"Illuminating Darktown" - Steve Hackett in conversation about his new album. Interview by Alan Hewitt, conducted at Crown Studios, Saturday March 20, 1999.
TWR: So, Steve, here we are again, talking about the new album, and the first question is about the title: why "Darktown"?
SH: Darktown, yes, well the title was taken from a book funnily enough; the book that was made into a film, "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil" mentioned a ghetto part of town called "Darktown" but it seemed wonderfully Clive Barker-esque in a kind of way and in fact seemed to allude more to horror films than it did to the detective cops and robbers genre. So, it seemed intriguing but in fact the book which I think I took it from, it merely refers to a black ghetto area but for me in a way it symbolises schooldays and that sense of oppression of the 1950's - repression rather, so it is a look at my young self.
TWR: The first thought that went through my mind when I heard the album... I don't know if you remember the tv programme; "Tales Of the Unexpected"? The vocals that went with it just reminded me of the menace that was underlying... a thing "implied" without actually being stated, and in view of what you have just said about the abuse of education... it is so overpoweringly dark without... you can hear the cane coming down without feeling the pain of the blow itself...
SH: Yeah, there are some subjects which I have avoided in song over the years because some of them were too painful to talk about but you get to the point whereby... I have lost count of how many albums I've done... have I done twenty albums? Have I done thirty albums? And after a while you feel like confronting those demons perhaps. There is the whole English school system and it worries me that there are so many of my friends who have either gone bananas or become alcoholic or are in therapy and it all goes back to their childhood and various things that happened to them. I haven't spoken about this, I have only written the songs and haven't been required to explain myself! (laughter) it is as private a nightmare as I can share with you.
TWR: I think the last line of the press release that came with the album sums it up quite nicely... "A nightmare theme park of a ride from a man truly possessed". I think that summed it up...
SH: Yeah, I think I am probably driven by those same demons.
TWR: You mentioned when we were talking before - just to set this in context - that you have taken, even by your own standards, rather a long time on this project; you said it has been eight years in the making...?
SH: Yes, it has been a long time in the making and those lyrics have been a long time in the making. I have sung about things that have troubled me, as opposed to things that have thrilled me, shall we say, and this is my way of dealing with it.
TWR: I think this is a process that you started to a certain extent, with "Guitar Noir" because there were certainly elements in there that were not necessarily autobiographical but were things that you wanted to make a statement about; something that either pleased you or worried you; or annoyed you and this is, if you like - if that album was the happier side of things - then this is definitely the downside without being doomy and such, because it isn't. And the title, is very misleading and there is still that sense of... on some of the tracks there is... and we have jumped ahead of ourselves already... the opening track "Omega Metallicus" does the title mean anything...?
SH: Yeah, the title is a joke, all references to anything Etruscan to anyone who knows me by now is a complete joke! (laughter) complete twaddle! (laughter). Maybe that is just my way of sending up anyone who is university minded; just this idea of whatever you don't turn it into a school, and I have been very... I am sorry I am not answering the question very directly here; I have been very "creative" with the credits on this album! (laughter). I get tired of album credits where people say literally, you know... list everything they used.
TWR: I have just noticed here: "Guitar Handler Steve Hackett..." (laughter).
SH: Left handed toilet flush, you know what I mean! (laughter) and there are so many things that people put into their credits.
TWR: I think you missed one here: "Bass Sir Douglas Sinclair" twice removed and once thrown out I believe! (laughter)
SH: Probably, and they are usually hardware orientated but that doesn't explain the emotional motivation behind wanting to use a Box Brownie Camera or the latest piece of video hardware, and so it is my way of trying to shake that up and saying let's not get too concerned about what sort of sand pit it is; the fact is it's there only to make sandcastles with; so that was my thinking. It makes sense to me (laughter). I realise that to most people I need an interpreter! (laughter)
TWR: Well, if you make sense to yourself, that's a great start!
SH: I try to make sense to other people. I realise that people have great difficulty understanding my sense of humour, as it gets drier and drier.
TWR: I think one of the... certainly for the people who know the American version of "Guitar Noir", there is the stolen bar from "Cassandra" in there and that sort of stands out...
SH: I did yeah, a track that's not tremendously well known shall we say. Not widely known and that was released in America.
TWR: I couldn't stop laughing when I heard it because I thought "hold on; here we've got an album. The cover is a graveyard; the opening track is basically a psychopathic guitar rampage, and in the middle you have this reference to this ancient Prophetess of doom and gloom!" (laughter). That sets up the tone for it, for me and I thought; "What's next?" and then you have "Darktown" which is this sinister track, about the evils of a repressed soul really...
SH: Yes, there is that. There are certain moments which won't go away and I think the idea of injustice, which any reasonable person would say "oh well, let's just forget it" and other people of course, can't forget.
