2003 has been a good year for this progressive rock legend. With a new album called To Watch The Storms, a short acoustic tour of the East Coast here in the US, and a special Guitar Wars event in Japan, the guitarist has managed to stay focused and in the spotlight. Sea of Tranquility editor Pete Pardo had the esteemed pleasure of spending some time on the phone with Steve Hackett one evening while the master axe-man was in Philadelphia during a hectic week of the Border's Bookstore East Coast acoustic tour, and discussed the new album, the tour, various projects, and of course his former band, Genesis.
Sea of Tranquility: So Steve, how is Philadelphia treating you?
Steve Hackett: Well, very nice so far, very peaceful and pleasant. I've barely ventured out so far today, as it's been a long day of traveling, so just taking it easy reading a book right now.
SoT: How is the East Coast Border's Bookstore tour coming along?
S.H.: Very good. I've done two of them so far, and it's been very interesting indeed, and very nice.
SoT: How did the tour get set up?
S.H.: Well, the idea came from either Ryko-disc or Jim Pitowski from InsideOut Music. I'm not sure who came up with the idea first, but I gather it's something that a great number of people do, including authors that have their books signed and people who play things and what have you. It's an interesting tour as far as I'm concerned.
SoT: I actually work in the publishing industry, and this is something we do with authors all the time, so it was kind of neat hearing that you were involved in something similar. How has the turn out been so far?
S.H.: Very good indeed, very healthy.
SoT: That's great to hear! Now, are you mostly doing signings, or are you also playing short acoustic sets?
S.H.: What I'm doing is playing short acoustic sets, about a half hour's worth of stuff, and then I get signing time which is the main bulk of it. Sometimes it tends to go on for several hours, so we usually end up closing the store, whatever time they actually close!
S.H.: That's the way it goes!
SoT: Absolutely! What songs have you been playing?
S.H.: Well, I've been playing a few things from the new album. It's really instrumental sections of things. What I tend to do when I do solo shows is like a guitar recital style. I play things that I think the audience will recognize, and I play things that I find interesting myself. You know, it's a case of guitar energies, and I do a tradeoff between the things that are more energetic and the things that are more tranquil so to speak.
SoT: That's probably best for that type of setting…
S.H.: Well, yeah, and I really like doing it very much. It's a strange thing, but they have had really nice P.A.'s at these things, and the sound has been very nice. The audiences have been very attentive and quite, and that's quite nice as well.
SoT: You don't always hear that about crowds here in the US…(laughs)
S.H.: Now, I realize that, but maybe the unfamiliarity of the setting tends to do that, seeing the fact that they are in the middle of a bookstore. Everyone kind of behaves themselves, like "…quiet, you are in the library!"
SoT: Yeah, they have to be on their best behavior!
S.H.: I think so, right!
SoT: How has the reaction been to the new CD, To Watch the Storms?
S.H.: I think it's been the best reaction to anything I've ever recorded in my life.
SoT: Wow! Other than the fact that the songs stand by themselves, can you attest any of that positive reaction to the work that InsideOut Music is doing in promoting the CD?
S.H.: I think partly that yes, absolutely. We tend to have a pyramid situation, as we have Camino Records in London, and InsideOut in the rest of the world, and Ryko distribution, so everyone kind of plays their part with that in a pyramid fashion. Also, I think that I have a great band on this record, which helps tremendously. Plus I think the album probably catches me at my most imaginative I would say.
SoT: Can you talk a little bit about who is in the band these days?
S.H.: Sure, on keyboards we have Roger King, who works as keyboard player, engineer, programmer, and is fantastic. He's a very quiet guy, and was trained originally as a cathedral organist, and he's a big fan of Bach, like me. We have interesting musical conversations where we sort of cynically dissect things, break it down to why something is good or isn't good, why he doesn't like romantic classics and why I do. We both enjoy the atonal, more dissonant stuff, so we connect in that way, the more rebellious stuff I guess.
SoT: Sounds like he is almost like your partner in the band?
S.H.: Well that's right. Roger is increasingly become like a partner, and more recently we have been writing things together. The rest of the guys in the band, we have Rob Townsend on all matter of woodwinds and brass; Gary O'Toole on drums; on bass Terry Gregory. There are three guys who sing in the band-I sing, Gary sings, and Terry also sings, so when we do harmonies very often it's everybody. So in a way it's a little bit like a real band now, but then we have the addition of real strings from a couple of people, and we track them up. My brother John makes a cameo appearance, playing flute on "Serpentine Song", as well as Ian McDonald, who plays sax on "Brand New."
SoT: "Serpentine Song" is a really great song.
S.H.: Thank you. I'm glad you like that one. I'm pleased with the way that tune came out. It's a kind of song that I've wanted to do for years.
SoT: There's a real nice variety of material on the new CD, which maybe you haven't done in a long time. "Circus of Becoming" has a real nice symphonic flair to it, kind of like GTR-meets-your early solo material. "The Devil is an Englishman" has a great sense of humor to it and an almost danceable beat, then you have "Mechanical Bride", which is like a dream come true for the serious prog fan, as it is heavy in parts and complex. But you also have a host of acoustic instrumentals as well, so the CD is really balanced out nicely. Can you talk a little bit about the variety of the CD, and if that is how you intended it to be?
