Steve Hackett played on all the best Genesis albums and is touring his version of the classic Selling England By The Pound. GARY STEEL chatted with the guitar master.
Note: This interview took place on July 23, 2019 (the day that Boris Johnson took power in the UK) ahead of Steve Hackett’s planned performance in Auckland on June 2, 2020. Except the Covid-19 pandemic meant that got postponed. It is now rescheduled for Friday 21 May, 2021 at the Auckland Town Hall.
Gary Steel – You’ve got bad news this morning I hear.
Steve Hackett – You mean what with Boris [winning the election]. Yes, that’s extremely bad news. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the news today. I’m normally fairly avid at watching the news but it’s too depressing for words.
It’s not unexpected but unfortunately, the lowest common denominator seems to dominate the world of politics just about everywhere, so it’s up to art to fill the space, or the chasm, that politics is creating.
I like to think that music and musicians and writers build bridges instead of blowing up between nations. But hey, I’m just an idealist, and it’s not going to stop me doing what I do, which is to go my multicultural way towards building something that perhaps lies beyond all of this morass that we’ve got.
Gary – You’re a long-time global proponent and you’re also touring globally, so it’s in direct contrast to everything bad that’s going on over there.
Steve – Exactly. Yes, I like to think Marco Polo might have been quite proud of myself and my wife. We’ve been to all sorts of places, some of them easy to visit, some of them not so easy. But they’ve all been rewarding and it all somehow seems to add up to one huge picture of the globe… one huge photograph that seems to encompass the whole place.
It’s been extraordinary recently, the places we’ve been to. The most incredible having been Ethiopia in recent times. I don’t mean the 18 or so countries that we’ve visited in the past two months, which is as a consequence of touring, but to mount an expedition to see tribes and animals and all sorts of stuff.
Gary – Is the travel a big passion?
Steve – It is a big passion, and you get to not just travel globally but to be a time traveller too, because when you visit somewhere like Ethiopia you’re literally going back 10,000 years when you encounter certain people and tribes and customs and practices and what have you. It’s “let’s visit the ancient world”, and it hasn’t changed much. Yeah, extraordinary, but there’s a connection. Suddenly someone twigs and you’ll find a common word that you both understand and there’s a connection and it all goes epiphanal, and it stays with you and it haunts you and it’s lovely. Yeah, it’s been an extraordinary life so far, and it’s not over yet, with any luck.
Gary – I’m amazed that we’re talking today about a gig that you’re going to be doing almost a year ahead. [Note: the concert was delayed due to Covid-19 and has been rescheduled. See below].
Steve – Yeah, I know, it’s extraordinary the way that works, but I’m looking forward to coming back, and hopefully I’ll get to see one or two friends when I’m here.
Gary – I hear that last time you were in New Zealand you got standing ovations.
Steve – Yeah that was marvellous. You guys out there are a beacon of hope, politically. It might just be the last bastion the way it’s all going, but we need some lighthouses out there and tolerance seems to be a dirty word these days. But hey, I’m not sure… I’m certainly not sure about Brexit, and I hope that Boris’s attempts to foist it upon us are as frustrated as his two predecessors found it was. But anyway, what the hell.
Gary – You seem to be going through a creative renaissance, and you’ve got such an amazing audience base. I guess that’s a positive sign because you have to assume that your fans share a lot of the views that you do about things.
Steve – I think many of them do. It’s extraordinary the way people seem to be prepared to give up freedoms. I think the way Brexit has been sold to the Brits has been on the level of ‘oh well, we’ll have the freedom to control our own borders’, but really, it means that we’re just gate-keepers of our own cave. The fact that you’ve got the right to live and work in so many EU countries seems to be something that’s beyond the media to understand. It’s sadly depressing, but you do have to just get on with life and do what you do, and multiculturalism is certainly the way forward.
When I speak to people who are pro-Brexit, I say to them, ‘oh well, the truth is that if you were at the point in the hospital where you might just lose your life because of a heart condition, would you really mind where the doctor came from that actually saved your life?’
We should be celebrating the best, we should be looking for cures instead of pointing fingers and demonising and… it does seem as if we are approaching the dark ages big-time, and we have actually got the chance to blow ourselves up quite literally the way it’s going at the moment.
