"Sketches of Hackett" - In conversation with Steve Hackett about his new album "Sketches Of Satie" and other projects. Interview conducted by Alan Hewitt at the Richmond Hill Hotel, London, Saturday, February 19, 2000.

TWR: So, Steve, here we are again, this time talking about your new album that as of yet, we haven't heard. I know that it is an album of pieces by Erik Satie? So I suppose the first question really, is why that particular composer?

SH: Oh, ok. Well, John and I had talked about doing something for a long time and there is a history to this... at this point it is rather difficult for me, because I know that John has got certain feelings on this subject and I don't want to speak for him but let's just say that we hadn't worked together for quite some time and frankly, I really missed it and we talked about possible flute and guitar combinations and we were talking originally about an album that would have a mixture of things a mixture of composers, a mixture of guitars... I remember talking to Billy Budis (Steve's manager) about one of John's suggestions which was all of the stuff that we played on tour over the year; the acoustic tours we had done; the adaptations of electric things basically written for flute but still close to both our hearts.

John was very keen on recording that stuff and I think he still is, in the long term but Billy said; 'Why don't you make it two separate projects? Why don't you do an album of Erik Satie stuff and do an album of the other stuff?' And that may well be the way the cookie crumbles eventually and I think whenever there is a brief you always try to widen it no matter what I set out to do at the beginning of an album or indeed, at the beginning of a day when I...it is often something that will make sense at the time but a few hours later you don't feel the same way. I am extremely changeable and what feels right today might not necessarily feel right tomorrow. But, I must say the idea of doing the Satie and putting all pressures to one side of having to be a writer and a rocker, and all those things; it did feel absolutely right from the beginning. To take the work of a separate composer and dedicate yourself to it in the time-honoured way people do when they are trying to bring someone else's music to life.

I think it was probably the three Gymnopedies that he wrote which would have given the original idea; immensely slow pieces. The Gnosciens too of which he wrote six and which are the best known melodies.

Let me get my thread here... Many years ago when John was starting out with flute we had an album of Erik Satie's material and I didn't know it at the time, but most of the arrangements we were hearing were based on Debussy arrangements of the Gymnopedies and I found out later about the Poulenc versions of the Gnosciens. Debussy orchestrated two of the Gymnopedies and Poulenc did two of the Gnosciens. As I said, John was starting out on the flute at the time. What those composers had done was to take what was written for piano and transfer the top lines to woodwind supported by strings and a little bit of brass. So, you got the melodies being carried by the flute or by clarinet or by oboe maybe Cor Anglais. But the idea is that all this Satie music could be very haunting slow melodies and it sounded wonderful to us because one of the pieces which is very, very famous which everybody recognises, and you can hum it... Going back to the Sixties; I had heard that piece ten years earlier and I kept humming it to people and saying; 'do you know this melody?' and nobody did. I didn't know anybody in classical music at the time and if I had, they may have known it, it was not as popular as the music that accompanies the French Impressionist era was not as popular at that point in time.

So, I bought on spec an album in the Kings Road where I used to buy albums almost like in a wholesale lot where you would get Frank Zappa next to Mrs.Mills that sort of combination and I came across this album called; Erik Satie: The Velvet Gentleman and it wasn't until I go it home and played it and played the third track and realised that it was this piece that I had kept trying to find for years. So at last I could give a name to the piece. I don't know if you know, but Erik Satie's music is numbered; he tended to write things in threes so instead of getting one Gymnopedie, you get three so the piece that I liked and which had been haunting me for so long was Gymnopedie number one. Now that has got a history; because he originally wrote that as number three and Debussy suggested that he change it to number one and what was done on the album that we have worked on was to put that back to the original order which echoes the track listing which was on that original album that I got. In other words; three and two have been reversed with both the Gymnopedies and Gnosciens respectively. We have reversed them but given them the correct numbers which will cause a tremendous amount of confusion! (laughter). It is very confusing for the uninitiated and so I started with one of the less well known pieces but it just so happens that John plays that beautifully as he plays all of them; his playing is absolutely fantastic on this album.

One of the nice things is that as you are listening to John's flute it sounds like a flute but some of the notes he plays which are in a pretty rich area, almost start to sound brassy: almost like oboe and he deliberately plays some phrases very gently with hardly any breath and then it starts to get more clarinet-like and that is just a happy accident, I suspect and I am reading into it something that I think was meant to happen and is all part of the magic. John's playing this differently to the way he would have played it twenty years ago.

TWR: One thing for me... I am not as familiar with Satie as I am with Debussy, so I can gather that they were all contemporary with each other...?

