How the Lockdown Resulted in Steve Hackett’s Most Productive Year
Steve Hackett has long been a world traveler, circling the globe time and time again. First it was as Genesis' guitarist in the '70s and since then as a solo artist. But his sense of adventure is more than just a literal journey; it carries over to his records, too.
"I try and broaden rock’s shoulders as much as possible," he tells UCR. "I figure it can be done. If you like your rock 'n' roll rootsy, this is probably not the kind of album you should be listening to."
Still, he notes, he tries to "convert my detractors by steaming them with something very aggressive. I think there might be something for heavy-metal people. There will be something for classical musicians. There would be something for jazzers, I like to think. And for those who like a certain degree of comedy, too, it’s all in there. There’s lots of influences from lots of different places."
The recently released Surrender of Silence is the latest chapter in Hackett's ongoing musical quest, his 27th solo album and second of the year, following January's Under a Mediterranean Sky.
The album stems from a fruitful period of forced isolation for Hackett. While it wasn't what he had marked on his calendar for the past year, he's made a whole lot of lemonade from the lemons he was handed. He tells UCR about his productive year below.
From the looks of things it would seem like you had one of the more productive pandemic breaks over this past year and a half. How did you shift focus and get in that zone? It seems like you were able to pivot relatively quickly.
We were halfway through an American tour. We came back because America closed down. We took the last flight back from Philadelphia, literally. As soon as we were back, I had some extra time to work on an autobiography. We worked on a live album, and Steven Wilson did a surround mix very quickly of it. Then I decided to an acoustic album. I did an album called Under a Mediterranean Sky, which was very well-received. It was a very personal, acoustic album, with orchestral overtones. In a sense, it was something that was recorded in downtime that was a virtual journey to many places that we’d already visited. With a nod to some that were further afield. If there’s a link between that and the current album, Surrender of Silence, it’s that the travelogue aspect is predominant.
Every now and again, you get to visit another culture musically. When we’ve traveled literally to other places, we’ve often shot film when we’re away. We make notes and come back with stories. If it’s a particularly fascinating place, like Russia, where we were playing a few years ago, or China or some of the other places, things like that impress you very deeply and they get turned into songs. We have a visit, we have multiple conversations. We bat different ideas backwards and forwards lyrically or instrumentally, my wife Jo and I. Sometimes, she will suggest a melody. After we’ve worked on it, we take it to Roger King, who then inputs it. We sit down and we use everything in his armory to [work] with it, and then we add [additional players from that point].
Listen to Steve Hackett's 'Fox's Tango'
The song I keep coming back to on the album is “Relaxation Music for Sharks (Featuring Feeding Frenzy).” It’s fascinating hearing all of the different elements -from the water sounds to the intricate orchestration.
It’s a song where there’s an invisible film running through my head, the idea of the circling predator, approaching by stealth. Then the feeding frenzy moment. There’s an invisible thread and storyline going. We tried to develop it atmospherically. There’s some instruments that I haven’t been using very much recently. Harmonica is part of it. Ghostly harmonica. We tend to develop it orchestrally, and then the rock band kicks in with Nick D’Virgilio on some extraordinarily explosive drums. We have Jonas Reingold on bass on that. A lot of instruments are playing the bass riff on that. It’s an orchestral approach. It’s certainly an ensemble approach. But sometimes you assemble these apparent ensembles in the virtual world.
Today’s studio is about the size of the screen that we’re both watching at the moment. That tends to reign supreme. The idea of getting people all in one room almost seems like a nostalgic concept. It’s something that happens with live musicians when they make live music, and, certainly, I’ve recorded like that, many times. But we will be touring this stuff. Some of these new songs, as well as celebrating the past with Genesis and the golden oldies. I look forward to that, but in a way, it’s been an opportunity. I suspect that adversity does tend to often bring out the best in those who are most determined.
