By Roy Rahl
Photo by: Tina Korhonen
I am blessed to do this gig. It’s always fun. No matter who I speak with I enjoy the conversation. But some interviews are what I would call business friendly. We have a nice conversation but there is no doubt that it is a part of the business of rock and roll. We’re speaking because it’s a press obligation that needs to be fulfilled and these folks are professionals.
However, occasionally I get the incredible treat of speaking with a lifelong hero and it’s as though we’re just two guys having a chat. The barriers are down and the conversation is free flowing. It’s like we’re at the local bar. As we speak I expect a bartender to turn up at any moment to cash us out. These are by far the best moments of all. These are the interviews I remember forever.
That is precisely what happened when I had the honor of speaking with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Steve Hackett. This is a man I have idolized since I was fifteen. Even with that being the case we conversed as though the two of us were just hanging out at the corner pub. It is a great testament to a man who is so accomplished yet is still humble enough to give so much of his time to speak casually with a stiff like me. Our conversation was extensive and wide ranging. We talked about his new album, being a musician in the modern age, mellotrons, and what it was like being an integral part of the Genesis glory years. I hope you appreciate it as much as I did. It is one of the most enjoyable conversations I have been a part of so far.
Roy: Well, I’d love to talk to you about The Night Siren, obviously.
Roy: I must tell you that I’ve been listening to it pretty much constantly. I’m fascinated by the album. It’s very broad. I know that it has a story behind its inspiration. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit on the general theme of the album.
Steve: Basically, there are two tracks on the album where the common theme is the idea of refugees and survival. The first track, “Behind the Smoke”, really talks about people fleeing a war torn zone. It’s very current, but also about ancestors from my own background in the late 1800’s. The people who came to England, they were escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe and made their way over via Portugal and made it to England, claimed asylum, and were allowed in. So my mother’s side of the family, it’s a recent memory. I remember talking to my great-grandmother about her. Either her memories or the memories that had been handed down from her parents and they were talking about women being dragged along by their hair. Terrible atrocities.
Roy: Oh my goodness.
Steve: Yeah, terrible stuff. So “Behind the Smoke” really addresses that. The penultimate track which brings back some of the main themes musically but done in a more stately fashion and slower with an orchestra doing it instead of guitar, that’s the track “West to East”, where I hope there’s a sense of resolution in that, again, it addresses the idea of a war torn, almost a game show aspect of watching things on TV, where you’re watching people literally crawling. It worries me, the idea of remote wars, of pushing a button.
War is never the answer anyway, but it seems to me there’s a resolution, the idea that we can actually get on with each other on this planet. I’ve attempted to do so by my own little contribution here. Twenty or so people from all around the world … we’ve got people from as far away as Israel and Palestine working together, singing together. We have people from Iceland, from Hungary, Azerbaijan, from the United States, and from England. There’s instruments from Peru and Armenia and India. Sometimes it’s the players themselves, sometimes it’s the instruments. There is a tremendous amount of Arabic influence, the scales that are being employed on some tracks.
Roy: I noticed that.
Steve: I find it very soulful and I find there’s a link with that and flamenco, for example, with the Moorish, the Arabic sound which permeated through Spain and then of course to Mexico. So it becomes part of the whole Latin heritage that forms so much of western culture and gives it rhythm, gives it that sense of urgency. I look at the similarities between different music from around the world. The way Indian scales work in parallel to blues. I love using these different influences.
Roy: I understand what you’re saying. You get that kind of melodic minor-ish scale that soaks in from the Moors and into Spanish music and creates a wonderful blend.
Steve: Yes, and it’s very rhythmic music as well. I’ve tried to make it as rhythmic as possible. I’ve tried to do a very rhythmic album.
Roy: This album is very percussive. I’m comparing it to Wolflight, which was a great album, but it’s a lot more percussive.
