“The defector speaks out” - Steve Hackett talks at length about his solo career. Interview conducted by Alan Hewitt at the Richmond Hill hotel, London on Saturday 25th September 1993. Memorabilia: TWR archive.
This time, Steve it is a little more lengthy because we shall be discussing your solo career as a whole. Let’s start with Voyage Of The Acolyte. What actually prompted you to write that album at that particular time…?
Casting my mind back, I think it was during 1974 that there was a slight lull after touring. In fact, that may have come as early as the end of 1973. Anyway, at one point I had the Mellotron at home in my bedroom and I seemed to spend hours doodling on it. One or two ideas got together because I was at the point where I was beginning to think of myself without the restriction of the band and wondering what I could come up with.
I came up with one or two things that I was convinced they were going to hate and that seemed to goad me on even further in that direction and try things that I felt they would avoid. Ironically, of course, both Mike and Phil ended up being participants on the album and I remember starting the sessions with them saying.. ”I know we don’t do it this way in the band, but…” At that time we tended to work as a band in the rehearsal room and we got to hear everything that was going to go on. Maybe that was the beginning of the modern way of recording. At one point I had an early form of click track to put on something as it was a lengthy piece and all sorts of things were supposed to happen down the line and I couldn’t amass the necessary manpower to produce the finished result at that stage. Bit by bit the album took shape but I wasn’t sure when I started recording it if I would end up with an album or if I would have to abandon the project - I didn’t know if I could steer it in anything like a cohesive direction. But after the first few sessions it seemed to go so well that I think I was pretty much in heaven as they say and it seemed to adapt a life of its own.
When you started recording it, did you have any particular image in mind? The album does have a very strong thematic identity…
I remember at the time people tended to say; “Oh, Tarot cards, yes they’re interesting…” and I wondered what Tarot was as I didn’t really know. I started to ask people about them and I was given different packs by different artists. They seemed to be such fascinating images in themselves. As a lot of the music was instrumental, the images those cards conveyed seemed to be well suited to what I was coming up with at that time. I certainly wasn’t afraid to be Gothic at that time, when it wasn’t considered gauche. So when I look back on the album I consider it to be a very Seventies sounding thing but even now there are moments when I think “that was a good idea” - in its more abbreviated moments, perhaps! (laughs).
The idea itself has only been carried forward on one other album to the best of my knowledge and that was Mike Batt’s Tarot Suite in 1979.
It was heavily symbolic, although it was OK to be symbolic at that time. I think music then was at the point where there was very little in the way of cynicism. I think before it turned and people started not so much to review things as to assassinate them you had a much broader canvas to draw from. I think you still had the idealism of the Sixties plus the technology of the Seventies which enabled you to do so much. It was state of the art at the time - each album seems to be like that.
In some ways it can be a frustrating thing because you find yourself saying ; “ Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could do this…?” I think Mellotron players were always aware of the fact that the instrument was only part of the story and not the final picture. All the samples from the Mellotron - although they weren’t called samples - had a percussive noise at the front of them so nothing started with a soft front, they were all abbreviated but I tried to work with that. The album seemed to do very well and it was well received critically.
It came in a lull with the Genesis period when Peter had just left the band and the band’s future was uncertain. I know I have said this before, but I redoubled my efforts. I was thinking that this was not just a side show to the main attraction but that it was the beginning of a career although it’s funny, I worked on so much stuff for it; much more than I would come up with writing within the band context. I think that once I had turned the tap on and I was starting to come up with that amount of material it was impossible to turn it off - it became difficult to become just another part of the band, very difficult to become part of the machine again.
Were you or the other band members actually surprised by the success of the album? It went silver in the UK…
I think everyone was surprised by the success of it. It was a very nice feeling. In many ways it was a very personal album; it hadn’t been done with any particular marketplace in mind - I was just doing what felt right at the time with the people I had. The nucleus that out it together wasn’t so much a band as a bunch of regulars; John Acock with whom I worked on so many subsequent projects; he engineered and co-produced; my brother on flute - he became the resident synthesiser player in fact as he had a smattering of keyboard knowledge. There was also Mike and Phil plus the special guests, one of whom I worked with again fairly recently - Nigel Warren-Green, who was a cellist at the time it was his first rock session in fact.
