Steve Hackett – Interview

This legendary member of Genesis during their classic 70s heyday, and guitarist extraordinaire, is still making and playing music, even as he approaches 70. He joined Genesis in1971, and played on six of their studio albums, including Selling England by The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Hackett released his first solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte, while still a member of Genesis in 1975. After a series of further solo albums beginning in 1978, Hackett co-founded the supergroup GTR with Yes’ Steve Howe in 1986, releasing one album. Hackett then resumed his solo career. He has released albums and toured worldwide on a regular basis since, his body of work encompassing many styles: progressive rock, pop, blues, world music and classical music. According to Guitar World: “Hackett’s early explorations of two-handed tapping and sweep picking were far ahead of their time and influenced Eddie Van Halen and Brian May.”

He’s currently on tour in the UK, performing Selling England by the Pound in its entirety, as well as tracks from his 1979 album Spectral Mornings, and his recently released album At the Edge of Light. He took some time out to chat with Jeff Hemmings about Selling England by the Pound, the new album, Brexit and working on cruise ships!

You seem very busy!

I’m busy, yeah. I don’t think I have ever been busier. Life is completely nuts, but in a good way. I’m rehearsing, and got a couple of dates in the Caribbean, on cruise ships. I’m cruising, as it were. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve got a new drummer, a German who lives in the States, Marco Minnemann Very powerful, it’s quite extraordinary. We all had to turn up twice as loud to be heard above him! Which is fine. I like explosive drumming.

Tell me about these cruise ship gigs? They seem to be all the rage at the moment.

There were two, one with Yes, and one with The Moody Blues – The Moody Cruise!

It’s very good. Extremely good, actually. You do say goodbye to privacy though, you’re literally all in the same boat, 3000 people plus performers. Breakfast is interesting. You want to get there early, you don’t want to get interrupted. But, it’s a lot of fun and after you’ve been there a couple of days, people say ‘I’ve seen him, I’ve got his autograph’ and then they leave you alone. ‘My Grandmother saw you back in 1918, and she’s still got the picture on the wall’, that sort of stuff.

The new album At The Edge of Light sounds very much like a world music album in places, lots of ethnic musical styles in the mix.

The people on it are from the four corners of the earth. There is a core of the band but they get augmented by people from Iceland, Azerbaijan, India, USA. Some stuff is recorded in Budapest and Sardinia.

Are you firmly in the global internet age, sending files across the ether?

Most of it is still done face-to-face but occasionally we use the internet, mainly for the drumming. Internet drumming, yeah! We’ve got four or five different drummers on the album and they all bring something different and unique to it. It took 18 months to get it done, doing shows in-between. Not 18 months straight! What happens is that you get moments, or pockets, or even the odd month, where you’ve got to work like crazy to meet deadlines. I find that doing deadlines does encroach more these days than they did when I was starting out. It seemed a month was an excessively long time to make an album. But these days the standards of merely tuning and timing are higher. It takes a while just to get everything correct.

The track ‘Beasts of our Time’ sounds like reflections of the growing menace of the Far Right and nationalism.

It is, yeah. We were thinking of the Neville Chamberlain quote ‘peace in our time’. That addresses that in a symbolic way. Some of the other tracks focus on this time of dissent, conflict and potential disaster but the album ends optimistically – cautiously optimistically – with the track ‘Peace’.

Inevitably I have to ask about the current turmoil here, in the form of Brexit…

International musicians tend to come down on the side of being remainers. We know that if Brexit goes ahead it makes it enormously complicated to do tours in Europe. It impacts on us directly. And we still don’t have a deal, do we? So we don’t know what it means. It seems to me at this point in time that those who are talking about honouring the democratic process are unwilling to have a second referendum, with everyone informed what the deal is. ‘Sign up to this’, but you don’t really know what it is. I’ve heard the arguments where people are saying ‘let’s just get on with it’, but what does that mean!? I’m all for honouring the democratic process but with an informed electorate. If it means living on tinned food, and no medical supplies, and trucks not moving, and troops on the street, is that really what you’re voting for? Is your life that dull that you’re interested in all that conflict? There are other dramas going on in my life, just to be able to get out of England!

