BY BILL KOPP
During his time with Genesis, guitarist Steve Hackett released one solo album, 1975’s Voyage of the Acolyte. That album featured two of his then-current band mates – bassist Mike Rutherford and drummer Phil Collins – helping out, and only one track featured Hackett’s vocals. So after the unassuming Hackett left Genesis in 1977, it may have come as a bit of a surprise to that group’s fans that he would embark on a successful and prolific solo career. His latest album, The Night Siren (set for release March 24) is Hackett’s 25th solo album. (In contrast, Genesis released only 15 albums of new studio material in its nearly 30 years as a functioning group.)
And while he was always a superb instrumentalist – one listen to his sublime guitar solo on “Firth of Fifth” from Genesis’ 1973 LP Selling England By the Pound is all the proof one could need – Hackett has grown immeasurably in the past few decades as a musician, a composer, and a vocalist. And at age 67, Steve Hackett may have just made the finest record of his career in The Night Siren.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Hackett twice before: in 2010, shortly after the release of Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, and again in 2016 on the eve of a North American tour. In that first interview, we discussed the backstory of Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth: the painful dissolution of Hackett’s second marriage, and the development of a new relationship – one that is both personal and creative – in its wake. In our second conversation we focused on two topics: the documentary film Genesis: Sum of the Parts and Hackett’s ongoing “Genesis Revisited” live and studio projects.
For our third conversation, the main topic would be The Night Siren and his development as an artist. The following is an edited transcript of our interview, which took place in mid-January 2017.
BLURT: The underlying theme of The Night Siren is a call for unity in divisive times. Can you tell me a bit about what led you toward that theme?
Well, I think more and more it seems that the world seems to be heading towards right-wing politics. The refugee crisis seems to have gotten to the point whereby the rest of the world seems to be adopting a kind of fortress mentality, instead of assimilating the people and trying to fix the problem that we’ve created in the first place. It just so happens I have friends from all over the world, and I have two working on this album – one from Israel, one from Palestine – and I wanted to demonstrate that it was possible for people to do what musicians have done naturally for years and years and years. We naturally cross borders; this is what we do. Music is a great big melting pot and I think that – at the very least – music is an ambassador for peace. And we’re showing people that there is a common language, and it’s the language of the heart.
You often record at home using your home studio; other musicians will often send their tracks digitally. Was that the method that you used on this album as well?
Yes, but it’s part of it. Some of it was done on location in different studios with different people, but I did quite a lot of it at home but then I did get a lot of facilities as well to record other people. For instance, Malik Mansurov from Azerbaijan was recording in Budapest. Some stuff was recorded in Miami; Nick D’Virgilio was recording there. Many people sent in their stuff, but sometimes I went to them. So, yes … it’s a bit like making a movie on location. But sometimes you don’t even have to visit that location, of course. The “second camera unit” is out there. We file share, but we also have conversations face-to-face.
Time was, musicians would all show up in a studio together and work on an album; do you think those days are pretty well gone for good now?
No, I don’t think so. I think bands still function like that, but technology affords you the facility of being able to work face-to-face yet remotely. It means that people get their parts right, and then they send you something that they’re happy with instead of people interfering with each other’s performances before the other guy really knows the song. So you have a chance to perfect it, to send someone something that’s in time and in tune with the song.
I’m a big fan of Nick D’Virgilio’s work back when he was with Spock’s Beard. How did you come to know of his work and bring him into the project?
I first heard about him via Genesis [D’Virgilio was a member of Genesis in the group’s post-Phil Collins era; he played on the final Genesis album Calling All Stations – ed.], but funnily enough I first saw him playing with Cirque Du Soleil in London. I was very impressed with him. And I went to meet him, I think, halfway through that show. He’s just sent us an extraordinarily impressive drum check for one of the songs, “Martian Sea.” He’s a great player.
One of the things I’ve found sort of curiously interesting about him is that his career trajectory is a little bit like Phil Collins: he was the drummer in a band, then the singer left and he ended up being the lead singer … and then he left.
Yes. Well sometimes it works like that. I think we were lucky with Genesis to have two fine singers. I wasn’t doing vocals at that time … I was a slow starter, but I do quite a bit of that myself these days.
Speaking of which … as much as I like your vocals on your previous albums, there seems to be kind of a leap forward in the vocal texture and everything on this one.
Yes, I think I’m looking at vocals in the same way that I look at guitars, so I interact with it and insist on certain effects on the voice and I don’t leave it to chance. When you sing a vocal it’s like, where do you want it to come from? Do you want [the vocal] to be right in front of you? Do you want it to be at a distance? And at what distance? So I think the more confident that you get, you can get a better product out of it. If you treat it just like an instrument.
