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Steve Hackett
Steve Hackett

Steve Hackett: “Everything is possible in music!”

For Prog Rock fans, a question like “What would you like to discuss with Steve Hackett?” is something like suggesting a fashion-conscious lady to select something for herself out of a chest full of treasures. One can do little more than just be taken aback ¬– as there's gold, and diamonds, and so much more… Well, the same thing is meeting one's idol in person... and having to limit your list to just 50 questions! The “soul” and guitar of the cult Seventies Prog Rock band Genesis, a fascinating composer, splendid musician and keen lyricist, Steve Hackett continues his creative effort pleasing us with his solo works. As to me, it's quite a while already that I've been absolutely charmed by his music, especially by the rock albums of the recent decade, which has just been appended with the truly admirable new release – “Out Of The Tunnel’s Mouth”. In general, Steve Hackett's fans have never had a dull moment over the recent time: to name just a few things, note his major contribution to Nick Magnus’ “Children of another God”, as well as his forthcoming projects, including one with Chris Squire, co-founder of Yes, and a rather packed schedule of tours (for instance, a tour together with Renaissance)… I just wonder how Steve Hackett manages to have time for being part of the present-day Internet life – writing regular and really wonderful essays for his website and replying to fans' questions on Facebook? Not to even mention plenty of interviews, so interesting and so different! …In Budapest, where he was taking part – as a friend and “Special guest” – in the anniversary concert of the Hungarian band Djabe, I saw Steve Hackett going out of the band's studio to meet me. And some time later, he was reasoning, in an unhurried and calm manner, upon matters that are probably well known to him already. “Cause I, being spellbound by his speech, was far from attempting to shock this famous musician with the bold eccentricity of my questions. Instead, I was just trying... not to look too silly with my smile!”

OP: First of all let me congratulate you about the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

SH: Oh, thank you!

OP: Of course, because of this fact there were again so many questions about the Genesis reunion. Aren’t you annoyed by that?

SH: I think I’ve made my feelings known to everybody, I live in the public eye, I have no private life. So I could answer in two words: “It’s possible but improbable”… I’ve said if I liked, I would play with them, I’m very happy to do that for a concert or shows, but I think I am not in the driving seat. All I know, it’s very complicated for anyone to do anything with Genesis, whereas personally I prefer simpler situations. But I am still playing the tunes, I am still wanting to work with them for concert tours if they wanted to do it - Phil (Collins – O.P.) is well enough to do that - but I think it’s unlikely. If they want to play together, they will play together, you know.

OP: What is the difference between working in a team like Genesis and working with your own project?

SH: Well… It was the first time I did a solo album, so I was very nervous. The first night I waited in and started recording something. I didn’t know how it was going to work because I had never been in a driving seat before. But the very first type, the very first song that we did was so beautiful! First thing we played was “Hands of the Priestess”, and it’s interesting that, on the second piece, it was the first time my brother ever played flute recorded to a professional standard. And he still does.

OP: It was the first time for John Hackett – it’s unbelievable!

SH: Yeah, unbelievable… That was his debut, and it was my debut as a band leader, and there was no stopping for me after that, and everything sounded exactly the way I wanted it to sound – beautiful 12-strings, beautiful flute... It’s a bit like when you are the captain of a ship: at first you don’t know if you are going or not, if you will strike rocks, or if your ship will get wrecked… Luckily the ship stayed afloat! This is Jo (Joanna Lehmann – OP), my very dedicated partner, and we were talking about it, about those bands that managed to be successful and continue in some form. So, it is possible, but you have to have everyone’s cooperation! Well, I know that Pete (Peter Gabriel – O.P.) felt he wanted to establish a career in his own name rather than with a band, and he has a feeling that it is probably not enough to play with a band these days. But I’ve always looked for the ideal band < I have always been an idealist, I have always been passionate about it! Obviously, I have worked with fabulous people like Brian May of Queen, and, in a couple of occasions, there have been different things, but he is extraordinary! It’s not only Genesis people who can reach great heights, and I have worked with many of them.

OP: For instance, I am highly impressed by John Wetton’s singing of “Firth of Fifth” on “The Tokyo Tapes” show on DVD – for me, his powerful and dramatic voice is perfect for this epic song!

