A conversation with ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett

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Guitarist Steve Hackett at the Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario on November 28, 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Barrie

The following is a phone interview between music journalist Kevin Barrie and ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett on Tuesday December 1, 2015 exclusively for Music Life Magazine. This took place the afternoon before Steve’s second show at the Oakville Centre For the Performing Arts in Oakville, Ontario.

I thought we’d start with talking about something you mentioned at your show on Saturday [November 28th at Budweiser Gardens, London, Ontario] – a fantastic show all around by the way – something that many people may not know about, a connection to Canada.

Well, my parents emigrated to Canada in 1957. I was seven at that time and my brother was two. And, unfortunately we didn’t get to stay, although I fell in love with Canada. And, I think, you know, a seven year old is much more adaptable than a grownup, and I fell in love with the place.

We emigrated, we went to Vancouver and it was a great adventure for me. We went to school there. We lived just around the corner from a place called Jericho Beach, literally a beach on the doorstep. And it was very beautiful.

I went back there last year and have pictures from there, and it’s really quite lovely to see it again. It’s remarkably unchanged – a few places have changed, some are the same.

Essentially it’s the same street, same houses, same look. It’s gone a little bit more upmarket since the time when we were there. But, you know, it was very nice. I discovered where the school was, that I used to visit, where the Hollywood cinema was, Mcbride’s Park, and all those sort of little things that were a part of my life then.

I was a bit curious though, at the London gig it wasn’t mentioned, but if you remember, London, Ontario was the first gig with Phil as lead singer.

Oh, yeah – I remember that gig very well because Phil was very nervous. Yeah, that was difficult for him. There was a guy dressed up exactly like Peter Gabriel right in front of the stage, dressed up exactly like Pete was, first row – dressed the same as Pete was for Watcher of the Skies, batwings on the head and everything, and for the whole gig this guy just stood in front of him, the implication being that “You are the imposter and Gabriel is king!” and that was a very difficult one for him to weather. But, you know, such is the nature of first gigs. You know, Phil was great and he proved to be very accomplished.

I think history has spoken to that…

Sure, that’s right!

Let’s move on to your solo stuff here, the main bulk of what I’d like to talk about. You’ve called this tour Acolyte to Wolflight, and for the solo stuff on this tour, it focuses on material from those albums (with some others in there as well). Could you compare and contrast those two albums? Is there a way in which they connect with you, or is something between them that has remained the same throughout your career or some significance?

I suppose there are aspects that remain the same. I think maybe there’s a certain spirit that links them. I think I’m a different person than the one that made the one in 1975. I was a huge Mellotron addict at the time. Much of what was written for those songs for Acolyte had been written on the keyboard, that’s me trying to express myself on keyboard as a writer, working out
guitar parts perhaps as an afterthought. But, it was an extraordinary time [being my] first solo effort.

If you don’t mind me saying, even the titles hint at something as to what may be different, with the word “acolyte” meaning one who assists (maybe you had a different meaning in mind) and “wolflight” talking more about a leadership and freedom.

Well, in a way, you know, you’re quite right in terms of the analysis of that, but the reality is that it [Voyage of the Acolyte] was a title that was suggested to me by the record company – Tony Stratton Smith [Charisma Records] . I had another title in mind which I eventually have used for a boxed set retrospective of Charisma albums called Premonitions, the original title. The record
company were less keen on that. Tony suggested the title Voyage of the Acolyte because he’d had that in mind for the title for something, for another potential project. I think from the two titles I refer Premonition [sic – Premonitions] because I felt it was a sign of things to come perhaps.

And then, as regards Wolflight, I think perhaps what’s similar is that there is a kind of gothic atmosphere to it. Apart from that…I think that Acolyte was the biggest orchestral sound I could amass with the available technology and manpower. When it came to Wolflight, decades later, I was working with perhaps not exactly more people but in terms of technology and being able to
either track things up or back them with samples, I think I was able to do a more convincing version of what an orchestra can do. I was taking a leaf out of Jeff Lynne’s book in terms of not having a huge symphony orchestra but having string players which were tracked up.