Steve: I think so. I think there’s less kind of legato stuff, although there are moments of that. It’s driven by the need to do things that are … in a way, you could think of certain rhythms, you could say, “there’s a shuffle” which is one kind of rhythm. Or you might have something that’s a ballad. But there are certain things, like “Behind the Smoke”. I think of it as almost a kind of whirling dervish of a track.
Roy: Exactly [laughs]. I follow you on Facebook and I notice that you travel extensively. I can hear it in the music that you produce. How does travel directly impact the way you create?
Steve: Well it’s such a natural process. I think that if you’ve got ears, being a musician and traveling, it’s part of the job. You can’t help but get impressed with music from other nations. For instance, there’s one guy in Hungary [Ferenc Kovács] who plays amazing trumpet and flugelhorn, but then he also plays violin in a gypsy style. We have him playing with his daughter on didgeridoo. He’s blowing a muted trumpet very, very lightly. So when you first hear it it doesn’t actually sound like a trumpet at all. Then when he opens up, yeah, you recognize it. “Ah, that’s trumpet. That’s that sound.” He’s a great exponent of that.
Then there’s another guy called Malik Mansurov, from Azerbaijan, who plays the tar, a short stringed instrument. Working with him and watching him play is a little bit like watching someone who’s got the technique of John McLaughlin meets Ravi Shankar. When he opens up on his own he’s just absolutely bloody marvelous. I’ve got many performances of his recorded. The way I’ve been working with it is to use those performances and overlay them with other things, to kind of orchestrate that and do things sympathetically with it. So I was playing another short stringed instrument called the charango from Peru. So you’ve got the combination of the two in the first track. It sounds a little bit like the mandolin. It depends on the way you play it. These little instruments that are not really rock and roll but they’ve got their own urgency to them.
Roy: Well they don't need to be rock and roll to be great.
Steve: No. Music doesn’t need to be rock and roll. Rock and roll is great, we know that. But all these other places, these regions have got so much to show us.
Roy: Are you somebody who likes to work in a studio or wherever and just come up with ideas on your own, or are you more comfortable working out ideas with other musicians? Maybe sitting in a room and, “Hey, let’s just see what we come up with.” That type of thing?
Steve: It’s very often just working in a room. We did that with Genesis many times. We didn’t always record in studios and I’ve continued that tradition. So sometimes it’s a studio but other times it’s someone’s living room or they’re sending it to me. For instance, we recorded some stuff in Sardinia in a rehearsal facility. That was very interesting working with the Hungarians and Gulli Briem, the drummer from Iceland. He’s hugely influential. Gulli’s recorded some great stuff himself.
All of it gets to influence me and gets to influence the record. So it’s a little bit like collecting data really. Or, perhaps if you were a film maker you would say, “Well the second camera unit goes out and collects atmosphere which we edit into the film later.” It’s pretty much that way of working too. We’re not working sequentially, but there’s a plot. Over and above that there are these other things to color it and perhaps make all the difference.
Roy: So you will often maybe not have the backbone of a song but through the process of bringing together these parts you turn it into one single piece.
Steve: Well, what I tend to do is I’ll have moments during a song where I try and incorporate things that have been played separately at another time. For instance, the moment I described with Ferenc Kovács playing trumpet. He wasn't doing anything in time at all. He tends to do this very fluid way of playing where he’s not actually playing in time with anything at all. And it’s not the first time that I’ve added drums to what he’s done. You would think that if you add drums to something you would need to have something that’s in time. But there’s another way of playing, and I don’t know how to describe it. You could say it was drag timing. In a way playing behind the beat and ignoring the beat.
Frank Sinatra made a living out of his singing style which was to sometimes come in very late with something in order to drag it out. If you took that and took it to its logical conclusion you would say, “Here’s something that’s played in a very legato way over a rhythm that you would think would suggest urgency.” But you don’t necessarily need to have that. You can have something that can float over the rhythm and ignore it completely but it’s cohesive.