TWR: Now that I have the benefit of seeing the sleeve notes; the album is certainly not as... Hackett strikes again. It's not as straightforward as it seems, and one of the most interesting things about this project is some of the guys you have involved with it. I know you have had Roger involved in the last few projects, but who else was actually involved in the project apart from Ian MacDonald and Jim Diamond...?
SH: Well, the other people are probably less well know to the record buying public, but on the hand, people like Roger King are gaining more fans by the minute because the quality of their work is tremendously good in his case and his "Beats And The Hood" sample cd has cropped up on quite a few albums now and Paul Carrack's album mentions it, in fact. You have the kind of Hip Hop grooves which you would think would be a million miles away from this old progressive rocker like myself. I wouldn't say that I felt that "Darktown" had sold out, I mean I can understand someone saying if you were producing something that was an obvious single, but I don't think there is anything on it which is that obvious a track, to be honest.
There were a tremendous amount of engineers involved and programmers; there's Ben Fenner; there's Jerry Peal; and their names have cropped up in the past with me. There's Roger King and Billy Budis even engineered some of the tracks, but what I tended to do is that I will have an apparently finished track and then I will work on top of it like on... for instance... "The Golden Age Of Steam", that was quite an early mix that was then taken and some other things were added. So, for instance the woodwind that appears in the last verse. That is playing along and that was something that came about quite recently - in the last twelve months - and yet the song had sat there for six years or so, and I kept thinking "What do I need? Ah, I know what it needs..." he goes, six years later; "What it needs is a different orchestral arrangement at the end so that it builds...". And it takes years for the penny to drop with me sometimes. But that is because I was doing this album some six years ago and people were still writing to me saying; "I don't think you are much of a singer. Steve, give that up. Get in a decent singer like Peter Gabriel..." (laughter) and I thought well, they might have a point but something tells me to keep going in that area, and this album more than any other is a case of I am pleased that I didnít hire any other people to do it. There is one guest vocal with Jim which is a tremendous track but the rest of it I did myself and it is the first time that I was glad that I didnít hire any other singer.
TWR: Everybody was taken by surprise when you decided to sing way back at the time of the "Cured" album but personally, and I know this will surprise some of our fans when they hear me say it but the best ever vocal performance you have given in my opinion was on "Darktown" because the way you did it, not only suited the subject matter but also the mood of the music itself.
SH: Well, that was a kind of cross between wanting to be a ham Shakespearean thespian kind of approach; a cross between a "luvvie" and Darth Vader! (laughter).
TWR: It worked! (laughter) Lawrence Olivier in a full metal jacket!
SH: It was the way the character - you see, I think of the character as different from myself. It doesn't sound like me; it is not slowed down. It is sung or spoken actually, through a harmoniser with a slap echo on it and it has this kind of tannoy effect on it and it was the way that he says the word "girls" at the end of one of the verses and you can tell that this character really despises them but in a wonderfully theatrical camp sort of way. That's the character you know, this is nothing to do with me. It is just like a character actor who has been asked, for instance, if I was asked to do a voice over for a cartoon and it was supposed to be a malevolent kind of character (laughter) and I was trying to camp it up. The character has definitely got a problem hasn't he? And the idea that he despises his young charges. The idea of... in the last verse, I am talking about rabid animals and I have spoken to people about this and they have said that they got the feeling that once parents disappeared at school, the teachers turned; they became something else; they became their true evil selves and "Right, now I have got you and I can do anything I like to you, and I am going to make sure that you are in therapy for years to come. I am going to turn you into psychos..." almost like I have got the power; not to kill but to alter your little minds and brainwash you and fuck you up. I feel this; I don't think I am paranoid, I have heard this from too many other people and I am assuming that other people have been through it.
TWR: You hear these horror stories now, it is virtually every day...
SH: Every one of us who has survived school in this country it seems.
TWR: Which brings us to the next cheerful title... "Man Overboard"...?
Alan with Steve Hackett
SH: Well, really that is a love song although "Man Overboard" sounds as if it is symbolic.
TWR: Is it symbolic of the man falling overboard in love with the woman of his dreams...?
SH: Yeah, it is symbolic of the idea. That is the idea that he went overboard in love with you; head over heels in love. I didn't, I wasn't intending on Edgar Allen Poe's "Cask Of Amontillado" sort of ending or "The Fall Of The House Of Usher" or anything like that! (laughter). Maybe it came out that way but I wasn't intending that at all, it was all to do with... Kim and I used to go on holiday to Bermuda for our holidays and more often than not, where every time we thought of getting away together, it was always Bermuda because it was so lovely; the air was clean and the place was so manicured and it seemed so idyllic and you could get little mopeds and potter around on them around the island and go sailing and various other things. So really it is an homage to the seafaring holiday because I really do love being on boats and it all seems to blow it all clean; it blows the cobwebs away; fresh air; sunshine, the kind of thing I haven't had a great deal of for the last seven years now since I've been... I've been locked up in that studio for a LONG time! (laughter). I need a holiday, really that's what I need. I really do need to get away but I seem to be amassing more and more projects, so the holiday will have to wait. Which is why I look so knackered!
