Steve Hackett The Genesis of New Music

By A. Lee Graham

Steve Hackett never thinks small.

From his early years with Genesis to an ambitious solo career, the British virtuoso demands the world from his guitar — and fellow musicians.

“I’ve always wanted to incorporate different influences into rock music,” says Hackett, whose vision sometimes clashed with his Genesis band mates, so much so that quitting the prog institution seemed his only recourse following Wind & Wuthering, his final studio album with the band and one that’s the basis for his latest project.

That’s Wuthering Nights: Live in Birmingham, Hackett’s newly released DVD that sees the guitarist’s latest outfit celebrate the 40th anniversary of Wind & Wuthering, as well as The Night Siren, his 25th solo outing. It’s a dizzying display of virtuosity, an audio-visual testament to classic material performed with reverence yet with an explorer’s heart.

Helping Hackett replicate the material are vocalist Nad Sylvan, bassist Nick Beggs, keyboardist Roger King, sax-flute player Rob Townsend, drummer-percussionist Gary O’Toole and special guests John Hackett and Amanda Lehmann.

Each frame reveals new facets of Hackett’s playing, from fretboard tap and sweep techniques he demonstrated in early Genesis to the thematic layering he subsequently developed through an increasingly ambitious solo career.

Interviewing Hackett is always a pleasure. The musician is affable, enthusiastic and never less than engaging. Fresh from playing Cruise to the Edge, a seafaring prog rock excursion, while preparing a new album, Hackett somehow found time to ring up Classic Rock Revisited.

Lee: Hello?

Steve: Is this Lee?

Lee: Indeed, it is. Wow, you’re right on time. Mr. Punctual!

Steve: I try my best.

Lee: First of all, congratulations on Wuthering Nights. I love the name, very clever.

Steve: I’m glad you like it. Do you mean the audio or the film itself?

Lee: Actually, I was referring to something a bit more subtle: the literary reference to Wuthering Heights.

Steve: Ah yes, Wuthering Heights, Wuthering Nights. We do a lot of stuff from the Wind & Wuthering album; hence, the title.

Lee: For the record, both the audio and video are spectacular. I must order the Blu-ray.

Steve: The Blu-ray is quite nice, actually.

Lee: Wind & Wuthering obviously holds a special place in your heart. What makes it so special compared to other early Genesis albums you played on?

Steve: Well, I think 50 percent of it is unforgettable. Obviously, the tracks we’ve played live are part of that, including one that was recorded to be included on the album but ended up being cut. It never made it onto the final cut. That was “Inside and Out.” We’re playing that one live.

More than one person in the band has said he thought that should have gone on the album, so there’s a growing consensus within the band if they can be bothered to ‘fess up and say that really should have been included on the album. I think it’s one of the very best tracks, both the version that was remixed for the box set from the original band and also the one played live with the team I have at the moment.

There’s just something about it that works live. We performed it live back in the day.  We were playing it in 1977. It was a long time ago, but it sounds so gorgeous on the remix and I think it sounds gorgeous on the live version we do, too.

Lee: How does your current band play the material compared to the original Genesis back in the ‘70s?

Steve: There’s a different level of focus. Evolving technology brings something to it, and so when you are a young band, you do things instinctively and are doing your best. Even now, I’ve been rehearsing with my band. We’re into the second week of rehearsing since we have a new bass player for the forthcoming shows. The purpose of rehearsing is to try to bring it closer to the original arrangement, not just to get each note right.

Lee: So you’re saying these songs compare to the original ‘70s versions — but they’re also evolving, taking on new sounds as time and the musicians performing them change.

Steve; That’s right, Lee. Yes. You’re quite right. For instance, on our last tour in the states, we played with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. I liked that very much, working with [conductor] Bradley Thachuck. We’ll do some shows in the UK this time with a 41-piece orchestra and so when you talk about the evolution, it’s a far cry from four guys who wrote the original to the current band.

The stuff I did with Genesis often is … quite a lot of it was influenced by classical musicians or big band stuff. I only hoped we would have taken the direction The Beatles took where I think they were at the top of the tree. The more they branched out, they took risks and included musicians from all over the world — sometimes with an orchestra or other times with musicians from India.

Genesis, at that time, were hugely influenced by them. I think they don’t always get the credit that is due. There were other bands that worked with orchestras, too — ELO [Electric Light Orchestra]. Much of that was a love letter to The Beatles. They did it very well. In a way, I always hoped Genesis would have expanded from day one, but the band tended to get smaller, though, and do it all in-house. You can become a power trio and all the rest, but the idea of inclusive music that evolves needs more going forward, needs more input from larger forces.

