"In Conversation" - John Hackett talks to Alan Hewitt about his albums Checking Out Of London and Velvet Afternoon and his recent tours with brother Steve and his own concert plans.

After a busy year of touring and recording, I finally got the chance to chat to John about his latest album: Checking Out Of London and its predecessor: Velvet Afternoon as well as his long overdue plans for solo performances….

TWR: We are here to talk about your new album and the rationale behind it so I suppose the first thing to ask is when did you decided to make a rock album as opposed to one by the demented flautist we all know so well?

J H: Demented flautist?! (laughs). Some of the pieces for Velvet Afternoon had been written along time ago when I was in my twenties in fact but all the pieces for Checking Out Of London were written in the last few years. The root of it really was our trip to Malta in 2002 when I was over there with the Steve Hackett Acoustic Trio and there were a few people over there like the promoter; Nigel Camilleri and a few of his friends and they were asking "When are you going to do a rock album? Isn't it time you did something?" and it sparked off an idea and I thought well… what am I going to do next? So I started writing songs and at the time I was the only singer to hand as it were (laughs) making demos and doing the vocals myself and the first proper song I wrote was one called Julia which was loosely based around somebody I know … a teacher who was knocking it back a bit much and I was concerned about her and it was loosely based on here and it is a track that hasn't been released.

I wrote this song and I did a demo of it and I was playing it and my family came in; my wife and she said "That's a nice song, is that on the radio? What's that?" and I said "It's me!" and she said "No! You're kidding!" (laughs) "I didn't know you could sing like that" and I said "Neither did I!" (laughs) basically I double tracked the vocals and there is something like baring your soul when you start singing. Like a lot of people I didn't really like the sound of my own voice and I was a bit down about it and she was really encouraging saying "It sounds good" and so I carried on doing songs and singing the vocals on them and most of them were in a very Prog Rock style; very sub-Genesis (laughs) and then it was when Nick Clabburn who you have met; said "I want to write some lyrics for you" and I thought he would forget all about it but suddenly all these e-mails started arriving and the first one he sent me was a song called Fantasy…

TWR: I have to admit that is a fantastic song it so perfectly describes the subject; people falling in love on the Internet … it is brilliantly observed.

J H: Yes, this is one of the things about singing a song people do think you are like the person in the song and I actually don't fall in love with people on the Internet; I don't spend hours in chat rooms (laughs) lurking but I could relate to the subject and so that was the first song I did with Nick's lyrics and it was just so much better as a song than the stuff I had done before.

TWR: Had Velvet Afternoon been released by this time or was it still a work in progress?

J H: I am terrible on dates, Alan you know what I am like on dates! (laughs). I think it would have been just before . It would have been 2003 that I started writing in earnest and so once that song had turned out really well and once Nick started sending lyrics… once you have lyrics half the job is done; the story is there and you know what the emotions are.

TWR: The one thing I have difficulty conceptualising is somebody else writing lyrics to your songs. Do you give Nick something like a pencil sketch of what each song is about or does he literally conceptualise the thing himself?

J H: No, for the most part it comes from him. I did throw him a few ideas; I did say that one of the songs should be about war and I may have suggested to him the idea of a song about the Internet but I certainly said to him to write something about war because at the time it was leading up to the Iraq conflict and so songs like More are about that although not ostensibly about Iraq you can generalise it. He would send the lyrics by e-mail and then I would turn them into songs it was that much easier having the lyrics already there; the job was already done and some of them… we were talking about this earlier; the creative process at times was incredibly quick. The song Checking Out Of London which was the title track of the album; I looked at the lyrics and I thought: "Oh my goodness, what am I going to write to this? Checking out of London/Think I've seen it all/Nothing left to live for/The writing's on the wall…" its not going to be bright happy stuff this is it? (Laughs) and I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to write anything to this lyric and I sat down at the piano and it almost came straight away; that first chord and it must have been done in …less than half an hour writing the whole thing so the creative side of it was very quick.

What did take the time and the effort was getting it all down in some professional sounding form rather than knocking out a demo but getting something that sounds really professional. Especially when I had started off playing all the instruments myself; I bought a bass guitar and thought well I'll have a go and see what it sounds like and I shall sing because I am the only singer I have got and it sort of grew from there.

TWR: The one thing, same with myself when I first heard the album ; the one thing I didn't know about Nick's involvement at the time… it is patently obvious that it is telling someone's story but it certainly isn't yours! Obviously everyone knew you were from London originally and a lot of people me included; thought that that was the story behind it…

J H: It is not biographical in that sense I think there were some lyrics where Nick was poking fun at me especially with the track The Hallway And The Pram because he remembered in the early days that when my son James was born I used to complain that I didn't have enough time for my music with this screaming child (laughs) and there is a quote from Cyril Connolly that the biggest block to creativity is the pram in the hallway and Nick was basically homing in on that side of me as the father trying to get on with his music and as you say the Checking Out Of London bit is some kind of reference to me leaving London but and it is a big BUT; a lot of the lyrics are very melancholic there is no question about that and like loads of people I have had low times in my life that relate to the lyrics but I certainly wouldn't want people thinking that that was my view of the world.

