"John Hackett/Nick Clabburn interview on Radio Caroline". Interview transcribed by Alan Hewitt.
INT: With me today I have John Hackett and also Nick Clabburn. John has produced an album which is called Checking Out Of London, the first rock album you have done?
JH: Yes, that's right it all came about during a trip to Malta in 2002 we were over there playing a concert with my brother; Steve Hackett and we were playing at the beautiful Manoel Theatre and Nick Clabburn was with us; came along for the ride; didn't you Nick?
NC: Yes, a very nice holiday in the Mediterranean (laughs).
JH: And while we were over there; the promoter Nigel Camilleri very kindly kept prompting me "well isn't it about time you did a rock album of your own? It's something that seems to be missing". And a number of his friends said the same thing.
INT: Because in the past you have been involved well, as a flautist really..
JH: yes, I have worked as a flute player and I am mainly known for that I have played on Steve's albums since his first solo album; Voyage Of The Acolyte back aeons ago; 1975 I think it was! And Please Don't Touch which we made just after he left Genesis and then toured with him playing flute and guitar and so my history was very much more as a flute player but I had also existed in the rock world to some degree.
INT: And what was the reason you made this cross over from that area to this?
JH: Well, I think I had got to the point where I had been playing the flute for so many years and in many ways I had done all the things I wanted to do and I felt that it was time for something fresh and new and so I started when we got back from Malta I started writing songs and the first song I wrote which didn't actually make it on to the album was a song called Julia and it was about a girl who drinks too much and I recorded a demo of it and I had never actually done any singing before at all in the past and I was playing it one day and my wife came in and said …"Oh, that sounds nice, what’s that?" and I said "It's me" and she said "What?! I didn't know you could sing!" and I said "I didn’t know I could sing either!" and I thought perhaps I should try a bit more and so I started writing some more stuff and it was all a kind of bit sub-Genesis and I was really enjoying the process and then Nick sent me some lyrics and that was about November of 2002 and the first song he sent me lyrics for was called Fantasy and I sat down at a keyboard and wrote the song pretty quickly.
INT: Did you send the lyrics out of the blue or…?
NC: No, John said I'm going to write a song; send me some lyrics , NOW! (Laughs) and so I sat down and I just wrote them there and then. I think I wrote those pretty quickly those ones.
INT: So how long did it take from beginning to end?
NC: To write the lyrics? Do you want the truth? The lyrics for that song were very quick but the lyrics for the album it was a long process really. Not that the actual songs themselves took a long time but we would have gaps between composing songs for example; Fantasy would be sent down to me and then maybe a couple of weeks later John would say "I want to do another song send me some more lyrics" and so it was a long process.
INT: One question must be; why didn’t you write the lyrics yourself?
JH: well, as I said I had started writing lyrics to my own material and it was all very much a learning curve and the material wasn't quite as strong as I would have liked it and I found that immediately I started working with Nick's lyrics the whole process seemed to be so much easier because he would immediately set out an atmosphere on a song like Fantasy about someone falling in love with someone on the Internet was a very clear world and other songs like that like Dreamtown or More a song about a war correspondent it immediately meant that when you sat down instead of having three million possibilities of what you could write in musical terms; those were reduced considerably! (laughs) and it set an atmosphere and I found that a really helpful way to be creative.
INT: Is there a common theme throughout the album?
NC: well, this is an interesting point because at one point John was saying to me.. "Nick why don't we do a concept album?" a sort of The Lamb Lies Down On Clapham Junction or something (laughs) but funnily enough it did end up having a bit of a theme really because the artwork tied it all together at the end and it seemed that there was a theme; London and anonymity and detachment and travel and leaving and so I think that subconsciously there must have been a theme we certainly didn't set about to do that.
JH: No, there is a very melancholy theme I would say about a lot of the songs and a lot of the songs are very melancholy which is the best word I can think of which is strange in that when I was writing the music to them I was a lot of the time feeling quite joyous because it was wonderful, I set aside a whole year to write the album.
INT: Is it just the music that is melancholy or is it the lyrics as well?
