“Stepping into the Wolflight” - Steve and Jo Hackett talk to TWR about the new album Wolflight. Interview conducted by Alan Hewitt on Monday 23rd February 2015. Photographs by Jo Hackett.
TWR catches up again with the ever busy Mr Hackett for a chat about his new album and plans, over to you, Steve …
TWR: I suppose the first thing we need to talk about. Steve is this dratted documentary and your thoughts on it …
SH: well, I think it was very disappointing apart from that I haven got too much to say about it. It could have been better. I don feel it was definitive comparatively and its sister project: R Kive seemed to represent the five man version of Genesis rather more democratically. Apart from that, anyone who wants to watch it, fine.
TWR: We shall move on from that then shall we? One of the things that is fascinating people at the moment is the sheer number of collaborations you are doing with other people at the moment. How do some of these … . Your latest one with Todmobile, in Iceland, how did that come about?
SH: Todmobile had been working with Jon Anderson and I head I think it was one of the Yes tracks with orchestral backing and it seemed to be just supported by orchestra and I thought the track sounded very good. It is also on the Todmobile album that I am represented on, on two tracks and I thought the Jon Anderson track sounded very very good and the orchestral arrangement I thought sounded beautiful . I thought it suited Jon for a start, it was lovely, it floated, it was melodic it was a number of things that I felt suited his style and his sound. They asked me if I would work with them and sent me a link to the stuff they had been doing with him and I said “yes” I obviously found it so good.
Then they sent me a copy of a track which they were initially looking for a guitar solo from me for, and it sounded lovely this track it just sounded great and then they asked for some words, would you be able to do some English words for it? So I did that and the track is called Midnight Sun and it is on the current Todmobile album; Ulfur, along with another track called Resounding Eyes which I gather was co-written with Jon Anderson and I have played guitar on that so my role on that is purely as an instrumentalist. All in all those three tracks constitute something very melodic, to a very high standard. They also happen to possess an extraordinary lead singer who has an incredible range and fabulous tuning and vibrato and … As I say all these efforts all sounded so good before I had even played a note I thought this is a winner, this track, Midnight Sun sounded so strong to me . It was an incredible song, incredible harmony work before I , as I say had done anything to it. And I am very pleased that they asked for English words because obviously that will widen their appeal and gain them a larger audience.
TWR: You have done so many but the one which really fascinated me was your work on Northlands …
SH: I was on that and I enjoyed doing that very much it was a very interesting album and I did some stuff on Steve Rothery’s album: The Ghosts Of Pripyat,it’s the place where the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened. It was the town that was built to support the workers and it is an entirely abandoned place. It is a ghost town. I just got a copy of the finished album from him yesterday and it was lovely to look at the sleeve and there are several carefully chosen images from it and it is very interesting stuff. I have been lucky to have been part of some very interesting collaborations to a very high standard. I have also worked on my brother John’s album which I think is nearing completion and I think with all these projects because other people have run with the ball first of all, I felt no pressure of performance other than wanting to do my best with whatever it was so, it is funny that all these things seem to have fallen in my lap at one time. I hadn really touted for the business! (laughs) it has come to me. In each of these cases, lest anyone think that I have become a session man for a living that is far from the truth, because they are all done out of friendship and I have no desire to earn any money from any of these things. As I have said before, music is its own currency and it rewards you with things other than money so it is lovely to have been part of the flowering of so many shrubs, plants, trees and gardens! (laughs). I am pleased to have done that.
TWR: On the subject of things blossoming, we come to your latest creation: Wolflight. So, give me the lowdown on Wolflight … .
SH: Because I was doing so much touring, bringing back the Genesis dream so to speak, the amount of time I was able to spend in the studio over the past two years was rather more limited than the time I had sitting down with note paper whilst I was travelling in order to work out ideas that I would implement once I could finally get into the building next door. There was also another time constraint in that we were selling the studio and I felt that I couldn really dither too much. Having said that, I didn feel rushed. I think towards the end I was obviously watching the clock and thinking we’re going to have to …
TWR: Did you start working on this album concurrently with the Genesis Revisited album or is it after it?
