Guitar Legend Steve Hackett Talks New Acoustic LP, Sets Tapping Technique Straight & How Lennon Loved Genesis (INTERVIEW)

Steve Hackett may call his new album, Under A Mediterranean Sky, an acoustic album but it’s truthfully a breathtaking journey across the landscape of melody and instrumentation. Invoking the dramatic pulse of battle to the sweeping romanticism of Egyptian sunsets, Hackett has produced an album for the bodily senses, culled from his many years of traveling the world on tour or vacation.

Heavily influenced by “Visits to the vast and atmospheric Arabian and Sahara deserts of Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco,” the British guitar god who sealed his reputation with Genesis in the seventies, has followed his muse instead of simply relying on repetitive Prog Rock chords to create his compositions. “Writing is the important thing,” Hackett stated in a 2013 Glide interview. “And I would always opt for passion over originality. In other words, authenticity, to really feel what you’re doing. I think it’s more important than being original. I used to worry all the time about not being original. Now, I don’t care about being original. I don’t care where it comes from. It’s got to move me.”

Under A Mediterranean Sky, which officially releases on January 22 and is Hackett’s first studio album since 2019’s At The Edge Of Light, has indeed let his emotions move him. He believes that the music on this record is especially poignant with the lockdowns and minimal social interactions, and that with a nice glass of wine you can travel to far off locations in your imagination with the music as your magic carpet. From the enchantment of “Sirocco” to the mind-elevating sounds of “The Dervish & The Djin,” the listener is swept away to a time of the gods one minute and then the fearless madness of Russian composers the next. 

But Hackett doesn’t ride this adventure alone. Acoustic is not necessarily strumming a Martin on your back porch. Hackett enlists world players to intertwine with each other, to mesmerize where simple nylon strings cannot. There is the Oud, a duduk, a tar, the flute, and violin. And before your rock &/or Prog heart skips a beat that this might end up sounding laborious and boring with more orchestra than guitar fireworks, remember who we are talking about here. Followers of Hackett are familiar with his penchant for guitar explorations. He may have given birth to the finger-tapping method shredders adore but Hackett also knows his way around a composition. Under A Mediterranean Sky is nothing but pure excellence.

Hackett may have had aspirations to be a blues guitarist in his earliest days but there were way too many musical mysteries out there for him to land on only one monogamously. “Music is the master that I serve. That’s what I do,” he said in a 2017 interview with me for Glide

As he likes to do, Hackett revisits his old Genesis recordings via touring them live. His most recent focus was 1973’s Selling England By The Pound, of which a live album and video were released in 2020. Hackett also published his memoir, A Genesis In My Bed, the same year. I spoke with Hackett recently about these things as well as about Under A Mediterranean Sky, one of his most popular guitar solos and finally catching on in America.

How did you accomplish an album so vivid and expansive in this time of Covid?

Well, I originally had a bunch of things I was going to record with an orchestra. I’ve been working with a British orchestra recently and it proved just so difficult to be working with people at a distance. I was working with Roger King and he said, “Well, I think maybe we should invest in some new software, update our orchestral samples.” So we did some research, the two of us, and we bought into various sound libraries. I also have a very dear friend who is a great violinist and viola player and she plays on one of the tracks. But I think that the level of technology at the moment, it is extraordinary. You’ve got real orchestral sounds and it’s not recorded in real-time but it’s some of the most stunning orchestrations I’ve ever heard. So it kind of wrote itself. Roger and I had lots of time because we were in lockdown but the album took about two months to record.

Listening to these pieces, you can feel they were inspired by all the senses reacting to this one area of the world.

Yes, it’s an area that I’ve visited many times, sometimes as a traveling musician, sometimes as a tourist, and I just felt that perhaps it might be the ultimate lockdown album, in terms of, I want people to be able to travel with it, travel with the music and have it conjure those different regions. For instance, the third track, “Sirocco,” we’d just come back from a visit to Egypt and we traveled up the Nile and we visited the antiquities and had driven the length of the country and then we were coming back at the speed of Cleopatra’s barge and stopping off at these places that looked like they were painted yesterday and it was stunning. 

I was no stranger to the desert. I’d spent time in Iran and Petra, places in Jordan, and so the desert was really very much in our soul, my wife Jo and I, and I wanted to come up with something that was quintessentially Arabic and Egyptian and something that stretched back. I wanted to be able to do something with music as landscaping. Some people can paint a landscape, like my father, or a filmmaker can landscape by pointing a camera. But I’m pointing the inner eye, or the inner ear, at places I’ve been to and trying to come up with different images of these places and try and bring this to people. As I say, it’s the kind of music that I hope people might be able to listen to over a glass of wine and just drift off with it. That’s how I see it. I just think of it as a release, a way of traveling but not necessarily boarding a potentially covid-riden piece of transport.

When you were composing this, how aware were you of what other instruments would come to be on particular pieces? It’s not just you and an acoustic guitar.

