Interview with Steve Hackett


tMP Founder
Staff member
Steve Hackett, ex Genesis rock star and legendary guitarist talks exclusively to tMP

tMP Interview Online series: Steve Hackett, ex Genesis & international rock star and legendary guitarist talks exclusively to tMP.

tMP recently had the pleasure to catch up with none other than the legendary ex Genesis guitarist and composer, Steve Hackett - now of course an international rock star in his own right. [imgright][/imgright]We caught up with Steve as he was working on recording his latest project. Steve gives us a fascinating insight into his lifelong passion - music, composition and of course, playing the guitar. Steve also talks about how he feels the band movement is percieved in general, and how we can build on what we have.

Look out soon for a tMP competition where you will be able to win one of Steves signed CD's and a signed photograph too!!! Cool eh...!!


[imgleft][/imgleft] In general/summary what are you doing with yourself at this moment?
Well believe it or not, a rock album!! I am very excited to be currently working on an interesting project right now, which is a new area for me to work in, a Rock Album – but using a small orchestra. We are trying to have as many instruments playing live on the album (instead of synthesis) with orchestral players as possible. Roger King, with whom I have worked closely for many years, is also working on this with me. Roger initially trained as a church/cathedral organist, and his experience and expertise on keyboards together with him being a dab hand on the computer is a tremendous asset to this project.

The problem for me here though is that I tend to get deeply involved and entrenched in the detail when I work on such classical type music projects. I am very passionate about my work, and I want to get to love every single note of these types of compositions, which unfortunately causes some concerns for our production team as it of course increases the time we take in actually producing the material. We are not so sure when we will be in a position to release anything, but rest assured we remain focussed and are working very hard to actually finish it. We hope to have something to announce soon but can’t promise anything just yet.

I would believe that you are regularly asked to give many interviews. Can I ask is there a specific reason(s) why you granted tMP this interview?
Well, when we read what it was that you were hoping to achieve, and how you were going to do it, we agreed instantly to the interview because it seemed to be a more interesting area than the usual run of interviews I undertake. We are interested in reaching out to other musicians and music fans beyond those who may already be familiar with my work. It is obvious to me that you are enthusiastic and passionate about tMP and I am always interested to find out what it is that makes people orientate to their passion, and what people enjoy about music. I could see that having this chat with you would actually help achieve this.

How old were you when you first realised you had musical talent?
As with many youngsters, my parents provided musical instruments for us to play with on which the sound is easy to produce such as the recorder and mouthorgan etc. and at that time, my Father very much enjoyed playing tunes on his harmonica. So, as you would expect and as most young children also do, they tend to emulate the actions of their parents and I so actually started to copy what my Father was doing, and started blowing into his harmonica. I enjoyed this, and surprisingly by the time I was 3 or 4 years old I was actually starting to play simple tunes on it.

Playing the guitar came much later for me and it wasn’t until my early teens that I expressed an interest in learning to play the guitar. I was 12 years old when I first started strumming away, playing single notes as best I could, progressing through to learning chords and experimenting with progressions etc. when I was 14.

Your early compositions with Genesis were somewhat ground breaking and created fascinating soundscapes. What early musical influences inspired you and led you to compose in this manner?
My love of chords and of the many structures and colours that can be created using them. I developed a love of chords at an early age, but unusually, I also sometimes have a frustration with them in that on times, I find I am unable to do more with them than I would like to. For instance; I am currently working on an orchestral sketch and find I am regularly using a chord that I will have used previously many times in other pieces, but by changing just one note of this chord totally reinvents the colour and shape of what is produced. That tiny little musical nuance creates a totally new colour… with one little small adjustment, the entire sketch is recreated. This always gives me inspiration to experiment and learn. Also, as a young kid growing up in the 1950’s I found that one of the first things I liked listening to on the[imgright][/imgright] radio was the sound of Mario Lanza; little did I understand then that this was the sound of Opera and of the musical influence it would have on me.

I remember watching a television performance of one of Bach’s pieces back in the 60’s. The piece being played moved slowly and leisurely through its chord changes which I remember were being played in such a gentle and sublime manner. It was at that early stage in my musical development that I realised there was a lot more to chords than one expected and that the minutia, the detail in music is incredibly important.

You now have your own unique Steve Hackett style, but are these early influences still prevalent today?
Yes they most certainly are; I still have a deep passionate love of chords and their progressions, and I find that the likes of Bach and Mario Lanza remain influential in my thoughts when working on compositions. I think it is also fair to say that my classical influence remains prevalent too.

Do you have perfect pitch?
No, I don’t actually have perfect pitch, well, not all the time anyway. I tend to have to be fully enthused and engaged to be able to use this. If I have a song in mind, I can sing in tune, and can more or less guarantee that I could work out which chords I wanted to move on to through the piece.

What is it that provides you with inspiration when you sit down to compose new music? Where does your inspiration come from?
As many composers will undoubtedly understand, the hardest thing about composition is actually getting something started. I am lucky enough now in that I actually dream music, and can remember those dreams when I awake. This strange gift only started during the early 80’s, before this I was unable to remember anything of my dreams. I now often find myself getting up at some unearthly hour in the middle of the night to write down notes of what I had just dreamt, and feel quite privileged that I am able to do this. For the lost sleep I suffer on times, it is absolutely worth it.

