"Notes from the frontline" - Steve Hackett talks about his recent activities and future plans at his studio on Sunday, October 28, 2001. Interview by Alan Hewitt and Tony Burton.

TWR: Well, Steve we are here really to give the fans some idea of what you have been doing since Feedback '86 was released; because that was the last time we spoke...

SH: Feedback '86 although it was released... I don't know the exact release date - you will probably remember that. That was a long time ago; it was even longer when it was actually recorded so although that seems like the most recent thing - in fact it was an archive item. Born with not just a gestation period of nine months but almost nine years... was it that long? It was along time ago; 1986 or '87, I think, and so it was almost fifteen years before that thing was released, so obviously since then there have been rather a lot of things. Since its release date, of course, there have been rather less things released, apart from the DVD of the Tokyo Tapes. But mainly, I have got a feeling that the thing that people might want to hear about is this live box set and the two tours which happened going right back to August of last year; that was the Italian tour and the South American tour which was only a few months ago.

So, if I kick off with the box set. That covers the 70s, 80s and 90s; there are at least three gigs. There is actually one more concert; there are two from the 1970s, one of which is going to be included in the box set and the other I believe will be sold separately. There is a Hammersmith show which is part of the box set, and there is a recording from Newcastle City Hall which, as far as I am aware, is going to be sold separately. I think that will probably be a limited edition but that might be worth clarifying with Billy, actually. It is arguable actually as to which is the better concert...

TWR: I think that having heard the gigs, I think there is nothing to choose from them in terms of sound quality, they are both excellent.

SH: I don't know because you are the first person to have actually said to me...

TWR: It was great to hear them in such quality rather than in the usual dodgy quality bootlegs. It made me laugh that you chose the Hammersmith '79 show because that in particular has been available as a bootleg for years!

SH: Well, isn't that funny... I wasn't aware of that. So there you go... I think that this is the trouble with all of this live stuff that comes out years after the event. Once you are in the position with your own record company and the infrastructure and the rights and all the rest, the problem is that it may very well be "coals to newcastle".

TWR: How did you go about... it must have been a vexed question... OK; we are going to do a series of live gigs for this boxed set... What were the criteria for actually selecting the gigs? Did you actually have any criteria?

Click to see full-size picture
Steve in his almost completed new
studio, October 2001

SH: Yeah, it took place over along period of time because we had tapes and we transferred a lot of the tapes on to CD and DAT and just listening to them all seemed to take forever. So, it really happened in two halves and I was listening to so much of that stuff that it was driving me spare, frankly! Trying to access what was good and what wasn't and it was very difficult to be honest. Let me try and be blunt. Whenever I listen to a live thing; I want it to be perfect; I want every note to be great just like everyone else and I am sure Tony [Burton, who nodded furiously at this point - TB.] would agree with that... You want all sorts of things to be wonderful and we were dealing with fixed mixes a lot of the time and so there is only a certain amount of things you can do to change things - and of course the narrower the parameters you have got. Anyway, we started off with the best of the bunch in each case and each era, and gradually by working on them we managed, due to the wonders of modern technology. Working with Ben Fenner, I have to say, he was central to this - the fact that he has got multi-band EQ and compression and so you can take some things that you think are finished and in fixed mixes some things that sound quieter and you can louden it by EQing it in a certain way, and there is a certain amount you can do like that and he was pretty amazing, I can tell you, between bass cancellation and boosting certain areas. But what intrigues me is that you said you think that it is up to par. You know, I have been thrashing through this, you know what I mean, it feels like you are hacking your way through a jungle.

TWR: The most amazing thing from my point of view is the fact that you have just said that they have been "tweaked", because to my ears at least, you donít notice that. It sounds like what I would hear with my ears if I was at... say the 1993 gig which, of course, I was at. It actually sounds like it did when you were there.

SH: Well, essentially, what you have got there... I tried to do a minimum to them, you know. I tried to keep it as honest as possible and to hope that there are certain things, like drop-outs - you fix them in one way or another. I prefer not to get in too close to it, because what you have essentially got are very honest live recordings, and much as I would like to go in and spend six months doing my library album for you it wasn't done like that. There was a tremendous amount of sorting through a tremendous amount of material. It was a lot. That was just the CDRs!

TWR: What is the first thing you looked for when you said... "this isn't right, this isn't good enough..."?

SH: Well, it was just the sound of the gig rather than the performance of it. I think that there is that, you know. Not everybody agrees with this sort of stuff, you understand. If you have an out front mix with a couple of stereo mics then it might sound interesting and heavy, but you don't get a lot of separation like that, and there is not a lot of clarity but there is that booming at the back of the hall sort of sound, so it can sound heavy and it can be a lot of fun that type of thing.

TWR: I noticed that with the Rome recording, because I didnít know that was an open air show...

