Interview: Steve Hackett
Eric Sandberg speaks with former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett
Steve Hackett is one of the most enduring rock artists working today. Despite a long, fruitful solo career. with close to thirty solo albums in his catalog, he is still closely associated with the band he left in 1977. Steve does not avoid, but rather embraces, the association. In addition to releasing a new solo album of original material every two years or so, he has also created modern, sonically superior versions of those classic Genesis songs and goes out of his way to feature them live on massive world tours that would tire a younger man.
At the end of January, just weeks before his 69th birthday, Hackett will release a new studio album At The Edge Of Light and embark on a 160 plus date world tour featuring Genesis music, classic solo material and select tracks from the new album. Steve was kind enough to call me late one cold evening from his London home. Here is what we talked about.
Eric Sandberg: How are things in London?
Steve Hackett: Very cold at the moment. Very cold indeed.
Eric: It's actually a bit nippy here in Los Angeles, but it's probably balmy by your standards.
SH: You've had such terrible tragedy in that area, haven't you?
Eric: It's been a tough month. We had the nightclub shooting here in LA, followed immediately by these devastating fires. I'm fortunate not to have been directly affected by all of this but I know people who were.
SH: You think things are going to be there forever and these events just bring home the impermanence of everything. There is just so much crazy stuff you have to deal with in life.
Eric: On that note, I've had the opportunity to listen to your new album At The Edge Of Light a few times and the songs on the record appear to address the crazy times we're living in.
SH: Yes, there is some of that. There are things addressed lyrically that might not be comfortable for some. I tend to feel that we're living in an era where battle lines are being drawn and we are all arming ourselves...the rise of fascist ideals. It seems like a crazy time. We've got so much technology. We could be helping each other...feeding each other. Instead, we're investing in this fortress mentality. I'm only cautiously optimistic about mankind's future at this point.
Eric: I'm hoping that this is all going to turn out to be a great wake up call and that, when we reach the tipping point, cooler and kinder heads will prevail.
You appear to address these issues in an oblique and artful way on the album. You titled the opening instrumental "Fallen Walls And Pedestals" which I interpret as the destruction of political and social norms and the loss of civility, while the song "Beasts In Our Time" conjures in my mind names like Trump, Duterte, Timer, Farage, Rees-Mogg...
SH: Yeah, It's a worrying time. The extremists have taken over. The terrorists are no longer from far away.
Eric: You also show your hopeful side with "The Underground Railroad" one of my favorite songs on the album. It makes you realize that what Harriet Tubman and others like her did, which today we consider heroic, was against the law in her time and punishable by death.
SH: Exactly. Yesterday's criminals are today's heroes.
Eric: You utilize the voices of Durga and Lorelei McBroom to great effect on this song. It transports you.
SH: It was wonderful to work with Durga and Lorelei, both with great voices. There is an aspect of the protest song and gospel but it's also a train song with some blues and country - with the dobro and harmonica to drive it along. The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Colson Whitehead) was the influence for that. I noticed that President Obama and Oprah Winfrey were very high on it so I read it and it inspired the song.
Eric: Speaking of inspiration: I'm a longtime fan of your solo career, which I've kept up with over the years. By my count this album will be your 28th studio album. Just going back to 2003 you've released ten studio albums and eleven live albums, not counting your collaborations with Djabe and Chris Squire. How are you doing this? Where is it all coming from?
SH: I think I'm just aware that the clock is ticking. Also, my wife (Jo Hackett) and I tend to travel the world in recent years. We've been to some extraordinary places. We've been to India, China and we're preparing to visit Ethiopia next year, having just been to Jordan and seeing Petra while wearing my Indiana Jones hat! We've also just been to Cambodia and saw the fascinating temples there. It's been extraordinary.
So I've kind of been doing my Tomb Raider sort of thing and it has been a tremendous source of inspiration for me, seeing amazing things that were created, in some cases, thousands of years ago - things that are still standing, and wondering how a whole city could be carved out of rock. Another example is the Ellora caves in India, where they carved a mountain into a temple with a herd of elephants. Caves and temples...extraordinary stuff.