The track “Fifty Miles from the North Pole”, that’s the one that has that moment where you have drums and you have this muted trumpet. It’s one of the best bits on the album and it creates that feeling of really bleak landscape. I did listen to some Icelandic music when I was there. Their music is like this. They come up with these great sounds. These great sort of bleak landscapes. Some of it’s award winning stuff. It's quite strange.
Roy: It’s almost like antagonistic parts.
Steve: Well actually maybe that’s it. That’s a very good way of describing it. You could say musical antagonism. That’s a very good way of looking at it. In other words, two things are playing that are not necessarily sympathetic to each other. I think you get that with David Bowie’s last album. You get the feeling that there are separate worlds that are being allowed to collide and merge. I always thought there ought to be a description of this pan-genre approach where things are allowed to co-exist that perhaps shouldn’t. I used to call it “collision”. I think that collision is a style of music that you can take this idea further. It’s very experimental, certainly, but eventually someone will have a hit single with this idea. Someone will do something radical and it’ll just hit the mark in one way or another.
But that’s music. Go for it. Be risky. Why not?
Roy: And then everybody will wonder why it wasn’t done earlier!
Steve: Well yeah, I think so. I think drone based music, it’s normally the northern climes that come up with drone based music. Maybe it’s something to do with the bleakness of the landscape. The drone is the landscape and the rest of the stuff is the figures that move within it. You get a lot of that with the Hungarians and you get a lot of that with the Scots, the Celts.
Roy: Maybe it’s the long nights.
Steve: It’s the lack of light that does it, yeah. [Laughs]
Roy: If I had to choose one song on the album I think that El Nino would be my favorite.
Roy: Yeah. I love the tension. There is an anxious feel throughout the song. I picture an intense video in my head. Can you speak a little bit about how that song came about?
Steve: Oh sure. I think that it is something that is influenced by film music. Funny enough, the surround mix of that is one of the best. When Roger [King] was doing it I just let him get on with it. I said, “Look. I would like the idea of being in the eye of the storm so it’s all going on around you. Be as brave as you like. Don’t really think of a center as such.” Everything is meant to disorientate with that peripheral sense. Everything is going on around you.
Once he mixed that track, and it was the second track we mixed, he said, “Now that we’ve done this I think I should go back and remix the first track and do it in that similar way.” So we used it throughout the album. That idea of the musical assault course! I like it very much. I love the immersiveness of that and the element of surprise. Where is that gonna come from? Where are those voices going to go? We had a few happy accidents along the way with this type of stuff as well. It threw up some very interesting combinations.
Roy: It’s so engrossing. I’ve heard it a hundred times now so I know what’s coming. But the first few times it’s like you’re mentally looking over your shoulder at what’s coming next.
Steve: Well I thought, “Let’s have a string orchestra and let’s have a tribe of drums. So tribes meet orchestras.” And then we’ve got the electric instruments and we drive things with bass clarinet as well at one point, which is an extraordinary sound within itself, of course. It’s a cavernous, deep, chasm of a sound.
I do actually really like slow melodies over fast rhythms. Busy rhythms and slow melodies I’ve always found was a winner for me. I think I first started doing that kind of stuff with “Los Endos” with Genesis and then continued that idea with “Please Don’t Touch”. Again, slow melody, fast rhythm common to Africa, to India, to South America, to Brazil. But slow melody over the top. I’ve always loved that idea and I’ve used it a lot of times but it’s never failed to work for me, when you get the right melody, of course.
Roy: You already have the frenetic energy of the drums and everything going so it gives the listener a nice simple path to follow.
Steve: Yes, exactly. And you’re quite right, it is very pictorial and I would love to see that put to film with just the elements so one could edit something together in that way at some point.
Roy: I’ve been listening to you since the seventies. This is a bit of an odd question. When I picture you in my head I see you holding an acoustic guitar. Do you see yourself as an acoustic guitarist first and an electric guitarist second? How do you see yourself?
