By Pat Prince
“Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth” is more than another solo record for ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. It was written as a transcendental experience, moving from darkness into light. It is also about his personal creative freedom and the challenges that surround it.
The musician’s new guitar work continues to be both explorative and exquisite. He has always been one of the most innovative guitarists in rock music. His newest material only becomes further proof of that.
Goldmine spoke with Hackett the day after Genesis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, Phish celebrated the band’s history by playing their most challenging songs, like “Watcher of the Skies.” And when it came time to introduce the band, Phish’s guitarist and vocalist, Trey Anastasio, commended Steve Hackett’s guitar technique as one of the most important cogs in the great prog rock machinery known as ’70s Genesis.
The induction ceremony was not only an honor for the 61-year-old British guitar innovator, but the whole night triggered many memories and reflections of his career and life as a musician.
So have you come down from your induction high?
Steve Hackett: (laugh) The high of the induction, yes. It’s been quite a good time.
It’s quite an honor.
SH: It is quite an honor, yeah. And I had a chance to contact a few people that I’ve been doubly-honored to be inducted with.
How did you find out about it, being inducted?
SH: Rolling Stone had called me up and said ‘How do you feel about being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?’ And I said I didn’t know anything about it. So, I checked up, and sure enough, it wasn’t a rumor, so then I was able to respond properly.
Were you in touch with the members of Genesis?
SH: I’ve been in touch with their office more, but that’s been about other things. The first time we spoke about it (the induction) was the night before. We all went out to a club just to introduce everybody again, because all the cast of characters had changed. And a lot of the guys I haven’t seen in a very long time. But it was great to see everybody … old friends, people who I’ve worked with. I never worked with Daryl (Stuermer), but I’ve met him at a lot of things. It was very nice to connect with all of them, and Phil (Collins), of course.
So this gave you a time to kind of reflect?
SH: Well, I think it did, yeah. It’s funny all that, isn’t it? How can you encapsulate something that was six or seven years of my life but arguably much longer of everybody else’s life who bought those records? I certainly don’t minimalize it in my mind. I love so many of the ideas that we struggled to bring to fruition in those early years. And when I perform live — the band that I work with is often desperately keen to be able to do some of the more difficult songs that we did at that time, things that are challenging for musicians. My drummer just volunteered to sing “Watcher of The Skies,” which is a very difficult song that the band Phish kicked off our induction with. You know, that song, I’ve tried to teach it to the band that I had in Tokyo a few years ago — Ian McDonald, Chester Thompson, Julian Colbeck, John Wetton — and we had 10 days’ rehearsal, and most of those 10 days we spent just on that one song. It takes a while to get together that old tune. Anyone who doesn’t know that song inside out, it’s a lot bars of music that all sound pretty much the same, but they are all subtly different. It’s like a typewriter, you know; it’s very difficult music to play all together. I said to Phil when the band was playing, ‘There’s not a band on earth who can play this song in time.’ We never could when we were doing it.
I find it amusing when some of the mainstream press refers to Genesis as a pop band, you know, only writing singles.
SH: Yeah, well, that’s part of what Genesis did over the whole of their history. And that’s what they did lately. And I think the perception amongst the three who remained, who carried the torch, I would imagine is, ‘Yes, we have the new streamlined, video-friendly age of the band,’ and that is exactly what it is. But then there are musicians that go, ‘Yeah, but, the era of the multi-layered, complete-with-detail, difficult, ever-changing stuff was what it was all about. Somewhere between the two, you got some idea of what that band was all about.
But, of course, it [Genesis] was constantly evolving and changing over a long period of time. And live, it borrows from all the years, because you can’t afford to not celebrate the era that produced “Los Endos,” for instance … the ’76 era. I do it in my set, live. I’ll always do it. It was a song that came out as a doodle on acoustic guitars that I had. Phil does it with his big band. Genesis still do it. If there ever was a reformation … and God knows when the next reformation will ever be, because Phil’s extremely physically challenged these days, He finds it hard to grip a pen, never mind a drumstick. So we don’t really know what the future’s gonna hold for all that. All I can say is that the music lives on. And I’m very happy to play some of those old favorites for the audience.
What did you think of the introduction speech that Trey of Phish gave for you guys? That was quite wonderful.
SH: That was! That was wonderful in terms of celebrating the early stuff and giving me personally a plug, which I’m very grateful for him to have done.
It was a very emotional evening for all sorts of reasons. I think it found a focus for me when Jimmy Cliff [fellow inductee] was singing “Many Rivers To Cross.” And I noticed suddenly there were many people with tears in the their eyes. And that became an emblem, really, for the whole evening, I think. All that wealth of talent, wealth of ideas, and for all the stiff formality at the beginning of the evening, the place was rocking and people were genuinely moved, and the real spirit was absolutely bloody well there.
It was like they became fans themselves.
SH: We became fans all over again for each other, and I think that was great.
And hearing Ronnie Spector …“Be My Baby.” In the early ’60s … I remember the sweetness of that song at the time. That was heard at local dances, where I remember [once] a fight breaking out when that music was on. Seeing young guys fighting, knocking each other out. A young kid whose face was a mask of blood. Meanwhile the sweetness of the music and the whole kind of being young and macho in the early ’60s. It brought it all back to me.