JH: Well, I don't know if the music is that melancholy. I think this is the juxtaposition between the two; you have got the lyrics which are melancholy most of the time aren't they, I think that's fair to say isn't it, Nick?
NC: I would have liked them to be even darker but John kept saying… "Come on, let's have a happy song!" and I don't think he quite got the happy song. I think it fed part of your creativity didn't it? It certainly had those darker lyrics.
JH: Some of the lyrics such as on the title track; Checking Out Of London there's a line in it… "Nothing left to live for"
INT: That's the song on the album that you wrote?
JH: No, Nick wrote that one, I wrote Dust which was the only one that I actually wrote the lyrics for as such. But with Checking Out Of London "nothing left to live for" I felt that I could really relate to that and I think many people can that there have been times in your life when you have felt very low but I wouldn't want people to think that that was my outlook on life that there's nothing left to live for at all but people have said about that particular song it seems to affect people that they do relate to it.
INT: So what did it mean?
NC: What did it mean? Well.. I would just like people to interpret that for themselves really. I think I like people to read into it what they want to read into that. I know people from abroad who have said "Yeah, that's how I felt when I knew I was going to have to leave London" and there's the whole thing that when you are tired of London you are tired of life, so there are many levels you can interpret it on.
JH: I used to try and pin down Nick and say what exactly does this mean; who is this character and who is saying what to who? Well it means what you would like it to mean but I take that on a level that much good poetry is like that and it can have more than one meaning.
INT: It's no good taking the magic out of everything
JH: well exactly absolutely.
INT: The creative process if I can use that phrase; how do you, do you whistle a song to yourself or do you think I can vary that or do you come up with something brand new? How do you decide?
JH: Well the starting point is always or it was with this album with one exception; has always been the lyrics arriving from Nick and me thinking how am I going to set these words to music? Then it is a case of either sitting down with a guitar or sometimes at the keyboard, I have done that. In the past when I have written I used to write instrumentally and for the flute and there was a time when I would use a dictating machine an I would wander out and we used to live near a canal in Aylesbury and I would be wandering up and down whistling and humming and shouting and singing into this tape recorder (laughs) and people must have thought I was a very unusual character been let loose. For this one it was mainly using a guitar or a keyboard and then I would work on the melody and for me the melody is the most important thing. I guess being a flute player you are used to holding the tune, usually on the flute but you are the one with the tune or sometimes you are accompanying but usually you've got the tune and so for me the melody is absolutely the starting point so I always tried to get a tune that was strong and that I could feel really happy with.
INT: And how did you find the arrangements if you are used to doing the main melody?
JH: To be honest that was the thing that took me the most time with the whole album was the actual arranging. I would put chords around and work out harmonies but trying to get that sounding really professional was where Nick Magnus came in. Nick Magnus the keyboard player who used to play in Steve Hackett's band which is where I know him from and I played on a couple of his solo albums; Inhaling Green and Hexameron and so I have known Nick for many years since about 1978 through Steve's band and it worked so well with him that … it started off with me playing all the instruments and it was a bit like me trying to do a Tubular Bells or something and I did find it a bit much I was doing bass guitar and doing all the keyboards and everything.
INT: There's a limit to live performances if you are doing everything yourself…
JH: Yes! (Laughs) you have to be very versatile to play all those instruments at once I haven't got that far. So it was at that point that Nick came in and of course he is brilliant at production; he knows all about compression and limiting and all the sort of tricks that you use for recording techniques. He was great on the arranging side; some of the songs were pretty much arranged and it was pretty clear how they would come across but for others like DNA for instance; there was only the bare bones of an arrangement and Nick really brought that to life.
INT: How did you get to know each other in the first place?
NC: We were at school together so we have known each other since we were eleven.
INT: Were you friends then?
NC: Well yeah, John was always a bit of a swot at school (laughs) and I cant say that I was a swot but when the reports came out it was a case of… "Have you heard Hackett's got ten A's?" so he was a bit of a legend at school was our John but yeah we became friends and we have been really good friends since we were about seventeen.
JH: yeah, till we made this album really!
NC: It's good it has been a very interesting process the whole thing has been good.