SH: Yes, they were. Now I wish I had... John will tell you this; he is genned up more on the stuff than me. He would probably be able to tell you the exact dates but basically late nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries. They were pals and influential.. I gather that they influenced each other. Ravel was also influenced by Satie, so much so that he had a piece which I only found out about recently and he did a fourth Gymnopedie in the same style. Many years ago I was talking to Mike Gibbs the arranger, around about the time of Please Don't Touch when I had written a piece called Kim which was highly influenced by Erik Satie and I said 'it is almost quatre gymnopedie' it had a working title and he said; 'why don't you call it that? And I said; 'oh, I don't know...' And I was much more coy about it then but now I think 'who cares?' If you are influenced by something or someone; then do an album of them and that is it. I have no problem admitting influences; in fact I have always made a point of admitting influences. I always made a point of it. I think it is a good idea to give credit where credit is due. Satie influenced Debussy, who influenced Ravel and so on, and so it doesn't really matter.

TWR: What is the title of the album...?

SH: It is called Sketches Of Satie and there is a sketch by an unknown artist of Satie at the time on the front cover, and Kim has done a couple of sketches of John and myself on the back and there is a photo of John and I as small kids aged about six, inside it.

TWR: When may we expect the release of this new album... this new progeny?

BB: Theoretically the twenty-fourth of April but it may be a week or so after that depending on what we can organise. What tends to happen is we have a release date and then there are all the press people who say that we have missed the deadline for this or that and so it doesn't seem to matter what deadline we set we always seem to miss someone's deadline. It is my ambition to set a release date for every one of the fifty two weeks of the year and see if they are all going to miss their deadlines! (laughter). That is probably some Press Officer's fantasy.

SH: There is a fear of dates, really isn't there? A fear of deadlines and release dates.

TWR: You have mentioned the likelihood of another project with John playing your own pieces, has that actually been worked on, or is that....?

SH: That was an idea that came about at the same time; the idea ostensibly of doing what we had done live on the occasional acoustic tour, which was adaptations of electric pieces and to some extent I have fulfilled that ambition on the album I did with Julian Colbeck; There Are Many Sides To The Night... the Sicilian album... the Italian Job. But I think that in the long term we will do that but there are no plans to do that at the moment.

TWR: I think that is something that a lot of the fans would relish...

BB: We can take pre-orders! (laughter)

SH: There speaks a manager. So, I think we will I think each projects begets another and I did enjoy doing that stuff with Julian.

TWR: When did you actually start working on the album?

SH: My memory is a bit hazy on that one. There have been a number of projects which have been on the go for quite some time and...

BB: On Satie? That started this time last year, the early part of last year. I don't think it was happening before that. It has been complete for a while in the sense of the tracks being recorded and all that has been done is the odd overdub here and there.

SH: What seemed to take the time as it were, which isn't always possible when you have got a completely finished project is that we haven't got any promo copies yet, or even any production copies yet.

TWR: How many tracks are on the album?

BB: Twenty.

TWR: How many musicians?

SH: Just two; flute and guitar versions. To my mind, the flute is very much the star on this album and the major amount of lead parts are taken by the flute. Four of the tracks are just guitar and rather than intersperse the flute ones with the guitar tracks; we have taken the guitar tracks and made them a chunk in the middle because they are all very short pieces so it comes across as a kind of little suite of pieces in the middle. I mean, Satie wrote some things that were incredibly short and one piece might be fifteen seconds or another might be five seconds and it is very avant-garde in that sense but the major amount of musical content in it is not trying to hoodwink anybody although it is deliberately, rhythmically naïve if you like. But I think that has made it its raison d'etre and I gather that other composers were saying to him at the time; you could perhaps make the stuff more rhythmically interesting; you could do this; you could do that and change it all. And I dare say that somebody who is a gifted composer or virtuoso and who is used to steaming through things that are a lot more complicated might well say that. But that is what gives it the appeal the fact that it pre-dates relaxation music and pre-dates the minimalists and pre-dates Jazz at its most Horlicks-like (laughter).

BB: Well, I am going to get off now, we are building a studio and I have to check up on the progress of the builders and so on...

SH: Yes, that is what is going on we are building a new studio which has been going on for a while.

TWR: So, on top of that; you always say that one project begets another. What other projects are you working on...?

