“Finding faces and gaining momentum” - Steve Hackett in conversation about his solo career with Alan Hewitt. Interview conducted on 25th September 1993. Photographs courtesy of Arista Records and Ted Sayers.
TWR: Till We Have Faces certainly took the percussive and rhythmic elements that had been building through Cured and Highly Strung to an extreme. The album was savagely received and yet all of the trademarks are still there…
SH: Well, I had a good reaction to Let Me Count The Ways, the blues track on it, and in fact I am doing a blues album at the moment, so in a way that was a forerunner of what I have been up to recently. The percussion was something else and in a way I thought of it as a learning experience, being involved with that amount of percussionists and rhythmic players. I would meet them on the spot and they would demonstrate their skills. In fact, recording in Brazil, the restriction there was that I could only get studios that started at midnight! (laughs). Officially they were supposed to start at nine and these things always tended to conspire with circumstances and so we would get home at about eight in the morning. They would be doing renovations upstairs and so I did that album without any sleep and then I brought it back to England and mixed it. Again, it is an album that falls into two halves; the cohesive song element and the more improvised, rhythmic percussive stuff.
TWR: I think that’s probably why a lot of people didn’t latch on to it quite so quickly - it almost pre-dates “World Music” because it is very ethnically involved with all the different elements of percussion.
SH: I think, with hindsight, I probably would have gone even further with it and it even more of a “World Music” album, if that is the term, and abandoned all Western civilisation whatsoever. I still have got performances of things that we recorded at the time and it is only now that I can listen to them at home as I have now got a home studio that I am really able to assess them and occasionally use them by plundering the rhythmic patterns. Using them tends to relate much more to now than it did then.
The banding of the album could have been a lot better. I often think that the way you arrange albums tends to colour people’s view of them, and therefore if you have something that is particularly rhythmic or ethnic at the beginning, people will say; ’Oh, it’s an ethnic album’ or if you come in with something poppy they will say it’s a pop album. So, you have got that thing in terms of how you prioritise an album and it’s not always something where the artist has the final say. I am being honest by saying that because usually everyone’s comments are taken on board and there may be record company pressures. Most of the time I don’t think I have yielded to record company pressure. I have usually found hat the best thing to do is exactly what you wanted to do and then you have a very good chance of pleasing the fans but at the same time you have a very good chance of upsetting the record company. It is very difficult to please both the business and the public and I think that over the years the business has become aware that there has been a distancing between their own tastes, imposing their own ideas above what fans actually want.
TWR: I think that most of the fans weren’t disappointed by the album, but by the fact that there was no tour to support it…
SH: I wanted to go on tour with it and I wanted to take a percussion section with me but I didn’t have sufficiently strong management at the time to be able to pull that off and so it had to remain sadly, an unfulfilled dream.
The GTR project was quite a surprise in terms of you appearing in another “Supergroup”…
Brian Lane, who was the manager of Yes and Asia is an infamous character in the music business. His offices were in the same area where I lived, in Notting Hill Gate. We bumped into each other funnily enough in Los Angeles some years earlier when I had just done the Please Don’t Touch album. Brian was the kind of character who talks up a good game; he’s a very good salesman and he wanted to work with me not in the solo context but in a group situation although I really didn’t want to work in a group context.
We were talking one day and he said; ’You know Steve Howe is not doing anything; he’s out of Asia’ One or two of my friends were in Asia, such as John Wetton; he was in at the making and he was terribly excited about it. It had done very well and then the rot started to set in. Brian as a character, liked to divide and conquer, this is how he liked to rule his groups; split them up and them bring them back together in different formats. He was a force to be reckoned with and not ignored and he became very excited about forming a group with the two guitarists. Funnily enough, I was having lunch with him one day and Kim was there and he mentioned that Steve Howe was not doing much at the time which paralleled my situation, as I was between albums. Kim actually said; ’why don’t you do something with two guitarists?’ He said that it might be interesting so I said I would meet Steve.