INT: Have there been problems between you since you have… having such a long friendship working with this…?
JH: There have been problems, I can't say we have agreed on absolutely everything.
INT: Who has the final word?
JH: I do.
NC: John does
JH: But I would say Nick has a very wide taste in music and an interesting taste in music and he likes all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily to my own taste but I think he has a fantastic instinct for when a song is working well and points the potential out although Nick is not a trained musician as such he has a wonderful gut instinct about when the tension is right in a song and when it is reaching its climax or when it should be cut down or whatever and so with a lot of it we did go through it and make changes that were Nick's ideas and suggestions; the harmonica for example on The Hallway And The Pram that was your idea to approach my brother to come and do that and it was a great idea which worked very well.
NC: Steve has been fantastic really supportive.
INT: Can you explain how he has been supportive?
NC: Well, he in many, many ways has actually. Well first of all he was a captive audience because I was driving him up to the Classic Rock Society to get an award for best live gig and I had all of John's demos in the car and John's dad was on the back seat so I had the whole family there (laughs) and I played him all the songs and I think it was then that Steve sat down and listened to all the songs.
JH: I did pay you for that, didn't I? (laughs).
NC: You could see that it registered with him and then he was delighted to…
JH: There was a time last year beginning of the summer when I was still trying to play everything myself and do it all myself and it was too much and he rang me up one day and I was feeling very low about it and he said "you've got to see this through; the material is very strong and you just need a bit of help with it" and that was when he offered to play guitar and that was when I got in touch with Nick Magnus and Tony Patterson the singer from ReGenesis, and we sort of formed a group and everybody helped and it really took off with their help they all brought their own particular skills to it.
NC: Steve has counselled us on it all, always telling us to stay with it and believe in it and he has been a bit of a guiding light for us actually.
INT: Tell me about the production of the album, the sound production…
JH: That was done at Nick Magnus' studio and I recorded a lot of the stuff first and then we would work on it together. He would add keyboards and sometimes I would replace my bass parts; guitar parts and he was great in that respect because he was a task master in terms of making sure that timing and tuning were spot on and I found that enormously helpful to have somebody else there with a pair of ears on it saying …"No, no; do it again" so that was great and of course he has enormous experience, more than I do in the production side knowing which forms of compression need adding to the vocals and limiting and chorus effects and reverb that kind of thing. He has done so many albums of his own and for other people over the years that be brought an enormous amount of expertise to that world so I am very grateful for his input.
INT: Why a rock album at this point in your life?
NC: Is this a rock album or is this a cry for help? (Laughs)
JH: (laughs) It could be something to do with turning fifty next week! Its now or never and getting back to ones roots. I started off playing the guitar they were my roots playing Blues guitar and I used to listen to Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck; all the time, they were my heroes and then obviously when Steve joined Genesis I would go along to many of those gigs in fact Nick also used to come along and so the roots were very much there and in a way there's something about this album with me going back to where I started from.
INT: Your early days involved with Steve and Genesis the two of you used to tour around and listen to what was going on, the album that you have produced now has a retro feel, now that is no criticism because people produce all kinds of music at all kinds of points now which was very different to the 1970's but this has a Seventies feel, why did you choose that particular era?
JH: I guess because I felt very comfortable. I always loved going to Genesis concerts, I went to see so many of them and it was a privilege to grow up in that environment and to go and see so many of those concerts and I always loved them; I love that type of music and so also having played in Steve's own touring band in the Seventies and Eighties it was inevitable that I would be influenced by that style but I just hope that although the music is very much rooted in progressive rock that because I have other interests in music; whether it is classical music or other types of music that there are other influences there. So I would hope that you wouldn’t say that's an album that just could have been made in 1978.
INT: Now that it has been done, how are you planning to promote it? Tours?
JH: Well, we are beginning to talk about a John Hackett "band"
and a small tour in the summer but it is a question of small beginnings, I am
about to do a tour with the Steve Hackett acoustic trio which will be round
the UK and Europe we are going to Spain and Italy and possibly Germany well,
definitely Germany in June so it would be some time after that I will be putting
something together and doing a few gigs.