"In conversation" - Steve Hackett talks to Alan about the Platinum Collection, his recent work with brother John and Nick Magnus and his forthcoming orchestral/acoustic album: Metamorpheus. Interview conducted at Crown Studios Wednesday 9th February 2005.

TWR: Just wandering slightly back, not for very long … obviously we have had some things from the Genesis camp recently which people have asked for your comments about …

SH: Interest has picked up in it hasn't it? I don't know what this week's chart position is but for the DVD it was number 6 and the album got up to the twenties which is not bad for a bunch of old timers (laughs). I have no idea if Nick has finished The Lamb… yet and I haven't heard the latest version but he says it hasn't changed substantially. Everyone has got an opinion about this but basically Nick is in the driving sear with this and he did such a good job to be honest with the live version of The Lamb… the thing that was never designed as an album in the first place and he did such a good job with that and he was virtually left to his own devices to do that. I think these things have possibly been improved by having an arbitrator and Nick is a very hands on guy.

What I have heard, certainly of The Lamb… is that the guitar parts there which I had forgotten about for years and things like the fly buzzing round and things that weren't there in the original mix and bits of percussion ; all sorts of stuff going on and it is nice to have the stuff that you did to be heard eventually and so I think he has done a very good job. He has broadened the picture and he has been very thorough and he does listen to everything and I don't know how he does it; maybe he does it a couple of bars at a time because that stuff is replete with detail and it is easy to miss something.

On the Platinum Collection there is a particularly nice version of Afterglow on it and funnily enough I heard a very good mix that I thought was going to be included of One for The Vine which wasn't used or has not been used so far so I assume that is going to be part of the re-issues. What I heard I liked I must admit. These are restorations and I think that's largely true. I know he has taken a long time doing The Lamb… nine months I believe obviously that isn't going to be nine months exclusively there will be other things but that is interesting that there has been so much care taken over it.

I suspect what happens is that a band get together and everyone intends a slightly different picture and what happens is a compromise to some degree and it all depends on who is in the driving seat and in the old days it might have been the engineer. In those days we were an active touring band and things were done very quickly by today's standards so it all comes out in the wash; it wasn't Sergeant Pepper six months in the making! We weren't able to do that and it was more like six weeks in the making and that is just a fact of life. Albums took a month, they took six weeks rarely did they take longer in the case of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway which took longer to write that took about six months but we almost had it down to the point where we could guarantee that we would work six weeks; we could write and record an album in six weeks and then we were ready to go off on tour. Quite apart from what anyone had written on their own or brought to the plot.

Everyone has got the time now but obviously in the old days when you were in Island Studios the clock was ticking and it was expensive and you are in a hurry you have to get out and you have a certain amount of time and in those days albums did take a certain amount of time. The difference is if you are a band that is working with orchestras that is going to take you longer. Larger arrangements and all of this Genesis stuff was designed to be played live and I always had to think to myself "should I do an extra guitar overdub here? Because if I do this means I really can't play this live" Every time there's a harmony guitar part. So technology didn't facilitate that kind of thing then. It does now, you can do practically anything now but I prefer even now to keep most of what happens live, live. You can always argue that every time there's a sample used that it isn't entirely live but if it can be played we do it right.

TWR: How did it feel to be working with Nick Magnus again on Hexameron, and of course with John on Checking Out Of London, both of which are now finally with us….

SH: Very happy projects. My involvement with Nick… we did a very long day we had intended to get everything done by six o'clock and I said "have you got any others?" and he said "It would be great if you could do this.." and I think I staggered out at midnight! (Laughter) we had given it a really good go. With John's it was at a more leisurely pace; I travelled up to Sheffield once or twice and at Nicks' and a little bit at my studio up the road here. I think that was much more a case of John going away and thinking about that and in one case we re-did a guitar solo because he felt it wasn't quite right for the track and I was absolutely fine about that.

