If you have ever heard a guitar in your life, you probably heard Steve Hackett. He is known for his innovative tone and extraordinary versatility as an artist and composer. From the classic lineup of Genesis, he helped to forge that unique sound they became known for, as well as the super group GTR. He’s put out his first solo album since Beyond the Shrouded Horizon launched in 2011. The new album Wolflight has garnered stellar reviews from media across the globe, and features a throng of guest musicians including long time collaborators Roger King (keyboards & programming & writing), Gary O’Toole (drums), Rob Townsend (sax, duduk), Nick Beggs (bass & stick) and Amanda Lehmann (harmony vocals). Also appearing are Malik Mansurov on tar and Sara Kovaks on didgeridoo, and YES bassist Chris Squire plays on “Love Song To A Vampire” and Hugo Dagenhardt plays drums on “Dust and Dreams” It is an otherworldly album that is chock full of gothic and haunting imagery that only Steve can deliver.
Guestwriter, guitar virtuoso Mike Martin (The Dreaded Marco), sat down for an in depth musician to musician interview with Steve, and what came back was nothing but spectacular.
Steve, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
A pleasure. No problem.
I’m very excited about your new record Wolflight. I’ve listened to it several times, and it’s a fantastic album!
Well, I’m glad you like it! It’s one that we’re all quite pleased with, the team that put it together.
I’m curious, it does seem to have a conceptual thread running all the way through it centered on the idea of freedom. You take a lot of themes from a lot of different countries, almost like an ethnomusicologist approach to composition. Tell me a little bit more about that.
Well, indeed, yes, there is. I think underlying the album was the idea of using various teams and genres to be able to take over from each other rather like a relay race. So there are various moments where, for instance, the rock group is tacit and the orchestra takes over. Or, indeed, folk music or world music, where you have the idea of a small group almost sitting around a campfire doing their thing, but then you have the grandiose movement. So, I thought it was important not to play at various times, rather than try to be a literal guitarist, and always going for heroics. I think it’s a writer’s approach, and probably a producer’s approach, but lyrically, the thing is you’re quite right. There is an underlying idea – the idea of freedom – that comes up so much. That was important to me. For example, “Black Thunder”, with the slave revolt, which is almost like a film for the ear; an imaginary breaking of the chains and experiencing freedom for the first time. Much earlier in the album, we’ve got the idea of people (tribes) that made up Europe and much of Asia and before countries became cast in stone. Many of the ancient people were nomadic – as they still are in places such as Azerbaijan – where Malik Mansurov comes from (the guitar player at the beginning of the title track).
So, my approach: Going right back to the beginning, the idea of drummers, and bone orchestras. I think the respect for ancient people, and trying to experience some of what they experienced themselves, as I did when I went to Greece on a couple of occasions and was able to explore the Corycian cave, which is the subject of “Corycian Fire”. It’s the place in Delphi where divination first took place. Although the original site was sacked thousands of years ago and there’s only a few stacks of things, the original cave where it took place is still intact as a magical, eerie, and has the extraordinary atmosphere where you get a real feeling of presence that you can’t name.
It’s that connection with the ancient world. It’s almost a kind of haunted house of effects, in a way. Looking back and allowing that to speak through you, perhaps, experience of those people. It’s partly that, but I also had this idea of “genre-hopping”, so that I could use tracks that were not always entirely nostalgic.
You just spoke of “Corycian Fire” and “Black Thunder.” Tell me about “Loving Sea”.
Oh! “Loving Sea”. Having traveled to Mexico and had one of those perfect days on a boat when you travel through mangroves and actually see the dolphins and the giant turtles; you hear them breathing and diving. This is the moment on holiday that everyone wants. The open boat. The sky is perfect. The sun is beating down, not too hot. All of those things are absolutely wonderful and the basis for that song just popped into my head and what I thought I needed to do with this is pair it right back to acoustic guitar and ended up doing four acoustic guitars all playing exactly the same thing treated slightly differently and stack up the harmonies. Essentially, it is an acoustic song. A little bit of clavichord on it and a little bit of backwards piano. There the percussionist played household stuff I found. Salt shakers and such. Very, very simple. Taking the whole “less is more” idea and using that was straining myself. I was also running out of time towards the end of the album so I thought I could get in tons of people and get them to sing on this but I stacked it all up with my own vocals and to my ear it sounds like a bunch of singers on it. Of course I think whenever you do all of theses harmonies yourself perhaps it will be a bit more monochrome than a multicolored thing but there are moments when coming towards the end of an album you’ve got to get real and say I want to finish by a certain date. I was having to sell the studio I was in at the time and getting close to a completion date so it focuses the mind.
