Steve Hackett,
The TVD Interview

“Light industrial heavy metal, that’s me!” says Steve Hackett with a laugh. Progressive rock has always been about contradictions like this. “Progressing” in this genre has meant looking to the past and synthesizing it with the present to create music of the future. In this synthesis, the familiar becomes an unexpected adventure. And Hackett is more certain than ever that in order to undertake this adventure, one has to continue to look back in order to move forward. That’s the impetus behind the virtuoso musician’s Genesis Extended tour which commences at The Lincoln Theatre on Wednesday, (3/26) in Washington, DC.

The Genesis Extended tour embodies the contradictions that continue to make progressive rock so compelling. Genesis Revisited II, the follow-up to 1996’s Watcher of the Skies: Genesis Revisited, forms the lion’s share of the music featured on the new tour. These are “test tube baby” versions of Genesis songs that bring new life to the music from his tenure as lead guitarist for Nursery Cryme-through-Seconds Out-era Genesis (with a few songs outside that era included at fans’ requests). Hackett endeavors to give fans a true Genesis experience and, thanks to his unflagging perfectionism, that’s exactly what he delivers. 

But why does Hackett continue to carry the “classic” Genesis torch after an acrimonious departure from the band over thirty-five years ago? For Hackett, it’s just about honoring the music and his role in creating it. Talking with Hackett just days before the US leg of Genesis Extended tour begins, he spoke with us about the prodigious talents he assembled for the concerts, the way fan interactions have shaped the music, and why authenticity is just about the most important thing to him these days. 

As I was getting ready to talk to you, I remembered back to college, and how my male friends were surprised that I was into progressive rock as much as they were.

It’s funny, it is the denizen mainly of males of a certain age, isn’t it? That’s something that I never quite understood but, nevertheless, that’s the way it is.

I’ve never quite understood that either. I’ve observed the trend among jazz fans as well.

Somebody proposed a theory to me many years ago: the more notes, the less women were interested. [Laughs]

You grew up influenced by classical music and opera, elements of which found their way into your music and into progressive rock in general. When I was first introduced to progressive rock, I imagined that it one day would be performed like the great classical works are. Is that sort of what you had in mind with Genesis Revisited and Genesis Extended?

Well, it’s funny. Despite ourselves and our best efforts to put off as many people as possible in the early days, I think [progressive rock] music has seemed to have survived. It’s gone through many reinterpretations; it’s certainly borrowed from enough forms—from opera to pantomime and then back again—so many influences, so many different kinds of music… I’m thrilled and delighted that it’s survived. I always say that with the stuff I do live—the star of the show is really the music. It seems to survive lots of different interpretations by different line-ups; Genesis itself, of course, is a band—or was a band—that went through many different incarnations. As to whether it’s the classical music of the future, we’ll just have to be around in two hundred years to find out! It’s survived much longer than I thought; we just imagined that we were being as competitive as the next band on the block, and that it would be forgotten pretty quickly.

Here was the latest offering—the latest humble offering—and to have it lauded and praised to the skies now is a very happy accident indeed, but nonetheless it is an accident. Because all music is a shot in the dark. It’s all a big experiment, at the end of the day, to see if it’s going to stick in any way. No one has really got the crystal ball for all of this.

It’s funny that you say that you never envisioned the music to last very long, because I’ve found that to be a common sentiment among musicians who started in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even The Beatles at the outset thought they’d have a year, maybe two at best.

Yes, that’s right. When you see the young George Harrison being interviewed and asked, “What will you be doing in two years’ time?” “Oh, I’ll be opening up a string of hairdressing shops,” he said. Something like that—getting a proper job, of course. But it seems we didn’t have to get proper jobs; we must have been doing proper music.

I like the title, by the way—The Vinyl District. I like that very much. That’s a nice idea.

Well, thank you! I imagine you don’t know much about us…

Not really, no. I know nothing—this is the first time I’ve heard of it. But you’re probably frightfully famous with this!

I don’t know about that! What we do try to do is to encourage the analog format at the very least, and vinyl itself when at all possible. We have an app that helps you find the nearest independent record store to your location, too, including in the UK.

Really! That’s really a great idea! Regarding vinyl, I try to release music in as many formats as possible—including vinyl. We try to cater to everyone.

You offer it for your fans, but what is your personal opinion of vinyl as a format?

There are some things from vinyl that seem to be warmer and seem to… for instance, the way things sound on jukeboxes when they are compressed and distorted on vinyl are often given a certain something that digital formats don’t have. We’re often, ironically, trying to make digital sound like analog very, very often. People’s main beef with digital is that it is too “tinny.” But it’s all about how it’s being operated. I’ve heard great things on vinyl, and I’ve heard great things with digital. Ideally, there ought to be a mixture of the two, it seems to me—but keeping the warmth of the former world.

I’ve heard the difference between the two described by other musicians as choosing between having ones and zeroes coming at you, or sort of organic waves coming at you. That’s not scientific, of course, but the debate continues as to whether the analog format is worth preserving.

