"Paying Tribute" - TWR talks to Steve Hackett about his new album of Classical/Baroque transcripts and about his future plans. Interview conducted at Steve’s home by Alan Hewitt and Anthony Hobkinson on Friday 22nd February 2008. Photographs by Anthony Hobkinson.

Here we are again, chatting to Steve about his latest album: Tribute, we are sure you will find the results interesting…..

TWR: Well we are here to talk about the new album : Tribute and I suppose the first thing to ask is when did you decide to exorcise all of these ghosts?

SH: Well, for years now I had thought that I must have a go at some of the material that is the most beautiful and the most difficult that I have heard played. Most of this music was written without regard to the limitations of the guitar; pieces that were written for the violin; solo violin and solo cello which translate very well because you are moving from four strings to six strings. Originally I was going to make it a tribute to Segovia and then I realised that there were other pieces that I hadn’t necessarily heard him play but were just as good. And so I thought it might be better if I did a tribute to a number of people. What I was interested in was playing the pieces that had haunted me for years and years; pieces that just wouldn’t go away. So, it was a kind of exorcism but a very nice one, laying old ghosts and friends to rest. I just felt that the quality of the music was so great that even if I was to do a half way decent job THAT would still come through and because I am not trained what I have brought to it is my feeling and love for it I haven’t had to beat myself over the head to do it and I haven’t received any raps over the knuckles; I haven’t had to learn this stuff. And in a way I have gone my own sweet way and I can tear up the rule book.
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TWR: Was there any point where you thought when you were putting this album together that you encountered a track and thought ‘I can’t do this… I need performance training to do it…’?

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SH: Just about all of it when I started (laughs) especially when I started with the Chaconne which is the most difficult and the most difficult to edit because it keeps accelerating. Also that piece is an incredible journey through Bach’s life and it was written as a memorial to his first wife. After I started recording it there were two things that happened and I am specifically referring to the Chaconne; Roger discovered a way of processing the sound to make it sound like an old record and I think before I was about to play the bit of the melody that goes into the major key I found out that it was a piece that had been dedicated to his first wife. I had just thought this is a lovely sweet piece of music and why does it sound so doomy at the end of it? These two things; finding the sound and finding out the story behind it by the time I came to what is my favourite melody EVER on the nylon guitar; the major melody I was able to play it more brightly than I had before but it still sounded so sweet. Also I now had some idea what it was all about; a love story and the innocence and romanticism. The other thing that struck me was that it worked much better on guitar than it did on violin and it had originally been written for solo violin and there have also been several different arrangements for piano and yet again I thought that what we had got on guitar was so much better.
I don’t think that any of them have the gentleness of the guitar, you have those things that sound like a harp plus the vibratos .So, that piece when we finally completed it I was thrilled with it - three weeks later and my fingers were so sore! (laughs) and I had tennis elbow for about six months after that although that may have been more to do with moving house at the same time.

After we had done this first piece I thought, yes we have got an idea now and we have done the most difficult piece because ALL Classical guitar technique is there in that one particular piece. So the other pieces were easier never easy but easier. Perhaps mountain climbing is better when you start with Everest and work your way down. It just gave me an idea of what the guitar could really do.

TWR: run us through each track and tell us how you came to choose them?

SH: OK, I can’t remember in what order we did them all but I think we probably did the Gavottes next. That one is just the first time I had ever heard anything played on Classical guitar, that was my introduction to Classical guitar and when I first heard it I went ‘Oh, wow!’ and those early recordings made me think I can understand those melodies and maybe one day I will be able to write music like that or I can take an influence from that and in the back of my mind there was the thought that one day there will be a band that takes a Blues influence and a Rock influence and combine the two. It doesn’t exist at the moment but in my dreams… and then bands did appear that were like-minded in their tastes and of course, to some extent Genesis facilitated that.

TWR: When did the idea first gestate?

