“Hearing the Night Siren” - Steve Hackett in conversation with Alan Hewitt about his new album and current tour. Interview conducted at Steve's home on Wednesday 8th March 2017. Photographs by Alan Hew itt and Jo Hackett/Hackettsongs.
And so we come full circle folks. Steve was the first person to grant us an interview back in the heady days of 1988 and so it is only fitting that as we celebrate our hundredth edition and thirtieth anniversary that we speak to him once again. Over to you, Mr Hackett…
TWR: So, obviously, Steve I am here to talk about the new album, The Night Siren .. Tell us a little bit about The Night Siren…
|SH: The first track, Behind The Smoke, is really a song about refugees, we’ve done a video which we shot in Serbia and I have seen the first rough cut of it and it looked extraordinary, but as regards the song itself, it’s about refugees, and it was intended to be controversial. On the other hand, not only refugees, a controversial subject today usually classed by the media as “economic migrants” no matter what they have fled from, and contrasting that with the late 1800’s just over a hundred years ago and my family having escaped religious persecution in Poland and Jo’s family, the same thing. Fortunately the government in England let them in or else I wouldn’t be here. So really, Behind The Smoke addresses that. There is a Middle Eastern influence that runs throughout it and I am not trying to play typical rock guitar, I am trying to play orchestral phrases but on a guitar… Other than that, it is a track that stirs the blood because it feels like something with a slow rhythm, a sort of slow march for survival, almost militant but it is hopefully a sense of the whole world being engaged by it and involved in a positive sense.|
Really when it comes to the penultimate track, if I can talk about this our of order, it brings back some of the same themes and the idea of a resolution and a plea for world peace and I will talk about the people who are on that from all over the world at the end, people who are politically, in terms of their countries, at each other’s throats. So, I feel that was an achievement just to pull that off.
The second track is called Martian Sea, it is deliberately done in a Sixties style. It is in some ways, not even 1966 it is more 1964 meets 1965 but then it moves out of that into the Indian influence that influenced the Psychedelic era of The Beatles and then it goes rather more ambient towards the end so we have got the Psychedelic thing but slightly more ambient with the use of sitar and sitar guitar backwards guitar… I have got flute performances… Often things recorded at different times. We pulled back, when you get atonal stuff when it is brass and rock instruments doing it you get one effect but, as a love letter to The Beatles, as that track is, it has the effect of… as you get the flute-y aspect and I am using the guitar in a slightly flutey, backwards up the octave way and it reminds me of more the end of Strawberry Fields Forever, where it goes off the rails but in a very interesting way. So my favourite bit of that song is where they abandoned form and do things that sound like a cross between Blue Jay Way meets The Grand Parade Of Lifeless packaging, meets Revolver and has some heavy drumming from Nick D' Virgilio and right at the end Roger King takes over on drums, so real and virtual and the sound changes but it just sounded so good that stuff that he programmed and I thought there is no point in trying to reproduce this with a human. It is exactly what I want, it sounds like a demon drummer set on stun!