SH: It was after it and God knows how it has all been possible but it feels very strong and I am at the honeymoon stage with it, I see no blemishes on the new bride ! (laughs) I am in love with it, it was a gas to do it and I finally managed to get an album to sound in the way that I wanted to do it. In other words, I am not saying that everything I have done before this wasn of a high standard but this time I felt that the production on every last track had something extraordinary to offer if only the sound of the nylon guitar for instance on one track in particular, the latest track that was recorded for the album which was called Earthshine and we got a sound that doesn just sound like guitar, it also sounds a little bit like piano but it has got a sparkle to it. And it hasn got any boom to the sound and it just seems to sit absolutely right because I have always been concerned that I am such a reverb junkie, I put effect on things and I realised that that has the effect of putting things further away. And I thought for a long time is it possible to have that amount of bloom on something but then also have it sit in front of the speakers and finally this colour that I have been looking for, for centuries! (laughs) emerged and I just love the sound of it even when it goes down to the one solo guitar towards the end of the album, the energy doesn drop, it still keeps coming at you the right sort of way.
Apart from that, it is an album that does a fair amount of time travel with a camera unit zooming back in time (laughs) to look at the ancestors and the start of when people began to change from nomadic to living in fixed places. The tribes, the survival the whole idea of wolf light and of course, the wolf totem has been important.
TWR: So it is a travelogue but more in time than just in places?
SH: it is a travelogue both in time and space, sure, you are quite right.
TWR: So, give us a brief synopsis of the tracks on the album, tell us a little bit about them …
SH: OK, I am not looking at the track list as we speak so the first track, Out Of The Body is an instrumental track but then it has got choral proportions. It is really on one level it is rock meets orchestra but before all that starts,it’s the wolves and a frozen reverb note at the beginning, then the drums and then the band which is a group plus or orchestra plus however you see it. I just love the sound of it, it is very joyous, it's got a strange mix of joyous and dark at the same time and that is something that I have been looking for for quite some time a well to get something joyfully dark means that the contradiction worked. Complimentary opposites.
TWR: You have always been a master of light and shade so that really isn any surprise.
SH: I ’ m glad you think so. For my part this is the first time an album of such multi cultural diversity has really worked to this degree I think. There are aspects of World Music on it, with the Tar playing of Malik Mansurov from Azerbaijan who opens up the title track, Wolflight. We have also got Sara Kovacs from Hungary where we recorded Malik. She is playing Didgeridoo so it is the two of them, its Didgeridoo and Tar, not an obvious combination really so I let them kick that off and then run with the ball later. It’s as if the album has been a number of relay teams. I use the word relay because I think of it a bit like a race where the baton is handed on from one runner to another. But in this case it is both genre and personnel so the wolves immediately hand over to percussion which immediately hands over to rock with a classical twist.
It keeps changing and I like to think that nothing outstays its welcome. I don want to hang around on solos for too long so I wanted to have these cameo appearances with all these various people and their genres and I felt that I was another player, as a rock player or as a singer I am part of that cameo approach. I am trying to think of another word for cameo … vignettes, short chunks, here’s a bit of this, here’s a bit of that and it is different ensembles and that’s the thing. So we interrupt Wolflight with a string orchestra but it is not quite straight ahead it is bendy note string orchestra which sounds a tad more Indian or Arabic and of course, you are a man who hails from the great land of Beatles but I think The Beatles managed to eventually have a multi cultural diversity and start World Music at the same time and as you know, I am such a huge fan of George Martin. I love the fact that he started off thinking he was going to write music like the Warsaw Concerto instead of which he got to work with the world’s most famous band and give them a wider palette to give the songs orchestral dress. To make the pipe dream come true.
I would like to be able to play you Corycian Fire which is a track based on the Oracle and the cave is still there, the actual place where all of this took place until the original site was sacked by the Christians but you have this place central to the idea of religion as we knew it at that time. Where divination wasn a dirty word and there was tremendous respect for the women who were undoubtedly gifted and this cave has been known at various times as the Corycian Cave, Pan’s Cave, the Cave Of Dionysus, it’s extraordinary and we think we have figured out where the divination would have taken place. It has to be under that green canopy, that overhang which is the one place where you feel you shouldn go, isn it? You feel you shouldn sit under that, that is the real seat of power that place. How far did I get? I know I haven said enough about the ancestors and the idea of wolf light …
TWR: Is there a central theme to the album?
