Preston Frazier caught up with Steve Hackett as the former Genesis guitarist prepares to release The Night Siren on March 24. They went in depth on the construction of this new album, Hackett’s follow up to 2015’s Wolflight. He also previewed the supporting tour, which currently includes dates through May, and discussed working with the late Yes legend Chris Squire in this latest Something Else! Sitdown …
PRESTON FRAZIER: Steve, congratulations on what I think this is your 25th album, The Night Siren.
STEVE HACKETT: Something like that, yeah. That’s what people said to me. I haven’t been counting. I’m not very good at remembering.
PRESTON FRAZIER: How does the new album differ from Wolflight?
STEVE HACKETT: Well, I think Night Siren is really a world music album in the sense of the people, the 20 or so people that are on the album are from all over the globe. We’ve got people from Israel. We’re working with people from Palestine, from Iceland, from Hungary, Sweden, from the United States, England, all of that – and Celtic stuff as well, influences from all over the world. So, it’s a rock album but it’s really a world music album in the sense that, as I say, it features people from all over. There’s an idea of unity, trying to show that we can get on with our neighbors.
PRESTON FRAZIER: That’s pretty ambitious. Over what period of time was The Night Siren recorded?
STEVE HACKETT: Well, some of the stuff we did two years ago; there were a few things that got put on the back burner when I finished the Wolflight album. Some of the data from that I was able to include in this album. For instance, the trumpet solo from Sara Koviacs. She’s also playing a didgeridoo on Wolflight. We did trumpets – playing very, very lightly – first of all. So, you can’t really tell what it is when it started coming in on the track called “50 Miles From the North Pole,” which was written in Iceland when I was visiting. Basically, Iceland was the coldest place on earth I’ve ever visited, and some of it was in darkness the whole time, the places that we played. We never saw it in daylight; we only saw snow – and part of the aurora borealis. But, in a way, that created the whole kind of bleak level of fear on that track. That would be the coldest performance we had. And then the other things that we’re collecting over time, some stuff which we recorded in Sardinia with the Hungarian band, Djabe and Gulli Briem – it’s this guy who was the drummer of a band called Mezzoforte. And we used a couple of drum tracks of his, and we were playing along. So, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a nip and a tuck but essentially there were two tracks sourced from the drums of Gulli. We have four drummers on the album, my regular drummer Gary O’Toole – he’s on, I think, three of the tracks. And one track is the very talented Nick D’Virgilio from the states, who’s worked with Genesis.
PRESTON FRAZIER: He was on the last Genesis album.
STEVE HACKETT: He’s now working with Cirque du Soleil. So, it’s a very interesting line up the whole thing. My regular band, plus augmented with many strangers who have become friends such as Kobi Farhi from Israel and Mira Awad from Palestine. It was interesting to get those two working together. They are pals; it is possible to achieve it. They make very nice music together without killing each other, and we have many more situations like that. They are basically peacemakers, and they’re on the first line of it. We have this conversation: Sometimes, it’s not always blessed are peacemakers. Sometimes, it’s cursed are the peacemakers. It’s a dangerous job for both of them, but they’re still with us.
PRESTON FRAZIER: It sounds as if you incorporated a lot of different styles from different areas in the planet. How long have you been conceiving this project?
STEVE HACKETT: Well, I guess two years in the planning. On a couple of tracks, really the underlying message is peace. The first track, “Behind the Smoke,” talks about refugees. It’s not just today’s refugees but those like my family – some of which escaped from Poland and war in their land, on my mother’s side. My wife’s side is the same thing, they escaped from Poland. This is the late 1800s, so I’m writing something with her which is about something that’s within living memory. I remember talking to my great grandmother about this. What was potentially the last track on the album was “West to East,” where it brings back some of the same musical scenes but more vaguely – and it feels like the whole world is singing on it, and going at it as one. There’s a kind of choral feel to it, but it’s almost like what Indian singers do and Arabian singers. You can hear the ad-libs with the quarter tones they do so well. And basically the context, particularly the choice of “West to East,” is peace at the end of the day. There’s one more little track right at the end that I didn’t write called “The Gift” which was written by a lady called Les Bennett. So, sometimes it’s nice just to sit back and not be the writer. We tried different writers – myself, my wife (Jo Hackett), Roger King, Les Bennett. We got all of these people. I don’t really need to write everything myself.
PRESTON FRAZIER: So, in terms of the writing, except for the last track you wrote almost all the music?
STEVE HACKETT: Yeah, myself and my wife. I then worked with Roger King, who was engineering the whole thing. He gets very much involved in the arrangement side of things. So, the extra sections get written if we want something – for instance if we want an orchestral moment, I tend to say, “Over to you, Roger.” He’s like my George Martin. Suddenly, he can come up with an orchestral arrangement just extremely fast. He’s very gifted and highly trained, and I’m more instinctive. We put it all together and give it that cinematic quality on several of the tracks.
PRESTON FRAZIER: As for the lyrics, were you doing it all or were you doing this with your wife?
STEVE HACKETT: It’s both of us. Actually, the first line on the first track was hers. She said, “Behind the smoke is black.” And I said, “Oh wow.” When she came up with her first line I said, “Oh, these people are fleeing a war-torn region.” It’s straight away, it’s a story; it’s already implied. It’s people on the march. Her father was a violinist; her grandfather was a violinist – and she said that she grew up with a history of classical music being played in the house. And when she heard these things as a child, she always had the idea of great land masses and of people moving on a symphonic scale. Musically, they are things that make her think of whole country on the move. So, we wanted to get that feeling on the first track, which is essentially a rock track but it’s got kind of militaristic overtones.