I often find that sometimes restrictions or limitations end up being an incredible springboard for creativity.
Oh, Absolutely! When you realize you’ve got to be mindful of those limitations and work towards the date. Sometimes it can be really healthy. It can get you up earlier in the morning working for starts. I often found that if I’m heading towards something and need to finish something in a few weeks, I don’t slack towards the end of it. I tend to, sort of, re-double the pace and map out the ideas I’m going to try. I get them down on paper, and once Roger’s engineering with it I’ll be able to be very succinct and not at all sassy about it.
I have to say it’s very effective. The orchestration of the entire content of the album is just fantastic.
Oh, I’m glad you enjoyed that because orchestra has become very important to me, whether it’s a real orchestra or one player tracked up. What’s the difference between a choir and one person tracked up a hundred times? Not a lot really, except that obviously you need physical space for that amount of man-power if it’s a real orchestra. I’ve just come back from Iceland working with a band where we had seventy people on stage and that was extraordinary. But when I’m making an album we can create seventy people. We can have as many tracks as we want. We can have seventy people or we can use the box. Again, “Corycian Fire” was an East-West choir. It’s all software. It was something that was designed to be sung in Latin at first, but we had been singing in ancient Greek. And I think with choirs, really, the vowels overtake the consonance. It’s very difficult to discern what a large choir are singing anyway when they are really going at it with gusto and it sounds absolutely real. I’ve enjoyed working with it. I’ve worked with orchestras in the past. It’s great! You get it all coming back at you in one hit. But the other way of building it brick by brick, can be equally enticing.
STEVE HACKETT – Wolflight (OFFICIAL VIDEO)
But all in all, the whole record, personally for me being an electric guitarist as well as a classical guitarist and having studied orchestral composition in college as well, it hits on so many wonderful points through the entirety of the record.
Oh, I’m glad for that! I was thinking there were moments where many of the British bands that used orchestra well were influencing me. Obviously George Martin’s work with The Beatles, I think, first and foremost (especially when you realize that George Martin, originally, wanted to write music like the Warsaw Concerto) was of great inspiration. Perhaps, originally with “Elanore Rigby”, where the group had the maturity in their early twenties to put down their own instruments and realized that the story and song required you to be able to smell the dust on the old instruments and the orchestral players.
That’s a beautiful way to put that.
It needed orchestral clothes. There’s something mythical, for me, about the old instruments. I don’t hear them in the way that many people do who prefer the sound of rock instruments and think that orchestra is a bit dowdy. I don’t see it like that. If it’s used appropriately it can be magnificent. And also just as urgent and threatening as rock instruments. A whole storm-cloud of heavyweight orchestral stuff.
That’s interesting that you say that. Because I have had this conversation with several musicians and you have been a big influence on me in particular. When I listen back to early Genesis and your early solo records, we talk about this idea that our guitar tone is in our hands, but really it’s in our heads. I always seem to want that if I’m going to play a distorted guitar, I’m really looking for something that sounds more like a cello than a fizzy, buzzy, ratty… not that I don’t like that guitar tone too… I think Jeff Beck in a way went after that stuff; I think you went after that; I think Alan Holdsworth found his way to get after that in his own way. Were you very conscious of that early on in your development?
Yes, I was aware, certainly, of Jeff Beck’s tone and noticing that it was different to other people’s and at times it morphed into another kind of stringed instrument and a kind of voice. He seemed to be able to produce vowel sounds from the guitar and had it much more under control than anyone else I knew. At times it was a very haunting sound. And even his early use of fuzz box was really tearing – I think the fact that he used reverb and repeat with it had something to do with it. In a way, that use of guitar with perspectives was all important. I’m thinking of “The Nazz Are Blue”, the sustained note followed by the damped note that follows from the Yardbirds Roger The Engineer album.
So in a way that’s pre-dating the use of synthesizers as we know them but it seemed to be extraordinarily versatile in his hands. And of course all electric guitarists think of Jeff Beck as this supreme colorist for the electric guitar.
He’s still at the top of game! I went and saw him on the tour with Brian Wilson and I have to put it in one of the top five rock concerts I’ve ever seen in my life. It was absolutely stunning.
