Steve Hackett

On his brand new al­bum and the ev­er­green Sell­ing Eng­land By The Pound…

Prog - - Contents - Words: Dom Law­son New Por­traits: Carsten Wind­horst

Chris Squire asked me to join Yes.

I was ex­tremely flat­tered…

We can’t prove it, but we’re roughly 86% sure that some­one has popped a cou­ple of mas­sive Du­ra­cell bat­ter­ies into Steve Hackett’s back. Per­haps due to the Ge­n­e­sis le­gend’s af­fa­ble and unas­sum­ing de­meanour, the in­sane lev­els of ac­tiv­ity that the 68-year-old has been putting in over the last decade (and many years be­fore that) are sel­dom re­marked upon with the in­ten­sity they de­serve. Seem­ingly on the road more of­ten than not but pro­lific in the stu­dio too, he has slowly but stub­bornly re-es­tab­lished him­self as one of the prog world’s most vi­tal forces. Whether play­ing clas­sic Ge­n­e­sis ma­te­rial or his own suc­cess­ful re­cent solo ma­te­rial (2017’s The Night Siren was a Top 30 hit in the UK al­bum charts), Hackett is rid­ing a unique wave of ac­com­plish­ment and cre­ativ­ity that has been a joy to wit­ness.

A new year brings the re­lease of Steve Hackett’s 26th solo al­bum, At

The Edge Of Light. As with most of his re­cent records, it’s a be­wil­der­ing but end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing tour-de-force of pro­gres­sive ideas, spinet­in­gling melodies and bravura mu­si­cian­ship, de­liv­ered by a list of rock, prog and world mu­sic lu­mi­nar­ies, with Hackett shar­ing the spot­light with typ­i­cal hu­mil­ity. Al­most cer­tain to em­u­late The Night Siren’s un­ex­pected chart suc­cess, it’s an al­bum that Hackett seems to feel he has plucked from the ether, as in­spi­ra­tion ar­rived from all direc­tions.

“Well, the al­bum came out of con­ver­sa­tions and it’s in­flu­enced by ev­ery­thing,” he notes. “Each time I sit down and think about mak­ing a new al­bum, it’s a daunt­ing task. I think, ‘So peo­ple re­ally liked the last one… oh dear!’ But it all starts with a doo­dle, a bit of an idea, some­thing that’s un­formed. If you can hang on to the spirit that in­forms any one par­tic­u­lar song and not get hide­bound with the form of it, not get too in­volved with the con­struc­tion, that’s the key. Of course you’ve got to play the right notes and bring all the nuts and bolts to­gether that the ma­chine re­quires, but be­yond that you’ve got be to think­ing, ‘What’s the idea of this one, in the end? What’s this song about?’”

“I’m cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about the world’s fu­ture! I have to be­lieve that we’ll pull our­selves out of the cur­rent nose­dive.”

“Chris Squire asked me to join Yes when we were work­ing to­gether. I was ex­tremely flat­tered for about five min­utes, think­ing that I could have ‘Gui­tarist for Ge­n­e­sis and Yes!’ on my CV.”

The most ob­vi­ous re­sult of this ap­proach to com­po­si­tion is that At The Edge Of Light sounds un­like any­thing else hap­pen­ing in mu­sic right now. At times mis­chie­vously es­o­teric, with sounds rang­ing from the ex­pected wall of gui­tars to si­tar, cim­balom and (as Hackett notes with a chuckle) “drums put through a Mar­shall cab­i­net”, the al­bum boasts many changes of mood, but the over­rid­ing feel is one of wide-eyed joy at mu­sic’s kalei­do­scopic po­ten­tial.

“There’s no rev­er­en­tial think­ing here. Ev­ery­thing is grist for the mill,” Hackett says. “So many things ap­pear in cameo, to be re­placed by some­thing else. There’s a tight turnover of events and that’s ex­cit­ing. Whether it’s film mu­sic, clas­si­cal, big band stuff or jazz, I feel that when I make an al­bum I’ve got to hon­our all those gods, those in­flu­ences, and I’ve got to go with those things that moved peo­ple to play in the first place. That’s the legacy of hav­ing worked with Ge­n­e­sis. If you can make all those things hap­pily co-ex­ist within the same al­bum, why not? It’s a case of, ‘Dare I put this in? Will I get away with it?’” And does he think he will?

