“Pearls of wisdom” - Steve Hackett talks about his new album, Guitar Noir and his current tour of the UK. Interview conducted by Alan Hewitt at Manchester University student refectory on 25th May 1993. Photographs by Jonathan Dann, Richard Mills and Bill Brink. Memorabilia: TWR archive.
AH: First of all, Steve thanks again for taking the time to talk to us.
SH: It’s a pleasure.
AH: It has been a long time … five years I think…. Momentum. What have you been doing since then?
SH: Since Momentum? Well, 1989 saw the beginning of our involvement with “Rock Against Repatriation” for the Boat People. A lot of artists were involved in the making of yet another version of “Sailing” but in a way it wasn’t really the point. We were looking for an emblem for the cause and the fact that they were boat people and that there was a song actually called “Sailing” seemed perfect for it. It wasn’t so much that it was a well covered track, and well covered ground so much as to sit down and write a song about the issue was somehow less appropriate than taking an existing song and presenting it in a new light. A tremendous amount of people took part in the recording of the track. We also had an auction which became even more of a who’s who of rock memorabilia. There were about five people, not necessarily well known people; who did a lot of hard work on it, and myself although I didn’t end up doing the majority of the work. The majority of the work was paperwork and the tremendous amount of clearances that had to be done. Billy Budis, my manager; Kim Poor, my wife and a girl called Karen Pierce and a guy called Sean Marriott, all of whom were involved in the issue and all worked for nothing for a year which is the time it takes to do charity work. It may become an album at some stage but I feel I have taken it as far as I can.
AH: You mentioned an album when we spoke to you back in ’88 which was ready. Apparently it was recently mentioned in Q that a less than legal recording of this has now surfaced. What actually happened to that album…?
SH: That album went under the working title of Feedback and basically I started recording that shortly after GTR and prior to the release of the acoustic album and I worked for a number of years and then we decided that to take things forward a stage further and to create more flexibility with the material we were choosing - we built our own studio. Billy (Budis), myself and a team of designers called “Recording Architecture”. So, that took a while. We have just ended up with our own label which is the Kudos label and these things all take long time to set up so in fact we recorded over and above the album that was intended and we just selected the best material we could possibly muster for this album; Guitar Noir.
AH: So, basically that arose out of the ashes of the old album…?
SH: Yeah, it did really, yeah. I find that because there’s a studio there I am working on a number of projects in tandem. I have recorded a lot of acoustic tracks again for another acoustic thing at some point so there are a lot of those. There’s also … I’m halfway through a blues project … a blues album because I wanted to do an album where the solos were more important than the songs, where the blowing was more important than the songs and the reason that I was attracted to the blues a long time ago was that the playing was … from the point of view of an aspiring guitarist, which I was in the Sixties. Blues was where the innovations were happening in electric guitar playing and I always regard it with respect because there’s nothing more exciting than hearing a really good blues solo.
AH: Well, that’s pretty much Rock & Roll’s birthright…
SH: And even the classical music of Rock & Roll, you’re quite right, it’s the birthright and it’s the roots of Rock & Roll. it’s also become the classical music of Rock & Roll because just like there will be so many versions of Chopin sonatas, people will cover Robert Johnson’s catalogue forever and a day. There will be so many versions of Born Under A Bad Sign and Hideaway and various blues standards that are all part of it.
AH: I believe you actually played The Stumble on your recent North American tour…?
SH: I did, yeah. We often go into a blues when we’ve got nothing left in the arranged repertoire (laughs) just as a final encore and we do it for fun. And the blues thing gives me a chance to play blues harmonica again. I did that even before learning the guitar. I started out life as a harmonica player when I was a kiddie.
AH: So you really have gone back to your roots…?
SH: yeah, I have. It’s something I am doing for fun. It’s a blues band and we are doing it for fun. It’s a flexible line up and I don’t know just how many people will be in the final project. I think of it as a band because it’s not a vehicle for song writers - least of all me! It’s more … I am quite happy to do cover versions of existing things. I don’t know how it will come out whether it will eventually be more original material than covers but to a degree it’s that feeling that… it’s really an excuse for more aggressive playing really, I think.
