Guitar genius Steve Hackett has been on a quest. After a lifetime of traveling the world and learning about new cultures, he has seen the changes that have befallen our nations. Today more than ever, he finds the distress amongst the people unsettling and sad. So much so, it has infiltrated into his new music. So while the world swirls chaotically around him, he has brought multinational musicians together and created beauty from the beast of turmoil and called this new album The Night Siren.
Hackett, guitarist for Genesis on some of their most beloved albums – including The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Foxtrot – has always been an explorer of sound. From his first solo recording, 1975’s Voyage of the Acolyte, to his last studio album, 2015’s Wolflight, Hackett has never ceased to channel new elements into his music. For The Night Siren, he uses mystical instruments like the oud and the Peruvian Charango to elicit moody, enchanting and electric pieces. And this is the very reason why Hackett continues to be an inspiration to both his peers and his fans.
Born in England, Hackett confessed during a 2013 interview with Glide that “I always wanted to be a blues player. Although I loved it, I don’t think I was particularly good at it.” So his multi-genre interests took him in a different direction. “I’d be listening to Bach and blues and I thought the twain would never meet. You either did one or the other.” But as the music scene began to change, Hackett found kindred souls. He joined Genesis and appeared on their third album, Nursery Cryme (also Phil Collins’ first Genesis album). He was there as Peter Gabriel expanded the meaning of a “rock show.” “Whereas I was being very workman-like at the time, just concentrating on my one little area and trying to make sure the band sounded as much like an orchestra as possible,” Gabriel was like “Nureyev or Nijinsky meets Iggy Pop onstage.”
Hackett’s last album with the band would be 1976’s Wind & Wuthering, which Hackett plans to celebrate its 40th anniversary during his new tour, which begins on February 14th in Nashville. The Night Siren officially releases on March 24th.
So with some new material in his blood, he’s ready to go back out on the road and celebrate. Glide spoke with Hackett recently about what’s been on his mind and how it has manifested into his new music.
How are the rehearsals going?
Going very well and the band sounds wonderful, even though it’s only the second day of rehearsal. They sound really, really good so I’m really pleased. They’ve all done their homework (laughs).
On your new record, The Night Siren, you have all these wonderful international flavors, which is not really anything new for you, but how far back does your interest in this type of middle-eastern music really go?
I think it dates back to the 1960’s, really. I think when I first heard bands starting to use something that was outside the usual stuff. I think it started to creep into guitar players’ ideas and I think it’s guitarists that kicked it up. But then again, I think the Beatles had a tremendous amount to do with that and many players were influenced by what they heard, with middle-eastern singing as much as the instrumental work.
What did you like first about it?
There’s a kind of freedom about it. For instance, I just had dinner in an Indian restaurant tonight and I can’t help listening to the way the singers work. They’ve got tremendous control and kind of vocal pyrotechnics of it. Other than that, I think, also the rhythms. Arabic players playing drums like the darbuka and many other things, lovely instruments, and that whirling dervish aspect of it I liked very much. Some years ago I was in Cairo seeing everything from the Sphinx to the pyramids and the museum and I took a trip up the Nile and the entertainer on the boat was extraordinary, and the dancers and players, and I thought, this is incredible stuff. It’s influenced the flamenco players, which is another one of my interests. All that stuff kind of comes from the Arabic territories and all of those scales that I think are common to the Indian stuff and the Arabic stuff, I find it extraordinarily romantic and beautiful.
Did you know this record would be going in that direction?
Not when I started. I wasn’t planning to have as much of that influence as is on board on it but it started to grow as we started work on it.
Did you do a lot more tinkering this time in the studio to work more in the nature of these songs?
Well, I think every album is an experiment in a way but I tend not to use traditional setups. I tend to work with computer or with the virtual world rather than having an amp. When I’m playing live I’ve got Marshalls turned up pretty loud but when I record, I like to be able to have a conversation over the top of it and it can still sound very heavy and it can really scream away. So I didn’t feel the need to move air in the way that guitarists like to do traditionally. I like the difference in sound of one cabinet in another and a different amp and a different head and it’s all in the virtual world. I like that very much. I’m a kind of pedal man. I have pedals on the floor and amps in the computer and trying as many different setups and sounds as possible.
That must keep you excited about making new music because you have all of these things you can play with.
Yeah, I think that music is thrilling and it’s always surprising and I think these days the studio is really the size of your computer. You don’t really need anything larger than that. But it starts in the brain. The most important instrument is the brain. I like to have conversations with the people that I work with so it’s really a three person writing team – it’s myself, my wife Jo and Roger King, who plays keyboards and engineers and co-produces with me. Then once we get a framework, we send it out to other players or we get them in or I go and visit them. So there’s a lot of on location work that happens. Some stuff was recorded in Sardinia, some stuff recorded in Hungary. We might work with a musician or two from Iceland and from Azerbaijan and from Israel and Palestine working together side by side, which is an absolute thrill, just proving that it is possible for people not to just coexist in peace but also do something extraordinary artistically together. Both Kobi Farhi and Mira Awad are from Israel and Palestine, as well as the regular people that I work with who happen to be stunning players.
