Interview by Thomas Mangano
We talked with Guitarist /Composer Steve Hackett by telephone in Clearwater Florida where he is currently on his world tour entitled, “Genesis Extended”. Steve is well known for his groundbreaking guitar work with the band Genesis, but he is also a veteran solo artist and composer. His style has influenced decades of musicians. We are pleased to present this interview and the profile of a most remarkable career in music.
LBFH: Good morning Steve.
SH: Good morning to you, how are you today?
LBFH: Very well, thanks!
Steve, your new tour features the songs of Genesis? What inspired this new visitation of the old work?
SH: Well now, some years ago – in the mid-nineties, I revisited some of theGenesis work and I did a number of my favorites at the time, Watcher of the Skies, Firth of Fifth, Dance On a Volcano and I did a couple of shows to support it back then. Basically I’d formed a band, we did four shows in Japan and they were a big success, but I couldn’t really keep the band together for any substantial length of time because it was full of well known individuals who had commitments to their own careers. Looking back over the whole of the band’s history, I thought there could be so many more albums of this stuff if I wanted to. The drive was always to do enlarged versions of the Genesis songs. In other words, to be able to use, you know, the original stuff, the same kind of line up but augment it with orchestra. Enlarge the thing so that the orchestral moments would sound truly orchestral and use the experience of now to be able to in-form the work, using the technology of now as well to make sure that they were really pristine versions that were absolutely in time and in tune and I would get each instrument as bright as I would like to get it. Plus, the experience of being a guitarist, 40 years later revisiting the same material, you change as a player. I can do things now that I could only have dreamt of way back then.
LBFH: You saw this then as an opportunity to take creative license?
SH: Well I thought, if I’m going to revisit this stuff, I thought authenticity was the most important thing. Now I was going to choose songs, favorites from all over the years 1971 through 1977. At the back of my mind was the thought that, yes, well though I’m making an album of this stuff, really what I’d want to do is to go out and play a show entirely of Genesis stuff. I’d got to the point where I’d include one or two Genesis numbers with my regular band and that was expanding to fill about 1/3 of the set in the end. I thought, well you know, if I go the whole way, I wonder if the Genesis audience will accept this. You see there was a sense of whatever the band was, what it involved, Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, Phil Collins and myself, there’s a sense that there was an abandoning of the original ethos and the style which we approached the music with. The idea of music with no rules, that ethos, was something that reigned supreme in the 70’s. Now I think in the 80’s music had become much more accountable. Artists were expected to deliver hit singles. I had hit singles either under my own name or with GTR and Steve Howe and with Genesis, but you know hit singles were a very occasional thing. Basically, I’m an albums artist. I believe in albums, I believe in the musical journey, the musical continuum, the idea that you listen to a piece of work and it takes you to different places. I think that’s probably a case of having grown up in the 1960’s and seeing The Beatles evolved to the point where they were doing Sgt. Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour. You felt they were just more than individual songs it seemed to be more how these songs related to each other, these little sorts of vignettes, these portraits. They seemed to be scenes within a whole film or tapestry if you like. So I thought it was important to have the whole. You know hit singles have never really been that important to me, and even though I’ve been involved with them from time to time, I almost feel that it’s an indulgence to have a hit. I know that might sound strange. Because it’s like, what happens if you have a hit? Suddenly, you know with GTR, suddenly I’ve got girls writing to me, young teenage girls (laughs) and you know I spent time recording all sorts of stuff including bits of Bach and Eric Satie and odd classical stuff and doing a blues album and lots of things that are deliberately at opposite sides of the spectrum. I never thought pop star was really on the agenda. You don’t, you know what I mean? We had a glossy video done in the mid 80’s and suddenly with enough kind lighting. You know what I mean?
LBFH: It’s interesting that you were concerned with what Genesis fans might think of your versions. I think it might be that original Genesis fans saw your departure from the band as almost heroic In that you wanted to stay true to your values.
LBFH: You have done many interviews over the years and have been asked many questions about Genesis. Some questions perhaps too many times? Are there any questions that you wish had been asked, but never were?
SH: Well you know I’ve never been very good at the self interview school of things, so I’ve always tried to respond honestly to every question. Some of them really throw me for a loop of course. (Laughs) Struck dumb! Silence! I was doing a Russian interview; basically I was being asked the most unlikely questions, like, “can you tell us of a musical incidence…” I realized, I’m not programmed that way! Yeah, I can give you music, but I don’t have a whole list of funny anecdotes. Peter Ustinov is the most wonderful interviewee. You ask the guy one question and he can go on for a half an hour, you know as a gifted raconteur. Well, that’s not really my style. But yeah, there were funny things that happened. You know, like trying to mix a track at 5 in the morning and having just poured myself a cup of black coffee and sitting on the couch. Suddenly, the other guys hear this scream from me because I’d fallen asleep and poured the coffee all over myself. They found that very funny. A certain amount of “Schadenfreude” there. The German word for (laughs) enjoying the misfortune of others. But you know. Sorry, carry on.
LBFH: Are you a self taught Guitarist?
