English musician Steve Hackett is most well known as the guitarist for Genesis during their formative and most progressive period during the bulk of the seventies. In that role, his playing set the benchmark for progressive music and the songwriting, arrangements and guitar techniques employed continues to influence serious guitarists to this day. He went on to pursue other artistic collaborations as well as carving out a prolific, ongoing solo career. Now touring Australia for the first time, music aficionados will finally get to hear live renditions of classic Genesis material during a tour celebration titled Genesis Revisited. Loud Online took the rare opportunity to talk to the legendary guitarist via phone to discuss his early years to present day and touched on some key moments of a stellar career that continues to inspire both musicians and music listeners.
The other day I found a September 1986 copy of Guitar Player magazine which just happened to have a cover story including yourself and Steve Howe for the GTR project. What do you recall of that time?
Ooh, my goodness, yes. I was in the second flush of success at that time having had success with Genesis and then I’d had a hit single of my own. I knew Brian Lane who had managed Yes and was currently managing Asia who had their problems at that time. I think that Steve Howe [guitars – Asia and Yes] and John Wetton [late bassist – Asia] were not seeing eye to eye so Steve Howe left that band. We chatted from time to time over the years and it just seemed like a very good time to do something with two guitarists. We didn’t really know each other but on the very first day that we worked together, he played me a tune which I thought had a cracking instrumental bit; an introduction and I said, ‘I’ve got a tune that I think might be stronger but I really like the introduction or instrumental bit and I think that if we knock the two together then we’ll come up with something that is stronger than what we’ve got individually.’ I then thought that the songwriting partnership will either flourish or flounder from the very first opening salvo of mine. Luckily he bit the bullet and said, ‘Yeah, I think you might be right’ and then we collectively came up with the lyrics for ‘When the Heart Rules the Mind’ which was our one and only hit single.
The thing about that era was that there was a lot of synth about and I seem to recall that you even had the late, great Allan Holdsworth doing some Synth Axe material on the album?
That’s right yes and sadly, he has recently passed on which is a great loss. At that time we weren’t using Synth Axe which he was using or at least was about to do so. I am not quite sure of the time frame here but we were using just about every available MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface] item that we could lay our hands on and still it was time lagging at that point. So, we could come up with things but we were forever having to do offsets when we were recording, just to sort of make up the difference. In a way we are talking about old technology even with digital technology at this point but we fought through it. Ironically we had a keyboard player producing [Geoff Downes – keyboards for Yes and Asia] and we did start to use the Synclavier, usually triggered by the guitars but that used to blow up every five minutes so that was more than a little frustrating. You’d get a great sound and then, ‘1, 2, 3, boom! It just blew up so that will take another forty minutes to rejig itself’. Perhaps we should have just stayed with traditional guitar sounds at that point but then I know that just after we had done all of this, Ovation came out with a more reliable system. I think we were working mainly with Roland technology at the time. So, those were some of the things that beset us but we had the record company behind us and we had Clive Davis of Arista Records in the States who I have to say, absolutely blitzed the media as they threw everything at it and did a fab job. That was extraordinary and he was riding high with Whitney Houston at the time. I got to meet her and she was very differential – there was no ego. I’m mentioning people that have passed on. Friends are falling off the perch as we speak. That is an extraordinary thing but I like to think that they are all in spiritual heaven somewhere with some great jam going on.
Indeed. I didn’t mean to coax a discussion on our impending mortality. What struck me about 1986 was that was when Genesis toured Australia although obviously you were not involved in the band. The point being that you will be touring here soon so how did that finally eventuate?
Well, David Williams [promoter] got in touch many years ago with my former management and let me put it this way; my former management had a vested interest in me doing as little as possible. Anyway, we got in touch with David again recently and he was keen to do something and I am absolutely thrilled. I was thinking that touring Australia was never going to happen in this lifetime and I don’t think it ever happened for John Wetton and we were both saying that it wouldn’t happen but wouldn’t it be nice, to quote the Beach Boys. It is now actually coming off which is great because I am truly looking forward to it tremendously. It has been a long wait.
It’s great. May I ask what your touring line up will be for this first ever tour to Australia?
I’ve got Roger King on keyboards, Rob Townshend, who is a jazz professor on wind and brass, reeds and woodwind. We play mainly Genesis material but there is some of my solo stuff in there so we’ve got Nad Sylvan on vocals for most of the Genesis stuff but we do have a number of singers with the band. On drums we have Gary O’Toole and on bass it is Nick Beggs.
Do you have to make any adjustments for the Genesis material for your band?
No, these guys are very good at doing this stuff and it is the earlier Genesis period which is from 1971 to 1977, when I was involved in the band. How do I diplomatically describe that period? It was when the band were not actually making songs that were addendums to videos. I think that we’ll be doing songs that were of interest and experimental. For the last gigs that I played with Genesis, we were playing to sixty thousand people in London and it had gone as far as I had wanted it to go. I wanted to do solo stuff at that point but it was a great time and I think that Wind and Wuthering was a great album. As it is the fortieth anniversary of that album, I am doing quite a bit of that stuff live. I have to say that this band does great versions of Genesis stuff as we do authentic versions but we do what we did with Genesis at the time which was that if we wanted to stick on a different ending or a different solo or even change a key of something to make it more friendly for the vocalist, we did. So, it is authentically Genesis but I think that we take it to another stage with the combination of experience and technology so I think that it sounds better live than Genesis sounded live at that time. There was some very fine stuff at the time I left the band in 1977 but I know that I can do things now that I could have only dreamed of back then. I was also a very different guitar player in terms of technique. I spent a lot of time playing nylon flamenco stuff and classical stuff. As I said I am able to do things now that I couldn’t have then although I had came up with tapping way back in 1971 with Genesis. The whole Genesis thing is a huge part of my life but there is life after it or an after-life and that is going very well. The latest album I have done [The Night Siren] has charted in several territories and I’ve had top twenty and top thirty hits with this album so it seems to be outstripping all of its ancestors, which is great.