S.H.: Well, I decided to include many things that I had been discouraged to include over the years. I thought, really, what I've got to do is follow my own instincts with this record, and not everybody is going to love everything, but it's important to honor each of the Gods as it where. You know, you've got to honor the God of the Blues, and you've got to honor all the other styles, that are especially evident on the Special Edition of the CD (I hope you've got that one!) with all the extra material, extra artwork, and the extra guitar work. I basically see the Special Edition as the real thing, like the Directors Cut.
SoT: Are there any plans to do a full-blown band tour of the US in support of the new CD?
S.H.: I would really love to , but at the moment I have touring commitments in Japan and in Europe, and that will take me up to the end of the year.
SoT: That's a great segue to my next question-I read that you will be participating in an event called Guitar Wars in Japan. What's that about?
S.H.: Well, the idea came from the Japanese. Paul Gilbert, Nuno Bettencourt, myself, I think Megadeth at one time were to be involved but not any more, and I don't know if it will be all of us warring together or just jamming. It's called Guitar Wars, and I think they are promoting it as some sort of guitar competition.
SoT: You're pretty different from the other players you have mentioned who are also taking part in it.
S.H.: Yeah, I guess so.
SoT: Too bad we couldn't see something like that here in the States…
S.H.: Well, who knows…if it goes well…it will be interesting, and maybe develop elsewhere. I find that I do these one-offs…I think they are going to do a DVD of it. I have no idea how it will come out-might be wonderful, might be disastrous. We'll never know, but isn't that the nature of jamming?
SoT: (laughs) That's true!
S.H.: The nature of jamming is that nobody really gets a second chance to fix it.
SoT: You've played numerous live shows with John Wetton over the last few years. Do you have any plans to work with him again?
S.H.: John's a friend, and I'm always there on the other end of the phone if he wants to call and do something. Sometimes it's been as little as walking into a studio and playing a little bit of harmonica for him on a track he wrote for Ringo Starr, or to play some guitar. John, to his credit, just let's me "get on with it", and if I'm happy with it, he's happy with it. When I work with people, and I do things on their albums, what I prefer is for them to let me "get on with it", either at home or at someone else's studio, but I think the best results are when people point you broadly in a direction and say "…can you play between the following beats?"
SoT: Was that the mantra for the recent Gordian Knot recording?
S.H.: Yeah, pretty much.
SoT: You had some good solos on that CD.
S.H.: Thank you. It was fun.
SoT: How was it headlining the NEARfest 2002 festival?
S.H.: Well, that was a lot of fun. I think because the hotel was right next to the gig, I got to meet the whole audience in the lobby at various points of the weekend. Every time I stuck my head out of my room, I felt like I met all 2000 people personally! (laughs)
SoT: You and I also met during breakfast that Sunday morning-you had just finished meeting with another website, and I stopped by to say hello and see if we could set up an interview there at the festival. Now here we are a year later and it is finally happening.
S.H.: I remember that, right-that was you? Ah yes, I remember now!
S.H.: We've also just released a CD of that show as well.
SoT: I've heard, and have to get my hands on that. What kind of equipment are you using these days?
S.H.: Well, I still use my Gibson Les Paul, but I also have a Fernandes, which is a sustainer guitar. I have several of those in fact, but most of the time I use a black one, which they built especially for me. I use a selection of different amps, but the sound that I am most happy with these days is from my old 50 watt Marshall, using it with a treble booster. I kind of work with everything, and it depends really on where you are playing. If you are in a place that can take the extra volume, I recommend cranking up in the ancient way and using real valves in a real amp. The important thing I think is to remain flexible and not to really get too stuck on things. At least by forcing yourself to change, even if you come back to your original setup, is a good thing, as you've allowed yourself to explore another possible world.
SoT: Steve, do you follow the careers of your contemporaries from the 70's like Robert Fripp or Steve Howe?
S.H.: Yes, I try to follow what they are doing. I used to know Robert at one time, more in the 70's, and Steve and I worked together in GTR. We spent two years doing that stuff, and that was a lot of fun. There's a studio album, and a live album from the King Biscuit Flower Hour that's available from GTR. Somebody said to me the other day "…hey, you guys used to start out some shows with two acoustic guitars, are there any recordings available of those?" We certainly didn't record them at the time, but maybe somebody out there has a bootleg.
SoT: You never know, it might surface…
S.H.: It might surface, and then if someone sends me that, I 'll try and pass that on to Steve and see how he feels about us putting it out officially. That's the way things tend to work these days, a lot of past events are brought out into the fold again, and if something comes out from the vaults you may as well endorse it and make it work for you.
SoT: Well Steve, here's the obligatory question that you've probably heard a million times…
S.H.: Will I be joining The Beatles again? (laughs)
SoT: (laughs) No, actually , do you still speak to your fellow band mates from Genesis, and are there any plans to work with them again?
S.H.: Yeah I do talk to them, as much as possible. I don't know if I would ever be able to talk them into doing something that wasn't Genesis. I came close to doing some harmonica for Peter Gabriel once, but I think he wanted to learn harmonica himself, so I think maybe he was just picking my brain! That's OK, I'm happy to pass on those secrets that's taken me years to learn, the secret brethren of distorted harmonica player!
SoT: (laughing hysterically!)
S.H.: The harmonica is a real passion for me, it has a wonderful rock sound.
SoT: You've been a wonderful guest Steve, thank you very much.
S.H.: Thank you Peter, best of luck to you!
Photos courtesy of contributing photographers of Steve Hackett's offical website