That’s right, there are more instruments, other things. Although I play guitar, I do tend to think of the wider picture and love the combination of guitar and orchestra, for instance. You know some of the most wonderful classical music I’ve heard – evocative, really truly moving stuff that I’ve heard – is Russian composers where you get piano but you’ve got these sweeping vistas of great orchestral things as well between the two, so it’s a bit like God and man, really. I think that was what was going through my head. So yeah, we have a few things on this. We have the duduk from Armenia and we have the tar from Azerbaijan on the same track; people who were at war with each other. They didn’t know they were going to be on the same track together because I’d gathered together the performances separately but it was just ironic that these two nations were blasting the hell out of each other and meanwhile we had this piece of music. So music is reaching places that politics fail to reach.

There is a tar on “The Dervish & The Djin.” I’d never heard of it before and I had to look it up and it’s quite unique looking.

Yeah, it is. It’s a lovely instrument and Malik Mansurov plays that and he’s probably the best in the world at that instrument. When I first heard him playing it, I heard these trills that he was doing and it sounded like these little sort of magical notes. And I heard him in combination with a violinist, a Hungarian violinist, and between the two of them they sounded like a whole mini-orchestra playing the same thing together. It was so brilliant. So it’s an incredible instrument and he’s one of the world’s leading exponents of this thing. So it was a little bit like working with a guy that is a cross between John McLaughlin on guitar and Ravi Shankar on sitar. It’s embodying those qualities of being a great virtuoso but at the same time there’s more to it than that.

Which track would you say was the most complicated to record, because these are not one-dimensional pieces at all?

They all had their complications but it was quite complicated recording the third track, “Sirocco.” You know, most of the time when you record with a computer, you’re working with a click track but I realized that I had to make my timing really push-and-pull. It’s part of the kind of music, the acoustic music, that I really love. There’s a reason why it speeds up and slows down and all of that, so particularly when it came to the end of the track, I was trying to explain to Roger what I was after and I was after the effect that I hear on some of the orchestrations of Grieg, where perhaps the last few notes on the orchestra, they really breathe very, very slowly; and I couldn’t explain to him in BPM how that should be. I would just say, “Hold, hold, hold and here,” as if I was a conductor going, “This is where it lands.” So we’ve got those vast drawn-out things right at the end so you can imagine the vista, thinking of the desert, in Egypt in particular. It would be like if you got a last-minute distant shot of the Pyramids receding into the distance and into the past. It’s almost like a flight in a way. You’ve got to slow up a lot at the end and you have to say goodbye to notions of pace. Rock music is riddled with pace. We are slaves to the rhythm and the kind of music I’m talking about needs to be able to float and take it’s time and work outside gravity and time.

How would you describe the first track, “Mdina: The Walled City”?

It’s a place found in Malta and Malta was has been under siege many, many times. I’d visited there and went into a musical museum and heard very, very beautiful stuff. The music I did was nothing like that but Roger came up with this orchestral thing that really came in blasting. I had the idea of, roughly, starting with the timpani and the drums and as he brought my sketches to life, I thought, my God, this thing is amazing sounding and I thought it was so good we ought to have that moment twice. In other words, here is sort of a musical siege in a way and we need to have it twice, we need to go through that again; you know, war and peace. You’ve got this dramatic intro and then we pare it right down as if it’s going to the heart of the matter once the bombs have done their work. 

Then I was adding things. I was influenced by lots of different classical music, Azerbaijan and Spanish music. I was trying to play the guitar pianistically. One tuning was a G minor tuning and another tuning was a G major tuning and they enabled me to play very unfamiliar shapes and be able to function more like a keyboard player. So I was thinking of these great sort of twinings of piano and orchestra that you hear with Grieg and Tchaikovsky, who were lucky enough to meet at one time, and you get to hear it with Rachmaninoff, to mention but a few. So this idea between soloists and orchestra was uppermost in my mind and there was always a challenge there. A pianist, when they play with orchestra, they are able to create thunder from the low part of the piano. Guitar doesn’t have that so you’ve got to create your thunder another way and you’ve got to be the light compared to the dark, cause you’re working treble clefs. But I’m really pleased with the way that track came out. 

Lots of the Russians were big influences on this. The Spanish, the Russians and I’m a fan of these great extraordinary writers. We’ll never know if these guys came up with this stuff entirely on their own or whether there was the input of, like Mendelssohn and Brook and they both worked with the same violinist so there was the input of the virtuoso in there. But all I can say is I feel at one with it spiritually. I love the music from the 19th century Romantics and if I didn’t mention Chopin, he deserves a mention too, and of course Bach and there’s a Scarlatti piece – Scarlatti was born the same year as Bach and Handel – and there’s the “Scarlatti Sonato” that’s on this record, the one unoriginal piece, but I felt I really needed something like that on here.

You like to dive into previous Genesis albums live and your most recent focus was on Selling England By The Pound. What stands out most to you about that album?

I loved Selling England By The Pound and I loved touring it with Genesis because we were playing the best of Selling England live. We were also playing the songs that worked best from Foxtrot, like “Watcher Of The Skies” and “Supper’s Ready,” and “Musical Box” from Nursery Cryme. I knew that we were playing a very strong set at that time and just as we were leaving New York, Peter Gabriel said, “I just heard John Lennon said Genesis was one of the bands he’s currently listening to.” The combination of knowing I loved the album myself, there’s just something about it, and the fact that Lennon gave it sanction, or the band sanction, at that time was something that sustained us through difficult times. Even now, I think that’s a big deal. You could have a number one album and John Lennon might never have heard it but he’d heard of us guys and he liked what he heard so recommendations don’t come any better than that. 