PRESTON FRAZIER: I wasn’t really aware of how good a vocalist you were until I saw you live, and I was very impressed. The lyrics also are very, visual and poetic.
STEVE HACKETT: I’m glad you liked it. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever – this might sound strange, but I’ve been trying to sing since 1981, I think. It’s the first time I’ve actually felt like a vocalist. It’s taken me that long. It’s been a very slow burn. But there were several things that were happening with the records, certain times – and I was a great fan of the late, great Tim Rose. He tended to sing low and hard at times and I really liked that, this thing about being able to hold the notes and building it. But I also love vocal harmonies and, as I say, there are number of singers on the record. I’m the main singer but it moves around. There’s a bit of Amanda Lehmann; there’s a little bit of Jo singing, as well – and, as I say, Kobi and Mira. But it’s been good being my own vocalist.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Let’s talk a little bit about your guitar playing. Hearing you is wonderful but seeing you live was something else. I think when I was saw you for the most part, the electric you’re playing is the Les Paul Goldtop.
STEVE HACKETT: Yeah, that’s right. Yes, the Les Paul Goldtop. I’ve done a Fernandez, which is a goldtop. In fact, I’ve got several of them, one of which belonged to the late great Gary Moore. It’s an outstanding guitar, and I’m looking forward to working with that live. I’ve recorded it on the record. The Fernandez make wonderful guitars. It’s a Japanese type; it’s not always easy to get hold of one like I’ve got, because they’re customized with a Floyd Rose tremolo and sustainer pick up, which is what characterizes the sound.
PRESTON FRAZIER: And for your acoustics?
STEVE HACKETT: Well, the nylon that I use is another Japanese they call Yairi. So, I use those, I’ve got a number of those. I’ve got several by the late Tony Zemaitis. He used to make them in the shed in the back garden, one every three months. He made one for [Bob] Dylan, for the late, great Greg Lake, George Harrison, and this guy is just making one guitar every three months. And he made the most wonderful 12 strings. Mike Rutherford had one and I borrowed it from him, and then got them to make a new one for me. That’s an extraordinary kind of guitar, just a beautiful thing.
PRESTON FRAZIER: I know that you’re going to be starting playing concerts in America again soon. Has your tour band been revised?
STEVE HACKETT: It’s basically the same band, the same band I had for Wolflight and for the Genesis Revisited stuff that we did. For that, we did two sets. We did the solo stuff then we did the band stuff. We did three tracks from the new album, and the older solo things and then the Genesis – which, of course, is old stuff but somehow it’s like the elephant in the room. It never goes away. It always has good audience response, and I love it.
PRESTON FRAZIER: I appreciate artists who are not afraid to play their new stuff, because it feels good as an artist. And other people always want to hear some of the older Genesis stuff, so that’s great too.
STEVE HACKETT: We will do several new tracks in the first set, and do some of the stuff I did with Genesis, including some of Wind and Wuthering. We’re doing most of the tracks off that, plus there’s another track called “Inside and Out” that was intended to go on the album. It was part of the same sessions but only made it onto an EP [Genesis’ Spot the Pigeon]. It’s actually a really, really good track, and the band did an extraordinary version of it.
PRESTON FRAZIER: I’m a big Chris Squire fan, and I absolutely love the album you did with him. Are there any unreleased tracks from Squackett’s A Life Within a Day?
STEVE HACKETT: We did one or two, but it’s a funny thing. I always felt there was going to more to it. Whenever Chris was in town, he would call me up. We would record a song or two together. We were always hanging out with each other. So, I would imagine there was going to be more of that. I’ve seen so much recently, this might sound kind of cosmic, but I feel as though we’re channelling Chris a lot when we were doing this album. I was asking him, “Chris, what would you do here? Does this work for you?” I mean, the bass sound that we got in the end. It’s a homage to him in a way. I always knew I was working with the right guy. So, there are moments that I owe to him as an inspiration.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Have any Squackett songs made it into the live set?
STEVE HACKETT: We’re not playing any of the tracks from that live at the moment. I loved working with Chris. We spoke about doing the live shows, but it never quite came off with his commitments with Yes. We were offered to do the headline at the High Voltage Festival in London but, of course, Yes was his main gig and he had a big commitment to that as he was band leader. It always was Chris’ band, although a lot of people have been through the door. So yeah, we did get to play together. It’s a strange thing. The last Close to the Edge [concert cruise] that we did before he died – he was onstage with the late, great John Wetton as well, who just passed – and we did a version of “All Along the Watchtower.” You know, that was a great boy’s club, for a while there. Sadly, two of them have passed, but I love them both dearly. John was such a sweet guy. We nearly formed a band together so many times, but it didn’t quite come off. They’re both stuck there in my heart, in different ways.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Now, I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit. Could you tell me your Top 5 albums?
STEVE HACKETT: Well, just on the top of my head, I have to say one album was John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton from 1966. That’s the playing that I enjoyed most from Eric, when he was young and fiery. Another album I love is Segovia Plays Bach. But it’s only one side; on the other side was harsichord. But it’s so influential. I recorded some of those pieces many, many decades later, once I got my finger around it. Third album? Oh, it has to be Sgt. Pepper. Absolutely, you know that. And there are two Beatles albums in there, I think. It’s Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. And then I think, to be honest, I really like Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. I love that.
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