Taken from Broward Palmbeach (Apr 02, 2014)
Steve Hackett Calls Genesis "a Very Competitive Band"
by David Von Bader
Photo by Lesley Wood
Genesis, in its Peter Gabriel-fronted, "classic" iteration, was possibly the most creative, intellectually stimulating, and inspired band of the entire first wave of British progressive rock. There was the weight of albums that displayed the group's uncanny propensity for long-winded (yet never idle) sonic explorations and the perfectly wrought lyrical content that traveled deftly between epics of science fiction and gritty. Also, the colorfully rendered social commentary and the dynamic, visceral assault brought to the music by each of the band's five virtuosos. Early Genesis was an absolute force of nature who's legacy survives mythologically.
Guitarist Steve Hackett played no small role in developing the sound of those records. While Gabriel's dramatic voice and performances and Phil Collins' percussive prowess seem to be at the center of most Genesis discussions, Hackett's flare for pioneering unique techniques (two-handed tapping, off-kilter effects) inarguably changed the way the guitar has been approached for decades while fueling the rock side of Genesis' prog.
See also: The Musical Box: A Look Back at The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Since the first lineup of Genesis imploded, Hackett has spent his time releasing a mountain of criminally underrated guitar records (Voyage of the Acolyte is considered a forgotten masterwork by many). He did a brief stint collaborating with Steve Howe of Yes in the '80s with the short-lived GTR. But most recently, the guitarist took the time to rerecord and revisit a slew of early Genesis opuses in a light he deems more fitting for the ideas and concepts found on those hallowed tracks.
Hackett will be bringing his Genesis Revisited show to Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, April 5, and took the time to speak with us about everything from his motivations in revisiting the albums to hopes of an early lineup reunion. Here is part one.
New Times: It's a pretty unheard of to reinterpret and rerecord a canon as revered -- let alone as complex -- as that of Genesis' first period. Can you tell me a bit more about your motivations for doing it? I know you've said you were unhappy with the original recordings, but could you elaborate a bit?
Steve Hackett: Right. Well, I think from the band's point of view... Let's put it this way, if you asked everyone individually if they were happy with what they did 40 years ago, Phil would tell you that he was unhappy with the drums because the way we used to work was we'd record it to death until he was completely exhausted and then it would be a good take for everyone else. He was unhappy with that kind of stuff at the time.
Personally, to be able to get it in time and in tune at the same time was a tremendous spur towards doing these rerecordings. Also, the idea of expanding the palette available; in other words, real strings at times, the use of the occasional orchestral instrument. Plus, the idea of not having really a fixed team as such doing it but throwing it open to the possibility of the whole world of singers. In a sense, there's safety in numbers.
A lot of singers are sort of, "Oh, if I do this, I'll be up against Pete [Gabriel] and Phil [Collins] and all that" and a lot of people were quite intimidated by that, but I said, "Well actually, you'd be one of a whole bunch of people. There's 30 to 40 people on this album." So in a way there's not so much heat for anybody replacing one of their favorite heroes. Beyond that, I think I'm a different player to the one who worked with Genesis all those years ago. To say that I was technically more capable now would probably be an understatement.
I do realize that from another point of view, of course, messing with people's childhoods, if they considered what they heard then to be gospel -- I could understand why that would not sit too well. But on the other hand, people who had not really heard much of the band's early work are coming to it fresh.
I think, if you start comparing versions, I think those rerecords come out quite favorably. Also, I wanted to tour the Genesis show, and the best way to relearn a number and to teach it to people is to rerecord it; I always find that's the best way. And then it's your part. This is what you should do here, because some of those numbers are extremely complex: It's not "Bye Bye Johnny," and you can't get it in five minutes! It takes for new band members studying this stuff about three months of head-down study. It took me three months to really relearn the stuff in order to be able to go up and do it, a show anywhere approaching two to two and a half hours, with the capability of playing three hours of Genesis stuff. It means we can rotate numbers; we have some license with that.
There were a staggering number of people involved in recording Genesis Revisited II. How did you go about fielding players and guests?
Yeah, it was a long recruiting drive for it. Luckily, most of those people were friends, and many of them I worked with before, so it made it easier. Just choosing people from bands that were influenced by Genesis -- it wasn't hard to find people who had been influenced by the band and people who play and sing wonderfully themselves. Luckily, I think because we're going back a very long way... We are going back how many years is it now? Forty years to 1971, when I first joined in the beginning of that year, so luckily I've had a long time to think about how these numbers perhaps ought to have sounded.
Of course, I'm sympathetic to anyone who thinks for instance what the Beatles did in the 1960s was absolutely gospel, and I'm sympathetic to that few. So I'm happy to take those early versions with all their timing and tuning discrepancies; you know that's a given. But at that time, of course, the Beatles had tremendous manpower on tap to be able to use the world's best orchestras and players, so they made their conscious decisions back then.