SH: If I take you back to the idea of, in Homer there is a line in The Odyssey which says if I remember it correctly … “Odysseus woke up in the wolf light ” so we are talking about the hour before dawn and the time traditionally when wolves hunt and I believe the French have an expression for it which is called “the hour of dogs and wolves ” and much of the album was written at that time because I was on the run so much and still am on the run as a wanted character (laughs) I often find myself awake at five o ’ clock in the morning working out ideas such as you find on this album.
TWR: It is funny but an awful lot of things tend to happen at that time of the night, with the ebb and flow of the tide as well, it has got a very strong influence on things.
SH: Some would say that and some would say it is because you have got no interference, you know. People are not bombarding you with requests for communication etc and other people say you are open to the world of spirit and you are channelling at that time. Other people might say that you are still between waking and sleeping and you are accessing the subconscious. I think you are at your most receptive and you are not hidebound by logic and that has been an important idea and once again, the thing about a wolf light is the fact that we spent some time with wolves and that was important to this and again, to return to Corycian Fire that area around Mount Parnassus this was known, or the area just below it was known as … wasn’t it, Jo Jo as Lycoria? And they have their own version of the Noah story where wolves led people out of a flood plain into safe territory which was …
TWR: Well that is strange because you don’t usually associate wolves … they aren’t in most mythologies associated with, shall we say, acts of kindness …
SH: Well, that is the thing you see, but wolves were mankind’s early friend and of course would have led them to water and to shelter and to food and because the dog is currently regarded as man’s best friend I see no reason why the ancestors of the dog shouldn’t be honoured in the same way. So much of the lyrics of Wolflight were written really about the ancestors and the places we have come from and what it was like and other places or rather the people who made up the places because of the nomadic nature of early man. I also have done, I kicked off a video for Wolflight which I believe is going to be a full length version of the tune.
Moving on to Love Song To A Vampire. Basically the song is a metaphor for abusive relationships, for the Stockholm Syndrome just your regular pop song! (laughs) . It has got a hint of the French chansons, it tells a story it has flamenco influences with the nylon guitar backing something that could be a French melody. So it has been influenced by everything from flamenco and French stuff to the Bellamy Brothers to Progressive things and Grieg as the song continues you get more and more orchestral moments and I am very proud of those, the way they twin with the rock moments. Again just appearing as a vignette and a blast of a heavy sounding orchestra and then it is immediately decimated by a rock band blazing in with guitar. Complimentary collisions have been pretty much a calling card of this album and I think anyone can do it who shares a love of these various genres and styles and oeuvres but at the same time there needs to be patient attention to detail. There is lots of technology out there that will make it possible for people to do these sorts of albums. Of course we have used real as well and that has not been a new thing for me we have often used real performers with a sample absolutely twinned to make it … to take the man or the woman and ghost it with something else and it is a very good way of working. It means you can fashion things and get individual performances absolutely in tune and in time. I don’t think this kind of album would have been possible until, I would say, the last couple of years really because of the kit that is around at the moment. So, it is a love song with a twist. There is an aspect of pastiche with it, it is kind of Gothic and by the end of it, it sounds like the end of a Tchaikovsky ballet. Again there is this choral aspect in there that sounds as if it owes something to Romeo & Juliet. Chris Squire is on it as well.
