Steve Hackett: Creating, Inspiring and Elevating Music For Past, Present and Future Generations

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Steve HackettAs an original member of Genesis during the Peter Gabriel era and a successful solo artist for nearly fifty years, Steve Hackett has been an innovative and creative juggernaut in the world of music. Steve has collaborated with some of the greatest names in music and influenced countless others. His latest release, Under a Mediterranean Sky, is a great example of his talent for bringing together a diverse collection of musicians and sounds to create something unique and beautiful. We were very fortunate to chat with him recently about the new album and much more.

You’ve been very busy this year haven’t you?
Yes I have, not to busy in terms of gigs but very busy recording, still making noise for a living.

You were in the midst of a tour when everything went down.
We were, we had sixty shows that were cancelled when the world got cancelled but we hope next year that we’re going to be back in the saddle.

You also have a new album coming out, Under a Mediterranean Sky, tell us about that.
Well you know, I wanted to make lots of different albums in the lockdown. I felt that because I couldn’t appear in front of people, I did some live playing to the camera of just playing nylon string guitar because it was the easiest thing to do. My equipment was stranded in America for months because we got the last flight back from Philadelphia and the stuff was being delivered to Liverpool, then to London and all I had was an acoustic guitar for several months. So I made this album with an acoustic guitar, it took a couple of months to make and basically the idea of Under a Mediterranean Sky is visiting various countries that border the Mediterranean and visiting them in a virtual sense and trying to describe them in a landscape.

We have one track that sounds very Spanish, something that sounds French, another that sounds more Egyptian, Greek and so forth. It was great to work with instruments from all around the Mediterranean and even further a field so I had a great time doing the album and by the time I finished that my rock instruments were returned to me and I started recording rock things as well. In the meantime I have Under a Mediterranean Sky which has not just acoustic stuff but it has orchestral appearances as well. I worked with two people who were putting the album together and a small team of musicians to try and create a big sound.

I worked with Roger King who’s a fabulous keyboard player, arranger and engineer. He’s been working with me for many years, and I also was writing stuff with my wife Jo. In a way, it was a perfect time without interruption because you could only work in a small bubble, I could only work with one other person face to face. All of the other people on the album worked virtually from home and sent in their contributions like the guy from Armenia, Arsen Petrosyan and our sax and flute player, Rob Townsend. He moved to Denmark so he was sending us performances live from Denmark. It all sounds like everyone is in the same room but it didn’t quite get put together that way.

That seems to be the new way to work this year but I imagine you miss being together and being able to bounce things off each other. How do you like the process?
I think you have to trust the people that you work with and give them space and say, I know that you’re good at what you do and whatever you send me I’m going to use in one form or another. If I get more than one take then I have more choice in what I’m going to use. Of course it’s not quite the same as working face to face with people but I found that the better people are at playing their instrument, if they come in to do a solo you have to give them space to do it, you can’t really write that.

The one person we actually did get in was Christine Townsend, no relation to Rob, and Christine plays violin and viola and she happens to be brilliant on both. So we stretched that working bubble to two people, Roger and Christine and I were very happy to get her input on the album because she’s been a big part of the orchestral stuff we’ve used in recent years.

You really enjoy producing orchestral music, don’t you?
Well I do, it’s funny isn’t it? This very day I was watching something on the Sky Arts channel and it was Hollywood Goes to Vienna and I think it was a Viennese orchestra and they were playing stuff from well known film composers including right at the end, the Gone with the Wind theme and it works very well. I must admit I enjoy film music, it’s the nearest thing to classical music that orchestras are making these days. Some film music is very good indeed, because I’m very selective and I like the romantic stuff I must admit.

The idea of doing Under a Mediterranean Sky materialized over the last few years while travelling with your wife Jo, correct?
Yeah, I had the idea, for instance when we were in Egypt which isn’t that long ago, we took a trip up The Nile and I had my notebook out the whole time. I didn’t have a guitar with me, far too difficult to travel around with all that luggage but it is a travel log to some degree and an imaginary journey, an inner journey.

Really it’s like an imaginary landscape of those areas. My dad was a painter and he was very good at landscapes among other things and my version of doing that because I didn’t inherit his visual skills, was to do it with music and come up with stuff that sounds convincingly Spanish or convincingly Greek and I had a great time doing it. It practically wrote itself.

There were a couple of pieces I had played live beforehand, like Casa del Fauno. I played that one quite a bit with a heavy flute feature on it with two flute players, my brother John and Rob Townsend. That was great fun, and there’s a track called Joie de Vivre which I’ve been playing that or a variation of it live for quite some time but I fleshed it out a little bit more because when you’re playing on an album there’s a chance to finish things whereas when I’m playing acoustic guitar live I tend to do medleys of things and mix things up and do an overall impression of all the things I’m into. Making an album, it’s a different process.