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Because it was John's first rock album under his own name, my feeling was that I hope that John would get to the point where he was very happy with it and in love with it and the last time I spoke to him I think he had got to that point. I was always trying to steer him back to himself and say to him if you can don't ask too much opinion. Make sure it is what you want with every aspect of it. Obviously everyone gave input and he got masses of input from everybody but I was trying to guard against too much "what do you think? What do you think?" and I said "Well what do you think, John?" and he said.. "Personally I like it but maybe people won't…" and I said… "You like it? That’s it.. that's good.. that's fine" Or "You don't like it? That's not good, let's do something about it" so every aspect down to the sleeve and the photos whatever it was; title; lineup of songs seeing what people thought about that. The main thing is that it is right for you and I said to him; "It doesn't matter what I think it's what YOU think; it's your album; your name is on it. Sure it's a group that exists for this…" I think over time John came to be more forthright and opinionated in the best possible sense of the word as it continued and as his confidence grew with it and as things took off.

You are asking me to contrast the two experiences. Obviously Nick's was much more of a case that he had a fixed melody line most of which I did adhere to completely and I think that came out very strongly and I think that Checking Out Of London has come out very strongly too. John's voice hasn't been explored before and I think he has a cracking voice too and it is funny how long personal development takes but I always say to people who are thinking of taking up mountaineering in their eighties or if it is something like becoming a brain surgeon at fifty; it really is never too late to decide to do anything and that includes reinventing yourself; re-educating yourself and a brave move of John not to have a single note of flute playing on the album and to be a singer/song writer/producer wearing all the hats and I respect his decision not to capitulate to past expectations. It is a lovely thing to see him flower like this and it gives me great pleasure and I am pleased to see him happy with it and it is lovely to see that two magazines have already chosen it as their album of the month so it can't be a fluke and I know this feeling when you first do a solo thing and you are wondering if you are going to sell two copies or not and I think it will sell vastly more than that and I said to him it would do well and it is just great to see it happen. John has made a lot of friends over time and as friends is how we approached it and everyone did it for love and there can’t be a better basis to undertake any musical project.

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It is ironic that we both finished our albums on the same day and we had worked on each other's albums and that was a lovely synchronous thing there may have been the odd tweak; the odd thing but essentially both babies were born on the same day and so in a way they are kind of twins and it is a lovely feeling.

TWR: Well, let's talk about this new baby now. Why the myth of Orpheus?

SH: That's the hardest question to answer of all. I have to get very pretentious to answer that and so I have to go through this to explain myself. I suspect that the Orpheus myth provides the sub-text to every musician's life. the myth claims to do all sorts of things; it is claimed that Orpheus is a healer; it is claimed that he tries to save life with his music. It brings in ideas of resurrection many things. As a religion, Orpheus was as important to the ancients as Christ is to people today and so I am going back to an older; some would regard it as pagan religion or philosophy or myth in order to set this music in a context.

There is a tremendous amount of melancholy but there is a tremendous amount of triumph in the end. Right at the end of the story; the harp; the lyre transforms and what started off as one lowly little instrument ends up becoming the idea of a constellation and so you have got all this symbolism in the story. Most people know part of the story but they don’t know all of it and so I researched it and I tried not to re-interpret it in a modern way. I didn’t want to do that thing a myth re-told with motorbikes and black leather. I didn't want to do that; I wanted to stick with the spirit of the original and take you through someone's life; before their life; during their life; and after their life so you have got three stages in a way.

Music gives people life this is why I am here; this is why you are here and this is why all the enthusiasts do what they do; this is why twenty thousand people show up for a concert on a rainy wet night in freezing cold because at the end of the day they love the music. They may confuse the man with the music or the woman or the girl but at the end of the day it is the spirit of the music and whether it is Quasimodo performing up there or the young Nureyev it doesn't really matter what it looks like its what it SOUNDS like at the end of the day and what it looks like; to my mind is secondary. That's what I think is the case. Now if I was honest and I was going to go back to the early Rolling Stones, I suspect that maybe the first thing I was aware of with them was how they looked and so I can shoot down that argument but it is the music really and I still think it is the music and the fact that they at one time looked young; thin and beautiful with different hair styles and were radical; that was important of course but it wouldn't have sustained it if it weren't for the music. I think the music has got to be there with anybody no matter of it is Tom Jones or … I don't care who it is.