Eric: I think they were able to achieve these incredible feats because they didn't have to stop and check their Facebook and Twitter feeds every five minutes.
SH: That's right! And these were things that were not completed in one person's lifetime. There must have been some spiritual impetus driving it. To think that you are contributing to only a small part of something that will be finished by someone else long after you're gone. St. Paul's Cathedral was not completed in Christopher Wren's lifetime. It's the most fascinating building in England.
There are certain places like that - that carry an extraordinary power. When the organist plays just one bass pedal note in there, the whole building becomes an amplifier and the sound carries you off into space. If that isn't spiritual I don't know what is.
Eric: Let's talk about your process. Some artists compartmentalize. They enjoy their time off, sit on the beach and then they block out six weeks to sit in a room and write songs and another six weeks to arrange and record them.
My guess is that you are always working in some way, writing lyric fragments on a scratch pad, humming tunes into your phone and ultimately you sit down with Roger King and turn it all into an album.
SH: It's something like that. My wife and I hum melodies to each other and sometimes they're extraordinary and sometimes they're rightfully forgotten. A tremendous amount of stuff gets jotted down over time but only a small fraction of it ever makes it to the stage. There are certain things that surface through all of that. You have to be motivated to produce all of those things knowing that that you're going to be throwing a lot of it away.
I couldn't teach anyone how to sit down and write a song. I just wait for ideas to present themselves. I never consciously write anything. If I hear a melody then that's the start of something and I keep adding things to it. But that initial spark - I don't know where that comes from. But without that spark I know that things won't catch fire. I have to have that moment of subconscious creativity. No good will come of me sitting around trying to dream up something. It doesn't happen.
Eric: Perhaps the skill aspect is the ability to recognize the moment and have the discipline to take the time to preserve it. I think there are a lot of creative people working 9-5 jobs who are constantly allowing moments of creativity to disappear like vapor.
SH: That's right. I'm also trying to write a book at the moment and I'm much better at writing down musical ideas than I am about ideas that come to me for the book. I'm reading a book about the London Fog right now. You would think that must be the most boring book in the world, but actually, I'm reading about Claude Monet painting the London fog. It's this purple painting of the Waterloo bridge in 1902. It was called "purple haze" back then, the fog. It wasn't just this gray murk we think of today, it had different colors to it.
So now I'm thinking this book is fascinating but I had to wade through hundreds of pages before I got to that point. Was Jimi Hendrix inspired by seeing that painting or was it just the drugs? We'll never know, will we? Monet was in love with London because of the fog, because he couldn't see it clearly. So the Impressionism was there The same with Turner, he was painting the light refracting through the fog.
Eric: I want to talk to you about success. In my mind, your career has been an unmitigated success. You have been able to make music your way for fifty years and earn a living without having to bag groceries at Tesco's, and you're still doing it.
You left a band that went on to have massive success on an entirely other level but what are any of them doing now? They seem to be trapped by the level of success they achieved and can't bring themselves to do anything that won't sell a million pre-orders.
SH: It all depends on your perception of success. Success means different things at different points in your life. If your goal is to make as much money as possible then don't do it my way (laughter). To me there are other currencies than money and gold. Music is a currency with a current of electricity running through it. It's a wonderful, healing thing. It energizes people, it brings people together. The power of music is limitless. It can change the world and make people stop and think. And it's not just pop music that has done this, of course.
Music is entwined with human history.
In terms of how much of your music will sell, it's possible to embark on a music career based on competitiveness if that's what you want to do. But that requires you to start playing other people's games. The great thing about music is that it is possible to make a living at it doing exactly what you want to do. Don't let anyone tell you that you're being too esoteric or people won't get it. If your inner muse is telling you that you have something, don't ignore it. You have to honor it, cherish it and figure that someone is going to enjoy hearing it.
If I'm feeling inspired to make an album of classical guitar music then that is what I'm going to do. Playing and composing on classical guitar informs the other music I do and allows me to think like an arranger and a keyboard player. I serve the gods of the classical guitar as much as I serve the rumble and thunder of the electric guitar gods.