Anyway, all of that’s got nothing to do with the world of songs, although maybe the songs that I’ve been writing in recent years, particularly the ones I do with my wife, there’s often a story behind it that might have an idea that perhaps we could present another view… that we could see it from another point of view. The track ‘Behind The Smoke’, the idea of refugees and um… perhaps reminding people that we’re basically all from refugee families. Mine only go back 100 years or so to Eastern European Jewish stock, but I’m working on new material, I’m doing a phenomenal amount of gigs, I’m recording new stuff, I’m practising. I do try and play every day unless I’m travelling and it’s impossible.
Gary – It seems to be that – even though we’ve been talking about some negative stuff today – you come across in your music and everything that I’ve read about you, as a glass half full kind of a guy rather than a glass half empty kind of a guy.
Steve – Yeah, exactly, I think you have to balance it that way.
Gary – And that’s very much the case on the At The Edge Of Light album. Beautiful record, by the way.
Steve – Yes, I think it’s probably my best. Spectral Mornings is probably my most loved by fans, but I think my best is At The Edge Of Light. There’s nothing on it that I’m not proud of if you see what you mean.
Gary – It’s really lovely. I can’t help but think that so many of your contemporaries have fallen by the way and of course the whole genre of progressive rock has had such a rocky time of it over the past three or four decades. How is it that you’ve come through it all and come to this point where all this crap is washed away?
Steve – Well, I like to think that it’s music without prejudice. That’s the simplest way of looking at it. I’ve heard people say that they like Olympic sized salvos, out from the fingers and lots of speed, dexterity and technique and all that, but I think that you can have a record that contains everything. It ought to be possible not to think ‘I’ve got to play slow all night or otherwise it won’t be romantic’ or ‘I daren’t do something too fast or it might allude too much to heavy metal’, it’ll be too testosterone-driven, or what have you. I just see it as a case of changing gears. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of speed, nothing wrong with a bit of romance, bit of comedy, a bit of social comment… all those things. So if you start including all those things in an album, very quickly you will have an album if each track fulfils that criteria. Here comes the comedy track. The Germans will hate it but… Sometimes I’ve carried on regardless, I think humour’s important, it’s an adjunct to health. Laughter’s good.
Gary – It feels like in reading your blog and that sort of thing, and correct me if I’m wrong, it feels like it’s a really good point in your life right now.
Steve – I think it is, yeah. I know people have said ‘will there be a Genesis reunion?’ and it’s the most asked question and I say ‘it’s possible, but meanwhile I honour the former work I did with them in full. I don’t do little snippets and segues and what have you. I’m at the point now where I’m doing the complete Selling England By The Pound plus one deleted scene, ie. a track that Peter Gabriel and I wrote together. To do the director’s cut rather than… Here’s a nod to what we used to do when it was all beards and pipes and… we’ve sleeked down a bit now, we’re all in suits and isn’t it glamorous.
I think that the band’s work was pretty stellar in all its incarnations. You can chart the progress and see it grow from when they were school kids to whatever it became later on, so I think in all its eras it had something to say, and I particularly enjoyed it when Peter Gabriel was involved, I must say.
Gary – Do you still talk to the other guys?
Steve – I do, I do. I think that… I perhaps don’t talk to them in depth. I don’t think we ever did talk in depth, apart from Pete who I think is capable of a worldview that is way ahead of most people. I suspect the others have yet to return to the same place and know it for the first time. I don’t think they’ve quite made that journey, whereas I never really left that place.
I always felt that Genesis lived up to an ideal for me and Selling England By The Pound I thought was basically absolutely wonderful, and after that it was slowly downhill but still a case of better than just about everything else that was out there.
Gary – It seems to me that a lot of the progressive era bands and musicians kind of felt the pressure to go very commercial and completely change their music in the 1980s and while you did a bit of that somehow you always had the conviction that you would do what you wanted to do and be curious about things and continue to do whatever you felt like, whether it was an acoustic album or whatever. Is it the different projects that you’ve done that feed you, that allow you to come back to the Genesis stuff, the progressive era stuff?
Steve – Well there’s a lot of bases you’ve covered there.
Gary – Sorry!
Steve – Er, I think to do as many different things as possible is what it’s all about and even if those things don’t necessarily put you on top of the pops or the equivalent, nonetheless… at times I think you’ve got to go out on a limb or tour the outer rim of thoughts in order to do something that might be surprising to yourself.