SH: Well, hopefully that will beget another guitar and flute album. I enjoy that and there are so many pieces by the likes of Bach and it is a case of finding out which pieces we are familiar with and he might know the opus number and I might not. If I may say so it is a great combination: the two instruments together. I think that if I had learned to play classical guitar... Let's start that again. If I had been TAUGHT to play classical guitar I probably wouldn't have done the overdubs on this album that I have done. To really do it justice you really need two guitarists to fill out the harmonies and I have had to de-tune the guitar and I think it is probably a semi-tone lower than a whole octave for the bass and in order to get the bottom notes and I had to use harmonics; false harmonics to go right to the top so I don't have the stretch that pianos have that sort of thing doesn't exist on guitar. Then you get closely grouped harmonies which aren't possible on guitar but the overall effect is one whereby you have got a guitar with piano "leanings" piano legs if you like...

What I have found with the acoustic guitar is that it can't do sustained notes in the way that the flute can, for instance I tried to do a version of the most famous Gymnopedie which was version which was all guitar so we were going to do a flute version and it didn't really suit the guitar because the guitar doesn't really sustain and it hasn't got the same resonance as the piano and I gave up on that one. I thought; 'What is the point?' In order to make it sustain I have got to speed up the tempo and the way I hear the speed of this piece is very slow and I have probably used this expression before, but it is music that "floats". This may have something to do with the fact that when Satie was growing up he had a piano tutor who used to write very slow waltzes so I would like to think that there is a thread between his teacher and here. You see, it all depends on where you are coming from doesn't it? You see, most of the classical music for the piano when he was around knocking on doors and getting poor grades for piano technique. Those people were all hidebound by the idea of German supremacy. There was a different emphasis and music was very sure of itself but I think what is beautiful about the Satie stuff is this sense of "exploration" you know; do I add a dash of colour there? And it is very sensual in that sort of way; it is beautiful, beautiful music and some of the harmonies are very odd the key that something starts out in is usually quite nominal it can wonder off and eventually it will take you back to the beginning. But not necessarily! And there is almost a sense of non-repetition and they do repeat themselves but just within the group of three and each piece will have a similar form to the preceding one and you will find yourself asking why and it is because well, no one else did and it justifies itself and then there are moments in the Nocturnes, for instance, which are not popular pieces which are mostly slow, very meandering with very close-grouped harmonies and it almost sounds like Jazz. I would be hard pushed now to say what type of Jazz but "Modern" Jazz, not stuff that has totally abandoned harmony and gone the Miles Davis route.

I think that to the uninitiated, that the Gymnopedies are purely relaxation music. It is much more harmonically informed than most relaxation music in as much as that you take one chord and stay on it for an eternity. This doesn't do that; it does move and it is almost a sideways move rather than onwards and for me it casts a lovely strange spell and it is very, very evocative of woodland scenes without being New Age; without being targeted towards a specific market because there are disturbing moments, and the disturbing moments are the abandonment of conventional harmony.

What he does do is he puts unlikely chords next to each other and the bass notes are usually different and the juxtaposition of one chord next to another and another and it sets up this strange chain of events and it is not often that you will hear Satie's music used in a film but funnily enough, one of the people who did was Robert Altman or whoever directed Badlands and at one point in the film I think a rock gets turned over or shot and it moves and it seems that there is no reason to martin Sheen's character doing that; because he seems to shoot people at random and it seems to be paralleled by what is going on in the music; it seems to go on randomly and the effect is very strange as well and it is a lovely bit of film making as well because this feeling of logic being side-stepped in the film is also in the music and that makes a great combination; a great moment in film and the two things belong together. I mean, this is the first time I have spoken out loud about my feeling s about Satie and I have tried to write the odd Press release already but there will be times when you hear this music and you will think that it is unbelievably wooden and other times when you will think it is unbelievably colourful and the contradiction between those two feelings on the same album. Most classical albums sound best from a distance an orchestra recording; unless they are asked not to breathe too deeply will do so, and C D will show that up. I was playing it over headphones and the guitar was going down slowly and it was constructed with that in mind and so it does stand the headphone test. It is probably the cleanest album I have ever made there isn't a single click or breath that wasn't intended. They all passed the test and they had the power a bit more when it was all turned up a bit and if you do want the music on as background then, I am proud to say that it is not going to disturb anyone's reveries.

Well, I think this exists in Satie's music it stops you in your tracks and the most famous of the pieces which you will probably recognise because so many people have recorded it and when I first heard it years ago on black and white TV in the Sixties and it was a room, with bare floorboards and this piece was playing and several things came into my brain at once and it made me think of a dance because it sounded balletic almost like the kind of music that would accompany a ballerina in "practice" not with the full orchestra at Covent Garden but the essentials of a dancer at work . And there was a strange feeling of something childlike about it and something that had gone forever and I couldn't put my finger on it and say; 'a loss of innocence.. the end of childhood' that would be, in a way heartrending and all of this seemed to be implicit in his music.