You mentioned a gothic theme there. I remember when I was about 11 or 12 (circa 1992), the time of my first exposure to Genesis, through a documentary called Genesis: A History and you mentioned that the band was going towards more directly romantic songs, but you were more interested in the romance of times and places, and it sounds like something that has remained throughout your career. Certainly, you’ve had your more standard romance songs, but this continues to be a theme as well.

I think I was concerned with storytelling and things that romance times and places rather than the mating ritual itself. Having said that, Wolflight has got some very straight ahead love songs on it. Again, there’s normally a sense of place, of time in it, but something more direct – the first time I’ve really been able to do that. I have written love songs in the past, but I think that they
feel more successful and more joyful because I’m in a better place in my head and heart at this point in time.

Basically my wife and I collaborate on all sorts of things. We write things together, we travel the world together. We are always together and that works out really well. Two heads are better than one – certainly two hearts are better than one!

That’s a great way of putting it. I’ve noticed that you’ve had a lot of the same musicians on your album for a while now. Do you find yourself writing for them, in the same sense that an artist like Steven Wilson has stated that he writes for his musicians, or is this perhaps a fulfillment of what you were trying to do with a consistent band back in the 70s on your early albums, that didn’t work out for what seems to be financial or logistical reasons?

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Guitarist Steve Hackett at the Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario on November 28, 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Barrie

Well, yeah, that’s a long time ago now. And you’re quite right, financial pressures curtailed something that I think would have continued, but you know, there was the advent of technology and it suddenly became easier for a two- or three-man team to make an album, as opposed to a five-man team. But it’s just the way things worked out.

Moving on to a slightly different topic, you’ve recently re-released a lot of your older material in surround form, working specifically with Steven Wilson. Can you speak about this and your connection with Steven Wilson, he seems to be quite prolific these days. What is it about him that attracted you to work with him?

I made an album with Ian Mosley [of Marillion, the album titled Postmankind, and released in 2001 under the names of Ian Mosley and Ben Castle], or rather I was a guest on it – he was working with Ben Castle. Ben Castle is the son of the late great multi-instrumentalist and comedian [Roy Castle] who was a household name in England. He inherited much of his father’s abilities, charm…It was really in a way Ben’s album in the main – you know, we all worked around it. Steven Wilson was brought in to mix it, and I wasn’t really aware of who he was and I was struck by how well it was mixed and how much more powerful it sounded after
the event. The drum sound alone was improved enormously, and I thought well, very interesting.

Then many years later I got to meet Steven who said to me, “If you’re ever thinking of doing a surround sound mix of Please Don’t Touch, I would really like to do it because,” he said, “for me, when I was eleven years old hearing that for the first time, it was really my Sgt. Pepper”. He held it in high esteem, obviously heard it at an age when for him it could do no wrong at that point in time. I was aware of the fact he was working with a number of people and doing remixes of many of the bands that I’d either grown up listening to or worked with, many guys for example from Yes, in various ways. Over time we became friends and he did a remix of Please Don’t Touch and a remix of Spectral Mornings and some upmixes [to surround] from stereo mixes of Acolyte and Defector – those four albums. He also did stereo remixes of both the middle albums [Please Don’t Touch and Spectral Mornings]. Having said that, some years earlier we did remasters from the original mixes, and I think we used that really pretty much as the template for how it was going to sound. All of it has got an expanded feel to it, and it’s a boxed set, it’s called Premonitions and it’s the Charisma years from 1975 to ’83.

I believe you got Roger Dean [famous for Yes album covers] to do the cover?

That’s right! We got Roger Dean to do it, because, in a way, it’s the era that he’s associated with and my wife Jo and I felt that, again, having spent time with Roger Dean and having gotten to know him very well I found him a fascinating character, not just as an artist, but also as a thinker. Again, we have friends in common. So, it’s part extension of our social life, but it’s nice at this late stage of the game to know people who are immensely gifted and clever and hardworking and try very hard to please when they do something. In Steven Wilson’s case, whether he’s making or doing remixes for Jethro Tull or Yes or King Crimson or a whole ton of them, bands who were broad-based much the same as Genesis were….so it’s been a very fruitful collaborative process..

