“Squackett and other mythical creatures” - Steve Hackett
talks to TWR about his latest activities. Interview conducted at Steve’s
home on Saturday 8th January 2011. Photographs by Alan Hewitt and Joanna Lehmann.
Well, here we are once again at Chez Hackett to give Steve a grilling about his most recent activities. Over to you, Steve…
TWR: This is basically a catch up, Steve to find out what you have been doing recently. Obviously you have been busy with a new album which has been a great success and all the stuff that goes with it so, what have you been doing between bouts of touring…?
SH: Well, the touring has been quite relentless so there hasn’t been much time to do other stuff. That’s why there has been no studio album for a while because there were just so many shows and we love doing that, all of us. Now we are back to the task in hand which is to produce another so-called studio album but I suspect it will be somewhere between the living room and the studio as distinct from live. Of course we have had alive album; Live Rails which I am pleased has been so well received. I have certainly enjoyed listening back to all the tapes from that and I thought there were some cracking performances from the band so I remain a proud father (laughs).
TWR: You have found time to do some stuff in the studio though, because one project which has come my way is this project Dirty And Beautiful which you have done with Gary Husband, how did that come about…?
SH: Well, I worked with two very interesting people back to back, one day after the other. I worked with Steve Wilson (Porcupine Tree) one day and Gary Husband the next day and the interesting thing was that each one was in a completely different style. Steve wanted me to play spontaneous stuff that we treated as data. I did lots of different solos, lots of different styles and he wanted something that was uncharacteristic and finally we hit on some really wild sounds for it.
Then on a subsequent day I did some nylon on the thing but I worked on that at home. Then the following day I worked with Gary and that was completely different. That was very much a performance with him sitting through it and saying ‘I like that’ or ‘I’m not so keen on that’ and ‘I think we can improve on that’ so we were refining it on the spot but they were two completely different ways of working but both produced fantastic results. So, one is for Steve’s solo album that also features Nick Beggs. The other is Gary’s album which features John McLaughlin and a stellar cast. And that is called Dirty And Beautiful.
TWR: I noticed on that one that it is called “Volume One” does this mean that you will feature on Volume Two as well…?
SH: You know, I have no idea. That depends on whether he calls me or if he includes something that he and I recorded some while ago.
TWR: The track you are on feels very Jazzy to me…
SH: Yeah, it is very jazzy but its melodic. He wanted very short, clipped phrases and he has the distinction of being able to play keyboards with John McLaughlin and drums with Level 42. That’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I am in awe of him that he is able to do that to that degree. Similarly I think with Stephen Wilson; a prodigious talent, fabulous. So I have been very lucky recently and I have worked with lots of great people. I did something recently with Rob Reid of Magenta. That came out beautifully as well. It’s almost like being the proud father of triplets really.
TWR: Casting the seed over ever more fertile fields, Mr Hackett!
SH: Yeah, how can I put it? You can’t buy it, you know I couldn’t possibly have arranged things to have been like that. When you work like this the mountain has got to come to Mohammed, I can’t just ’phone up my mates and say ’Do you want me to play on such and such…?’ although it certainly would be nice and there are some other people who I have been incredibly impressed with recently who have mentioned a desire to do something together. It’s an amazing feeling when you meet someone whose work you admire and they start to quote back your own work to you. That’s marvellous, of course. And again, you can’t buy it, you can’t ever guarantee that that will be the case. Maybe it is because I have been making noises for a living for the past forty years that enough mud has been slung at enough walls that some of it was bound to stick (laughs). It’s coming back to haunt me! (laughs)
TWR: Speaking of things coming back to haunt you, I have heard that there is talk about you considering remastering the back catalogue to 5.1 with Steve Wilson. Having heard some of his work on the King Crimson back catalogue, I couldn’t imagine anyone better to do it…
SH: There is every chance, provided that the source material exists. It is difficult to say but I hope that the original masters will show up in their (EMI’s) vaults. If they don’t it will just be another Egyptian tomb (laughs) pillaged by heathens.
TWR: You have worked on both John (Hackett’s) and Nick Magnus’ new albums, how did they go down…?
SH: I really enjoyed both of them. Incidentally it was wonderful to work with John again. Its really the extended family circle and it has been fantastic to work with them and the people I have worked with over the last few months as well and it seems that the planets have been in alignment recently.