Lee: Was that a contributing factor as to why you left Genesis? Because you had that vision and your colleagues did not?

Steve: I think that was part of it, yes. Somebody writes a great flute line, so  why not get a great flute player to do it? And a Mellotron [a polyphonic tape record keyboard] will take you so far but won’t take you any further if you want anything remotely virtuosic. It’s nice to have the real thing.

Lee: Did you at any point consider asking any of your former Genesis band mates to guest on any of these appearances?

Steve: I only asked Tony [Banks, keyboard player] if he had an interest in doing that. Initially, he was and then he had second thoughts about it. I had worked with the others from time to time, bu it’s been on other projects, not specifically Genesis material. There might be an occasional jazzy project or what have you, but I don’t think it’s worked.

That hasn’t happened since last year. I doubt whether there would be a full band reunion. I can’t see that happen somehow, even though we’ve made overtures to each other, but it rarely coalesces into anything significant. And the very fact that I’m honoring early Genesis material nails me firmly to the mast and they know I do it. Genesis is something quite apart from the thing I do solo.

It became something else after Peter Gabriel left, and it became something else after I left. There are many different visions about what it should be about. My vision is to continue to do versions of continually evolving music that’s well loved, material that’s proved itself to entertain audiences through the decades.

I haven’t avoided doing Genesis material even though reunions were mooted. It’s plain to me that it wasn’t going to happen, but I think what a shame since this is great material and I don’t want it to die. It’s a strange thing within the band. I get privately congratulated by them and publicly  (criticized). It’s the very British public school way (laughs).

Lee: You have to be cordial. As you say, the material is great and it transcends time by being performed by orchestras as the years pass. So audiences get to hear it in different ages and centuries, eventually.

Steve: The spirit of it when it was originally conceived was in the realm of symphonic music. I’m kind of a product of that in that I’m doing occasional forays into orchestral stuff. You can’t do an orchestra every time, but we do it when we can.

Lee: I’d imagine it hinges on financial feasibility. I realize hiring an entire symphony must be expensive, but is there any chance of bringing this production to the U.S.?

Steve: I don’t think it would be possible for the forthcoming dates, but if this takes off like wildfire in the UK, it could set the scene and promoters and agents will be aware in their number crunching. And if this sells like hotcakes, it wiill be something we could do. Having said that, I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve got a great band already sounding very symphonic.

One of The Moody Blues [Ray Thomas, flutist-founder] died recently. In 1970, how symphonic they sounded. They might as well have had an orchestra then. There’s something about it, isn’t there? There is something miraculous when a bunch of guys making far more noise than should be possible from four or five individuals.

Lee: Just as your current band is meshing extremely well, I’ll bet that’s a product of extensive rehearsing.

Steve: Yeah, well, the one show we did with the orchestra was in Buffalo. I did something in Iceland with a band called [Todmobile] who did a a great arrangement with [Yes vocalist] Jon Anderson. I heard some of that stuff and thought it sounded really, really good.

The music supports that so much in the spirit of the symphony whether it’s an actual symphony or if you are honoring the material with what a symphony would have sounded like, if you close your eyes, it could be hard to separate out what you are hearing. Since we started using the Mellotron, the ghost in the box, if you will, or the Frankenstein with man parts put together by the touch of Dr. Phibes…

Lee: The Abominable Dr. Phibes…

Steve: (laughs) Yes, the Adominable Dr. Melloton, very good. There’s something about that.

Lee: Classic horror notwithstanding, you had mentioned, I guess in passing, the challenge of coordinating everyone’s schedules. I’d imagine Nick Beggs is about to rejoin Steve Wilson for his tour, so do you have a new bass player?

Steve: We’re working with a musician called Jonas Reingold.

Lee: The Flower Kings!

Steve: Right. We’ve been working with him for a week and a half. I’m blown away by him. I don’t think I’ve heard virtuosic bass playing quite like his. What he’s doing jamming, some of the speed I’ve never heard before. He’s amazing. I have to record him doing this. It’s absolutely miraculous, his extraordinary level of technique. He’s a real sort of powerhouse virtuoso, yes.

Lee: But don’t undersell your own abilities. I’ve always thought your guitar playing, while respected, is also incredibly underrated. The “El Nino” clip alone from the new DVD encapulsates what makes you unique: your vibrato bar and tapping techniques, not to mention a rare ability to establish a theme and build on it in different layers. Have you ever considered soundtrack work?