I realise these days image first etc but I still subscribe to the school of not sticking my mug on an album cover but prefer to have a painting that depicts the music and that is as close as we have got to an interpretation of it.

In terms of the other versions that I am aware of; there's the Gluck version which is very beautiful and was the first piece of opera; the first non-religious piece but then again you could argue that it was interpreting the Orpheus Myth or if he did exist but no one really claims that these things are true and they are taken symbolically. It is the religious idea but whereas religions are taken literally myths are meant to be taken metaphorically. I want to say this; the Gluck version is full of beautiful melodies and at one point I allude to a melody that he used and it is almost like the Enigma Variations; there is one melody which he used for Dance Of The Blessed Spirits a well known flute piece and one of John's favourites as it happens and there is one tiny little phrase and I am not even sure if a musicologist would spot it because it is so subtle and yet it is there deliberately. It is just the use of a seventh and a suspension and that I thought was a great piece of music.
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Photo: R Nagy

There is an Offenbach version of Orpheus In The Underworld which is a spoof and Harrison Birtwistle did something called Masques Of Orpheus and I haven't listened to that because what I have heard of his stuff is very atonal and I don’t go out of my way with that stuff, you might have to ask Roger (King) who is more into the radical orchestrators. There's Orfeo Negro which is Brazilian.

TWR: On the DVD we have just watched you said that this took approximately a year and so it was not long after To Watch The Storms?

SH: It was a year to write but recording took longer because there are always other projects and orchestral projects are very expensive; they eat money; they eat time and resources and so you always have to wait for the right time and its' "hold your horses! Hold your horses!" and then "Go for it!" and so I had started it in 1997 and then had to leave it for a number of years whilst a number of other projects took precedence because they were easier to deliver and these other things fell within intended touring periods. When you are electric, you are electric; you have your five man band and you go out and do that and when it is acoustic it is something separate and this is actually very hard to do live and I don't know if I will attempt any of it live because it is really designed for guitar and orchestra rather than guitar and trio and it does rely very heavily on the orchestra over fifty percent of it is orchestra and so you can imagine; it is fifty seven minutes long and if you halve that it gives you the length of some symphonies and concertos and what have you, so there is quite a lot of work but a joy to do and I am very pleased… far too pleased with the way it has come out! (laughs). It's funny, the guy who has done the album sleeve for John's album; Paul Geraghty who is an artist who designs books and whenever you ask him "How are you Paul?" he always replies "Far too good!" (laughs). I am very excited about this although I am not going to say it is the best thing I have ever done; thereby diminishing things that other people may like and hold as sacred but for me I am very pleased with this; having said that no one piece of music; no one album can say it all. There has always got to be another one and another one.

TWR: You certainly have some top players on this one; there are a few familiar names to me in the credits…

SH: yeah there are some great people and what's lovely about it is that it was largely Dick Driver who put together the orchestra and he and I had not worked together since 1970 since the very first album; Quiet World and he was their bass player and he contacted me not that long ago and he said he liked some of the stuff I had done and he told me he had been working with orchestras; he had worked with the Royal Philharmonic and mainly these days he was playing upright bass. I just gave him a copy of this yesterday and I was saying how thrilled I was to work with him.

TWR: Did he assemble the other musicians?

SH: He found two of the string players; Christine Townsend who is fabulous and who does the majority of the violin/viola work on it and Richard Stewart the cellist; so he found that core and the string sound it is those three people; four instruments between three people and it was Christine who recommended two of the other people; Colin Clague and Richard Kennedy and it was Lucy Wilkins and Sarah Wilson who I kicked off the project with. We managed to take it about half way but then we realised we needed ideally more string players to heavy up the string sound and these are the featured people and there is also the aspect of what Roger King brought to it and Gerry Peal and Ben Fenner. Orchestral input from Roger and Gerry both as keyboard players were able to access more harmonies than I can so I wrote top lines and harmonies where I could and then we accessed more via spacing here and there and it is a team that puts together an album; it’s a team that does it. My capabilities take it so far and I am very proud that they took it on further.