Genesis, by comparison, is a band that tended to get smaller and smaller and use other people less and less, with one notable exception I think with the use of Earth, Wind & Fire's brass section. But, you know, I think that's about the only time. That makes for a limited palette with colors, I think. Better to have a wonderful flute player, like my brother -- who Pete was very complimentary about recently, about John [Hackett]. Better to have guys who are specialists in certain fields.
Your playing has very obviously progressed an immense amount over the years, and it shows a great deal on the rerecords.
I'd like to think so, yeah! Just the use of finger vibrato alone isn't something I was able execute properly back in the day. It took me decades to get together whatever it is I do now, on not just electric but on acoustic as well. I didn't start out a finger-style player, and I think that's probably apparent on those early Genesis things, but that's what I ended up doing. I ended up doing a finger style and sweep picking and tapping and all of that. But in those days, I had a limited box of tricks.
Do you feel that the tension and competition between band members was a necessary part of forcing out the greatness found on those early albums, even with the issues you have with the technical execution of it all?
I think so. I think it's not something widely spoken about with the band, but with people starting to open now when they're giving interviews, they tend to be more honest with the odd book being written and the odd film being made about this.
I think some people had a more democratic music view in the band, and others tended to guard it more closely. So when I initially joined up, I assumed I was joining a songwriters' collective -- that was how Pete sold the band to me! But what I found, in reality, it was a competitive band -- a very competitive band! I think we learned a lot from each other over time, and sadly there is no current version of Genesis training the boards, but I would think that the music is the star of the show, which is why it has survived so many reinterpretations from so many acts.
You mentioned being in contact with Peter. The last interview I found that mentioned feedback from your former bandmates about the Revisited project was a few years old. Have any of them given you anything recently?
Steve Hackett: No, absolutely not. Genesis doesn't work that way. I think the guys in the band don't want to be seen endorsing or criticizing it. I think for them, it's a no-win political situation, so "no comment" is the favored stance that they take. So, you know, if they think something is great but they weren't part of it, there'll be one reaction, which is "no comment." If they thought it was absolutely dreadful, it would still be "no comment."
I'm always trying to explain this to people because I don't think people get the mindset of a bunch of guys who were so competitive, but that's how they feel about it. You can call it a repressed Englishness or reserve or call it steely politics -- that's how it is. And everyone else in the world finds it strange that there would be no public reaction to what I've done. That's just the way the band operates, you know?
I think people operate on the assumption that there is still a friendship there, being that you are all open about remaining in contact.
Oh! There's still a friendship. But I think an unwillingness to be drawn on the work, especially when it comes to reinterpreting the band's work. I've gotten used to that. It's just the way life is. It's almost like the way the Chinese think; it's pretty inscrutable. Or, you know, Vulcan philosophy if you will, if you're a Trekkie.
Have there been any changes on the front of a reunion at this point, or does it remain completely improbable?
Well, I haven't heard anything recently. There doesn't seem to be a move amongst anybody to represent the obvious thing. I've always let be known, perfectly and publicly, that I was up for it, if it were on our terms. But if that's not on our front, I would certainly work with the music. And for the rest of this year, that's what I'll be doing. It'll be my second year of touring Genesis music. So I'm putting aside all other solo work considerations until the end of this year -- although I'm working on another album of my own original material. But I don't think I'll be presenting that to the public until the following year.
You've put out a staggering amount of music over the last couple of years. How do you remain so inspired this deep into your career?
Well, I don't know what it is that really motivates someone. I was thinking about this today, but I've come across a lot of really great musicians, and before I turned professional -- many years ago -- I would often come across guys who were really great guitarists, for instance. Guys who were technically way ahead of me, and I would form a band with them, which might last one or two rehearsals and we'd break up and they'd go to whatever else was the main job for them.
I guess it's just one of those things. I think at the end of the day, people who stay in music do it because the music is really important to them, over and above any commercial consideration or financial gain. There are some people who do it because they love music. And I'm always thinking about what I'm going to do next. What am I going to do next? What kind of music? Where are we going to take it from? Is it going to be from the West? Is it going to be something like world music? Is it going to have a world fusion vibe? How much do you take from jazz? How much do you take from blues, from pop? Soul. You name it! Country! Who am I going to sound like as a singer? It's endless, isn't it?
Some more 12-string work would be nice on the next album, when I get around to it, because 12-string is so undeniably beautiful. But then again, so is nylon guitar! Then so is electric! So there are more than enough things to do. If I can just shadowbox with myself -- outthink myself, the next move -- or just answer inspiration as it strikes at any one point in time and don't worry about it being original but worry about being authentically felt.
