Steve Hackett

By: Lori Smerilson Carson | Photos: Lee Millward

Immersing himself in music is what he has done since he was literally a toddler. Now, Guitarist/Singer/Songwriter Steve Hackett is preparing to release his thirtieth solo album The Circus And The Nightwhale on February 16th. He made his world renown mark in the music industry with rock band Genesis, whom in 2010 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During the mid-eighties, he co-founded supergroup GTR with Steve Howe, as well as continued to grow his solo career. This extraordinarily talented musician just released his second single and video “Wherever You Are” from The Circus And The Nightwhale which follows the first single “People Of The Smoke”. This video has already attracted over one hundred thousand viewers, and is the song that leads off this LP which is autobiographical and storytelling.

Hacket and his bandmates Keyboardist Roger King, Vocalist Nad Sylvan, Bassist Jonas Reingold, Drummer Craig Blundell, and Saxophonist Rob Townsend will be touring Florida extensively starting on March 1st at the Florida Theater in Jacksonville, March 2nd at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, March 4th at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, March 6th at the Pompano Beach Amphitheater in Pompano Beach, and March 15th at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers. March 8th through the 13th they will be on the Cruise to the Edge departing from Miami.

Catching up with Hackett just prior to the release of his thirtieth solo album, he divulged some details about this record, his start in music, some past experiences and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: The Circus And The Nightwhale album that is coming out on February 16th, what inspired the album? I read that is it an auto-biography about your life, both literally and metaphorically?
Steve Hackett: Absolutely! I think it’s been inspired by a lot of things. There’s a symbolic aspect to it. There’s a personal aspect, as I try to make the journey of it as personal and as universal as I can possibly make it because it’s my version of the journey, but then everybody in their own lifetime has the equivalence of the journey. At the end of the day, all of us end up coming into this world together and leaving on our own. So, there’s all of that, but there’s the whole adventure and excitement of all of it starting in 1950 literally, with radio from 1950 before rock makes it mark. The “People of the Smoke”, the opening track, was all really about that. The rest of it, I wouldn’t say it was self-explanatory. There wouldn’t be any interest if there was that, but all I can say is, I feel very close to it still. I find it very interesting that there’s been a big response already to one of the videos. I’m very pleased about that. We’ve had something like one hundred twenty thousand hits on it, and really it hasn’t been out that long. So, it shows that there’s interest really with the album, and I’m very pleased about that. I’m gonna be touring it extensively soon. We’re gonna do a Royal Albert Hall this year in England. We’re really looking forward to doing that one again.

SFL Music: I saw the video for “People Of The Smoke”. The song is great with the almost dramatic intro of the baby crying, the trains, the violin and your guitar. It sounded like it should be in a movie. Golden Globe worthy!
Hackett: Yeah. It’s funny because I think that some songs are designed almost as a kind of film for the year. So, when we were putting that together, there was no video at that point, but the video was done by a friend of mine who liked the song very much. I played it to him in an early form. He said, I’d like to do a video of that. So, I said, yeah, absolutely! Go ahead. I think he’s done a nice job on the video, I have to say. I am pleased with that. Videos don’t always work, but sometimes there is a really good marriage of a song and a kind of visual interpretation of it without taking away from the song. The reference points on it, the sound of the big bell is Big Ben. House of the Parliament at St. Stephen’s Tower. It’s the sound of the BBC. It’s an extraordinary thing that they always have a microphone inside the tower there. So, whenever you were hearing that on the BBC news with the bell going off, it was actually live. I always assumed that it was a recording, but it’s not, and it was silent for a few years because they had a problem with the maintenance of the tower, and so work had to be done on it. That’s a sidebar really, but it’s a kind of evocation of London in 1950 when I first arrived, well before rock and roll, and I’ve been trying to describe the conditions that were around. People were first exposed to the pollutions that London was experiencing at that time, post war, before ecology was ever dreamt up. It was a very different world in London in post war recovery. Everyone’s just happy for oil, for the heat without paying any heed to the amount of pollution that was being created at that time. The lyrics really reflect the attitudes of that time. It’s a little vignette really lyrically. It dips in and out of various things, but it was very much an era of the end of empire without ever really admitting it, and the idea of complete obedience. Bowing to your betters and lots of English ideas that were shortly to become outmoded, but you have to remember that I was born into a world where hanging was commonplace and the wrong people were being hanged at various times. When you move on another ten years, a little bit further on, I seem to remember that they were asking the old Rolling Stone about the idea of capital punishment of the deterrent. I remember Brian Jones back then saying something like, hanging was a barbaric Medieval practice which has no place in the modern world, and I thought that was very articulate. At that time, no one was really consulting pop stars to see what they thought, but it was a pacifist message. The new world was altering in something else, and I was a huge fan of the early Rolling Stones. You have to remember what a huge change that was. To be able to walk down the street looking vaguely like that, would get you in fights. That was the year that was to follow, and of course I was part of all that.

