Steve Hackett chats with Pollstar about the messages of peace, diversity and unity in his new album; his songwriting process; and the “Genesis Revisited with Classic Hackett” tour.
The Night Siren is due out March 24 via InsideOut Music/Sony. The album features guest appearances from musicians around the globe, including Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Hungary, and the U.S. The music is also diverse, embracing a variety of instruments such as the Indian sitar, Peruvian charango and the Celtic Uilleann pipes. The guitar virtuoso is also joined by a group of regular collaborators including Roger King, Nad Sylvan, Gary O’Toole, Rob Townsend and Amanda Lehmann.
Pollstar previously interviewed Hackett in 2012 when he was preparing to hit the road with Yes co-founder Chris Squire. This time around we talked to Hackett over the phone a few weeks before his “Genesis Revisited with Classic Hackett” tour began. The North American excursion celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Genesis album Wind and Wuthering.
The setlist will include tracks from the album and other Genesis tunes, as well as selections from The Night Siren. Hackett was the guitarist for the progressive rock pioneering band from 1971 to 1977. Genesis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.
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Your new album, The Night Siren, is described as “a wake-up call, the warning of a siren in this era of strife and division.” Can you expand on that a bit? What sort of a wake-up call did you envision?
Well, I think that there are so many people on the album who are from different parts of the world. There are people from Israel, working with Palestinians, from Iceland to Hungary, Britain, The United States. In a way, the idea of doing a kind of United Nations of music, if you like, it’s something that happened quite naturally. I just happened to have made friends from all over. And it struck me that we were doing the very thing that is the opposite of extremist and protectionist politics is doing at the moment, which is to separate people and to head towards nationalism.
So I tried to make a very concerted effort to do a very international-sounding record, not just with Western harmonies but with Eastern harmonies and many instruments from all over the world and many players and singers from all over. And demonstrate that if it’s possible for even one Israeli and one Palestinian to work together, then we should be able to do that and protect the idea of globalization and not have to fall behind age-old ideas of right-wing politics.
I’m very worried about the state of the world at the moment where the interests of the majority are not being served. I don’t like the idea of factions – you know, “I’m the king of the castle.” And back to the idea of “God bless all those in cave 13 and hell with all the rest.” It’s very worrying. There is a refugee problem. We know that. But I think that borders are overrated. They don’t exist in music. You could even say that borders are a way of inflicting violence on poor people. The world’s in a mess right now. We need to heal the divisions between people. It will be very interesting to see what happens in the next few weeks, never mind the next few months and the next few years. It’s up to everyone to lead because I feel that leaders have really let us down. I’m not happy with what’s going on in my own country. I’m not happy with what’s going on in Europe. I hate the idea of Brexit and England pulling away from Europe. We’ve got a tunnel for God’s sake. Why did we bother to build it?
The way we’re going at the moment is just so stupid, it seems to me. There’s no point in amassing hardware with the idea that you’re going to bomb your neighbor. That puts us on the same level as the terrorists.
That never seems to work out very well. Does it?
No. I think war is never the answer.
We really need music like this album right now, what with Brexit, the divide in the U.S. and the refugee crisis.
That’s really it. The album – there’s a peace message. The first track is called “Behind the Smoke” and really, it’s the story of refugees. Now you might think that’s something that’s current but my family, my ancestors in the late 1800s, were people escaping problems in Poland. They made it to Portugal, they made it to England. Without that success story I wouldn’t be here talking to you. That’s part of it. So, that’s “Behind The Smoke.” It finds its parallel in the modern world, of course. The penultimate track is called “West To East,” which takes the same theme but with the resolution of the idea of we’ve got enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed. That idea [is] expanded on lyrically. The idea of shining a light rather than decrying or demonizing the foreigners or coming up with death to the infidel. It’s a peace message.
We’ve got to get on with on neighbor because our neighbor might just end up with a bigger gun than we’ve got ourselves, I mean internationally our neighbors. We live in the most powerful nations on earth [but] that could suddenly change in the blink of an eye with the speed of progress and military hardware. So it’s no time to fall back on nationalism. It’s not going to work, it’s not going to wash.
It’s an interesting point that you brought up how the first track goes back to your own history, with your family being immigrants. I think it’s important that we look back on our history. I mean, look at America – almost all of us were immigrants at one point.
Oh, absolutely. You are a member of the most diverse nation on earth. Multicultural diversity is what America is all about. Yeah, absolutely. There’s tremendous responsibility that goes with that, to preserve [that] I think is of paramount importance.
Even though some seem to forget that.