Steve: Well I’ll tell you what, I usually write things on acoustic guitar. I think electric guitar is a marvelously expressive instrument, but I don’t usually think of it as a writing tool. I love to play it, don’t get me wrong, and some things are definitely written with electric guitar in mind. But usually if I’m working something out, if I’m working out harmonies, it’ll be on an acoustic guitar. Unless I’m working with a keyboard player and we’re working from scratch. The keyboard will have infinitely more harmonies at its disposal than the guitar. But then I work with different tunings, and I’ve come up with one or two tunings that are pretty radical.
But you’re quite right. There’s a side of me that’s an acoustic guitarist. I love classical guitar, flamenco, all of it. I love electric too. So I’m as much of a fan of blues as I am classical music. I wouldn’t dream of comparing the young Andrés Segovia with the young Eric Clapton. I’ve spent time in the company of both of those men. There’s something powerful from both. Very different, like honoring different gods, isn’t it? Where do you worship, you know? Do you love the sound of an electric guitar? Is that sacred, is that profane? I know Segovia detested the idea of the electric guitar. But I like to think that I can borrow from both.
Roy: Oh, absolutely.
Steve: You can listen to Jimi Hendrix and Bach. You can take something from each of them.
Roy: Absolutely. I think progressive music is basically borrowing so much from classical music and putting an electric slant on it.
Steve: Exactly, yeah.
Roy: Someone with the accomplishments that you have in classical guitar doesn’t get there without studying a few masters. I know you mentioned Segovia. Who were some of the other influences?
Steve: I think with contemporary players I would say … funny enough, I was watching some Rodrigo and Gabriella …
Roy: Oh, I love them.
Steve: Yeah, they’re fantastic. She’s a wonderful rhythm player. It’s virtuosic rhythm playing. Stunning stuff.
Roy: She’s a percussionist with her guitar.
Steve: Yeah, absolutely a great percussionist. As stunning a percussionist as a guitarist. I love the fact that you’re blurring the differences there. In my time I’ve listened to a fair amount of Paco De Lucia, and spent time in Spain watching gypsies and saying, “How do you do that?” And someone showing me the moves and going, “Ah, I finally get the idea.” But you do have to sit there and work out the stuff yourself. It seems impossible at first. All guitar seems impossible at first, doesn't it?
Steve: But the penny falls by tiny increments at times. You think, “Ah, I see. You can get a rhythm from this.” I’ve basically given up playing with a plectrum a long time ago. So I rarely use a plectrum. But I use the nails. Using the nails is usually underrated by most electric guitarists but it affords me the facility to do certain things that I think I couldn’t do if I was just using a pick.
Roy: I’m looking at all the instruments that you play on this album. What’s the newest instrument that you’ve discovered that you’re trying to learn how to play for the first time?
Steve: Well, I was playing the charango, the Peruvian short scale string instrument, and finding that depending on how you played it, it sounded like a mandolin. In a way it’s from the same family. In my time I’ve played the cuatro. I was given a cuatro when I was in Argentina. What I didn’t realize was it’s the ukulele. I didn’t play it on this album but I’ve done it on one or two other albums. Sometimes, even just to hold these things properly is difficult. When you’re used to a guitar strap … you don’t realize what a boon that is. I try and fix these things between my legs, hold it there for a few seconds and try and record a decent performance on these things. But it doesn’t come naturally. It doesn’t hurt to pick up these things, even to play them badly, but just to go at it with joy, it’s fun.
Roy: Not in the traditional style of the instrument but whatever is coming out of you at the time.
Steve: Well I think that’s it. There are ways of making things work.
In a sense, really, I can only play two instruments remotely fluently, and that’s guitar and harmonica. I grew up playing harmonica first of all, many years before guitar. I fell in love with blues harmonica, and what a wonderfully expressive little instrument that is.
Roy: Simple and complex at the same time.
Steve: It is, yeah, to be able to do it well. Rob Townsend, who is a phenomenal sax player and woodwind player, he heard me playing harmonica one day and he said to me, “You’ve got some serious chops on that.” And I thought that was great coming from him. I don’t think I’ve got serious chops. Serious chops are Larry Adler and Paul Butterfield. That’s serious chops on harmonica.
