‘I’m interested in other styles’: Steve Hackett looks forward after year filled with Genesis

For Genesis alum Steve Hackett, 2013 was a year of loving looks back, and long-overdue recognition. He’ll spend the new year building on those successes with new music.

Hackett released Genesis Revisited II, a celebrated UK Top 25 follow up to 1996′s Watcher of the Skies: Genesis Revisited which again reexamined the guitarist’s celebrated tenure with Genesis between 1971 and 1977. Several guest stars appeared, both on the studio recording and subsequent sold-out tour, including Nick Beggs, Nik Kershaw, Roger King, Neal Morse, Steve Rothery, Roine Stolt, Nad Sylvan, John Wetton, Ray Wilson and Steven Wilson.

King, of course, has been a long-time collaborator with Hackett, and is again participating in the on-going sessions for a new album. But Hackett, in an exclusive SER Sitdown, says he’s moving into more uncharted waters, after such a lengthy period ruminating on the past.

“I’m working with Roger, but also some other people from other fields who wouldn’t normally appear on a rock album,” Hackett says. “It’s only nominally a rock album, because I’m interested in other styles.”

Hackett also goes in depth with us on the early legacy of Genesis, working with John Wetton and Ray Wilson, and the way technology has changed his craft …

NICK DERISO: 2013 seemed to have afforded you new levels of respect, the kind of attention that you’ve always deserved as a pioneer. Do you get these sense that you’ve finally arrived — after all of this time — in the public consciousness?
STEVE HACKETT: It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? It was Genesis that gave me a platform originally, gave all of us a marvellous start. But there does seem to be something going on now. I seem to be playing to larger audiences that I had done for a while. But then, you see, I’ve been touring rather a lot in recent years. Audiences were growing for me, anyway. So, I thought the time was right to do a Genesis show. There is no official Genesis, at this point in time. And to some extent, I think that the guys who were involved with me during the 1970s have abandoned ship, in one sense — and particularly in regards to the material, which they have distanced themselves from. But players from Weather Report and Zappa’s band were very aware of what we were doing at the time, and I’m very proud that some of that got through.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We recently dug into deep cuts from across the solo Genesis repertoire, uncovering overlooked favorites from Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and Steve Hackett.]

NICK DERISO: This newfound interest is all the more intriguing, considering that Genesis’ most familiar material came much later — when the band took a turn toward more commercial sounds.
STEVE HACKETT: During the early 1970s, I was thrilled that we had the ear of such luminaries as John Lennon, at one point — in 1973, at a time when we couldn’t get a gig in the United States. We were sitting around, waiting to play a few pub gigs in L.A., at that time. So, there must be something about the material that speaks to other musicians. Of course, I’m well aware that the band became a successful pop phenomenon well after my departure — which is fine. But the slickness of production that was part and parcel of the 1980s, for all performing musicians, is only part of it. I love what music became sonically, but I think in terms of ideas, the era with the band where Peter Gabriel was the lead singer is probably the area of greatest interest these days, although of course I stayed with the band for two or three more albums after Pete left. I joined a songwriters’ collective, because he personally invited me to do so.

NICK DERISO: So many guitarists of that turn-of-the-1970s era were exploring American roots music. Yet you ultimately chose a different path. What drew you more toward Bach, rather than the blues?
STEVE HACKETT: I grew up listening to both Bach and the blues, but ended up eventually beyond. I used to advertise myself as a blues player, as a blues guitarist/harmonica player — but times changed. The blues boom really died in England at the end of the 1960s. Now, there were people who did manage to carry on, but I think for the vast majority the blues was an over-subscribed club. I was interested, equally, in whatever Bach had done. I wanted to mix genres, and I didn’t think that these styles were going to talk to each other. I didn’t think that blues was going to inform rock; I didn’t think that classical was going to have any effect on the kind of modal style of rock. Yet for the purists, some kind of unholy miscegenation went on. Luckily, for the rest of us who were interested in creating unlikely constructions that shouldn’t really work, they did.

NICK DERISO: Certainly, in the early period, Genesis came to personify that complexity.
STEVE HACKETT: Many felt that we were making rock music that was too complicated, and perhaps too backward looking. It was a threat to the idea of rock as a simple, symbol of freedom. We were pilloried in the early days for being a little too academic, a tad too bookish. But I think the whole beauty of the breadth of the band’s work is that it covered everything. There were references to Greek mythology, almost through an historic prism. The band’s sexuality, as depicted by Pete, was something that was hardly straight ahead. It was, I think, the kind of androgyny that was being promoted by David Bowie was very different from the kind of Gabriel-esque approach towards that. It was a tad more Jungian, perhaps. I think the lyrics are marvellously subtle, although unfortunately you almost needed a handbook to be able to break that down — unless you were very familiar with certain characters in the pantheon of myth. Therein lies the whole magic of the band, the storyteller aspect.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Steve Hackett talks about key moments with Genesis, the short-lived supergroup GTR – and how he created the move that made Eddie Van Halen famous.]

