January 21, 2021

If I play a song I’ll do the whole thing – I don’t really see the point of putting bits into a medley arrangement. 

The year 2020 has impacted every single musician and listener on the planet, I think it would be fair to say. Musicians themselves most of all, because while those of us who are fans have missed live shows enormously, for the professional musician it is their livelihood, as it is the love of playing for the smaller artists. There have still been ways to keep the creative muscles moving during the extended period of transitions in and out of lockdown, be it stripped down live performances broadcast over the internet or simply managing to get recordings done using creatively remote means. Steve Hackett must surely rank as one of the more productive examples of a period of isolation, however, as the past 12 months has seen him not only publish his autobiography, but also release a live album from his previous tour (based around Selling England By The Pound and Spectral Mornings) and also put out a brand new acoustic album entitled Under A Mediterranean Sky. Oh, and also finding time to have kidney surgery in case that wasn’t enough! The grass hasn’t grown under his feet, that much is certain! The proposed tour celebrating the classic Genesis live album Seconds Out was unavoidably postponed, but it has been rearranged for this year, and hopefully at least a significant part of it can go ahead this time.

Steve with acoustic. (Photo by Tina Korhonen)

I caught up with Steve recently, to find out how on earth he has fitted all of this in, and also to enquire about upcoming plans. After he opens the conversation by asking how I am doing at the moment ‘in this topsy-turvy world we find ourselves in’, I remark that while I am, like many others, rarely going anywhere further than the supermarket, he has managed to have a very good year, in terms of his releases this last twelve months. ‘Yes, it has been quite a productive time, oddly enough’, he replies. ‘I know what you mean about hardly going anywhere though, it does feel a little like we’re all stuck on a monorail at the moment! Fortunately I had things which were already in the works, so to speak. There’s the acoustic album, as you said, and I’m also working on another rock album as well, which should be released later in the year, given a fair wind and all that. It’s nowhere near finished, and I want it to be as good as possible – I always do my best, you know! We have rearranged the Seconds Out tour, of course, but at this moment it isn’t clear how much of it will be able to go ahead – we’re supposed to start in the States in April, but that looks a little bit shaky I think. I haven’t had the vaccine myself yet I may add – although I am in one of the first groups to receive it, being of a certain vintage and also having just had kidney surgery, so we’ll have to see how that goes.’

I enquire about the surgery, and thankfully the news is good on that front: ‘Yes, it went fine, and I’m feeling much better now. I had a few weeks when I didn’t pick up the guitar at all, because I was simply too weak for about a month, but things are much better now, and I’m playing again. In a way it fell at a good time, because it didn’t mean I had to cancel any shows or anything. I was told that I needed the surgery, but that I could delay it for a little while if necessary, but of course I told them to go ahead with it. I’d just finished the acoustic album and I was going to get moving on the rock one, but I told them to go ahead, and that was shortly before Christmas. I had a very quiet Christmas, isolating and not seeing anyone, and was able to get the rest I needed, and now I can pace myself with work without having to jump on a plane or anything, which is ideal.’

Speaking of the new album, Under A Mediterranean Sky, it is of course the first acoustic album that Steve has put out for quite a number of years, but also, one would think, the ideal project for the current climate, without the logistical problems of getting a band together to do it, whether together or, more likely at the moment, remotely. It is a little different from his previous acoustic endeavours, however, not least because of the World Music influences on the record, which is a direction that his recent full-band albums have also been exploring. ‘Yes, it was the perfect time for a project like this, with less musicians to sort out, of course, and we actually started it around the time that the first lockdown happened. The World Music thing is definitely there, you’re quite right, and in fact it was my wife Jo who first suggested that it should be ‘an acoustic album with a difference’. I thought, why not, you know, because of course not everything has to be about virtuoso guitar performances or whatever, and it takes the pressure off a bit. The other thing is that I thought in terms of my other acoustic things I’ve done, and there sometimes hasn’t been a lot of drama, so I thought about this one as being almost like an orchestral thing rather than all of the melodies having to be carried by the guitar. I was thinking in terms of a chamber orchestra rather than a symphony orchestra, but as it happened we weren’t able to hire an orchestra with the lockdown and everything, so we went the other way and got this small team together, all under the direction of Roger King of course [Steve’s long-time keyboard player and close musical partner]. I think it has greater dynamics than some other acoustic material, and to be honest I think of it more as an orchestral album with guitar than as a guitar album with occasional orchestral accompaniment. I play some other instruments too, such as the oud and the charango, and a little bit of 12-string on there as well. It’s quite subtle, but the 12-string is just ghosting the nylon-string, and is on the track Casa Del Fauno. I’m playing very lightly on that one, and the 12-string is there just to give a little more brightness if you like, behind the flute and everything. I’m really just playing an accompanying part on that one, and I wanted to play very lightly, to let the other instruments speak.’

