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Steve Hackett Interview: Beyond The Shrouded Riffs

Colos-Saal, Aschaffenburg, 23/11/2011

Before his performance at the Colos-Saal in Aschaffenburg, Germany, Helmut Janisch and Christian Gerhardts found Steve Hackett in a good, but also traditionally thoughtful Steve Hackett, and found out what he thinks about touring, the fans, his rediscovered affection for his past in Genesis and his plans for the future.

GNC: You are quite a lot on tour these days. Is that because you do it for fun or for the money that comes from it instead of  record sales or …?

Steve: I do it because it's the thing I love to do. I like to be on tour, and it's not out of financial considerations. It's because of the intention to keep playing music live until the inevitable time comes when it's impossible to do that. That seems to be some time away. I do enjoy playing live very much. It motivates me, it's probably the biggest motivating force.

GNC: Do you feel better on stage these days than, say, ten or twenty years ago??

Steve: I'll tell what's good about now is that technology is more controllable. In order to get a great sound you don't have to turn up that loud on stage, although I do sometimes play very loud on stage. Much of the time I play quite quietly on stage. The sound is not dependent on having a lot of volume. It's self-contained, it's not a volume-based sound, it's something that can be played in a whisper and still sound powerful. When I recorded stuff at home some years ago I was getting a big guitar sound that still sounded like it was a lot of amplifiers but actually it was done very small. You can get a very powerful sound without having to be loud for recording. ??

GNC: How do you put together a setlist? Do you have a plan or do you just try out what works when you fix a setlist before the show??

Steve: I try to do about half an hour's worth of new material from the new album. The rest is over the whole of the history, and it's designed to show off what the people can do on stage. There's a couple of solos that I thought Rob played really fantastically in the past and I brought those two back, Walking Away From Rainbows and Serpentine Song, also because I think the harmonies on Serpentine Song sound very good with everyone's voices on stage, particularly with Amanda, with me and everybody else. I like to think we do a better version of that than we used to be able to do. I get benefits from having a female voice.

GNC: How do you decide which songs to take? For example, whether to do five songs or only one?

?Steve: Well, I'll tell you what. Funnily enough, when I was playing in London a year ago at Shepherds Bush, Steven Wilson joined the band onstage for a couple of numbers, and he suggested playing Shadow Of The Hierophant. I hadn't played that for many years. Originally he was going to sing it, and then he said „I can't sing that“, but he suggested it. I tried it with Amanda's voice, and we changed the key to suit her voice. We started playing it live and it seems to have become a favourite of people live, with audience. The reaction of audiences defines it, I think. Over time I found what people respond to. All of it is driven by the consideration of delivering the kind of show to an audience that they want to hear and things that I enjoy myself playing live as well.

1GNC: It has become quite fashionable among other artists to play whole albums when they play a live show. Have you ever considered doing that with one of your own albums?

Steve: Probably in the future. At this point I like to cherry-pick across all of the possibilities. I'm going to change it in the future. I think this will be the last time we will operate in this manner.

GNC: But you won't tell us which album it will be?

Steve: No. - I'm working towards an idea for the future at the moment. There are plans afoot, but I have to go through this first of all. And funnily enough, I am really enjoying this. I was thinking „How are we going to play these songs?“ They are really difficult to do live, like Waking For Life – so very difficult to do live, but I've been enjoying doing it. It is different, live, to the way it's on the album. The subtleties are lost, but the power is there, if you know what I mean.

GNC: Ten years ago I saw you on the To Watch The Storms tour, and you were playing a lot of Genesis material. You play even more Genesis now. What’s the reason for this?

Steve: I'll tell you why. Because the Hackett material and the Genesis material were really one and the same thing, and I think it's time to, on the one hand, claim your heritage and at the same time to allow as much audience participation as possible. Some audiences sing along with every note of old Genesis songs like Carpet Crawlers and Firth of Fifth, during the whole version of that song. Years ago I used to do just a bit of a medley of Genesis things, a bit here and a bit there. Listening to audiences over the time they said they really felt cheated by the medley approach. They wanted to hear the whole thing. So I said „okay, let's see if we can do the whole thing including the piano introduction, which Genesis never did live. So it's giving them „Hackett plus“ and „Genesis plus“ in some cases.