NICK DERISO: There was a freedom in that moment, one that didn’t seem to exist a decade or so later.
STEVE HACKETT: You were off on an odyssey, a kind of musical continuum, a journey in song. Call it what you will, but the length of those pieces — sometimes 20 minutes long — nobody minded in the early days. Nobody was saying: “A 20-minute piece isn’t going to get played on the radio.” Radio wasn’t going to play us. There was no MTV when we started out. We were basically an underground act, and we built our own audience. To some extent, that audience — which was very faithful to the ethos, to the spirit of the early band — felt disenfranchised when Genesis became something else, which is a successful pop machine. They did that superbly well. There’s no disputing that. But, I think, if you are looking for something deeper, something that has galvanized other musicians and other writers, it’ll be the early material.

NICK DERISO: Looking back at the Revisited project, explain the decision to stick more closely to the original arrangements this time around — while the initial 1990s-era album took more liberties.
STEVE HACKETT: I really did the album as an excuse to tour the material live. I wanted to reflect the spirit of the originals, but to give them a bit more polish — and to highlight certain areas, using the technology of today. Also to let the guests have their way with the material. So it provided a different function from the first one, which had more variation. I wanted audiences to get the idea that it was not going to be a jazz reinterpretation or a classical suite loosely based on the work of Genesis. Yes, it was more literal, but there were added moments of detail — extra vocal harmonies, some different guitar work, in places. But it was also the chance to be able to do that with the sensibility of now. I like to think I’m a slightly different player than the one I was when I started out.

NICK DERISO: And, to be sure, the technology has changed.
STEVE HACKETT: I can play without the tyranny of volume being an issue! (Laughs.) My guitars these days have sustain without having to be loud at all. When I record the solos, I am not using amplifiers these days. I’m going straight into a computer with a simulation, though I do use pedals to boost it. I don’t feel the need amplifiers anymore when I’m recording.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Anthony Phillips, Genesis' original guitar player, talks about the group's embryonic early days - and why he doesn't see them reuniting again.]

NICK DERISO: Did you find, with time, that the songs came easier? Are there things you would have done differently?
STEVE HACKETT: I wouldn’t say they came easier. I think the Genesis stuff is marvellously complex, but not necessarily in a technically demanding way. It’s just that the songs are replete with detail. I’m proud of them for that. The guitar lines are as important to me as the vocal lines. I’ve written a lot of songs post-Genesis, as well as songs written by me when I was in the band, and obviously with the passing of time, I’ve done an awful lot of practicing since those early days — and especially on nylon guitar. There are lots of things I would have liked to have done with the originals, but I’m kind of proud of it all, really.

NICK DERISO: John Wetton has been a consistent, very impactful presence throughout this series of Revisited albums and shows. There’s something about his voice; it melds so well with what you do.
STEVE HACKETT: John and I have been showing up on each others’ albums for quite some time now. If ever it’s been a Genesis thing, I’ve given John a call. At one time Genesis — when Peter left — John Wetton was under consideration. We were thinking of approaching him as a singer for the band. This was before he did Asia, of course, and had such success with that. But John and I have known each other for years, and years and years. He is just the warmest, most natural guy. Whenever we work together, it’s always a extension of friendship. I just think we enjoy being in each other’s company. I think he’s one of the greats. I still think John has not peaked, which is an extraordinary thing. To some extent, he’s been an every-man — almost in the way that Phil Collins was, at one time. He can show up on loads of albums, and still make it his.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: We caught up with Genesis' Ray Wilson only to find him in a relaxed and centered mood. Things finally seem to be breaking his way again.]

NICK DERISO: The addition to your most recent tour of special guest Ray Wilson was intriguing, in that it married two different Genesis eras — the 1970s and the 1990s. Is that a collaboration that might continue?
STEVE HACKETT: I like Ray’s voice very much, and he’s a lovely guy. He’s guested with us on a few shows, including the Royal Albert Hall in London. There are two versions of the album, one of which has a version of “Carpet Crawlers” from Ray — and very fine it is, too. He and I have spoken about writing something together at some point. The network of pals in this business has been extraordinary for me. I’m picking up collaborators almost on a daily basis. Unfortunately, life is too short to be able to fit all of it in. There are so many people I would like to work with, in the full creative sense, including Ray. I think he was just scratching the surface, when he did the collaboration with Genesis on Calling All Stations. On another level, though, I am repaying favors to people who did stuff for the album, too. It’s marvellous.

NICK DERISO: Do you see this as the end of the Revisited series?
STEVE HACKETT: Is there a third? I say, never say never. But I am involved in really doing another album of my own, rather than immediately going back to Genesis material — although, there are some lovely songs which deserve to be given the widescreen treatment. But it gets tougher, because the songs that I was really drawn to are already covered. It’s a kind of restoration for me, in one sense, by taking songs that were sometimes marvellous in rehearsal and sometimes marvellous life, and comparing them with the new versions, they often suffered from the 1970s sensibility of rushing. They were trying to get a great performance out of the whole band, all in one go. Now, it’s much more of a test-tube baby. We get one thing right, and then another. I don’t put together the whole until I am satisfied with every single performance. There’s a new level of accuracy. Now, I’m interested in all of the instruments, rather than just how the guitar sounds. Genesis lends itself to that kind of widescreen treatment.

NICK DERISO: And now, onto new music?
STEVE HACKETT: Yes, there is an album in the prep. I think it sounds really terrific — but then I would say that. (Laughs.) But I’m really thrilled with the way this new stuff is sounding. I’m concerned with the idea of trying to make a new kind of song, a new kind of style, a new kind of collaboration. I’m interested in disparate styles right now that sometimes collide, sometimes compliment. It’s an exciting time.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

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