SH: Well, I had done a couple of albums that were nylon guitar and a couple that were with an orchestra and at the back of my mind I thought; that is a winning combination and that can do it with a decent leader; it’s a beautiful combination, whether it is the Concierto De Aranjuez or more recent things. But I kept thinking about this statement of Segovia’s “the guitar is a small orchestra” and I thought is it possible to do an album where it is the guitar; the whole guitar and nothing but the guitar and I put off doing that even with my own acoustic albums which have other instruments there. If you are going to do an album of acoustic guitar stuff and keep people’s attention from beginning to end , the pieces themselves have got to be wonderful. And I thought, yeah, I will go with the Segovia Songbook and I will do other things. Originally I was thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t do anything of my own it would be like doing Shakespeare and sticking on one or two of your own poems (laughs) but then I thought about the Schubert Impromptus and I had long wished that the guitar was capable of doing one of those pieces and then I had recorded the last piece on the album : La Maja De Goya and that was in an interesting tuning that I had not used before I had the sixth string down to D and the fifth string down to G and it is an interesting tuning because you can do things with it that you can’t normally do with guitar tunings and I started trying to write with that and I was sitting up one night and I had almost got this melody and I had got lots of bits that I could fit in and I was awake all night and Roger was booked to work the following day and literally as I was carrying the guitar in the case on the way to the studio; I go t an idea so I went down, sat down recorded it. Went back to it the following day, listened to it and made a few adjustments and so it was truly an impromptu in that way and I think what we came up with and by that I mean Roger and I; I feel I had help spiritually and I think that it came out really, really well. I used a Rodrigo technique or something that had been shown to Rodrigo by a guitarist; the bit in the Concierto De Aranjuez where in the second movement where the guitar starts bubbling just before the main melody comes in and I thought why not use that technique throughout so most of the work is done by the right hand rather than the left which is in fixed positions. So I was very pleased with that one and this is worthy of being on the album.

What else did I come up with…? Yeah, I started to do something which was slightly French sounding like the French Impressionists’ music trying to produce a trill on the top string whilst simultaneously producing natural harmonics (in best circus ringmaster’s intonation) on the other available strings (Laughs) . It sounds impossible but it is possible providing your playing is very accurate and I felt that was a way of starting it off and then again this sort of main melody which was kind of inspired by some of those Respighi pieces a fountain at sunset.

TWR: So once you get started you get a specific mind picture…?

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SH: Yeah, you can triple away one fast, one slow and the music almost stops and I can still criticise myself for going down to nothing because the listener is required to fall asleep in order to be taken on to the next bit (laughs). Then I remembered that Jo and I had often had visits to Hampton Court on sunny days because she had never been there as a child and there is a really wonderful fountain there; and gardens and a little Elizabethan idea came into my head and I wanted to see if it would work on guitar and it did. Then there was another time when I had been in New Orleans and I visited the swamps and I got really sick; I got swamp fever I must have swallowed some of the water from the spray as I got buffeted on this hydrofoil boat and I got horrendously sick and I was on tour in the States and by the time we reached New York it was only Richard Buckland and I, I went to sleep and I had this terrible pain in my stomach and I heard this beautiful melody as I was about to go to sleep and it was being sung by a woman’s voice and strings behind it and all the pain went with this beautiful melody and it never came back and of course, I remembered the melody and although I could have done a version with soprano and string orchestra and indeed I might one day; I wanted it to be played on the guitar and so … the bit that sounds a bit like Beethoven at the end well I think it sounds Beethoven-ish, and there was also the influence of Chopin. So I thought Chopin was a fan of the nylon guitar as well and I thought if Chopin knew what was possible with the tone colours of the guitar between the very fast triplets and then suddenly changed tone unbelievably quickly how is it possible? And it is because you have to play very close to the bridge very fast and then switch strings it is like stopping in mid flow which is what a humming bird does for a living really. So you have got all those influences in there , all those composers I have mentioned and all of these things owe something to Segovia and I thought he might have liked the change in tone ; the diminuendo and I thought even if he didn’t like it…If I was going to send him something and I can hear him saying things … that should have been in that key … do you know what I mean? And so I know that the definitive performance has not yet been done but it was something that I did a couple of time and can’t play all the way through because I can’t remember all the bits because a lot of this virtuoso stuff relies on memory; you have got to be able to remember stuff not just read it and even the greatest forget because most of the time we are listening to imperfect performances. I listen to violinists a lot; I listen to cellists and pianists - I listen to everything! I listen to sax players who sound like a Cor Anglais; people like David Sanborn.

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TWR: What influence did Roger have on the track selection? Did he come up with any suggestions of pieces to try out…?