SH: Yeah, John Wetton – I know what you mean! I thought the version of Firth of Fifth where he sang was actually the best vocal version of it – I have to agree with you!

OP: But I miss the piano introduction in this version of the song…

SH: It was without the piano introduction on the live version, because I wanted to honor the original, but also wanted to take it somewhere else as well - so it was done in a “Russian ballet” style, if you know what I mean. The Russians have a unique ability to use the orchestra on a very small scale, and sometimes it enters very suddenly. They use it from time to time. Also it was a version of the beginning on Emerald and Ash from the new album, where you’ve got a very subtle way of using orchestra instruments. Tchaikovsky was an influence on it, Stravinsky, Prokofyev – you know, the traditional circle of great Russian composers. It’s incredibly contemporary, as Bach, Chopin and other great composers – so many roots!

OP: On a personal level, what do you find in the music of the Russian composers? It’s interesting for me because there is a strong opinion that, first of all, it is very dramatic…

SH: Well, you know, the Tchaikovsky piano concerto in B-flat minor, the first one - that glorious melody (and there are at least two glorious melodies). They seem to express all the sadness in the world, and can make you regret that you can’t fly. Everything is possible in music! It can convey so much melancholy, and then turn it into triumph… It’s very close to my own feelings about music.

OP: Steve, if it was possible, what question would you like to ask Johann Sebastian Bach?

SH: Oh, Bach – maybe how is it possible to be the most vigorously trained musician of all times! He wrote the Chaconne and I’ve recorded a version of it… Did you hear the album called “Tribute”?

OP: Yes, of course!

SH: That I thought I’ve never recorded, maybe one piece of Bach before Sarabande and Bourree, and I am not trained to do this stuff. But I thought I would start with the most difficult piece at the beginning…That’s, you know, climbing the highest mountain to start off with, and I thought: “If I can do that, I can do the rest!” There was one thing I was the most proud of –coming back to classical music time and time again.

OP: And as to composing something “classical”, like the “Galadriel” track from the recent Marco Lo Muscio’s album called “The Book of Bilbo & Gandalf” – I enjoy your acoustic guitar playing there…

SH: Acoustic, that’s right!

OP: Was it your own choice of this character, - Galadriel, - from “The Lord of the Rings” for your musical story?

SH: Yes! And I was thinking of Tchaikovsky, really. That piece goes ideally with an orchestral harmony. I’m trying to do whole of it on the acoustic guitar.

OP: Steve, what do you think about the possibility of doing your show with an electric band and an orchestra on the same stage – I mean the songs from your “rock” albums first of all. I am sure it would be great!

SH: I haven’t done it yet because economically it hasn’t been feasible. I’m talking with someone who might be interested in doing something with an orchestra, so it might be possible… But whether it would be electric guitar, acoustic guitar or all together, I don’t know. Well, on the very first album I made before Genesis (with the band called Quiet World) we were able to work with the London Symphony Orchestra, and it was the first professional album I have ever done! I was nervous and had no idea that we would be working with the most famous orchestra in England, at that time, early 1970s. And for the guy who did the arrangements for the orchestra – a guy called Phil Henderson, - it that was also a debut, and he was working with this famous orchestra! Since then he has been trying to do something in the same vein (The Philip Henderson Orchestra features on Steve Hackett's “Feedback” 1986 album – OP).

OP: Another question, maybe from the same “before the Genesis” era: now on your YouTube page ( I’ve seen some rare and funny videos with you: “Steve swallows his harmonica by Jan Vogels” and “Steve Hackett in The Park”. They made me smile, so what was it?

SH: Well, I was 18 years old, I was being directed by someone else, and I didn’t write the script… So, yeah – it’s a funny video with me (laugh)! Yes, it was beer, glasses, I was 18 and friends of mine used to make short films. And I was sometimes, you know, an actor before that, but I didn’t have the scripts written, so we were just kids messing around. It’s like a home video, home movies. Well, everyone thought I was always a serious musician, you know, so that shows that I am just like everyone else (smiles).