I’d also always made sure that the keyboard department had the latest stuff. We had a Mellotron for Tony Banks and wanted to get a synth for him. I wanted the keyboard arsenal to be expanded as much as possible. Guitar technology hadn’t really done much but just before Selling England, I got an Echoplex, my own echo unit, and a distortion unit and fuzz boxes and I was able to start producing my own guitar sounds and that’s why you got the “Firth Of Fifth” moment. So I am very fond of that album because it’s very unusual. The first track is very unusual, “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight.” No one had ever done something that sounded quite like that. Then of course it had the first hit single the band had, “I Know What I Like.” So I was very happy and we sounded like we’d arrived. That’s how it felt to me.

Did you feel by that album, that America was really getting what Genesis was about?

I think so. It was Peter who suggested calling it Selling England By The Pound and I think we became all things English to those who were interested in looking back at the Old Country from America, the New World, as we besieged it, because as English people we were much more aware of American culture than Americans at that time. When I had conversations with people, like taxi drivers, they would say, “Oh I guess you get a lot of fog there in England and Bobbies ride around on bicycles.” I really think they thought of England as turn-of-the-century, really backward. But we were busy becoming Americanized. I’m not sure America has ever become Englishized or Anglisized, you know (laughs).

Your finger-tapping is legendary. Have you made peace with the fact that people still think Eddie Van Halen was the first when in reality it was you?

Let me say straightaway, Eddie Van Halen, his is a passing of a great and I’m sad that I didn’t get to meet him. But he’d acknowledged the influence for people to see and it doesn’t really matter who invented a particular technique. I know that I was using that on electric guitar from 1971 onwards. You can hear it on those Genesis albums and I didn’t really think I was coming up with anything that revolutionary. But it seems as if it changed the shape of the way rock guitarists played in the future because it became 50% of the language of shredders. It is a fascinating technique and I guess it was sounding like Wagner on guitar in the end, the changes, and it sounded more like Wagner’s changes than they did rock guitar, something superfast. It’s maximum movement with minimum expenditure of energy.

You mentioned your solo on “Firth Of Fifth.” Do you remember when you were coming up with that solo, which guitar you were using?

I was using a Les Paul 1957, and every time anyone mentions a Gibson Les Paul it lapses into the cliché of Spinal Tap and all the rest, but I was using that great guitar and a hiwatt amp. And it reliably used to feed back on the high F sharp if I held it and was close to the amp head. Nine times out of ten it would give me a sustained note, and the right note. These days if I want sustain I use either a Fernandes or an EBow, but I’m still using that same guitar. I was very much in love with the sounds I was able to produce at that time with the newly acquired Echoplex. 

And it was a great melody, it was Tony Banks’ melody, but I thought it would sound good with a rock guitar bending the notes. Originally, we wrote it to be played on piano and I think when we first played it on piano it sounded more like a Erik Satie piece, a French composer, turn-of-the-century, contemporary of DeBussy. And it sounded very different. It sounded like a nod to eastern music in a way and I ran with the ball.

You have done so many innovative things with the guitar. Are you looking to do more exploration with more exotic instruments so that you can play them yourself?

There are some things that I do play myself. For instance, I got a hold of a Vietnamese instrument and I’m playing it on some new rock stuff that I’ve been doing and I worked hard on getting that to sound really good. I play a little bit of Oud and I still play harmonica, which occasionally crops up, and I realized that I should get to grips with more instruments and what have you but singing also is a big deal for me. Getting to grips with singing and making that sound convincing, that’s a lifelong quest. I hit a few notes in my new thing but it’s not going to come out till later in the year. I’m pleased with that but it’s very different music to the current one coming out in January, very different indeed. But I’ll just keep going with all these things. 

Your autobiography, A Genesis In My Bed, came out this past summer. What did you really want to convey to fans?

Well, I had to be as honest as possible. Every time I thought that I’m not revealing enough and got the idea of what I ought to be writing about, I’d be taking a shower or doing something completely different (laughs). But I had to be honest about certain things and not always come across as a goody-goody or a fuddy-duddy. Just be honest about the fact that I was a guy in a band at a time when to be an English musician touring in America at a certain time meant that if you wanted to have a different woman every night, you actually could. And I knew guys that did that. That wasn’t something I’m proud of now, because life changed for me very rapidly, but for a short time there it was. And then there were times when I took drugs. But I never made it a career; neither of those two occupations. 

But I didn’t want anyone to get the feeling that I was some kind of saint. But then again, I don’t want anyone to think that in order to produce great music they should go and do stupid things that I did, that nearly cost me my life. I’m not sure that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. I’m not sure about that but I reckon you can hold it together and not be a jerk. But I wanted to be able to show people that I’d been a complete jerk at times and that I wasn’t this old professor.

Top portrait by Jo Hackett and live photos by Mary Andrews

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