Thinking of composition: do you prefer to compose collaboratively with members of your group, Roger King and several others perhaps, or do you prefer to compose alone?
On the early Genesis albums when we worked as a band, we all felt there was little distinction between writing and arranging, we wrote collaboratively and credited everything to all of the members of the band always stating this on our album covers. If you wrote a guitar part you were as much a writer as the chap who wrote the top or melody line. As time has passed, I find that what I like to do now if I can is to perhaps first write a simple tune, then work on arranging this with other musicians – particularly with Roger - with whom we would sit down and work out the harmonies and parts, perhaps putting together a sketch with samples, then try to build on this with real instruments and players. When I compose now, I have a far clearer view of my ‘musical intent’ than I used to, and am therefore far more focussed when doing so. I find that inviting others to assist me in arranging a piece opens up broader range of musical ideas and colours, and depending on what composition project I am working on defines the length of rope others take [and that I allow] when working together on compositions. I have also found that one can’t do this to the same extent when working with classical music compositions. With this genre, every note has to be negotiated before you start; one has to pin this detail down, and is why I am so deeply involved literally in each note of the current orchestral rock album we are working on.

On to performance: it is obvious by listening to your music that you relish working and performing collaboratively, and that you also like experimenting with alternate genres, sounds and musical colours. Why is this?
Improvised solos are wonderful and with my being attracted to blues and jazz, I find the live performance environment fabulous. Funny thing about improvised stuff or course that it can go either way. If for example I am improvising around a whole tone scale, perhaps with my acoustic trio of Roger, John and myself, very often this proves to be wonderful as long as one allows space for this to happen. Bach and Handel of course were wonderful improvisers of the 1680’s. 1685 was a good year for ‘jazzers’!!

When you are young you tend to listen to the sound of your own instrument but I learned over time is that it is not necessarily the sound of the instrument that is important, but the context in which it is used. This is why many of my early prejudices have now disappeared, being replaced with a lifelong passion to always try to find out what that little piece of magic is with each particular instrument. Unfortunately, one lifetime is simply too short and I can only hope that there is life beyond where I can continue learning about music and the wonderful scenes that can be created. I recently attended an orchestral rehearsal with a friend where we were talking about the sound of a Harp. Presently, we are working on a short piece that contains orchestral backing [again something that I had dreamt] and based on our discussions and what we had heard during the rehearsal, we started experimenting in this new work with the sound of a Celtic Harp from the EMU sound set. Using this sampled Celtic Harp with a live orchestra is beautiful and is something I might not have tried in my latest piece if I had not attended that rehearsal.

Much of your music seems to me to be what I would term ‘orchestral’ in structure. Tony Banks (also ex Genesis) has also recently composed and worked with a Symphony Orchestra. Is it down to early influences that you both now have a desire to work in an orchestral context? Would you like to work with Tony again?
Tony and I haven’t worked together for a long time and yes we are both interested in each others orchestral aspirations. I have tried many times over the years to work with Tony but for one reason or another he has always been unable to. Shall we say that I certainly won’t give up on this quest!

[imgleft][/imgleft] Much of your music is structured in un-compound times such as 5/4, 7/8 and other interesting and challenging time signatures. There is synergy here with much of today’s modern brass music in that many current brass composers use similar techniques and alternating time signatures in their compositions. Is it intentional that many of your compositions are structured this way? Why do you like this structure?
I don’t think the use of these time signatures is entirely intentional, though the unusual time signature aspect is important to specific pieces, notably for example the 7/4 and 7/8 in “Dance on A Volcano”. When I recorded this piece on Genesis Revisited, we worked on the introduction to the 7/8 section based on improvised movements within a 7th chord. I had recently experienced yet another dream following which I prepared a short piece I named ‘The Floating 7th” and had then subsequently worked on with Evelyn Glennie. In this, the guitar holds a 7th chord as long as possible whilst the percussion speeds up. There was a large team involved with the production of that album which took 18 months in total, but that effect seemed to come off well.

I feel using such techniques presents greater challenges for everyone involved i.e. the composer, the player and the listener. As long as the music does not have too much punctuation at the cost of statement, then the use of time signature techniques adds significant value to the music. Interestingly though, I find singing in 7/8 quite difficult and extremely challenging – it’s far easier for me to play a guitar in these time signatures than to sing in them. One certainly has to feel confident to be able to sing in such times, well... I do anyhow!

Many people have commented on your sublime guitar playing on Genesis’ live album - Seconds Out – recorded in Paris during the summer of 1977, and specifically on one track, “Carpet Crawlers” and love the surreal, ambient and haunting sounds created on the Gibson Les Paul guitar used on that track. Many of your recent pieces also contain similar guitar sounds and effects. What is your favourite guitar sound?
I tend to play a lot on nylon guitar these days as well as electric guitar, but I think my current choice of favourite guitar sound would be one comprising a repeat echo, with reverb and distortion on the feedback. This I feel makes the sound a little more reminiscent of a violin and is a sound I enjoy listening to and working with. The guitar can be played in a manner that emulates many different instruments or course and is one of the reasons I enjoy playing it so much.