AH: That’s the thing that a few people … I didn’t hear Guitar Noir all that much before seeing it live and from the reaction of some of the people who were at the show in Liverpool on Friday… they weren’t as used to the blues aspect. There were quite a few gasps from the audience as you started playing the harmonica. And I must admit the marriage between the blues harmonica, the acoustic and the electric guitar playing on this album is phenomenal. Is it an easy process to put them all together on one record…?
SH: It is almost as if the album falls into two sides and had it been on vinyl it would have tended to have one side acoustically driven and the other side with drums and more accepted electrical arrangements.
AH: The other thing is, there’s one track which I have heard which was sent to me from a live concert in North America which was called Flight Of The Condor, I noted that it isn’t on the album, what happened to it…?
SH: Originally it was called Flight Of The Condor but actually it is now called Sierra Quemada because I had noticed that a lot of people were using condor titles in things.
AH: Speaking of the North American tour, and indeed, I hear that you also played in South America too, what were the audience s like over there?
SH: Good. They were very good. I think there’s something about the Latin/Catholic market which tends to respond very well to the type of stuff that I am interested in. They like atmospheric music a lot - they like music which has a tremendous amount of instrumental elements in it. They respond to it, they are hungry for it; they embrace it with a passion which is on a much more national level than in England. We tend to lead and that means that we tend to form and discard fashions very quickly. It is a funny thing but because all things Seventies have become fashionable again it is almost as if one starts all over again with a clean slate! Just like anyone who has been in music for over twenty years, after a while they realise that you are not goanna go away.
AH: I think there was a time a couple of years ago when we began to think that you may have done so …
SH: I haven’t packed it in. It’s just that I have been very busy reorganising, regrouping and have been involved with a lot of the time with a major re-think but in order to get the new band together. I feel that I have killer players in my new band, they’re really good.
AH: They look … they follow my conception as a non-musician, they look my idea of how a band should look. They seem to fit together really well. How did you come to meet them all?
SH: I met Julian via… let’s see. I think it was Billy who said he had been asking around and was recommended and I met him and we hit it off straight away because he had been with Charisma at the same time as I had and although that record company is defunct, we had a tremendous amount of people in common and so… similar backgrounds in a way. The other two… Hugo, the drummer, I did the dreaded drum audition (laughs) one day and we had several drummers in and I remember Hugo was the second guy and just as I turned around to make a cup of tea so this guy started up on the drums (laughs) and just blew me away with the first thing he did on the kit. So I thought “that’s him” and decided in the space of ten seconds! It was enough to convince me that Hugo was a must!
AH: He certainly plays with fire, you can see that…
SH: He plays with a rare passion … he’s very good. And he’s the guy who recommended Doug, in fact. I believe that from a quite different source. Dave Ball who plays bass on the album, he was recommended quite separately in fact, and he and Hugo had played together in the past and they knew each other ad we did the North American tour with Dave and the album went very well with him but we found he wasn’t available to do this because he was involved with Philip Bower and The Voodoo Club at the moment. He’s writing a lot of stuff with him and so he wasn’t available and Hugo recommended Doug. We have Doug Sinclair on bass at the moment. There’s another guy I haven’t mentioned yet who collaborated heavily with me on the album and his name is Aron Friedman who I wrote several tracks with on the album as I have with the guys in the band of course, so it’s by no means as solo as…
AH: Well, that’s the thing I noticed, is that it is more of a collaborative effort…
SH: It is, it is. There’s so much collaboration going on. The guys are heavily creatively involved. Fifty per cent in a way, because fifty per cent of the material was driven by acoustic guitar and on those ones I’ve collaborated with Aron. There were a couple of tracks that I have done on my own and written and played everything which again are nylon guitar tracks but I have also worked very closely with the technical team and that includes as well as the engineers I have mentioned; Billy Budis who manages me. Billy is also a musician so he comes from that background.