SH: That was an open air show so there was very little in the way of spare acoustic... It was a good gig, a lot of fun and a spectacular setting and the band played well that night. There was something wonderful about crossing that bridge of "angels". All I can say is that really, all of the gigs that were used were wonderful memories in different ways...

TWR: Was your decision to pick any particular performance of any of the gigs that made it based on memories or a particular performance? Because what I find is that you play a gig and you get the energy from the audience and you think what an excellent gig that was; and then you listen to it there are bum notes and...

SH: Well... when you are performing live, you are performing to the crowd and I have never been a person who has sat or stood on stage and thought "isn't my performance here on stage good, or terrible?" I have always seen it as an interchange of energy and emotion with the crowd and so that is what really defines it, you know - any of these storage mediums: tape, CD, film, will give you the bare facts and it is not actually about that, and I have to constantly remind myself about that. We had this one in Santiago, Chile; they were a great crowd on this last tour; and I know I am digressing here but that was made for radio and there were parts of the gig where I thought "the band sound fantastic" and then you would hear moments where it was really fraying and I thought when I heard it back, there were a few cock-ups there. It is important to me you know. I have heard things back of gigs that I was at and sometimes I have thought that the band was terrible on the night when I was actually there and you hear things back because the balance is better and you find that they were playing really, really well. Conversely you can hear things back and you can hear what was most human and un-Godlike. It is a good lesson if you are a musician, to hear other musicians struggling is a heartening thing, you think "well, hey..." you know "he wasn't in tune that night, why should I worry?" and even in Genesis where things were supposed to be so perfect and you will hear things that were very human and The point is nobody is perfect; even the most wonderful of guitarists...

TWR: You have mentioned that these shows were special for one reason or another. What were the good and bad memories that came to you when you were listening to them...?

SH: Well... we listened to a lot of gigs... especially the '80's... sorry, '90's and it seemed as if The Grand was the most happening one. There was one in San Jose which had been recorded out front and it sounded pretty small. I liked the performance but both Ben and Billy said the sound sounded so awful and that it sounded like a 'phone call from Mars. There was a version of "The Dealer" on it which was quite fun, although there was a long improvised section that seemed to waffle on endlessly but The Grand was a nice memory. There were a number of people I was glad were actually at the gig. There were so many old friends at that gig that it would be virtually impossible to separate it from the idea that here was an event virtually in your living room as it were; and wasn't it nice to get all those people together at that time and, like all home town gigs, you get a little bit nervous that your grandmother is going to get in! (laughs). It is far easier to play away from home, so to speak... at this last gig in Rio we did, we had about 150 members of Kim's family in the audience. I don't know how many we had for that gig - a thousand, fifteen hundred but I swear most of them were Kim's friends and family...(laughs). That one was a bit hairy: I seem to remember that bits of equipment were turning up at the last minute... "Yeah, we will have the lights here for the show... in five minutes..." you know; and "is the amp going to be alright?" and you have to have complete confidence in the team that say... "It's going to be alright" and you have to stay very, very calm. Years ago, people used to say that I was very nervous and maybe they still do. I know I got nervous before that Sao Paolo gig, because the police had impounded the equipment, basically to extract a bribe from us to enable the gig to happen and the very last thing that went wrong before we were supposed to go on was that my guitar went stupid, and suddenly I had to take the whole thing apart and the intro music was playing and already the crowd had been waiting three hours because of all the shenanigans with the police, and I'm afraid for the second time on that tour... I went... and I have got to learn to control my temper. I think we had to pay $1000 just to get the equipment back for no reason at all. It is just the sort of thing that happens... but a lot worse could happen when you are on tour.

Click to see full-size picture
Steve and Alan reminisce
about the Optigan

We were talking about the emotion that comes from these things, and it was wonderful listening back to the Hammersmith show from whenever it was and to hear the level of enthusiasm from that crowd and also with the Newcastle crowd where every ring noise produced a "hoorah" and you know... (laughs) and it makes you feel great and can spur you to great heights and it is great to have that level of response to your work whatever it happened to be in and of course I got to play at the same time which was even better. And we have stuck on... for the Hammersmith show... if I am right, it is the whole concert from beginning to end because fans have asked for that before, for the whole thing, and to me it sounds like I have looped up the applause, because it seems to go on forever before we come back on and do the encores, but it is exactly as it was on the night - which is not going to make it any more viable for radio play or whatever, but it is what it was, honestly, folks. My favourite bit of the show, of course, is the applause, that is the bit I had nothing to do with! It is great to hear the level of enthusiasm for the stuff I was doing then because there were a lot of question marks whether I should have been out on my own and whatever, but I think it gets sweeter with time. We have drawers of old video stuff including that one from Montreux with that band and it was not a particularly great performance or well lit but it was just great to see yourself looking twenty years younger! (laughs).

TWR: Who was in the band back in those days...?

