As you’ll almost certainly know by now, I’m not averse to a little bit of progressive rock. In fact, in the right mood I positively lap it up, with a particular regard for those two prog behemoths of the 1970s, Genesis and Yes. So it probably goes without saying that I positively jumped at the chance to interview Steve Hackett. I started by asking Steve about the writing process for his latest album, Wolflight, and whether he has a particular place where he likes to write.
“Well, funnily enough, I’ve just moved house. So once again I need to get myself into not just a different headspace but a different physical space, as you can imagine what it’s like when you’ve just moved. What I was doing before was I’d wake up with ideas at about five in the morning, which is the Wolflight itself, the hour before the dawn and much of the time I would work on paper because I find that lots of my ideas come in that form. Of course that’s not the only way I work, but I like to work with an instrument to discover new harmonies and chord relationships, but normally in a simple manner, on paper. Riffs kick in like that and lyrics come that way, but I find for orchestrating something I have to have an instrument there. Many years ago I managed to write on keyboard but that’s way back, that’s 40 years ago. I find guitar leads me to plenty of new places, especially with different tunings and I’m experimenting with that at the moment. Part of it was written in an open G minor tuning and an open G tuning as well, I found that very useful. But do you know that the writing process is one that’s so multifarious I can’t describe it. I find it’s generally good to have an idea of a story when doing the lyrics. I liked The Beatles best when they had some kind of story. It helps to focus the mind if I get an idea of the character of the song, something might be a character portrait that would influence in a certain way. I think The Beatles were masters at flashpoints in ordinary people’s lives and they made the ordinary extraordinary. I probably go for a bit more exotica than that, and I go for imagined situations at times. With the Wolflight song I was trying to imagine this ancestral procession right back to early man and reading about that, thinking about that, then encountering wolves myself and I could see how a relationship could be built up with early man.”
Steve then told me about the band he’d put together for the forthcoming tour.
“My regular band will be expanded by one other guy and that’s Roine Stolt, of The Flower Kings and Transatlantic, plus Nad Sylvan, so there’ll be two Swedish guys in the band. Mainly it’s going to be a rock band. I would like to look ahead to the point when I can play more ethnic instruments with the line-up, and I think that because I’m being required to do quite a lot of Genesis tunes, it’s in the contract I’ve got to do Genesis stuff” he chuckles at this point, “because it went so well a while back when for two or three years I did nothing but Genesis songs. The success of that has affected the way I’ll be presenting the new album.”
I asked Steve which musicians he particularly enjoys.
“I love Joe Bonamassa, I like him as a guitarist and we’ve met a couple of times. He’s done one of the Genesis tunes and funnily enough I met him with Chris Squire as Chris and I were working together doing one or two things and Chris is also on the album. He was the one who introduced me and Joe Bonamassa was playing a Yes tune so there was a connection. Although in the main it’s a blues approach, he reinvigorates the blues for me, and that’s not easy to do because there is a sense of, with blues, that you’ve heard it all, but I think he expands it a bit; there’s obviously the connection to Hendrix and Zeppelin and all the templates and the blueprints that have been before. I think that he does it with panache, so I do enjoy his playing. Funnily enough I’ve worked with a number of guitarists over the years that I think I was an influence on and I think have subsequently influenced me and one is Nuno Bettencourt who I worked with briefly in Japan; I worked with him along with Paul Gilbert, and they were both terrific. Also John Paul Jones, we were all working together doing a very Zeppeliny orientated set, but there were some Genesis things too.”
At this stage I asked Steve whether the BBC’s recent “Genesis: Together and Apart”, which brutally skimmed over his post-Genesis solo career, had brought him an increased following.
“Well I think I was marginalised in the edit!” He pauses for a moment, “I seem to remember that the BBC and particularly the director, John Edginton, came in for a lot of criticism from Mike Rutherford in particular, but the director, Paul, tweeted that Mike had asked for more Mike and The Mechanics and less of me. So you can draw your own conclusions from that!”
I remarked that many people had commented that they thought it was unfair that Steve’s solo material had been overlooked.
“‘Edited out’ I think is the word! But I think that, let’s put it this way, the cat is out of the bag because the director has thought that, and it hasn’t worked, the usual blaming others has not worked. I basically gave that a lot of time; I did a lot of interview stuff to camera. I gave it hours of my time and you can see what came out in the end, so it wasn’t a great advert for me, but on the other hand I didn’t even get to say nice things about the band, which I did. I didn’t get the chance to praise Caesar, let alone assassinate him!”
Following Steve’s refreshing openness, I moved to safer ground by asking for suggestions of where a new Steve Hackett listener should start. Understandably, Steve said that he would point a new listener in the direction of Wolflight.
“I think that is a good place to start. I think that variety was the album’s calling card; all those extreme choices I’m proud to say have been vindicated because the album has taken off and it’s always nice to see your stuff in the charts. But if you’re a classical listener then I would say you might want to hear the tribute albums that I’ve done, six pieces of Bach or even A Midsummer Night’s Dream, original compositions and orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic. When I did Midsummer Night’s dream a number of years ago that started picking up a whole bunch of listeners who were listing to Classic FM and had no clue that I was a rock guitarist. Rock is only really part of it. Perhaps if you’re an actor you’re known as a character actor or you always play the villain or whatever. I think for musicians it’s perhaps the same; people think ‘oh, yes, he does prog rock’ so that means it’ll be difficult time signatures, lots of stabs, and all of that but I don’t think I’m really all about that. I don’t think that I’m typically progressive, other than lots of variety during the course of one song. With a lot of this I look to The Beatles, around about the time of The Magical Mystery Tour.”
I comment that no-one ever seemed to think of The Beatles as a prog band.
“No-one ever says that do they? The idea that occasional salvos of orchestra and shifting sands throughout the course of a song, and also the musical continuum that was part of Sergeant Pepper is now considered to be the mainstay of prog. And not only did The Beatles start that but they also are responsible for World Music as we know it, the idea of inviting in the rest of the world, mainly India in the Beatles case, but nonetheless, things were invited to the party that previously had been excluded; orchestral movements, the electronica and the ethnic instruments are what helped to broaden the appeal of The Beatles. I’ve always been aware since then, particularly from the 1980s onwards, that music really became narrower and people didn’t really come across like a Royal Variety Show, but nonetheless that’s where The Beatles pitched their tent, it was part George Formby and part Chuck Berry and somewhere between the two this sort of anglicised version of Rock and Roll was made possible; influenced of course by Dylan and Dylan’s stories about individuals. So if you were to ask me who I’m most influenced by I’d say The Beatles certainly and then every other guitarist on the planet, somewhere between Hendrix and Segovia, but beyond that, in terms of great songwriters, it’s Jimmy Webb who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Again I see that progressive link from MacArthur Park onwards. Progressive people love MacArthur Park, all the Genesis guys adored it and funnily enough I heard a version that Thijs van Leer of Focus did, just himself singing and piano, doing all the parts. It’s no accident I think that that song was all about the detail as much as anything else; interesting chord sequence, not just verse/chorus, but extra parts and an instrumental workout in the middle and you got the template straight away for masses of 70s genesis stuff.”
Originally published by NEMM.org.uk
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