GNC: Nick Beggs is not part of the band now...

Steve: Not at the moment, no. He's touring with Steven Wilson, whose album I'm on as well, so we've both played on Steven Wilson's album to give him a helping hand.

GNC: Will he be back at some point or are the new guys a permanent replacement?

Steve: What happened was the shows he had arranged with Steven Wilson were booked before these shows, and there are several reasons for that. I was trying to incorporate an agent into booking shows for me at one point, and you have to allow people a certain amount of time to see if they're going to perform and come up with those things. I left it for him to do that, and then we found he wasn't really coming up with the stuff. So we decided again to do it with Brian Coles, [the tour manager] but it meant that there was a time gap, you know, six months. Mind you, it was a very productive period because I was able to work on the album, work on the DVD which is now on sale, the shows and – I wouldn't say it was an unproductive time but everytime you try a change there is a possibility of somebody delivering or somebody not delivering that. I had to be very pragmatic about it and I find that if somebody doesn't provide that level of service that I need that I move on. Meanwhile Nick Beggs is working with Steven and that's fine. There are two people who I've worked with in the past who I think are very good. One of the is Phil Mulford, who is playing on this show, but also Lee Pomroy who I've worked with in Japan. He's very good. He's gonna be part of the shows in the new year. They're all very very good. You know, I've been spoiled for choice.

GNC: You used to have guest singers on your albums. Nowadays you seem more comfortable singing yourself. Are you thinking about using guest singers again?

3Steve: Maybe in the future I might use guest singers for a specific project, perhaps, and collaborations. Singing live is something that is important to me. It is important to sing, I think. Over the time I've developed a range, the ability to sing ballads and rock stuff, and I think my voice changed as well. Something happened physically, I don't know what it is, but it sounds better than it used to. I think with experience you can make a voice sound better. You have to be aware that singer don't sound the same for life. Their voices change. It reaches a peak, and then it gets weaker, I think. You might start out weak and then you get stronger. But unlike a guitar you cannot just tune it and say „There it is, it's in tune, it's fixed“. Singing is a lot about psychology and learned also to sing in the style that was a kind of ballad style, and I was drawing from the idea of the old star singers that were called 'crooners' where they would crescendo into every note. Freddie Mercury used a certain amount of that when he was singing in a ballad voice, a crooning, so he would not always be shouting. It's a way of fading in the voice on a note and using vibrato. Vibrato is important for me, just like vibrato for a guitar playing and a harmonica player. Singing with vibrato is something I worked very hard in the studio to get it right. I used to say to people, „Oh, I play guitar and I sing a bit“, but these days I say „Yeah, I sing and I play the guitar and I do both“. I've no problem with that. I've no problem listening to the sound of my own voice. There's a lot of singer who I've liked very much who didn't like the sound of their voices. Jimi Hendrix didn't like the sound of his voice, Peter Green didn't like the sound of his voice, and I felt these two people were great guitarists and singers. I think over time singing can come quite naturally. You just have to practise it. It's like actors. It's all a question of whether you give yourself permission to adopt certain role. It's a lot to do with psychology. Singing isn't just about voices, it's about telling a story with your voice. And it's about living the song, too, in a way where it has a certain amount of authenticity. I think you can't hold back, you have to throw yourself very much into the role. That's something I didn't really understand when I first started singing, because you also have to have the possibility to have a kind of repertoire to be able to indulge that, I think. I don't do a lot of rock screaming live, I don't do that. I tend to make it more gentle and use harmonies. But on record I like to stretch it very much.

GNC: I recently spoke with another singer who plays the guitar, Ray Wilson. What is more likely, you playing guitar on his album or he singing on yours?

Steve: I don't know! It is long overdue that I spent some time with him. Did you say Steven Wilson or did you say Ray Wilson? Ray Wilson. I think he's obviously gonna call me to sing on his records. [smiles]

GNC: So are you up for a collaboration - because I know he would love to do something with you.

Steve: It would be nice, I agree. I think he's very good and got a very good voice.

GNC: But there are no plans.