SFL Music: The song list on the album looks like it’s telling a story. “Enter The Ring”, “Get Me Out!”, “All At Sea” and then it ends up with “White Dove”. Is that the theme flow?
Hackett: Yes. I think that really the whole idea of The Circus for me was really the business, and in particular, being involved with Genesis where there was freedom to express yourself, but at the same time, there were also sort of restrictions that went with that. So, “Get Me Out!” really refers to that. Then other times when I felt that I’ve been excessively controlled by others in my life, and a lot of those frustrations refer to those times. I wasn’t just restricted in Genesis, but there were other times and I’m not mentioning any names, but you’re quite right that all of the titles do refer either literally to what was going on with me, or symbolically later on as the album becomes more fantasy based and more symbolic.

SFL Music: You recorded at Siren studio in the U.K.?
Hackett: That’s right.

SFL Music: You also had guest parts coming in from Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Azerbaijan and the U.S. How did that work? How did this all come together?
Hackett: Well, file sharing has proved to be the modern way of recording. Particularly with drummers who prefer to work at home while they get something right, rather than somebody looking over their shoulders. So, somebody can be literally learning something at the same time they are recording it. There isn’t the pressure of having to do it face to face and get it all in one take. So, the album, it is a narrative. It is a story of course, and I think all of the people that took part came up with exceptional ideas to make it really work and to make it seem like we were all in the same room. I think we all were in the same head space in the end. Particularly the drumming from beginning to end where we’ve yes, got the USA. Ironically of course, it’s an American drummer in the studio that kicks off. So, by the time you’ve got a real musician in there, the band kicking in, there’s the USA, but then there’s a guy who’s Swedish, whose functioning in Austria, sending in the bass parts, and doing that to the drums from the United States. Then it’s all being coordinated back home in the U.K. I think this happens a lot with international bands. To do an album like this, it isn’t the kind of album that you could put together in a week. I don’t think you could do that. It’s highly detailed and people have to sit out in various moments where you’re required not to do anything, including me as well. I hand it over to the other guys, but I think it was very well produced. I think Roger did a wonderful job on it. The intro stuff alone, the kind of collage right at the front which frames the album, sets it up and gives you that filmic, that cinematic quality. I think he did a wonderful job on that. I think that at times, Roger doesn’t really realize how very good he is. He’s extraordinarily modest and dismissive of any idea of being a genius in any sense of the word, but I’d rather work with people who feel there’s room for improvement, rather than a bunch of very positive yes men.

SFL Music: Your brother (John Hackett) is on the album playing the flute again, correct?
Hackett: Yes.

SFL Music: I read that your parents were very encouraging with your music and your father was an artist and a painter. Is that what drew you to become a musician originally, you and your brother?
Hackett: Yeah, it did. Ever since I was two years old, I was trying to play musical instruments. He was able to play a number of things. Luckily, I ended up playing very, very early on. I was surrounded by music and then I think my poor mother was surrounded by music later on by the time I was learning to play and John my brother, five years younger, was learning to play. There was a lot of music going on in the household. It was extraordinary. My father painting in one room. John and I making music together in another room, and it was really just a tiny apartment, but it was a powerhouse of possibilities. So, I was very happy to have the family connection again on the album. John is doing scatt flute on it where he’s singing and playing at the same time. That well know Roland Kirk technique once again, because John learned classical flute. He went the route of doing his lessons properly and learning to read music properly and doing all that, where as my approach was much more instinctive and music was a symbol of freedom. I didn’t really want to be taught it by anybody. Everyone became my teacher, but nobody became my critic. I was able to get on with it at my own pace, my own speed and develop my own techniques, and I think that was important for the development of music. Not just mine, but also development of Genesis music as well. I think that if there’d been too much schooling, we might have ended up playing Bach perfectly, but not necessarily come up with any original songs or ideas. So, I think you have to make yourself unpopular to be popular, and very often the truth is something that people don’t want to hear. You have to be brutely honest when you’re working with people. Especially, I think when you’re a young player. You lack diplomacy dreadfully, but I kind of learned to get the best out of people over time. I didn’t have that ability first of all because I was just desperate to do something myself. I was a little bit too honest with my criticism of others and self, but I’m at the point now where if I work with Roger or my wife Jo on something and we’re writing something together, we’re all able to say to each other if we think something isn’t right, then it’s just a case of something could be stronger. You have to know each other sufficiently well to say, I’m not competing with you, I’m just trying to make the song better. So, if someone says, oh that sounds a bit casual, I think you can do better. I’ll take that onboard and go, what the key, what? I can always use constructive criticism. As I say, I prefer not to work with yes men, but to work with people who will tell it to me like it is. So, truth is very, very important, and its often the last thing that gets addressed whether it’s a band or an album, whatever it is.