OP: We always thought it about all of Genesis members – “Yeah, they are VERY serious musicians”. Once I even read something like a “legend” about Genesis tour in the USA with presentation of “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”. It tells that your American security left you because it was too boring a job for them: it was only museums and talks about music, and you (and the band) didn’t behave yourself like “Crazy Rock Stars”!

SH: No, I’m not! Media always ask that question – I‘m not a rock’n’roll star, not at all! That’s right, the band wasn’t like that, they are very nearly normal, we’d like to say (smile). You know, each of the guys I saw in the band could sing, they could make you a VIP - each one of the guys was capable of doing that, so it was incredibly talented collection of guys! They were all ordinary and extraordinary guys at the same time - extraordinary in a creative sense, I mean. The band had a very broad base approach, really eclectic, different influences from jazz to classical music, folk music, blues - all sort of things influenced that early version of Genesis and the music could have been like ‘world fusion’. I still think that the early years of that band were very challenging. I think it was a very good beginning for everyone, and, when I look back – it’s incredibly inspiring, and also very frustrating, because what I really feel is that Genesis should have become …an orchestra! Since then, since Genesis, I’ve played Bach, I’ve played jazz, I’ve played with orchestras, I’ve done all sort of things, but it is Genesis in a way that drives me and makes me extraordinary.

OP: Steve, you really produce absolutely extraordinary albums, and I was very happy to listen to the new one – “Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth”!

SH: Glad you liked it! You know, you take a chance with each album: you get one idea at a time, and you put it together with others like a jigsaw puzzle, thinking that it shouldn’t belong together, but actually it fits. Yeah, it’s really like a puzzle - there are a lot of different styles of music, but sometimes it might be just a chord… I was working with Nick Magnus on his album. Do you know that one?

OP: Oh – “Children of another God” – it’s absolutely magical album…

SH: Yes, that’s right and he said “I’ve been working with this chord that we used to write at the time of “Defector”, “Highly Strung”… Then he and I were working together and it was like a sort of “variation on a mind and a chord” and I said, “Yeah, you know, this is really like a lovely chord! It’s a wonderful chord to improvise around!” Actually you don’t find it very often in other people’s music, cause it’s a very dissonant kind of chord. So after I played in his album, I thought: “Well, he likes that chord, I still like that chord, let’s see if I can write something that might be a tune that the sax player might do!” And on Ghost in the Glass (in an “electric” tune) it can be heard again: it’s made for jazz instruments, but the sax would do it equally well. It’s almost like film music: some chord seems to tell a story, you know, and sometimes they are in doubt as to what “words” to use there, but that chord was absolutely “alienated”. We often face such things, and life itself makes the choice.

OP: Steve, your new album is perfect for me – it has all sorts of things which I like in your music, from the brilliant melodies and your vocal to the guitar passages and beautiful “harmonic” choirs. And only after several listening to it I understood that there isn’t your “demonic voice” (like for example on “Darktown”). Did your “monsters” disappear?

SH: No monster voice? Yeah, maybe! I have some for the future - I can be very demonic and do that “demonic” thing (laughs)! I actually enjoy demonic music, I think it’s the best place to be demonic! It’s just in music – it harms nobody.

OP: When you play guitar we can feel that the notes really become something more than just music… For instance, every time when you play the brilliant solo from “Firth of Fifth” it seems that the “soul” of Genesis is here…

SH: Yeah, it was something beautiful, wasn’t it? It’s a lovely tune, it’s glorious! That wasn’t my tune (it was Tony Banks’, who also wrote the lyrics), but it was my interpretation of it.

OP: And what is the best way (on your opinion) for the interpretation of Genesis songs by modern bands – trying to be very close to the original versions, or doing something absolutely unlike them?

SH: When I play that stuff live, we don’t do it exactly the same, we leave room for other things. Well, I realized, that the trouble is that the music becomes like the Gospel, you know, becomes carved in stone – as The Beatles, for instance, and the Love album. I like the idea of changing the sounds around, as in the Within You, Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows songs – I find they are clever! I enjoy that, but the tribute are bands never going do that sort of stuff, because it would be like messing with someone else’s childhood, you know. Originals couldn’t do that sort of stuff.

