Steve Hackett Interview – Golden Tulip, Zoetermeer (NL) on November 26, 2011
Menno von Brucken Fock
It’s not ‘every day’ you get a chance to speak face to face with one of the most accomplished guitarists in the world and especially in the genre of progressive rock. Playing live in the Netherlands for the third time in less than two years, Steve Hackett is still on top of his game. Steve remarried recently (with Jo Lehmann, on June 4, 2011) and released another great studio-album (Beyond The Shrouded Horizon) as well as a dvd (Fire and Ice), shot at London’s Shepherd’s Bush. Since I had the pleasure to talk to Steve about his last album not too long ago, I thought it would be interesting to focus on the live performances with the different line ups through Steve’s long career. In the lobby of the Golden Tulip Hotel I met Steve and Jo. They were looking good and happy together and the amicable guitarist was kind enough to answer as many questions he could handle in the limited time available, because my colleagues of “Progwereld” were next in line.
Menno: Steve , you have been performing live probably for over 40 years now, with Genesis, your electric band, acoustic shows as well as solo performances. How important is the evolution in technology for your live performances?
Steve: I think being on stage is still the same experience. Technology was always changing, even in the nineteen seventies. Once the e-bow had been developed, sustain was no longer chasing a remote dream: it was a reality and it was independent of volume. These days I have Fernandez guitars with sustainer-pick up and on the technical side that makes a tremendous difference. The sound is not driven by volume, it’s easier to control. It’s the kind of sound I always wanted to make in my head: sustain, vibrato and a whole bunch of other things. Everything under control so it meant you could redefine what the guitar was supposed to do. That was in the back of my mind. The guitar was a percussion instrument in the nineteen fifties: you hit it (makes a noise close to the guitar sound of that era) and it was all over as soon as you hit it and you relied on repeat echo to continue the sound. Somewhere between Duane Eddy and The Shadows was the sound every guitarist made. It might seem very obvious now, but at the time I found it both exciting and frustrating. Gradually the guitar sound got wilder throughout the sixties. People had sustain, but it was pretty much hit and miss, but now it’s possible to create that sound in so many ways. When I’m in the studio I use the computer to simulate the sound of a Marshall being overdriven, I use my pedals, I use everything there in the virtual world which sounds the same, but it’s more controllable. Although we have a greater degree of accuracy live, I still depend on the old technology: I have not succumbed to the in-ear experience because I know that listening to my guitar through in-ears will sound horrible. I need to feel it making a big noise. So I’m kind of halfway between the two: somebody who’s got one foot in the old world and one foot in the new…
Menno: Would you say it’s easier to reproduce live what you create in the studio than 30+ years ago?
Steve: Yes it’s easier, definitely!
Menno: I’d like you to share your memories with us of the different bands you played with in your career. The line-up of your first live band (in the seventies) consisted of your brother John Hackett (flute), Nick Magnus (keyboards), John Shearer (drums, Iron Butterfly), Dik Cadbury (bass, Decameron) and Pete Hicks (vocals).
Steve: In the first band for me there was tremendous camaraderie, esprit de corps and it was wonderful to be able to play to enthusiastic audiences. But I feel, at that time, whatever the plusses were of that band, audiences at that time had an idea I should be working with Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins. It took a long time to establish the idea that I was a separate entity. The work that we did, Spectral Mornings and Defector, in a way I have this kind of affection for it, because when I did Spectral Mornings for instance, it’s not so much there was a style as much as a standard of ideas. I think those ideas worked very well and I’m still very proud of them and I still think of some of the songs “oh did I manage to write that? Yeah, that was good wasn’t it!” The input of the people involved was tremendous. At the time I always used to write for the capabilities of the people who were present. Dik Cadbury was trained as a countertenor, so he was a classically trained singer and was involved very much in the arrangement of the vocal harmonies. You know, I wanted this sound of vocal harmonies that had nothing to do with Genesis and had much more to do with the harmony-bands I’ve grown up with and loved. I felt that shared vocal capacity and vocal responsibility was something that would allow us to develop in a different way and it would be less dependent on a lead singer syndrome. I’ve worked with two great singers, Pete and Phil, both very strong personalities, but it wasn’t the only way of doing things, so ultimately we developed in a different strand, a different way, a different strata. John Shearer was a showman. He had this big silver drum-kit and he was very confident live: he knew he could do it, the audiences loved him and it seemed to me he was doing the right things with each song, so I was very pleased with that. Nick was extraordinary. He was and is still a friend and I spend time with him still and work on projects of his. I think he ‘s very clever, but he’s got a different way. However there’s still a kind of kinship with him, he’s part of the extent family. John of course, my brother: we grew up playing together, not always with instruments. He was developing into this phenomenal flute player and doubling on guitar and bass pedals. At the time in the band thy used to make jokes and call him ‘teen idol’ because the girls loved him. In fact both women and men were always falling in love with John. It was fantastic to be able to work with him and develop those ideas. These days I sometimes work on things of his and sometimes he works on things of mine. Pete Hicks as the singer; in a way I thought, when I heard the demo tapes of his voice, he had this kind of quality to his voice almost a bit like Elton John. It didn’t sound generic, he had his own voice, a very beautiful ballad voice. The combination of all those characters created the band I absolutely adored working with and I have a lot of happy memories with those people.