Do you feel beholden to the recorded versions of early Genesis material to appease audiences?
Yeah, I get what you’re saying but what I do, as part author of this stuff is that I am aware of the need to give people complete versions of these songs. I don’t want to just do a medley of these songs as a nod to the past, as the band were doing in the 80’s and in the 90’s. I think that there was a whole mass of disenfranchised Genesis fans that liked the earlier stuff and the social comment aspect. Genesis ran the whole gamut. I think to put the band under the banner of merely all things progressive would be to confine it to a bin of history that is way short of remark. I think that this stuff has survived a tonne of tribute bands that are out there and doing it. I mean, five years ago when I started bringing back the Genesis stuff people were saying that there were fifty Genesis tribute bands in America alone. I thought, ‘Jeez, what did we start here? There is a monster of this stuff’. But, I have my own version of that when I look back and I remember myself as a nineteen year old watching the formative King Crimson in the early stages thinking, ‘Ooh, wouldn’t it be great to recreate that’. But I know that I would want it pretty much as it was then. So, I think that the audience are the true owners, this is what I am trying to say. The audience get it and over time, I’ve been able to get a tremendous amount of positive feedback from people who have lived these songs and loved them. I am very well aware of what it is that they see and hear. Let me put it this way, I am at the other end of the scale that was saying, ‘Oh well, that was a model that was superseded by the slick eighties’. Once you start working with click tracks and have videos to back every track, you might gain something but I’ll tell you what is lost is that once bands start doing albums full of tracks where each one is a potential hit single, you lose the main thrust of what it is that an album is all about. An album is a very colourful journey in itself and a very potent force. I know that it is pure audio but in an era that was not yet dependent on video then I think that those songs were supremely visual, poetic and chock full of social comment, comedy and science fiction. It had just about everything imaginable including androgyny and all sorts to stuff. When you went through the eras of different singers; Peter Gabriel in the early days and then Phil Collins, you know, the approaches were very different. Currently we have Nad Sylvan whose dream was to be the Genesis singer and he’s clearly in line for that. There is something about him visually which is different and he is very watchable. Plus he has got that Genesis voice, he has got that sound that is across all the material but then again I could be saying too much.
Do you have a sense of pride when you hear about bands like Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater and other progressive metal luminaries constantly saying that early Genesis was a massive influence?
Not only that. It is wonderful and I could name a whole slew of guitarists that I think are marvelously inventive who tell me that they are fans of mine. I am able to return the compliment and I think that is how it should be. Bands should be open about who their influences are and the reasons why they like them because I don’t think you need to be competitive and guarded. Usually if someone does an album that I like I’ll try to phone them up and say, ‘Hey man, great album, well done and feel free to quote me if you wish’. I think that encouragement from the bottom to the top is needed since everyone needs a pat on the back and without that, music exists in a vacuum. So yes, I am very proud of the songs and the early achievements but the story is not over yet.
With your solo albums of which there is a vast body of work, have you found yourself to be more inspired by picking up and writing on an acoustic guitar instead of a Les Paul electric guitar?
I often write for electric guitar on an acoustic guitar because that forces me to pick up a melody rather than for what electric guitars do best or what they are most known for; the modern guitar solo with a rapid run of notes up to the top of the neck favouring the upper harmonic interspersed with screams as taught in many rock and roll schools of fame and glory. But, I think you need to look into the corners of the instrument and look for the unfamiliar or the unlikely. Yes, it is nice to have all those chops and to be able to do all that but a guitar is capable of so much more and I am constantly discovering it and it has to be done with a melody. I think that the right melody and the right sound means that guitars can still be surprising even though they are a mechanical beast. I still find time to romance them.
As I understand it you initially wanted to play blues guitar which obviously changed. How did the progressive music side develop in your guitar playing?
When I grew up I was mainly listening to R&B and then I heard [Andrés] Segovia and the Bach stuff interpreted by Segovia on nylon guitar and I thought, ‘I’m listening to these things and one is a private life and one is a public one so these strands are not going to come together’. Would it ever happen? As the sixties progressed, towards the end indeed there were bands who had one foot in jazz, an eye on blues and they listened to classical and pop plus all the rest so you started to get this amalgam so the rules got broken and the walls came down. A whole bunch of mainly British bands were prepared to adopt surprise as their main tactic; dynamic and surprise so it was, ‘What’s coming next?’ and in the midst of a song, it could be anything. It could be any length. It could like ‘Supper’s Ready’ which is about twenty five minutes long live or equally it could be something like ‘Horizons’ which is one minute and thirty seconds and played on guitar. Songs don’t have to be epics, they should just be as flexible as water.