Initially we were talking about doing an album with two guitarists which quickly became this idea of forming a group, because we both felt that if we just made an album and didn’t tour it; we wouldn’t give it the best chance. So, the group really grew up to facilitate the liaison between the two of us. Brian’s standing with Geffen Records was in the ascendant and they became very interested in the project, which I had always seen as a project. They were on the boil and then they went off the boil and then Arista became involved. Initially it was something that was going to take three months to record and ended up taking nine months to record in atop studio and it became a very big success in the States but was not terribly well received over here.
It was signed to an American record company who had a tremendous amount of involvement with it. I don’t think of it as the best record I have ever made and that is putting it diplomatically! I think there’s a great song on the album in When The Heart Rules The Mind which was something that Steve and I wrote practically on the first day. He had the instrumental bit and I had the song and we stuck the two together and I think it sounds very good. It sounds best, funnily enough, on American radio, where it is played to death. We had a very good mix of I which the record company rejected and they wanted another one; then there were various guitar parts that were left off the record. It really was the last time I worked under the corporate umbrella. Ever since then I have rued the idea of working with a mega company, who would want to stick their creative oar in at every stage. I think of it as a negotiation rather than a record, very much in the way that modern successful Hollywood films are made.
TWR: Creatively, how much of it was a balance between Steve and yourself and the input of the other band members?
SH: I think that Steve and I wrote most of the stuff and the band wrote a part. I think we must have written about 80% and the band about 20%, something along those lines. It is difficult when I look back on it, I don’t really know if it was a mistake or if it was a necessary part of growing up. I felt halfway through the project that it was going to be a difficult one to finish; a lot of needs had to be met and there were perhaps too many chiefs and not enough Indians.
TWR: It was certainly an album that divided the fans. There were those who couldn’t really accept the idea of you in another group after Genesis…
SH: Yes, I agree. It’s a funny thing that it is probably one of the records I am least proud of, and yet it was one of the most successful things I’ve ever done. It was a dilemma, although luckily no other potential super groups have been offered to me! (laughs) I think the world at large has realised that I am no longer employable, I’m not a team player anymore and I have to steer it for good or bad regardless of whether it founders on the rocks or not.
After that I did an album, I just wanted to get out and to play to people without any fuss to show that I could do it without the props, without the conglomerate and the big budget and all that. So, I started doing acoustic shows again. There were different pressures, because what is delightfully simple on paper is frighteningly complex when you come to go out there and just play. There is in many ways, much more pressure for the guy who is just sitting there on the stool or the stand-up comic who’s not in a situation comedy anymore and the stage can become a very lonely place. There’s no doubt that it is a much harder thing to pull off because you are aware of your own human limitations.
Momentum was well received. I wanted to put across the music, I felt the music was strong otherwise I wouldn’t have attempted it. I think that that is more difficult than somebody who has been training to play Bach for life and goes and does that. There was a thing when I went and played with the London Chamber Orchestra very briefly, last year with Christopher Warren-Green who leads them, and he said: ’It takes some bottle to do it because we are all trained to do it and you aren’t’ and he said he thought that was a first.
TWR: I think the main thing about this album was that, unlike Bay Of Kings, where we were expecting the musicians to jump in at any moment, on Momentum we knew that they were there already…
SH: I think that I was technically better on this one. You amass more moves as you go on and that starts improving all the time but I get to a point where I start to get a little suspicious of technique. If you feel the need to express it all the time in terms of technique then you start to get something that’s less simple and there I a certain simplicity I like about music. Sometimes I find myself liking music that is less technical and more “felt”. You can’t keep everyone happy and if you want to keep the purists happy, it comes at a certain cost. I did it because I felt the music was worth presenting, that was really he only criterion. I don’t make any apologies for the music.
TWR: Is it more difficult to write acoustic music?
SH: It is harder to play acoustic guitar than it is to play electric guitar, because if you are playing lead electric guitar, it is a single line instrument in the main. Whereas you are playing a number of voices with the acoustic; you are doing at least twice as much.
TWR: Do you still draw upon your classical influences when writing?
SH: Yes I do, because it is the basis of all music. It’s
a bit like referring to a dictionary when you are trying to develop chord sequences,
and you go back to the dictionary as written by J S Bach. It’s a bit like
the fact that every modern keyboard player has to contend with the fact that
Bach did it all, or practically all of it so many years ago. So much of it seems
to go back to that.