Your wife Jo is a real creative force in your life.
That’s right, yes! She’s been variously different things in the course of her life. She’s been a film maker, an author, and she was trained as a kid to play violin. Her father and grandfather were brilliant violinists but although she loved music, she never thought that she was going to be a virtuoso so she put that to one side but she said to me she loved music and always felt that when she would listen to orchestral music in particular that she would sometimes get frustrated when musicians would repeat things without variation.

She always thought instinctively that she knew where some things should go. Time and time again, I’ll be playing something and she’ll go, “have you thought of this variation?” or indeed if I get stuck on something and I say I want a certain melody, she’ll sing it as a top line and I’ll write that down. I’ve been amazed at some of the things she’s come up with, not just top lines but bass lines as well, very powerful and very masculine and not the sort of thing you’d think would come from a woman.

I’m very happy to have that input and usually we arrive at something we’re both happy with. We have to both be satisfied with something and luckily she likes most of what I do. It’s very rare that she doesn’t understand what I’m driving at with a particular thing.
You have a very organic creative relationship with each other.
Yeah, it’s been a really good partnership in that way. She’s been a song writing partner for me as has Roger King. You can’t force it, it has to come naturally. I’ve found in the past you can’t just stick two people together who’ve never worked together and expect that they’re going to come up with something. There has to be a chemistry there and an understanding of what the other person gets moved by and what their capabilities and limitations are.

You also this year released Selling England by the Pound and Spectral Mornings Live at Hammersmith. You’ve said that’s your favourite album.
It’s my favourite Genesis album from a time, 1973, when we heard that John Lennon had given an interview and said we were one of the bands he was listening to at that time. So it holds special significance to me as I can’t think of any higher sanction we could have had but he didn’t always see eye to eye with classical people. I remember that he was on TV being interviewed and Yehudi Menuhin was on, the violinist, and they were arguing about something and they weren’t getting on at all but the irony is that things that I did several years apart, both of them gave the sanction to separate things that I’ve been involved with.

Often the worlds of pop and rock and classical have been at loggerheads but I always think there’s some common ground that I ought to be involved with and try and reconcile the differences between the various schools. I’m very instinctive, I’m no purest, I like the collision of the two.

Isn’t that sort of the sound Genesis was built on?
Well, you know, in the early days there was a lot of competition that went on with that band and you couldn’t always guarantee that you’d get something done by the band because founding members did tend to hold sway and brilliant though they were, there were times when rehearsal sessions ended up being drawn swords or handbags at dawn as we often say.

Not always smooth but sufficient that a lot of the time if you think of Peter Gabriel’s last album with Genesis which was The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, it’s almost the contest between rock meets Rachmaninoff really in terms of you’ve got all that keyboard work that’s very articulate and really is classically based.

I also loved classical keyboard work and I always wanted the guitar to be able to do things that they keyboard could do more naturally. Ever since I heard Segovia Plays Bach and to hear all those convolutions that sound impossible on one guitar I ended up years later recording some of that stuff I heard Segovia do and I always wanted to take some of those techniques forward with a nylon guitar and invent new techniques that hadn’t been quite utilized. Lots of things happened and one thing led to another and I ended up doing this thing that people call tapping and I did that in 71 and there were other techniques too. Some of them become part of the glossary of terms for shredders and on the other hand there’s the other stuff that maybe owes a little bit more to flamenco or classical guitar work.

Eddie Van Halen has said he picked up the tapping technique from watching you.
Yeah, well it’s a very interesting thing, I think he was a very influential guitarist himself and obviously absolutely brilliant. I’m very sorry I didn’t get to meet him before his passing. It’s been an extraordinary year for the passing of great guitarists.

On British soil we had the passing of Peter Green who I used to go see before he was in Fleetwood Mac. I probably saw him once a month when he was working with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and he was a brilliant successor to the young Eric Clapton’s work with John Mayall and I learned a lot watching him and I admired him tremendously. It’s very sad that we’ve said goodbye to two luminaries who’ve really influenced the world of electric guitar playing.

Do you prepare or warm up any differently than you did when you were younger?
I’ve been very lucky, I had an elbow problem at one point and the more I used to go the more it hurt and luckily I had a very good physiotherapist and he said you’ve got something like a tennis elbow. He was an ex sportsman, a footballer and he fixed it and I’ve never had it again.

Luckily the fingers are all working as of today as long as the nails are right and it does take a bit of warm up time to get centered enough to be able to do the right thing. I think playing with the nails, it can be very unforgiving and I find that when I first pick up the acoustic guitar it takes me a while to get aligned, it doesn’t happen straight away whereas I think with electric I can tear into it, the angle of the hand isn’t as important.