There was also Robin Miller on oboe. It was great to work with individual instruments. I don’t think I’ve written for the cello since! We ’phoned up one of John’s old school friends and that proved that the old school tie does in fact work. I didn’t realise that I had written something that was outside the range of the oboe but Robin Miller was great and he was able to reach the notes that regular oboe players couldn’t play - no one told me that you couldn’t do that. In a way less knowledge can be a good thing. When Nigel heard it, he actually said; “You must have had a bloody good oboe player!” The album was recorded very quickly as well - I think that could be a very good thing. I had a certain amount of time before the band was due to reconvene and I was restricted to recording only at night as well. It was done in in a studio which was in the dungeons of a civil aviation building called Kingsway Studios, which no longer exists, but it was a place where Fleetwood Mac has done some of their things like The Green Manalishi and so on.
The sessions were all evening sessions but I don’t seem to tire because of it. I made the album on an unhealthy diet of cigarettes and cups of soup from the dispensing machine! I was oblivious to anything around me while I was doing this thing. I suppose in some areas of it, it must pre-date New Age music in a way but I would like to think that there was a lot more harmonic information in it. I think that to much training can leave you on a sticky wicket when it comes to writing things because your head can get filled up with too many rules and regulations about the things that you can and cannot do. But it was done on an absolute high really, a drug free high! (laughs)
When it was finished I was absolutely amazed by it. I used to take tapes of it home and listen to them because I couldn’t believe I had done it. When I look back at the album, I think that I wouldn’t do it like that now. I don’t write things in funny time signatures anymore in the main. At the time, anything that was in 4/4 was considered to be in poor taste. The nice thing about being involved in music for so many years is that you come back into fashion if you just stick to your guns. I’ve done so many different albums in different styles which is something that I wanted to do so that someone was able to like something - everyone was able to enjoy at least one of the albums.
That brings us nicely to what many people consider to be your first “proper” solo album; Please Don’t Touch. As you have just said, an entirely different album…
Yes, that was a very ambitious project. It was heavily guested because I liked hat each of the individuals did - some of them were better known than others. Randy Crawford was not that well known at the time, she had had no success here and very little success in the States. I saw her in a small club with a small following who appreciated her every vocal pyrotechnic. It was similar to the jazz audience vibe like when they do a solo manoeuvre with their instrument and there’s a ripple of applause - all those things that are the stock of the trade of the great Gospel/Jazz singers that she is.
How did you meet Richie Havens?
Well, all the Genesis guys liked Richie Havens from the very early days. By the time that the band was able to fill three nights at Earls Court in 1977, we were about to choose an opening act for it and Richie’s name came up. He did the show and performed it wonderfully, and the band thought he was great but the audience were still milling about and were not really aware of who this guy was or what his stature was with the whole Woodstock thing. I wanted to meet him and I was wondering how to introduce myself when Dave Lebolt, his keyboard player, wandered up and strangely enough, started talking about Voyage Of The Acolyte as he liked it. One thing led to another and I said I would like to meet Richie and Dave introduced me to him.
I met Richie in his caravan at the back where we all were. He’d just done a show and I am sure he was shattered because he’d put everything into it but he got up and shook my hand warmly for a long time. I was very impressed with him and I said to him something like; “the quality of your performance was in no way impaired by the enthusiasm of the audience…” Anyway, we got on very well and I invited him to dinner a few days later. I thought that I would really like to work with him, and the idea for a song started coming. Even before he had played the show I had heard him singing the opening bars to the song Icarus Ascending. I thought that I didn’t want to be too pushy with him but at the end of the evening he said we should work together and I told him that I would love to do so. I called him up about four months later - I think I probably mist have left the band by that time, on the strength or feeling of those ideas. I felt I couldn’t really operate within the band context - it was an album that was dying to be made, and I knew it couldn’t be done within the band. There were numerous pressures to forget all about the solo career.
Was any of the material for this album already written before you had left the band?