I know. It seems that you’ve only got to look back to the 1930s and the 1940s to show where nationalism can lead if you’re not careful. So I guess it is up to us – it’s up to filmmakers, it’s up to program makers, it’s up to journalists, it’s up to writers. As Dylan once said a long time ago, “The times they are a changin.’” What was that, something about prophesying with your pen and all of that? It’s terribly important to have writers of the quality of the work of early Dylan. So in a way that’s the tradition I’m in with this thing. I’m pitching my tent there. And saying, this is a time when we need this. A friend of mine, he was a draft dodger at one point, living in England in the mid-60s, and he said to me, “You know, it was the kids that brought about the end of the Vietnamese war. We brought that to a close because we didn’t want to do it anymore.” That was what was important and it’s so important for people not to be passive. … You could say pacifism was the most potent thing – stronger than any weapon. Ask Gandhi. All of those peaceful protests. He managed to move mountains without firing a single shot. That was Gandhi. How extraordinary. Sacrificed himself in the process but that was always going to be in the cards. He knew that.
Did you get a chance to record with the guest musicians in person? Or did they record their parts separately and send them in?
Well, some were recorded face-to-face and some were recorded and sent to me. In the case of Kobi Farhi from Israel and Mira Awad from Palestine, they sent me their performance performing together and a film of them singing together. Many people I recorded face-to-face with the Icelandic drummer, Gulli Briem, for instance, we worked face-to-face. With the guys from Hungary, that was face-to-face. It was recorded in Hungary with lots of instruments from around the world. Some stuff was sent in and we did file sharing. Most of it was done face-to-face.
Were all of the tracks written by you? Or did you work with co-writers?
Well, really, the core writing team is myself, my wife Jo and Roger King. We got performances from people from all around, as I said, and utilized that. But the basic writing team is the three of us.
Can you share some more about the songwriting process?
Sure. I do a lot of touring and my wife loves to travel so she comes with me. Plus, we get to visit all sort of places anyway because she wants to see everywhere on earth. And that’s an extraordinary thing, isn't it? So we just came back from Cambodia and Thailand, where we saw the most incredible stuff, including the Bridge on the River Kwai and the most ancient temple. They’re up there on the website, HackettSongs.com. People can see pictures of these things.
The process is, for instance, I was playing in Peru. We got to visit Machu Picchu and see much of the country. I came away with a present I was given, a charango, which is a short, little stringed instrument, which I enjoyed playing on the track “Inca Tera,” so it’s Inca Earth. And the quena, which is the flute, that sort of ambient sound, the vibrato they play. Sometimes I’ll come up with an instrument, sometimes it will be a friend. Jo and I do all sorts of things. We write blogs about the places we visit, we write songs about the places we visited. Sometimes you revisit these places in dreams. And it’s extraordinary the way it works, all of this.
I guess it’s a holistic process, isn’t it? And very magical. We spark off each other with things. Sometimes it’s a line. For instance, the opening line that’s sung in “Behind The Smoke” was a line that Jo came up … I knew straight away she was talking about refugees leaving a war-torn situation, having lost their homes. I can’t remember whether she did the next line or whether I did the next line but we started batting it backward and forwards like a ball. I said, “Oh, we could try this. Do you like this line?” When both of us were happy with all the lines, we thought we had a lyric. Somewhere along the line, the music got written.
It sounds like a fun process.
And then of course when you start recording, when I’m working with Roger King then we start adding things and do the completed sketch. And we kept adding things. … It’s also like a canvas, isn’t it, for artists? You start to color this thing in. Sometimes it’s colored in with computer sketches, sometimes it’s real humans, sometimes we’ve replaced things, sometimes we supersede things with something electronic. The way it gets shaped and modeled is extraordinary. I think the orchestral stuff is extraordinary on that first track. But to my mind I think we didn’t use any orchestra instruments, any real instruments. We didn’t use anything in real time. But the way it was bent and shaped was extraordinary. I think Roger did an extraordinary job on that because I wanted the strength to bend, not just play straight symphonic but to play in a kind of ethnic way so you get the influence of all sorts of things.
Did you work with a producer on the album?
No, actually. We were just talking about that this very day. There is no production credit on the album. In a way it’s obsolete on this, really. It’s a team that builds it. There is no big boss, there is no big daddy. It is the three of us and it’s everyone who’s on it contributes something. It’s about everyone.
Do you have a favorite track on the album?
We’re going to play three of those tracks live. We’re going to do “Behind The Smoke,” “El Nino” and “The Skeleton Gallery.” I would say I love “Behind The Smoke” because of its energy, this sort of slow, brooding march. But then I love the introduction of “The Skeleton Gallery,” which is all about dreams and being a kid and fears and aspirations and many things. I love the changes that it goes through. And then “El Nino” is the musical equivalent of standing in the eye of the storm when it’s all going on around you, particularly with the surround sound mix. That really comes into its own. Lots of surprises. Very orchestral, very tribal. But [it’s] essentially a rock piece because it means you can combine those things. That’s what rock affords. We’re doing that live and it already sounds mighty in the rehearsal room. It sounds absolutely enormous with two drummers going at it at once. We’ve got Rob playing drums on it, as well as Gary. Rob Townsend is normally our woodwind man but he’s playing extra keyboards, along with Roger King. And doing a great job on the sticks, along with Gary O’Toole.