You’ve mentioned and brought up in many interviews that you feel you are always getting better and feel like you are at a peak in your career. What do you do to make that happen, and what, if any, major breakthroughs have happened for you recently?

I think there are fewer distractions from writing and recording great music at this point in time. First and foremost is my relationship with Jo, who is sitting just a few feet away and waving. She’s a very very hardworking, very focused person. So whilst I’m talking to you, she’s working on something else over there, and I’ll find out what that is at some point….between us, we’ve become an absolute powerhouse. Whatever I aspired to in the past and whatever my achievements were, seem so little in retrospect compared to the potential of now, because we are focused firmly in this direction that suits both of us. For instance, she loves to travel, she’s part historian, part writer, part film-maker – all of those things, it means wherever we go there is nowhere that is uninteresting. Everywhere has interest – its history interests us. She’s got a prodigious memory of dates and facts – various things that I struggle with personally, but my head’s full of riffs and symphonic possibilities, but the combination of the two of us is mighty. A lot of it is down to the fact that we’ve invited people in. We don’t distinguish between fans and friends, so that’s widened our social circle magnificently. It’s made my life a lot easier…

As I say, we collaborate – it’s very interesting – it’s rare that we’re at odds about the final product of something musically, it’s very rare. In the main, we feed each other with ideas, of melodies, harmonies, and lyrical ideas. It is truly wonderful for me at this stage, because, you know, I’d acquired a number of skills, as you do, if you’re in for the long-haul as a musician.

But, over and above that, for another person to have a conceptual brain to bear on things, is something where we can pass the ball backwards and forwards to each other, even with the fine detail of something, and if she doesn’t like something she’ll tell me why, and it’s usually very constructive. She’ll say something like, for instance, you could stick in a variation there as opposed to just groove on a pulse. At times, she can be very honest and direct about this, and she’ll say that musicians often like to stick in the groove, but that melody and the variation of the melody is what good writing is all about.

So, that’s very good, because making music is potentially an exhausting process, and just when you’re really tired thinking “oh, that’s about right”, someone else’s energy says at the end of a long slog that “maybe this next bit could develop thusly, and maybe you could flesh that out a bit with something” – and she’ll come up with melodies and have ideas, top line harmonies sometimes. Chords tend to be my thing, but we can share it.

Her father was a violinist and her grandfather a violinist and she’s inherited all that, you know, she was taught that as a child.

So she sometimes sings, and sometimes it’s her sister Amanda. I have worked with her, and it’s a lovely vocal sound, the combination of the two or the three voices. I’m a great believer in vocal harmonies and love what they can do.

That’s something that seems to be very prominent in your music and that I saw on Saturday night [in London Ontario]. You weren’t singing lead by yourself a lot, but you produce a unique sound between your band and yourself with harmonies.

Yeah, exactly – you can still, even with harmonies, extract something that works with a certain kind of style if you can orientate towards the lead line in any one particular melody, for instance, something like Loving Sea, where I take the top part. That’s really at the top of my comfortable range, I’m really operating in the area that Graham Nash might operate, or Jon Anderson, and
when I worked with Chris Squire on the Squackett album (Squire and Hackett), with the late great Chris Squire, I was tending to take the top part of the harmony. But then we filled up the range between us. It’s just that properly supported, it’s the higher parts that I can do – they don’t just sound high and thin and screechy, but very musical. And I go into kind of a half falsetto that
my voice seems to be comfortable with – I’m singing in natural voice, but there’s part falsetto in it. I think that the ability to sound like different singers where I’m taking different parts of the range and I think I’ve got three different people in my vocal range that sort of break, from the low part, which is a kind of country voice capability, and there’s a middle area, and then there’s a break here, if I try and ascend, and have to go into falsetto where I sing louder, there’s a kind of a fault line in it, but then everything above that becomes another kind of singer.

It’s funny, singing is an absolute voyage in discovery the whole time. Each time I go at the song and the writing of the song, I find it potentially very very interesting now that I’ve understood some of the things that constitute what I love about other singers, never mind myself, but the ability to hold a note or vibrato it, where it’s placed.