That's just how it is, you can either swan around from resort to resort and there were years when I found I couldnít get record deals and I was kind of sidelined by the industry and now that we have got our own record company I am thrilled to say that the record company itself is a success, which gives a better chance to anything that is released. And it is nice to have records in the shops again. I feel that I am sort of having a second crack at the coconut shy with all of this and so I am working flat out all the time. I work most weeks; I do long hours (laughter) and I am thrilled to do it. I mean, I could do with a bit more fresh air than I have been getting recently but... and I usually find that after a day or two holiday I am no good at sitting on a beach really. I get twitchy, and start writing songs; where's my notepad? Messing about; getting ideas for things. I find that often they are the most constructive moments when you are trying to do different things.
TWR: There are a couple of tracks that, to me at least, seem to be key tracks and the next track on the album: "The Golden Age Of Steam", that track fascinated me, because it seemed to blend so many strands of the thirties and forties together and it has a character that is modern music but feels of the period...
SH: Well, you know the book "The Diary Of Anne Frank" - her family's betrayal and discovery in the room in Amsterdam? Anyway I had extracts of that read to me when I was at school and the book has always haunted me and the idea of children making very effective spies in the second world war and the idea came to me one night and I had been watching a programme about trains and the golden age of travel and the whole thing, and I thought; "well, maybe there's something in here; this idea of looking back and nostalgia particularly looking back at the past and calling it the golden age but maybe it is not such a golden age after all?" There was a lot of terrible stuff that went on and it is symbolic again.
I almost didnít write this song because I was worried that such bleak subject matter as the discovery of people in hiding... am I making sense here? What I am trying to say is that the idea of children being effective spies and the possibility that... my mind did this sort of jump cut to what if the family had been shopped not by an adult, but by a child? What if it was a child that had been bribed by the Nazis? My little character is one that; it's a bit like a film in a way; he is a blond blue eyed kid; so immediately he is blond and blue eyed so he fits in with the Germanic ideal. He is also a pretty sharp little customer and he realises that he can milk the situation; he is not carried along on the tide of events; he is riding the tide of events, and he is potentially a crook, you know? He is all of these things, so it was the idea that he managed to carry it off and pocketed certain things with the reference to jewels and what have you.
There is a certain amount of self-justification in there and in the self-justification section when he talks about being a hero to many men at a certain time that was a piece in the song that I dreamt and I heard this tune going round and normally I will hear bits and pieces of disconnected music; bits of strings doing things and if I am lucky, I will remember them. In this instance it was my own voice singing and it had that sound and it was... I don't consider myself to have a very strong voice, but I was singing it as loudly as I could and it has lots of reverb on it and so it gave me an idea for a kind of style that the middle part could have and so I got up at about three o'clock in the morning and sang it into a Walkman and I remembered it the next day and it... it didn't come with words at the time. So it was the whole idea of trains with the shunting strings; the kind of marcato strings. The idea that the trains were running on time oiling the machine; oiling the war machine and so in a way the train is symbolic of that and that idea is as awful as you want to imagine it.
That one is a very detailed song; the arrangement is very detailed and in some ways it was the song I was the proudest of on the album in terms of an arrangement that worked and a melody that worked and a lyric that works which has been thoroughly worked out and which hadn't been rushed, you know. As I said; six years later! (laughs) You're not thinking "it needs a bit of flute on... or the bassoon on the last..." The whole thing was sampled and it even has a sample of a second world war siren at the end. I can't remember the guy who narrates the piece's name... I had a cassette of second world war commentaries and the Normandy Beach landing stuff and that was lost unfortunately; but the sample remained and so it was actually genuine. The one thing I did actually play was a miniature guitar called a Tipple which makes the mandolin sound and I had two or three of them tracked up to give the slightly middle Eastern effect on it.