How did you come to compose the emotional classic “Walking Away From Rainbows”? What, if anything, inspired you to compose such a wonderfully expressive and passionate piece of music?
Not too much of a background to this really… I had been playing around with a piece of equipment called the STEP. This equipment produces sustained notes based on a touch of the guitar string and I soon had put together some chords that were sad and mournful and I decided to call it “Isle of the Dead” but unbeknown to me, Sergei Rachmaninoff had already written and named a piece thus and so I renamed it “Walking Away From Rainbows”. These chords were enhanced and built upon; and I thought that it would possibly work well with a melody line placed on top. So on the album Guitar Noir we recorded an acoustic guitar melody line which, as we know now, set the baseline for what has become one of my most played and requested concert tracks. The track has been played live with several performers notably on Alto Sax by Will Bates, on Soprano Sax with Rob Townsend, with Ben Castle (Roy Castle’s son) who played it live with us, and also with Evelyn Glennie holding the chords on Marimba... now that definitely worked very well. I feel this piece lends itself to being played with many instrument combinations.

I am sure this would be interesting as a brass arrangement and I wonder what instrument might take the melody line; Flugel or Tenor horn perhaps. Maybe you can do something with the piece John, I remember you contacting me a few years ago with a view to doing something with it? [John: we’ll see eh!!]

Of your own music and compositions, which is your favourite? Why?
Yes, I do have a favourite song which is the one I am working on right now. My favourite song is always the current song I am working on – which I guess is right yeah?

I am sure many of my readers will be interested to find out how you prepare for your performances. Apart from the obvious differences (guitar vs. brass preparation), do you have a psychological preparatory routine? How do you control nerves?
To be honest, the best way I have found to prepare for my live sets is simple really… by having quite a long “sound check”. This allows me time to settle, to feel the touch and mood of the instrument I am to open with, and to relax before going on stage. Adrenalin does the rest as I am sure it does with many brass players!

When one reaches your level of musical ability, how much practice do you put in to maintain this level?
I will admit to not having the time to practice every day, especially when we are recording. One sings and holds dialogue with the other performers in the production[imgright][/imgright] and being able to rehearse is not always possible. I guess there is a conflict of disciplines which I have to balance as part of managing the production.

It is always good to learn from those who are more experienced. Do you have any hints or tips for budding composers?
I would say if you are serious about composing structurally and creating interesting sounds with instruments, perhaps one should listen in detail to certain classical music. As I mentioned earlier, the minutia of a piece is critically important, especially in classical composition and so taking steps to understand the detail in a piece will help significantly.

Looking at what musical opportunities are available for our younger generation. Do you feel there is enough being done to actively promote and encourage young musicians right now? What else could be done to help?
You can never do enough in assisting the musical appreciation and development of young musicians and there can never be enough opportunities for them. Being self taught and therefore not a good reader, I don’t feel qualified enough to be able to actually teach children – especially in the theory aspects. Should I ever be in this position I would most certainly not be a disciplinarian and would use lots of positive encouragement in order to help develop and nurture talent. A few kind words go a long, long way I feel.

Have you worked on any projects with youngsters in any way? Do you intend to?
Not really, but if I were to it would probably be in an encouraging and demonstrative capacity.

Do you know anything about the Brass Band music scene?
Not as much as I should like to in all honesty. I have heard a small sample of recent brass compositions and I would very much like to hear more.

The Brass Band movement is working hard to modernise people’s perceptions of it and of its image, it does nonetheless suffer from its own legacy and somewhat old fashioned image. I am sure many brass musicians will be interested to know how banding is perceived by many celebrities. What is your honest perception of Brass Banding?
I know there is a beauty to the sound of a brass band, especially when I have listened to the Salvationist sound. There is a deep rich sound produced by a band and I remember many years ago seeing a clip on TV of a band where the music faded in and out of a certain augmented chord. I thought the sound of that chord was beautiful and actually used it in a few pieces with Genesis.

Have you ever worked on projects with brass musicians? Would you like to?
Yes of course I have worked with many excellent brass musicians, but not from the brass band world specifically. As I am an advocate of experimental musical experiences, I would certainly think about it. Yes… let me think about it!!

What would you suggest the brass movement could do to further modernise its image and promote itself?
Well, not being close enough to the scene and how things work I wouldn’t necessarily know the answer to this question and can’t therefore advise what would be best given the current climate. However, if it fitted in easily with tour schedules and concerts, I would be happy to work with tMP to attend and promote one of your events.

I believe that many of your pieces lend themselves to being arranged for a brass band; one in particular I mentioned above would be ‘Walking Away from Rainbows’. Are there any other pieces in particular that you feel might be worth pursuing?
I think “Dance on a Volcano” would work very well. It would be very hard, but would be interesting to hear. Perhaps you might like to talk with Roger King about this.

Finally Steve, if there were just one thing you would advise readers they do sometime in their life, what would this one thing be?
Yes indeed, it would be to listen to Segona plays Bach. Small forces… mighty music.