Menno: than in the eighties the line up with Nick Magnus, Chas Cronk (Strawbs), Ian Mosley (Marillion) and brother John?
Steve: Yes some of them continued working with me like Nick and John, but I started working with Chas and Ian, basically for economic reasons, because it wasn’t feasible to keep on paying people wages the whole year round. I had to raid it in, so it featured guys like Chas who was with The Strawbs and is now working with The Strawbs again these days, a very nice guy. Then Ian of course, a very dynamic drummer, very fast. We’re all friends. We sometimes spend time with the Marillion guys. I guess the whole ‘progressive framework’ is pretty much like a family these days where we all work with each other a little bit and everybody knows everybody.
Menno: Then we have the nineties with Julian Colbeck, currently the CEO of Keyfax NewMedia, Doug Sinclair and Hugo Degenhardt (Bootleg Beatles)?
Steve: Yes Julian was a very gifted player and I did a lot of things together with Julian. Now Doug Sinclair and Hugo Degenhardt: they were very interesting. I worked with them as a four piece rather than the five piece or the six piece I have now. Doug and Hugo were a phenomenal rhythm section together. At some point Doug decided to spend more time with his family and he moved out of the music and went on to do other things, but I assure you it was a great loss to music, because he was a fabulous player. I think he had family pressures that made him make that move. Hugo, who is playing with the Beatles, or rather the Bootleg version, is some character. When I first started working with him he was very much a young player, very fiery. We were having these drum auditions and from the very first moment that he attacked the kit I knew he was the guy: an absolute killer! Such strength! One day he went swimming and got a problem with his shoulder, it appeared to be dislocated and it kept popping out so eventually he had to have an operation to have it stitched. It was terrible to see him going through that pain. I remember doing a gig a day after he dislocated his shoulder and he had his arm strapped up and we had another drummer who learned the stuff just overnight but he was playing with just one arm and even with that one arm he was still an extraordinary player! Yes, I loved Hugo, I loved all of the guys.
Steve: The line up now it’s all the guys that you see. Nick Beggs is not with the band at the moment, although he was with everybody for quite a while, but he’s working with Steven Wilson and also with a few other acts. He’s more like a freelance player, working with other people almost like a mercenary. Although I surely don’t think of him as an mercenary person! He was committed to do these shows with Steven Wilson, who is a friend of mine as well. You know I’ve worked with Steven, don’t you? (Menno nods to confirm). So basically we are all working together but on bass we now have a very talented guy called Phil Mulford, talented in a different way of course. Sometimes I work with him, sometimes with another guy named Lee Pomeroy who works with It Bites and Take That. All these people are very talented in their own right.
Menno: Are the goals for you as a musician different from the other decades?
Steve: I think playing live has always been the “raison d’être”. I came to a conclusion the other day: I was thinking there are two ways of leading your career. It seems to me you can either decide to do a really big tour once every ten years if you really keep yourself apart, up here (points above his head – MvBF) or you can be playing practically every other night of the week, but it means that you’re doing what you’re designed to do. A bit like an athlete who is trained to run or jump. For me it’s its own currency: it repays me, it feeds me, it keeps me – so far, touch wood!- healthy, it keeps me young, it keeps me fresh and it keeps me working with musical styles of the world. And (looking to Jo nodding her head to confirm) it keeps us travelling, which is something engaging both of us. We love to travel.
Menno: I don’t assume you have the opportunity to explore the environment every day of a tour haven’t you?
Jo: No, but we try to do so whenever we can and when we have an opportunity, it is often those newly discovered territories that inspire to write new music or come up with ideas for new lyrics. This time around we didn’t have time to see The Hague but a few years back we did go there.