Out of sheer frustration of not being able to complete the amount of shows that one would like to do has meant that I had extra time to devote to recording - extra time to devote to writing, to doing albums that were very different from each other, different types of music, acoustic music, stuff that was influenced by everything from classical to flamenco to many other things. Romantic music. When I think of rock, I love it, but I don’t think of it in the main, as romantic music. It fires me up in a different kind of way. I think of it as a younger form, in a way. Whereas the old steam-driven instruments, the steampunk stuff? It’s been with us for a very long time, so when we use viola, violin, flutes and [other instruments], all of these things get put into the mix of this album.
Trevor Rabin of Yes went away to do stuff like this for film. This very much has that feel. He had to go out of a certain box to do what he does. You were able to find a way to take that same kind of thing and incorporate it into what you’re doing.
I’ve met Trevor. We like each other’s stuff. I think he’s tremendously talented, no doubt about that. It’s always nice when a fellow professional likes something that you’ve done. I was talking to a journalist recently, who was saying that Pat Metheny was listening to Under A Mediterranean Sky. I like Pat Metheny’s work very much. I hope to hook up with him sometime. I had a similar thing with Eddie Van Halen, although I never met him in person. He was very, very nice. I got to work with various other guitarists, Brian May of Queen, [Extreme's] Nuno Bettencourt, Paul Gilbert [of Mr. Big] - we’ve done stuff on stage together. [Led Zeppelin's] John Paul Jones. I’ve done a lot of crossover things with guys from Yes. Peter Banks originally, Steve Howe, the late, great, Chris Squire, John Wetton, they were all pals.
There’s some tremendously talented people that I really wish I could just phone up and say, “You might like this one. You might like to play on this. Or is there something of yours that you’d like me to flesh out?" Things can often come so close. Unfortunately, the club that is oversubscribed of very, very talented people who have passed on is getting larger and larger all of the time. There’s this wonderful band that I hope are in heaven that I might be able to plug into one day.
I know you didn’t meet Eddie Van Halen, but was there stuff that filtered back your way through the grapevine from him?
Yeah, I got that he appreciated the tapping technique. It’s a technique that he named, but he acknowledged the influence from me. It was something I was doing from 1971 onwards. I mean, all guitarists take influence from each other. Andres Segovia, I was copying fingerpicking techniques that he’d come up with. Nobody invents guitar playing. It’s all a case of standing on the shoulders of giants.
Listen to Squackett's 'A Life Within a Day'
You mentioned Chris Squire. I love the Squackett album that you did with him. Is there anything from those sessions and recordings we haven’t heard?
There were one or two things. They’re scattered. One or two of those things have shown up on different things. He did a Christmas album and wanted someone to play guitar on it. I said I would and set aside two weeks. That’s really how we hooked up. We met briefly in L.A. at the time of GTR. I was very pleased to work with him. We became great pals. We were very, very close at a time when he was living in the U.K. Then he relocated to the States. The album was halfway through. I started working on it, waiting for him to come back. When he did, we were able to finish the thing off together. It was great fun working with him. He was such an enthusiast. He was very responsive. He didn’t have a competitive streak, in a way. He always wanted to do the right thing for the music. Extend every song to incorporate everyone’s ideas.
Nad Sylvan is such an intriguing vocalist, and his work on “The Devil’s Cathedral” from the new album is no exception.
In a way, I was trying to write something in a Genesis style, but I wanted to expand it to incorporate some other things. So at the beginning, you get this kind of sacred profane thing with this hybrid of jazz and church music with the cathedral organ. That’s really what kicks it off, playing octatonics, diminished runs. Rob [Townsend] and Roger [King] are sort of sparring with each other on that. The story is really kind of black comedy in a way, somebody who takes over someone else’s life. It owes something to Alfred Hitchcock, I think. It’s part that. “The Devil’s Cathedral,” it’s slightly tongue-in-cheek. It’s very interesting trying to play it all in one go. It’s certainly a challenge. But actually, I enjoyed it at the same time. It’s a wrestling match.
How much of the new record will people get to hear in these upcoming live shows?
At the moment, I’m doing two new tunes from the album and doing some other solo stuff. We’ll do the whole of Seconds Out, full length versions of things. So that’s the way it’ll be. It will be a shorter set, then a much longer set. That’s the only way to realistically divide it up.