SH: All of it is a dialogue with Roger to discover what is possible and he has been infinitely patient with my foibles and weaknesses and love of it. He has been great for me and he has taken me through so much. If you have got enough love for it all things are possible that’s all you really need is love for it. As long as you have got the patience you will get there. I have loved every note and if I didn’t love it, then I did it again and there are an awful lot of notes on it as you can imagine! (laughs)

TWR: You talked at the beginning about exorcising ghosts and the three pieces on there that you have done … is that a job done or is there a lot more …?

SH: Pieces that I have written myself? I have got one or two things with melodies which have been a round for a long time and which I have never finished off and they tend to be in a Baroque style I just can’t get away from that period in music because it was a period of perfection in music. I don’t just listen to this stuff for professional interest; I listen to it because it is very beautiful; its very current, here and now. It is music that has a resonance and an echo that goes on long after it is heard and they stick with you - they stick with me! Bach sticks with everybody. When I first heard the Chaconne when I was a kid I had no idea of the story behind it and I wondered why it started off so doomy which was like death and then it went into this bit that always used to make me think of the innocence of babes it’s just pure love and it is beyond intellect and his music is very intellectual and it is beyond that, isn’t it? It is beyond intelligence and it goes back to the cradle.

TWR: You have done this album, as Anthony has just said; do you think there is still more out there…?

SH: Yeah, there is and there will be, there will be more stuff where this comes from because it keeps re-presenting itself. It used to worry me that I would be doing stuff that was in an archaic style and it was a throwback and what was I doing and why was that relevant and all the rest but something was telling me to do it…. The piece you were thinking of from Momentum might be Troubled Spirit… I didn’t play it as well as I did this time.

TWR: One thing you were concerned about was people having to sit and listen to just a guitar from beginning to end and you had to pick some really good pieces and there are three of your own pieces out there now. Has that given you the confidence to do something like this but purely with your own music?

SH: Well, I probably always did have the confidence to do stuff in that style because that is what I started out doing, once I had done Bay Of Kings. It is always going to re-present itself and often it is doing something that you have half finished and you want to complete it and that was even the same with the piece at the beginning of Fountain Of Salmacis and that was what I did on my version of that where I had done a mini overture on guitar before the song. It was a shame that I had given that away but I think it might bear a longer revised version. That’s what composers used to do, the thing that is most well known; the Barber string piece (Adagio in C) was actually a string quartet first of all.

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I am a great believer in giving credit where it is due and there is one thing that comes round time and time again one of these eternal melodies that are played by your heroes and I think it is important for people to know that I am a fan of other people in the same way that other people might be a fan of mine. I can do my equivalent of getting down on my knees and saying “I’m not worthy!” but quite a lot of things that I have loved, for instance if I might digress slightly; the harmonica style of Paul Butterfield already it was a retro step, it was Little Walter who was his mentor and that doesn’t really matter does, it at the end of the day somebody has had a go. Not even Bach invented music but we all bring something original to this building. Its one of those things, you know for a rock and roller it can be seen a s a sideshow but actually there is much more to it than that. This is one half of where I am. I have been working with Chris Squire recently and he is obviously a fantastic player but also a marvellous songwriter and a very good singer and we enjoyed each other’s company enormously working on each other’s projects and eventually more stuff will surface.

TWR: That brings us nicely to the new rock album; how are things progressing with that?

SH: Progressing? It’s still not finished, surprise, surprise but you can’t do everything all at once. Roger is involved but I am hoping to work with some of my old chums as well. It will be a mixture of old and new friends. The piece I played to you last time, is a long piece but its still being worked on and nothing is ever finished until it is in the shops. I haven’t got anything booked at the moment and all I can say is that both Chris Squire and Simon Phillips are on it, my brother John is on it, I have been singing; John has been singing and Chris has been singing. We have string players; we have the Underworld Orchestra which are basically three people plus additions! (laughs). On this album you are going to have more manpower perhaps. I think you can get the best out of people, I have discovered by allowing them to enjoy themselves and I will even volunteer to go away and come back later if they prefer (laughs) and some people do!

And with that tantalising view of Steve’s next rock opus we have to leave it for this edition. Once again our thanks to Steve and his partner Jo for allowing us to invade their home and for giving up so much of their time and hospitality to speak to us, we hope you enjoy the finished result.