Steve: Oh yes we were in “Den Haag” a few years ago in 2009 when I played with a Hungarian band Djabe (Jazz-ensemble, MvBF). We did a couple of shows, some jazz stuff, some fusion stuff. You know I also like to work with fusion people, with jazz people who let the rockers into their world and that seems to impinge on the world music scene as well, where people are open to each other. In the world of jazz you might find a John McLaughlin, but you also might find someone like Malik Mansurov, someone we know. A fabulous tar player from Azerbaijan. The tar is a tiny instrument resembling the sitar a bit.
Jo: Actually I think this music isn’t pure jazz, but rather “world-fusion”.
Steve: You’re right, it’s like folk music in a way. Everything is with embellishments , very fast, but romantic as well.
Jo: There’s some Eastern quality about it too, music from the ancient world.
Steve: Yes, it’s from the Mongolian steppes, from a land where 50% of the people are nomadic, still! Although we have yet to visit Azerbaijan, we have met with, played live with him and it was so damned good! I can’t tell you, but I think I’m just as enthusiastic about the tar as George Harrison was about the sitar! It’s wonderful, it’s gorgeous stuff…
Menno: Are there countries you’d like to go next?
Steve: Oh, there are many countries we didn’t go to so far, but indeed we visited many places already.
Jo: We’d love to go to Australia and New Zealand. They often ask , but we haven’t been able to go there yet.
Steve: Not yet, but I’m sure it will happen at some point. We went to Malaysia which was… extraordinary. We were in Japan and Jo visited those countries with me these last years. The nice thing is in Japan most people we spoke with were able to speak English and that has changed a lot -for the better- compared with some twenty years ago.
Jo: on both tours we had a day off to explore the country and that was lovely.
Steve: Yeah, that’s what you strive for: a day off on each tour. It gives you a chance to connect with people when you’re working. It’s not as if you’re able to live in these various places, but you stay in touch with people and that’s another way of visiting places: the exchange of cultures through music. Luckily musicians are very open to how they influence people I think. For instance long before I visited Spain I was listening to the music of Segovia, the man rather than the place…. the flamenco players… so I was visiting Spain in my dreams long before I actually went there and you really can’t visit the home of the guitar often enough. It’s a huge world but our suitcases are permanently packed, ready to go: a bit like “have guitar, will travel”. That’s how it works. We haven’t visited China yet, but maybe, hopefully, there’ll be an offer at some point. These are expensive trips so you have to make an economic decision whether such a trip is possible or not. We have a tour manager, Brian Coles, and between the two of us and Brian we make these kinds of decisions. We don’t have a manager as such, although Brian is more than just a tour manager: he ‘s an agent as well. He takes care of the whole touring side of things, he looks after everybody, stays in contact with all the venues and so on.
Menno: Basically that aspect of your career didn’t change that much?
Steve: I guess not. For live work we have a manager, but for the recordings it’s me, Jo and of course Roger King. We make all the decisions on that side as a ‘musical collective’. We kick the ball around and what we find increasingly is that whenever we try and work with somebody who is a manager : they have their own priorities and although they the ability to make all the right moves in the business, it depends on who you are prioritizing. What tends to happen with managers is that they prioritize one act. Brian Epstein: The Beatles, Tony Smith: Genesis… it seems to work best one on one. But even then, when the band starts to move in different directions, it’s unusual to find somebody who is able to look after everybody equally.
Menno: How do you select your musicians and your crew?
Steve: Well, it’s the context that I’ve made over time and there is some flexibility there. If I suddenly would find these guys couldn’t make it, we’d have to go casting the net again, you know, go fishing for people. I do a fair amount of this myself these days because I don’t trust managers anymore. You know the word ‘inertia’ ? Yes? Alright: you know what happens, is when I rely on a professional, nothing happens and I need to be able to move quickly, give people work where I’m involved with so I like to work with friends. I like to work with people who are gifted and committed and show a kind of friendship, fellowship and camaraderie: it’s all very much part of it…. a certain sense of humor…. all of those things.
Menno: Last time you told me that, in a way, you are a bit jealous of your audiences because they see and hear the complete band with lights and all, and you are on stage hearing mainly your guitar, your voice and just a bit of the band… So, what in it for you?