I think you can run things like equations: You can say "Ah, this equation has not been performed before" and do it as an intellectual pursuit and stick an unlikely combination of time signatures and notes together; that's one approach. Or, it's a case of "Yeah, I think I've heard this sort of thing before -- it's like a comfortable old pair of shoes." But maybe it will be slightly different -- I'll polish it slightly different, you know?
The tambour of it might be slightly different -- you haven't seen quite that color of leather before. If I feel it, I'll definitely go for the nice pair of brogues, if you know what I mean. Other times I'll think, "Well, to hell with it!" I just want to do something that sounds like it's from the end of the peel and it's just old musical stuff. So somewhere in the middle, somewhere in between jazz fusion and all of these other things, drawing from everywhere and everything, somewhere in the middle is this sort of pantomime that we're all heading towards, if we can get it right.
It's a very clinical, very prog approach.
I guess so, yeah! I guess it would be very clinical, yeah! But, you know, we'll try it, and maybe it'll sound like shit, but on the other hand, it might be really, really odd and set up some odd rhythm and do something really spooky, which I'd be most interested in. There's just not enough serious music out there -- that's the problem!
Are there any young guitar players or new music you find exciting at the moment?
I'll tell you who I like very much who I saw in recent years a couple of times live and got to talk with him backstage once or twice. American guy, Joe Bonamassa. I really like his blues style, got great technique, but there's a great energy about his stuff, I think. And I find myself thinking this is a little bit like when I listen to Segovia; if I'm not sure what the nylon guitar should do, I'll watch this video I've got of Segovia, and straight away, about two or three minutes pass and I've got to pick up the guitar myself. And it's the same if I hear Joe and I think, "Ah yes, I can do some of that too." And it sort of renews your commitment to the medium.
Sometimes just a good overdrive sound will do it for me. Something sort of a sort of brassy overdrive, and I'll be really happy to do that. Guitars are still great instruments. But I love harmonica too. I was a harmonica player many years before I became a guitarist, so every now and again, that comes out of the shed, you know?
I have read you say previously that it's not the kit but what you do with it, but are you using any new gear that you have found inspiring or motivating?
Well, yeah. I had been using Fernandez guitars in recent years for the sustainer quality, but also because it helps to bring out the upper harmonic, particularly on the second string -- if you hit it very lightly. That's been interesting. In terms of overdrive, I've been using mainly a Sansamp 150 and a Line 6 yellow box, and sometimes I combine the two so I'm getting a feed from both of them.
Also, I've got a pedal that was built for me by a guy in England. I wanted to get a treble booster from him, and this guy, Pete Cornish, who does custom-made things, did this one for me. Problem is, I don't have a replacement for it and he couldn't remember what he put in it. So he said "Send it to me," but I was unwilling to do that; I'm going to have to take it to him physically at one point and he'll open the thing up and find out what he put inside it. It's very good! It's a great treble booster, a real shredder of a thing! Some people have said they don't think it's actually a treble booster; it seems to do something else. It sounds like when you put this into line it suddenly sounds like you've brought another amplifier into the equation and it scrunches everything up and makes it more powerful, and it's a brilliant device. I absolutely love it!
Isn't it funny how far we can progress technologically in the equipment world, yet still find such inspiration in equipment that has been essentially the same in design since the mid-'60s?
Funny, that! I think so. And I've got a Les Paul which sometimes comes out because there will be times when I just cannot get the sound I'm after except with that. It really is quite lovely.
I sometimes think that I don't understand amplifiers enough. I tend to use things in a computer these days when I'm recording and record quietly so I'm not subject to the tyranny of the volume, because I think it can get in the way of hearing sounds, so I often do that these days. I'm always trying to do things with computers that people would normally need use real amps for. So, like you said, it's a great time for technology.
Who do you feel was the first progressive player as we know it today? Who really turned you on in the early days?
I was always amazed whenever I saw an electric guitarist doing anything using the fingers. That was enough to convince me that he could really play. That was then, of course, and the goal post has shifted. I think, in a way, when I look back as far as the Beatles, obviously what they were doing as guitarists -- and let's face it, there were three of them in that band -- the fact that they were coming up with the blueprint for music that was... How can I put it? The idea of the musical continuum, the idea of work that functioned a bit like film, except for the ear instead of the eye, storytelling.
It goes beyond the notes and it goes beyond the instrument, but the fact that George Harrison had the foresight to include other players like Ravi Shankar. I find it very interesting, and I think full credit really had to go to him, because I can't think of another band that were both more commercial and as broad-based as the Beatles. In many ways, the rest of us all have managed to swing it for ourselves on the coattails of those guys: They showed it was possible to earn a living in music and not just be around for one or two years. It was the end of the idea of the quick flash in the pan. I think that invitation to the rest of the world was important and opening yourself up to masses of influences from many different places.