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Progressive Rock Interviews

Steve Hackett

Interviewed by Steve Alspach
Interview With Steve Hackett from 2002
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2002 Year Book Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

So we meet again. I saw you in Cleveland, Ohio, back in 1980…
Did you really? We were much younger men back then! (laughs)
MSJ: I remember you broke your B string during "Spectral Mornings."
Quite likely! Well, these things happen every now and then. It doesn't happen very often, but I will tell you when it happens. It happens when you're touring in winter, and guitarists go from very, very cold to very, very hot, and guitars don't like that sort of thing.
MSJ: I was told that you did a small tour of Italy.
I just came back. It was five dates with a trio composing of myself on nylon guitar, my brother John on flute, and Roger King on keyboards, so we had this little trio going around and it's very interesting. It's a very low-key sort of thing, but the strange thing is that the shows have been selling out. And maybe it has to do with the Internet. I no longer get people saying "Hey, if I knew you were in town, I would have seen the show." And maybe that kind of music is a welcome relief to the bombast of other forms.
MSJ: Your CD "There Are Many Sides To The Night" has that sense of intimacy.
Right, but without the flute. We're like a little chamber orchestra at times.
MSJ: So I hear that you're in the studio now. Can you give us a hint on what you're working on?
Well, the stuff I've been working on mainly is with a lady percussionist named Evelyn Glennie that we'll be performing at Queen Elizabeth Hall on July 21. I've been asked to write something for her that's about an hour long. I was approached by her and she wondered if there would be enough time for an hour's worth of original material so I've been kind of sweating over that one to give her the goods. I know she's done Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo," an incredibly difficult piece. Bela Fleck, an incredible banjo player, has done a version of that as well. He's done a country version as well - extraordinary stuff. That's what I'm working on on one level. I have been working on some stuff with electric guitar. My work's divided into two types these days - it either features electric guitar or acoustic guitar, and I've separated the albums that way. It's a pity that you ever start off with a mindset of saying "this thing is designed for this combination of instruments." I would like dearly to release an album that has an acoustic guitar concerto on one piece and a rock album and give the idea that they didn't come from the same time or place or person at all.

MSJ: Is there anyone else that you that you haven't linked up with that you'd like to?
Well, that's very interesting. I keep feeling that it would be great to do something with Chinese musicians. I think Oriental music is something that attracts me greatly, to be honest. For instance, Keiko Abe who writes wonderfully for the marimba. I was lucky enough to see a master class with Keiko and Evelyn in Hamburg a few weeks back, and that was extraordinary! The power at which she attacks the thing, you'd think the sticks are going to break, but they don't seem to in her hands. I was there (at the master class) for an afternoon and watching her perform and various students come up, and everyone was brilliant, technically, and everyone was extraordinarily committed to it, so I got a close-up look at what this instrument can do. But I still feel the need to write something for it and to have someone say that "This is possible and this isn't possible." It's very difficult to judge unless you really know the instrument - to know what run someone can manage. How far do you push the technique - that's the toughest thing to know. And indeed, people who write for harmonica or guitar always have to be steered, if they don't play the instrument, to know "Well, this is possible - that isn't possible."
MSJ: Rick Wakeman said that one of the problems with modern technology is that anything is possible. In the old days when you were told "That isn't possible" you'd say "Okay, this isn't possible, now how are we going to do it?"
You've got the assistance of science to make any instrument do anything. There's something about someone in performance - someone who is at one with their craft, it's something to watch. When someone's completely absorbed with their craft, I think it's much more important to be that than it is to be aware of performing to an audience. This is something that just came to me in these last Italian shows where previously I felt very nervous with the instrument but I realize that really, I got to the point of confidence with technique. I figured that the shutters have got to come down and you have to be at one with it as you are in your own bedroom. I think that's it - you've got to achieve an intimacy and take away the nerves with your instrument and take it on to the next level. It's not just about technique, it's about outlook. You can have the technique, but you need to have the confidence. You've got to be able to relax. It's a contradiction - you have to relax in order to show more energy.
MSJ: Which leads me to the next question. You've been performing for probably more years than you care to think about…
Exactly.
MSJ: How do keep that fresh approach, that challenge that there's something out there that I haven't figured out yet and I'm still searching for?
I think it's the same for me as with all other musicians. You've heard something that someone else has done at some other point and you figure that basically you want to dance those steps. You want the same feeling conveyed from you that was conveyed to you, perhaps. It might be a little phrase that'll haunt me that someone has done, and I figure that I may be able to do a variation on that. I kind of figure that what I do is…um…it forces one to be humble, musically. I've heard wonderful things done by other people, and I'm just joining the queue.

