Acolyte to Wolflight – A Conversation With Steve Hackett

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Photo by Nesh Vulovich

To say Steve Hackett has lived a musician’s dream would be an understatement. His career spans nearly half a century, and boasts a plethora of accomplishments. With Genesis, he contributed to the creation and definition of the progressive rock genre. Appearing on six studio albums, his creative input would prove crucial to the band’s iconic sound and legacy. An equally impressive solo career lies beyond his time with Genesis, including collaborations with some of the most renowned rock musicians of our time. Never one to compromise, he has continuously refused the confines of one particular style of composing, and has consistently pushed himself to explore and expand as an artist.

At a spry 66, he shows no sign of slowing down. After two successful legs of his Genesis Revisited tour (which spanned from 2013 to 2015), Hackett has returned to North America to tour a retrospective of his entire career. I had the privilege of talking with him prior to his show in San Francisco. Here is a transcription of our conversation:

Connor Strader: Your current tour is called Acolyte to Wolflight, which are the albums that bookend your solo career. How do you go about summarizing a nearly 50 year career in one setlist?

Steve Hackett: It was the 40th anniversary of Acolyte last year, and so I was celebrating that with the same set that we’re doing at the moment. And you’re quite right, it’s bookending. Wolflight, the current album, is highlighted at the same time as the Acolyte material. We break it down into two sets: there’s a solo set, and then we take a break before coming back with the Genesis set. It’s several bands at once really, since it covers the entire career span.

CS: And it’s quite a diverse career span.

SH: Other than to broadly describe myself a rock musician, my allegiance isn’t to any one particular genre of music. I’ve worked outside of rock; I’ve sometimes worked in classical music or in blues and jazz. So I’ve crossed over into various styles, and right up to the present day. I’m experimenting with something I’ve never done before, which is flamenco playing. For the new album, which we’re working on at the moment in parallel to everything else, there’s some very fiery flamenco work which I’m particularly proud of. I think the finest rhythm guitarists in the world are flamenco players. I think that’s what’s interesting. Never mind the extraordinary salvos, or the extremely fast playing they can do; it’s the way that they use the acoustic guitar as a percussion instrument in their hands. I’m trying to use that with an aspect of rock. Not to the point where it would please a flamenco purist, I’m not trying to do that by any means – but it’s a color and it’s an energy that I can dip in and out of – it’s style hopping. It’s always been a pangenre approach for me. Even in the early days with Genesis I was interested in a band that could sound powerful and tell stories, but could also be acoustic and poignant.

CS: That dynamic is something I’ve been interested in asking you about because the first album I heard your playing on was Nursery Cryme. And I find that to be an interesting record because when you joined the group, I feel that they gained an edge that wasn’t present or fully expressed on Trespass. You added a really heavy sound to the band. Songs like “The Musical Box” or “Return of the Giant Hogweed” – for 1971, those songs are really out there. There’s a dynamic of loud-to-soft, and I’ve wondered how much of that was your doing. Did you enter the band with the intent of attempting something different from what had already been done before you?

SH: Well I knew the band was capable of doing very subtle shades, but I didn’t feel that they had a powerful edge live. I felt there was potential there and that I could steam in and scream in at moments. I had an overview that I might be able to function in Genesis in the way perhaps Pete Sinfield functioned with King Crimson. In other words: he was part of the band but he wasn’t part of the band – and by not being part of the band, he wasn’t limited to the band’s politics. I was invited to join as a full time member [of Genesis] but I imagined myself only staying for one year; do one album and then leave. It’s amazing how those plans got changed as we started to develop, and certain elements came into play. I always felt that the presentation was important. When I first saw Genesis, they really presented themselves like a folk group, and there wasn’t much emphasis on lights or equipment. It was almost like a family affair, a sit-down sort of thing. Peter Gabriel was the obvious front man. He had obvious charisma and a persona. Everyone else functioned like guys in a pit orchestra, really. And so that continued until the departure of Pete – we all sat down to play, even throughout The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. At the time that’s how we saw our role – the idea of serious musicians while Pete did the entertaining. Gradually over time, it changed. I was able to talk the band into getting a light show and a Mellotron Mark II.

CS: Which completely changed the sound.

SH: Yeah, it changed the sound and broadened the canvas. Because the band was able to make more sound, it could go from being either a rock and roll band or a folk ensemble, and at times an orchestra or a choir. In a way, that brought a certain sense of mythology to it; it gave us the capability of being able to inhabit different realms. It sounds like I’m talking about elves here, but it’s the idea of treating each song as a world unto itself. It really ought to be overwhelming – that’s what an album should be, it should be overwhelming. And you should be able to visit different worlds, and it should be a life-changing experience. That’s the ideal. But in reality, it was just a piece of plastic going around with a piece of metal being dragged through it. It’s weird how different the perception of it can be. But I was an idealist then, and I’m an idealist now.

