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The Catalyst interview: Steve Hackett

Bill DeYoung

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Steve Hackett will appear Saturday, March 2 at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Photo: Lee Millward.

Up there on the Mount Rushmore of progressive rock guitarists, Steve Hackett is best known for his lengthy 1970s stint in Genesis, England’s artiest and arguably most envelope-pushing prog unit.

Hackett’s innovative, fleet-fingered style gave life to a handful of prog’s most revered records, including Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and A Trick of the Tail.

It was during those heady days of discovery and ambition that Hackett pioneered the soloing technique known as tapping, wherein the guitar’s fretboard is tapped with the fingers of both hands, rather that plucked or strummed.

A restless musician, Hackett left Genesis following 1976’s Wind & Wuthering; his career as a solo artist (and as a collaborator with the likes of Steve Howe of Yes, and later with Chris Squire of the same band) has roamed and ranged over the decades. He has composed and recorded, for example, a half-dozen classical albums.

His latest, the just-released The Circus and the Nightwhale, is like many Hackett projects conceptual in nature.

The tour that brings Hackett and his band to Ruth Eckerd Hall Saturday (March 2) carries the official title Genesis Revisited – Foxtrot at Fifty + Hackett Highlights.

Find tickets here.

 

St. Pete Catalyst: You’ve described your new solo album as a ‘rite of passage concept album,’ and then insisted it’s not really autobiographical. What do you mean?

Steve Hackett: Well, it’s really a companion piece to the book I brought out about three years ago [A Genesis in My Bed]. It starts in 1950, with snippets of radio from that time, the BBC, what things sounded like in the years before rock ‘n’ roll. Snippets of adverts, radio tuning-in, radio static, all of that … than a woman saying ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ from the BBC show Listen With Mother. Then you get a baby’s cry. Overlaid with a steam train starting up, then the steam train becomes a string orchestra, then that becomes a rock band. At the same time, Big Ben is tolling.

The first track is called ‘Smoke,’ which has been a nickname for London since the 1800s. Very polluted, post-war, overpopulated, in recovery, rationing was still on … and I grew up opposite the Battersea Power Station, which was the biggest building in Europe. It provided light and heat for half of London. And was to become, of course, Pink Floyd’s album cover with the flying pig. But the building itself is huge. And these days, you can take an elevator up inside one of the smokestacks. There were four huge ones. You take it right up to the top and you get this 360-degree view of London. And I could look right at the apartments that I grew up in, until I was 7.

It’s all of that that kicks of the album, descriptions of bomb sites and pollution and the industrial aspect of it. So you get a rock band that’s industrial as well, you get all of those moments and then there’s a little bit of an a cappella moment where the singers are talking about the glories of the fairground, as opposed to the black and white world that I grew up in. Heavily polluted. I had lots of chest problems when I was a kid.

That’s what kicks off the album. It’s like a rite of passage, It goes through what it was like, those early years being at school, with an Artful Dodger-type character teaching me to play poker, and to smoke at the age of 9, and steal and become a young pyromaniac. All of those things that are so important when you’re a kid and you hope you don’t get found out.

Then there’s young love, your first girlfriend, your first romantic involvement and all that, and then the next rite of passage was having failed at being the world’s greatest lover, joining Genesis. Five years later. And that’s the aspect of the circus, and how wonderful it was to be part of the circus but how restricting it became, in a short space of time once the band was an international success.

That’s maybe the first half of the album.

 

It’s been getting lots of attention and pretty great reviews.

I seem to be fitting the bill for validating this old, unhip form of progressive music! The fact that I’ve invested in it to such a large degree – the pan-genre approach is what interests me. Music that is full of surprises, instead of formula. So lots of surprises, lots of different styles of music.

You know, I always think that I’m making some epic film. And it’s up to me. If George Lucas can do it, can I do it with mere audio? That’s how I see it. I want things to be surprising. Musical surprises, and scenery that is shifting. In your mind, when the music stands out at you and tells the story, and you get beautiful harmonies, you get shredding guitar, you get all sorts of things. So I think it’s the best-produced album I’ve done. It seems to be finding its mark.