“Well I think there’s some­thing for ev­ery­one on this one. If you’re fa­mil­iar with what we’ve been do­ing, there’ll al­ways be things that are typ­i­cally pro­gres­sive and there will be some­thing like a sim­ple, 60s-style pop song like Hun­gry Years. I want to be con­tro­ver­sial and say that it owes as much to Peter, Paul & Mary as it does to Clan­nad or The Bea­tles. There’s noth­ing re­motely pro­gres­sive about it what­so­ever, but that’s the whole point: to not be afraid of con­trasts. Not ev­ery­thing has to be an im­pen­e­tra­ble equa­tion. Con­trasts are the best that the prog stuff has to of­fer.”

From the folksy gloom and soar­ing leads of Beasts Of Our Time and the blues-tinged clan­gour of Un­der­ground Rail­road to its daz­zling three-part fi­nale, De­scent/ Con­flict/Peace, At The Edge Of Light cov­ers so much mu­si­cal ground that, in less ca­pa­ble hands, it could’ve been a com­plete mess. In­stead, it bor­ders on a con­nois­seur’s guide to prog, both an­cient and mod­ern, re­plete with one song – Un­der The Eye Of The Sun – that boasts glo­ri­ous vo­cal har­monies straight out of the Yes hand­book.

“Yeah that’s funny be­cause when those har­monies kick in, it’s re­ally just one bloke and one girl,” Hackett grins. “It’s me and Amanda [Lehmann]. One re­viewer said that it sounded like Crosby, Stills & Nash… not to men­tion Young! [Laughs] But it’s funny, be­cause Jon An­der­son has that an­drog­y­nous qual­ity to his voice, so there are times when there’s that whole other oc­tave that I want to reach, and I think if you track up the vo­cals thickly enough it does end up sound­ing a lit­tle Yes-like.

“You know, Chris Squire asked me to join Yes when we were work­ing to­gether,” he says. “I was ex­tremely flat­tered for about five min­utes, think­ing that I could have ‘Gui­tarist for Ge­n­e­sis and Yes!’ on my CV, but in the end I felt that Yes were very well served by a whole le­gion of great guitarists, most of whom I’ve worked with at some point! So that was a great com­pli­ment from Chris. But there’s an as­pect of what I do where I think, ‘Well, if I had been work­ing with Chris, that’s just the sort of song I might’ve pre­sented to him!’ In all our thoughts, those of us who have been in­flu­enced by the great Chris Squire and his mega bass play­ing, it’s hard to pick up a Rick­en­backer and not think of the won­der­ful things that he did with it. So in spirit, I’m al­ways talk­ing to Chris.”

One spe­cific ex­am­ple of Chris Squire’s now-dis­tant but es­sen­tial in­flu­ence on Hackett’s mu­si­cal life is that the much-missed le­gend can­nily fore­saw his fel­low mu­si­cian’s largescale or­ches­tral en­deav­ours. Ac­cord­ing to Hackett, Squire once pointed out that he was the only gui­tarist he knew with a suf­fi­ciently ro­bust ego that gen­uinely en­joyed the idea of be­ing sur­rounded by so many mu­si­cians.

“I might be do­ing a dis­ser­vice to a few peo­ple here, but that’s truth­fully what he said. I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t feel threat­ened by it. We’re all string play­ers. We’re all mu­si­cians first of all and we all make a noise for a liv­ing and that’s what binds us.’ It’s safety in num­bers and a case of ‘Why the hell not?’ I know Chris loved cho­ral stuff and I have those as­pects on this al­bum, too. The solo singing, har­mony singing, cho­ral, gospel, im­pro­vised, fixed lines, it’s all there. They’re all dif­fer­ent ap­proaches and all de­signed to throw you off the scent, so if you say, ‘Well I don’t like that par­tic­u­lar thing…’ well, here’s an­other one!”