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I guess you can talk about the detail in music to a fairly small degree but unless people are fascinated by that it might be a bit like a builder saying; "this type of mortar I used here; it's wonderful" and you are into this sub culture aren't you of the train spotters but that is what it is all about. Christine for instance; plays a Stradivarius so we had this one fantastic instrument tracked up lots and lots of times and she is such a phenomenal player and she can play it in different ways as well. And this viola that her father had before her and it is a big viola; they come in different sizes and a lot of people when they play viola sound out of tune and I think she has been playing this thing since she was knee high to a grasshopper and her tuning is so good. The string players were so very good and each time one of them did a line it was like let's add this fine wine to this one (laughs) and it was intoxicating heady stuff and this from someone who is a non-drinker these days.

TWR: So, you started this in 1997…

SH: I recorded most of the guitar work back then. I think it must have been hard on the heels of A Midsummer Nights Dream. The worst thing for me is when a journalist says… "tell me about your album" and I have to say "which one?" or the same with DVD I say "which one?". I doubt if there will be another album this year apart from this there might be another compilation of some sort.

Intermission …. While Steve and I listen to the album (amuse yourselves in whatever way you see fit people… but mop any mess up afterwards, please!)

TWR: Now that I have actually heard the album , Steve the first thing I have to say about it is anyone who is expecting "Son Of Midsummer Night's Dream" is not going to get it because this one is not as thematically developed… it's not linked directly to ideas and scenes the way that that album was. Its as cohesive but not as suggestive, maybe because the story is that much broader..

SH: Well, I have described the story in detail track by track so in that way it qualifies as a piece of "Programme Music" in Classical terms it does tell a story in that way so I guess they are similar in that way but this was designed all in one go whereas that was… every time I had done a piece of acoustic guitar over a ten year period I would say to myself… "A really nice title for that would be A Midsummer Night's Dream but Shakespeare has done it" and when I decided to go for the whole thing down the line whereas this very early on I knew what this going to be and it was written much more quickly.

There is one thing in particular.. dah da, dah da da da… and I was trying to do that about the time of Genesis Revisited and I used it in Helena and maybe those were the places I used it.

TWR: There was one where there was an echo of The Golden Age Of Steam… the way it was played…

SH: Ah yes, you mean the marcato strings?

TWR: There were a couple of classical references but I expected there to be a couple at least but it has developed in an entirely different way again and it is multi dimensional because it can take you off into so many different areas. OK, it is based around a story that some people will know and some people won't and that is the great thing about it ; if you don't know the story you can do one of two things; you can treat it as a piece of individual music or you can analyse it. I didn't know what I was expecting with this one…

SH: familiarity counts for quite a lot when you are listening to these things and most of the classical pieces that I have grown to love grew sweeter with time apart from one piece which I heard when I was a child and there is a reference to that piece right at the end but that borrows from the Enigma Variations where you have got deliberate references to things; deliberate references to composers and I think that is all part of it; the idea that this can be developed this way and that can be developed that way.

TWR: Do you find that is something you do consciously or..?

SH: Sometimes I am quite happy for it to be uncovered and say yes, that's what that is and that's a variation on a theme and a lot of classical music works in that way as do other forms. That's part of what it is all about as long as you feel it I figure it is alright. I think I may have upset Tchaikovsky or Borodin or Bach or any number of people who may have had an influence on this and I think Rachmaninov put it very well when he said… "I am not seeking to be original I am just trying to get down the music that I hear in my head" and he cited Tchaikovsky as one of his influences and between the two of them they have got much of Russian music sewn up. Then there is the traditional stuff such as I Know Where I Am Going which I have not credited because it is a traditional theme and I think most people know it and it will be spotted and it is intended that this is a variation on a traditional theme but I wanted to give it one overall title; the piece that’s eighteen minutes long: That Vast Life; that really is the love theme and that is a statement of the major theme but there are other little subsidiary themes and streams that get developed in different ways and you bring back some little trickly things and down the line they become a river that goes to the sea and that is back to Genesis and beyond really.

TWR: There were four or five echoes of different things and what intrigued me about them appearing in this is … the frosted window of time and you are catching echoes of things that haven't happened yet; the echoes of A Midsummer Night's Dream; the echo of The Golden Age Of Steam and instead of reverberating forwards some of the themes are reverberating backwards and it is almost as if Orpheus is listening and hearing you instead of the other way round. They are shades of things that have not yet happened.