Roy: Absolutely. Now, obviously you’ve been in this business for quite a while. Technology has changed immensely since the early Genesis days. Has technology changed the way you write and perform? Has it made it better for you to express your ideas or has it just made it easier and more convenient?
Steve: I don’t distinguish between recording and writing. I write a certain amount, but then I want to see what recording can do. Really, the computer is the studio these days. The virtual world is so fluid. You can do so many things it’s stunning. I really think that if you blindfolded someone they couldn’t tell the difference between … “Here’s two Marshall amps hooked up in series moving some air in a studio screaming away.” And then we do the facsimile with what’s on board in the computer. I reckon someone couldn’t really tell the difference.
Roy: I wonder though … there are a lot of people out there who think that maybe music production has gotten a little too easy. The access to the perfect sound or the ability to alter anything to create the perfect recording has taken away the individuality and spontaneous magic that used to be there when you only had two days to get in the studio. “Oops, there’s a mistake there. Well, we’ll just leave it in there.”
Steve: I can understand that point of view. All I can say is that recording is never easy no matter what you’ve got on your side. It’s never easy to get something sounding really good. There has to be a commitment. And that’s whether you’re doing it in one go … for instance, if you’re recording an orchestra. All of those people are bringing to the plot a lifetime of experience, and study, and frankly getting things wrong to get to the point where there sufficiently fluent and virtuosic to be able to deliver what you’ve written on the page and give it back to you in one go. That’s a miraculous thing.
Nonetheless, you’ve still got to put in the time. I don’t think you could just push a button. There’s no such thing as pushing the better sound button or the excellence button. It doesn’t exist.
Roy: Give it time.
Steve: I know that you can chain up a few noises and get a rhythm going and then instantly repeat ad infinitum as so much modern music does. But to create anything that’s really outstanding, whatever tools you’re using, it does require thought.
A great friend of mine, Edgar Gold, said, “People who learn to think with their veins” was what it was all about, which was why he likes Genesis. It’s never easy. That’s the whole point. It’s the challenge, isn’t it? How do we whip this thing into shape? It’s always about the challenge. I’m always pitting myself against the medium.
Roy: Maybe it’s just me getting old, but I do fear that sometimes it’s just so easy to come up with the perfect sound that you don’t get the hours of dedication to all of the little intricacies. “We’ll just do this, it’s in MIDI, I can assign another sound to it just like that and let’s move on.” I fear that the love kind of disappears sometimes.
Steve: Well, I was talking to my friend, Rick Wakeman, about this. He was saying, “I’ve recorded real organs, pipe organs”. And he said, “Frankly, at home I’ve got samples that are just as good as the real thing.” So I think it’s all a case of a means to an end. It’s nice when it’s real, there’s no doubt about that. We try to keep it as real as possible. But at the same time this mixture of man and machine, of man and environment, this whole combination is absolutely wonderful.
Not everything is recorded in real time. I think that’s the whole point. I’ve used synths and mellotrons together with an orchestra at the same time and found that an orchestra can’t quite make the same sounds as the mellotron does, and would you want it to? Some things that were written on a mellotron just doesn’t sound right when even a great symphony orchestra is playing it. Sometimes you need the brightness and distortion of the mellotron. Many years ago, of course, people were arguing the ethics of the orchestra in a box. At the touch of a man’s hand a whole string section is being played back. When I first heard about that I thought, “Oh, that’s going to be unethical, isn’t it?” But then when I heard it live I thought, “Give me one! I want one!”
Roy: Those old mellotrons were special. They didn’t work half the time but they were still special. [Laughs]
Steve: They didn't work half the time. But on the other hand, I’ve done some work for mellotrons. I’m part of the mellotron sound library. So I am that robot! [Laughs]
Roy: It is a beautiful instrument. And as you said, there are string synths out there, but that’s a mellotron. You know it instantly when you hear it.