Per­haps more so even than its much-hailed pre­de­ces­sors, At The Edge Of Light is an al­bum that cel­e­brates cre­ative co­op­er­a­tion. A quick glance down the al­bum’s roll call re­veals con­tri­bu­tions from Nick D’Vir­gilio (Big Big Train/ ex-Spock’s Beard), Jonas Rein­gold (Flower Kings/Kar­makanic), Si­mon Phillips (The Who/Toto), Pink Floyd vo­cal­ists Durga and Lorelei McB­room, si­tar guru Sheema Mukher­jee, sax­o­phon­ist Rob Townsend and, of course, Hackett’s brother John, a main­stay of his live and stu­dio work for decades. With sev­eral other eclec­tic pro­tag­o­nists thrown into the mix, it’s very much an al­bum of en­sem­ble and in­di­vid­ual per­for­mances, all taste­fully glued to­gether with Hackett’s low-key charisma, el­e­gant vo­cals and scorch­ing leads. A heroic team ef­fort, if you will.

“Oh yes, it’s all about the team and about ev­ery­one,” says Hackett. “I don’t take ev­ery solo. Whether I should take more or fewer so­los, it all de­pends. If you’re com­ing from a heavy metal an­gle, you’d prob­a­bly say there was a dearth of guitar so­los on the al­bum. Com­ing from the point of view from a pop song­writer, you’d say there was far too much guitar! But it’s what other peo­ple bring to it that makes the dif­fer­ence. And I find it amaz­ing, the skills that oth­ers ex­hibit.”

It’s not hard to see how the late blos­som­ing of Steve Hackett’s solo ca­reer has stemmed from his own de­light at all the in­cred­i­ble mu­si­cians that are, un­sur­pris­ingly, ea­ger to get in­volved. As he de­scribes it, the long jour­ney from ado­les­cent dream­ing in the 60s to nailed-on icon sta­tus has

been fu­elled by a deep and pro­found fas­ci­na­tion with what other mu­si­cians can do and how that, in turn, could make his own mu­sic big­ger, bet­ter and more en­dur­ing.

“Many of these peo­ple are used to play­ing in im­pro­vised forms, per­haps much more than me,” Hackett says. “I came out of a school of song­writ­ers and I just hap­pened to be a gui­tarist. The em­pha­sis is slightly dif­fer­ent. In the 1960s, I used to ad­ver­tise my­self as a blues gui­tarist and har­mon­ica player, Blind Lemon Hackett! The blues boom had died on me by the end of the 1960s, mu­sic was on the change and was due to be­come fully com­pre­hen­sive by the start of the

70s, and so, luck­ily, that’s when I met Ge­n­e­sis. But, as I say, other peo­ple are very im­por­tant to me and what they bring to it. We did the tour with the orches­tra and it was like a small army on­stage – it was about 50 peo­ple all go­ing at it! How can that pos­si­bly be a solo per­for­mance? It just isn’t.”

If you saw Steve Hackett’s Ge­n­e­sis Re­vis­ited: Band with Orches­tra tour ear­lier in 2018, you won’t re­quire any fur­ther ev­i­dence that the gui­tarist is thor­oughly en­joy­ing ex­pand­ing and ex­plor­ing the more am­bi­tious end of his reper­toire. To­day, he ad­mits that the ex­pe­ri­ence has fed di­rectly into

At The Edge Of Light: not in terms of spe­cific or­ches­tral em­bel­lish­ments, although there are plenty of those too, but more in terms of pro­vid­ing a fresh per­spec­tive on what is gen­er­ally some very com­plex mu­sic.

