Steve Hackett – An Interview with the Prog Pioneer (INTERVIEW)

A few weeks ago, former RIP Magazine editor Lonn Friend stepped inside a Genesis time machine when guitar player Steve Hackett cracked open his oeuvre to release a spectral prism in Illinois. “Steve Hackett’s whimsical guitar has been swirling in my subconscious since I was eighteen years old,” Friend told me recently. “His riffs and musical vision define seventies prog. Having just seen him perform two plus hours of timeless classics on his current Genesis Revisited tour, I can emphatically report that his playing is flawless. Supper’s Ready and I’m still hungry.”

You can always count on Friend to provide a visually stimulating assessment of music, and you can always count on Steve Hackett to give you something worth talking about. With a new CD/DVD live package coming out on October 29th of his London Hammersmith show from back in May, Hackett continues to roam the American countryside spreading his Genesis genius for those who love music with more of a mind-bending surreality.

Having joined Genesis in 1971, Hackett added his guitar artistry to a band already ablaze with Peter Gabriel’s hypnotic antics, contributing to such masterpieces of as Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Wind & Wuthering  and solo albums starting with 1975’s Voyage Of The Acolyte. On a day filled with interviews, Hackett took some time to talk with me about his career, his current tour and what it was really like playing with Peter Gabriel.


You have a busy agenda today, I hear.

Yeah, I was in Italy earlier today and we arrived in London a couple of hours ago so we’re back in London, my wife and I.

You’ve got a lot going on. You toured Europe recently and you just started touring America. Tell us about the live show.

Well, you know, we’re doing a tour of Genesis stuff. The response to this has been amazing throughout the world. I started doing this stuff on the Cruise To The Edge tour. The first dates took place in the spring, really, and we’ve been touring the world with this thing. It’s been extraordinary, reinventing early Genesis for the masses. It’s an extraordinary band and the response has been incredible. We’ve sold out places all over and we’re doing a Royal Albert Hall show in October back in England so I just seem to be off to bigger and bigger places to play with this because people love the band’s early work. And I think because the band has really refused to reform in the full sense of the word, it’s as if I’ve become the custodian of the early flame. And I‘m very happy about that. I’ve always loved that music.

I was with Genesis between 1971 and 1977. We were playing clubs and stuff and then we ended up playing Madison Square Garden. One of the albums we did in 1973, which was Selling England By The Pound, John Lennon picked up on the album and said he liked it and that did a lot of good for us at that time. To have the ear of a Beatle for even five minutes was a very important thing for us. In those days, of course, if suddenly John Lennon had said that on the radio show and it was today, you’d tweet the news immediately. That kind of stuff might take about five years to sink in to the thinking of the masses then. It was a different world way back then. Things moved more slowly and smoke signals eventually got through (laughs), the message got through.


“Shadow Of The Hierophant” is a beautiful rendition on last year’s Genesis Revisited II. Was that Amanda Lehmann singing?

Yeah, that is Amanda singing that one, yeah. The original version of that was on Voyage Of The Acolyte, my first solo outing in 1975, and it was Sally Oldfield, Mike Oldfield’s sister, who sang on the original of that. But we started doing this one live again when a year ago Amanda was in the band and Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree said to me, “Why don’t you do that song live because I’ve always liked it.” He wanted to play it with us live so we did and it’s something I wrote with Mike Rutherford. And it was something we rehearsed in part as Genesis. It was something that was never performed by the band but it was written within the same timeframe so out of that double album, Revisited II, I’ve indulged myself to the point where there were four songs that had some direct connection to Genesis; originally recorded with the Genesis team or in the style or the spirit along with the rest. Just in case people said to me, “Oh what about your own music, Steve? You haven’t really addressed that with this album,” I wanted to show the connection.

That was your first solo record. What made you want to write a whole record about Tarot cards?

What moved me to do that at the time? Well, I was getting into it, the Tarot cards, and all things spiritual and cosmic, and at the time, you know, which was the mid-seventies, I did an album that was largely instrumental, that first record in 1975. And it gave me something to focus on. As the songs were being written, I thought, well, each song could really be a card from the Tarot pack. You could do that kind of thing in 1975 and I’m not sure you could do that today. I suspect that people would probably want you to do something which was more grounded and Earthy, I suspect. But the nice thing was that there were no rules at that point and the response to it was very strong. I mean, I had a very strong team on it. I had the Genesis rhythm section, plus my brother, which was lovely working with him for the first time. It was the first album that he’d done as a professional musician and he was hot for it at that time. So it was a good team.

It was very nice to work with a number of people who were starting out. One of the cellists, it was his first rock record and Nigel Warren-Green was his name. He went on to found an orchestra with his brother Christopher. They had the London Chamber Orchestra for a while. Sally Oldfield, Mike Oldfield’s sister, who is lovely, was great on it. In fact, she was instrumental in getting Mike his first record deal. You know they had a duo together back in the sixties and I think she was brilliant, wonderful. Phil Collins, of course, was fantastic on that album as was Mike Rutherford. It was all put together with nighttime sessions in the studio that Fleetwood Mac had used to record a lot of their hits. But it was in the bottom of a government aviation building, aviation house, and you couldn’t make any noise before 6:00 at night.

hacket1977You have very vivid lyrics and arrangements. How do you get your inspiration for your music?

Well, it can be anything. It could be something I’ve read or something I’ve seen or something that I might talk to my wife Jo about. We very often write these things together. I think to write any song there has to be some kind of spark. There has to be some kind of musical line. Or there might be a lyrical idea and the music might follow later. But writing is the important thing, I think, 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. It’s funny, when you start looking at other people’s careers and the most famous of which, for English acts, would be The Beatles, they say that they were the biggest rip-off artists going and yet, of course, to young ears all I heard is originality. But originally they were a brilliant team and again full of passion.

