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Steve Hackett on Genesis, Springsteen and psychedelia

When Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins quit Genesis, they became pop stars and media personalities. While this door was no doubt open to Steve Hackett as well, he chose a different path. As Gabriel, Collins and Genesis were going bigger, Hackett opted for a degree of artistry over mass appeal.

While his former bandmates were playing stadiums and arenas, the ex-Genesis guitarist instead preferred theatres, clubs and music halls. The crowds were smaller, sure, but the venues better accommodated the intricacies of the progressive sound. Steve is still insistent upon the idea to this day. For him, it’s only within these smaller confines that the rare and mystical interchange between players (and no doubt their audience too) can truly come alive.

HAPPY: You joined up with Genesis in 1971 and something I’ve always wondered about is the influence of psychedelia on what you were doing with those early records…

STEVE: Well, psychedelia, I think that’s where guitarists started to develop the idea of distorted guitars. It’s ancient history now but distorted guitars, backwards stuff, the influence of Indian music – I guess drugs played their part in that too – I think music was on the change. This whole kind of incorporation of influences from far flung places happened with psychedelic music.

And I think progressive was perhaps the more organised end of that. I like the romantic side of progressive stuff, but I enjoy the idea of the way psychedelic playing came in and the fact that a solo could go anywhere and could be any length. I loved that, the equivalent of free jazz for rock ‘n’ rollers. And the idea that music could always be surprising.

So whatever label you give it, certainly what The Beatles had done with psychedelic – the use of ethnic instruments and orchestras and rock instruments and putting it all together under the guiding hand of George Martin – was an incredible influence on me and all the Genesis guys. We were all big Beatles fans. John Lennon gave an interview in ’73 and said that Genesis was one of the bands he was listening too. Which at the time would have been Selling England By The Pound. I think that Selling England By The Pound is probably Genesis’ most psychedelic album if you want to use that phrase.

HAPPY: An even earlier group you were influenced by was The Shadows. Can you tell me a little bit about the instrumental guitar movement at the start of the ’60s and how that influenced you as well?

STEVE: Yes! Something I was lucky enough to attend was a do in a London hotel to wish [the Shadows’] Hank Marvin well in his future life – he was going to move to Australia at that time. And I think I’ve lost touch with him since, but at that do was Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Steve Howe and myself. And that was rather extraordinary.

Of course, the reason why all those guys were there was that the first time anyone heard the electric guitar was Hank playing it and of course, it was hugely influential. Hank and his Stratocaster and The Shadows [were] hugely influential stuff. The precision with which they played those tunes!

I remember seeing them live when it was Cliff Richard and The Shadows. It was on one of those TV shows and I happened to be in the audience. They were absolutely note perfect and really, really good. Sometimes I bump into the odd ex-Shadow like Bruce Welch who lives locally, and I always want to say how good it was. The first record I ever bought back in the day was one of theirs, Man of Mystery. As a nine-year-old that was the first thing I ever bought.

HAPPY: When it comes to your solo records Spectral Mornings is a personal favourite of mine. On it you embrace a wide range of folk and eastern influences, maybe even more so than on your previous solo records or with Genesis. Can you tell me a little bit about how you look back on the time when you were recording the album?

STEVE: Well the interesting thing for me is that it was the first time I had my own band, my own touring band as distinct from Genesis. The guys in the band were very strong personalities – hugely talented and I think we developed the group’s sound with [Spectral Mornings]. There was a singing team and a harmony team. There was Pete Hicks who was practically the lead vocalist.

Dick Cadbury had been trained as a countertenor – he’d been with a band called Decameron. The guy who was engineering, my friend John Acock who has since sadly past he recommended Dick. He said, “If you’re interested in harmonies you should work with this guy!”

And indeed the choreography – because I can’t use any other word for it – was really down to him and I’m very proud of the harmonies we had, particularly with the opening track which is Every Day and then the second track The Virgin and The Gypsy – both of which I’m performing live. The harmonies on Virgin are exemplary really. It shows what you can do with a team of singers.

I’m very proud of that and I loved working with my brother [John Hackett] because he’s such a fantastic flute player. And Nick Magnus on keyboards who was really our resident orchestra doing so many sounds with so few keyboards. It was a great time. And John Shearer on drums who was ‘Mick the Thunder’ at the time. I had a great time doing that album.

HAPPY: It’s interesting how much technology has changed since when you were recording that album back in the late seventies. What’s your approach to recording like now relative to 30 years ago?

STEVE: Well I think what we tend to do now is we start with a sketch, normally something that I have written or may have written with my wife Jo [Lehmann]. We work with [producer] Roger King and we do something which is an updatable sketch and then we fill it in with humans. You’re able to do a very convincing cartoon version of things which feature ‘apparently’ real drums, ‘apparently’ real orchestras and choirs and all the rest.

I think the advent of LinnDrum in the 1980s transformed the ability to be able to do sketches. [From then on out] you always have the choice whether you were going to go with the sketch, or you were going to have a live human in there. And of course, music hasn’t really looked back since.