Steve: I haven't got any plans at the moment, no. No plans. All is up in the air at the moment. I have many plans, but I can't say this is for certain what we're going to do. At the moment I'm touring this album, and I'm very happy to do that because I think the material on some of this new stuff – as I said, I feel as if I'm living in the song. That's important to me. I get emotionally affected by it. It's more than just a song. It's courage, it's honour, it's a spiritual need to do those things. It is fun to do, and it is also challenging.

GNC: Could you imagine being a support act to a large concert act? Would you prefer it to shows with around 1,000 people?

Steve: I can't imagine being a support act to someone else because I'm far too good.

GNC: The songwriting collective on your album has changed. We've noticed your wife has joined the collective. How can we imagine the writing process in this new combo?

Steve: I find it very interesting to work with a team. I don't think that that's possible every time, but if it feels natural it is a good thing to do. I think it is possible for writers to collaborate on things. Genesis, after all, was a collaboration, not on every song, but on a sufficient amount of material. But I think that if you have a collaborative thing you need to have  the ability to be able to opt out if you feel you're not drawn to a particular song, a particular way. Music has got to be personal and it's got to be authentic. It's impossible to be drawn equally to everything, so it's good to be selective.

GNC: How does your wife support you, more with the lyrics or with the music?

Steve: On this particular album it has been both. It's been a pleasure rather than a dependency, it's been a very natural way of working, where … I put this stuff together, which was born out of a series of ongoing conversations with the two other people, and I think that's very important. Not everyone agrees all the time, of course, about the length of something. It's always „Oh, I think it should be shorter! - I think it should be longer!“ The democratic process has its limitations, of course. But nonetheless it's very nice to have the input of other people, even if I probably come up with, obviously, the framework, the idea, the spearhead to some extent. I still like the fact that I can run with the ball to a certain extent and then pass it to someone and see what they come up with. And the building blocks – it works slowly over time. Sometimes it works over breakfast, sometimes over dinner, sometimes in a rehearsal room, sometimes in a studio, sometimes when I'm driving a car thinking about something else. And the order of songs as well on an album, to make the journey complete, the musical continuum. I'm very pleased the reaction's been so strong to this new stuff.

4GNC: In the credits there is the name Jonathan Mover. Is that [Turn This Island Earth] a leftover from GTR?

Steve: Yes, there was a riff that was left over from GTR with Steve Howe and Jonathan Mover. It was a great riff in 7/8 and I always wanted the band to develop it but it didn't fit with any of the songs at the time, so we've done it as a group and we've done it with orchestral style as well and developed it with hall tones and orchestral detail, a bit like „orchestra plus“. So, again, the influence of GTR. But it's nice to use the influence when you need it and to leave behind what you don't need. You know what I mean. The best of something exciting from that time. Unfortunately, of course, as we all get older – what happens is the emotional responses to music that you have in your early teens is really your response to music at your emotional best, really. Every audience, if you've caught them when you were young, that's the best thing. The older people get more analytical and more experienced and all the rest. So it is always a fight against time because people would always say „The music I heard in my teens is the best music in the universe“, of course. You can't argue with that because it's mixed with hormones as much as anything else, early romantic experiences, the musical calendar and the romantic adventures go together. I'm still in search of an audience, I think. It's a lifelong quest for them.

GNC: How did you get in touch with Simon Phillips?

Steve: Simon Phillips... at one point in the early 1980s I got a phone call from Keith Emerson, and he was working with Jack Bruce and Simon Phillips. He said to me „How would you like to form a band with us?“ At that time I did some rehearsals with them, and this was just before Genesis did the Milton Keynes show. And they heard that I was thinking of working in that situation, and they said to me „That would be musical death.“ And I thought, „Oh! Why would that be?“ Because Keith has done interesting things, Jack Bruce had done interesting things, Simon had done interesting things, but it almost seemed as if the idea of anything that was a supergroup was the idea of musical death. I didn't quite see it in the same terms. I'm sorry I got to this subject. You were asking me about Simon Phillips. That's where I was first working with Simon Phillips. I was very impressed with the way that he played. I also liked the way Simon played on Smallcreep's Day, on Mike Rutherford's album. He was pleased I liked his playing on that. The group in question didn't work out because of lots of reasons why lots of groups don't work out, but Simon played on a version of Sailing which I did for a charity project for the Vietnamese boat people. He did it for nothing, and he played wonderfully on it, absolutely perfectly, and he was very impressive. So some years ago I had the idea of something that included Simon, and along the way I befriended Chris Squire. Some of what is on the new album is the three of us, which I must say I like the sound of it. It's in some ways very basic, but very energetic. Simon's a great drummer, I like working with him, and his precision is extraordinary because you can sit in a track, give him some sort of guide and it comes back perfectly in time. Perfect!