Steve: I think I have considered movie soundtracks more than moviemakers have considered hiring me (laughs). I think film composers have said some things nice about me, but it’s a far cry from Mr. DeMille calling me up.

Lee: Cecil here…

Steve: (laughs) Yeah: “I must have this guy!” I think, however, if I’m remembered at all, I’m happy about it. All music is a shot in the dark and if anything sticks, if anyone thinks of me as a guitarist first and foremost, fine. If they pick up on the other stuff, great, too. All the other things surrounding it, the other styles of music, I spend quite a bit of time. I’m not only thinking of myself as a rock player.

I sometimes like to cut loose from that and record pieces of Bach just  because it’s a bit like a character actor doing Shakespeare. You know the work is beyond reproach and has never been topped. All musicians are up against Bach. He is the standard. Music doesn’t get any better, dexterous, all that.

But then Romantic music took over from Baroque, but then Bach also wrote the “Chaconne” [from Partita 02 in Dm] for solo violin. He’s not tied down to a certain time on that. He’s ahead of the jazzers, he’s ahead of the Romantics, and he’s coming up with pieces of music that operate completely out of time. It’s written for four strings, but it worked for six strings on the guitar. I performed my version on that tribute. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve played in my life and yet the beauty and simplicity of it is so fresh. People always say Bach is the boy.

Lee: Let’s move from the Baroque period to modern day. You’ve been extremely productive since leaving Genesis so many years ago. What keeps you motivated? How do you keep coming up with ideas?

Steve: I was thinking about this today. We’ve been rehearsing all week and started off rehearsing today. I started making mistakes with diminishing returns after so many rehearsals. The motivation is always the same: to try and improve. We can do better and do another one and another one and another one. You want to do something as good as the heroes that you had when you were young.

I think that’s the motivation for most musicians. Sometimes it’s surprising to know who people were influenced by. Sometimes it might be rudimentary compared to what they’re capable of themselves.

Lee: Why do you climb a mountain? Because it’s there.

Steve: Exactly. I think you’re always looking for the immaculate conception, but the truth is a lot of albums and even successes are a form of a breach birth and there might be a lot of rejection. I remember years ago, I had a minor hit single. I did eight different remixes at the time in hopes they would see it as clearly as I did. Sometimes, that’s what it takes. Sometimes, it pushes you to improve on something. Is it my vocals? Is it the song? Is it the drum sound? It’s all the variables, it’s still a thrill that you might come close to getting it right.

Lee: You tasted some success in the ‘80s with GTR. Why did GTR disband after such a promising start?

Steve: I think because we ran out of funds. That was really it. It was an expensive operation to  maintain. First of all, it was a phenomenal amount of money and it seemed like no amount of success was enough to cover those debts. Having said that, I’m proud of the hit single we did. I just re-recorded it and will play it live.

Lee: “When The Heart Rules the Mind?”

Steve: Yes, we’re doing a souped-up version of that. I think it was a really good song and I always wondered what my own take of it would be all these years later. I said, what would you add to it if you possibly could? So when we re-recorded it, we added a girl’s violin on it, and Steve Rothery plays on it from Marillion.

Lee: Wow, nice!

Steve: Yeah, it’s actually a really good version of the song. Essentially, the song is really good in the first place. It’s a bit like if you liked it then, you might like it now. There are changes but the spirit of the song is still there. I wanted it to be authentic. It’s not a jazz version. The notes are there, the notes that are worth keeping, we kept. It has some strong hooks. The instrumental hook was strong, the song part was strong.

It was the best combination of me and [guitarist] Steve Howe at the time, and the young, hot-to-trot band at the time. I talked to the others about reforming and Steve doesn’t want to do that. As is often the case, bands don’t want to reform but the music is the thing that is worth hanging onto.

Lee: What’s next for Steve Hackett?

Steve: I’m about halfway through a new album and I’m really thrilled with part of that already. There is one great, long opus of a track. I keep feeling like it’s in me. It’s something that’s full of, for me, memorable bits. I have to  make this long-form idea work. People say, oh, the excesses of long form and prog and all those pretensions. But from The Beatles through Genesis — even Chicago, at times — we’re not the only guys who worked with an orchestra. It’s not the length of the composition, it’s the quality of the content, it seems to me.

Lee: And the quality of your content shows no signs of diminishing. Thanks for taking the time to chat, Steve, and we hope to see you on these shores soon.

Steve: Yes, thank you.