Well, as a guitarist, you’re already an anachronism to start off with because there’s bits of wire on metal and wood strung together—how quaint! None the less, you’re talking about my passion there, you see.

If you were to introduce someone to Genesis for the first time, would you include Genesis Revisited in their listening experience?

Well, they might like to hear that in terms of something that’s super clean, in time, in tune, heavily corrected and surgically improved as compared to the old version, you know, which was more organic and less of a test tube baby. But nonetheless, I think all eras of the band have got something to offer—both before I was involved with the band and after I left. There is something there—it’s covering an awful lot of ground, and an awful lot of music.

Could you talk a little bit about who is touring with you for Genesis Extended in the US and what they bring to these songs?

On vocals, it’s a Swedish-American guy called Nad Sylvan. What he brings to it is he sounds a little bit like Phil, he sounds a little bit like Pete, he sounds a little bit like a black soul singer. He doesn’t sound Swedish. When he’s doing it live, he brings a certain flamboyance; he’s a tall singer with blonde ringlets. He’s a whole show unto himself. He’s unencumbered by a musical instrument, unlike the rest of us who do the other thing, you know, which is to stand there or sit there and play. I tend to be head down, just getting on with the music, whereas Nad is very much living the song and the words and loves it. Ever since he was a kid, it was his dream to be singing Genesis stuff live. I think it was a hugely emotional thing for him when I asked him to do it.

On keyboards, we have Roger King. Roger is not just a keyboard player, but he also engineers and co-produces with me, and also writes with me as well. Roger is a little bit like my music professor. I tend to be instinctive, he tends to be more traditional, perhaps, in one sense of the word. But he’s very gifted all-round.

On brass and woodwinds, flutes and saxes, and occasional keyboard and bits of percussion, we have Rob Townsend. He’s another—he’s a real bona fide music professor. He’s a jazz expert, and he’s hugely funny, so it’s great to spend time with him on the road.

On bass and on twelve-string this year, it’ll be Nick Beggs who was originally with Kajagoogoo, and has performed with my band in recent years. He was working with Steve Wilson recently, and was touring in Europe and the States. Now, Nick brings a lot of things to the show. Again, he’s extremely flamboyant; he doesn’t just stand there and play, he does many other things. Since he was recruited to do this particular gig, he’s been working with a double-neck bass and twelve-string, as Mike Rutherford used to use. I find it unusual to find that during rehearsals he’s sitting down playing the stuff. I think I’ve turned him into a serious musician—that wasn’t the intention at all! I thought he’d be doing his usual thing, which is wearing kilts and top hats and presenting the music in his usual manner. [Laughs] On drums, it’s Gary O’Toole. Gary also has got a great voice!

With this group of musicians, it sounds like the live performance is aimed at getting the performance as close the album as you can get it.

Yes. It’s as close to the album as I can get. At some gigs, there are special guests who join us from time to time, but the a core band is able to play a whole show on its own, no problem. I’ve expanded it to allow for people to join us—like Simon Collins, Phil’s son, who sang  some stuff on “Supper’s Ready” on the album. Francis Dunnery, he’s a great player and singer. I think for some of the shows, John Wetton will show up—particularly on the cruise with Yes. I’m hoping that Chris Squire is going to get up and do something, which would be nice. If I could arrange it to get John and Chris at the same time, that might be fabulous. They all bring something unique—they’re all tremendous personalities. We expand to include some other people from time to time as well.

It sounds like there are a lot of different interpretations that can come into this performance from people who are genuinely reverent towards the music.

I think that  lot of them were influenced by this music which, let’s face it, goes back a long way to 1970 and when I joined in 1971. I’m playing stuff that goes back to 1970, in fact—one thing before I joined the band, a stage favorite called “The Knife” that I played many times with them live. But we are doing a version of that because fans have asked for it so much. In many ways, the setlist is dictated substantially by fans and partially by me.

You’re extremely engaged with your fans through social media. Is this something that you’ve always wanted to do, or is it a necessity today?

I think it’s simply a case of being more available to people.

Do you like that? It sounds like you do, as you’re giving your fans a more integrative experience.

Yeah, I think that’s it. I think that we’re in a different time, you know. I’m not trying to create a distance between myself and the audience. I think if there’s any magic, it’s there in the music. But to be as available as you can be is all part of it. You’re quite right; it does engage the audience and they do integrate into it and feel a part of it. Many of these people have been buying Genesis stuff for years, so even if they haven’t met me personally yet, they’re probably going to think, “I feel I know this guy. I’ve got an idea how he operates and what personality he is.”

I find it it’s an interesting time, as we’re no longer subject to the tyranny of multinationals dictating what kind of music we can listen to, and where and when you can buy it. Those rules, I think, which seemed to be firmly in place in the 1980s where I think record companies were overstepping the mark dictating the form to artists who really knew better themselves. I suspect that the tail is no longer wagging the dog; we’re all independent. I think no one knows the audience better than the artist.