The central theme begins as a little... it is a penny whistle at the beginning and drums which sounds like a children's marching band; it is very much the Hitler Youth thing which becomes a whole army by the end of it. It keeps coming back at you with that very much "Tomorrow Belongs To Me"-ish sort of way and Mae McKenna is on it and we tracked her up quite a few times and her son Jamie is on it. So there are other voices on there besides mine, and there is a sampled children's choir at one point which is stretched and slowed down and there is so much sampling on the album, but it wasn't just sampling which sounds as if you take the sound of someone hitting a snare drum; and that is sampling. Sampling didn't really say the half of it. The things had been messed with so much at the end of the day I played John "The Golden Age Of Steam" and he said to me; "Oh, is this the Royal Philharmonic again?" and I thought; "Well; I've done my job here if he feels that it sounds real". So I was very proud that the samples that we used were very good and for anyone who is really interested, the string samples that we used - the really driving ones - they are called Pro Sonus String samples and Marcato string samples and they are very, very good. So, you hear that and it sounds as expensive as anything I have dreamed up with an orchestra so I am proud of that. And this goes right back to the days of seeing the odd bands with a Mellotron and thinking "Oh wow, we've got to have one of those!" And so I still have a kind of reverence for early samplers and in many ways I think the early samplers were better than the newer ones.
TWR: Nothing quite matched the sound of the early Mellotrons; the really BIG sounding...
SH: Yeah, I think it's the way people had to use those; sounds weren't very bright; they were recorded in 1953 and it was really a long, long time ago and they are not that bright, but they sound much more friendly.
TWR: They also seemed to fill the sound better than the later string synths, which always sounded, across the board; they sounded very bland, and although they filed the big string part they didnít really give the power from the orchestra...
SH: Yeah, well that's what I think and I had this conversation with Ian MacDonald a little while back and I said "I really like the use of the early Mellotron" that he did and I donít think the new string samples are as good and he said "I agree with you" and I know we did with early Genesis and early King Crimson. I wanted to be able to literally smell the dust, do you know what I mean? It had to be like that, and so there was no concession really. No recognisable electric guitar on it which wouldnít work for me on this one. It was a kind of flagship for me, that track.
TWR: "Days Of Long Ago", with Jim Diamond seems to me to be a very straightforward love song, you know; love lost, love mislaid. But I am sure it is not as simple as that?
SH: Well, the lyrics are 100% Jim's on that one although we came up with the melody together, but I don't think that Jim feels that comfortable singing someone else's lyrics and I think that he tends to feel that he is a singer from another era. He says; "I like the 1920's - I like songs that break your heart". So we are going to do an album of those type of songs; you know; the type his father sang. I think essentially he is a singer of love songs. I was thrilled that that track came out so quickly; and I was able to back him on guitar. It was just one nylon guitar and vocal, I think, we did it live; the basis for it, and then everything was hung on it afterwards; the strings came about afterwards.
I've got this thing about acoustic music; acoustic music can become orchestral music and provided you don't stick drums on something... orchestral music you can take it right down to a little triangle; tiny thing and then you can blow it up very big and you can stop; there can be silences. It's non click-track music. It is music that floats.
TWR: I did think that the stuff you did on this track harks back in some respects, to the stuff you did with Richie Havens back on "Please Don't Touch"; the very simple guitar/vocal combination...
SH: I think that the thinking was that if you listen to a lot of the songs that were hits in the 1950's and early 1960's, the kind of Everly Brothers time, you realise that drums weren't huge in those days. The priority was the singer, and even the Brian Hyland stuff; people that were really the descendants of the crooners as we know them; the Bing Crosbys and stuff; the people who were the purveyors of the most successful love songs at the time I'm talking about; the Roy Orbisons, people with really velvet voices, and they tended to use a lot of reverb on their voices to make them sound big. There wasn't a lot of interference from huge rhythm sections because they hadn't really come to the fore. So, even when you had drums on these things they were normally buried and it was many years before anyone really heard a bass drum - much to the chagrin of drummers, of course!
So, it was with an era when the singer reigned supreme and so I tried to carry forward an aspect of that with the stuff that I did with Jim. We've done one or two other things so far and we are trying to round them off into an album and Jim likes the idea of the voice being backed by just a nylon guitar, so there is nothing to really get in the way of the voice, and so I am going to try an do quite a lot of these tracks with a quite literally one pass nylon guitar. I might make the accompaniment a little bit flowery to justify its presence with a song that you might have heard a million times before but just with the idea of the singer and accompanist.
TWR: "Dreaming With Open Eyes", that is a fantastic title for a song, but what is it about?
SH: Funnily enough, among other things, I was walking along the side of the Thames with Kim in Twickenham one day and this little girl passed me and she was kind of staring; she had those big round eyes, and I thought you know the way children see; it is as if they are dreaming, as much as they see, and there is no distinction, you know? Every day things have magic; the first time you see red; the first time you see a pair of boots; you know; things are larger than life and all the sense impressions of life... You are such a sensitive camera at that point in time and then I saw the title of a book by a guy called Michael Tucker called "Dreaming With Open Eyes" because I had this idea of children with eyes that dream as much as they see and I thought; "I can't use that as a song title, it's not quite right..." and then I heard that the book that he had written the title was actually a direct quote from... I think Milton who, of course, was blind. So, as far as I know it goes back that far, although I was unaware of that at this point.