It certainly seems to have worked in terms of the album, as the reviews have been very much favourable thus far. Steve is rather modest about this, as he insists ‘Well yes, but of course this is a bit of a niche thing, and I can well imagine that while some people might like it, a lot of others who aren’t interested in it will just bypass it and head for something else. We’ll see when it comes out shortly, though people have responded quite favourably to the three or four taster tracks we’ve made available. That doesn’t give the game away entirely, of course, but it does give people an idea.’

Blue sky thinking: Steve taking inspiration (Photo by Jo Hackett)

On top of that, of course, there has also been the live album from 2019’s superb tour, with its ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ title Selling England By The Pound & Spectral Mornings: Live At Hammersmith, which itself was enormously popular. ‘Yes, that one came out also, and it seemed to go over rather well I think. Steven Wilson did the surround mix of that, and of course Roger did the stereo one. That was a really nice show to be touring actually – Selling England was the main album covered, but we did a lot of Spectral Mornings and managed to touch on a couple of more recent things as well. You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever played an album like that from top to bottom in order since The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway with Genesis all those years ago. I’ve played a lot of an album, but never the whole thing like that. Mostly I stuck to the original arrangements, so people familiar with the album would have known nearly everything that was coming – there was a bit of a different arrangement of I Know What I Like, and of More Fool Me, but I didn’t want to go too far outside the box with that one really. We did the ‘new’ song as well, of course, Deja Vu, which started out as a Genesis song from that time, and then I did it on the first Genesis Revisited album back in the ’90s, with Paul Carrack singing, and finally we brought it to the stage with a new arrangement this time. It was nice to do that live, it’s quite a fragile sort of song, and a tricky one to pull off in the live environment, but by the end I think we were getting it. Some nights it really worked a treat. One of the things I absolutely loved doing in those shows was The Virgin And The Gypsy from Spectral Mornings, which is of course a rather delicate acoustic piece. It was wonderful to be able to do that one with three instruments chiming away- I think there was the variax, with the 12-string and also the harpsichord from Roger. It really is what I call the ‘Genesis Effect’, where you have a few things chiming together like that and it can sound very beautiful. I also thought the lights were lovely for that one as well – with that sort of tinkly sound with the likes of the 12-string and the harpsichord, I thought that if the lights sort of sparkled and twinkled away to match it, that would be a way to present that sort of music in a more magical way. Yeah, I’m going to miss playing that one, because I was so pleased at how well received it was, it went over as well as some of the more rock things which shows how good the audiences were, very respectful. I guess it’s a little bit less known as well, because we never really played it back in the day, first time out. I think we tried it a few times but decided that it didn’t really hang together, and so it got sidelined – but it was one of my favourites from Spectral. Playing and recording acoustic music like that, which hangs by slender threads as I like to say, can be a bit like photographing fairies’ wings sometimes. In a gale! When I first joined Genesis, they had a seam of acoustic music running through them, and I was also very interested in it, but when we played live at the time we were very much a band in search of an audience, and it was when we got loud with the end of The Musical Box that we’d get a real reaction for an encore, and then we’d do The Knife, which was just as loud, so I’ve always had a bit of an ambivalent feeling towards acoustic music live. In recent years I’ve found that it can work, as I’ve done a lot of acoustic material live, be it on my own or with a trio or quartet or whatever, but I always think of doing acoustic music live as like having to pedal faster to get airborne, if that makes sense! That’s one of the reasons that I think, bringing it up to date with the Mediterranean Sky album, thanks to Roger and to Jo’s inspiration about the World Music aspect, we’ve got it just about right.’

The celebrating of the Genesis legacy now seems to be a permanent feature of Steve Hackett shows, although he has, to excellent effect, now struck a balance between a half of his own material followed by a second half of Genesis – following the time in which he devoted himself entirely to the Genesis Revisited extravaganzas – and I suggest that it seems to be a format which is working like a dream in terms of balancing his own solo career with the illustrious past of which he is justly proud. ‘Well, yes, that’s right’, he agrees. ‘I think the Genesis material is important in terms of giving people what they want. I’m talking with regard to those somewhat disenfranchised Genesis fans, who felt more as one with the spirit of the early band. I think it was important for me to claim that heritage, and celebrate those songs as something more than the by-product of ‘young guys who should have known better’. I know that the core band which remained – Phil, Mike and Tony – tend to be dismissive of that work, but I never forgot when John Lennon said that we were one of the bands he was listening to. It was around the time of Selling England – I don’t know whether it was that album, because I never met him, but I remember thinking that if we had that seal of approval, then we must have been doing something right’.

One’s idea of ‘success’ can be flexible, and to my mind I question whether a band really needs to be much bigger than we were at that time when I left.