CS: I want to talk about that some more, and Trey Anastasio touched upon this when he inducted you into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There’s something about the albums you did with Genesis, and your solo music as well – it’s very cinematic; the music is very visual itself. I think that your guitar playing is a large part of that. When I listen to a song like “Blood On the Rooftops” I envision pastoral, foggy images; grey English countryside and rain.

SH: Yes, it’s very black and white isn’t it?

CS: Absolutely, and going off on this same idea, you say in the liner notes of your most current album Wolflight that your music is often inspired by your travels. I can definitely sense that in your work because it always seems to transport the listener to a certain place.

SH: The idea of taking people places, the travel log idea, it’s not necessarily a new idea. The concept album as we know it was arguably started by Frank Sinatra doing Come Fly With Me. And he lists a description of each place and what might have gone on there – usually a love affair. In the case of non-mating ritual-oriented music, as so much of progressive music is, it tends to tell you a story and play you a film for the ear rather than the eye. Yes, the cinematic quality is very important to me. I think it helps to have a story. I didn’t really understand that when I first met Peter Gabriel, and he talked to me about the difficulty of expressing a convincing narrative. But I understand completely now, and I think even the love songs that still resonate with me from way back have that quality of placing you somewhere; either in this world or another one. I think in the case of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams and a little bit later with “MacArthur Park” and Jimmy Webb’s work, the template for what Genesis would do was there. These songs always include figures within a landscape. Whether it’s Phoenix or Galveston, it’s a place; and I love the idea that even if you’ve never visited the place, the song seems to be made much more exotic. Galveston for instance – I know nothing about it. But the interesting thing is that you have to visit the place, don’t you? The song suggests it. Maybe you’ve never been to Versailles – but if a song can capture its essence, it would make you want to visit that place… or fall in love with that woman. What is it that makes something cross over from the personal to the universal? I think these opposites are close in music. The in-built contradiction is very important to me. Like The Beatles doing “Eleanor Rigby”. What would be interesting about the last few days of an old woman’s life? And yet it’s so well done in practically two minutes. You’ve got the salvation of a forgotten life, neglect… and all these things are suggested by what the lyric leaves out. It’s an extraordinarily bleak picture that is formed, and there’s not a wasted line in the song. So, it is possible for musicians to not waste a single note. When a song works perfectly, it works perfectly.

CS: I think your playing does an excellent job of providing the moods and ideas that the lyrics exclude, or only imply. You’ve always filled in the narrative gaps with your guitar. Both with Genesis and in your solo material, I think your guitar is just as much world-building and setting an atmosphere as the lyrics are. And your style is so signature – it makes me wonder how you came upon it. You have an almost toy-like quality to your playing. How did you discover those sounds?

SH: I notice most of the time electric guitarists do what sounds good on the guitar. But there’s another way of looking at it. If you listen to the early work of The Ventures, The Shadows, and Duane Eddie from the era when guitars did not sustain and it was a percussion instrument – instrumentalists were forced to have a melodic approach. Then the instrument began to develop sonically within blues and R&B. You had sustain, you had feedback. Rock and Roll, all of that… simple and very exciting. But in general I’ve found, and I still do, that when I’m listening to a rock record, guitarists tend to move toward familiar shapes and avoid melody lines that are normally given to the singers. Guitarists seem to want to wail, fire off salvos, and do the sonic equivalent of a gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Guitars are great at that because they’re alive and tactile instruments, but I had the idea that it could occasionally sound like a violin or a distant voice. Often in Genesis, I was forced to come up with non-heroic playing in order to have something relevant for electric or acoustic guitar to do. And in Genesis you had the core unit of Collins, Rutherford and Banks. They’d come up with things that sounded like finished pieces of music, and I’d have to make some difficult decisions. I could double the bass, but that would be orchestral thinking, you know? In other words the brass joins the bowed bass or the cellos. Or I could play part of the topline coming from the lead chords played by Tony. I would be forced to do something extremely subtle at times, unless I got the chance to provide lead work. So I had to think in terms of these other instruments that the band did not possess.

CS: And what led you to developing playing techniques like sweep picking and double-handed tapping?

SH: They all just seemed natural to me. Sweep picking is rather the same as what a violinist does when they’ve got a fixed position and are rocking over the strings and arpeggiating. Tapping is really just using the fretboard as a keyboard, virtually. Hammering on and pulling off. You can play lightning fast like that, it’s actually not hard. It’s a very responsive way of working. And so then you find that speed is not an issue, if you want to nail your colors to that particular mast. But what people tend to remember is the quality of a melody line – a romantic melody line.

CS: A lot of your music tends to have a romantic quality to it, especially what you contributed to Wind & Wuthering and Selling England By the Pound. What comes to my mind is the solo you have in “Firth of Fifth” which is a very spiritual, romantic solo.