Roy: I see that you are going to be part of the Cruise to the Edge. I’ve spoken with Mike Portnoy and Billy Sherwood about that. They both seem to really enjoy it. It sounds like it’s a lot of fun.
Steve: It is, you know. It’s a life on the ocean wave with a captive audience. It’s an extraordinary thing. Everyone’s in the same boat for a period of time and you just float off in this whole kind of world, this floating city devoted to music. There’s a kind of musical madness about it. Most of the musicians I spoke to about it, who’ve come back for more, said how much they loved it and how surreal it all is.
Roy: You mentioned the captive audience. You also have captive performers. Billy Sherwood joked that you can’t help but be very close to the fan who is next to you taking the last piece of bacon off the buffet plate! [Laughs]
Is there any chance of a Hackett / Howe acoustic jam happening on board?
Steve: Funny enough, I was talking to Steve recently about the GTR thing. I know some of the guys in the band were trying to put it back together again. I said I was up for it but so far Steve seems to have resisted that idea. So it doesn’t look like anything’s going to happen. But there you are. I must be so dreadful to work with! [Laughs]
Roy: [Laughs] I don’t think that’s the case.
Steve: No band will ever have me back! [Laughs]
Roy: I was lucky enough to have been at the Chicago NAMM show in the early eighties. I saw you and Steve do a little acoustic jam at the Gibson booth.
Steve: Oh, that’s right! We were just jamming away on guitars.
Roy: I’ll never forget it. I was standing right next to you watching you jam. I was working for Simmons Drums at the time at the booth next to Gibson’s. It didn’t seem like it was planned. I think you guys just kind of showed up.
Steve: No, no, no. We were just jamming away. It was completely loose.
Roy: I mention it because here are two of my all-time heroes jamming and I’m standing just next to you thinking it was an amazing moment. I was wondering if maybe something like that would show up again on the Cruise to the Edge.
Steve: All things are possible; do you know what I mean? The last time we did Cruise to the
Edge the late, great Chris Squire and I were working together. We had done a number of projects, including Squackett. We had John Wetton on stage, and we had Chris. We were doing “All Along the Watchtower”. That exists on YouTube. You can see we’re all having fun doing that.
Roy: You’re getting ready for an extensive tour through the Eastern United States and Canada. That’s the Genesis Revisited and Hackett’s Classics Tour. And you’re going through Europe after that. I know it’s the fortieth anniversary of Wind and Wuthering. Now, you’ve got such a strong album in The Night Siren and this sheer volume of things that you could do with Genesis material. How do you strike the balance between what gets played without it turning into a six hour concert?
Steve: You have to make hard choices. But we’re also playing with an orchestra, the Buffalo Orchestra. We’ll be doing a different set with that. Obviously I do want to celebrate forty years of Wind and Wuthering, and not only to play most of the tracks from the album, but also “Inside and Out”, which was part of the sessions for that. That was the strongest track on the EP, which arguably should’ve gone on the album. I do want to celebrate that, but I’m doing tracks from each of the Genesis albums as well. As well as some selections from The Night Siren and other tracks that the fans have been asking me to do. Asking me to do “The Steppes”, “One for the Vine” will be part of it. I haven’t played that for many years, and I’ve never played “Rise Again”, which is from Darktown. So I’m looking forward to doing all of those things.
It is a very hard choice, but I think that we’ve got an absolutely amazing set. I’m looking forward to being able to get that down.
Roy: It must be so rewarding to get the responses that you’re getting for music that’s been around for a few decades.
Steve: That’s true, and I’m getting better responses for it now than ever before. The enthusiasm of crowds is what drives me. I think maybe they recognize my enthusiasm for it. I often grimace through songs, but then I smile at the end of them! Do you know what I mean? [Laughs] I think, “Oh, here it is. Do this.” I try to make it look easy.
Roy: [Laughs] That part you’re dreading.