SFL Music: That sounds like great advice for an up-and-coming artist.
Hackett: Yeah, I think so. I think you have to be able to say, yeah, I’m on your side, but I think you could do better with something. In other words, so much of modern music, it just repeats. It’s the same idea going through. We’ve lost the art of variation it seems. I think since the legion of programmers have really taken over the music scene, it seems the music itself has given way perhaps to technology, and I want to hear people who can play and sing and write, and do great things. So, it’s a bit like Oscar Wao, the famous poet who’s unhappy with anything as long as it’s the best.

SFL Music: Is that what you think you may have taken away from playing with many people like Genesis as well as Brian May, Bonnie Tyler?
Hackett: Yeah, I would with those people. All of the Genesis guys were individually brilliant, as is Bonnie Tyler and Brian May. They’re all brilliant. I have dreams about them all the time and I know they think about me as well. It’s very interesting. I won an award a year ago from European Guitar, this, that and the other, and Brian May sent me a congratulations which is very lovely. I have one of the guitars that he designed along with his father, and it’s very interesting that he was gifted in that way as much as musically. I think that sort of aspect of art and science coming together in a very young world of sixteen, fifteen-year-old Brian May, is very interesting that he came up with something that has been so long lasting and thoroughly thought out. So, I guess the spirits must have been on his side as well as the textbooks at the time.

SFL Music: Is that what you would contribute to your success, just having the ability to create unique and long-lasting music?
Hackett: Well, you can’t say that every song is an act of genius. You can’t do that, but at times, I try to guard against the idea of being dilettante, I must admit. That’s why I keep going and do lots and lots of albums. So, I’m always working on it like a potter with a wheel. I’m going, yep, yeah, I can make this next one shinier. I could do something that I haven’t done before. I don’t kick myself that I’ve got complete originality. If it’s something really heart felt, then I’m happy with that, even if its derivative. Yeah, I like to come up with something that you think is original, but of course, we’re just adding a footnote all the time to everything that everyone else has done, but I have this thing about stagnant ideas for quite some time. It’s what got me into Genesis was advertising that I was anti-stagnant ideas. So, there must have been something to it, this idea of stirring things up rather a lot. That’s really where tapping came from and there are variations on tapping that I’ve been working on over time. Sometimes tapping with a nail and sometimes tapping with a pat at the same rhythmicity. It’s a different sound, and also tapping with a ring on my right hand and finger. All these things create different aspects of tapping. Some are more controllable than the others, but if I’ve contributed anything to the world of guitar playing at all, it’s that technique that is part of the glossary of terms of particularly heavy metal shredders. They’ve got to be able to play fast without your feet not touching the ground. So that’s, into battle, here we go!

SFL Music: Are there any new videos?
Hackett: There’s one more video I think that we’ve got out at the moment which is the cut “Wherever You Are”. I think that one’s out there at the moment or about to be.

SFL Music: What can fans look forward to with the new tour?
Hackett: We were talking about this today, talking about doing three tracks from the new album. So far, we’re gonna do that. Also, in the areas that we haven’t played the Genesis album Foxtrot that was advertised several years ago, and of course I’m still on COVID catchup, so I’m delivering that to areas where they haven’t had that set from me. So, it’s part solo, part Genesis. It will be a mixture of new and old for people to look forward to.

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