“From the Camino Royale to the Bay of Kings” - Steve Hackett in conversation about his solo career with Alan Hewitt. Photographs by Mike Ainscoe. Memorabilia from TWR archive.
TWR: There was a gap between Cured and Highly Strung of almost two years. Was any of this to do with the problems Charisma were having at this time?
SH: I wasn’t really aware of the potential trouble at that point. It became harder to work with Charisma Records because they wanted to become more involved creatively with the products after that and the problem arises when you have a company who are in disarray themselves. It can be very difficult if you are caught between departments. In other words, A & R were starting to make comments and requests which didn’t fit the MD’s ideas and it left me in the middle trying to steer a sensible course.
As a result, Highly Strung was a more difficult album - once again one of my difficult ones! The circumstances around it were not as easy as I was fighting for my integrity if you like, and it was a difficult time. That’s why the album took eighteen months to take shape. Charisma wanted me to have a producer at the start and then they couldn’t agree on which producer it should be. So, I said; “well do you mind if in the meantime, I just try and get on with it and start recording?” and they said; “Oh, no, you should…” (laughs) At the end of the day I was left with an album which they decided they didn’t like. They felt I shouldn’t sing but I felt strongly that I should, so we were starting not to see eye to eye on things.
TWR: As you continued to sing, the vocals on Highly Strung show how you had improved and how you had found more of your range as it were. Ironically, for all the problems you had with the album, it included a hit single in the form of Cell 151...
SH: It was ironic that that was a success because it was a track that had been re-mixed eight times! (laughs) It was always going backwards and forwards and I would be asking; “Do you like this? Do you like that?” I constantly had the feeling that I was auditioning for the record company and it was an uncertain atmosphere and I wasn’t sure of things. Even though I had a success with that track, they decided that they weren’t going to be involved with me anymore. The writing was on the wall and I began to approach other record companies.
There were two things that I also disagreed with Charisma about at the time. Firstly, so many fans were asking for a live album, and I wanted to deliver one but they were firmly against that. I felt that it would have been the right move and in fact I still think it would have been the best thing to do. The other was the idea of an all-acoustic album which I had started doing in my own spare time with my own money as it were, which was the album that became Bay Of Kings. I started recording that in 1980 but it wasn’t released until much later.
My next record label was much smaller and had a lot of enthusisasm but was, to some extent, a dilletante; an expensive toy for its owner, who decided that they were going to move out of the record business. They were into a number of areas at the time; into cars which was their mainstay; they were into perfume; luggage, music all at once and the fact is that I started recording albums that were occasionally self-funded where you would need to find a ready buyer rather than working with the comfort of a company who would fund it and expect it at a certain time. It’s a bit like a father and his children where if they don’t come out as bastards they come out as orphans. But to a degree I think you are renewing your own sense of commitment by doing that. It’s that old Broadway or Tin Pan Alley idea that you never put money into your own show.
Well, there are times when if you want to stay in business you have to do that. It may not mean that you have a success but when it’s simply a case of staying in business so you have to do that. We have our own company now and our own studio and at one time that would have been unthinkable. You see, with conglomerates you will find that there are times when you will be in favour with them and you are the darling of the moment, but as you begin to develop strong ideas about how something should sound, so you deny them their creative input and the albums become made to order.
TWR: I think that one of the things that struck people most about Highly Strung was that it was a lot more loose. In parts it felt a lot more improvised and a lot more comfortable. There are tracks on that album that sound as if they should have been on Cured but weren’t, if you like, ready. Pieces like Weightless and India Rubber Man , were not quite what people would expect to hear on what would be considered to be a rock album…
SH: Yes, that’s true. It’s funny but I think at times that I am my own most savage critic really. I would look back on that now and say that the lyric was an excuse to put a by-line on another song about hang-gliding over Rio De Janeiro! In a way I felt like doing that - flying in the face, literally, of Punk where everything had to be street cred and I thought fuck that, let’s give them this! Strangely enough, Brian Eno did a track called Weightless which I hadn’t realised he’d done on another album afterwards although I’m not quite sure of the timing on that. In a way I have always been interested in atmospheric music and I suppose I’m a contradiction because on one hand I am quite happy to approach things through the intellect and on the other I feel that things should be instinctive. I think that if I look back over it, it is a fragmented album, possibly falling into two halves of the song type and the blowing type. Tracks like Camino Royale have a lot more drive to them.
TWR: You’ve mentioned the acoustic album already. 1983 was a busy year for your fans because we had the two tours. I think that Bay Of Kings was really a surprise because an entirely acoustic album was not something that people were expecting despite your acoustic side from the previous albums, and your live shows. But to produce an entire acoustic album was a real challenge, in particular, for the rock element of your audience.
SH: This is always a good test - you sometimes hear a track and you don’t realise it yourself! I walked into the record company offices as they were playing one day and my head was full of other things like probably waiting to do another interview or something, and I said to the people there; “who’s that!?” because I couldn’t tell who it was. It was the fast piece that ’s at the end of side one and this was in the days before CDs came along and sides of albums disappeared. I thought I was listening to a harp. It sounded beautiful and intriguing and what more can I say other than I didn’t recognise it! Sometimes, when you listen to a piece of music and you don’t hear the beginning it can wrong foot you and you think it’s someone else. That’s happened to me a few times.
TWR: The other thing that was surprising about Bay Of Kings was that you chose to put a few of the older pieces from previous albums into an acoustic setting. Was that a challenge for you to almost rethink them?
SH: Yes, we wanted to include things which were well known flute melodies because I had written a lot since John was so close at hand. We did re-think them and did, in some cases, more interesting versions of these because of the limitations.
TWR: We had to think of them in a new light too. People were expecting the big power chords to come in and of course, they weren’t there! The shows themselves were a revelation for the fans and in particular for the non-album pieces that were played. One that’s become almost a trademark for you is Tales Of The Riverbank…
SH: That one. Yes, I used to play it and once again, it was the B side of a single. It’s strange how sometimes you get the greatest response from things that are the most unlikely and are in no way proportional to the amount of time you invest in these things! The whole reason for wanting to do acoustic stuff goes back years to when I first heard guitar things that were made in the 1920’s and 1930’s and it sounded amazing to me the amount of things you could do on one guitar.
So, I started writing things that were as complex as my technique would allow but melodies were the thingfs that seemed to be the most important. In that area you don’t really separate the writing from the playing and you work with sound, I play slower. So when I look back on it now I tend to think of it as almost siesta type music; the kind of thing where you’re starting to leave things behind and just fall off to sleep and become really very relaxed and very tranquil. I know that that is the reason why people do music for relaxation tapes but at the time, I viewed it as music without props, and that pre-dates New Age and all of that stuff.