TWR: Strange that you have always said that you are not a team player but here you are, working as part of a team with so many different people of late…
SH: Now that is very interesting, isn’t it? I do have this fear of teams but the people I have been working with recently are thinking in a very personal way, they aren’t thinking corporately and I doubt if any of these people are thinking; ‘I’ll get Steve Hackett to play on my record because it’ll sell more’ . They probably think; ‘I’ll get him on it because it’ll sound better’, or ‘he’ll bring something to the pot at least’. I’m not so old that I am not a fan other people, I am. I suspect that along with a lot of other people, it felt that the music business was in the doldrums for so long and people have finally got rid of the shackles and that period of the 1980’s where you had the sense of music in chains with executives calling the shots. That era is past.
TWR: The great thing is that the new technology that was once frowned upon has now enabled people to, for instance record in this very room which twenty years ago would have been unheard of. The advent of the Internet has enabled that music which was created in a living room, to be sold from a living room…
SH: Exactly! That’s true. It’s welcome to my cottage. What I am amazed about with the technology is, because even the word is boring but the facility that is placed at your disposal is amazing and practically limitless. You have to be imaginative as you were in the past but with the confidence of now, Yes you can allow a blues influence, you can afford to do a vocal harmony.
TWR: You’ve even brought the psaltery out again. Here you have a medieval instrument in a hi tech studio!
SH: Yeah, I was thrilled on this record and on one of the remixes of Genesis which I enjoyed very much was Inside & Out and the end section features psaltery and a bit at the end that almost goes country fiddle and I was thrilled to hear that again.
TWR: So, what can you tell us about the Squackett project…?
SH: The latest is that it’s very much up to Chris at the moment. By the end of this weekend I should have a better idea about how we are going to move it forward. I think Chris wants it to be a hit. Personally I am always happy with a release. I have been involved with so many projects that I figure if you make things available, people like it then it sells, word of mouth helps to make it sell more. I left Genesis many years ago, I left GTR many years ago. I am less concerned about the big time. I think it’s like… I don’t really want to quote my favourite writers of old but, a lot of them were lucky if they made a farthing or two for their major works. I get the feeling that it’ll find its feet and it will find a place. It has elements of progressive rock and classic rock and almost smooth easy listening and it bridges a gap over all of those things in a similar way that some of the work of Tears For Fears did. So, I have probably played this to you Alan, haven’t I?
You’ve never heard it? At the end of this interview I will play it to you. Never say never though because at the end of the day I said to Chris, Look, we’ve done this on a shoestring. It has been self-funded, there is no Executive Department that has to be accounted to asking why did you spend so long at that studio? So it has got a rootsy thing about it and I think that there was a natural harmony between Chris and myself. Sometimes we wrote things separately and then brought it together. Other times we sat opposite each other and the song writing process flowed very smoothly. It seemed that we were instantly able to come up with ideas together as if we had been writing together all our lives. There didn’t seem to be any competitive element.
Chris had unique ideas about where sections ought to go in the music and he would say why don’t we use that bit here and this bit there and I tried to be as flexible as possible because I have often likened the song writing process to kicking around a football; one person kicks it, another kicks it back, we dribble around a bit and hopefully score a goal eventually. There is another side to this though when you stop kicking the poor little creature and act as the glue and figure that you have just got to stick to this ball in some way and that is the aspect of team playing that hasn’t always come naturally to me because I have always cared so much about every note.
TWR: I guess you have your idea about where it should fit and if somebody else says no, it should fit over there, then you have got to stand your corner, of course you have…
SH: Well, what I have found is that I will fight for each picture if you like, to make sure that the detail is as good as it can possibly be. There has to be this give and take and this response when you are working in any band situation. A certain element of letting go of the reins or you would never get anything done. I think the fact that I have spent so many years doing what I would call so-called “solo” albums because it is always a team that makes them. It isn’t always the best attitude to have at the beginning of a shared project but the interesting thing was that most of the time if I felt that a sound or a treatment was really good then Chris responded. So just in terms of the funding of this, Roger (King) was putting in more and more time on this and I wanted it to be worth his while so I suggested at a half way stage you know Chris, Roger has put in a lot of time here and I said what if Roger becomes the producer? So, as of this moment in time he is the producer and thou shalt have no other producers other than Roger. Roger is very good at that and so it is a very polished sounding product.
|TWR: Speaking of the team, who else has actually been
involved with the album…?