TWR: The lyric on that one is obviously of a very personal nature…
SH: It is about narcissistic behaviour and I used the idea of Mars once again, all balanced controlled stuff but moving on…
|Fifty Miles From The North Pole, was influenced by our trip to Iceland and also the influence of working with Gulli Briem although ironically he is not the drummer on that piece, but the stuff he does himself and I was influenced by that and we recorded that in Budapest and he happens to be the drummer on another couple of tracks which, when we were working face to face in Sardinia and a very interesting character he is but to come back to the track.. I did two shows with Todmobile and an eighty piece orchestra and choir and that was fifty miles from the North Pole, fifty miles from the Arctic Circle and when we flew in, we flew in in darkness and the next day we flew in darkness, and I don’t know when they get light there but it was all artificial light and covered in snow, it was surreal. So, having been very much impressed by the aspect of Iceland that is very much the last human outpost and basing it that way. You have got the extreme weather conditions, you have got the volcanoes, the heat and the freezing cold, you have got the geysers spouting out, you have got mountains but you have also got the Northern Lights and you have got hospitable people living in a forbidding landscape but it is so different to anywhere I have been before. It was lovely to thread together this song which was rather like one of these films for the ear and the influence of spy movie stuff and John Barrie, James Bond, Laszlo Schiffrin, people who write that kind of cold spy guitar type stuff with a sound that was closer to Bonanza (laughs) than Jimi Hendrix so thematic stuff…|
Then there is the data aspect stuff which I had recorded in Budapest two years earlier for Wolflight and some stuff that we weren’t able to assimilate into that album but we were able to use the trumpet and didgeridoo section and add drums afterwards to that. So, the drums do what they do and the stuff that is on top of that is ambient and bears no relation to it in terms of timing but I love the idea that it is the collision of those two worlds and in a way it is at its most Icelandic and I love the way Ferenc Kovacs comes in with something that you can’t really tell what instrument it is, he is blowing muted trumpet so lightly that is sounds like a baby gurgling or something and then he opens up and you can tell it is trumpet …
TWR: Amanda is on this one, isn’t she?
|SH: Yes, she is, we gave over a sort of tribal section to her. Originally I had guitar going on that and I got a bit bored with yet another guitar bit (laughs) which was a bit bluesy although I swear I will use it somewhere else at some point (laughs) but the thing about that was, we just thought it would be nice if she just turned herself into a whole tribe and came up with some lyrics for that section. Once again it was complete surprise, and the children’s choir which she and I did together so we made our voices sound like children , thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the swoopy strings. So this was a track that I thought, I don’t think anyone is going to like this, but I am going to do it anyway and there are a few of those but I have had a great reaction to it. Gary (O’Toole) is on drums, Roger takes the drums as well so we have the man and the machine and the both play wonderfully…|
TWR: I love the vocal section because it just evokes the landscape and the Valkyrie-like vocals because they are just soaring away…
SH: By that do you mean the Amanda section?
TWR: You also get a sense of history from it as well. Iceland may geographically be a relatively new place, historically it is quite an old one and you manage to get both of those elements into the song…
SH: It is just full of surprises. I thought if I was going to do a song about Iceland, it had to be as surprising as the place itself, so it certainly takes some unusual twists and turns and a few repeats but in the main, it goes, different, strange, different, strange and it keeps going like a journey and it is one of my weird tracks, like it or loathe it, it is one of the weird ones.
TWR: It seems to go everywhere but then we come to one of my favourites, El Nino…
SH: El Nino, was really influenced by film, the idea once again of potentially conflicting arrangement ideas. In other words, an orchestra, real strings plus a tribe’s worth of drums (laughs) from Gary and Roger and a rock band. So you have got these three elements and I had this idea when Roger was doing the surround sound which |I recommend to anyone who is a serious audio listener…I said ’it would be nice if you felt like you were in the eye of the storm with this, right in the middle of it..’ and it is all going on around you and it is an assault and deliberately so. But again it takes you places and people have been saying that this is the most Genesis-like of all the songs on it. That wasn’t intentional.
TWR: I think that is probably because of the guitar part but it is one of those tracks that rips the hair off the back of your neck…
SH: I wanted the idea of a distant lighthouse aspect of the guitar, not too loud but .. The next track is The Other Side Of The Wall and really it is a love song. Jo and I wrote this, as we did much of the lyrics on the album. We were at one point, I was visiting a hospital in Wimbledon and at one point we realised we had to get there really early in the morning and it was when the tennis was on, and so we checked in to a hotel so we would be in situ and the place we stayed at had a park adjoining it and a lovely garden and there was a wall and a walled up gateway and we started to make up a story about an imaginary couple, a couple in the present, and a couple in the past where their love story was not allowed to be completed because of the time when they existed. That is the implication behind it and it was very romantic and it was the idea of how one couple reflects the other and you could even say that they were a reincarnation of each other but I suspect it is love finding its echo in the present and I can’t really explain it…
TWR: I don’t know why, but when I listen to it, the story that comes to mind is that of Abelard and Heloise, two lovers that were separated, literally, one from various parts of his anatomy, and the other sent to a nunnery I think… and literally the wall was put up by the people who did not want these two people to be together convention or whatever reason…
SH: Yes, and also the wall not only symbolises that but also what separates earth and the present tense as we know it and the spirit world so when my voice suddenly becomes lots of voices on the final chord, it goes universal and you get that sense of unity and strangeness. Originally I was going to turn it in to the chorus but there was no way to come back from that last statement so I just left it hanging as an unfinished story and it just gave it that unresolved thing but as I say, it is a love song.