AH: That must be an added blessing these days to have someone who actually appreciates the problems that you might have in trying to write the music in the first place as well as trying to put it together…
SH: I would say that it is the first time I have ever worked on an album where I didn’t feel sabotaged in some way or another. There was no competition at the expense of the music. No one was trying to do anything other than serve the best interests of the music. For example, when Billy was critical, as he often is; I listened to it very carefully… the criticism and I don’t take it personally and take it on board long enough to absorb it and to see if he has a point and he has radically altered my vocal approach.
AH: The vocals sit more comfortably within the body of the songs this time round..
SH: Yeah, I think so. His point was rather like a producer basically. Although I suspect the producer’s role couldn’t have been that effective with me because I have started to take so long to make albums. That’s not always intentional but to get an album released these days… it’s much harder. At one time I could have an album that had taken six weeks to record and I could guarantee that it would be out at a specific time. The guarantees aren’t there anymore, there isn’t the kind of infrastructure that I had when Charisma was in evidence where they were happy to have an album every year… We would release it like clockwork.
It’s not like that and hasn’t been like that for quite some time so if you start auditioning your product to various record companies, it can take a vast amount of time because you very often find that in order to build a relationship with a company that can take along time, then if they decide that they are not really interested you can lose several months in that process just to get a “no” out of them. I did begin to wonder at one point if I would ever be in the position to release another album and yet I an album animal. I’m an animal that makes albums. Without that it was a case of holding the breath for a long time and hoping that something would work out but I didn’t become despondent because I have got … shall we say a “spiritual” outlook. We exist in the middle of a creation and NOT a chaos and there is something over and above what we are able to perceive with our five senses.
So, I DID feel that something was ins tore for me as a result of personal spiritual experiences and it has kept me going really. The knowledge that it wasn’t all in vain, all for nothing. Intelligence is not vanity… I mean this in terms of the human race… we’re just big animals why do we have intelligence? Why do we have this thing called “conscience”? There is a reason… there is a pattern. It isn’t all revealed to us.. We are part of it and we just have to content ourselves with the various cosmic clues that exist along various steps of the way. The thing that Jung called “synchronicity” I tent to think of as cosmic clues! A little bit of encouragement each time there is a meaningful coincidence one has to see it in terms of being a positive sign.
AH: Speaking of puzzles and frameworks, how did the recent compilation album fit into the scheme of things…?
SH: In a way it was a respite. I think again, that Billy and I sat down and we decided that we would include some tracks that hadn’t received as much attention as some other tracks. So, instead of doing an album of stage favourites; we decided to include stuff like the Randy Crawford track; Hoping Love Will Last which was the first thing she had released in this country. In fact she certainly gave a remarkable performance singing it and it was a heartfelt song and I was proud of it. It was the only thing I have done which approaches a jazz standard and I would be happy if Frank Sinatra decided he wanted to do a cover of it.
AH: The thing that I liked about it was that as an album it was genuine statement of “what Steve Hackett has done up until now…” The live album was the statement of what you are like live and in our opinion such an album was long overdue…
SH: Yes it was. Touring on a regular basis. I couldn’t convince Charisma to release a live album even though all the fans were desperate for it and it was, I think, one of the things that signified the end of my involvement with Charisma that they were not as in touch with things that the fans wanted as I was. It should have been possible to please everybody but these things often are not to be and because I have taken so much longer over the new product I like to think that it’s better because a lot of thought has been spent on it although I don’t think it has suffered from being overly thought about.
Most of the songs are based on instinct and I haven’t faffed around too much mixing and re-mixing. I think, compared to some of the things I have done, the arrangements on some of the pieces are fairly minimal. It’s the idea again that less is more. If you’ve got a wonderful drum sound … sometimes all you need is guitar, bass and drums, sometimes not even that. I have left more room on the album for things to grow.
AH: I think that looking at things, especially now we’ve had the live album, the compilation album, both of which laid to rest aspects of your career to date; and now the new album, and to be honest, they couldn’t have happened at a better time because it’s not often you can get an artist who in three consecutive albums, sums up a career that spans what… twenty or more years…?
SH: Yes…since 1970 when I was with a band called Quiet World who… I see you have reprinted the lyrics to that… you managed to find a copy of it somewhere…