 

You’ve said over the years that other musicians have told you they were inspired by classic-era Genesis. Does it mean something to you that people are still going on about music that you wrote and played 50 years ago?

Genesis, from left: Steve Hackett (guitar), Mike Rutherford (bass, guitar), Peter Gabriel (vocals, flute), Phil Collins (drums) and Tony Banks (keyboards). Photo: Atlantic Records.

Someone who’s into astrology wrote that Aquarians are supposedly 50 years ahead of their time. Now, we had three Aquarians in Genesis – myself, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. And we had an Aquarian manager, too. What was going on there? Isn’t that strange? Maybe it’s just mere coincidence, but I like to think it took a while.

I came up with tapping in 1971, on Nursery Cryme, and it’s on all those Genesis albums. We used to do harmony tapping – so I’d be doing tapping, Tony (Banks) on keyboards would be playing something in harmony with me, and it became part of the Genesis sound. We could’ve done more of it, of course, and then we would’ve become Emerson, Lake & Palmer!

But it’s a way of playing fast all on one string, and then jumping around and all of that, so there was sweep-picking … all these techniques are part of the dictionary of rock now – shredders have to be at least conversant with these terms, even if they don’t use the techniques all the time.

But it’s a way of playing very fast. Being the fastest gun in the west. Tapping. There it is.

 

You’re very proud of that material, aren’t you? In addition to your other work, you’ve revisited the Genesis stuff again and again, live.

Yes, I am proud of it. I’m proud of what the band achieved, and I’m even more proud of the fact that I heard just recently that John Lennon said – in the era of 1972/73 – that he thought that Genesis were true sons of the Beatles.

And that can’t be bought.

It depends how you look at early Genesis, you know? All the guys who were in that band at the time, and stayed with the band and went on to greater success, I think the idea of that early era of full-of-surprises as being an abandoned place. Something that bands did when they were students.

But for me, it’s hang on a minute, if Lennon liked it enough to say that, then we were on to something. It was rather wonderful to know that we were one of the bands that he was listening to.

 

Good music lasts, that’s the truth of it.

Yeah, I think a lot of stuff still sounds great. Sometimes I’ll say to myself ‘Well, maybe the production could have been more wonderful. Which is why it works live, of course, ‘cause you’ve got the power of all of that. But the power of the ideas, whatever techniques limit you at the time, the world of the imagination was never limited. For people like Bach – what are we still listening to, the music of Bach and all those classical geniuses. It’s because it’s great music. It’s beyond the publicity handout. It’s because you discover it yourself; no one has to force it down your throat. There’s no peer pressure of loving that stuff!

 

You play rock, and prog, classical music, blues, jazz, world stuff, acoustic guitar – what’s closest to you?

You know what, it’s all close to me. When I grew up, I was just listening to electric guitars at first. Simple tunes. And once guitar began to develop sonically, all the advances were being made in the blues.

As I progressed, I started to listen to other instruments. Working with a young Phil Collins on drums and thinking ‘My God, I’ve never heard any drummer sound so loud in a room.’ Instantly, I had to change my amp to be able to be heard above that.

Many years later, I worked with percussionists in Brazil. I thought ‘I’ve got to do something that’s total immersion in rhythm and percussion, to try and understand how this works.’ One man, one drum, and they work together in teams. Samba schools, different rhythm and all of that.

A jazz drummer does something else. He makes a lot of sounds with a smaller kit. He won’t just hit a cymbal, he’ll make all these different sounds with cymbals. He will use finger clicks. He’ll take it right down. He’ll use a smaller kit, but less is more, that was the idea.

When I was young, I would think ‘What’s the point of a rain stick? Or a triangle?’ And then you realize that once you get involved with orchestration, everything has got its place. There’s no such thing as a useless instrument.

No such thing as a useless stomp box or echo unit. That’s just pure prejudice. No such thing! They’ve all got their purpose.

 

 

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