I've been listening to early Byrds today and that lovely 12-string sound that the Rickenbacker is defined by, and you realize how very well-crafted so many of those records were.
MSJ: So you're listening to early Byrds. Is there anyone else you're listening to these days?
Well, loads of people. I listen to everything from Hungarian folk music to jazz to early Byrds. I kind of trawl through MTV and VH-1. I must say I don't come across much there that stirs me. I know that a bikini-clad team of girls dancing in my face makes me realize that something other than pure music is being prioritized. It's like maybe a portrait painting compared to a photographer, perhaps. It's that different. One person is concerned with craft and manipulation, the other is concerned with reproduction. I realize that at the end of the day they're both trying to create an atmosphere, but I think that playing an instrument is more flexible. As someone who works with samples quite a lot himself, certainly in the rush stage, and I use samples tremendously to illustrate things, I realize that the infinite variations that's possible with one player and one instrument is basically what it's all about. Computers can be programmed to do samples but it really eats a lot of studio time, which is why records take a lot longer these days. Anyone you speak to who has been making records a long time will say to you "Wow, don't albums take a long time these days?" Unless they're guys who are working in jazz and it's still made in that way, but jazz sensibilities are only part of it. I think it's wonderful to hear someone stretch out over a chord sequence or an idea, but on the other hand there's something about what is written. On the other hand, there's something about what is written and there's the tradeoff between that moment and the moment of allowing yourself to be spontaneous on top of what is written. Then you've got the best of both worlds.

MSJ: One of the criticisms about fusion in the seventies is that you had the sense of "let's pick a chord and go for it" and that's fine but in the end, the chords or the melody structure is kind of waning and you need that as much as anything else.
Otherwise, really, you're stuck with the technique, and technique alone shouldn't really dazzle after a while. And technique - I think that anyone who applies himself to an instrument should be able to come up with a dazzling technique but the difference between a virtuoso and a composer is really very great indeed. Something that (author) Henry Miller said, he was referring to another writer at that point, is that the writer had learned everything he wrote rather than invented it, in a way. I think he was probably being unkind about someone, but in a way it's true. I'm sure there's a lot of great pianists out there, and great violinists, but how many Tchaikovskys are there? I would say not that many! Rachmaninov? You know, what would be the nearest thing in America? Max Steiner, maybe? "Gone With the Wind"? People who wrote for movies who knew their stuff?
MSJ: Copland, but he's so darn "Americanâ"¦ (laughs)
I've come to like Copland. I wasn't sure at first, but I've come to like him. I've come to see him as a summation of things. I've seen it basically as folk music in orchestral clothes, perhaps, so it's indigenous roots.