It becomes more specific with time. You think, “I’m looking for that character; I’m looking for something where I can sing it low and hard with a lot of reverb on it, and then sing the melody up the octave.” That’s a vocal style that I started off with many years ago, and I didn’t really follow it through. And I realize that I took exactly the same approach on “Behind The Smoke,” and in a way that’s the vocal style that I think really moves me. I love the idea of it starting out as one thing and perhaps acoustically, and then it becomes something else and builds and builds.
There is a sweeping, dramatic feel to a lot of the tracks on The Night Siren, even more than on some of your previous work. And I’d argue that you’re very, very effective at establishing, shall we say, sort of an emotional backdrop, even before the lyrics come in. So I’m curious: as you’re writing and arranging, is it a conscious goal of yours to create music that serves as sort of a sympathetic or complementary basis for the lyrics?
I’ll tell you what: when I think of the people that I’ve been influenced by, I’ve noticed that there’s something in the way that they use the instruments. And I’m thinking of two acts in particular: the Beatles and Jimmy Webb, particularly Webb’s work with Art Garfunkel on the album Watermark. It’s as if everything has been discussed, everything has been thought about and there’s nothing in there by chance. When those arrangements work like that, you’ll find that it’s hugely influential for certain people.
I know that with Genesis, we all did an interview where we’re talking to Melody Maker at the time and saying that our favorite single was “MacArthur Park.” It was four out of five that said that; we had no idea that each of the others had felt the same way! Jimmy Webb was a template for that, also the Beatles [were]. I think there are some things about that and the work with George Martin where – sometimes – the orchestral dress was as important as the tune.
I had the pleasure of seeing you in Atlanta on the tour last year. The way that you split the concert into two parts was very effective; the audience absolutely loved it. Are you going to take a similar approach on this tour?
Yes. The idea of Genesis Revisited as an ongoing brand is something that I feel is hugely emotional for me. To do that – to re-present those songs that we all fought hard for back in the day – it’s great. But at the same time, I don’t want to be pensioned off into that “Oh, yes: this is what he once did, and this is his most famous thing,” being comfortably retired and keeping the museum doors open for glorious exhibits.
That’s a great thing to do, but on the other hand there is vital music. And the responses to the new stuff that I’ve done have been very, very good, both at concerts and also with record sales. So I can’t complain of that, but I think that Genesis always did open the door for me in a sense.
The concert – one set of your solo music and another of Genesis classics – is a bit like seeing two different shows.
You’re absolutely right, and it is like two separate shows, or two separate films in a way. A film for the ear. But that’s how it feels: that music is very visual, and the Genesis stuff is held in such high esteem by an otherwise disenfranchised following of early Genesis, which included Peter Gabriel as well as Phil Collins as singers. I think it was a very interesting line-up from 1971, when we had both Phil and Pete in the same band at the same time, and of course Pete was the original vocalist.
You stay quite busy; you’ve been releasing an album a year since 2011 or so.
I’ve tried to keep that up, yes. And we’re doing a lot of touring. More and more territories are opening up to us – me and my band – and we’re going to new places we haven’t been before, such as New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong. South America as well. So it’s a very, very interesting time. We’re doing the East Coast tour first of all, and then we come back and we do the U.K., we do Europe. We just keep motoring throughout the year.
Is there any chance that you’ll do an additional North American leg after the run of dates that conclude in May?
That may happen later this year. I’m hoping that we’ll come back and, having concentrated more on the East Coast, we may be able to concentrate on the more inner Mid-West and West Coast. But that’s all in an ideal world. Deals have to be done, brokered and all of that, and it’s whatever [management and booking] come up with.
You’re taking part in the Cruise to the Edge again this year. How many of those have you done now?
I’ve done two of them and so this will be the third. I didn’t do the last one but looking forward to that but I’ll be sad to be doing that without the late great Chris Squire, of course.
What do you like best about the floating festivals?
That’s very interesting. It’s a very good way of putting it, “floating festival.” Well, quite apart from people cracking jokes … the first time we ever did it saying, “Well, we’re all in the same boat, ha, ha, ha.” But it’s more than that; these things are huge. They are like floating palaces or floating towns, and everyone goes off. And it’s a microcosm, isn’t it? For a while, and it’s a life on the ocean waves. You either like being on boats or you don’t, and it so happens I do. You get to visit places, you get to meet people, you hang out with the whole crowd, and people loosen up. Bands start to join each other and sit in with each other, and it’s a little bit of jamming that goes on. And that’s very nice.
Photo credit: Tina Korhonen