GNC: Sounds like Phil.

Steve: Well, like Phil... I don't know because I didn't work with Phil in that way. With Phil, we were working before the era of click tracks, so the first thing that went down on tracks was the band playing live with drums. These days, the first thing you start with is the click track and we come up with the framework and then we put the people on the framework, which gets updated. That's the way I work, anyway.

GNC: That's the way Phil works, too.

Steve: That's the way Phil works? I think it's because you can spend a lot of time trying to explain to someone else your idea of what a song is all about, and to be able to demonstrate it, a real demo, is much quicker. And then if there's ideas that they have which contribute to the thing to such an extent that you think „Oh, I could extend that section, I could use this, these inputs“ - it's flexible, you can edit something out and put it somewhere else. But it means that you've got your ideas already there. You can send it off to them and they can think about it if they want or come in spontaneously or they might work at home themselves without the pressure of someone else instructing them. A lot of people I know work at home, and eventually you get the result. And you have to remember that The Beatles sometimes used to start a track with the piano and that was the thing, and then they would record the drums afterwards, after the song was done. It is extraordinary, isn't it, because how could you possibly keep it in time? So they used to do masses of edits to get the drums in time with the songs. But you wouldn't know that to listen to necessarily. It must have taken them a very long time because of technology in those times.

GNC: Beyond The Shrouded Horizon is released on CD in a standard and a special edition 2CD. Is it difficult for you to decide which songs belong on the normal album and which have to go onto the special ecition as bonus track?

Steve: With the Special Edition, originally Thomas Waber [Inside Out] said „Can you do a special edition?“ He said anything could be on the special edition, it could be film, it could be demos, it could be anything as long as there's another CD in there. There was quite a number of unreleased things in the rest of the world that I had released in Japan, so I drew on those quite a lot, and as well as one or two new things.

5GNC: What is the story behind the Four Winds? One of these has been released before, hasn't it?

Steve: Yes, it was released as The Well At The World's End. - A justification of the event, really, I wanted to have story to go with four different instrumentals that all sounded quite different to each other. I'm normally describing things in terms of water. Originally, many years ago – when we did Wind & Wuthering – I had this idea of the House Of The Four Winds, so I always liked the idea of trying to describe the four winds in musical terms. It does that, but I apologize if people are aware where those things, or some of those things came from, fans who know all of it and also another acoustic piece on there as well. I also changed some things on that. I wanted to keep a sense of continuity and story and also the idea of continuing atmospheres. I very often work with the idea of crossfades of music from one section to  another. In the past people I've worked with sometimes criticised me for doing that, but I thought it's a very good way of making things work. Back in the days of Genesis we used to talk about having bridge sections between things, in other words, atmospheric linking sections. Sometimes they were pieces of music, sometimes they were just pieces of noise. On The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway there was both. There were atmospheric pieces, pieces you couldn't describe as great pieces of music, but then the ambient music of Eno that was to follow would be influenced by that, not the other way round. We had a set of vibes; one day I just started playing the vibes and we used it backwards to link one of the things on Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. I always liked the idea that you had some moments that worked almost like a kind of thing between courses to cleanse the palate, like a sorbet. Much of what's on the second CD is things that came from other places, and the thing that starts out originally was on the end of This Island Earth, and I thought there is one guitar solo too many. But I like it as a piece of music, so instead of making it the end of something I made it the beginning of something. And then there was also the Focus piece, which apparently wasn't written by Focus at all. I didn't know that, but somebody wrote to me and said „Do you realize this was written by a sax player?“ but as far as I knew it it was a Focus piece. A beautiful melody, Phil liked it very much, I liked it very much. We used to listen to that in Genesis, and we liked that number, that slow melody that was on Tommy. Beautiful kind of cross between jazz and rock, kind of fusion of styles. Nobody called it progressive at the time. Thirty – fourty years later people say this is typically progressive but actually what everyone was doing at that time wasn't defined. Perhaps it borrowed as much from classical music and borrowed from orchestral music and jazz and TV things and many other styles of music most bands wouldn't attempt, I think, today. I try to make a very melodic album.