SH: John Shearer on drums, Nick Magnus on keyboards, Dik Cadbury on bass, my brother doing his usual bits of stuff, Pete Hicks on vocals and so on...

TWR: It was great listening to those tours because I saw you on every tour... not necessarily at those gigs, but I found myself chuckling away at certain points as I remembered daft little incidents that happened on stage at particular points...

SH: Well, I was constantly baffled in the old days as to why I was thwarted from doing certain things. Charisma Records, who were a very good record company, I have to say, for a small record company; they were great. They were very loyal and wonderful for Genesis and we used to moan about them at the time because everybody moans about everybody they know but the fact is that what I experienced subsequently, up to and excluding what goes on now... It's funny Charisma had their strong and their weak points. One of the things that I was most frustrated about was that the fans were... whenever I used to sign autographs after some of these gigs and I used to think that the entire audience used to stay behind after the gigs and I used to sign a thousand autographs! (laughs) and they wanted live albums in those days and I talked to the record company and their response usually was... "No, we don't think it is a good idea, it's not a good career move..." and it could have been so easy at the time and sales would have reflected it and I am sure that they would have sold as well as some of the studio albums. So, it has taken me all these years, and isnít it ironic that it has taken me so long to be in control enough be able to do that, but life is like that.

TWR: They are here now, and that is what matters. You have released so many albums in so many styles, and challenged our preconceptions and at the same time pleased yourself and if you didnít do that, the fans would soon notice it...

SH: I think there has to be that and musicians are motivated by different things. All I can say for me is that the currency for me is in the music, that is the real pay off for me, as opposed to what it has sold or all the rest and it is still "was it a good moment... or wasn't it...?" And I don't mean just live, but in the studio as well; because after all, studio albums are live albums as well and I have often thought of calling an album by the oxymoron "Live In The Studio". I often feel that you can be in love with that piece of plastic to that degree that you can feel... I was like that with the first album, "Voyage Of The Acolyte". I was in love with that album but now when I hear it back I think... "I would have done this differently, I would have changed that..." and I can sit back and become its severest critic now, but then I thought it was as orchestral as it was, and as rocky as it was, and I didnít worry about it being too progressive or not accessible enough, it just had some weird and wonderful sounds on it and I was thrilled with it. I was thrilled with "Spectral Mornings" too. That was the first album with that band and we had been out on the road with it and we had had all this fantastic feedback from all these fans, and in some cases we were pre-empting the studio albums by test driving a lot of that stuff live first of all...

TWR: Having said that, you still seem to be doing that now because that does lead quite nicely into the two tours at which you have aired quite a few, as yet, unrecorded tracks in the set. Is that something you still do; take these things out for a spin and see where they go...?

SH: Yes, and I find that the studio informs the live stuff and the live stuff informs the studio and at some point you can stick it all together; and I may well be using part live and part studio, and that will be the first time we have ever done that, and we may allow some things through that are live performances and try the unprecedented step... unprecedented in our little enclave of doing that.

TWR: It was great to hear... I do have several recordings from both those tours and it was great to hear some of the new stuff live, and stuff off "Darktown" too... "In Memoriam" takes on a completely different character live...

SH: That is a good live one, and I think the best performance we did of that live was the very last gig we did in South America, in Mexico where everyone was very au fait with it. The crew were au fait with it and the band were au fait with it and it kind of needs... it really needs a crowd that really knows it to be singing along with it, and it has to have aged in the casket a little bit before it comes across live. You know what I mean, there is no such thing as a good new number... it needs to have defined a bit first. There were two slightly different band line ups, both good for different reasons. Both Ben Castle and Rob Townsend are brilliant players in their own right and I saw Rob the other night, he has just finished an album, and Ben has done his own album and the one he did with Ian Mosley, "Postmankind", that has a mix of Marillion guys and the odd jazzer. I found it very good considering that it is, basically totally improvised and then arrangements b have been built on top of improvisations.

TWR: You have mentioned new stuff... how far is this along the lines of completion and is it a successor, if that is the right word, to "Darktown"? How far advanced are plans for it at the present moment?

SH: A new studio album? It is very far down the line. I would like to complete it in here [indicating new studio - TB.] and so there is a little bit of a gap time wise. I canít say "here it is...", there is no release date. I am still recording songs for it. I am probably about half way. There is some very lovely stuff on it. Strange... I am doing all the things that people discouraged me from doing and I am finding myself writing love songs, and I have found that the stuff I expected a reaction against has not got one and nonetheless, I have found myself writing quite a few love songs at the moment and it is happening quite naturally really and I am finding myself singing a bit more softly and a bit more under control, which is not how it used to be.