The Selling England Tour, Liverpool (Photo by Steve Pilkington)

One thing which seems to be becoming more and more prevalant as the years go by among Genesis fandom is that, whereas thirty years or so ago people mainly divided it up into Gabriel and post-Gabriel, in terms of the ages of the band, and its quality, many more people today speak of the moment that Steve Hackett left as being the pivotal moment rather than Peter’s departure. I suggest that this must surely give Steve enormous pride in terms of the appreciation of his input and influence within the band. ‘It’s certainly nice to have people still thinking that material was special from the time I was with the band’, he replies. ‘Again, it goes back to that ‘keeper of the flame’ thing, because I feel strongly that there really was a flame worth keeping, and it had been allowed to go out. There was a moment in time when I thought that I have to show people that I still love this stuff, because a lot of it was extraordinary, a little like like modern classical music in a sense, and I think a lot of that got stripped away. They became more successful, of course, but I look at it like this. When I joined the band we were a clubs band, then it was colleges as well, then city halls and the like. By the time I left we had become an arenas band, and we’d done three nights at Earls Court, which was about sixty thousand people over the three nights. One’s idea of ‘success’ can be flexible, and to my mind I question whether a band really needs to be much bigger than we were at that time when I left. I would have preferred the music to stay a little more virtuosic, if you like, than the way Genesis were heading at that time. They were becoming more accessible to the detriment of the element of surprise in the music, I think you might say. When they got really successful it was the era when MTV ruled, and they did well with that. I had GTR at the time with Steve Howe, but MTV didn’t really want to go too near us! I guess I’m sort of caught between a solo act and a group now, aren’t I?’

Talking of that solo side of his ‘persona’, it is a heartening fact that, despite the time off concentrating on Genesis material, the solo albums which he has been releasing in the past few years are appearing to quite the fanfare of acclaim and anticipation – a definite sign of an artist almost reborn in terms of profile. Of course, it has helped that his most recent run of albums has been exceptionally strong. Still my favourite from this last decade or so has been Wolflight, and I mention this to Steve. ‘Ah, Wolflight, yes – I do remember being pleased with that. The thing is, with these albums, sometimes I have trouble remembering exactly what was on them… I remember the title track…’ It opened with the short track Out Of The Body, I prompt… ‘That’s right! Yes, Love Song To A Vampire as well. Yes I will agree with you, that was a pretty strong opening set of songs for that. There was plenty of other stuff on there as well, of course. The thing with me is that I like to keep the new albums coming; I’ve never thought it’s a good idea to put all your money on one horse, as it were, with an album. I know a lot of people like that though, who will put something out that they are so pleased with, and think ‘this is my masterstroke, if this doesn’t make it I might as well give up’, or feel that you can’t do any better so it’s no good trying to top it. I don’t feel that you can afford to think like that. I mean, sure, you might create a masterpiece that gets ignored, but then what? What are you going to do next that defines you? And the answer for me is to keep them coming. To me, success isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, and even though it is a marathon commitment, that’s fine because it isn’t work for me. I love it all, all of these different sorts of music, and that’s what keeps me going’.

Steve wrestling with the sizeable oud! (Photo by Jo Hackett)

One of the things keeping these albums so fresh, I suggest, is the new influences of music from around the world which he is bringing to the table, while, crucially still keeping the ‘Steve Hackett’ stamp on them – it’s not endlessly rehashing Spectral Mornings, for example, but then again neither is it the ‘Jazz Odyssey’, to quote Spinal Tap! ‘Yes, of course I know what you mean by ‘The Jazz Odyssey’, but in actual fact some of this stuff may get closer to jazz. And for that matter, how do we define when jazz becomes classical or whatever. In fact, I was talking about this with Roger King, who really is a musical genius to my mind, one of many who I have the privilege to work with, and he said that the way he thinks of it is that, if you have an atonal section for example, if it’s played by an orchestra they have an agreement. They know exactly when they will stop. If a jazz juggernaut goes into something like that, they don’t need to stop until they feel like it! And that can be off-putting for someone who isn’t totally into that sort of thing. You can use that as contrast though, like a scene of carnage in the middle of a love story. In fact, those albums which have that drama and reconciliation, or moments of resolving, I think tend to be the ones I am drawn to most. Unless you’re talking about, say, Beatle albums, mostly from 1966 to ’70 – what I love there is that they often used little vignettes, or character portraits, which were so vivid even though the songs would be quite short. But then again, of course, at other times they got into the business of creating a musical continuum, running songs together into each other. It’s all about different ways of framing the music, and I’ve always loved that. Plus they always had a sense of humour, and I think that’s important as well.’