SH: Yeah, I was. My father showed me three chords at first and I learned listening to single lines by Hank Marvin from The Shadows, Hank and The Shadows was Cliff Richards backing bands. And Cliff was the nearest thing to Elvis that the Britt’s had, and I think The Shadows were the nearest thing to The Ventures that you guys had over here. So I think they covered very much about the same material. In fact, guitar bands sounding like the cowboy theme tunes like “Apache”, back in the days when guitars used to go “Twang” and everything sounded a little bit like the Bonanza theme. Guitar hadn’t learned to scream yet, at that time, you know, guitars went Twang! “Didalang, didalang”, (laugh).
LBFH: The first song I ever learned to play was Helpless by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. It was a 3 chord song, and it worked like a dream, what was the first song Steve Hackett ever earned to play?
SH: Oh my god, well, you mentioned CSNY, who I still have tremendous regard for, great harmonies, great songs, great vibe and all of that. I think it was Bob Dylan’s blowing in the wind, it might be that. I remember Peter Paul & Mary did a fantastic version of that, it seemed so impassioned, almost revivalist sounding. There was something about it, you know, the peace movement in the early days that was so personal. There was so much to fight against. So yeah, a whole bunch of Dylan tunes, folk tunes, Beatles tunes. Just the ones you could do with three chords, of course. I used to play harmonica at the same time, so harmonica and guitar at the same time, I hadn’t heard of a harmonica holder, you see, so I’d be trying to play this thing on top of the chest of drawers at home (laughs) bent over with the guitar. There were no photographs of that moment fortunately, (laughs), harmonica falling on the floor, crushed guitars. Yeah, but that’s the early days, self taught yes.
LBFH: New recording technology and home studios make it easy to develop ideas quickly. Back in the day, the process of working out ideas was more involved. Do you find that your creative process has been changed due to these advancements?
SH: Well, I have friends these days who record at home, such as Steven Wilson, who is tremendously talented. Steven said that his studio is basically the size of his computer, so your TV screen is your recording studio these days. All the rest is just window dressing, unless you’re actually recording drums live, real drummer or real orchestra and need real space for that, the home studio basically affords you the ability these days to record guitars, you don’t have to have it loud and screaming to achieve a great guitar sound. The tyranny of volume is no longer there, it’s all in the mind of the perpetrator. So when I work these days in the studio, I don’t use real amplifiers anymore. I use stuff that’s within the box. I use my pedals to augment it. I’ve pretty much managed to get every sound I’ve wanted like that.
LBFH: I was on your website Hackett songs
LBFH: I reviewed your list of equipment and I was surprised to see just how simple the Steve Hackett rack was. You create such complex and wonderful sounds with your guitar.
SH: Yes, well live I do use a couple of Marshalls, I use a line 6 that gives me a more “fuzz boxy” sound and I use effects, but I like to be flexible about this. I have masses of things in my studio, but I hardly ever use them really, you know, they hardly ever come out these days. I find I go back to the same things time after time. I have an E-bow and I use that if I’m using my Les Paul for instance and I want some extra sustain. Those have developed over time, the E-bows, very clever device for making the strings sustain and, but then I use Fernandez guitars, which have got an onboard sustainer pickup and that’s very, very effective. The combination of that and tremolo arm, makes for a very heavy guitar because of the extra metal work on it, but it does make a wonderful sound.
LBFH: On the subject of studios, an interesting footnote in Genesis history is the involvement of Brian Eno during the Lamb recordings. How is it that Brian was brought into that mix?
SH: Brian came in and did some treatments; he worked with us for one day, precisely one day. I believe that Peter had invited him in, but it may have been Phil that was working with him as well. Phil Collins was working with Eno and I think it was on Another Green World. He was a breath of fresh air, he came in with whole bunch of boxes, and little stuff and he was saying stuff like oh you know you can make something sound very different with the way it’s mastered and all that. And I think, you know, he was able to, perhaps because he wasn’t part of the band, for a day he didn’t have time to get limited by band politics or to say things that he shouldn’t have said, you know he just came in as an honest enthusiast and we stared doing voice treatments and some treatments on guitar as well. He had one device whatever you sang came out “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” (laughs), you know whatever words you were singing, so that was extraordinary, its very, very funny. I ended up using that some years later on a track and the words are “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah”. So yeah, I enjoyed working with him very, very much. He was a great fan. Percy Jones as well who was with Brand X, and I got to work with Percy on another project a little bit later on. So yeah, that was how I saw him at the time. He’d worked with Roxy, but he was not considered at that time to be a hugely successful producer, I mean he had not worked with U2 or anything. As I say, energy and enthusiasm count for a lot, you know he was like a kid in a candy store. That’s what translates.
LBFH: Have you ever been approached to produce an album?