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Guitarist Steve Hackett at the Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario on November 28, 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Barrie

Certainly a long way from the days when you sang The Hermit [off Voyage of the Acolyte], there has been a huge vocal development over your career.

When I was singing The Hermit, I was trying to sound like Donovan. There’s nothing wrong with Donovan’s voice, but that was very different, and quite low….Yeah, it’s a different vibe. But that’s one kind of voice, for instance. I think any singer, in fact, all of us, have a number of different voices within us, and you have to bring them out.

I was able to work with Richie Havens, the human voice, with the most beautiful instrument in the world, and in a way that was a vocal lesson from the master. When I worked with Steve Walsh on the same album, Please Don’t Touch, fine singer with incredible range, incredibly high range – he said to me, you know, you’ve got a good voice, it’s just untrained. At that moment in time I wasn’t doing much singing, I was singing demos. He said you’ve got a good voice, it’s just untrained. Now I don’t know what he did to train himself. But, since then, I think it’s just a case of practice.

Developing your own sound?

I think so, yeah.

If we could end on a bit of a random question. With the aforementioned Please Don’t Touch album, you recorded the title track, which it has been stated was originally rehearsed with Genesis for the Wind and Wuthering album, your last album with the group. I’ve read it stated that one of the reasons the song was not recorded in the end was that Phil could not get behind it (so to speak). Do you find it ironic, then, that Chester Thompson ended up recording the track [Steve indicates that this is correct, regarding Chester’s playing the track] – is there anything your remember about this?

Well….at that time, we rehearsed what became Please Don’t Touch as Genesis. I felt it was very strong, I was very disappointed when it wasn’t used on the album. But, if I could borrow a line from the I Ching, which is “work on that which has been spoiled”, I think it perfectly applies to music. You can take an idea which you feel has not worked or has been overlooked and represent that same idea – re-record it, re-jig it in every way imaginable and turn it into a triumph, so I thought the team who eventually played it did a wonderful job on it.

It was teamwork that made it work, It wasn’t an easy song to do, very difficult to play, but both Chester and Tom Fowler had worked in Frank Zappa’s band and they were saying that it reminded them of some of Zappa’s work.

All I can say is I felt it was very strong – I mean, it is very progressive, with its changes of time signature, and odd length bars, and the use of five [time signature]. I went all out to make that track sound as good as it does. I have to say it sounded better with that team playing it than it did with Genesis. Although I was disappointed that Genesis didn’t play it, I think that it [the team] turned in a superior performance of it.

In fact originally it was joined to Wot Gorilla – it was essentially the same kind of rhythm. It was the Wot Gorilla part that was saved for Wind and Wuthering, but I felt it was the less strong aspect of what we’d been working on, so I was determined to do that and bring it to fruition. Some songs you love so much it ends up costing you your job in the band, you know, and I thought “this is it – this is the flagship for my new career.” I wasn’t allowed to do that whilst I was in Genesis – I wasn’t allowed to have a parallel solo career at that time, solo careers were considered to be divisive, but nonetheless I figured you can’t keep a good idea down and I’m not really interested in having stillborn ideas for the rest of my life. If I have a good idea, I want to record it, I want to do it. I don’t care whether that means I’ve got to pull out all the stops to do it and upset some people if necessary, but at the end of the day my allegiance is first and foremost to music.

Genesis – great band, love the music, I’ve got no problem with that, but as I’ve said before on this album, it’s in the lyrics, it’s in the subtext, it’s freedom and freedom to be able to create, and do what you do, I think, is paramount for any artist who wants to have a seriously long career.

I think that’s a great spot to end. There are a lot of us – even myself – who, while they still remained fans of the band [Genesis] after, I’m grateful as so many people are, for your work as it is. It stands on its own as wonderful music. People might complain that when you left, Genesis went that way but that meant that we got your music and it’s meant so much to a lot of us.

Yeah, there was schism at that point, but you gained something – whatever Genesis was turned into something else.

But then that was the beginning and the birth of something else – you know, phoenix from the ashes.

Absolutely! Thank you so very much for your time. Best of luck in your show and future shows.

Pleasure talking. All the best!

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