Funnily enough, although I don't profess to have read much of Milton's stuff, but what I have read of it is full of colour for a man who was blind. I believe the poetry is full of greens and golds and velvets and it is wonderful and all the more intense through being seen or remembered through the eyes of a blind man. So, there are a number of books and ideas that affected that, and the opening lines I took from... I'm ashamed to say I have lost the book but it was a book that I got from the spiritualists at one point, and it was talking abut a car ride and the fact that you drift off and you are in two places at once, and I thought; what I will do for this song is I will have you in two places at once all the time, so it is a car journey. There has been a boat journey on the album, there has been a train journey on the album, and now there is a car journey.
It starts off with the windscreen wipers which kind of act as a metronome for the rest of the song and everything else is hung on that and there were lots of happy little accidents that came along as we were doing it; my brother sampled a pan pipe at one point and the thing that triggered the pan pipe was the windscreen wipers and so... the rhythm sound was from a guitar being hit and then slowed down so the drum sound... there is no drum sound - it is a guitar. The double bass sound is a real double bass but there were some sampled phrases; slides; augmentos and harmonics and what have you. So, the samples were mixed with the real things going all the time and I tracked up the vocals and I think I did it as a three part harmony and each part is tracked and I did the main part on a day when I had a cold and it sounded very thin and so I tracked it up the following day and it became a little bit heavier than I had originally intended. I think there is a blow bottle sound which creates the pads of chords at the beginning which was influenced by a film about Lewis Carroll, "Dreamchild". I remember the music to that having a nice kind of eerie sound to it but various things were written as a result of experience; like for instance running down a towpath one day. Some days you feel better than others and I was really zooming along on that particular day; really motoring and I realised that in my mind I wasn't running in one place, I was thinking about other places you know; like in Brazil for instance, there's a mountain with a road on it and it is the one with the statue of Christ on top; the Corcovado it's called, and so all of these things come in to the guy who is driving because it's wet and in fact the best way to hear that track is when it is raining, and you are actually driving a car (laughter) as you know when you are driving a car and it is dark and wet, it is pretty bloody boring! (laughter) and you have to start to think about sunny days and quite a lot of drives through America which I have driven across many times, and they have these great long roads with nothing going on; Ok, there's scenery but it is usually very far away and so there are various things that I have included in the lyrics, and I didn't know why I was doing it but the thing about waterfalls and "Colours cascading from green to red..." well... in a way that is really traffic lights, and the allusion to waterfalls is because the windscreen is covered with water, it becomes that as well. So it is the idea of it becoming other things.
I have realised once again that dream imagery comes into these songs quite a lot and I had a dream about being in this huge kind of place and it was a floating dream and it was like a cathedral except it had huge windows; much bigger than the biggest cathedral; it was almost planetary in its size; this building was so big that you could float out of these huge apertures and you would never have to worry about hitting the building itself because it was so open. And so that was an idea that I was going to try and put in the song at some point and then I was in the local delicatessen and someone had written upside down on apiece of paper that they wrap bread in; "Where are you going? Towards the sky" And I thought "How could anyone possibly write that? Is it from a children's rhyme?" I don't know where it came from and so much of the lyric writing was influenced by John Lennon's approach when he said "If I am bereft of ideas, I have the tv tuned down low" and so a lot of it is disconnected imagery and the whole kind of use of other people's ideas and you just kind of act as a kind of editor. I don't worry about originality. I stopped worrying about originality a long time ago and so that means that occasionally I end up borrowing heavily from other people's ideas but I think if something strikes me and it works and I don't know what the source is, if it is a little phrase or saying, then I will slip it in there.
The other reference is to "Between the craters of the moon and the sun". There is a book written by Jimi Hendrix's drummer Mitch Mitchell and he said that they were due to play a gig somewhere on one of the Hawaiian islands and it was between two extinct volcanoes called "The Craters of the Sun And Moon" and try as they might, they couldn't get any electricity to work and he put it down to... the implication was that it was some kind of cosmic cancellation event that was going on, but I always liked the imagery of "Between the Craters Of The Sun And The Moon" and I wondered "What does that mean? But doesn't it sound wonderful?" That can be anything to anybody. I haven't got the explanation and I have no idea what that looks like but "The Craters Of The Sun And The Moon"... I am someone who is still in the process of trying to understand "what is a good lyric?" and I am equally happy with realism as I am with surrealism. I can appreciate a lyric on both levels so I am quite happy to write some nonsense if that throws up interesting imagery and let itself be open to interpretation, and equally if there is some kind of definite message, you know. "Darktown" is full if specific - well I think they are specific - symbols.
TWR: Sometimes you can go too far however and you end up spending the rest of your life trying to explain what that song is all about...