SH: Jeremy Stacy has played drums, we had Amanda (Lehmann) on a couple of the tracks singing harmonies. So the team really is five people. The writing team extends beyond that there are some other people who have been involved; Nick Clabburn one or two of Chris’s friends, Jo (Lehmann). But as a collaborative effort it came together very naturally.
TWR: Who approached who with regard to doing it? Did Chris come to you or did you speak to Chris…?
SH: I worked on Chris’s Christmas album (Chris Squire’s
Swiss Choir) he then worked on a solo effort of mine which hasn’t been
released yet because of legal difficulties surrounding my life. Now that those
rights have returned we divided up the cake and some things which we have worked
on and some of my stuff, the stuff that he liked best and have been removed
from potential solo stuff and I have continued to work with him on and all his
ideas which still leaves me with over 50% of another solo thing so I have got
material to spare at the moment. The reason why it hasn’t come out isn’t
that it isn’t very good but because of politics and work in progress.
So, it is difficult to talk about something that isn’t in front of the
public. I hope it goes up in this form and I hope that the politics don’t
queer the pitch too much and I feel it is ready to go and is right in the form
that it is and if it becomes too corporate we might end up throwing the baby
out with the bath water or there might be a little too much fog surrounding
the thing, we shall see.
TWR: Well, hopefully there won’t be any danger of a repeat of the GTR debacle…
SH: I think that it is in spirit it sounds different to GTR. I am hoping that Chris isn’t going to turn round to me and say I think we should get Trevor Horn to produce it because much as I think Trevor is a great producer there is an aspect of the character of this which I think reflects two separate personalities but this aspect of the child born of enthusiasm…
TWR: It has got a spirit at the moment that you don’t want flattening out…
SH: Yeah, that’s it and the interesting thing working with Chris and this is what’s interesting. He was in my studio laying down some bass tracks for some of this early stuff and you could see that he was very much into it, his whole body as he was playing there is an aspect of joy of playing which he has. He is very moved by something he is a very unique mixture of boyish enthusiasm and veteran dedication to the art of making records.
TWR: In some respects he is the Peter Pan of rock, the little boy who found the job that he could do and never grew up…
SH: Yes, there is all of that and he is very enthusiastic and he was a joy to work with and again I have to stress the fact that there was no atmosphere of competition. There was no ’Well, my songs are better than your songs!’ and you would be surprised the amount of times that happens among musicians trying to put one over on one another and so many of the people that you have known and loved their work and when they say that sort of thing you think I wish he hadn’t said that being competitive because it defeats the object. If you can co-operate then you can make somebody else’s project better. It is a different role when you are working with someone in a team. Sometimes you have got to submit to the will of another to be taken that extra mile into an area that you wouldn’t have hit on before. So, he had me playing in a style that I wouldn’t have done once or twice before. There is an aspect of… Jazz is the wrong word with this but I was using some clean guitar on a couple of the tracks, clean electric which is an area that I had abandoned on guitar in about 1964 (laughs) but came back to it and came to enjoy the aspect of non-distorted electric guitar and it doesn’t have to sound like the Bonanza theme (laughs) and it doesn’t have to sound like every jazz guitarist who has ever bored the pants off you. There is another aspect and I was proud of being able to find the right notes to combine nylon and electric and had different styles within a piece.
TWR: I suppose that you guys do come from, not radically different backgrounds but different musical backgrounds and that is going to end up producing something that is very satisfying for you as musicians and hopefully for the people who are going to be listening to it as fans…
SH: I hope they like it.
TWR: The next question, and I know it will be a vexed question because the album isn’t even available yet but people are already asking about the possibility of any shows in support of it…?
SH: I think there will be shows at some point but when and where they will be, that I don’t know. Dependant on he who lives in America so you know while I have concentrated most of my efforts on this side of the Pond, most but not all, there are a number of amber lights but they aren’t on green yet.
TWR: Well, we will move on from that and the prospect of touring to the delightful prospect of another studio offering from you, so what can you tell us about that…?
SH: I was playing you some of it earlier, some new stuff in embryonic form. I guess everyone knows when I am enthusiastic about something because I play it to all and sundry (laughs). There is always that thing about collaring people and saying ’listen to this’ and what I really mean is ’listen to this, don’t you think it’s great?’ (laughs) it all depends on who you play it to.