SH: Anything But Love … the first thing I started on the whole album was the guitar solo at the end, and not even the beginning of the guitar solo but I was recording with Ben (Fenner) and I said, ‘when I am making albums I am so aware that I could dissipate my energy on baking the cake and by the time it comes to doing the icing, which is the guitar work, I could run out of puff’. So I said why don’t we start with two basic chords and make it sound like Cream circa 1967, Skip James, I’m So Glad, free playing not hidebound by chord constriction a minimum of harmony, maximum freedom and let the guitar fly. So that was the starting point, the end was the starting point. A bit like filming the conclusion before you have started but that is the way movies work and I don’t work chronologically. We collect data from all over the world.
So once again we have guitar playing very much influenced by the Sixties and Eric Clapton specifically. The young Eric, having seen him play magnificently at one little gig in Brixton years ago and many years later I spoke to Jack Bruce about that show, and he said yeah, we only ever played it once and he said it was a good gig, and I said it WAS a good gig! They were just brilliant, they were bang on and it was free but it was great. It was a time when music was free, there wasn’t too much form then but there was a lot of passion and a lot of control. It was one of the best blues gigs I have ever seen featuring the late, great Jack Bruce and of course recently I took part in a tribute to him and did Spoonful with his son, Malcolm and a bunch of other people and as you know, I am a blues groupie (laughs).
It kicks off also with some Flamenco which is the other end of the scale guitar so again the influence for that came from watching some stuff that a pal was showing of Rodrigo and Gabriella a guitar duo playing some wonderful Flamenco stuff and Gabriella is a fantastic Flamenco style rhythm guitarist and I thought, wow, I better do something like that so I was using the body of the guitar to slap and tap and various things trying to get as many noises out of the guitar as possible and make it exciting. It is not the Classical approach that I would normally use with the guitar and I am not trying to be Segovia on it but I thought it could kick off the pop song which then becomes the thing at the end. So it is a sort of three tiered cake an I think the guitar is the icing.
Again it is about… the lyric I had it around for a while the idea that you never get away with anything with love… which is just a theory of mine! (laughs) that covers quite a lot of bases really! That covers the early life of any band of sex gods you care to think of! (laughs) or the idea that everyone is searching for the real thing because I think if you never find it and you are just sampling then you can miss out on something that is really special.