You’ve mentioned people like Peter Green and John Mayall being influences along with classical music. Did you ever get to see them play live in those early days?

Yes I did. I saw John Mayall several times with Peter Green. I just missed the era when Eric Clapton was playing with John Mayall but I saw Peter Green with him and it was brilliant; and Mick Taylor. That’s when they were all young players but with something extraordinary to say and I think that John Mayall was a tremendous powerhouse and managed to blaze a trail and create something at that time. It was kind of a school of rock or a way of blazing a trail for English blues. And do it very well indeed. And of course he kick-started a number of extraordinary careers for guitarists.

When did you know that you wanted to NOT go the route of blues-rock music like Hendrix and Clapton? You followed a different, more exploratory path.

Well, I always wanted to be a blues player. Although I loved it, I don’t think I was particularly good at it. And at the same time I started to get interested in a number of other genres. I’d be listening to Bach and blues and I thought the twain would never meet. You either did one or the other. You were either Segovia or Hendrix. Then bands started to appear on the scene that had obviously listened to both and there was this movement, this crossover movement, that people were doing naturally what would today be called Fusion or Progressive. But it was people who had wide tastes who were taking a different approach. They might not have been able to name it as such or articulate their feelings perhaps but they wanted to borrow from a number of different sources.


When you were with Genesis, what was the strangest thing you ever saw Peter Gabriel do onstage?

Well, he was always coming up with surprises live. I think he invented body surfing before the audience was ready for it. He jumped into the audience and broke a leg. Now that was one of the strangest things.

Did you know he was going to do things like that beforehand or did you have to really pay attention?

You know, I was too busy trying to get the notes right (laughs) where I think Pete was onstage and he had a whole different, maybe holistic, approach to entertainment. 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. I thought if we could come on like a kind of rock equivalent of a time machine, be able to travel backwards and forwards in time, that was how I imagined it would be. And of course I wasn’t always ready for the fact that we had Nureyev or Nijinsky meets Iggy Pop on stage doing all of those things. So I wasn’t always ready for that but I respect tremendously his theatricality and the fact that he made it acceptable and digestible what would have been considered to be overly complex by the majority of the audience who wanted to just disappear off to the bar and get drunk.

In your opinion, what makes for a great guitar solo within a song of this genre? Because it’s different than a rock song.

Yeah, I think it is, yeah. I think the ability to be able to surprise yourself. Funny, I just played a guitar solo for Nick Magnus who was the keyboard player within my band during the late seventies and eighties and he’d been making an album. I played something for him the other day and he wants me to mime to it cause he’s doing a video of it and I said, “I can’t possibly mime to it cause it’s just full of surprises, it’s full of all sorts of unlikely twists and turns.” But I think the ability to be able to surprise yourself, and sonically, for the guitar to keep morphing in your hands so that it comes up with something. You know, it’s a very funny thing but I think I finally broke through on this particular thing and I think it’s got some animal force behind it.

Doing this tour, what piece of music was the most difficult to reproduce live because of its intricacies?

I have to say that all of it was difficult. There aren’t any easy Genesis songs. They’re all difficult and apart from “I Know What I Like,” which was built on the guitar riff that I came up with many years ago in 1972, and that was the first hit single. But the thing about that tune is even that one has got a very difficult, very high chorus in it. So if you’re singing it, and I’ve sometimes sang some lead on it myself, it’s very, very hard to reach those notes, to sustain them. It’s not easy. So there’s always, with every Genesis tune, there is always, by the end of the evening, it has put you through your paces.

When you finish this tour, what are you going to do next?

Well, I’ve started making a new album of my own stuff and I’m going to be exploring a number of musical areas that I’d not been involved with before. I think there will be some surprises on it. And there are a number of people I want to work with who are great stars in their own field. It is very exciting and I’m hoping all these people are going to work with me because they are all brilliant. To work with people who are brilliant, I think it helps. These are people who have surprised me and there aren’t that many musicians who are truly surprising. But they do exist and they are people who really are the soul of the instrument. So there will be a number of gifted soloists on it. That’s the plan anyway.

What is the most interesting piece of memorabilia you have from your career?

Oh my God, what have I got? I think I gave it all away. I haven’t kept anything. It’s like the family silver. There’s a bit for charities and there are bits of this and a bit of that and then you lend something to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and once you let it go, they might as well keep it. So there’s very little that I really held on to. A couple of awards and things, a few guitars that I love. Am I allowed to say that? (laughs) A Les Paul guitar that I’ve got that I prize very highly, a twelve string which is really lovely, a great, great guitar. I’ve got a nylon guitar by a manufacturer named Yairi, a Japanese firm, and that’s great stuff. Fernandez also built me a Goldtop, which was a copy of my Goldtop Les Paul, but it has this sustainer pick-up in it and that’s a wonderful guitar. So yeah, I’m just full of bits and pieces (laughs). I’ve got a favorite Treble Booster that was built by Pete Cornish but he can’t build me a replacement for it cause he doesn’t remember what was in it himself.

After all these years, has being a professional musician been everything that you imagined it to be when you were young?

It’s been very good to me. You know, music has been a very good friend and many times it’s been it’s own reward. It hasn’t always been tremendously lucrative. At times it has but then I’ve always reinvested it into the business of music making. And I can’t think of a better way to spend my money (laughs).

top photo by Paul Baldwin

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