Yes. During that period I kept coming up with ideas and none of them , or less and less of them, I should say, seemed to fit the band. I knew with a song like Hoping Love Will Last there was no way the band were in a position to do that. Obviously, it was for a female singer and with all due respect to Phil, I couldn’t imagine him singing that.
At that time Genesis were beginning to get away from the almost classical literary influences. This album is full of literary leanings with tracks like Icarus Ascending and of course, Narnia. Does your reading still influence your writing of music?
Yes, and I find that the writers that I like best are the most musical. There seems to be a lot of music in the language and a lot of colour as well. For instance, someone like Dylan Thomas had a tremendous kind of rhythmic quality to the lines in his work. If you read Under Milk Wood it’s full of Eleanor Rigby-like images. Then if you read someone like D H Lawrence -ad I don’t just mean the steamy scenes! (laughs) there are a lot of references to colour in his works, and then you find out later that he painted. It’s funny, I think writers and painters can be influenced by music as well - all these areas seem to influence each other.
It was another well received album, amazingly enough by the critics especially as Punk had begun to take a hold. It stood up very well against its peers.
I think the punks would have been less able to assassinate that one than Voyage… I think there was a harder edge to it. There were areas where it obviously was more flowery. I wanted each track to be completely different to every other track so that there was really no central thing and I remember Tony Stratton-Smith saying that that was both its strength and its weakness in fact; it’s not recognisable.
It wasn’t very ego-driven, it wasn’t personality driven in that way. It’s very difficult to remember the actual feelings I had at that time but each was very different to every other track. Something like the title track; Please Don’t Touch I still think stands up as piece of music that ha still got teeth. When I did that I was a bit worried, you know the coming signs of madness, the swirls and so on . Particularly the time signature sequence in it. When I heard it I realised that it was going to be very difficult to take because it was very extreme and it still is - it’s also difficult to play because it is so abbreviated but it still works. it’s not really fusion either, it’s more of a Chinese fusion number, really.
I remember one thing that happened when I was doing it while we were mixing Icarus Ascending, I kept on hearing this sound going on in the building and I was looking all around to try and find the machine that was making the sound which made the building shake. After looking everywhere we found that it was this low note on the pipe organ, this really old pipe organ - people didn’t work with samples in those days. You could hear it everywhere in the building, this low fundamental note which I think is at the end of Icarus Ascending but it was just everywhere you went - it would set everything off. In fact, one of the reasons I went to that studio was because they had this built-in organ. There were all sorts of weird and wonderful things, it was a very difficult album and things started to go wrong on it. Voyage… was very easy, it was a natural childbirth - plain sailing as it were, but this was much more difficult, much more of a breach birth.
And this was the first one you decided to tour for…
I prefer not to talk about all the negatives but there were quite a lot of them! (laughs) I was frantically trying to get my head above water while I was doing it. I was pleased with the album when it was finished but I realised that it ha d taken a lot out of me, I didn’t have the safety net as I wasn’t with the group anymore and being out there on my own I felt like I had bitten off more than could chew. I realised several moths afterwards after swearing that I wouldn’t tour, I realised that I missed touring. The trouble is that if you are not touring an album all you have got is the critical response and the professional critics obviously the first time round will give you the benefit of the doubt but the next time round it’s much harder because the more you commit of yourself, the less new it is - the second production. It’s that problem second album, isn’t it?
This was the one you took on the road and the fans loved it, the shows were, by all accounts a great success…
It was very nice having my own band - that was what came out of it.
How did you actually go about selecting the guys who went into the band…?
In some cases it was auditions, recommendations, Exchange And Mart (laughs), Battersea Dogs Home! (laughs).
You took both albums on the road along with a couple of tracks from the as yet unreleased third album and the fans loved it. Were you surprised by the reaction?
Yes, it was a marvellous thrill and Spectral Mornings was done off the back of that, so everyone was on a high really.
And there’s where we leave it folks, until next time. It only remains for me to say a very big thank you to both Steve and Billy Budis for taking the time to organise the interview and for giving up so much of their time. We wish Steve and Billy every success for 1994 with whatever the next project may be - thanks very much!!