Steve Hackett: Revisiting The Past

Steve Hackett Band, Weyfest, Farnham, UK, September 2012
Words by Jeb Wright
Photo by Lee Millward

Genesis may be known to the masses as the band Phil Collins helped sell tens of millions of albums around the world, but long, long ago in a record store far, far away, Collins was just the drummer of the band.

Genesis was a true progressive rock band that followed few rules, often breaking them just for fun.

True Prog nerds know that this Genesis was one of the most musical bands in the world. They were afraid of nothing and mixed complex musical knowledge with musical naivety and the bliss of youth to create sounds that are still celebrated by true musicians around the globe.

Hackett, a true guitaist’s guitarist, directly influenced hundreds of axe slingers, most notably Brian May and Eddie Van Halen. Now, he is looking to keep the Progressive era of Genesis alive with his latest album Genesis Revisited II.

In the interview below, Hackett opens up and talks about making the music that he is most famous for, as well as his dedication to his new project.

Jeb: I love Genesis Revisited II. I think and maybe you will disagree, but I think this is even better that the first one. I didn’t expect some of the songs that you included.

Steve: I was going for authenticity rather than variation. These were lesser known songs where the obvious blockbusters were on Genesis Revisited. There were a lot of really great tunes to draw from.

Jeb: Was this a huge undertaking with all of the guests?

Steve: It was a very big undertaking. I was very worried that it wasn’t going to come in on time. We were running it like a military operation, as we had to get all of the vocalists and musicians parts done. It was the largest project that I’ve been involved with coordinating. I didn’t stand alone with that, as I had a team with me. Roger King and my wife Jo were working flat out pulling this in. We were looking very green at the end of this project, as we were worried that we were not going to be on time. We had to lean very heavily on people to get it done. I knew that if one of the people didn’t come through that I could always sing it myself, but we wanted the thing to be driven by the views of lots of different singers.

Jeb: A lot of people have done similar albums for publishing rights. This is nothing like that. This is just a love of that music and a true work of art.

Steve: I would say you are absolutely right. I did this for the love of the music and to keep it alive. Also, I wanted it to be able to be done live when I do it live, which kicks off next year.

I really do still believe in this music. I like the idea of mixing various styles of music within the same song. I think that is what it was all about, the element of surprise. It was rock music at its broadest. There were a lot of subtleties. I think that was part of the appeal of Genesis and was Genesis’ calling card in the first place.

Jeb: You guys would do a three minute song and then a twenty minute song.

Steve: There were no rules. If anything, there was a reticence to be too bluesy that ran contrary to my instinct. I cut my teeth on blues and that is where the sonic developments happened in the world of the electric guitar. There were these European roots that were there with the band, but it was always being uprooted. Phil would kick in with his Big Band influence and his type of syncopation. You would have keyboard stuff that would have harmonies that stretched back five hundred years.

Time signatures can change the way the notes fall and it can change the meaning of any melody. We used to joke with Phil and say, “Here is really straight melody. What would you do to Big Band it?” He would think about it and he would be able to do that to any melody. It would be completely unrecognizable when we were done with it. We were constructively profane in order to not see anything as sacred until it was finished.

Jeb: Was there a bit of nostalgia making this album?

Steve: Oh, of course, there was a lot of nostalgia. What tends to happen with music you love, whether it be music that you were involved with yourself, or the music of your heroes, the cathedrals that other have built…you don’t see it as nostalgia. You see it as totally alive and it really speaks to you. Time doesn’t really come into it as nostalgia, but rather it becomes about getting back to the real thing.

Jeb: The era of Genesis was really unique and it all came about with the unique personalities of the band. Yet, you have done this without those members of the band.

Steve: It is as if each of the songs is an old friend and has its own character. This material has survived many different interpretations. There are jazz bands out there that are totally redoing the stuff in a new way. Symphonies and orchestral suites have been written based on the work of the band. There are also tribute bands, many of whom are very good, indeed. The music seems to have survived that.

Somehow this idea of authenticity was in the back of my mind. I wanted to boldly go where no man has gone before. I was revisiting that planet. I was not repopulating it, but rather changing some of the décor or foliage. There are differences, but I wasn’t going for variation.

I wanted to take something like a memorable guitar melody at the end of “Musical Box,” which, originally was written with a three-part harmony, but it ended up a two part harmony, as the third part got left off when we mixed it at five in the morning in one go—that’s what we were doing in 1971. On this album, I wanted to do it and restore it with that third part.

This is a solo that Brian May mentioned to me as an influence to him. He is Mister Three-Part Harmony Guitar, isn’t he? There is also the two-handed tapping bit, which was an influence to Eddie Van Halen, which I may say so, proudly. I am mentioning two people who are terrific players and their seminal work is what I am talking about. I am thrilled to have sprinkled some fairy dust their way. I think we all draw from each other.

Jeb: Talk about that two hand tapping part and how you came up with it.

Steve: I was trying to play one phrase out of a Bach piece and I realized that the only way I could do that was on one string. The way I did it enabled me to play very quickly on one string, which was tapping. I used it on three Genesis albums and then I put it to one side. I used it a little bit on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and then I did an unaccompanied piece on my solo album where I did it.