You have to be really centered with acoustic and you’ve got to love it and be in the moment and the nails have to be trimmed right so you need to honour it really. You can never have too much technique when you’re playing acoustic nylon, I don’t know anyone who’s terribly satisfied with their technique.

Steve HackettWhen you solo during a recording do you improvise and play on the fly or do you go in with it written and rehearsed?
With nylon guitar, especially if you’re playing with other instruments, you need to have a script, you need a plot and you need to be very precise but I think with electric I’ve often just gone in and if I can get it first take then that’s wonderful, otherwise I might stop and have another go.

Put it this way, nobody gets any points for finishing early, nobody knows how long it took you to achieve. I’ve had many frustrating moments, believe me and it doesn’t always sound great when I first start because it’s not just a case of getting the notes right, the guitar has got to sing. Even though you might play something exactly the same way, there will come a moment where the guitar will do something surprising itself and if you got that thing under control, it starts to do it as well so I’m always waiting for that magic moment when it comes alive and you hit the sweet spot.

It’s always frustrated me that it doesn’t sound great from the word go, at least not the kind of great I’m looking for. When you’re looking for that upper harmonic, that local sound that guitars can do, and there’s an infinite variety of tones involved with it so I just keep going at it. It’s like playing roulette, you’re waiting for your winning number to come up so I do a lot of repeats.

Do you still use tube amps or do you use modelling amps?
For live I use ENGL amps and I’ve been very happy with those. When I’m recording I use a mixture. I sometimes use modelling, or I use a little practice amp. I’ve used a variety of things and I would say the 100 watt ENGL amps are really good and very responsive but I don’t need to be always moving air to get a powerful sound. I think you can fool people into believing it’s a big amp cranked up in a corner. I remember when I first started using amp modelling with Roger King and he had an array of software and when I had my last studio we were recording upstairs and we would hear the thump of the amp coming up through the floor. I remember when I was recording yet another version of a Genesis classic, Musical Box, I was playing that same solo which is well known I like to think and I said to him, I cannot believe we’re not hearing the thump coming up through the floor and he said yeah, same for me. He felt the same, that it was just amazing what you could do and also, in recent years I’ve been using Fernandes guitars that have the built in sustainer.

Practically every guitar tone I’ve gotten with an amp I’ve managed to get with modelling. It’s nice to be in control of it yourself. There’s nothing like here’s my amp and here’s my sound, this is it, whereas if I’m going through amp modelling I’m waiting for someone else to do the eq so there’ll be a delay, we confer and then once the sound is right you can go anywhere with it. When you get a great sound that’s half the battle. It’s a bit like a racing car driver, once you’ve got the right car the vehicle is there. If the sound isn’t there, I can’t do it.

I’m always fussed about with the sound, actually paranoid about it, I’m a real pain to work with because of that. I can’t do that magic thing until the sound is right.

Recently I’ve been using my Les Paul more, I’ve been going back to that early thing that doesn’t have that tremolo arm on it, it doesn’t have the sustainer but it’s got that gutsy thing, it’s got that big sound that I always looked for in the early days and that killer sound that you’ve heard so many people get, you just got to get the tone right with it, you’ve got to get the distortion right.

I tend to use a SansAmp 150 to get that kind of tube overdrive and then we might add something in the virtual department to give it some extra edge as well. I don’t always use as much distortion as I once did. I sometimes find that treble is a good substitute for that and then you can get a cleaner sound but it still sounds just as powerful unless you’re after that brassy overdrive sound. I haven’t got a fixed policy regarding sound, I’m open to different things.

Isn’t that why you left Genesis? Because you wanted to try different things and the core members were more focused on their sound?
Well that wasn’t a reason for leaving, it was more that I was hindered from doing anything outside the group and I didn’t want to give anyone the impression that they owned me. I play with a group because I’m a volunteer, not a captive.

Genesis was a great group, there’s no doubt about it. In all its incarnations it had something extraordinary to offer. Both with the Peter Gabriel era and when we were four piece and then what they did subsequently which had great production values and all that, but autonomy is the big thing. If you’ve got something to say you can’t afford to be hamstrung by the limitations of others.

So you followed your heart and put your music and creativity first and the rest just happened.
Yeah, I didn’t want to be pensioned off, music was more important to me than money, and I know that a lot of people were like that. You go back to for instance, Eric Clapton’s decision to leave The Yardbirds and going with John Mayall.

The Yardbirds were having hit singles and were a hugely famous pop group at that time but he wanted to become more of a virtuoso and dedicate himself to the blues. All the sonic development that happened with the electric guitar really happened around blues. Clapton was at the forefront of that as was his successor in the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck.