TWR: The embryonic track that you played before, does it have a title…?
SH: Well it does but if I … I am reluctant to reveal because if I do the next thing I know there will be ten other bands bringing out tracks with the same… (laughs) you have to be very careful with lyrics.
TWR: Well there is that one and the one you road tested on the last tour; Prairie Angel . Is that part and parcel of this project…?
SH: Whether or not Prairie Angel remains as a title, it’s a working title. I do like what we did with it but at the moment it is just a short section of something, the kernel of an idea and something that is yet to be. The title I got from Jack Kerouac and it was the description of a young girl that he and his pal had seen on their travels and they both thought that she was the most beautiful girl that they had ever seen and yet there was the aspect that she was described as an “angel of the prairie” and you get the feeling of the remoteness of the landscape and the idea of it dotted with a few figures, the wide open expanse that is the prairie that I saw as a child on my travels in the 1950’s. this idea of dry brush and nothing around struck me as being. The idea of, in the story I think he is a farmer and she’s his daughter and she is so alive to these guys because she obviously wasn’t going to meet young guys very often and they describe how she responds to their every move. Nothing ever actually happens, it’s all implied but given half a chance this whole thing would have been consummated but I liked the idea of the contradiction. I am quite sure that the beauty of the girl was heightened by her surroundings and the fact that she was obviously chaperoned by her father who is probably terrified that she might meet anybody, anywhere, anytime (laughs). I suspect that there was a whole shotgun between them all. So I was after music that reflected that which was very rootsy yet very romantic which is why that piece is based on three riffs. I don’t know how the song may develop it may become a song abut there is an aspect that the long notes on the guitar, when I record them I want them to sound like a voice. I want them to sound like aaaah, again it is getting the upper harmonic into that sound so that it does that and with a little box of tricks that I’ve got I can produce that with the note being played high and then an octave above that being played at the same time and it becomes very operatic in a way. It has bottleneck slide on it with a real kind of Delta sound and I was thinking of doing it with slide and this thing came together on the last day of rehearsal with the band in about an hour and it came together very quickly because it is very simple to play. I asked ‘what do you think if I don’t use the bottleneck it’ll leave my fingers freer to do other things?’ One or two of them said; ‘well, if you want that Delta sound use the bottleneck‘. So I thought, yeah to hell with it, I’ll play it with the bottleneck in hand throughout the course of it.
TWR: Well, if the evidence of what you have played to me today so far is anything to go by then you are definitely in a purple patch at the moment. How far down the line is the new album…?
SH: Purple patch? That’s a nice way of describing it, I’ve not heard that expression before. We always want things to go right sometimes we have to fight through the things that aren’t right but you just have to keep going. I think all the problems recently have given me a fresh impetus and I find it very interesting that when I look back at two heroes Keith Richard and Jimi Hendrix. Both these guys were beaten by their father who were trying to beat whatever it was out o f them and I am not suggesting that in order to create a genius that you should beat the hell out of your child (laughs) you may end up with a Hitler or … All I know is that adversity does produce the sense of ’I must do this because it’s a lifeline, I’ve got to do this even if it kills me. I may die in the attempt but I will fight through the pain’. When you are excited about work like this it enriches the internal life and I really think that if anything has kept me young, I know that that has had something to do with it the fact that I have always had an idea burning away inside of me and if I am very lucky like today for instance, we were out buying some food at the supermarket (rock star living eh? AH) now that is the most boring activity in the world and I had just started this new song and Jo and I had put it together. Jo had the melody and the words and I added some chords to it and I changed very little. She is thrilled that liked her melody enough to do it but she really likes the sound of the voice so we are both very proud of each other and I am very alive with that and it seems to ignite all the other ideas like candles. I could go away with this album and take the same attitude that C S Lewis did writing his books. The guy talked about writing the kind of books that he would have liked to have read himself. I make those sorts of albums, the albums that are hybrids of contradictory styles, they are journeying songs I think I have even got a title for the album but I don’t want to say it yet.