SH: Yes, well that is true but you mentioned "The Virgin & The Gypsy" and I don't drink anymore but years ago when I wrote that - in 1978 or 1979 whenever it was - I sat down one night with a couple of glasses of wine and I had a book a "Victorian Book Of Flowers". It was a coffee table book that was doing the round at the time, and I thought "could I construct a lyric that was made up entirely of flower names?" Then "The Virgin & The Gypsy" idea came in and innuendo through the flower names and lots of flower names have colours implied in them - marigold and what have you - and I hadn't read the book "The Virgin & The Gypsy" at that point. I only read it afterwards. I deliberately didn't want to be influenced by it, and I noticed with satisfaction that he had used the word "marigolds", and Lawrence as a writer uses words like a painter does. Again, it's the thread with Milton, that colours figure quite heavily, and I know that Lawrence used to paint as well so... it's powerful, isn't it?
TWR: It was interesting to have that one before the first instrumental on the album "Twice Round The Sun" which seems to have romped through your past guitar styles and everything else. It is almost a potted history of Steve Hackett's favourite licks in one respect...
SH: I agree, it is in some ways... it is well-worn territory in many ways it was influenced by early Focus except that it ended up with a contemporary rhythm section behind it. I tried it with real drums and it didn't really work. It is funny because it polarises people, that one is my mum's favourite! (laughter) and yet I suspect it is probably my least favourite on the album because I felt that I have been there before.
I was trying something on it and I don't know if I quite succeeded or not but that doesn't mean to say that I don't like it; it's just that I am a little bit uncomfortable with something that is so obviously belonging to the world of "Pomp Rock". It worries me a bit, do you know what I mean? The idea that people have that Steve Hackett does instrumental guitar tracks that go over drum tracks that go "Boom, boom, blat" and so many bands did. And I usually try to avoid it so it is probably my last attempt at that as a style and I won't ever consciously try and write anything like that again.
There is an example of that for some reason, the tune that is on... "Valley Of The Kings" on "Genesis Revisited", I guess that is an attempt at that but it was the drums that came first - it was a drum pattern that worked and sounded huge on a day when we were trying to get a drum sound up and it all ended up getting written around that. I find that if I try and sit down and try to write a slow powerful melody, most of the time I feel that I have failed and that is why it is the kind of song that Phil (Collins) wouldn't be seen dead doing these days, and I am well aware of it and I like to think that I have learned my rhythmic lessons since then, and a lot of the things I do I do feel "swing" now because that was a worry at one time when I hadn't got a clue.
TWR: There is always the danger with big long guitar solos that without the backing - that is, what gives it an atmosphere - the textures and the guitarist is trying to set the scene over the top, but if you don't have that then it will tend to sound just like a re-working of another long solo...
SH: I think the really hard thing is to put a drum kit on a really slow track and that is very hard because it is a very well-worn area. If you have got to do a ballad and you decide to have drums going "Boom, Boom, Blat" and many successful ones do; and many American power ballads still inhabit the charts from Cher to Bryan Adams to... you name it... The backing tracks tend to be interchangeable and they only really work when there is a great vocal going on or something to pull it out of the doldrums and I don't quite know what it is because I liked a lot of early music that did do that; quite a lot of early King Crimson tracks; "In The Court Of The Crimson King"; "Epitaph", but they had drum parts that didn't just follow the rhythm - there was quite a lot of cymbal work and drum breaks to break up the thing. The kind of stuff that is hard to do when you are using samplers, and most people don't do it.
Most of what was interesting about those drum tracks people don't do anymore. Mike Giles has become a friend and we have these conversations you know; producers who were running the show in the late seventies and early eighties tended to want to get drummers to play very simply, and not do the drum breaks that characterise and make it interesting. So, in a way that sort of area has been given over, as you know, to sequencers and samplers and percussion and what have you. But I think it is the biggest challenge for a drummer to come up with a good drum part for a slow tune; it's almost impossible not to send people to sleep! I am not saying it is impossible, because it is possible to do it subtly differently. All you have going is subtle differences at your disposal as a drummer and I am quite sure every time a drummer is offered something like that he goes "Oh, not again, what am I going to do with this?" there are people who can do it differently; Simon Phillips can do it differently; he has got a way of doing a roll into a down beat which is just great and that separates the men from the boys as far as I am concerned.
TWR: The thing about this track is that if it were on any other album, it would sound a little bit trite...
SH: Been there before; guilty! The bit that funnily enough I think works best is the slow bit in the middle and the end where it is a Mellotron - strings and organ; all effect; all reverb effect no actual straight signal and the guitar work at the end was intended to sound like an early fuzzbox. And I am using a bit of more recent gear; it is a Sounds amp but with all the bottom taken out and all the buzz and fizz cranked up so it would sound like an early fuzzbox; really spitty sound with lots of effect on it. Reverb repeat to create the size of sound, whereas the actual sound itself is like a nest of angry bees, and I think it is one of the better guitar sounds on the album and although I've been there before it doesn't sound like covered territory and I am proud of the player and it ended on that really long note when it goes on forever and what have you.