And that is all over this record
I’m really thrilled with the way it sounds. We’ve visited Peru a couple of times, both as tourists and as a player, and I came back with some Peruvian instruments, the charango, the stringed charango, and there is a track on the album that has a Peruvian flavor. And then the Icelandic thing, Gulli Breim, a wonderful drummer from Iceland, is on a couple of tracks. Guys recorded in Hungary, a trumpeter called Ferenc Kovács and his daughter playing the didgeridoo, both together, which is on a track called “50 Miles From The North Pole,” which is a reference to my time in Iceland when I was playing a couple of shows out there. So it’s really a kind of world music.
We are world travelers and we’ve made friends all over and sometimes we work with a player or sometimes it will be an instrument or two you hear in some of these places. I’ve got the Arabian Oud as well. I’ve got an Iraqi one that I played on at least one of the tracks on this album. Sitar guitar as well as sitar samples. We have as many real instruments as we can. We have a violinist and viola player named Christine Townsend. We’ve got an orchestra’s worth of people, a choir’s worth of people, and on one song we might have in excess of two hundred tracks going. So we put together about three symphony orchestras going on some of these tracks.
What’s an example?
I would think the opening track, “Behind The Smoke,” has got a lot of that. Another one of the tracks, “West To East,” has got orchestral and choral work on it as well as rock sensibilities. There’s a fair amount of classical stuff. I’m a bit of a classical groupie and funny enough, I’m going to work at the end of the American tour coming up with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. We’re going to do one show around the Buffalo area with that and that’s going to be very interesting.
And your brother John is playing his flute
Yep, brother John is on flute on a couple of tracks. It’s really as part of the orchestral setup on this thing, so it’s not so much solo but it’s a gorgeous sound.
For you as a musician, which song on this record was the most complicated to finish because of all it’s intricacies?
Well, there’s a track called “Anything But Love,” which starts out with flamenco guitar work using the body of the guitar to create percussion on. Then it becomes a rock song and then it goes out with an electric solo. But they are all very different atmospheres and stitching these things together is quite demanding. I can’t say that any one track was more demanding than any other but it’s all been fun and I didn’t feel I was rushed this time, although most of it was done within one year. They all had their complications but it’s a big huge sonic adventure and I don’t get tired of it. I don’t think I ever will.
Are you maybe a little nervous about playing any of these songs live?
You know, I want to be able to give it my best so I’ve been in intensive rehearsals doing these things for quite some time now, just myself. But then I started with the band yesterday and already the band is starting to do extraordinary versions of these things. So I have to say I do feel very confident about the band and there are certain tunes that we’ve not done live but you get a glimpse of what it’s going to be like live. Imagine if it sounded like that on the first day of rehearsal what it’s going to be like when the band really knows it. It’s terribly exciting and yeah, I get very nervous about it. I mean, I’m rehearsing at three in the morning sometimes to try and get it in my brain because I figure if I can do it when I’m really, really tired because of jetlag and exhaustion on tour, which is part and parcel of it of course, even when you were a twenty-one year old player, if I can do it then with muscle memory then I know it’s going to be really, really good. I don’t want it to fall below a certain standard.
You co-wrote most of these songs with your wife and Roger, so what would you consider the most important line or lyric on this record?
Oh now that’s a very interesting question. There were two tracks. One of them happens at the beginning, “Behind The Smoke,” which is really about refugees; then the other track is called “West To East” and in a way one is a continuation of the other and there’s a musical theme that’s played on guitar first of all, on the first track. Now that same music comes up in a more stately way later on and the orchestra take it. So I took the guitar out of it just to make it sound more expansive.
But lyrically, which is what you asked me about, I think that first track, and it was my wife who came up with the lyric about, “behind the smoke is black.” And I said, “I presume you are talking about the refugees fleeing a war torn situation,” and we kicked the ball around between us. She would add a line, I would add a line, she would add a line, I would add another one and I wanted to make sure she was happy with it. She was desperately keen that I should be happy with the lyrics. I think on that first track, even though it’s very strong, pungent stuff, I think it’s saying something and there’s an awful lot of fear in it, fear in the plight of the refugees. It’s a very honest lyric. We’re not pulling our punches on it so I think that line, “behind the smoke is black,” is really, really strong. It sets the whole tone of what the album is all about.
Are you worried about the world today?
I am, yeah. I think that anyone who’s got any intelligence or any compassion is worried about the state of the world today. I’m starting to see the world as this very fragile little family that’s in danger of just falling apart and breaking up. I’m worried about all the individuals, cause really you can say the world is millions of people but actually all of those people, the reality is actually multiplied singularities. So it’s about your life and it’s about my life and the state of the world.