You are doing something like a chord, but you can do that technique so fast that the tape will miss some of what you are doing. You will sound like you are missing notes, but if you slow it down, then it is all there. I wasn’t thinking of trying to be the fastest gun in the West, but it was possible to do what I wanted to do only on one string. Until people realized I was doing it on one string they were trying to figure out how I was doing that across the strings.

Jeb: How did you come to have Phil’s son appear on the album?

Steve: I had worked with him on something called Fast Forward the Future, which I felt was terrific. It was some years ago when I worked on that. He approached me when I was on tour in Germany and my schedule was such that I couldn’t stop to even play two notes for him at that time. I felt terrible that I had to leave and do it down the line. We did do it some years later on his album. He agreed to do this for this album and he actually sent his parts through the airways. That happened a lot, where people would work on it in their home studios and then send it to me. It was very much a bit of theme by satellite, really.

Jeb: John Wetton is on the album as well.

Steve: John is a great singer, a great instrumentalist and he has been a great buddy for years. He and I have shown up on each albums many times. It is lovely working with John. There is a big place in my heart for John Wetton. I just love him to death… I should not say that as he has had a few close calls.

Jeb: You picked songs on this album that had great guitar passages. Did you sift through the Genesis songs and purposely look for those songs with killer guitar parts?

Steve: I just chose songs that I liked, first of all, without thinking about the guitar parts, strangely enough. Once I committed upon one course of action, one of the guys at EMI said to me that I should do tracks where the guitar parts were crucial to the plot, so I did. That meant I did a whole other album, which is why the release has two CDs.

Jeb: Talk about some of the cool versions the fans can buy.

Steve: It is available on vinyl. There are four albums, that is eight sides of vinyl if that is your love and your fetish. It is available with downloads. I hope to have more things like a 5.1 mix.

I am doing a lot of talk shows and TV around Europe. I did a BBC World show a couple of months ago. I was sitting there with the ex-President of Pakistan. I was the light entertainment. It went out to a huge audience.

Jeb: Early Genesis has a huge worldwide appeal.

Steve: Many years ago, I had a dream that one in ten Chinamen would own a Genesis album—that is a strange one, isn’t it? You would not believe the amount of fan photo requests we get from Japan. There are many places I have yet to visit where we have a huge fan base.

Jeb: Most music that has mass appeal is simpler. Your music is very complex. Why does it have such a worldwide and lasting appeal?

Steve: I think this is music that doesn’t dumb down. At the time when we did it, it was very complex and I suspect we were doing it for ourselves. We thought we might have an audience but we were not sure.

I suspect that the reason people love it is because it mixes several genres and several generation gaps, dating back five hundred years. I think even Bach would be able to get his teeth into this music. I like to think there will be something in it for musicians now, and for years to come.

We were making up our own rules. In those days we didn’t know how to write the difference between a verse and a chorus. The songs were impassioned and maybe they were better because we didn’t say, “here is the verse, here is the chorus.” We really hadn’t learned how to write hits and I think, in a way, it is part of those songs’ strengths. I try to do that even now.

Jeb: Do you ever listen to this music and wonder how you came up with this at such a young age?

Steve: I know how we came up with it, but I marvel at the ideas that the other guys brought in. We all pitched in with ideas. Some of the guys were better writing spontaneously in front of each other. Other guys tended to bring things in that they had balked at home. We bolted on one thing to another and songs got longer as we played these bridge passages and atmospheric links. The more epic length pieces were done by everyone coming up with their own windows in the same house. I would paint my wall one color and they would paint theirs another color. We didn’t get too intense about it. We passed the ball to each other.

Jeb: You can’t play everything on tour. What kind of chore will it be to come up with the set list and who will be singing on the tour?

Steve: First of all, I will be playing stuff from both of the Genesis Revisited albums. I may play the odd thing that is not on any of the albums. At the launch party, the other day, we did an acoustic medley and I played “After the Ordeal.” Nat Silven, who is going to be doing the largest majority of the signing on the tour, said that we should do that one live because it is so emotional. The song was written as an electric piece but we did it with nylon guitar and piano and it really worked.

Jeb: Have you shared this with any of the original guys from Genesis? If not, will you?

Steve: I won’t be sitting down playing it to them and asking them what they think [laughter]. I really don’t know what they think about it; you’d have to ask them yourself.

Jeb: What a great gift you are giving the fans of early Genesis by taking this out on the road.

Steve: Thank you for saying that. The album charted over here and I am very excited. The tickets for the shows here are going like wildfire, which is fantastic. I’m also looking at doing some stuff in the States. We are going off and doing a cruse with Yes, UK, Saga and Carl Palmer’s band called Cruise to the Edge. I am looking forward to that tremendously. It will be an extraordinary outing for us all. Most of us our friends and I know several people who will be working on it and who will be fellow passengers. We are all literally on the same boat for that one.

Jeb: Will there a be DVD?

Steve: We are doing that. We are doing a London Hammersmith show and I’m looking forward to filming that. I know it will be a show worth seeing.

It will be back to doing larger places and, also, I think we are doing a visual presentation in Europe. I hope we can do that when we do the States. It is an extraordinary thing that we are undertaking. It was a crazy idea when we started talking about it. Zeitgeist is a word I would use to describe it.

I am also writing new material every day as well. I don’t get days off these days, I only get hours off. I get two hours every morning when I get up to write. It is also great to have a record company that allows me to do what I want and it is great to be hitting the bull’s-eye.