Steve: I love it. It’s an extraordinary thing. But I always have to pit myself against the impossible, and many times the miracle comes off. Everything that you go for comes off in one particular night. Every musician on the planet wants to have a visit, you know. The visitor comes and takes over. “You had a visit, ah!” What particular god from what particular planet wandered in on that night and made things possible. You just stood there and it just all happened around you.
Roy: You just let it happen.
Steve: Yes, let it happen.
Roy: I have two questions. One is easy, the other one maybe not so much. As a teenager I know of at least two Wind and Wuthering albums that I destroyed trying to learn “Blood on the Rooftops”. On behalf of my friends and me, what kind of insight can you give me into that song? That song is a very important song in a lot of our lives.
Steve: Basically, I wrote the introduction and the verse to that song. The thing that sounds like a chorus, although we don’t repeat the same words, is the bit that Phil wrote. He suggested the title of the song. He liked writing these sort of prison type songs. He wrote the lyrics to “Inside and Out”, which again is about a jailbird, if you like. The thing about “Blood on the Rooftops” was the idea about prisoners protesting. A rooftop protest with things written out on sheets, perhaps in blood.
I said, “Leave it to me and I’ll go and write a lyric here”. I thought, “Let’s write it as if we’re channel surfing.” In fact, the term channel surfing didn't really exist because we only had two or three channels at that time in England. But it was the idea that everything that happened happened on the TV set. All of it was remote viewing in a sense. The reasons why the lyrics don’t make sense is because you’re jumping from one program to another to another to another and none of it is really touching you.
That’s a familiar theme that I’ve returned to in a way with the track “West to East”. The idea of remote viewing. You’re watching wars; you’re seeing shadows on the ground. So in a way it’s a familiar theme. I’m not sure that wars should be experienced on television. It makes it look too much like a movie and less like the real thing.
Roy: It’s very desensitizing.
Steve: It is desensitizing. So I think it was a song about that very subject, of being desensitized. I know Tony Banks thought that the message was not so much political, but apolitical. I wouldn’t argue with that. It’s a sense of compassion fatigue.
Other than that it was some of the classical influences that I’d absorbed. I was trying to involve classical guitar with that album. There are moments in songs that I had the most influence on that album that had nylon guitar. Genesis were great at using twelve string combinations. Sometimes we’d had two twelve string players; sometimes we’d have three all chiming away at once. Then I thought, “What if we try and do the same thing with nylon guitar?” And so I played either a solo nylon guitar or gave it a pair of nylons on a couple of moments, like on “Eleventh Earl of Mar”, the middle section.
I was playing kalimba on that as well, a thumb piano. Little things that I didn't really think that I should be credited with in that day, lest I attracted too much attention to myself. I was extremely shy. These guys would be going, “Yeah, like hell, I played that on that and I’m going to get my credit!” But that’s the young me versus the old grouchy me now. [Laughs]
Roy: The one who doesn’t need to care anymore! [Laughs]
Steve: Yeah, the one who’s not trying too hard to keep band members happy! [Laughs]
Actually, that’s not true. I do work with friends and I don’t like people to be unhappy that I’m working with. I figure that the difficulties are there in the music. I know that I’m working with top professionals. You have to be to get through this type of stuff. It requires a lot. So I don’t have to be on anyone’s case with this stuff.
Roy: Well, that raises a question for me. I was an American teenager when Genesis first came into my life. You were talking about being shy. Did Genesis’ rise to stardom happen quickly? I don’t know too much about the time in England prior to me being introduced to it as a young kid in Sacramento.
Steve: It took a while for Genesis to be assimilated into the main stream culture. By 1977, by the time I actually left the band we weren’t really getting too much radio play. Ironically, of course, we’d done the Coast to Coast show in the States. We’d done the Mike Douglas Show, miming away, and that made a huge difference to our fortunes. So, in a sense, it was all those years from ’71 when I joined, when I saw the band doing a free concert Christmas day lunchtime at London’s Lyceum in a desperate bid to attract an audience. When we were playing clubs and colleges. And it took a very long time to crack certain territories. It took quite a while to crack England itself. It certainly took a long time to crack America.