MSJ: He did draw a lot from folk music. "Appalachian Spring" drew from the Shaker Hymn "Simple Gifts."
Sure. It's the "Hoedown" sort of thing, isn't it? I'm sure there's more to him than just that. I've come to like it, actually. First of all I rejected it, but I've come to like it. And the other guy, Miklos Rozsa, who did the music for Ben Hur. I suppose I have to look at the world of film and say these guys are great. Funny enough, I saw Evelyn doing something, a very interesting piece of music, by Christopher Rouse. It was something she was doing in Hamburg, and it was a very interesting piece, anyway.
MSJ: You mention film scores and I think that between your music on the "There Are Many Sides to the Night" CD and the last two songs from the "Tokyo Tapes" CD ("Firewall" and "The Dealer") that are very energetic, you'd be a natural for film scores.
I did the score for the movie "Outwitting Hitler." That was a challenge to do that, which I actually put together in a single day. Had to work like crazy, but HBO was pleased with it. They said "This isn't the first film score this guy has done" and the guy I was working with said "Well, actually it is." First of all, they didn't want someone who had come from rock to do their score, but I got to do it and they were happy. It's one of those things that's left to the last minute. In the world of film they leave everything to the last minute so contracts weren't signed until the last minute and they said to me at the beginning of the weekend "Well, we have to have this thing by Monday or it's not going to happen at all." I could only get hold of an engineer on Sunday, so that was the day I worked. I worked on a Sunday and by the next day we had everything…
MSJ: And took the day off on Tuesday.
Yeah! Sometimes that's the way these things go.
MSJ: Right. You look at the world of music and it's not as…
Idealized…
MSJ: As people think. Whether it's mixing a CD or being told "You have 48 hours to come up with an album's worth of music" and your reaction is (sarcastically) "Gee, thanks a lot."
You'd be amazed that a tremendous amount of things are done that way. In some ways I wouldn't wish it on anybody but in some ways it really does concentrate the mind and I also think that the longer you go with something the worse it will be and to be under the gun like that is not a bad thing. It's a challenge, but I think you can turn it to an advantage - you say "Right, I haven't got time to faff around, I'm just going to do A, B, C, D, E, F - boom. You say "This is what it needs - boom." It clarifies things.
MSJ: You hear stories in rock music that one of the big dangers is having your own studio - that way, you tend to tweak and futz and in the end the end product isn't all that good.
Often the case. I've often been grateful for having my own studio because wherever you're going to make your own mistakes - if it's in someone else's studio it's costing you a lot. I think that home studios tend to be an extension of a writing tool much more but when you're somewhere else, you're in someone's facility, there really is the pressure of the clock ticking away and if you haven't quite got it, it can be a terrible feeling to know that each minute is costing…millions.
MSJ: You're putting your music out on your own label. How is it being a businessman as much as being a musician?
Well, I'm not really involved in the day-to-day of the business. I don't really feel I could serve the best interest of music and the finances, but regards business, in very broad strokes, I say "I think this will sell, I think this won't." It's as simple as that. I like to say that we're afloat at the moment, we've been afloat for awhile, and we're doing okay! We make some mistakes, and sometimes we really hit the nail on the head and give people what they want. The live archive album - mine as opposed to Genesis' - that has had a tremendous response from fans. I couldn't imagine that that sort of stuff would have sold because I've had that on the shelf for a long time. That stuff on the shelf - dusted down, spruced up, and the response has been amazing!

But I really haven't got any idea about…it's all a shot in the dark, this business. Nobody really knows. The Beatles, interestingly enough, when they had just done Sgt. Pepper, nobody was really sure if it was going to be the end for them because it was SO different and nobody was really convinced that it was going to be a huge success. They thought that they would be lucky to do as well as previously. Their instincts proved wrong, thankfully. You can't always trust your own instincts. All you can do is try and do the music that moves you and you're passionate about, and at the end of the day you might be surprised at how well it goes. I think it's much more worrying to do stuff that you think people want to hear. That's more difficult - writing a song from the inside looking out, I think, is wrong and I think is in danger of becoming instantly corporate and accountable. God, at the end of the seventies, never mind the eighties, record companies said "Well frankly, Steve, it's a little esoteric. Couldn't it be a little more commercial?" In the end it's very easy to miss the point of why anyone was attracted in the first place remotely to anything you had ever done. It's very easy to lose sight of that. Very easy with business pressures, so all I can say is if it moves you to do, say, folk music, then that's what you must do!

Let's just say that there's a separate currency to the financial kind. Music is its own currency at the end of the day, and you've got something that will out. I'm very happy to still be in music after all these years. You hear people winding down and moving out of the business and I cannot imagine that.