Of course, I didn't realise that at the time, he did actually live in one room and he had one upright piano and deliberately remained poor all his life and I think that that piece in the film may have been an attempt at a literary depiction of where that music was composed. I think the problem when talking about somebody else's music is; 'Well, who am I to speak for him?' All I can say is; 'It affected me thus...' I may be wide of the mark but instrumental music is like an invitation to an opening; a gala...

TWR: Instrumental music is a blank page, you can write on it whatever you want to write on it...

SH: You have said it much better than me. There was another piece of film that I saw one day and it was of a child on a swing; a little girl and they were playing the Gymnopedie no 1 and it was in slow motion and her hair came cascading down and I thought how perfect the film was with the music because you do get the sense of a world in slow motion. What is nice about it is that your senses aren't being assaulted by a battery of sounds, it almost seems to tease you. I know it can be easy to.. to seem to be overblown with this stuff but it really is like a world of nature spirits come to life. Perhaps in the early days of Genesis there was an attempt to create something that was impressionistic but I feel that Satie is the real McCoy it is non competitive; it is extremely playful and seemingly amoral. It is best if you just hear it rather than sitting down to "listen" to it and I think it is much better if you are actually doing something else at the time and the actual conscious process of "listening" often means that you will hear a piece of music that you will dismiss... I have done it myself; and then at another sitting when I am doing something else or when it is announced on radio and I am told that it is a certain piece. It is like the process of writing a song in a way; when you sit down and try to write a song it is usually a bloody waste of time! (laughter). You have entirely other things to think of, and it is a case of doing something; write it down; speak it do something to remember it and usually I do it...

TWR: How do you actually memorise it...?

SH: Well, if I haven't got a pen with me which I try not to be in the position of these days, I have got a method of remembering something if it is just five notes; and I think of A, B, C, D, E, F, G and usually ABC... "A Brown Church" you know, in order to remember and if I haven't got a pen with me then that is how I tend to remember things... "A Brown Cat..." and that is my failsafe.

I try to do both in case my cassette blows up or whatever.

TWR: That brings us nicely to the other projects you have on the go... What other projects are you working on at present...?

SH: I have got some rock stuff on the go and I don't know how close I am to finishing that because something is never actually finished until it is released I think it might need a couple more tunes and a couple of re-mixes and I think it is done. And that is the opposite of Darktown which took the best part of a decade, but I don't think it is any worse for having been done quickly I think it has been done slightly on the crest of a wave. I think it is almost as if I have to get stuff done quickly before time slows me down; before the glue emerges under my feet and the process of life itself intervenes and slows the process. So, I find myself working very quickly when I am in the studio and usually that works but sometimes I think... 'Well, I could make this a bit more professional; a bit less derivative'. Or if I do some derivations are they obvious and still it stacks up.

I am no clearer or wiser as to the process of telling someone how to write a song all I know is that one method; the least original method perhaps, is where you are so struck with something that you have heard that you have to try and write something like it. And then try and change it and inform it with all the ingredients that you thought were good and that the spirit of the previous model had, and then change it. At the end of the day you use what WORKS as opposed to what you thought was most original because I think it is very hard to start out with the idea of total originality and not allowing the spirit of music to speak to you. The Muse wants honesty, sometimes she will allow you originality. I think the Muse is neither male nor female and it likes to dress up in each other's clothes from time to time which is par for the course. And I spend the better part of every day trying to make contact with that and there are days when it won't come and I have to content myself with the fact that I have made great efforts in the past. I know this all sounds frightfully serious but she can be an extremely unforgiving task person! It has got to be bloody good, that is all I know. I feel that if I do something good, people will know immediately that it has been based on somebody else's idea. You are allowed your own voice in music.

