dance and play. I was talking to one of the guitarists; he was showing me one particular technique that had baffled me for a long, long time. And because I’m not an expert in that area, it fascinates me. If I’m not good at something, I need to learn how to do that. How do these guys do that? How do they make as much noise as they do with one guitar? How do they play as if it’s the last, desperate gasp of any human being? It’s an extraordinary level of energy, and I think that rock can afford to take some of that on board.
I heard some of this when I was in Spain, as a matter of fact. I heard things on the radio, things that might sound straight, but then you hear this flamenco salvo going across. And you think, “Wow. That actually works really well.” So I’m trying to get some of that into my playing.
With Genesis Revisited, you’re bringing classic-era Genesis music to fans around the world. I’ve seen a French Canadian band called The Musical Box; they work with the same material. Are you familiar with them?
Yes, I am. I jammed with them when they played in London, and once in Switzerland. I try and encourage as many tribute bands as possible. Because I think keeping that music alive is important. There are a lot of Genesis tribute bands around.
When I do it with my band, we try to not slavishly repeat everything. We try to be authentic; it’s not a “Jazz Odyssey” version. And it’s not a classical collection of suites loosely based on the works of Genesis. It is the real thing. But I might play a different guitar solo on the end of “Supper’s Ready” if I feel the need to do that, to take it to the next level, to the mountains. We do what the band might have done if they had a virtuoso soprano sax player, Rob Townsend. So some of the flute or keyboard lines are given over to that. Or twinned, so that we have lightning fast keyboard with lightning fast sax doubling it.
We divide it up in different ways; it’s hard to get three 12-string players in a band, but Genesis had that at the time. So sometimes we subdivide that: we might have one person on the 12-string – probably me – and the keyboard player might be doubling that with a 12-string sample. But he’s adding something to it. And a Variax [MIDI guitar], doing a sort of modeled version of that. When everyone’s chiming away together, it’s a magnificent noise.
You’ve acknowledged that the early 1970s Genesis catalog was not very commercially successful in its day. But it’s so highly regarded now. Why do you think that is the case? What do you think is the source of the enduring appeal of that Genesis music?
The albums that didn’t necessarily sell that well in their day subsequently sold huge amounts; Genesis was a very slow burn. By the time we were doing a guest spot on the Mike Douglas Show, the band had been playing together for a long time. And I’d been with them about six years. Suddenly, when you get that level of national exposure – for any act who’d got to play on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, or David Letterman, or whomever – you’ve got that coast-to-coast coverage. And that makes a huge difference. You’re not playing to clubs and colleges; you’re playing to stadiums and arenas. So that’s hugely beneficial. And it helps if a band’s got a decent catalog for people to discover.
The band had a long time to form its ideas. And luckily in 1973, John Lennon said that we were one of the bands he was listening to. Now these days, of course, if he had given that in an interview to WNEW in New York, that would have been instantly tweeted and the social networks would have had it. And maybe the rise to fame of Genesis would have been years quicker. But in the day, it hardly got a mention. We couldn’t get a gig in the States at the time! You couldn’t validate that back in the day. Now, of course, I take that as a huge compliment. I know that I’m profoundly affected by that. It’s something that was huge encouragement for us guys who were sitting round listening to Lennon, who was ten years older than us. Praise doesn’t come higher, really.
This weekend [interview was conducted in March 2016] you have an appearance that’s billed as “In Conversation.” Tell me about that.
That’s in Leicester. Paul Gosling, a friend of mine who happens to be a professor and filmmaker, and who’s been working on some videos with me in recent times is an extremely accomplished, gregarious and intelligent guy. Through him, some dances worked up some stuff that was based on one of the tracks on Wolflight, the latest album. The tracks is “Corycian Fire,” based on the idea of Greek history before Delphi was up and running, and before it was sacked by the early Christians. There was a place called the Corycian Cave. It’s hidden away beneath Mount Parnassus. My wife and I did this trek, uphill, for an hour and a half to find this place. And we were completely exhausted by the time we got to the top. It’s a hugely impressive, spooky, magical place. It’s where divination first took place. We shot a video there with Paul, and it’s one of the things that’s upcoming.
So one of the things we’ll be talking about is that. It’s basically a Q&A. He’ll ask me questions, and then he’ll throw it open to the audience. So it’s for anyone who wants to know anything about anything from Genesis to fuzz boxes to Yehudi Menuhin. I guess I’ll talk about everything openly.
The website teases that the tour will include material from your solo work and Genesis, plus a few surprises. Can you give any hints as to the nature of those surprises?
In recent times, I have a band that includes Roine Stolt [Flower Kings, Transatlantic], someone who’s a brilliant guitarist in his own right. He plays bass with us, and a bit of guitar; we swap some lead things. We do two sets; we’re like two bands in one. First it’s the solo stuff, then we have an intermission. Then we come back with the Genesis stuff; we become the Genesis of a certain era: before the video era, and when the music was more experimental. It’s the period 1971-77, and most of the time we’re highlighting the Peter Gabriel years.
And last year was the 40th anniversary of my first solo outing, Voyage of the Acolyte, so we’re doing quite a few things from that album. We do a bunch of things from Spectral Mornings, a bunch of things from Wolflight. It’s an attempt to throw light – if I can use that word – on the total experience: those who’ve got on board with my solo stuff, and those who’ve got on board with Genesis. Rather than exclusively doing Genesis all night, I’m stressing both ends of the spectrum of my career.
By the time you’re finished, you don’t get a lot of short change out of about three hours.
Might we hear anything from Defector?
Hmm…I’ll have to check in with the band, and see if they’re able to do it from the drop of a hat.
Near the end of The Man, The Music, you talk about you and your wife Jo moving into a new house last year, and your hope to build a studio in the garden. Have you started that project yet?
I haven’t waited until we got the OK from the local council; what I’ve done is, I’m recording in the living room at the moment. It’s not the first or last time that I’ve done that. I’ve had studios in the past; the last one I sold in order to move into the new house. So meanwhile, half the living room is turned into a studio. It’s annoying in one way but wonderful in another; I can fall out of bed straight into the studio.
Photos by Armando Gallo (top) and Tina Korhonen (bottom). Steve Hackett’s North American tour continues through April 19 when it wraps in Durham, NC (right in BLURT’s back yard, no less). From there it’s on to Japan, the UK, and Italy. Don’t miss it, fans.