TWR: This was one of the songs that you kindly let me hear a while ago and I couldn’t help but hear echoes of the song No More I Love You ’ s in it …
SH: Oh, that’s interesting. Well it wasn’t a conscious thing. Then the next track, The Wheel’s Turning is basically, it has a chorus which is “As the wheel ’ s turning, the film starts to play/ of all the ones who just got away ” and again it is quite ambiguous but the central focus of it was the idea of yes the passing of time and the early experiences that I had of Battersea Fun Fair which was London’s only permanent fun fair and I worked there as a kid. It was important to me , first of all it was very frightening when I was a very small child and I got to be part of it and I got to work there and I just loved it so much and I loved the era of songs that accompanied it of course. So there will be an aspect of Jan and Dean in there before The Beach Boys Surf City and there is something of the melody that alludes to Roy Orbison and this, that and the other and it is an attempt to describe a fun fair not for the first time in my life and it might be the last time in my life. But again, I do try to interrupt the action, something that is basically a pop song which then becomes rockier but then becomes even more nostalgic so not just the early 1950’s and 1962 but again there is a moment that sounds as if it was lifted from a Tchaikovsky ballet, the beginning of the ballet and just thinking of those moments where you hear timpani roll, the triangle, it is all going and you get a moment that some have described as cinematic and filmic and what have you. Quite a lot of the album is that in broad sweeps …
TWR: It was brought to us in Cinemascope …
SH: That ’ s it! In Cinemascope, indeed, films for the lug holes (laughs) rather than the peep holes. I think the moments that I like are when one genre is upended and edited into another one where you least expect it. I love those moments because it is a complete change of scene and it is the meanwhile story … meanwhile if you want to create energy from an orchestra it might sound a bit like this … at the beginning of the imaginary ballet. I realise of course, that I am completely mad saying this but madness and music ought to be possible. It has got to be because we know that it can be done cohesively and we know that Van Gogh was mad yet a genius. And while I am on the subject of The Wheel’s Turning at the beginning of it you hear music that owes something to a little bit of a combination of cabaret and Berchtold Brecht and that kind of grotesquery that was around just before the war. So there is something a little bit unnerving right at the beginning before we head into the fun fair so it morphs through a number of things very quickly. We go from one stall to another and then to another stall, and here’s another stall with my memories of what it was like to be at a free concert in Hyde Park in the 1960’s when I heard wah wah being used early wah wah sounding really great on the guitar so I have gone back to things that resonate with me authentically and I think as I have been saying for quite some time I am no longer interested in originality, I am just interested in authenticity. I want music that is FELT. And people can say ‘ that sounds a little bit like that, and that sounds a little bit like that …’ and I am very happy if people say that as long as they realise the reason I am doing that is because I have nostalgia for all these things. That is my way of being original; it is being revealing and not hiding behind any clever clogs musical equations. I would rather have honest four-four. That is the point when there is no visual image of something and yet it speaks to you visually and I have had this conversation before with people who have written great music and I have said ‘oh that made me think of that, you know ’ and they have said; ‘oh really? I didn’t get that image at all …’
I seem to recall something that Rachmaninov wrote after he had been blasted by the classical critics for being sentimental and slushy, unoriginal etc, but he did the music that he felt and he was prepared to say and yes, he was influenced by Tchaikovsky and of course he would have been influenced by Grieg so there is all this kind of respect for the ancestors that has gone on through this album whether we are talking about a generation or two ago or about the dawn of time when people are playing bone orchestras like something out of The Flintstones but that is how it started. It is probably no coincidence that the xylophone sounds like bones and the marimba sounds like bones and birdsong influences music as we know and would have been derived from dinosaurs because birds are dinosaurs so there you are; back to the dinosaurs. So I am influenced by everything from the chicken bones to the waltzer yeah.
TWR: It does cover an awful lot of ground and people will be fascinated to hear who are the rest of the team that put it together?
SH: The rest of the team? Christine Townsend on violin and viola so our big string moments owe their existence to her and Roger King basically so there is the orchestra in the box and there is the real thing and the combination, the sound they make together is remarkable. I would have had more people up to and including the Royal Philharmonic but as I said before there was an issue of time and the fact that I had been touring the Genesis material so comprehensively and I felt it was time to get something new out. It doesn’t mean that I won work with larger forces again. Gary O’Toole on drums and Hugo Degenhardt is on one track. There is Malik Mansurov and Sara Kovacs. Nick Beggs on bass and on stick, Rob Townsend, Amanda Lehman and Jo singing. Me doing vocals and the Arabian Oud which I managed to get hold of having heard some fantastic players. It is fretless you see so you can slide notes, it is a fretless lute but it is an Arabian version of that. Mine’s an Iraqui one. Then there ’ s Sara playing the didgeridoo.
TWR: Hold on, I thought that wasn’t allowed under Aboriginal law, women are not allowed to play the didgeridoo?