Basically when I was growing up in the mid 60’s it was three guys who had the sound, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Peter Green. Hendrix was to come along a year or two later and of course was absolutely stunning but it shows there was fire on both sides of the pond.

Voyage of the Acolyte was brilliant. I read that’s when you first started really making money with your music. You were only getting £100 a week with Genesis.
Yeah, probably even less I think. We were all on salaries with Charisma Records which were also management and publishing, it was all under the same roof.

I didn’t object to that, I was very happy to work with this great band and have some influence over it but it wasn’t really till I did that solo album but that wasn’t the motivation, to make money, I just wanted to let rip with some ideas that I’d been amassing for some time and I wanted to be able to work with my brother John who was in the process of becoming a great flute player, and to explore those ideas we had been kicking around the bedroom when we were kids growing up.

It was wonderful to work with him and other people as well as Phil and Mike from Genesis, and John Acock. There are several people who’ve passed on when we made that album. John Gustafson, John Acock and Robin Miller who played oboe and cor anglais on the album and of course they were all brilliant in their own way. It’s a sign, the passing of time is a sobering thought so I tend to make albums rather more quickly these days than I used to.

You have been very active and I’ve noticed a tremendous creative output the last several years.
I think it’s literally the fear of your number being called in a cosmic sense of the word. Even though I lead a healthy lifestyle that doesn’t mean that something can come along from one moment to the next and take you out. Everyone of my generation, when I confer with my friends they say I’ve had this operation and I had that and I’m recovering from this, that and the other and we’ve all been the same, we’ve had to check the vehicle into the garage from time to time and that’s just how it goes. So that’s probably why I work rather quickly, I don’t want to have any unfinished symphonies or even doodles at this point. I want to get them done but you know, get them done to a certain standard.

That leads me to a question I really wanted to ask. There was a point in time where there was talk of you doing a project with Jack Bruce and Keith Emerson. This seems like it would have been an amazing collaboration. Tell me about what happened and do you have regrets that it didn’t materialize?
I thought they were both absolutely amazing and we rehearsed together for three or four days along with Simon Phillips who is an amazing drummer himself. We took Christmas off and we reconvened only to find that Jack and Keith suddenly didn’t have any common ground. Having been writing songs together for about six months, they suddenly fell out and there was something quite trivial I gather and so I had to pass up the chance of working with them in the same band but it would have been quite a band.

They were brilliant but it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to get on very well. Witness Walt Disney trying to work with Salvador Dali, it didn’t quite come off. I’m sure it would have come off as something quite amazing if someone had been prepared to yield perhaps.

Was there anything recorded?
There are some tapes that we did that were in a germinating stage. If I was being cynical I’d probably say there’s gold in the tapes and perhaps I ought to finish them off and if people were prepared to give them to me I could go and turn it into something that I think might thrill people but I don’t want to dangle the carrot too much because it was at the point when I think Jack was yet to sing it in a full throated kind of way, it was more in a formative stage so people would probably shoot it down in flames and say hey well those guys weren’t so great all together. We’ll never know how it would have been had it been taken to completion.

I agree, I don’t think it would be as good without Jack in full form.
Exactly, Jack Bruce in full form was a fabulous voice, bass player and a musical force to be reckoned with. Keith was the nearest thing to the Hendrix of the keyboard, leaping all over the place throwing knives into it, whipping it, playing it upside down, he was a showman par excellence.

You’ve got those two British heavyweights and I was looking forward to working with them. It wasn’t my fault that it didn’t work out but hey, it was fun for a few days jamming with those greats.

It’s been really great talking with you, what can we expect in the New Year?
Well there is Under a Mediterranean Sky which satisfies the urge to do orchestral/acoustic stuff with some world music influences thrown in. Beyond that, I have about forty-five minutes of rock stuff that’s been recorded to a certain standard and it has some friends who are well known on it as well as the band that I’ve been touring with so at some point in January I’ll be back recording again. Hopefully everyone is going to be in one piece after the holidays. I know my guys have been isolating themselves and being very careful. I’m supposed to be talking with them on Skype or Zoom tonight so it’ll be nice to connect with the band that was a while back and that will be again in the future. I’m looking forward to when everyone’s open for business, we’ll be back in the saddle, I’ll be looking forward to that.

Photo: Tina Korhonen
Photo: Tina Korhonen
Photo: Tina Korhonen
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Dan is a photographer and writer who loves all forms of music and entertainment with a particular passion for the classic rock of his youth. Whether in the photo pit or chatting with local or international artists, Dan is in his element and enjoys bringing the story to you, the 519 community. https://www.facebook.com/27thfloorphotography | https://www.instagram.com/27thfloorphotography