Steve Hackett, 67, gained prominence as the guitarist of Genesis, one of the defining bands of the Progressive Rock era.
With a flourishing career spanning nearly 50 years, including a prosperous solo career, he has released more than 30 solo albums, 7 Genesis albums and has worked with super-group GTR.
Now he is about to embark on a new tour and looking forward to the release of his forthcoming album ‘Night Siren’.
Hackett is a kindred spirit, a man after my own heart and an absolute pleasure to talk to. Having met him on a few occasions, but not having the chance to chat for long I was looking forward to this interview. We discussed how the world is entering troubled times, that “war is never the answer” and how this played a pivotal part in the making of his new album ‘Night Siren’. This forthcoming album features many musicians from around the world, United States, UK, Azerbaijan, Iceland, Hungary, Israel, and Palestine, including countries that are in turmoil and fighting each other. Hackett says the alternative to war would be for everyone to work together, like the musicians have done in the making of this album. Showing that people can be brought together, even from war torn regions.
The first track ‘Behind the Smoke’, focusing on the plight of refugees throughout the ages, we discussed how Hackett and his wife’s ancestors fled pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 1800’s [massacre and persecution of an ethnic or religious group] and how this track was influenced by his ancestry research and their eventual settling in the UK. Drawing parallels with the current refugee crisis and setting the tone for the album.
“…without that of course, without the breaks that they were given at that time, I wouldn’t be here today, so I want to honour their efforts. And so yes, the first track ‘Behind the Smoke’ is basically about refugees. But it’s an internal story of refugees now, as it’s very much in the headlines and what we should do with the refugees and the story of the way that was handled at the time, just over 100 years ago. The last track on the album, well what was intended to be the last track on the album, ‘West to East’ addresses the same, but has a peace message about it. It features musicians Kobi [Farhi] and Mira [Awad] from Israel and Palestine”, a song of peace for a time of turmoil.”
There is a beautiful and haunting sound of children singing on ‘Fifty Miles from the North Pole’, can you tell me about this track?
“Actually it’s not children, it’s myself and Amanda [Lehmann] altered to sound like children. Essentially it’s a children’s choir, a very in tune children’s choir. We wanted to have the naivety. I was influenced by a guy called Gulli Briem, who is an Icelandic drummer. He recent made an album in Hungry where he had that kind of sound, with a children choir and singing and bendy strings doing psychedelic things. I found it absolutely compelling. Very 1960s, very psychedelic, but very magical.”
‘Anything but Love’ is my favourite track on the album, from the amazing Flamenco, through to classical and extended into ‘Blues’. Blues has been a great influence from your early years, how were you inspired by Blues?
“I grew up listening to Blues in the 1960s and I think a lot of the sonic developments that happened in Rock and Roll came from Blues first of all, the idea of amplified distorted instruments, without the grandfather of pop as we know it music would sound very different now. I was trying to give that a very 1960’s feel. So that’s a track that starts with Flamenco introduction, then you get a Pop song then you get something that sounds deliberately like early Cream, 1967, very free…Bluesy, only a couple of chords, basically more 3rds than you would get in regular Blues. Where music was on the cusp of Blues meets psychedelia, I found it a very compelling time in British music.
There is an extensive collection of instruments and styles from many corners of the world on this new album, from the exotic strains of Indian Sitar and Middle Eastern Tar and Oud, to the ethnic beauty of the Peruvian Charango and the haunting Celtic Uilleann pipes. How do you plan to do this on a live tour?
Well live I play three tracks off the current album and I do it with regular instruments. Then we celebrate the 40th anniversary of ‘Wind and Wutherings. [Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the classic Genesis album Wind and Wuthering, Steve and his band will be performing several tracks from the album as well as fan favourites such as ‘The Musical Box’ and other Genesis numbers never performed before by Steve’s band such as ‘Inside & Out’ and ‘Anyway’.] Part of the show is solo stuff, but I’m not approaching the stage with World instruments, I’m not bringing on a troop of Flamenco dancers (we laugh) or Indian instruments. I’m keeping it pretty much doable straight ahead. It would be a very different show if I had all these other things. I find the logistics would be more difficult to pull off using all those instruments, even though I might have played some of those instruments myself, I need more hands on desk to be able to do that. It’s a compromise, a chance to reintroduce people to albums that were very popular at one time, there’s a nod to the past, more of a nod to the past.
You will be performing ‘Rise Again’ from album ‘Darktown’ for the first time live. Is there any great significance from that given that ‘Wind and Wuthering’ also marked your departure from Genesis?