In fact in many ways, it was one of the happiest times of my life the writing and recording of it because I set aside an entire year and just write the album; put the ansafone on most of the time (laughs) didn't contact people I just got on with the job and had an absolute ball doing it. There is a lot of joy there too and so you have the melancholy lyrics but there is also a tremendous feeling of joy that I had. It is a complete privilege I think to get up in the morning and work on your music rather than go to the office or whatever other people have to do for a living and so I was very grateful for that time and space. I hope I get that kind of time and space again! (laughs) That is one of the difficult things about creativity; finding the space in your life.

TWR: I think the biggest surprise for me was discovering that you could sing as well as play.

J H: Yeah, well to be honest I didn't know I was going to sing all the songs until the final months before we finished it because I asked Tony Patterson to get involved and he was a great help doing harmonies particularly. It was great having him come in and work on the harmonies.

TWR: How did you get to know him in the first place?

J H: I met him at a ReGenesis gig at the Memorial Hall. I had had this song called Dreamtown that I had written and I had always heard Peter Gabriel singing and I thought should I cheekily ring him up and say "Hi Peter, remember you used to borrow my flute in the old days, could I borrow your voice?" (laughs) but I never got around to that … perhaps I should have done I don't know. I went along to the Memorial Hall and just hear what this guy sounds like and I enjoyed the gig very much and I got chatting to the guitarist afterwards and then wandered out front where they were selling their CD and introduced me to Tony who already knew me because he is quite a serious flute player himself so he knew me through my flute playing and so he knew who I was and we got on very well.

It sort of went on from there I told him I had a couple of songs and would he fancy coming along and having a go at singing and he did and it worked out really well and then he started doing harmonies and I thought…to get back to your original point; I thought at the early stages of the album if my voice isn't really up to it I would ask Tony to sing it all if necessary because I didn't want to produce something that was substandard just for the sake of me singing it. Obviously it is better if you can do the singing on a solo album yourself because it has more identity but I always had that reserve in my back pocket. I did take singing lessons after I had been going for about six months. I asked around locally and there is this guy called Pius Hume and he teaches a lot of club singers that live round our way and everybody said you should go and see this guy and he is a classical counter tenor; the very high male voice and I thought I was a bass and started singing away and he said; no you're a tenor and so he gave me all these exercises to do and so while I am doing all of these I am getting the mickey taken out of me something rotten by the kids (laughs) who are stood by the door laughing. James (John's son) said it sounded like an Indian death ritual or something (laughs) . I took a very workmanlike approach to it. Say you took up an instrument such as the cello or the trumpet, you wouldn't expect after three weeks; three months or three years necessarily to be great at playing that instrument and I know how long it took me to get on top of the flute and so I knew I wasn't going to be a great singer straight off but I will keep at it and see how much I can improve and I took that workmanlike attitude. That's the beauty of having a recording studio you can have as many takes as you want and so I obviously did a number of shots (laughs) at all the vocals before I was happy.
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"Tony Patterson in 'subtle' disguise"
Photo: A Hewitt/TWR

That's why it was great having Tony there and he sang all the vocal harmonies and he sang some of the…there were some songs which I didn't have the kind of rock vocal for it. Dreamtown funnily enough is one song that I thought I could have had a go at but he sings that really well.

TWR: Tony is a good singer within his own range and the great thing is the contrast between the pair of you that is one thing that many people enjoy about it …a bit of variety.

J H: To be honest I am still sort of discovering my voice and I am still having some coaching. It is still early days and sometimes I come out with noises (laughs) and I think "I didn't know I could do that!" (laughs) but the more sort of edgy sort of rock vocal I thought it was crying out for a different voice and Tony was ideal for that, he gets a more sort of raunchy sound.

TWR: The biggest surprise for me was when you got Mr Magnus into the fold…

J H: Well, I think things really improved because there was a period last summer when I had been playing all the instruments myself and I think I am right in saying that by that stage Tony was involved but it wasn't sounding quite professional enough, basically and you have to bear in mind that I had spent the last twenty years as a classical flute player; I haven't spent much time in studios and there is so much you can do that is art and parcel of recording techniques; multi band compression for one thing; use of the right reverb. All that kind of thing that is really limiting and I have no background in that really. So, when Nick came on board things really took of because he was able to strip things down and say "well that bass part is OK, but I am going to re-do the keyboards" because I had put down my own keyboard parts ; usually for the first sound I could lay my hands on! (laughs) and so he re-recorded many of those parts and of course; he played drums and it just really seemed to come together.
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Nick Magnus in the studio
Photo: TWR

TWR: The end result is a polished diamond because everybody just gelled so well to make it a finished project. And one which got such great reviews; how did it feel getting that cracking review in Record Collector?