I am enjoying that, but I am also enjoying the other stuff, the extravaganzas, the long things, the unlikely combinations of all the things that you think of as Progressive - the weird and the wonderful. I am also finding time to just sit down and strum and sing. It has been quite rare that I have been able to just sit and strum a guitar and sing at the same time. It has taken me a long time to be that simple but I am quite pleased with myself that I have not gone into some virtuoso guitar part in order to support an idea. Just keep the line very simple and not rely on detail to sell the song, the hook or the melody, but just to see if the song romances me without having all that, because we can always get into that at whatever point you want, can't you, really? Stick in more notes for want of a better word (laughs).

TWR: There is also, of course, the new orchestral/guitar project. Is that still...?

SH: That is still... I am half way through with some violins and some cellos done, and once this rock thing is out of the way I must get on with that because that is very much a labour of love... it always is, and this rock thing is too, in a different way. There is quite a lot of jazz in it, there is quite a lot of classical and organ has been creeping back in... (laughs). I keep forgetting that the organ gave way to the Mellotron which gave way to the synth and just because synths can do lots and lots of things, I had forgotten...the joy of my organ! (laughs).

Click to see full-size picture
Always on the look-out
for new sounds...

TWR: Any chance that the Optigan might make it on there...?

SH: Ah, the Optigan has been used massively on my new rock thing. In some cases it is the unadulterated thing, in some cases it is those sounds reversed; and in some cases it is optigan overlaying the parts again. I have been using it heavily as a writing tool mainly and I think that what the Mellotron became to The Beatles, the Optigan has become to me. I found it absolutely liberating in many ways and I use it for so much and of course the quality of the sound is not wonderful but it depends on what you layer it with and how you use it, or do you just use some of the ideas it throws up and record those ideas and expand on them. Not always for jokey things, either. Really I have completely underused it in the past and it has been in storage for twenty years and so I got it out again recently and so once again, it is like this idea of the organ. [for more information on the Optigan (used on "Sentimental Instution" from "Defector"), have a look at this Optigan web site -TB.]

TWR: Speaking of guitars and guitarists... we have heard that you have something lined up with King Crimson...?

SH: This started with a telephone call from Mike Giles asking if I was interested in doing something and when I got back to him some two weeks later, he said this is for a live gig and I said "What you are heading for is the reformation of the original King Crimson...?" and he said... "That would be the ideal..." and I said "Best of luck with that, if you get in trouble, I will help you..." and so what I suspect is likely to happen is that instead of them reforming with me - and for all I know there might be nineteen guitarists playing something or other. If it happens... but it is nice to be asked.

TWR: Who would be in the lineup if it happened....?

SH: Ian MacDonald for one, Mike Giles, the original... what they were trying to do was reform the 1969 lineup and they were all assuming that Robert wouldn't do it. I donít know quite what is what there... that may happen or not as the case may be. I speak to Ian quite regularly and there doesn't seem to be much movement there... and I just made encouraging noises and I will be glad to be there if it is as a punter or as a participunter! (laughs).

TWR: There were a couple of Crimson numbers in The Tokyo Tapes...

SH: We did that because Ian was in the band and so was John (Wetton). We had intended to do more numbers of John's and Ian's maybe some Foreigner material, and some Frank Zappa material, but there wasn't long enough to rehearse all of that plus all my stuff - plus the Genesis stuff and include the all-round progressive show that we did. If there had been longer there would have been more.

TWR: You have mentioned that you wish you had films of certain things and you have said earlier that you have footage in your own archives of shows. Have you given any thought to the possibility of an archival release of some of that?

SH: Funnily enough, I was watching the Montreux film not so long ago and I was apologising to the guy I was watching it with and saying..."This next number the vocals are going to be horribly out of tune...!" And they WEREN'T! (laughs) Three part harmony is always risky live at the best of times. There may be something at some point. I don't remember that being a great gig because... a festival crowd, they are like rentacrowd. They get exposed to so many things over two or three days and they get tired over days, weeks; or whatever it is; and so it was a little like a garden fete audience, I think.

I think if this stuff does moderately well and if there is interest, then we may well bring that stuff out although you might get people saying... "Hold on; we already have three copies of this and here you are doing the same number again, do we need another?" so there is always the danger of getting over exposed.

TWR: Just to go back a bit and clarify a couple of things about the live sets... It is coming out as a four CD set, comprising three concerts but the Japanese edition is different I understand...?

SH: That includes... I think that maybe the Newcastle gig is part of that... I may be wrong here and also Feedback '86 is part of that, too. It hadn't been released and so there is a package with that. I can't remember if it is a complete four CD package or if it is two doubles... Essentially it is not that different from what is available over here. It has photos and God knows what but no matter what you have you never seem to have enough.

There is never enough Hackett around to satisfy the fans, but this package should certainly keep you punters happy, and of course, you have the chance to win a signed copy of this set courtesy of our usual competition which can be found elsewhere in TWR. Thanks, as always to Steve and Billy for organising this and to Tony for musical and photographic accompaniment!