SH: Well, not in Hungary! She is also a good flute player and her father is a brilliant violinist. Working with Malik, he is a bit of a cross between Ravi Shankar and John Mcloughlin he plays this thing wonderfully and I think he is an extraordinary discovery for me and I can see why George Harrison fell in love with Indian music and when I hear this guy playing the Tar which means “gut” and is of course, the root of guitar and sitar. There are some other things I have played on the album, I have played some kazoo and washboard. I didn’t credit those and a salt shaker that I used on Loving Sea so the percussion on that is all household utensils (laughs).
Loving Sea is basically harmonies, a five part harmony. I was going to get other people to sing on it but it sounded pretty nice with the monochromatic effect of me tracked up rather a lot on it and there are some strumming guitars but there are no drums on it, it is essentially an acoustic song. It has got a few other things on it, a bit of clavichord courtesy of Roger.
TWR: So it is everything including the kitchen sink really …
SH: It is really yeah. And I missed out the fact that Corycian Fire there is Rob Townsend playing the doudouk and he plays it very well. It was the first time he had played it and we have got that twinned with e-bow which sounds kind of voice like behind him so we have got the two of them going at the same time, an extraordinary sound if I may say so. It is a track that builds to a crescendo, Corycian Fire, a choral crescendo with some lyrics sung in ancient Greek courtesy of Jo or rather in the sense of having written lyrics in English and Greek for that track.
Black Thunder is about a slave rebellion influenced by a number of things. We visited the slavery museum in Liverpool when we came to visit you, which is fascinating, harrowing and fascinating in equal measure. We visited Martin Luther King ’ s birthplace, the house and the church where he preached and we visited the place where his aunt was shot many years after he was assassinated, she was shot in church while she was playing organ. Anyway, Black Thunder all about a slave rebellion and the emancipation of the slaves. It is all about that and I couldn’t help but notice the other day that I got a two pound coin and it marked 1807 the abolition of slavery in this country.
That track starts acoustically with some acoustic guitar and I have got some Indian guitar, I ’ve got … what else have I got? Twelve string and there is a bit of banjo. We felt honoured to be given a private tour around Martin Luther’s house by somebody who knew it very well. I think it is a song that told a story basically it is in a blues style but it is a much more arranged blues and it does have orchestra from time to time. It is close to my heart and it is one of the tracks, funnily enough, that sounds wonderful in surround sound and we have done a surround sound mix of the album and I realise that most people don’t possess home theatres and surround sound and we are homeless ourselves at the moment and we don’t have that apart from in the studio which still doesn’t exist but will do in the new house but I think the idea is if you know someone who has got a system it is worth getting a few of you together and having the chance to hear it in surround because then you will hear not just twice as much detail but MASSES more! Because we do use rather a lot of tracks and spacing these things out makes quite a bit of difference.
Whilst I am on the subject of that, because I am digressing as I always do, Steven Wilson has done a surround sound mix of Spectral Mornings and Please Don’t Touch and has done a nice job on that. The masters to Voyage Of The Acolyte and Defector are still missing at the moment. The remasters from a few years ago were done from CDs but things were added; multi band compression and all that sort of stuff was done to them which brings up reverbs and what have you and we make take that further if we don fond the originals. But a box set IS being planned.
Dust And Dreams has the Arabian Oud on it. Jo suggested the title and I thought, lovely title let’s go for it.
Heart Song is a continuation of Dust And Dreams but it becomes vocal, lyrical and it was a song that I always wanted to dedicate to Jo and I have finally so the album has gone in many ways from dark to light and ends up with a love song right on the end but it happened so naturally. It wasn’t as if I decided from one moment to the next that that was the way it was going to be it just wrote itself and it was a lovely sequence . I Haven forced any of the vocals and the vocal approach is gentler I would say on most of it which means that I am doing more singing and less screaming (laughs). I am not trying to go rock and roll with the voice in the main. I think that that has opened up a whole other bunch of areas to be honest. There is a little bit of the singing flat out but in the main the approach has been storytelling. It just feels like something that had to be done it feels like something that has already been out there.
TWR: What I have beard of the album with the tracks that you kindly let me hear a while ago, it sounded organic and whole …
SH: That would have been at an earlier stage and I doubt if the tracks then would have sounded as they do now as we have done a fair amount to them. Then there is a special edition and that has got extra things on it and there is a vinyl edition, the special has got two extra tracks, one acoustic and one of the Todmobile tracks which was the co-write: Midnight Sun. the vinyl has got three extra tracks so it has got two acoustics but because this is the shorter version it doesn’t mean I think it is any less good because it is short because in a way, this is the journey as it was IMAGINED and anything else is a bonus really.