MSJ: We couldn't imagine that either. You're one of the few people who can still throw us a curve every now and then.
Yeah, I think it's wise to move on and surprise people. You want to surprise yourself as well.
MSJ: I remember listening to the Watcher of the Skies CD and thinking "Gee, I get to listen to some old Genesis songs" and then hearing the songs and saying "Hey, wait a minute, this song is going somewhere else." That must have been a challenge to rearrange those songs.
It was a huge challenge. Again, that was very well received. I'm proud to say that it sold very well. That interests me, that fact. Unlike the tribute bands, even the best of the tribute bands, tend to play everything note for note, and exactly the way it was, whereas I've got the experience of knowing what those songs sounded like in the best gigs at the time, and sometimes those songs sounded absolutely huge, so that's what I'm looking for. I wasn't looking for a perfect reproduction of 1971, I was trying to create the sound of Italian power sports with Watcher of the Skies. I was trying to take it on to another level. And that would be sacrilege for some people, messing with other people's childhood, but on the other hand I never the saw the material as sacred. I think that people who come up with this material cannot afford to see it as sacred. It's a football, it needs to be kicked around, and it's not the gospel as written by anybody. It's always something that I think can be looked at and improved upon. It's like different drafts of symphonies, isn't it? Composers do that sort of thing. What you end up with today is something that may have been through a few rewrites. I tried to stay as faithful to the spirit of each of the songs, but sometimes I gave it new clothes, perhaps.
MSJ: The famous Melody Maker ad that described a young guitarist tired of the "stagnant" music forms (Hackett's ad that drew Peter Gabriel's attention in 1970) - if you thought that music was stagnant in 1970, what's your taste on 2002?
You're asking me if music is stagnant?
MSJ: Um, yeah…
I think that people who are working on music are not aware of stagnation, as it were (to quote an old Genesis tune). But…(pause for thought)…I think it's very important to look outside your own sphere of influence, even if you're a very, very successful musician. And it's very important to listen to things that initially you've rejected. I think it's critically important to listen to music of different eras and to realize that had you been around then at that time, how would you have fitted into that? How could you inform that? What would you take from it? Is there any relevance? And is there any relevance to what you're doing now? And you may think that what you're doing is very different, but what you're doing is part of a tradition. Part of a rock tradition, perhaps, or if you're a jazzer, there's part of a jazz tradition. And there are certain immovables - certain things that are sacred to these forms. It may well be that what is "sacred" is not necessarily the best of what these forms have got to offer. For instance, progressive rock. People tend to think of it as tricky time signatures and long form pop music. Well, as far as I'm concerned, you don't need either of those things. Elizabethan composers would say something in one minute thirty seconds. Byrd, Salisbury - over and done with in one minute thirty seconds. All the progressive stuff is in danger of too much punctuation and not enough statement. Too many hiccups in the time signature. There's no point in writing something in 7/8 for the hell of it. If it suits the melody, great! But it's been a long time since I heard anything with the fluency of, Take Five, for instance. But that's got a great melody, you can hum it, and even people who aren't aware of the time signature (sings part of the melody) - and Tchaikovsky was writing in 5/4, but you're not aware that it's being done. It's like a waltz with a strange step in it somewhere along the line.