I think great music will rise from the ashes, I believe it will always find a way

The tour which has been rescheduled (with crossed fingers!) for this year is of course the one based around the classic Genesis live album Seconds Out. Now, while it is undeniably a classic album, it doesn’t quite contain a full show’s worth of material across the limits of its four vinyl sides. One of the things which I always thought something of a shame was the fact that, despite most of the album being recorded on the Wind And Wuthering tour in 1977, the only song from that album to make the cut was Afterglow, when a couple of others would have been great to hear. I wonder, when the tour does happen, whether some more material from the Wind And Wuthering album might make it in there? Steve answers this in quite animated fashion: ‘Well, you know, I haven’t really pinned that down yet. But it’s a valid point, certainly. Seconds Out was a sampler album really, cherry-picking across some of the best moments of the band, and I haven’t worked out exactly what I’m going to put in there this time out. What I can say is that I won’t be doing bits and pieces of things, like the way we did the climax of The Musical Box on the album. If I play a song I’ll do the whole thing – I don’t really see the point of putting bits into a medley arrangement. I’ve revised my thinking about that sort of thing as time has gone on. I mean, yes, if you’re playing stadiums I can see it, and I understand it, giving a nod to this and a nod to that – but personally I look at it like a painting: I don’t just want to see a corner of the picture, I want to see the whole portrait. In terms of the Wind And Wuthering material, I can’t really give you a definite answer on that one. There were some things on that album which were really good, and they would certainly be good to be able to include, so we’ll have to see. Not just from the album itself either, but also the song Inside And Out which we played on a recent tour. That was a great song to play – and of course we did do that for a while with Genesis as well, we dropped Wot Gorilla and put that in instead, and it was really good. Genesis were good at that, sort of massed 12-strings or whatever, we could create a great sound in that way. Of course, as we said before, acoustic music needs an audience who will listen, but I am lucky in having a very attentive and respectful audience most of the time. Although there are moments when I come to introduce a song and I can’t get a word in edgeways, because they’re all shouting at me! I end up doing a very short introduction, like ‘Thankyouverymuch, one two three four!’ (laughs)’.

The latest acoustic album

Genesis were masters of introducing dynamics and contrasts into acoustic-based material, or material including a lot of acoustic instrumentation I remark – indeed, as the Mediterranean Sky album also does in something of a different way. ‘Yes, I think so. With the new album, to come right up to the present day, I think that has worked out almost perfectly as I envisaged it, in terms of bringing that bigger, almost cinematic quality to something which is essentially acoustic music. It’s a funny word though, ‘dynamics’, isn’t it? You apply it to music that goes soft then loud, and someone might not know what you’re talkimg about unless they know the term. When I was growing up I had no formal musical training, and I never even heard that term until I was in my late teens, and then I suddenly realised that it was describing so much of the music I was listening to without me knowing it. I mean, I was listening to The Shadows and also to Ravel when I was growing up – try to square that one away! I cut my teeth on both – one was kind of a guilty pleasure, while the other was what guitars were all about when I was growing up’.

On that point, of course, it has long been said that the blend of rock and classical music in that way was in a large part responsible for the birth and defining sound of what we think of as classic ‘progressive rock’ – at least from the English side of it in particular. Steve is fully in agreement with this. ‘That’s right. That marriage of two separate schools of thought coming together, or colliding in a sympathetic way, was a marvellous thing. The Beatles, I think, were largely responsible for that, with George Martin, and a lot of bands started exposing their ‘roots’, and love of both types of music. Take ‘soul music meets classical’, and you’ve got Procol Harum. Tull, King Crimson, Yes, ELP – just to mention a few – all took that blending of influences into their own music. Even going forward to the present day, you’ve got Muse and Elbow, who I think have taken that mantle on and made it their own – you really don’t know what’s coming next on one of their albums. And that suits me down to the ground! It’s always nice to know that there are some surprises coming up. So many great smaller bands around at the moment as well in that regard, and it’s been such a killer that they haven’t been able to play live for all this time. But I think great music will rise from the ashes, I believe it will always find a way. Of course the fear of small venues closing is a big worry, and whether these bands will have somewhere to play, but I know that musicians have such a love of what they do that they will find that way if it’s there. Even if you find yourself playing to three people or something, the love of playing brings you back, and even though it’s hard, fighting on through the tough times is important. That’s the musicians I’m talking about of course, but the whole scene is bigger than that. All of the other people who are part of music in a different way – managers, promoters, writers like yourself – all of that is equally important, all of these roles play their part in keeping the wheels turning, and without all of that we’d be on a soap box somewhere on a street corner, you know. If everyone works together I believe the music and the scene will survive – I really hope so anyway! You can’t keep a good song down, so if we all keep making a noise in the best way we can, hopefully we’ll be all right for a long time to come’.

Sentiments there which I am certain anyone with even the remotest interest or investment in the rock and prog music scene at the moment will echo. Steve Hackett has certainly been making a pretty impressive old ‘noise’ for a living for over fifty years now – and long may he continue!

Hopefully we’ll all be back in a venue for some more of these magical nights sooner rather than later!