Steve Hackett Revisited, Part 1
Steve Hackett is best known as the lead guitarist in Genesis from 1970 to 1977. He embarked on a solo career while still in that group, releasing his first album, Voyage of the Acolyte in 1975. Since that time he has continued to work as a solo artist, in collaboration with others and (briefly in the 1980s) co-fronting GTR with Yes / Asia guitarist Steve Howe. I first interviewed Hackett around the time of the release of his 2010 album Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth. That album – featuring guest appearances by King Crimson‘s John Wetton, among others – was informed by Hackett’s then-recent breakup of his marriage.
These days he’s on much happier footing, and married to Jo Lehmann. A 2015 biographical film, Steve Hackett: The Man, The Music brings his story up to date, and his current “Acolyte to Wolflight” tour with Genesis Revisited tour ties together the disparate strains of his fascinating musical career. I spoke to him as he readied himself for the tour.
Bill Kopp: I think it’s interesting that so many of the most highly-regarded British musicians of your generation (and even those a bit older) grew up with music in their homes. Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney both had dads who were semi-professional or professional musicians, John Lennon was taught guitar by his mother, and your dad played harmonica. What qualities in your own music do you attribute to that background beyond an awareness of and appreciation for music?
Steve Hackett: You’re absolutely right. My dad was able to get a tune out of a number of things, really. He was good on harmonica, and he dabbled with clarinet and bugle. He could do one-finger piano. I was very impressed, as a kid. And I think like the people you mentioned, when your introduction to music is via your father, and it comes from within the family, it just seems to be as natural as breathing.
Also, many years later after harmonica, my dad brought me a guitar from Canada. By the time I was 12 I was able to get my arms around it.
BK: In The Man, The Music DVD you discuss your early love of classical and opera, alongside blues and rock ‘n’ roll. That’s fairly unusual for a musician of your generation. Do you thin it was the sort of wide-screen appreciation for different musical genres that led to you getting involved in progressive music?
SH: I think so, yeah. The best of progressive combines genres. It’s a collision of so many different styles. And it’s an attempt, I think, to bridge a generation gap or two. So I don’t have a problem with listening to pretty much any genre of music; it’s who’s doing it for me. If it was country, then I’d be thinking of Roy Orbison or k.d. lang, and loving that. And early records – things like Slim Whitman – that my dad had around.
BK: The Genesis: Sum of the Parts documentary DVD that came out last year was remarkable in that it brought all of the Genesis guys back together, if only for the discussion parts of the film. I think that without explicitly stating it, those group conversations illustrated the tensions that led to the classic-era group splitting…
SH: I think there always was an underlying tension within Genesis; it was always a very competitive band. I think that sometimes that competition produced very good work. Other times, I think that it managed to block very good ideas coming out not just from me, but from everybody.
BK: You’ve had a long and very successful collaborative relationship with Roger King. The Man, The Music discusses that, but it doesn’t explain how you got together. Tell me a bit about that.
SH: We met several years ago, and originally I was going to do some writing for a German artist. It didn’t come to pass. Roger happened to live round the corner, so that was the qualification. Of course I found out over time that he was brilliant at a number of things. He had been a classical organ scholar, playing cathedrals. He was also an engineer; we shared a love of all sorts of things. He was particularly keen – at least when I first met him – on Stravinsky and the atonal stuff, the more experimental end of classical. And he professed not to enjoy the romantics at all. But in recent years he’s gone back to taking piano lessons; he’s trying to get a grip on Chopin, on playing very, very quietly. And he tells me how difficult it is to do that, to put the exact right amount of pressure on the piano keys. So I think he’s got a sneaking respect.
BK: I found it interesting that in The Man, the Music, you characterized Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins as being a self-contained “power trio” within Genesis, and you seemed to characterize yourself and Peter Gabriel as being musical outsiders who had to struggle to find a way into the arrangements. Am I summarizing that accurately?
SH: I think you are, yes. Often the three of them would come up with very dense arrangements: busy keyboard parts, busy drum parts, not to mention bass or 12-string. If you’re a singer, you’re going to end up – I’m trying to put this politely – it’s a bit like throwing up all over it in order to make your presence felt. For me as a guitarist, I realized that I was not going to be allowed to play heroically over everything. So I had to look for a way that the guitar could be used in a subtle kind of manner.
A few years before we got a synthesizer – it’s a very old word now, synthesizer; it was ’73 when we first got one – then it was my role to do what synths would do later. In other words, it was an attempt to be all sorts of things, to imitate all sorts of thing. Take a musical box, or the human voice or a violin from time to time. So that colored my approach, and I know that Peter Gabriel called me a “colorist.”
And I think that stood me in good stead, because I’m using that this very day. I’m recording at home with Roger, and sometimes it’s the more subtle things that work. I don’t always power in with everything; I’m not trying to be heavy metal.