Yes! Obviously the man’s work is legendary, no doubt about it. I think it was partly that, that influenced me in the early days but then I was influenced by Segovia as well. What he was doing with his fingers is what electric guitarists need to do with pickups. Again, changing the sound. Being able to reproduce the sound of other instruments. The guitar sounding like a piano, like a harp, like a musical box, like the cello. And, again, I think the use of reverb on many of his recordings where notes seem to float on and he’s conjuring worlds with his hands from the fretboard. It’s extraordinary! And really, when I book down the classical guitarists they’ll say “well, you know, he’s really orchestrating”. You have to use your imagination with that but I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about there. Where a Flamenco player plays salvos that are hard and bright. The other approach is subtle. Like the difference between a ballad and a rock song.
I’m trying to remember who to attribute the quote to (it may be John Williams if not Segovia himself) that the poetry of the guitar is not in the attack but is in the notes dying away. The nature of the sonority of the guitar after the attack as notes just float into the ether, as it were.
Yeah well, I did an album a few years ago called Tribute, being a tribute to various composers on it and there were six pieces by Bach on it and one of the pieces was “La Maja De Goya”. Having heard Segovia play it, I took the same approach. Yes, the idea of the decay being very important. Almost like a sort of call and response and that’s difficult to do with one instrument but then you’ve got to be very bright and then very mellow. You need some reverb to swim in. But there isn’t a more beautiful sound than that. It’s lovely and you can luxuriate in it and it’s the sound of a perfect siesta, I think. If there was such a thing.
I think another thing that maybe I picked up on this just being influenced by your playing, one of the things about the electric guitar historically is the compensation of a few things. Acoustic guitar being a very quiet instrument and needing it to be heard over the sound of a jazz band or what have you. But as electric guitarists continued to develop, there’s a couple of main things, and I bring this up because there is always an emphasis on speed when you get to the electric guitar and playing art music or progressive music. And we’re all fans of that stuff, but it seems to me that when you get to the modern electric guitar, certainly by the time you get to Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix and yourself and Alan Holdsworth and Jimmy Page, that there’s this sustain. It’s not just the volume that you get with amplified electric guitar, but you all of a sudden get something that you didn’t have with the classical guitar or the acoustic guitar and that is the sustain that is much more like a bowed instrument or much more like a voice. It belies the player to emphasize too much of the faster playing because you don’t get that real beautiful singing, sustaining approach to the guitar.
Well, luckily, ever since I was introduced to the Ebow, and then latterly, the Fernandes guitars which have the Sustainer pickups on them, the tyranny of volume is now consigned to history!
You don’t need to be loud, you don’t need to have proximity of the amp and have to deal with all that hit and miss quality of that. It will sustain for as long as you want. For the life of the battery that is in the pickup.
I did want to ask you about that. When you are performing live, do you go back and forth between the traditional proximity with your speaker cabinet to get some of the harmonic overtones or is it all the Sustainer?
It’s all the sustainer pickup. I don’t worry about being near the amp to do that. If I do at any one point, it’s pure theatrics but actually, to be honest it’s the sound of the pickup. Not only will it give me the note but it will give me the note plus it’s harmonic or just purely the harmonic of the note so that three position switch will give you that control and then there’s another aspect which is if you hit it very lightly, particularly in the mid-position, then I’ve got something that will naturally orientate towards another kind of harmonic so that you’re in two octaves at once, really. It’s another kind of sound. But I have to be very careful and hit the strings very lightly to produce that.
Wrapping up, can I ask you two very quick questions? #1, Chris Squire is guesting on the record. How was that experience? I know you’ve worked with Chris in the past.
Very good! He didn’t have his usual bass guitar with him, he borrowed one of mine, which is a Fender Precision. But he still managed to sound like him on it! He’s on “Love Song To A Vampire” and when the chorus comes in it thunders into his sound, it’s an extraordinary thing. It’s the foundation of that track and it’s one of my favorite moments of that track. It’s priceless! What can I say? It’s lovely. He’s a pal it’s lovely to work with him, he’s totally enthusiastic!
STEVE HACKETT – Love Song To A Vampire (OFFICIAL VIDEO)
I love his playing so much! And finally, what are your plans to be touring for this album? Are you going to make it to The States?
We’ll be touring in the late part of the year in The U.S. I’m looking forward to that, tremendously. And I hope to see you at a show and meet up at some point, Mike.
Absolutely! I would thoroughly enjoy that! Thank you so much for taking the time today. It has been an absolute honor and a pleasure!
Thank you! Thanks for a lovely interview and all the best and good luck with your own playing and everything!
Thank you so much, and Cheers! Much success with the new record!
Thank you very much. I’m glad you like it so much. I’m really thrilled that you do. Thank you!