Steve: Well, for instance last night we were in Verviers and they had a particularly nice light show on stage and I was seeing these lightings being set up and I was aware that on stage I’m hearing the sound and I get some balance but I don’t get the full impact of the show, when the sound is beautiful, the music is beautiful and it looks as it’s supposed to, so all of the magic. When you’re on stage you’re involved in it to such an extent that your part of the ‘magic machine’. Indeed I think that up front in the audience is a good position to be: you don’t have any of the responsibility of the show and you’re taking all of the spirit of it. Indeed I’d often would want to be in the audience, up front, hearing it when it’s going right, but you know, you can’t have everything. What I get out of it? it’s being a wrestler: it’s the challenge to sometimes be able to do the impossible and to be able to surprise myself, allow myself to go off the map, do improvisations. With all improvisations, sometimes I think I’m playing to fast or I’m not playing fast enough, but occasionally I’m really right in the moment and you’re getting glimpses of the perfect musical world and that can be very exciting and to be able to play through the thunder of live performance. It is often thunderously loud! Ever since I saw a band play really loud when I was a kid, I must have been 15 or maybe even sixteen, it seemed to me it was impossible they could control the sound because it was so loud and they were probably not loud at all by comparison to now, but they were in this really big echoing hall and there were no people who’d arrived yet. I guess they were doing the equivalent of a sound check and I thought “it’s the gods of thunder at work”. I wanted to be able to do that. In those days all members of the band were wearing band jackets and ties and all looking pretty much like all bands did in the late fifties and early sixties. The whole scene was a lot more tame!
Menno: Well, now you have Spa water on stage instead of beer or whisky back then!
Steve (laughing): Yes, that’s true, blood on the tracks and Spa water on stage!
Menno: Probably blood on the rooftops too right? The whole live experience: is it still worth it? All the arrangements, the travelling, the stress? Still gives you satisfaction?
Steve: Oh yes, it does! It’s still a wonderful feeling and usually I come off stage feeling adrenalized and buzzing as well as exhausted and purged of all negative feelings, because you’re too tired to be negative. Although, last night when I was trying to get into my hotel room well after midnight and I couldn’t get the door unlocked. It took about half an hour to solve that problem and by that time all my tranquility had gone and I was ready to murder someone (Jo & Steve laughing). So (smiling) I’m not that philanthropic!
Menno: You met the other (former ) members of Genesis when you were introduced to the Hall Of Fame and apparently both of the singers weren’t able to or didn’t want to perform: did you consider to do something instrumental instead, alone or with Mike and Tony? Did it disappoint you that there was no “Genesis” performance?
Steve: Now that’s always the problem whenever a group is involved: Genesis, the ethos. I offered to play with them, I would have loved to play live, but they didn’t want to work live. I could have played a Genesis number on my own and if there would be a next time, I probably will. I think waiting for groups can be a very long and thankless task. As much as I love the guys and all the work we did together, the problem is, after a certain point musicians produce phase cancellation to each other rather than constructive comment.
Menno: You probably don’t see much of each other so did you only do small talk or did you go over serious subjects with the other guys?
Steve: Well I see them occasionally. We were having supper together the night before and I think some honest things were talked about that night. I think it was very nice for me to be able to reconnect with them and also for Jo to meet with them for the first time, because she’d obviously heard a lot about them and grew up listening to their records. Jo said to me she really loved Wind and Wuthering and that was my last album with Genesis.
Jo: Yes, that’s the time I came to know about Genesis.
Steve: After all those years I have the confidence of knowing my contribution to the band wasn’t less than anybody else’s: you know I’ve offered them virtually an album full of material and that turned into a collaboration on four different songs. I had many more musical dreams to fulfill than I could do with the group. So it comes down to the single issue of autonomy. people always ask me why I left and this is it: to be able to function without permission, without committee decisions, without phase cancellations. I think the solo career is the ideal for all artists at some point. If you can work in a group-collective as well: very good, but if you can’t, it wouldn’t surprise me (laughs)!
Menno: tonight’s the last show of this tour: any special surprises like a good lengthy show?
Steve: Well I could go off the map and do some improvisations and give the people something they’d never heard before, but you know, it will be a lengthy concert and we do about half an hour’s worth of new material so that’s totally unknown in the live version anyway. I haven’t been counting but we do six songs of the new album. Another thing is, I enjoy playing more after a few shows whenever we go on tour with a new set list. the first shows I have to work a lot harder to remember everything and once you did a few gigs, it’s all a lot easier.
Menno: After tonight you will have about two months off?
Steve: Well, we have Christmas coming up and I don’t feel we will have time to relax because I know there’ll be a lot going on, there always is. Whenever we’re not on the road we’re even more busy than that we’re on the road because there are a lot of plans, a lot of things to organize. And there’s the internet is making inroads into the world of walking in the woods. I’ll be a special guest on one or perhaps two songs -if I can remember the stuff- with The Musical Box on one show in Switzerland at the end of January. We’ll be touring with this set more in February and start working on some fresh material. I’m not making any announcements but we have a project in mind for the future… so we’ll keep on going!