The idea that war is still the answer, war is never the answer. I don’t think the idea of adopting a fortress mentality and keeping people out is going to help the world. We’ve got to try and discourage terrorism by meeting our neighbors, letting them in. I think borders are overrated. You could even say they were a way of inflicting violence on poor people. A terrible amount of people are amassing on the Hungarian border right now and terrible conditions of winter and children dying, children drowning. Escaping war torn countries, yeah, it’s a terrible thing. And to interfere in the politics of those nations and have proxy wars from the comfort of your own home I think is reprehensible. We’ve got to be better than that. We’ve got to somehow get back to the idea of compassion and friendship, fellowship, don’t fear the foreigner. Multi-culture diversity is what this album is about and I think that multi-cultural diversity helps everything. I’d like to think the similarities between people are greater than the differences. So flying in the face of this sort of fortress mentality is the album that I’ve done to show that people from all over the world can come together and not just work together and hold hands but do something extraordinary, do an extraordinary piece of work. That was the plan.
I understand on the tour you’re going to be resurrecting songs from the Wind & Wuthering album.
That’s right, yes. Its forty years since I did that album with Genesis and we’re celebrating that. We’re playing most of that album live. We’ll be doing “Eleventh Earl Of Mar,” “One For The Vine;” both of those are epics. We’ll also be doing “Blood On The Rooftops,” “In That Quiet Earth,” “Afterglow,” and another track that didn’t make it onto the album but I think is such a very pretty tune that we were rehearsing for the first time today with the band and it sounded absolutely wonderful doing it, and that’s “Inside & Out,” which was on the EP [Spot The Pigeon] along with two other tracks. So I’m doing work considered to be the best of that album and really celebrating it.
Do you look back on making that album with fond memories since there are all these rumors of tensions during that time?
Yes, absolutely. You know, I loved the album even though it was the album I left the band after because I really needed to do my own stuff. I was starting to make solo albums and they were taking off while I was still in the band. It created tensions, shall we say. Sometimes even if you’re in a great band you feel that it’s time to move on and work with other people, can’t stand being restricted. But music is the master that I serve. That’s what I do.
For you, what was your first I can’t believe I’m here moment?
It’s hard to come up with a single moment. I think meeting my wife and frankly every day that I spend with her is a huge bonus, working with my wife Jo. I think working, living, loving, all of those things is so important. Other than that, I think I was very lucky to meet Genesis and had many wonderful times. I think working on that first album, Nursery Cryme, with Genesis was a wonderful moment. We’ll be doing at least one song from that album. That was a big deal for me, at age twenty-one, working with them. It was a fulfillment of a lot of musical dreams. I wanted to work with a band that loved classical music as well as rock music. I loved working with the mellotron. I loved the fact that we sounded like a rock band or folk acoustic outfit and the next we sounded like an orchestra. That was hugely important to me, the fact that the band could turn on a dime, become this other thing, and that rock shoulders could be broad enough to absorb and use those influences.
I understand that you injured your hand in the early seventies. Did you panic about your future as a guitar player after that happened? Was it that bad of an injury?
Yes, it was a bad injury. I severed a tendon and a nerve in my thumb and I had reconstructive surgery to make the thumb work. The damage made for a very difficult time. In fact, by the time we were touring Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, I was having physical therapy every day. I was visiting hospitals and having electric currents pass through my hand. We were out doing gigs and I knew that the grip on that hand was very weak so I was learning to play without incorporating the thumb on the left hand, which is kind of tricky for guitarists. But I’ve learnt to reposition the hand in terms of the support but it was a tricky moment. But absolutely I was worried about that. Let’s put it this way, I went into training to get my hand as strong as possible after that because I knew that it was weakened. But I found I could make it work and I realize now I’m a better player than I was before I had the injury just cause I worked so bloody hard on it. There are things I can do now that I couldn’t do before.
When you first started playing guitar, what was the most difficult thing for you to get the hang of? You didn’t become THE Steve Hackett overnight.
(laughs) That’s right but I think progress is in increments. You inch your way forward. But I will tell you what was difficult. I had this guitar, which I’d inherited from my father, and it had a brutal action; the strings were really high off the fretboard. It had heavy gauge strings so I started playing and my dad said to me, “You know you’ll have calluses in a while.” And the calluses never came. I just had open wounds for about six months. Then a friend had a nylon guitar and I touched it and I thought, this isn’t really playing, this is cheating (laughs). My guitar feels like barbwire compared to this. But it gave me a whole different outlook on what guitars are capable of. So actually I developed a really strong left hand as a result of that early playing. So it was the very early days that were the toughest I think because of the difficulty of the instrument that I had. Now I know I’m not the only one who had that kind of thing. I know Robert Fripp told a similar story about the first guitar he had. It had a brutal action. I know all about fighting through the pain, yes.
Can we assume that in 2017 you will be doing a lot of touring?
Oh yeah, I’m doing a hell of a lot of touring. I’m playing places I’ve not done before: Australia and Jakarta and New Zealand and Hong Kong. All of those places I’ve not been to before so I am looking forward to that as well as the American dates and the English and European dates. So yeah, the dates are increasing daily.
Live photos by Cathy Poulton