I think the idea of ‘Rise Again’ is really a song about survival and freedom and there is a link there. Quite a lot of the songs I feel drawn to from the Genesis era were things that had social comments, if not historical links. Songs such as ‘Blood on the Roof Tops’ addressed the idea of compassion, fatigue, political apathy and when I do something like ‘Rise Again’ which is basically a song about survival. it does fit into that, themes that are on the current album, ideas of equality and injustice came up with in the Wind and Wuthering era when you’ve got ‘Inside and Out’. Which is a story of injustice and someone being wrongfully imprisoned. ‘Blood on the Roof Tops’ addresses those ideas of apathy and apolitical thought, I think ‘Rise Again’ most of the lyrics are self-penned but I was reading a book called ‘In the Trail of the Wind’ which is about an American Indian and the idea of culture that was lost, songs that would be lost and the idea that at least in spirit nothing ideally would ever be lost, that all the great stuff that had been invented is preserved, an idealised world of spirit.
Your core band has been together longer than most rock bands exist. How do you manage to stay together?
They are a very capable team and what I tend to do is on record, we have an expended team, yes it’s the core band, but we have 20 people on it from all corners of the globe and in addition instruments from far flung places. I like working with friends and they are all friends, sometimes people come and go, I’m not always able to work with Nick Begs because he’s very busy…where possible I enjoy that camaraderie that we have, most of us have been working together since year 2000, so I think they’re immensely capable great guys and girls and I love working with them.”
Nad [Sylvan] seems to bring some of the flamboyance that Peter [Gabriel] brought to Genesis. How did you come across Nad?
“Yes, Nad we met via a German promoter… I checked him out online and we met with him and hit it off straight way, he was a huge fan of all the Genesis era, of pre MTV era of Genesis and he just had that Genesis voice basically, so I think it’s bridging the gap.”
When talking about writing songs in the early days I read you said you needed to be encouraged, “I need to be told I’m better than I am. Flattery goes a long way with me.” Is this still the case?
“You know what, I don’t remember saying that, I must have been being very flippant at that the time if someone past be a compliment. I think the truth is most musicians like to be applauded, music can’t really exist in a vacuum, but I think I’m lucky really to receive something that probably J S Bach [Johann Sabastian Bach] never received in his life time, when you’re producing work as he would have been for the church and often disproving bunch of church elders who considered his work to be too complicated to be performed easily or for the man in the street. That must have been very hard and very difficult, not knowing that he had love for his work. Whereas for the rest of us, who have been lucky to receive a tremendous amount of encouragement, applause, praise. I realise ideally music should be able to exist without all of that but in reality it can be difficult. People tend to believe that the things they are told are good they’ll go for it. There aren’t that many people who seek out their own stuff and go “well there are not many people like this, but I happen to like it myself.” The subjective experience has to be the deepest one, so it doesn’t really matter, if somebody likes you other than your mother I think you’re doing quite well.”
I love how you and your band always bow at the end of your concert. Do you believe that’s an integral part of a show or habit?
“I think to show respect to the audience because the audience are the true owners of the material and the atmosphere of any concert comes from the audience. It’s as much their performance as the people on stage. We do what we’ve trained ourselves to do but if you’re playing to a cold audience it’s not a very good concert no matter how perfect it might have been delivered. I’ve got enormous respect for the crowd and love making them happy. That’s what I’m all about and I think the guys on stage too, you can feel the palpable sense of happiness, relief, joy, all of those things and humour. Everyone is so much more switched on by the end of a gig than the beginning, we’re thinking “Ahh here’s the thing, will the magic work”, and the alchemy is in the audience’s hands.”
My earliest memories are of you when I was a child is you playing ‘Tales from the Riverbank’ from Bay of Kings. So before you go I wanted to ask if you could tell me something personal about that track?
Well I used to listen to that as a child myself, ‘Tales of the River Bank’ was on TV. I used to absolutely love the theme music that was played at the beginning and the end, way ahead of me learning to play guitar. Many years later after I’d recorded my own version of it I found out it was written by Giuliani [Mauro Giuliani] and it was called ‘Andante in C’. I believe it was a Canadian guitarist that played that piece and claimed it as his own and so probably got the publishing rights for it way back in the day, so yeah nefarious stuff. I had no idea it wasn’t an original piece, it was written by an Italian composer who wrote, I gather, many guitar things. I just absolutely loved it, there’s something about the simple sweetness of that, a very old fashioned sound that that was recorded with, when you heard it on the BBC, early recordings of nylon guitar. Reminds me of my childhood too, so connection to that as well.
The Tour will run from April 26th to May 19th. For more info visit here