My family were immigrants and came here in the late 1800s, and if they had not been allowed to come in, I wouldn’t be here. I’m a direct product of a Jewish family on my Mother’s side, who managed to escape pogroms and all that, so I feel I am honouring the ancestors to some degree. I am for honouring on-going democratic processes, especially since we’ve reached deadlock. The idea of crashing out without a deal would be reprehensible. It’s like jumping off a cliff and saying, ‘bring on the financial crash’. The whole connection to Europe, the idea of – in the aftermath of World War II – the peace, if not the prosperity, ought to be a major priority.

Tell me about this tour

We’ll be doing the whole of Selling England by the Pound, most of Spectral Mornings, and highlights from At the Edge of Light. It’s the 40th anniversary of Spectral Mornings, which I did in 1979. And one of the live favourites is Selling England…, which was released a very very long time ago in 1973. John Lennon said at the time they were one of the bands he was listening to. And I’ve always felt it was the best Genesis album that we did with the five man team, which included Peter Gabriel. I have enormous affection for that very British album. It’s got some great moments on it, from everyone in the band. Everyone got the chance to shine. I think the band was at its peak then.

There is certainly a big revival of interest in music from the 70s.

It seems like a long long time ago but then I think of albums like Sgt Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon. I grew up listening to music in the 1950s, and the 60s and 70s were an extraordinarily creative time. Musicians have always been creative, but whether they’ve been allowed to get their ideas across, I don’t know. I grew up listening to all sorts of things. We had two radio stations, The Light Programme (the precursor to BBC Radio 2), and the Home Service (which became BBC Radio 4). Why would you need more than two stations! We had everything from Glenn Miller to Elvis Presley. It’s all music. They’re all making a noise for a living…

Have you adapted well to the Spotify generation?

I think that whatever format people want to listen to music in, they should be allowed to. If they want to shout at the wall and be answered by a robot, or actually physically get off your arse, and put something on, I don’t mind! It’s all valid.

It’s enabled many more people to reconnect with Genesis and your older solo material.

That’s right. When you bought records they were in a cardboard box and you were lucky to get them in alphabetical order. I bought some very interesting albums that way, out the front of electrical shops on the King’s Road. I picked up Eric Satie. I thought ‘interesting cover, I’ll take a chance on this’. It was cheap, and it sounded wonderful. It features classical pieces that I had no idea who the composer was. That was a voyage of discovery, when music was marginalised. I guess it’s marginalised in a different way now but I’m very happy for music to get out there. But whether a live show advertises an album, or an album advertises a live show, live tends to be the way forward and I’ve kept touring, either with an orchestra, or a band, rock stuff or acoustic stuff, ‘Risking it’ is what motivates me. Sometimes I’ve gone on stage without a script at all. When I worked with Evelyn Glennie (Scottish virtuoso multi-percussionist) we didn’t have a single note agreed for that rehearsal in the morning. She wanted to keep it spontaneous, and I thought I’ve been a complete fraud here, on one level. I’m without a script, never mind a good verse and chorus, as we used to talk about in Genesis. That was an eye opener. Anyone who does that is really brave.

What do you listen to?

I listen to everyone and anything, from Bach to Blues and beyond, and even earlier music, like William Byrd.

Will there be any element of musical freedom in the upcoming tour?

Some solos are improvised. I’m currently rehearsing up ‘Supper’s Ready’ (for one of the cruise gigs), and I do a long improvised thing at the end of it. But I want to do authentic versions of the songs we’re playing. I’m not trying to hoodwink people. I’m not trying to do an orchestral suite, loosely based on the work of… or atonal jazz versions of the songs you once managed to sing along with. I won’t be doing that!

You’ll be performing ‘Firth of Forth’ which you had a big hand in.

It’s the most well known Genesis guitar melody. It was a great moment, and I look forward to playing that again. Previously I cherry-picked across Genesis music, but this time we’re doing an album, because for me, this is the one, or this is the time that we got feedback from Mr Lennon, who we had all grown up listening to. If any one says, ‘is this 70s stuff relevant?’, well you might as well say ‘is all this Beatles stuff relevant?’ For young budding songwriters, it was seminal. It was more than important, it was the air that we breathed. It was a game changer for the world. Rock and pop’s shoulders had become sufficiently broad enough to encompass other forms: raga, classical, you name it. So, I’m very thankful to those guys for blazing the trail for us.

And you’ll here in Brighton, at the Dome!

There is one track off the new album, ‘The Hungry Years’, which reflects a club in Brighton, which both my wife Jo and her sister Amanda (who sings with Steve) used to go to, and listen to loud music!

Jeff Hemmings