I think the best time signatures are the ones written by people who are mathematically dyslexic and haven't realized that they stuck in a bar of ¾, or they stuck a bar of 2/4 in the middle of something. I'm doing it all the time, and I have to be reminded of that, but that's fine! I'm not counting, I don't really want to count. Count it afterwards once you've written it, but don't leave it out because it doesn't fit within the rigid bars. Erik Satie wrote music without any bar lines. Maybe today's equivalent will be dance music where the bass drum reigns supreme. And if we can't shut that off for two seconds people will fall over! It's like having a meal and having to have porridge with it the whole time. It kind of slows everything down in my mind. It doesn't make me want to dance at all. But a really great rhythm may not be created just by the drums, it's all the instruments that create that. When you're involved in rock music all your life you listen to an orchestra and think "How come it's moving along? What's keeping a pulse?" and there might not be a drum, and yet it's huge and it's managing to move along and it seems natural and perhaps its floating. But not every time. The energy of rock is great, but sometimes an orchestra manages to take off where a rock band is trying desperately to get airborne. Maybe the only flight of fancy within rock for me is when the guitar takes off and takes the place of a string section, perhaps. I do like an electric guitar when it sounds like a violin.
MSJ: You're scheduled to appear at Nearfest. Can you tell us what to expect?
Yes. A five piece band. We'll do a good mix of some older stuff and some of the newer stuff. I'll do some stuff that was written way back when. I'm looking forward to it tremendously! There are around three or four gigs around that. New York City, I think one's in Virginia, and one in Philadelphia. I don't have the exact dates in front of me because they've recently changed.
MSJ: Eddie Van Halen said that he learned the tapping technique from you. Is that true or progressive urban legend?
That would be true. I learned the tapping technique in 1971. Two albums feature tapping. Nursery Cryme and the opening solo of "Dancing With the Moonlit Night" from Selling England by the Pound has that tapping. So there you are, and Eddie's obviously a fine guitarist. Ironically, I was trying to imitate Bach, and imitate lines that the keyboard player would do. Really, it's jazz-Bach.
MSJ: And in "The Fountain of Salmacis" you do the tapping, don't you?
There is in the new version that I did. In the original I can't remember if I did. We did a lot of twin guitar lines. But there's tapping on that album, on the beginning of "The Return of the Giant Hogweed."
MSJ: Speaking of tap, have you had any Spinal Tap moments where everything kind of falls apart?
Happens all the time! Any musician who mounts the stage, there'll come a moment when it's like you'll be asked to play the White House and your trousers will fall down. That's the nature of life, isn't it? Laurence Olivier said that the first time he walked on stage he fell flat on his face! I certainly remember my first gig with Genesis where I just completely forgot everything and fed back all night! In those days it was probably ok! People were on enough drugs they really got into it.

MSJ: Didn't you have the flu that night as well?
Not that night. I usually have the flu in New York. That's, um, for various reasons. My experience in New York is usually akin to that of Jack Lemmon in the Out-of-Towners. We've lost our luggage, the hotel hasn't got the booking…it's usually something like that. We arrive and the equipment is stolen, things like that. I love the town, but it's a better place to take a holiday than to work in, I'd have to say.
MSJ: When you're practicing at home, which do you gravitate to, the electric guitar or the acoustic?
Depends on which room I'm in and which guitar is closest, to be honest. Today I played a little electric, but I try to play both in the same day because they are completely different instruments. You have to keep your nails right for the nylon string. I don't play with a pick anymore, so you have to look after your nails. You have to use the right kind of buffer for your nails. 
MSJ: I guess there's a science to it…
Yes, pink, white, gray buffers as to making your nails smooth and making sure that they don't catch.
MSJ: You mentioned that you saw the master class with Keiko Abe and Evelyn Glennie. Any other shows that you've seen lately?
Well, I was in Italy, of course, and I saw one or two things there, but local bands playing. I also saw a Hungarian band called the Seven Plains Saxophone Quartet, would you believe. They do extraordinary stuff, very, very odd. It's basically folk music, but it's improvisation on top of folk music down to a virtuoso standard. You think you're watching jazz but it's with a completely different sensibility than the Afro-American jazz. The Hungarians have fantastic musicians! Denes Szabo, a fantastic pianist, and Karoly Binder, a fabulous pianist. The Dresch quartet - very, very good, and very influential in the Hungarian scene, trying to get people to explore their national roots. It's amazing stuff - very gypsy-like in a way. It's almost a distillation of gypsy music. In some ways it's like Indian music or Egyptian music, it has its own kind of twists to it, its own language.
MSJ: Are you a cricket fan?
Well, to tell you the truth, I was never too good at it. Growing up wearing glasses, it was always a bit of a hazard. I played until I was about nine, then gave it up and moved on to music.
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