I’ve surprised myself over the years that I was able to play the blues and Bach, because they were very different things, but they’re still player based mediums and energies and so I don’t see any contradiction, really. Yeah, the baroque master, early romantic I think of Bach, and at the same time the passion and the anger and the dexterity with which blues can be embraced and lived and played.
Love all of that, haven’t got a problem with listening to Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Mr Segovia! Haven’t got a problem with that. And I perhaps made the mistake many years ago of thinking that audiences were prepared to accept that much on an album that you could diversify and diversify and it would all be part of your own personal sampler album. So it can be a strength, also a weakness, it’s easy to praise it and criticise it in equal measure, but I think what I tend to do is steer projects broadly in one direction or another.
I think the last time I did an acoustic album I had six pieces of Bach on it, a few pieces of my own, but it was mainly other composers, and we just had a guitar on it and nothing else. I didn’t go for orchestras and what have you, although I’ve done that. I thought let’s go purist with that, and I may do the same in the future.
I think that there’s at least one other blues album in me, somewhere, and I think most of the proggers hate blues. I don’t think they understand it. I think that they’re often hidebound by form, thinking that lots of chords and tricky time signatures doth a good song make, but I would say no, it doesn’t. I’m not sure that impenetrable equations are what it’s all about for me. I think that music’s got to communicate emotionally, it’s either got to be a tearjerker or it’s got to be really exciting. Yeah. I think it’s a little bit like having a film for the ear rather than the eye. There’s an imaginary soundtrack going on and with each song that I’m thinking of something, not necessarily a video, but I’m thinking of all the images that something might conjure, including acoustic work. But the things that acoustic work tend to throw up tend to be more nature-based stuff, it’s a backdrop to in the main beautiful views and vistas and stunning imaginary architecture…
Music For Fountains often presents itself as a potential title, I want it to trickle and be incredibly beautiful. Sometimes music for me needs to be authentic rather than original. I’d rather have something heartfelt than something that was very new but not very good, not very interesting. I still trust melody, I haven’t come to the point where I don’t think melody is the way forward. Nothing wrong with atonal stuff and clusters and all the rest but I want to use it in contrast with other things. It only really works if it’s contrasted with something else.
Gary – It’s interesting that so many people think of progressive rock as being endless guitar solos when in fact in your work so much of it is very carefully composed and the guitar solos work in perfect accord with those compositions.
Steve – Thank you for saying that, I think I’m often thinking of landscaping with music, I’m thinking of vistas, well I think of orchestras and… groups can be like an orchestra too. The technology’s there to fool people completely, but I think endless guitar solos, well, as I say, the music of Bach, played on guitar… I can listen to that all night. But I don’t think of that as a guitar solo, it’s through-composed structured work from the word ‘go’. It’s not the same as a guitarist doing the first thing that comes into his head. Although I’m not knocking the forms that do that – blues, jazz, and all the rest. It can be very energising. But I think if you’re talking about records you’ve got the ability, or the challenge perhaps is the surprise. The art of surprise. And music is always surprising me.
Gary – It’s interesting that you used the word ‘architecture’ before because that was exactly what I was thinking… that some of the travel photos you’ve got online go so beautifully with the music, it’s all form and structure.
Steve – Yeah, well we’ve just been to Italy. Italy the beautiful, when you see those things that are part of them but are also now – and they’ve preserved all that extraordinary stuff… the fountains and various piazzas and town squares that we’ve performed in where the lights manage to splay out onto the buildings and paint them. We celebrate all that. I like it to be immersive in that way. I like to be as immersed in their culture as much as I might present something that’s relatively new.
I do love classical stuff. I know it makes me sound reactionary. If you’re a classicist, if you appreciate anything there, it makes you sound reactionary. I don’t want to do that, I want to welcome the new as well. I want to celebrate the best, wherever it comes from, and whenever it appears.
Gary – They’re going to cut us off in a minute so I’ll say my goodbyes but it’s been great talking to you.
Steve – Thank you it’s been brilliant talking to you, really great.
Gary – And the world might blow up before you get here but…
Steve – Yeah well I know that yeah! There’s always a chance but there might be another plane of existence. I hope we’re more sensible the next time around, that’s all I can say. More sensible than this lot.
- Steve Hackett plays his rescheduled concert, Genesis Revisited Selling England By The Pound, at the Auckland Town Hall on Friday 21 May, 2021 (if the world doesn’t blow up before then). He’ll also perform the entirety of the Genesis live album, Seconds Out!