Eric: Speaking of gods, I can think back to my youth, sitting on the floor intently listening to those amazing albums by Genesis, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull...you all were like gods to me, sitting atop a music Mount Olympus.
Here in 2018 it's fair to say, in the immortal words of Ian Faith, your appeal has become more selective. These days our gods seem much more human and closer to their fans, whether it be expensive meet and greet packages, being available for interviews with everyone who spent ten dollars to start a website or just meeting people at the merch table after a gig. Sometimes you're even trapped on a ship with them out to sea. What are your thoughts on the relationship between the artist and the fan these days?
SH: Well, I'm doing two of those cruises. I'm on the Cruise To The Edge and On The Blue cruises back to back. I think that if you are going to commit yourself to something like that there is no point in shutting yourself in your cabin. I prefer to walk about, mingle and say hi to people.That's one of the things that energizes me, so if I can do it, I will. If I've got to be at a soundcheck I'll have to hurry through and hope that people understand I've got a job to do as well.
People bump into me at breakfast and after a while it just becomes ordinary.
Eric: Finally, I just want to be a fanboy for a moment and talk with you about the music, I was recently listening to the very first Genesis live album, appropriately titled Genesis Live and it has only now occurred to my adult ears just how crazy it must have been to play that music live. There are a staggering amount of cues, time changes, stops and starts and herculean note runs. It's phenomenal that you could get through any one of those songs without someone losing the plot. I'm sure some mistakes happened here and there on particular nights.
SH: Sure, bands do. You're trying to navigate through thunder and tiptoe through lightning at times. All performances are human. There will be moments when someone will lose concentration. All you can do is rehearse and train and try to minimize the car crashes on stage. There will always be those moments. I've talked to pals in other bands who have told me of times when they fell off the horse completely. It happens.
Eric: Several years back I saw Yes perform "The Gates Of Delirium" at The Hollywood Bowl with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra playing along. After the lengthy instrumental opening Jon Anderson launched into the second verse. After a moment of chaos, they stopped the orchestra and restarted at the point of the first verse.
SH: Sometimes those things happen, and it is live and that's when you realize how human those gods are.
Eric: It's a moment from that show that I cherish. It was still a wonderful show.
One last thing, and I'm really getting into the geek weeds here, but on "The Return Of The Giant Hogweed", right before your groundbreaking guitar solo there are these beeping, staccato sextuplet notes that sound like a synthesizer, long before Tony owned a synthesizer. It was only until I listened to the live version last night that I realized those notes were coming from your guitar. How did you do that?
SH: I used to use a Duo-Fuzz fuzz box. I would engage the Duo-Fuzz while I picked and dampened the notes at the same time with my right hand. It wasn't always accurate, believe me. It was an interesting technique. It did sound a little bit like a synth in some ways. In many ways I was trying ways to sound like a keyboard. It reminds me somewhat of that old instrumental hit "Popcorn." I was thinking of that sort of analog synthesizer sound.
Eric: Well you fooled me for forty years on that one but I'm on to you now.
SH:I often wanted to function as an invisible player on these things. I just wanted to add color to the music and not stand out. I didn't think heroic guitar stuff was appropriate for Genesis. Genesis was very much about subtlety, certainly with those 70s albums I tried to be more like a string section, a harp or recording things at half-speed and speeding them up so it would sound like a musical box.
So that was my approach at the time. Of course now I'm able to perform many of these things live because I have devices allow me to go up an octave and recreate those little tinkly noises. I've got a wider pallet of sounds available to me now.
Eric: What can we look forward to on the upcoming 2019 world tour?
SH: We're going to be performing the whole of Selling England By The Pound and most of Spectral Mornings live, plus some of the stuff from At The Edge Of Light, and maybe a few other things as well. It's going to be a long set. I'm looking forward to doing that. There are going to be some real challenges with that set. It's a chance to perform some real fan favorites. There are 160 dates lined up with more being added.
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