You’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of Genesis’ Wind and Wuthering with a North American tour called “Genesis Revisited with Classic Hackett.” What are your thoughts, looking back on the album, 40 years later?
Well, I’m doing the tracks that I think were the strongest. So we’re doing the majority of the album. We’re doing “Eleventh Earl Of Mar,” we’re doing “One for the Vine” – both of which are epic lengths. We’re also doing “Blood on the Rooftops,” which has social commentary and “... In That Quiet Earth,” a kind of fusion piece, and then “Afterglow,” which is a beautiful love song. Plus, another track which didn’t make it onto the album but was part of the stage show when we were playing that album way back in the day, which is called “Inside and Out,” and again social commentary material. It feels incredibly relevant today, lots of aspects of justice and fighting and all of those things which storytelling music does. And so it feels like it’s just as current today even though it’s 40 years ago. I think timeless music will probably survive for many years to come.
I bet fans are really excited to attend the tour and help you celebrate the album.
I think fans of that era of the band will like this very much. The band does explore very emotional versions of this stuff. So they’re very committed to it, committed to doing the very absolute best that they can. My band is a bit like an orchestra, really. There’s a lot of attention to detail to stuff.
The tour will also feature some fan favorites from the catalog as well.
That’s right, yeah. From the solo catalog and from the Genesis catalog.
Wanted to go back to the second to the track “West To East,” which reflects on the damage of war but also has a message of hope. I know you said you’re feeling worried, and rightly so, about the events going on in the world. But are you also feeling hopeful for the future?
I think every American journalist I've spoken to has said they’re worried; the world is worried at this moment in time. We have to keep a close eye on our leaders and all of them across the world have to be made immediately accountable. We cannot have people to be going off peace. We cannot afford to have another Hitler, we can’t afford to have another Pol Pot. I’ve been to places and seen the damage that was wrought by that, particularly just coming back from Cambodia. You know, where you see people where they would take a photograph of you and shoot you just because you wore a pair of glasses because you looked like an intellectual. I think Pol Pot was very enamored of the cultural or the so-called cultural revolution of Chairman Mao. Troubling times.
But am I optimistic? I’m optimistic that power really resides in the majority and the majority is you and me. And it’s not our leaders or our so-called leaders, who I think have let us down very badly, both in my country – and I won't talk about anyone else’s country – but throughout Europe. It’s a very worrying trend toward conflict and wars.
Hopefully the current state of affairs will motivate people to get involved.
Absolutely. Yeah, people need to get involved. That is going to happen. All of us are accountable at the end of the day.
Upcoming dates for Steve Hackett:
Feb. 17 – Newark, N.J., Victoria Theater
Feb. 18 – Ithaca, N.Y., State Theatre
Feb. 22 – Ridgefield, Conn., Ridgefield Playhouse
Feb. 23 – Westbury, N.Y., N.Y.CB Theatre At Westbury
Feb. 24 – Reading, Pa., Santander Performing Arts Center
Feb. 25 – New York, N.Y., PlayStation Theater
Feb. 26 – Boston, Mass., The Wilbur
Feb. 28 – Grand Rapids, Mich., 20 Monroe Live
March 01 – Royal Oak, Mich., Royal Oak Music Theatre
March 02 – Oakville, Ontario, The Oakville Centre For The Performing Arts
March 03 – Buffalo, N.Y., Kleinhans Music Hall
April 05 – Copenhagen, Denmark, Amager Bio
April 26 – Dublin, Ireland, Vicar Street
April 28 – Cardiff, United Kingdom, St. David's Hall
April 30 – Reading, United Kingdom, The Hexagon
May 01 – Birmingham, United Kingdom, Symphony Hall
May 03 – Sheffield, United Kingdom, Sheffield City Hall
May 04 – Bristol, United Kingdom, Colston Hall
May 05 – Manchester, United Kingdom, The Bridgewater Hall
May 07 – Liverpool, United Kingdom, Liverpool Philharmonic
May 08 – Portsmouth, United Kingdom, Portsmouth Guildhall
May 10 – Southend-On-Sea, United Kingdom, Cliffs Pavilion
May 11 – Nottingham, United Kingdom, Royal Concert Hall
May 13 – Oxford, United Kingdom, New Theatre Oxford
May 14 – Cambridge, United Kingdom, Cambridge Corn Exchange
May 16 – Glasgow, United Kingdom, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
May 19 – London, United Kingdom
Visit HackettSongs.com for more information.