TWR: That’s why using the Flamenco style is so effective because it is not a processed, sound it is earthy, the real deal…
SH: Yes and I was snapping the strings and doing a sound that at one time in my life I would have found repulsive but over time, whatever else, this has got energy, its rhythmic and there are a few moves in there that I practiced hard. Anyway…
|Inca Terra… we have Peruvian instruments, we have an Icelandic drummer, we have several singers, myself, Nad (Sylvan), Amanda , there is some Beatle influence. I just thought having visited Macchu Picchu and seen the cloud forest at close range and seen the clouds and seen when they evaporate and see when the sun comes out and I think that is only for the privileged few actually because from most of the photographs I have seen, they are in cloud cover. But we just happened to have a magic moment up there, Jo and I and the Sacred valley with its marvellous river and mountains and in a way a narrow gorge that you go up on a train with windows not just on the side but on the roof and you get magnificent views and that, in itself, is as interesting as your destination. The whole of Peru is mindblowing it is full of colour. We happened to be there when they were having a festival in Cuzco as well, with dance teams going round the town square, oh my god, I have never seen anything like it, it was like the whole place was a whirling rainbow and we have got other shots of other stuff that would make several album covers. Once again I used everything, the kitchen sink. It starts off as a little charango and then it becomes full blown orchestra.|
Next your least favourite, In Another Life which goes from folk song to rock and Uilleian pipes by Troy Donockley which we orchestrated later. I think there is a link between Scotland’s troubled history and Eleventh Earl of Mar and once again I am doing something which is a Scottish story and an imagined character bit it is the idea of injustice, a man wronged and social inequality and a man who decides he will fight for a clan of one. I am actually quite proud of the lyrics, it is just himself and he knows he is going to fight to the death and it is a bit like the gladiator idea, the movie transported to Scotland and he is a man on a mission. A man of peace who is being forced by unforeseen circumstances. He knows he is going to die and if I remember the words correctly, and I was trying to use some old language…’in yon river bed if fate wills..’ and that idea that there is another world which is a common theme as there is with the other side, the world of spirit . I was having a conversation with Peter |Gabriel about this, the last time we were having dinner and I asked him the question, do you feel there is something else? And he said I feel there is something afterwards but I don’t know what it is. The idea that he will be reunited with his family and being essentially an honourable man trying to right a wrong, it is the idea of injustice, a theme that I think, run throughout Wind & Wuthering and was part of the idealism of the lyrics of that. So, I have come back to that with its fortieth anniversary but it has been a natural, organic process.
In The Skeleton Gallery… It is really about childhood. Jo and I talked a lot about childhood, you know, the joys and fears and problems of it. And I remember a time in my life when we came back from Canada and my harmonica got broken on he rough sea journey and so I didn’t have my chromatic harmonica and I was seven years old or eight years old and it is spanning that time and my dad was still away paying off debts in Canada, he had borrowed money off the Canadian government to come over there and then had to come back. And I was without my music and I was sick, my memory is that I had bronchitis, whether it was tonsillitis or whatever I don’t know but I think that I was hallucinating but the thing was that I was in an altered state, an I could see sound waves coming towards me and I felt they were going to kill me and they were hugely malevolent, these monsters and the crackle and the vertical line but anyway… Lucid dreaming. As I was in a tranced state, psychologically, coming back to the old country having fallen in love with Canada and the journey. I think I really went within myself when you have these childhood traumas. I used to dream of having a spaceship that .. Just before I went to sleep I would think of this spaceship and there was a bit of the Tatchbrook Estate which people used to call “The Hydraulics” where you could dip in the water and I thought keep it there .. You know in a child’s mind and as I was thinking about it one night I just went straight into a dream and I was in my own spaceship , very much like the Tardis, going up and I was with a girl from school who I had not even had the courage to speak to but there we were and we went up and it was the most marvellous lucid dream and quite wonderful.
But then other things, you know, later on in life, the things that troubled you maybe it is a dressing gown hanging on the wall that looks a bit devilish and a child’s mind again, frightened by that and intrigued in equal measure, perhaps. And then before or just after puberty,. I often used to think that I was being pinned down by some invisible weight and I couldn’t move and so the sense of something malevolent, a succubus, incubus, whatever and I used to think that it was some sort of invisible elephant that I could feel the weight of (laughs) I can’t bloody well move! And so, all those things are in that and originally it was two tracks but we knocked it into one and we used what worked. We threw away virtually a whole song and just kept the chorus from it which was the “wake up! Jump out..” before the song ends. Funnily enough it was Jo’s dream and it was a dream about me. She was worried, she had this dream about puppeteers who were using dead bodies like marionettes and she realised that one of the gravediggers who was animating these things was singing this song and she realised one of them was me and she realised that I had to wake up or I would die by the end of it . That is usually symbolic so, I did wake up right at the end and she saw it as symbolic I think of the two of us being together as perhaps we were always destined to be, I like to think. So, as I said, it is really two songs in one and once again I started off with the end of the song because I wanted to get straight to the icing with the heavy metal guitar bit and it was a real thrill to hear it on the BBC yesterday and I could hear it compressed to death and distorted but my god it did sound powerful! And of course, Rob (Townsend) was fabulous on it as he is on all things. You have only got to spend a few seconds around Rob and he transforms and come sup with the most amazing solos that any composer would be proud of and I don’t think there is anyone to touch him really for his spontaneity. One solo? Oh, I’ll do you another one! (laughs) and they can be the most melodic things or the most atonal he will use a Bartok scale which I learned from him and there are many things I still could learn from Rob and it is great working with him. We got a bit drunk recently and that bond was really great .