“Play­ing with the orches­tra was in­spir­ing. Just the chal­lenge of see­ing if you can pull it off, you know?” he notes. “But be­cause I’m think­ing glob­ally and think­ing about com­pre­hen­sive and in­clu­sive mu­sic that in­cludes all known gen­res and ev­ery cor­ner of the globe, one is nat­u­rally work­ing with or­ches­tras, whether it’s some Phil­har­monic Orches­tra or a col­lec­tion of 20, 30 or 40 peo­ple that I might have on an al­bum. It’s al­ways an orches­tra. We might track peo­ple up 100 times in or­der to get the best out of them. But it’s an army of gen­er­als, re­ally. I guess I func­tion the way Jeff Lynne has done with ELO, where it’s a small team that’s usu­ally tracked up to sound like a very big team. If an orches­tra’s name is on the flyer, that’s great, but didn’t a lot of these pro­gres­sive bands al­ready sound like an orches­tra in the first place?”

One of prog’s most re­li­ably ad­ven­tur­ous souls, Steve Hackett has al­ways as­sim­i­lated a dizzy­ing ar­ray of dis­parate in­flu­ences into his mu­sic. It’s clear ev­i­dence of an open-minded ap­proach to life that is also re­flected in his lyrics. Of­ten world-weary but never de­void of hope, Hackett’s worldview is an­other el­e­ment that makes his mu­sic so in­clu­sive. On At The Edge Of Light, the grim spec­tres of war, con­flict, so­cial divi­sion and need­less suf­fer­ing all loom large amid the record’s darker mo­ments, and while he is re­luc­tant to stick his head above the para­pet to make spe­cific po­lit­i­cal dec­la­ra­tions, it doesn’t take a ge­nius to work out where he stands on the likes of Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far-right.

“I sup­pose I have to pref­ace this by say­ing that I’m cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about the world’s fu­ture!” he laughs. “I have to be­lieve that we’ll pull our­selves out of the cur­rent nose­dive. We’ve got all this won­der­ful tech­nol­ogy and all this knowl­edge, and it seems that pop­ulist think­ing is go­ing to lead us back to the caves, if not back to war. I think there are sev­eral songs on the al­bum that ad­dress that. You can’t pre­tend these things aren’t hap­pen­ing. The truth is that no in­ter­na­tional mu­si­cian wants Brexit. Why would you want to go back to the days of car­nets and de­lays at air­ports and not be­ing sure that you can show up for a show, be­cause that’s how it was back in the early days? I re­mem­ber we can­celled Ge­n­e­sis shows in Italy be­cause we couldn’t get the truck across the bor­der. Do we want those days again? No. So I am crit­i­cal and I am an­gry.”

So does it feel even more im­por­tant, at this pre­cise mo­ment in time, that

At The Edge Of Light is such a proudly in­ter­na­tional record?

“Yes, it’s an in­ter­na­tional al­bum. I can’t help that. I’ve tried to make it all bucket and spade, but it won’t wash! As soon as you start tak­ing a bite of a pizza, you be­come a Euro­pean. If you’re gonna be a true Euro-scep­tic, then sorry, no more piz­zas, no more coq au vin… it’s fish and chips for you, if you’re lucky!”

Does this al­bum feel like a protest of sorts? It’s cer­tainly un­equiv­o­cal about re­ject­ing much of what’s hap­pen­ing around the world at the mo­ment.

“You know what, I no­ticed just the other day, I’d been into one shop to have a cof­fee and then into an­other shop to buy a new pair of shoes. We’d just had all the cel­e­bra­tions about com­mem­o­rat­ing the end of the First World War, and I no­ticed that in both places they were play­ing Dy­lan songs. Blowin’ In The Wind was high on the agenda! It is the quin­tes­sen­tial protest song and I’ve been say­ing for a while that the protest song as a genre is ever more nec­es­sary. I don’t think that the Viet­nam war would have ended if Amer­i­can stu­dents hadn’t taken mat­ters in hand them­selves. It was about com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is at the heart of ev­ery­thing Hackett does: com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween artist and fans, and be­tween one mu­si­cian and count­less oth­ers. It might sound like old hip­pie non­sense, but ad­vo­cat­ing an ethos of peace, love and hope is some­thing to be saluted. As he points out, it’s just a shame that the world has taken such an omi­nous turn, mak­ing trou­bled but emo­tion­ally up­lift­ing records like At The Edge Of Light all the more nec­es­sary.