SH: I was approached to produce a single for a band called Night Wing, which is where the singer Max Bacon came from, with GTR. I produced a track of theirs. I asked max if he was interested in teaming up with me and Steve Howe and GTR, but I’ve never really wandered into the arena of producing other artists, but you know it’s one of the things I’m open to. People don’t think of me in that way, they think, this guys a guitarist but I’ve done orchestrations, I’ve done a little with film. Production? Yeah, a little bit of it. I would say I was open to that. Having said that, I’m working almost flat out with touring and with recording work myself so I’d have to create time in the schedule if anyone asked me to do it, but so far Celine Dion has not called me (laughs), but when she does… I’ll say to her you need more control of this.. (laughs) I would like to think, seriously, if I was offered something it might be a case of no guitars required, absolutely. But I do love the world of sound. I’m a reverb Junkie I love to flood things in lots of reverb and that’s just the way it is. I still love the sound of River Deep Mountain High; you know a big wall of sound and loads of reverb.
LBFH: I think I can speak for most of your fans who would say they are pretty glad for the reverb.
SH: Yeah that’s it! I’m always having arguments with engineers over this. Oh, there’s too much echo on that guitar.., well you know, that’s the way I hear it. Not always of course, because I like it dry as well, but it all depends. I like the contrast you know. Distant guitar and up front guitar and I love what reverb does to voices as well
LBFH: Engineers tend to want to clean tracks?
SH: Well there’s that, yes. Often there’s a case of wanting to leave it until the mix. If I do guitar for someone else, what I do is I usually work at home or in my own studio. I do a version that I think has the right amount of reverb repeat on it and I’ll send them a dry mix as well so they can make it to taste. I think though over time people begin to see it my way more, because if they want it to sound like me, wheeling and floating doing all that haunting stuff…
LBFH: You like to be in control?
SH: I try to vary it, guitars are very malleable things, but if you think of it (music) like a painting, then the perspective or the idea of is this in the distance or in my face is clearer. A tree in the distance looks very different than the one that’s in the foreground. I think visually with music, where are you going to place a sound, so I do think like a producer, certainly.
LBFH: Are you and artist?
SH: I’m not a visual artist, my father was. He made a living by paining wonderful paintings as it happens. But his skill did not translate to me or my brother. Luckily my father was also a gifted musician and he was able to play lots of different instruments. All for fun, of course! That skill he did pass on thankfully.
LBFH: I know you’re on a tight schedule and we promised Jo we would stay true to our time plan, we had so many questions..
SH: Well, I can give you another 5 if that’s ok. I have to pack and get ready you know. (Laughs)
LBFH: Yes, I believe your off now for the “Cruise to the edge” ?
SH: That’s right, sure.
LBFH: These theme cruises are becoming quite popular. As a fan, I would totally enjoy it because it seems so intimate, but as the performer do you find the proximity to your audience off the stage a little intense?
SH: Well you know, I spent a lot of time on the last cruise. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it. The idea of spending your time in splendid isolation in your cabin is less fun than mixing with people. So yes there are times when it can get a little overwhelming, but you know I really love to talk to the audience, just preferably not all at once. But when its one on one, I can certainly do that. You know over here on this side, we recently started doing a meet and greet before the concert. It’s a bit more containable like this. Otherwise, you can end up getting very tired before and after a show doing that if there’s lots and lots of fans with tons of albums they want signed. But any way, I don’t have a problem mixing with passengers.
LBFH: Steve, it’s been a true pleasure to speak with you. We have a signature closing question.
The great musician Roy Ayers had a wonderful quote, he said:
The true beauty of music is that it connects people. It carries a message, and we, the musicians, are the messengers.
What message do you hope to bring to audiences with your music?
SH: Oh it’s a funny thing. I do have spiritual beliefs. I personally believe that life goes on. I do subscribe to the idea of some kind of afterlife. When I did probably my most popular album, Spectral Mornings, the theme was the idea of survival, spiritual survival. Bodily death, survival of spirit. I think underlying a lot of what I do is the idea of tragedy and triumph; you know which is facing all of us. Life is either seen as a complete tragedy, because no matter what you do life will grind you down to that inevitable end in one way or another. Or, you see it in terms that we’re here for a while and nobody really knows why. Nobody knows if there’s a presiding deity or not at the end of the day or whether we are all that in ourselves, individually. I feel somewhere down the line that there’s this thing that music gives people strength, it gives people hope. It builds them up in a way that you can’t put your finger on. Why, when I was a lovelorn teenager, what it was about blues that gave me strength, the anguish of every note, very tortured notes. There was something that spoke to me. There was something that spoke to me with classical music as well, overcoming adversity. The idea that one day you’re going to fly! That’s always been at the root of it for me, there was always that idea of this battlefield Earth and we’ve all got to go through it. I’m giving you a very long answer here because I can’t diminish my response to it
LBFH: That’s ok, it’s very powerful
SH: Yes, I feel that there’s some kind of spiritual message that comes through music. Something very, very sweet. If there’s a language in heaven, and if heaven exists, than that language has to be music. It says so much more than just mere words. That’s how I see it.
LBFH: Well said, Steve. It’s been a true pleasure speaking with you. We wish you the best of luck on the rest of your tour!
SH: The pleasure has been all mine, thanks and all the best!
About the interviewer:
Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY. He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to professionals in film and media industries. He is also the founding member of the Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.
To learn more about Thomas, Please visit hi website: Thomasmangano.com