TWR: It doesn't matter that you have been there before, because it still manages to say something about you as a musician and maybe this will be the key track to the newer fans because it will be something of a precis of what you have done...
SH: This wasn't conscious, there's a point where you just go for what you like and it if it happens to be new; then fine; and if it happens to be traditional then...
TWR: "Rise Again" is for me one of the key tracks of this album, and it seems to encapsulate your own philosophy that there is no end to all this; we do go on and I think I described this one in my review as a paean to the life to come; and after the relative darkness of the album thus far, this is like a ray of sunshine. What inspired this track?
SH: It is a long time since I did that track and lyrically I didn't have a specific idea in mind, it was just a collection of a stream of consciousness that seems to be about something; and the message was positive and the references to "The City Of The Dead" was a term used to describe a cemetery in Argentina - Buenos Aires - where all the mausoleums stand up like houses rather than burying them under the earth, British style. And someone said; I think it was Julian when we were touring there a few years ago; he said; "You've got to see this cemetery; it's like a city of the dead". And I thought "City of the dead? Yes, this sounds interesting..." And again, it is a very kind of Edgar Allen Poe kind of image. Not all of his poems were dark; some of them were very beautiful abut music and love.
I quite liked the image of the ship; "We will fly from the city of the dead/Even if our ship flies a pirate sail..." I quite liked that. It is not specific but it is quite like remembering a life and looking back at skies of scarlet and skies of grey, which are memories of a life really. It has been a long time since that was written so I can't pass too much comment on it except that I remember thinking that the melody line which I have used before but this was the original; and I did use that line in the version of "Los Endos" which was on the "Revisited" album, and with that album I ended up throwing everything into that album and in some ways it was a pity to have used the line that was originally written for that but I figured that perhaps I might be forgiven because this was different. Recorded differently; with a different sound on the guitar. Slightly slower; it doesn't have fast phrases and it is not trying to be flashy just a melodic line of the kind of melodic line that frankly I might have done with Genesis, and it might have found favour because it was very much the kind of rhythm that I associated that Phil used with "Los Endos" which was a very fast, powerful kind of fusion driven rhythm and I have heard drummers use it quite a lot in sound checks. It is quite a favourite one and immediately the drums catch fire as soon as you hear that kind of...
I never really knew what the lyric was about; as I say I did it as a collection of separate images but it has the idea of "Rise Again" as the chorus and it was not specific and it was never meant to be a specific situation or a specific person but it was the idea that we go on or even the idea of the spirit rising. And it is equally the American Indian with decimated tribes and ourselves and a thing that has been cherished and you feel that it must be preserved and it must continue in some way. I don't really believe in this idea of total loss; I believe in restoration; there is something; the spirit; quite literally consciousness that exists outside the body.
TWR: The next two tracks contrast nicely; the chaos of "Darktown Riot" with the tranquil order of "Jane Austen's Door" but where did the title for that come from?
SH: Well, Jane Austen's Door is... my first girlfriend lived on a housing estate called Churchill Gardens in Pimlico and she lived in a house called Jane Austen House. All the houses on the estate were named after writers, and in the early Fifties, my parents and I lived on the same estate, and I continued to go to school there even though we lived in different parts of Pimlico, and so it was the story of my first girlfriend; who you know it was like all sort of puppy love if you like; you break up; you go your separate ways and in her case she became involved with drugs and became a schizophrenic. I always had that feeling that there was something more I could have done to prevent that happening although that is not really possible because I tried everything that I was allowed to do to try and improve her self esteem.
I was growing up myself, obviously in the sixties; Jimi Hendrix had not died yet; Brian Jones had not died and there weren't the casualties from drugs; you know "casualties" were people who had lost limbs and who were shell-shocked from war and the idea of the "walking wounded" as a spin off from the kind of vortex that society was creating for itself in the heady days of the sixties. You know, Rock music and the whole sort of dance that was going on at that time and nobody ever really read the early warning signals... It was a song that I had tried to write for many years because on one level it is a song about lost love but on another level it was a song I did because... I had lost contact with her for many years and I wanted to contact her again and say "I've written a song abut you, and here it is..." And I did put it in her hand and it was a rather powerful moment for me.
TWR: Is this the same person that you made reference to in "Everyday"?