It’s not an easy thing because of the complexity of the music. You needed an audience that were willing to have an indulgent spirit perhaps. This stuff took patience from both the band and its audience, and eventually the media.
Roy: With Genesis, at least for me, this was this sort of underground group of musicians, garage band type players, who absolutely were in love with this stuff. Yes, there were a lot of people who we’d say “Yeah, Genesis” and they’d say “Who?” But there was this group of people that was very devoted to anything that was coming out. It was reaching teenage kids in places like Sacramento, California.
Steve: It was interesting, and we had no idea that the Americans were listening to us. American musicians like Alphonso Johnson were aware of us. We thought we were listening exclusively to them and they wouldn’t have heard of us. That’s one of those things that we were very lucky to have that.
Roy: I saw in an interview with Phil Collins where he discussed how he found out you were leaving the band. It had to do with a taxi ride. He thought he was possibly the only person to be able to convince you to stay had he been able to speak with you before you announced your departure.
Steve: Yeah, that’s true. I think he would have done it. That’s why I couldn't face telling him. I think Phil probably would’ve convinced me. I think the fact that Phil and I were relative new boys in the band, we did always take towards each other and we saw more of each other socially than perhaps with the other members. That was very important and I was very happy when Phil became the singer of the band.
I had no issue with Phil. Phil had his own band. He had Brand X up and running and no one seemed to give him a hard time about that. But I had a hit album with Acolyte and that created eruptions with the other two. I really decided that I had to leave the band because I was writing so much stuff by then that there was no guarantee that the band were going to do my stuff. I knew I could write commercial stuff. I knew I was largely responsible for the hit “I Know What I Like”. They resisted that originally when I came up with that.
People have got very short memories. But hey, you know, I’ll be writing my book too. I’ll be setting the record straight. I’m a huge fan of what the guys were able to do musically and the way they were able to write. There’s no doubt about that. A hugely capable team. But I don’t like people trying to control me. You can’t keep a good man down.
In the end Genesis did start to hemorrhage members. To lose Peter Gabriel and to lose me and eventually to lose Phil, you have to wonder if there was an agenda all along that presupposed that that was going to happen.
Roy: Do you think that maybe you’re talking about such an abundance of riches? You’ve got so much talent there that unless every album you write is a four record album you can’t possibly bring all of that in. It’s too much?
Steve: I think some people like to have their cake and eat it. Do you know what I mean? I think it’s very difficult. Bands are full of characters that are flexible and inflexible. Sometimes you just have to be the glue or to have an overview and try and produce. If you’re dealing with people who are not as reasonable as yourself then you have to try and get the best out of those who may be very gifted control freaks. And that’s the way bands work. I think it worked that way for The Beatles. Even the best bands you have that.
I think it’s the audience that truly own it. The audience are the ones who truly value each of the individuals, whereas I think when you’re in the tribe yourself there’s the aspect of the elders versus rest as it were. The founder members in fact.
Roy: Can I ask you one last softball question before you go?
Steve: Sure thing, yeah.
Roy: You’ve undoubtedly been asked this a thousand times, but how does it feel to be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee?
Steve: You know what? First of all I thought,”Oh, well it’s this institution and it’s separate from me.” But as I was there, when I saw performers get up and do things who were in some cases much older than we Genesis guys, I found it hugely emotional and really, really beautiful, and lovely to see some people being inducted posthumously. As the evening progressed and as people loosened up it became hugely emotional. I know it was hugely emotional for Phil. It was hugely emotional for me. I’m not cynical about it. It was a great evening; it was a great moment.
Roy: And well deserved I might add.
Steve: Thank you.
Roy: I really appreciate the time you spent with me, Steve. This has been great.
Steve: Thank you so much, all the best.
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