I prefer to work with humans, but I also prefer to be able to say to them, “This is how it goes!” rather than, “I’m not quite sure.” I remember working with Geoff Downes some years ago with GTR and he said, “Yes, that outmoded institution called the rehearsal room!” Whereas [with the drum machine] you have at your fingertips the world of order which appeals to so many keyboard players. One can’t argue with the fact that so much is possible with a clean slate and the technology of now.

But there is that thing where music is born out of conversation. I do like to come to that third thing that’s born from the conversations you have with other musicians. I like to give other people a lot of rope to come in and alter my idea of what they ought to sound like and have them say, “Have you thought of this?” Particularly in the drumming fraternity of course!

HAPPY: What are you playing at the moment live? What will you be bringing out to Australia?

STEVE: I’ll be doing the whole of Selling England By The Pound and an extra track that was meant to go on the album. [It’s one] which Peter Gabriel wrote back in the day and I finished off many years later. We include it like a deleted scene to give the full picture of Selling England By The Pound.

[The track was] something that may have been on the album had we had the ability to do CD-length things. But at the time Selling England was a very long album, Side Two was something like 29 minutes or something.

It’s amazing we managed to tuck it onto vinyl but it’s because there was quite a bit of acoustic stuff going on at the time, Genesis was – I like to think of it as not quite a rock band, half of it was acoustic and we’d build to something explosive and stuff, like Tony [Bank’s] extraordinary keyboard solo on The Cinema Show for instance, or Firth Of Frith where I get to play flat out for three minutes doing a solo in the middle of the tune which had previously been unheard of. So I hope I’m throwing some light on something from decades ago but it’s still something that’s a firm favourite of mine.

HAPPY: Many fans love that initial 1970 to 1975 run of Genesis albums and over the years you haven’t shied away from expressing your affection for that period either. What is it about that time that makes it so special?

STEVE: I think it was because I’d joined something that was sold to me as a team of songwriters. ‘A songwriter’s co-op.’ That’s how Peter Gabriel put it to me. He said, “If you join and you play a guitar part that’s original, you’re a fully-fledged writer with the band.” I thought, “This is extraordinarily democratic! Unlike any other band I’d ever heard of.” And so it was a fruitful ground for all of us who were starting out and learning to write songs. We had everything to prove.

But I think the quality of the writing is what has survived. Beyond the people who did it, beyond the tribute bands, beyond the fact orchestras have done it – there’s at least one band who just does Genesis called Jazzises – it gets reinterpreted by people who are not just in rock. I basically want to keep the flag flying for all of that.

I know Tony Banks said to me, “Yeah, you’re keeping the legacy alive by doing all of that.” There’s a side of him that’s applauded me for that. Sometimes with Genesis is would be very hard to please each other. I think we were looking for high standards and it was a very competitive team. So as well as keeping all of that alive I like to think that I’m keeping the museum doors open for this extraordinary exhibit

HAPPY: Your former bandmate Phil Collins recently came to Australia for a stadium tour but something you’ve been quite adamant about after a certain point in your career is only playing smaller venues in order to maintain a more intimate environment. Why do you feel playing this way is so important?

STEVE: At the time when I was playing with Genesis, we were playing on average to about 18,000 people a night. We were doing arenas but invariably the sound was frankly dreadful. Whatever you did it sounded like a [Boeing] 747 taking off, even the most delicate moments. Every drumbeat was thunder and so you try to steer a course through all of that and I think that was tough.

For all sorts of reasons, I think theatres and even clubs get a tighter sound. There’s a chance for people to really engage with it. Not so much to take it under the microscope but to engage with it. And I think that’s harder when you are in a stadium outdoors.

Sometimes it really works! There are people who have great sound for that sort of stuff. Seeing Bruce Springsteen do that some years ago I could see [his music] was absolutely made for that. That music was delicate as thunder and it was flat-out. I could see how that engaged huge audiences.

But I think that with music that is full of surprises, music that’s pan-genre, that includes every style, those subtleties and those wide dynamics, where you’ve got a band turning on a dime, one minute it’s quiet the next it’s really loud, the all-out assault of that – is something that very much progressive people always had in their back pocket. The idea of hearing that stuff live for the first time, its appeal was precisely that. Yes, you could hear a pin drop from one moment to the next and then you’d be pinned to the back wall.

I’d say a theatre is the ideal size for that. But I’m not averse to playing any size place. It’s about the atmosphere and it’s about the individual and it’s about the mindset of the people on stage. On our front we’re looking for some kind of mystical interchange, that indefinable thing that makes a concert magic. We’re looking for that all the time.

HAPPY: What’s coming next for you?

STEVE: I’ve started work on yet another album! I always think that on the eve of a success the best thing to do is to start making inroads into something that might be a future success. But the difference between a doodle and something that might become a monument, the lines are blurred in the early days, so the sooner you engage with the process and whittle it down the better. So I’m wrestling with the nobs again and loving every minute. I love the process of things taking shape from something crude into something really polished.

© happymag, by Riley Fitzgerald

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