SH: I will tell you something. It is very hard when you have just heard a piece of music and you think to yourself … and you think Oh God… I've got to think of something kind to say but some of the music that moves me such as the Piano Concerto in A Minor (Grieg) the second movement and Gerry Peal played that to me first of all and I didn't know it and yet in time it was to have significance for me at a moment when it personalised it for me and it became that "person" in the same way that my introduction to classical music was instantly personalised because; I know I have told you this story before and I shall go on telling it to my dying day but it was Tchaikovsky and listening to the … what year would it have been? 1958 maybe and I would have been seven, eight or nine years old and I was told by a bunch of friends that this guy called Trevor who had polio and didn't go out much but he had a marvellous piece of music worth listening to at his house and he showed me the size of his legs and they were like matchsticks and I had never seen anything like this and then he put on this piece of music or rather someone did for him I suspect on a wind up gramophone if you please, and it was Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in B flat Minor and there are to things I want to say.

First of all; I felt so uplifted by that piece of music it was instant and there was this thing we all flew with the angels there were no cripples and that melody flew so high it was so touching and so wonderful and it touched me with sunshine and I imagine what it must have done for Trevor; must have given him wings and that little old piece of music has got its influence in the very last piece; Lyra on this because you have the same four notes; Da, Da, Da,Da; and I have the same melody which goes on and on and on except that I don't develop it thematically I just develop it chordally and that's the nod to Tchaikovsky and it is my own way of making that fly because I find that is this album probably at its most emotional it is at its most sad and yet its most triumphant at the same time I think. I deliberately wanted at the beginning there is this sound which is the sound of timpani, a piano a bell and a gong all being struck at the same time to give this big sort of bell sound as if it was a mark in time and I can't say why it is that ; it's both the wake up call and the death knell and everything; life and death all in one.

It was quite a difficult balance the last track had to be so right and at the same time I wanted the guitar to be able to create water over the whole thing in the same way that Rachmaninov at the end of his Piano Concerto right at the end where the piano is going bananas and the theme is stated lavishly and the orchestra is roaring but it is that idea of can you have a roaring orchestra and a little old guitar everywhere over tat to create the movement; to create the wash; to create the view of a world to create the view of anything and an attempt to describe everything and no piece of music can of course but to describe everything you feel and that’s all the love you ever felt for something and even with the limitation of the notes you see; then it becomes the love scene as well and in a different way and there's more movement.

I was very worried early on especially when it was sketched out with samples that I have an eighteen minute adagio sostenuto going on and I didn’t call it that because what’s the point? I have something that is a comparable length to some of these pieces but as I was writing it I was thinking I want to bring this theme round lots and lots of times and lots of repeats of the same theme and at the same time I thought I don't want to stick in any notes that are not relevant to it just for the sake of keeping it going and so what I allowed it to do was to be a series of vignettes almost each of which lapsed into silence as they went. Now for some people that isn't going to hang and a musicologist may shoot me down in flames for that but I didn’t capitulate to anything other than the emotions I felt. So, yes you do get lots of repeats and it starts and stops and it meanders but isn't that life in a way? Each of those themes, because I didn't waffle with them; each of them I like to think are individual and exquisite because I DIDN'T try and fill it out and pad it. I didn't use any padding and so once you don't use any padding what happens then? Pop songs… verses/chorus/bridges and so all I have got is a series of great introductions and I didn't bother to go down that road and I just thought … I am just going to let it rise and fall and it is going to be exactly what it wants to be. If I didn't HEAR it , I didn't use it.
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Perhaps it is more Impressionistic perhaps? I was anxious not to draw any conclusions apart from the very end because I didn’t think there was any point when the whole thing posed a question in the first place which is: what is life all about? Why do we get to fly and why do we get to die in the course of a life?

And with that pondering of the eternal verities, we bring this chat with Steve to a close. My thanks as usual to Steve for giving up so much of his time to speak tome about the album and for his encouragement. To John and Andy at the "office" for their inestimable help and to Mr Budis for hiding the cricket bat!