SH: West To East… If I haven’t spoken about the personnel enough on this one we have, as I am sure you know, Mira Awad from Palestine working with Kobie Farhi…
TWR: Where did you actually find all these people?
SH: Well, funnily enough, the link came through… I was talking to David Goulden of Century Media and we were talking about… he said the West Eastern Divan Orchestra the one that Daniel Barenboim used and I thought that was marvellous but they were also not only people from both sides that were killing each other, but they were also doing Wagner, an anti Semitic composer and big enough to say it is possible for us all to work together and this is a massive healing and this shoots right into the world of spirit as far as I am concerned and so I felt, it was not easy but they had just been in town doing something and they were at the Albert Hall and I could see the sweat pouring off him…
The two people that I worked with. Mira is involved with the Arab Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa, and Jaffa is right next to Tel Aviv. My dad was in Palestine and didn’t speak about it. He didn’t like a lot of what he saw there. These two people are active peacemakers and I think it is marvellous what they are doing and how it has influenced me and there is a political message with all of this. George Harrison we have to thank for becoming a man of the world in the true sense of the word in inviting in India and expanding the possibilities of everything. And I think that that influenced Lennon in turn with those humanitarian ideas.
I could not have done this years ago, I didn’t know people from throughout the world but travel broadens the mind and it increases the size of the ’phone book! (laughs) and you meet people and you befriend them and sometimes you d fall in love with them, sometimes it’s people, landscapes, instruments and all these things and so sometimes we used the instruments, sometimes it’s the people. Imagine working with an Icelandic drummer, a British guitarist, a Hungarian band recording themselves in Sardinia! But it is in the tradition and spirit of the Beatles saying the sky’s the limit.
Restitution, once again I will digress. That is the reason why I am doing Inside & Out as part of the Genesis stuff live because that track should have been on the album because it addresses social issues again, injustice, this is the link with Blood On The Rooftops when Phil and Phil’s orientation towards lyrics was rather more serious perhaps and I think there is no need to be embarrassed about that and it is deeper perhaps than some of the things that might have sold in greater quantities later. Anyway I am putting it in front of the public once again.
West To East yeah, the whole world is on it there are lots of singers and I am one of them. It is part operatic almost gospel, isn’t it? It is everything even a ballad. It is very much Jo’s influence. It was intended to be the last track on the album and on Behind The Smoke there is a guitar theme but we do it at a more stately pace and I thought I had used the same solo and then I had a brainwave, and I said let’s take away the guitar and have the orchestra take it so that it sounds symphonic so we had real strings and it still didn’t sound symphonic until my brother put two flutes on it and that suddenly gave it a symphonic edge. It is amazing how transforming two flutes in different octaves can be that just give the orchestra air. Until I can afford the Berlin Philharmonic (laughs) an occasionally I get top play with orchestras and I have to say they have never failed me.