And again I was in tears listening to “Many Rivers To Cross.” It was just so good. It was everything. It was anthemic. It was powerful. He sang it wonderfully with that beautiful tenor voice. And it was sort of like he sang to each one of us, you know. It was gospel. It was divine. Yes, it was a throwaway song, but there’s something about hearing something with young ears — or whatever it was that moved you when you were 13 or 14 — nothing can analyze the alchemy from performer to listener that goes on, the pure magic of that where you just see everything in that song. You can sort of taste the marzipan, the hint of romance to come, because at that age, you are really ready for it, unless you are some incredible Casanova. It’s the world of girls, on the other side of the dance floor, and it’s possible to talk to the other race on earth. You’re not ready for it, yet you desperately want to be able to cross that divide. So those two songs did it for me, I must admit. And I saw Phil bobbing away. I know he wants to be up on stage doing this. I know despite what he might say. You can’t tell me when you are presented with that. I’m sure Phil will get up on stage and do something again in the future.
I heard people were asking in the press room ‘Why didn’t Genesis play?’ But it was obvious it was impossible because of Phil’s condition.
SH: Neither of the singers were in any position to play or sing. I think Pete was off rehearsing his orchestral thing. And Phil, obviously … physically, he’s really challenged. But I’m sure that voice is still there, and I really hope he’ll be strong enough to be able to play drums again, because you’re talking about a guy who is probably the best drummer on the planet. And the idea that he can be retired before his time is just some cruel cosmic joke. It’s humbling. I must say, that when I was talking to Phil, he seemed more open and warmer than ever before. We were talking at length, and I was fascinated to hear what he was doing, which was the album of covers.
I want to talk about that “plug” you were talking about, by Trey Anastasio. He went out of his way to say something about the influence your technique has had on others. He added that it influenced musicians like Eddie Van Halen, people you would not expect.
SH: I know. It’s not something that came up by accident. One day I was trying to play a classical phrase. I wasn’t even trying to play the piece properly, and I realized the only way I could play it was hammering on and off. And the album “Nursery Cryme” features at least two tracks that have tapping on them, “The Musical Box” and “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” most of which are all products of their time, of course. Nonetheless, it showed what you can do with that. And I was using that technique much faster by the time we were doing 1973’s “Selling England by the Pound.”
You made a reference before about being 13 — I don’t know what age you started playing guitar, but it’s different for kids today, when they first pick up a guitar, because there are so many more distractions. To be a great guitarist, you really need to have a lot of commitment.
SH: If I was 13 again, now, and I heard guitar coming at me? … I used to thrill at the occasional bent note someone was playing. People didn’t need to do very much to thrill me. I think I would now be thinking, ‘God, all this virtuoso stuff. How am I going to be able to do that?’ Thank God guitarists weren’t as terrifyingly good as they are now, or it might have seen like ‘I’ don’t know if I’m ready for the Olympics.’ And so I think it must be tougher, looking at the competition, thinking what you need to be able to do. Luckily, rock guitar was just finding its feet when I was listening back then. So things were manageable. You could just about get together someone’s solo. I could just about get together with two fingers some of Keith Richard’s stuff like “Little by Little,” a Chuck Berry number. And I started off as a harmonica player, first of all.
Why was there a delay for your new album, “Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth”?
SH: There was a litigious atmosphere surrounding me for a contest to rights and a contest for me to able to be free to work. I know that sounds strange but … There was a court decision, in my favor, that allowed me to release it. The delay surrounding its release is because of fighting off all of those things. But I have to answer the question so … We had been selling the album at gigs and our Web site. But the official release, there will be an extended edition by InsideOut Records.
Can you elaborate on the meaning of the title, “Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth”?
SH: Well, I’ve been through a time of change, really. Moving on through one way of life to another. I’ve been through a divorce, which colors the album to some degree. And it looked as if I was going to be free to do practically anything on record, and that was the reason why we called it “Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth.” Because it felt like coming out of a dark period, light at the end of the tunnel, and all the rest.
The songs, too, have this sort of emotional dichotomy. “Emerald and Ash” feels pleasant and then it feels sort of eerie and melancholic.
SH: That’s right, yes. It’s not quite what you thought it was. That is disturbing, isn’t it? It’s disturbing and disturbed, a product of a warped brain (laughs) as so many of my songs are.
That’s what’s so good about it. It comes in so pleasant, and yet there’s an undercurrent.
SH: Something sinister. Then you have orchestral strings, doing harmonics which creates that weird kind of insect-like buzzing, anthill-consuming thing. They’re eating each other out there in the jungle. There’s that aspect, and life has indeed felt like that at times. It’s very personal lyrically, too: “Emerald and Ash” and “Fire On the Moon.” “Fire On the Moon” is about as low as you can get, and then you try to put it into song. The idea of the way of life you thought you knew and not being able to support that way of life anymore. You feel like your feet are literally sinking through the floor and a black cloud is descending over you, and you are clinging by your fingertips to something that is an outmoded way of life and relationship. And then the resolution is to get it all into song.
It sounds like you’ve been satisfied with being on your own, a solo career, all these years.
SH: Even though I might be the spearhead for anything called solo, it’s not just that. It’s the guys that you are playing with as well. Like when you listen to a Miles Davis album, he’s got McLaughlin playing with him, and every hot keyboard player on the block. Chick Corea …
Yeah, fans can come out to see someone who’s in your band as much as you.
SH: Well, that’s right. They can come out to see them, and they are a mighty band: Gary O’Toole on drums and Nick Beggs on bass; Rob Townsend, who is a fabulous sax man; and Roger King, who’s an extraordinary keyboard player, engineer, programmer, producer and my musical director and right-hand man, and severe critic (laughs). Plus we’re an extraordinary harmony band. We have pretty much everybody in the band singing. It makes for a big sound, and I love that. And it feels very good to have that sort of extended family on the road.
You have a good point, because when you hear ‘solo career,’ it sounds very lonely.
SH: It’s not. Shucks, I’m just the guitarist in the band with my own name (laughs). I’m happy with every one else taking the glory. You should hear some of the solos the other guys do. They’re a little bit too good. I’ll have to dock their wages if they play too well (laughs).
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