Dave Woodhall talks to legendary guitar hero and technical innovator Steve Hackett.
Steve Hackett was Genesis guitarist during their critically-acclaimed period from 1971-77 and his solo career has seen him recorded with artistes as unlikely as Randy Crawford and Nik Kershaw as well as contemporaries Chris Squire and Steve Howe, amongst others. His album Genesis Revisited II is a reworking of many of the songs Steve did with the band. It’s released on 25th October and will be followed in the New Year by a world tour which calls at Symphony Hall on 16th May. Steve told us about this latest project.
“It was recorded between January and August and it’s around 150 minutes, probably the longest album anyone’s ever done. I’ve had a lot of Genesis tunes in my set recently and I wanted to do an authentic rendition from the ‘71-77 era when I was with the band, other than that it’s just a huge excuse to go out and play songs I love and grew up with. Even though I was part of the writing team lots of these songs still blow me away. I’ve not done any research in an analytical way, there’s a kind of concensus, certain tracks come up time and again in conversations I have with Genesis fans. In a way it’s an attempt at a shameless crowd pleaser. “
Anyone hoping for a traditional Genesis sound will be relieved to know that Steve hasn’t strayed too far from the purist’s outlook. Supper’s Ready won’t be a dance re-mix and neither will we see a thrash metal Return of the Giant Hogweed.
“I didn’t feel the need to do a jazz or a dance album featuring clips from the original, I didn’t want to cloak it and mask it. For the first Genesis Revisited in 1996 I felt the need to re-invent things but this time I’ve gone for some variation although authenticity is the key. I’ve changed some of the internal details but it’s the same arrangements. You might get more vocal or the odd chord change in the guitar but in the main I wanted these songs to be recognisable as a calling card for people who are buying tickets for the show.”
Genesis pioneered the idea of a rock gig as more than a collection of songs. You had light shows, incredible costume designs and sets, leaning more towards theatre.
“I’m going to do it with all the bells and whistles, with screens, lights, so it’s not just a purist attempt to see it all from the guitar stool. I’m trying to see it from a different perspective than that – what is it that attracted people in the first place, what is it that made a difference to Genesis tunes in the early days. Why did people walk out when we first played them and why did they stay later, after around 1973 when we had a charismatic singer and a sympathetic light show, a Mellotron, all the sort of things that made rock theatre, authentic and feasible for a much wider audience.”
Steve’s been making solo albums for over thirty years and his recent stuff is as innovative and criticially acclaimed as anything he’s done previously. It must grate with such a conscientious musician that he’s working as hard as ever while some of his contemporaries can coast along and still rack up commercial success.
“I have two views of commercialism. Either you think you have to dumb down to write a successful song, with one eye on the market place and one hand on a guitar, or you take the view, as Mike Giles of King Crimson once told me, that if you do what comes naturally, if you’re doing stuff true to yourself, all those other things follow as a result of what you believe in. People ask how I feel about leaving Genesis before their huge success in the eighties and the hit singles and I think yes, success is desirable but not if it’s at the expense of the music you really believe in, and I did believe in the power of our albums to transform people in a way that you may have a hit single, but that’s really it. The first thing I think of when I’m mounting a live show is how do we put on something of class, something that’s unforgettable? I may be sounding precious, but songs should be written by someone who cares about instrumentation as much as the value of words, and if you believe in every aspect of the song then you do have something of worth and that’s probably the reason Genesis music has survived for decades.”
The album must naturally revive talk of the classic Genesis line-up reforming, last mooted in 2007.
“Phil has retired has to all intents, but if he comes out of that it might be possible. I’ve always been up for it but it becomes more unlikely with each passing year. The last time we spoke about it was before they reformed as a three piece. We talked about doing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway as a musical, I had no problem with the length of the tour – I was flexible about whether it was four dates or forty, but it started to get very precious when talking to other members of the band. I feel Genesis was all of us and real Genesis for me was obviously the era I was able to influence, whether it was the light show, or the songs, to get the synth or Mellotron, which was high-tech at the time, when this labyrinthine music began and people wouldn’t walk off to the bar. But I think I’ve been the most accommodating when it comes to reforming. I’ve suggested to the others, tell me when and where, if you want me just to play harmonica that’s fine. I don’t care what eras the songs are from, I don’t mind playing Abacab – I might want to do a steaming guitar solo on it. If it was the five of us I’d have been fine, had it been casting a wider net and including other members of the band that would have been fine, but all those things don’t move the guys who are the keepers of the keys.”
One of your great influences growing up was the blues. Would you ever think about going on stage and doing a full-on blues set?
“I’ve got great reverence for the music and hearing something like BB King’s s 3am Blues for the first time was fabulous. Maybe one day – I’m writing every day, that’s what I do. A full blues set? Yes, one day. You have to have a great singer, though. You can do what Led Zep did with their early stuff, what Jeff Beck did with Rod Stewart, what the Stones did. All those singers had a degree of attitude, a certain kind of strength. They were all charismatic and they still are.”
Talking of singing, you’ve started handling the vocals on your recent albums. How did that come about?
“I do most of the singing now. I’m not a bad singer these days working within the confines of my own stuff. However, on my last album (2011’s Beyond the Shrouded Horizon) I had a country influenced-number and I was able to sing in a way that country singers perform, with a lot of vibrato and with quite a higher voice than usual. I like the way country singers, guys like Marty Robbins, can tell a story with their voice.”
It must have come as a surprise to anyone who saw your career evolve that you’re now working with eighties pop stars such as Nick Beggs from Kajagoogoo and Nik Kershaw.
“Nick is a fabulous virtuoso bass and stick player who’s worked with John Paul Jones, as I did some years ago. Nick grew up with prog, then that faded and he was into the eighties in all his glory as a pop star but he had abilities way beyond those requirements so he schooled himself, worked hard to become credible to an earlier generation of musicians and started working with people like Steve Howe and Maddy Prior. Nik Kershaw is also undergoing something of a reappraisal and his best stuff is on radio again. It’s a very exciting time in music. People have become individually empowered with their own technology, your own website, your own TV or radio station. A lot of mainstream bands are now therefore progressive in spirit, bands will have a sample of Prince then go off into a piece of Chopin on the same album, and there are all those formats out there was well, CD, MP3, downloads, vinyl. The Luddites are satisfied, as are the technocrats.”
Going back to the upcoming tour, it does seem as though you’re dropping a hint to Messrs Collins, Gabriel, Rutherford and Banks.
“It’s unlikely, but maybe they’ll do it and leave me out and that’ll serve me right. But I have been waiting for a long time and every time I make a constructive suggestion it seems that if I say ‘blue’ someone else will say ‘black.’ In the meantime the star of the show is the music, not me or the others. All the guys I work with are stars because they’re good but if you love this music it’s ready for you now. It’ll be an extraordinarily emotional thing for me, just to hear those words ‘Can you tell me where my country lies’. It’s emotional stuff.”