TWR: Speaking of journeys, you are off again with the Genesis Revisited tour to South America and then the tour for the new album. Does that start in the UK?
SH: The idea is that it is going to start up again in September or October I think that some European dates may well precede the UK dates and then be succeeded by a US tour but at the moment we have got a number of people, agents and stuff to see if I was going back with the Genesis stuff or …
TWR: That is one thing that people have comments on. The tour was originally advertised as “Acolyte To Wolflight ” but now it has been advertised as “Acolyte To Wolflight with Genesis Revisited ” and many people are asking why?
SH: Why? OK well I have had my arm twisted in the nicest possible way (laughs) by agents and promoters who have said you did such a good job of the Genesis stuff, the band did such an extraordinary version of that both authentic and passionate that they have asked me to do a certain amount of Genesis stuff which I would have done anyway but they wanted to make it part of the advertising for it. Having presented it in a certain way as we did before I felt the need to do that this time and so Nad will be involved with it but I don’t know what I am allowed to say at this point in time and we are going official with a lot of stuff and Roine Stolt is going to be in the band. He offered to do bass and twelve string for the Genesis stuff and he offered to do it for my stuff and he said that he knows that stuff. I felt that if he was prepared to do that, that we should try and arrange for there to be some twin lead moments so that bass could perhaps be done on keyboard at some point by either Roger or Rob although I have mentioned that in passing to Roger but I haven mentioned it to Rob and funnily enough we are going to see him tonight and I will break that to him then. I am not talking about the thing in its entirety because that would be too much because primarily I wanted someone who could do the bass and twelve string stuff and it seemed to me that to really do justice to the Genesis stuff it needed someone with a certain skill and you have to remember that both Lee (Pomeroy) and Nick (Beggs) learned to wield a double neck and learned to play twelve string and at one point he said to me “ I don’t really do that for a living and I ’ m not sure I am the man for the job ” and I said talking about Nick Beggs here, and I said “ I ’ve got confidence and I know you feel like that but I know you will do a great job of it ” and he did do a great job at it and so did Lee and Lee is still doing a great job at it and he will be, and we had a rehearsal yesterday and he was perfect basically, as he is. But he is working with the combination he is doing, he is doing ELO, Take That and Nick Beggs again much in demand and I have been sharing him with Steven Wilson (laughs). It has been extraordinary to have this level of bass playing never mind twelve string playing and all the rest and in recent years I have worked with some of the greatest players in rock including Chris Squire who is on Love Song To A Vampire.
I want the band on stage to be having a great time it is great working with mates and if they happen to be wonderful players at the same time you have got the best of all possible worlds. It has been lovely and Amanda (Lehmann) is on the album and we hope to have her at some of the gigs. Jo is singing on The Wheel ’ s Turning and Jo and have written a lot of this stuff together and Jo is always one for saying to me you can repeat that or you can have a variation and Jo sings wonderful melody lines to me that I have implemented on this so she is a very important member of the team.
We are doing the Shepherds Bush Empire this time and I have loved doing the album and it is very important that Jo and I did a lot of this stuff together and it is running with the ball and kicking it backwards and forwards and that is the thing and with Roger on certain tracks as well it is part of a conversation that we have and I have had that way of working for quite some time where I don’t feel that I have got to be the one who dreams it all up. I like to listen to what other people have got to say and variation is so very important. It has got everything from an aspect of World Music on it and there is quite a lot of that in fact and some unfamiliar or less familiar instruments. I wanted to work in some unfamiliar areas like with the Oud so that was great fun, very difficult to tune, horrendously difficult to play but all the more reason for wanting to do it because the effect I think is so lovely and it feels like something that was not recorded by an English band and you think, ‘ oh, where are these guys from? ’ there are moments like that on this album where you think I am not sure where that came from … The places we have been to have affected the album whether it is Hungary or Mexico for instance where Loving sea was basically written sunny stuff …
And on that note we concluded the interview as Steve had other promotional commitments to attend to. My thanks once again to Steve and Jo for giving up so much of their time out of their schedule to talk to me and I hope you find the results interesting.