I think Darktown had al of lyrical content which I wouldn't have been brave enough to include in previous years but I think that is something else that music wants; for you to be brave as well and be prepared to possibly make a total idiot of yourself. In fact whenever I have sat in a studio about to work with people, I have always been very unsure about the ideas I was about to present to them and invariably those are the ones that end up being the strongest; the ones you are least sure about and that is really throwing yourself on the mercy of fate! I think that is because my previous experiences of working with a band and working as part of a collective was that you were expected to start off with something that was pretty substantial. I have since learned that it is not necessary to present a face that is fully made up; the less defined the idea; often the better because it allows other people to suggest things; bring things to the table and perhaps allow the music to speak as well. And that is why in the future I say that I want to allow more improving so that musicians can truly be in the moment. I don't have the luxury of a band functioning as a unit most of the time but circumstances dictate the course, but I always welcome the input that members of the band have made. I am not closed, I am not single minded, I am not erratic. I would rather they tell me what they THINK I meant. I would rather that musicians were communicating rather than fulfilling the band leaders' role exclusively. I think it is very important to realise that just because an idea may have fallen on deaf ears initially doesn't mean that it wasn't a great idea. You must realise that your relationship is NOT with your Conservatory, your band, your public; but with yourself and your Muse and that has got to be right before any of the other bastions fall. You have really got to love it yourself and know that it is something special. You have really got to be proud of it and be ready to side step your reticence and shout about it; laugh with it; cry with it and the value is its own currency. In time of course, the things that seem to be the shiniest and brightest toys are the ones that tarnish with age and you can't remain true to every single idea that you dream up; you reject them.. that idea was not fully formed in every sense of the word. Like for instance, the piece that I wrote which is probably the most popular thing I have ever written: Spectral Mornings and from my point of view I have spent my life trying to write things that are more rhythmically enticing, however I realise in my more clear moments; what people.. or what I think people lied about it was the optimism of the piece; the depth of it.....

TWR: What has happened to the album with Jim Diamond...?

SH: Well, I will be honest with you that one has really reached an impasse because... I don't know why exactly... I decided to work very hard on the project; putting in a lot of time and Jim is a guy who by his own admission likes to spend as little time in the studio as possible and studios make him claustrophobic. I did what I thought was, in essence, a really great sounding album but he has reservations which he has yet to be specific about but I discovered latterly that on some of the tracks I put the voice with a twelve string and he doesn't like twelve string with his voice; he doesn't like harpsichord and whenever the guitar gets too bright it just doesn't sit with his voice. However, we started the project with the premise that he was going to take care of the singing and I was going to take care of the guitar playing , it would be fine and I laboured long and hard on it and hopefully it will be released one day because it was an album of classic love songs dating right back to Edith Piaf and I think he came up with some cracking arrangements of songs but Jim is slow in expressing the reasons for his discontent. Perhaps he will 'phone me up one day and say; 'I've been playing that album to a mate of mine and he really liked it, so when are we doing it, Steve?' I am just waiting for your green light, Jim. I don't know if we are in a red light district or an amber light district at the moment, we are not in a green light area and the longer we sit back on things the more Jim wants to go back and re-sing the vocals and so I sense a certain amount of treading water, or quicksand but having said that there are some lovely moments on it and, as I say, I hope it sees the light of day at some point.

TWR: There is also, I believe another orchestral album...?

SH: Yeah. Well, that one is in a position where most of it has been done but I haven't recorded the orchestra yet because I needed a massive cash injection to do it and most of the cash has been spent on building a new studio and unfortunately all of the things that I would love to do and say; 'here you are..' you know, and I am being completely honest in talking to you exclusively at this stage because I feel that the people who are reading this have a vested interest in what is happening. It is not like I have been speaking to the Daily Bugle about it where we are only going to talk about things that are finished and available. I think that people like to know a little about the construction of things and it must be maddening to know about things that are there...

TWR: It is in one sense, but in another it is encouraging because there is always something there to look forward to.. there will always be another project and it has never been the same thing twice...

SH: I am very pleased with the thing that I can only describe as another classical project... call it a Guitar Concerto if you will but just about every other day I say to myself... 'Could I make this work by tracking up one violinist eleven times...?'(Laughter) Or really do I have to wait until I can afford a Philharmonic orchestra? Or a Chamber orchestra or a quartet? So far the inner voice says; 'Wait a while you can't do everything at once...' So, I think that between desire and accomplishment we shall see...

TWR: Is this one on a similar premise to A Midsummer Night's dream... is it based around one idea or..?

SH: Yes it was, initially but it may well be that it is eventually presented as a non progammatic piece and by that I mean that in the classical world that is a piece of music that tells a story. The nice thing about concertos is that they are deliberately ambiguous; you have only got the title. With a lot of concertos, the writer usually names the place where they did it and to some degree you can let the music speak for itself. I suspect that the sub text of most concertos is that of re-birth because the final movement always tends to be triumphant.

And on that note, we shall leave this chat with Steve. Once again, my thanks to both him and Billy Budis for making this interview possible and to the staff of the Richmond Hill Hotel for the tea and biscuits!