SH: Yes. I think in both songs it was still... I can't for the life of me work out how someone who was intelligent and gifted would want to be a party to their own self destruction, and this worries me. More than any other single event I have come across in this lifetime. Maybe everyone has got their equivalent of this in their lives. All I know is that music is powerful; you can become a well known person; you can become an influential person and all those things. Maybe you can gain the world's respect by the power of application. Whatever it is; if you put everything of yourself into what you do and still there is a point where you realise that you can't turn back the clock. You can't stop the process of decay. You can't stop these people going off the deep end; you can't save life; you can't walk on water. You can't do all these things that religions, I suppose, claim you are supposed to be able to do and so in a way, it is an attempt to come to terms with the fact that I realise my own limitations, and I wish I had been more powerful, yeah...
TWR: But there has to be a point of self-forgiveness?
SH: Yeah, perhaps that. I have tried to forgive myself but still... There are many situations in life where there are things that have gone wrong and relationships and what have you; but probably the hardest lesson of all is self-forgiveness, you know for all the failings that you feel. I mean, a friend of mine said; "Achievement seems so little in retrospect" which is true. You look back and you say; "But I didnít manage to do this and I didn't manage to do that..." and there were various friends who in the great upward thrust to... It is very strange and a very long story here, really. I once went to visit her in hospital; she was undergoing a drug cure and I went one week and she was thrilled at all the attention and I thought "Oh, that went quite well; I'll come along the following week". And the next week she was having a conversation with the therapist and she turned on me and said "I was having a really good conversation, why did you do that? Why did you cut your hair?" And I stayed for about all of ten seconds and I left and as I was getting on a tube at Turnham Green to get back to Pimlico I said to myself "I'm not going to contact her again" because I'd got to that point where it just doesn't work whatever you do... The next time she 's not going to hear from me she is going to hear about me and I decided then to do my damnedest to become famous.
It's funny isnít it how what negative things... I'm going to try and make her see that this is someone who she has passed up on here. Someone who she has totally underestimated. So, anyway in the great upward thrust to do all that; in the great march forward you know, there were various friends along the way whom I discarded at the time of being most focussed and brutal. I went through period of about two years of not being a very nice person and I said goodbye to a lot of old friends and I auditioned people and I went through a period of not letting people down gently but brutally. I look back on that time with a tremendous amount of shame and I think "I shouldnít have done that" - there were lots of friends I should have kept.
In her case, she was going to do what she was going to do to herself anyway and there was an aspect of write-off about it. The person that I knew was no longer there in a sense, you know? The personality I knew had left and that is a sad indictment of drugs. It doesn't make any sense to me that Peter Green was so brilliant; was so fucking brilliant, and why? And why this person, whose name was Barbara, my first girlfriend? And I will always be saying "why?". Why do people play russian roulette with their brains? Why the fucking hell LSD? And if I could say to one kid out there; "Don't put that fucking loaded gun to your fucking head - don't do it!!" I watched so many gigs by the young Peter Green at Eel Pie Island up the road here. It was practically every other week I would go and watch Peter Green play and I would wonder "What is he doing there? Waggling his finger?" And I would work out eventually that it was finger vibrato - very interesting and more than that; the whole approach was good, and he was an excellent player and you hear it on a couple of tracks. You hear it on a track called "Looking Back" and on "So Many Roads" where to my mind, the young Peter Green was playing at his best.
But this is about that thing where you realise that to a certain extent; only another lifetime is going to put right the harm that has been done. So, that is what that song is all about although there were other things implied in her case such as child abuse; not in the "Darktown" sense, but there is an implication that something went on in her background that others have tried to deny but I think there was a sense of wanting to forget but it has been a hard song to do for many reasons and I realised that it would be a hot potato; politically in my own life; doing that but nonetheless it was a song I tried to write for many years and I finally did.
TWR: That brings us finally to the last two tracks, and if "Darktown Riot" is the - if you like - explosion of unrequited frustration at what happened - the great big "Why couldn't I do this?" as a result of Jane Austen's Door; then "In Memoriam" is the quiet resolution...?
SH: I think so, of letting go and saying that... I hope no one takes this badly; there's a chance that they may. It is not an indictment of people in this world but of the trappings of this world, in other words there is nothing wrong with skin tight jeans per se; or any of the institutions that I have decided to lambast, just... let's put it this way: if you were an inmate of a zoo or a prison, would you think that it was such a great idea? And so I am trying to tear things down that I think it is not having a go at the spirit. I am not knocking consciousness; but maybe this world and its limitations if you like. It is about the trappings isn't it? The slow downward spiral... yes, I did say it was personal; didn't I? It is as unmasked an album as I am able to do....
And that concludes this fascinating look at Steve's most recent album. I would like to thank Steve for giving me such a deep insight into the project and for giving up so much of his time to talk to me. Thanks as always to Steve's manager, Billy Budis, for organising things in his usual suave way and for putting up with my nagging!