GNC: One of the tracks is Enter The Night, which used to be an instrumental known as Depth Charge and later Riding The Colossus. Was this track initially planned as a vocal piece or did that just develop recently?

Steve: No, I had a vocal version years ago. I decided to use the instrumental version rather than the vocal version. I always thought at the back of my mind that it would make a good song, a straight ahead pop song, kind of anthemic. There was something about it, there was something about singing in that key that worked, a kind of sweetness and naivety to it that facilitated guitar work as well. But something that is firmly 4/4, you can count along to it and it's been going down very well with audiences, which I'm relieved about because you also imagine that people are primarily concerned with the complexity of songs. This is a very straightforward song. There are some straightforward songs. This is one, so is Til These Eyes, a very straightforward song. Looking For Fantasy is a very straight song, really.

GNC: People often ask for a Best-Of-Compilation, such as An Introduction To Steve Hackett. And, with respect to that, what’s the legal situation with your back catalogue?

Steve: I've spoken about it. There is so much stuff that will be going on in the future with our small team that it's impossible to address all of the issues at the same time. The legal situation is that everything is resolved so there are no problems. The only problem is that there are not enough hours in the day to be able to produce everything at the same time, including a Best Of as well. Also, EMI went through their own problems, and they don't know when they'll be back solid. Some of the plans I've talked about with EMI had to have been put on hold because they weren't sure what their future was going to be as a company. Nobody really knew. So I'm dependent on other people in that sense, but most of the rights to most of the songs have reverted to me. Most of the, I say. The very early stuff is still with EMI, so I'm not in a position to be able to do exactly what I want to do with the early Charisma catalogue.

GNC: Do you remember your very first session with Genesis, especially recordings of Going Out To Get You and Wooden Mask

6Steve: Yes, I do. Going Out To Get You I don't really remember. I think that was something that already existed before my time. If I played on it, I can't remember. Wooden Mask I do remember, but so far nobody has come up with a tape of it. It seems to have been irrevocably lost, which is a shame because I think it was a good idea. But we only ever recorded it to a demo standard, we didn't do it to finished standard. Like many of the Genesis things it had a unique and very good strange melody to it. There's an aspect of Genesis music that almost sounds like classical music with syncopation, almost like swinging hymns in a way. That fulfilled that brief, I think. It was a good song. I don't think it had a chorus, but it had some good hooks in it. Not all of it was perfect. There were some things about it I think are good. You would have to speak to the others about that, and they might say „Yeah, that wasn't very good, was it?“, you know? I have the ability to be able to see what was good about that. I don't have any prejudice against any era of the band. I think I can see it for its merit. I'd like to think I'm the most objective. I've heard guys in the band saying „Oh yeah, we did that stuff, that was all student stuff“ and dismissing so much of the early stuff that was obviously passionately felt by fans and still passionately felt by me, and I still think there's a huge audience there for that. Admittedly it's an audience that is getting older, but on the other hand in the same way that there's still an audience for Dark Side Of The Moon and all of that Pink Floyd stuff. There is an aspect – I think that Floyd have been aware of the timelessness of their music, perhaps, whereas Genesis always felt the need to justify and update and modernise and, in the process, reject. It's the idea of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Although, ironically, I left the band, you would think that I wouldn't owe any allegiance to the music, but I still have allegiance to the music which is why I do it live. I do it live because I still love it. I still love playing Watcher Of The Skies.

GNC: You’ve been to the induction to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. Did you consider playing live there?

Steve: Yes, I suggested that, but no one was interested.

GNC: What do you think will happen with the reunion idea in the future?

Steve: I can't say for anyone else. I was up for it, I was ready to perform, but nobody wanted to do it, so I'm tired of waiting. Hey, that's a song by the Kinks!

GNC: Thank you for the interview, Steve.

Steve: Thanks, it was a pleasure seeing you again.

Interview: Christian Gerhardts (with a big thank-you to Steffen Gerlach!)
photos: Helmut Janisch
Transcription: Martin Klinkhardt