I think because I read everything, I read books I read magazines I am always on the lookout for things and I will deliberately hold a book away and because I am myopic, my short-sightedness scrambles the words around and very often I will get something a lot more interesting than what was intended! (laughs) I will use that, I will read any magazine, at one time I would think I’m not going to pick up a copy of Country Life magazine for example, and now I will and you just don’t know where it’s going to come from, do you? Now I have a different take on things again from what it was like on To Watch The Storms for example, where I wasn’t afraid to go small on that album. Now I don’t criticise other people’s work. I’ll be thinking today for instance, remember Brian Hyland Sealed With A Kiss, the original version, and what other songs of his do I remember? And I remember seeing him on TV years ago in the early Sixties and he was being very gentlemanly about it and they were interviewing him and they were saying ’well, aren’t your things sort of out of style now?’ because he was pretty much a romantic singer, pop singer, crooner and he said, ’yeah you know it’s not so much in style now because of The Beatles and this that and the other. And I remember loving the sound of his voice and I remember watching girls thrilling to the sound of his voice and this is me in my pre-teen years watching the effect he had on other people with a beautiful voice and I never thought that I would be able to sing remotely like that but I don’t dismiss the crooner; I don’t dismiss the belter, they have all got their place. If not for the Everly Brothers you wouldn’t have had The Beatles. Perhaps if you hadn’t had Brian Hyland you wouldn’t have had the Everlys. If you hadn’t had all of that you wouldn’t have had The Beatles who were part Everly and part Chuck Berry.
TWR: It’s early days yet but you seem to have a lot of material ready or under consideration for this album. From what you are saying and from what I have heard, you certainly seem to have another batch of strong material there …
SH: I am in a unique position at this moment in time of having an embarrassment of riches, a great band, a wonderful partner and fabulous people who seem to be dying to work with me. That was wonderful the other night, I went to see Black Country Communion with Joe Bonamassa on guitar and Jason Bonham on drums and I was talking to these two guys who are very aware of my work. I think that Joe is very, very good and he said he would like to work with me sometime. Now Jason Bonham, you talk about the embarrassment of riches. In recent years I have worked with Gary (O’Toole) whose phenomenal, I have worked with Simon Phillips who is also phenomenal and Jason I was talking to and I had heard some of his stuff and said to him that it was the heaviest drum sound I had ever heard and he said how much he had been a fan of Phil and he was talking about the playing on Dance On A Volcano and the circle is complete. Joe Bonamassa too, he said that he used to play a version of Los Endos and he said ’have you still got your gold top?’ Luckily I wasn’t able to sell it, I attempted to in order to bail myself out financially because I was in such dire straits financially. I am no longer in dire straits financially I may add.
|TWR: So, what is the situation with any more shows…?
SH: At the moment there is nothing firm. We have just met with a new agent over here who seems keen to do stuff. I am hoping that is going to be a long term relationship made in heaven but am realistic enough to realise that in any relationship… in any work relationship the aim of the exercise is to work with people you love and who love you. The reality is that you have to have military, steely determination to be able to say ’serve or die’ in order to get to the level of loyalty and love that produces the best work. Everyone I work with I absolutely adore, I thrill to their work and I get that look on stage, eye contact. That look always means it’s going alright, its happening. There’s always that moment on stage which every musician dreads where the lights go out, the power drops, whatever… someone has a heart attack, the mic doesn’t work, you fall over, your trousers fall down whatever it is it all goes tits up but for the rest of it there comes a moment where there are small windows of opportunity or assurance for everyone go ’yeah, that sounded pretty good, the crowd are loving it; I can hear myself’ the dream is happening, we are in the middle of the dream and let’s just take time to peer outside of the dream and be happy enough to say this isn’t going to burst like a bubble because we smiled at each other.
The idea of fining someone for every mistake, God I’d be bankrupt for
all the clangers I’ve made! (laughs). The thing about starting playing
live gigs is in the early days you think oh we’ve made a mistake, it’s
all gone wrong and it’s only my band who make mistakes and you realise
in time that that is far from the case. Often unless someone owns up you don’t
know if that’s the case if somebody fluffs up.
TWR: While on the subject of surreal moments on stage, there is one story I heard about the last tour that I can’t help but ask about. What is this about you getting locked inside the tour bus at Bath…?
SH: Oh, the tour van in Bath… I went in to get a guitar and got stuck. Luckily it wasn’t a case of ’Will you please welcome…’ and eventually Brian (Coles, the band’s tour manager) had to come and rescue me from my plight.
And on that Spinal Tap moment, we will leave this interesting chat with Steve. Once again, my thanks to both Steve and Jo for their hospitality and for allowing me the pleasure of listening to so much great music in the making!