SH: It’s a funny thing that, isn’t it? It’s Tony’s melody so I can’t claim any credit for that, but the interpretation of it I think is part of what makes arrangement important. The ability to arrange a song to the point where you can create a complete rescue package – I’m not suggesting that it’s a bad melody, by no means. I’m thinking of George Martin’s work on “I Am the Walrus”, where if you hear the original, you might dismiss it as a doodle; and yet suddenly it becomes this extraordinary cartoon-like thing, with pastiche and romanticism… All songs can be filled with this sort of stuff.

CS: You seem to know where to lay your guitar work within a song. For example, in “Fountain of Salmacis” there’s this very angelic keyboard chord sequence towards the end, and when your guitar comes in with the solo it really brings the song to another level.

SH: That and the “Firth of Fifth” solo are probably the most melodic electric guitar parts I did with the band. We happened to be rehearsing Nursery Cryme in a cottage in the country in 1971. It was an idyllic setting, on a summer’s night and all that. We had been jamming away at midnight when suddenly that bit came into focus. I started playing a solo over Tony’s chords, and it felt to me like a new area in music that hadn’t quite been touched on before – it was the most amazing feeling at the time. I improvised it at first, and then refined it. And the same thing goes for the “Firth of Fifth” solo. I was thinking about a previous band I’d been in (Quiet World) with three guys who had grown up in South Africa. They came back to England, and their father was a medium. He used to send tapes over of him virtually speaking in tongues, and taking on the persona of different characters. One of the ideas he’d talk about in this trance-state was a sea with a bird flying high above it – and I took that on board with me with the “Firth of Fifth” solo. There’s a long sustain note that comes into play so that the whole thing almost takes on the idea of stasis, or something floating. There’s a build up to that moment, and it’s one of the moments that works best. We’ve been closing the show with it, in fact.

CS: It’s a big moment.

SH: It’s a big moment, yeah. It’s a payoff. We were trying to explore thick dark textures that previously only orchestras had been privy to, and I’m always trying to think of new ways to do that now. Trying to invent my own colors. How do you do that? That’s the challenge.

CS: With the new record Wolflight, I feel you do achieve that. It shifts gears from track-to-track, but not in a way that feels jarring at all. It’s as if everything you’ve done previously has been working up to this album in some way.

SH: Yeah, it’s got a lot of things in it that I’ve tried to do before. If ever I’ve tried to get a cinematic quality into an album, this is the one that does it most successfully, I think. Part of that comes from using orchestral instruments – whether it’s the real thing or sampled, I’ve used both. But again, ever since I heard the Mellotron way back in the day, I was blown away that you could have something that could sound a little bit like a string section – but you might be receiving it from a TV channel on Mars; almost as if something has been lost and you have this cold, Frankenstein facsimile coming back at you. And sometimes we do use Mellotron because we want the strings to sound like that.

CS: I think that the Mellotron is so much a part of 70s progressive rock. It became such a crucial component of the Genesis sound with songs like “Watcher of the Skies” and “Supper’s Ready”, so I can understand your love for it. It’s got this alien, other-worldly vibe.

SH: It does, and you can work within the range of it, or outside the range. For instance, we were using Mellotron flutes recently much slower than it normally goes. Then you start getting alto flute Mellotron. You can slow down all the instruments to half speed. There’s all of these other parameters it has, meaning you don’t necessarily have to use something in its prescribed form.

CS: And going back to the new record, it seems now more than ever people are interested in your music, and coming out to see your shows. It must feel great touring behind a new album and having people be so receptive towards it.

SH: It’s marvelous! I think it’s partly because I’ve tried to appeal to fans of Genesis who might feel disenfranchised by what the band became. I think once the band had success as a singles-oriented band, and I don’t think I’m saying anything pejorative here because they were obviously very well done and slick, and admirably well-received. But the early stuff, which is less slick, is a bit more like an oil painting that hasn’t quite dried – as opposed to a poster. And the fact that the oil painting hasn’t dried yet is the reason I’m still putting it in front of the public and saying, ‘That’s what you liked, isn’t it? That’s what I liked too.’ I liked it then, and I still have that same relationship with that music. So it still feels very much alive. And the ethos of the band at that time, which would virtually take on anything, was the right way to go. For any band, for any writer, for any creative person – you don’t have to think within the box, you can think outside of it. Change the rules of the game. Of course if you’re sticking to long solo, then you’re into what happened in the 70s. But assuming radio isn’t going to play you anyway, it’s awfully liberating to think outside the confines of FM and singles. I’ve had hit singles, but that’s not the motivating force. I don’t want to go out and just do the hits. What I really want to do is to take out the glorious experiments; to take out the test tubes. And it never gets finished really, I’m still in the lab.

 

Information for Steve Hackett’s Acolyte to Wolflight Tour can be found here: http://www.hackettsongs.com/tour.html

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Steve and I  – Photo by Jeff Burke

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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