OP: There are several Genesis tribute bands now which try to replicate the legendary shows of the Seventies as close to Genesis as possible. I know that you played with one of them, The Musical Box. So, do you like this idea?

SH: Yeah, I played Firth of Fifth with them at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I believe Phil played with them at a subsequent concert, and, you know, Pete went along to see them at one point… So, they do it very well, and promoters are always trying to get me to go and do the same thing, but the whole sort of recreation of the past doesn’t mean doing exactly the same job over and over again. I don’t know how, but a progressive way inspires me…

OP: Steve, you collaborate with really brilliant, successful and famous musicians. So, as the captain of your musical ship, can you say “I know what I like” and ask them to change, or even to “re-write” their musical pieces for your album if you don’t get exactly what you want?

SH: There are a lot of different ways to put an album together. Maybe I used to be much more organized than I am now (smile)… Well, I am not a musical dictator! If somebody does a solo, for instance, someone like Rob Townsend, he might do 3 or 4 solos. We choose the best and edit it. On “Last Train to Istanbul”, my brother played a flute solo in which he “distorted” the flute, so that it sounded like an electric violin or something else… But the solo was written! It was actually Roger King who wrote it… Rob Townsend wrote his own solo, I wrote… Well, it’s the way it works! And I am feeling that I’m starting up, I always feel this, every day in music! Yeah, I’m still practicing in music, but I am like a kid… And it’s music as well that keeps me going, keeps me as young as you can be at my age.

OP: Oh, I am almost speechless… We wish you to always keep these feelings in your beautiful music! Thank you very much for your time, I was really happy to meet you and Joanna here in Budapest… And I am looking forward to the concert!

SH: Thank you too, Olga, and the very best wishes to your readers!

Djabe & Steve Hackett: Just Tell Me Who Your Friend Is!

The Djabe team from Hungary often accompanies Steve Hackett on his musical path, and on the 17th May, in the Budapest Art Hall, Hackett, as well as other musicians, sang to congratulate his friends on the band’s 15th anniversary. And it looks like it was only an “opening” to this year's season of their working together! “Djabe” means “freedom” in the Ashanti language, and these really splendid musicians feel absolutely free in the “steppe” of Jazz-Folk Fusion. The whole 3-hour concert was like an enthralling journey accompanied by the fascinating music played by the band and guest musicians who used to perform with Djabe. Steve Hackett came on stage – modestly, without any trumpets or pompous announcements – and played three compositions. Rather interesting arrangements were presented for the famous solo from Firth of Fifth, and such compositions as In That Quiet Earth and Steppes: into the familiar texture of these “classic” pieces, Steve and Djabe have interwoven bright and somewhat unexpected “threads”. Well, the musicians have apparently found a sort of common language! Steve Hackett even referred to Djabe as “the best team I've ever played with”. “It's great honour for us,” says the band's founder, guitarist Attila Egerhazi, who has admired Hackett's talent for a long time. The violinist from Djabe, Ferenc Kovacs, took part in recording the maestro’s latest album, “Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth”. And Steve Hackett even mastered a new folk instrument thanks to Djabe! It's the Indonesian angklung – an instrument looking like a hybrid between a music stand and a stool, and producing a very distinctive sound. And, when all participants of this anniversary concert, as an encore, stepped out with a vigorous mini-performance with that “hayfork”, – the audience went crazy! But I kept looking at the guitar in Steve Hackett's hands, and thinking: OK, improvising and offering a new interpretation of some well-known works by Steve, Genesis and Djabe – that's good of course. And yet... Aren't the musicians longing for something better than that? “The band has been around for 15 years already, and we certainly have a clear idea of the capabilities of each of us as pertains to music. On the new album being currently recorded by Djabe, we are even more interested in creating something out of the ordinary. There, Steve Hackett's art will be represented more widely than ever before. And that won't be limited to solo pieces…” – Well, looks like Attila's reading my mind! Besides, he's preparing for August concerts that will be held in Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia (Kaliningrad) – and featuring Steve Hackett!

“Love” is a Grammy Award-winning soundtrack remix album of music recorded by The Beatles, released in November 2006. It was produced by George Martin and his son Giles Martin.

OP=Olga Potekhina, July 22, 2010

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