“You’d think that world lead­ers wouldn’t have to get to this point again,” he states. “But I do feel that, for in­stance, refugees have been so de­monised and are get­ting a rum deal. I think the whole con­cept of coun­tries is com­pletely out­dated when you have tech­nolo­gies that en­able peo­ple to work to­gether, in much the same way that this al­bum was con­structed. I recorded Durga and Lorelei and oth­ers at my home stu­dio, but equally Jonas and the drum­mers were send­ing their per­for­mances in, so there were no bor­ders for those peo­ple.”

“Mu­sic changed the world – let’s not for­get this. And I think it can change the world again, for the bet­ter.”

De­spite the daily hor­ror of the news, Steve Hackett is def­i­nitely hav­ing fun. At The Edge Of Light will emerge in Jan­uary, pre­sag­ing yet an­other ex­ten­sive tour that takes in most of Europe, Canada and an im­pres­sive 20 dates in the UK. There aren’t many rock veter­ans putting in that level of ef­fort at this stage in their ca­reers, but then most mu­si­cians aren’t as pro­foundly happy with their lot as Steve Hackett. Thrilled to be both a rel­e­vant, con­tem­po­rary mu­si­cian and guardian of the Ge­n­e­sis cat­a­logue, he sim­ply can’t wait to get back out there.

“I’m ad­ver­tis­ing that I will be play­ing Sell­ing Eng­land By The Pound in its en­tirety, plus most of Spec­tral Morn­ings, plus new stuff and ex­tra Ge­n­e­sis, too!” he beams. “So there’s a lot to re­hearse, put it that way. But I’m look­ing for­ward to it with ab­so­lute rel­ish, in or­der to serve the best of the past, the present and the fu­ture. It’s quite a task! But it’s got to be done. I’ve got a ter­rific band that will in­volve all the guys that were on­stage last time. We’re go­ing for a change of drum­mer – we have Craig Blun­dell, who’ll be do­ing the ma­jor­ity of the gigs next year, but also some gigs with Marco Minnemann, who’s go­ing to be do­ing the two cruises we’re do­ing. They’re all great play­ers, as in­deed is Gary [O’Toole]. I’m look­ing for­ward to it all tremen­dously.”

Does it sur­prise him that the

Ge­n­e­sis ma­te­rial is still so alive? The de­mand for it seems to be grow­ing…

“It was in­spi­ra­tional mu­sic back then and I was in­spired by all the guys I worked with. But it’s in­spi­ra­tional now, too. A lot of peo­ple say how much it means to them. The au­di­ence gets the chance to say that ev­ery night, and I know it moves peo­ple. Be­yond that, I think I’ve been blessed to be able to bring that once more in front of peo­ple. It’s be­yond the mu­seum doors for the glo­ri­ous ex­hibits!”

His en­thu­si­asm is in­fec­tious, his en­ergy bound­less. Maybe our Du­ra­cell the­ory is non­sense after all. All he needs to power him through an­other 12 months of tri­umph is the great­est en­ergy source of all: mu­sic it­self. Let the hap­pi­ness and heal­ing be­gin.

“Mu­sic still has the abil­ity to set the world alight and lay a few ghosts to rest,” he con­cludes. “Mu­sic changed the world – let’s not for­get this. And I think it can change the world again, for the bet­ter. Mu­sic can go to places that politi­cians can’t, and it knows no bor­ders. It’s one of the great­est medicines in the world and it’ll do you good. Hon­est, guv! It’s the oxy­gen that we breathe and it’s a great mo­ti­va­tor. This has been a great jour­ney and it’s not over yet!”

At The Edge Of Light is out Jan­uary 25 via In­sid­eOut. See www.hack­

“I was play­ing guitar in the best band in the world.”

– Steve Hackett








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