J H: I was absolutely over the moon about it because when we actually did it; especially with me singing I thought we might sell a few copies or maybe a few people might laugh and think what on earth is he up to? He's a flute player! (laughs). I have been absolutely thrilled with the reviews. Steve I have to say was enormously supportive ; just going back to this business of last summer because that was a bit of a turning point. I was really feeling quite down about it because I had put quite a lot of effort in and I had all the songs written but I just couldn't get it sounding right, and Steve said to me; because he had heard all the material by then; he said; "The material sounds very strong, you have got to see it through" and I was saying about asking Nick to get involved and he said "Yeah, do that" and he said he would come and play on it and that was enormously helpful and his guitar playing is some of the best he has ever done, on that album and I was absolutely thrilled. He made an enormous contribution. The reviews have been fantastic and I have had a lot of e-mails and messages of support from fans that have written in and it means an enormous amount and I am very grateful…. Both to you, if I can just say for your …all you have done for the album; and promoting it. It does mean a lot when I get messages from people, you don't exist in a vacuum and particularly with this album I had no idea what the reaction would be and everyone has been so supportive it has been terrific and it spurs you on to thinking "Yeah, maybe I will do another one" .

TWR: The album is out, obviously this year you have been pretty pre-occupied with tours with big brother. You did your first live gig last weekend, so I was reliably informed (laughs) … How did that come about?

J H: I really did need to try singing in public because I have never sung in public before and people might think it looks easy it is difficult enough with the flute when you have got to get up there and perform and I have been doing that since I was sixteen years old but having never sung in public; you think: OK, in the privacy of a studio where you can go back and do it again but can I do it in front of an audience with a PA system? That was a big question mark in my mind. I wasn't sure if I could and then the last thing I wanted to do was annoy anybody by doing a gig that they weren't invited to but on the other hand I thought I didn't want to go out and do gigs next year and not being able to come up with the goods. That wouldn't be good for anybody. So, we just did a two man gig just me and Tony we did an unplugged…. We only did two songs off the album; two unplugged versions and he did a couple of his songs and I did a couple of flute pieces to ease myself into it at a little Folk club in Newcastle and as it happens it went very well and I enjoyed the experience which was the main thing! (laughs). I won't say I wasn't nervous because I was but I remembered all the words! (laughs) and so I proved to myself that I could actually do it, so now, looking forward it means that we can move on to some live gigs but the last thing I wanted to do was annoy anybody by not advertising it … I even told the family to stay away. I believe there is a recording of it which I haven't heard yet.

TWR: Obviously now you are at the stage where you are involved in a big tour of the USA with Steve and Roger. That will keep you pretty occupied but are you thinking about live gigs at some point…?

J H: It looks like we shall be doing some live dates in May of next year that is on the cards but nothing has been finally confirmed at the moment. The great thing is that I shall have Tony with me and Nick Magnus which is a bit of a coup because he has not played live for donkey's years. I was thrilled that he agreed to come and play. I have worked with Nick so much in the past both on stage and in the studio and you know he is always going to come up with the goods to a very high standard. He was quite a taskmaster with me at times! (laughs) saying "That's not good enough; the timing isn't right… do it again!" And I was glad of that because you can't always see that when you are playing yourself . You do need that if you are going to keep standards up and the nice thing with Nick on board in terms of material we shall be able to do most of Checking Out Of London but we shall also be able to do some of his pieces from Hexameron and it looks like Steve will come and do some guest appearances although we don't know where or when yet. It does mean that in terms of the repertoire it does give us a broad choice along with some of the flute stuff as well, obviously and of course there are certain pieces that people associate with me and that I love playing: Hands Of The Priestess; maybe Jacuzzi or .. things like that which bring in the flute and which I was very much involved with even though I didn't write them.

One wants to be original at gigs and play original material but I wouldn't mind the odd cry for that stuff and there is something about that piece (Hands Of The Priestess) it is such a strong beautiful melody and I still love playing it. It will certainly have a place in the set especially having Nick in the band too. You will be hearing it differently, Alan because as you know; Steve's albums are being re-mastered and I have heard the re-masters of some of them while we were on tour in Germany and I think they sound terrific. Certainly there are times when it is incredible to be there up on stage and it is a privilege to do that. The playing from everybody on them (the re-masters) sounds terrific particularly some of the vocals from Pete Hicks and Dik Cadbury on things like The Virgin & The Gypsy and the playing on Spectral Mornings.

TWR: You have this album, have you carried on writing material…?

J H: For my next album? Yes, I have probably about six songs now that I am very happy with and the only problem is that they are all quite slow and in a minor key! (laughs) as you know who (Mr Clabburn) has done the lyrics but I feel they are very strong and it is a question now of making sure that whatever else I write for the album is going to lift the mood. I am hoping to get another album ready and recorded, hopefully for May of next year … I don't see why not but I don't want to rush it. That is the nice thing about the tour next year is that there is no lack of material; there is already one album and with the contribution from Nick on the instrumental side we have more than enough material.

And with that wonderful thought, we conclude this enjoyable and informative chat with John. My thanks again to him for taking the time to chat to us here at TWR and I am sure we all wish him every success both on the forthcoming US tour with Steve and also for his own solo jaunt next year.

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