Now, I realize there’s another way of playing the game, and we all know the arguments for being the all-singing, all-dancing, auditioning-on-TV, perfect kind of act. We know what that produces, it produces highly trained, talented individuals who’ve really got the goods in one sense! But in terms of creativity, and that’s not part of the deal. Clothing is the order of the day, whereas I’m more interested in upsetting the apple cart. It has to be upset from time to time, and you have to be able to convince people that something they didn’t think they’d be interested in, they are actually interested in. I know that sounds a little bit serious, doesn’t it, where you go from classical music and you think, “Oh, that’s the stuff of the boring conservatory.” But, in fact, it’s all from folk music in the first place. I think you’ve got to go backwards in order to go forwards to some degree. Everyone’s got to be part historian in order to march bravely into the new world.

I hadn’t really thought of it that way. Part of the “manifesto” of sorts for progressive rock was to bring in all those kinds of elements, and to give rock music a kind of seriousness that it had been lacking, and to create something totally new. Do you feel like progressive rock continues to progress the way it once did?

It’s difficult to say. I’m hoping that all music will progress, whether it attempts to be consciously reverential and to look back to a glorious past, or whether it incorporates more and more unlikely constructions and borrow from a wide palette of colors or an expanding glossary of terms. It seems to me that music has got the potential to be hugely visual; in other words, to have music that has something visual going on within it. In other words, non-video-dependent visual music—rather like a film for the ear, rather than the eye. To be able to take people places and let them go on that journey for that full storyteller experience. I do like to be able to hear stories being told in songs, even if it’s a love song, I want to hear the story in the song. I want to feel I’m getting something real. I need to understand the character behind the plot, as it were.

Obviously, that’s present in the Genesis music. It’s not just musical virtuosity, but the importance of story is there as well. Maybe that’s why Genesis’ music continues to resonate with people—because it’s filled with stories, too, not just phenomenal playing in interesting time signatures.

Well, we were sometimes criticized in the early days of being maybe a tad to didactic and taking too many things from books, and not enough from direct experience. Maybe a little too much mythology.

But on the other hand, there are many rich scenes to plunder, whether it was ancient Greek myths or pantomime or jazz. Wherever it comes from, it doesn’t really matter. Something you’ve seen on TV, something you’ve read in a book or magazine… inspiration, I think, can come from anywhere. It’s all fair game, I think. It would be nice to produce work that was lyrically intensive and not dependent on anything other than mono, and listening to something out of a little transistor radio as I did when I was twelve-years-old back in 1962 when music was not dependent on hi-fi and fabulous bass response and all the rest.

That’s the ideal world, isn’t it, of early Dylan perhaps, where performance and production were secondary to lyrical observation. The wordsmith reigned supreme at that time. I’m always looking for the perfect record that combines all of the best qualities of ‘60s music, but with full bandwidth to march in and out of orchestration at times and then pare it right down to a single instrument. It ought to be possible to be as weird and wonderful and cohesive with some kind of message behind it.

But, realistically, we are going to fall short of those ideals at time, but if there is one field that you can score in… sometimes to be a guitarist is enough. Just to have some great guitar work on something—that ought to be enough to make me go out and buy a record. I’m always trying to appeal to the twelve-year-old who first started listening to the stuff with his ear glued to the radio at night. What would turn him on, if I could be that age again? It would probably be electric guitar. I was most excited and elated by electric guitar, screaming away wonderfully in the hands of the masters. In fact, in 1962, guitars in general had yet to learn how to scream properly, but it was coming. It was just around the corner.

I read that you have just completed an album of new original material. Could you talk a little bit about that?

I’m working on an album. I’m about halfway through.

Are any of the new songs going to find their way onto this tour?

Well, the plan is to honor the Genesis songs. I’m putting solo consideration away for the rest of this year… I want people to realize that it is an authentic Genesis show, with the ability to be able to change things from time to time to extend the odd solo occasionally—not just do exactly what was one record. I want there to be authenticity. I think authenticity is more important than originality at this point in time. If there’s anything original, it would be in the way these songs were written originally. To do justice to the hard-fought harmonies that comes out sometimes under the keyboard player’s hands, or from the guitar.

The music obviously continues to inspire you. You’re Stateside only for a brief time before heading out on a lengthy world tour. Is there any way that you approach American audiences differently than audiences in Europe and in other countries?

No, I think the approach is the same. The approach is to try to make friends, and to loosen everyone up so they can relax. It doesn’t matter being able to hear a pin drop. Audiences throughout the world have gotten less reverential over time. I think the last time I saw a reverential, truly quiet audience was in Japan when I started touring there in the mid-nineties. They were virtually silent until the end of the concert. But they’ve changed as well, as they’ve realized that it’s okay to do whatever you like. You want to sing along, sing along; if you prefer to weep, do that, too. Whatever it is, it should be a joyous, shared occasion.

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