SH: The Gift … which is written and is a compilation of Ben Fenner and Les Bennett his partner and I recorded another piece of theirs on a Japanese special edition, a piece called Spoken (this was on the Japanese edition of Wolflight) and it is just guitar and strings and all the notes are written by them and I just interpret the melody and I happened to be playing Gary Moore’s guitar which I acquired recently and I have got two of his guitars and I was very lucky to buy one and it sounds absolutely bloody marvellous and it just cries out on that track. It is a Fernandez guitar and I play it live now. It barely fits on the scale of the guitar, I think I had to use the top note but we did it in the key that Les wrote and she came up with the melody and I think Ben came up with more of the arranging of the stuff and the sampled stuff on that and it was done very quickly and we completed the whole thing in a couple of days and I had done my bit on the first day and then they worked more on the accompanying orchestration with it using Albion samples which are one of the orchestral libraries. Where possible on the album we have used the real thing but where pushed, we have used samples and I have got three real drummers and a virtual drummer in Roger and live we do El Nino with real drums and Rob who has become a multi instrumentalist playing virtual drums on pads and the effect is mighty! And it was mighty just in the rehearsal room and it wasn’t that loud and people love it. The Americans, I have never known them to embrace new stuff like that!
TWR: Moving on a quickly to the tour… the fortieth anniversary of Wind & Wuthering and your fifth year of Genesis Revisited . Will this effectively draw the line under this, do you think?
SH: Possibly because I think that I have got the need to do solo stuff and I am proud of lots of the solo stuff and in recent years I haven’t been playing Genesis because I am MORE proud of it, it is just that it has opened doors for me so it means…. And I still love it of course, so it doesn’t really matter and if McCartney went out and played nothing but Beatles songs I don’t think anybody would complain but I like to hear some solo ones as well but is the fact that this has opened doors and this year I am going to Australia, New Zealand, Djakarta, Singapore, Hong Kong and they are places I have never played and that has all come from the Genesis thing and I am thrilled with that and the world seems to be opening up.
TWR: With it being the fortieth anniversary of the album, what are your feelings about it now?
SH: I always felt close to that album and I actually had more involvement on it than any of the previous Genesis albums. It has a strong atmosphere which still makes its presence felt to this day.
TWR: Do you have any favourite songs from the album?
SH: I still feel particularly proud of Blood On The Rooftops with both its acoustic section and strong song which I feel has very much stood the test of time. I’ve always loved Eleventh Earl of Mar too. I enjoyed writing the whimsical section in the middle which contrasts with the rest of the song. There is string instrumental stuff on side two … things that were clever rhythmically, such as In That Quiet Earth,
TWR: How did the gig with the orchestra in Buffalo come about?
SH: we were playing in a place called North Tonawanda on the previous tour, a marvellous theatre, where I was approached by someone who said would you like to work with the Buffalo Philharmonic? And I said yes, it would be nice to meet them if they were interested and just as I was on my way out of the door of the theatre, a guy called Brad Stachuck who was the conductor of that orchestra said would you like to work with our orchestra and I said yeah, sure, stay in touch and we were literally filling up the van and I was signing things on the way out and doing all the things that you do on the way out from a gig, and he did stay in touch and it was a serious offer and things had been going backwards and forwards and it was a blinder of a gig.
TWR: How long did the orchestra get to rehearse before the gig?
SH: On the day. We were basically all working together as a team from about ten in the morning. They read it but even to play something like Dance On A Volcano I think that unless you are an orchestra that are familiar with time signatures, if you have played Bernstein you can handle time signatures. If you have played Bartok, you can handle time signatures. But they do have to be on their mettle and they have got to be bloody good readers to do this sort of thing. Just to be able to play Dance On A Volcano in 7/8 and get that right and the impossible just takes a little bit longer.
TWR: Did you record the gig?
SH: We weren’t in a position to do it but I believe it is available on live streaming and I don’t know if someone used a box brownie camera (laughs) but we didn’t sanction it but I believe it is out there. I don’t believe that that will ever officially hit the streets. But it doesn’t mean that some of it isn’t documented, I don’t know …
TWR: Would you consider working with an orchestra again if the opportunity presented itself?
SH: yes, I enjoyed working with the orchestra and the band sounded brilliant alongside them too. I hope to find a way for us to work with an orchestra again soon.
And with that tantalising thought, we came to the end of our time and a dinner date with friends beckoned. Once again, my thanks to Steve and Jo for giving up so much of their time to me for this and also to the members of the Hackett To Pieces fan forum who kindly contributed questions for it which you can read if you are one of the lucky subscribers to our printed 100th edition.