An Interview with Steve Hackett of Genesis

Kevin Keating
Steve Hackett (Photo: Jim Buninx)
We had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Steve Hackett earlier this week in advance of his two upcoming shows this weekend -- first on Sunday, December 7th at the Warfield (tickets here), and then the following night at the Regency Ballroom (sold out). Although not necessarily a household name like Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins, Steve Hackett was one fifth of the original prog-rock incarnation of the band, Genesis. He's been on tour throughout the year with 'Genesis Extended' -- performing classics from the core early Genesis albums. He took the time to chat with us about those early days, the challenges of writing by committee, and his departure from the band. Be sure to grab Warfield tickets while they're still available!

San Francisco Bay Area Concerts: You were 20 years old when you posted an ad in Melody Maker looking for a band to join and were contacted by Peter Gabriel for an audition. Can you describe that period of time in your life and what it was like to join Genesis?

Steve Hackett: Yeah, I've been advertising in the back pages of Melody Maker for about five years, and it was an interesting time. I was trying to form bands, I was trying to join bands — I think I would have done anything, you know, to get on the next step of the ladder. And I recorded an album with a band called Quiet World in 1970 — in that same year that I spoke with Pete. And I stuck an ad in Melody Maker after I had broken up with Quiet World. I’d done an album with them, so I had some recording experience but I basically stuck an ad in Melody Maker out of complete frustration. After five years of ads, the one that I put in said ‘guitarist/writer seeks receptive musicians determined to stride beyond existing stagnant music forms’ and there was something about the ad that Pete said that made him wanna answer it. So I think that's really what got me the gig — it was really the ad that got me the gig, and the fact that I played several different kinds of music. And I think also what contributed to me clinching the gig was the fact they'd already auditioned 40 other guitarists and settled on someone they weren’t particularly happy with. So it was that both Pete and Tony, who came to my family home, where I played them a few ideas through with my brother. So I wasn’t actually working on their music, but I was showing them what we could do. I suspect that because there were two of us, we were able to demonstrate a little bit of a musical act and it gave them some idea of what we could do, so I did something pastoral, which eventually ended up on Voyage of the Acolyte (iTunes). And then I played them something atonal, which was completely dissonant, and then I played them some blues — I played some blues harmonica. And Pete said “I think we might be able to use the first one, but the other two we probably wouldn’t be so interested in.” But as we did The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, there was some atonal stuff, and so, I was able to get that through. But sadly, I never got Genesis to do anything remotely bluesy. So I think that was what was happening at the time, and so I joined them at the start of 1971 and stayed until ’77.

SFBAC: So Genesis was putting out annual releases through the early ’70’s, and when you’re writing, recording and touring that much to support those albums, there’s not much time for yourself… Is that the source of some of the frustration that you felt at the time before recording and releasing your solo album?

Steve Hackett: Well, I think, you have to remember that although I advertised myself as a writer, I was really faking it to make it. I really hadn't written that much at that point, and it was a case of all the things I wanted to do that I was advertising of course. So yes, we were living cheek by jowl, and it was like a five-way marriage in a sense… I know I was spending at least as much time with the guys as I was in any other kind of relationship and so that does get pretty intense when you're traveling throughout the world together. Also, I think when you've got people in a band together who are all equally creative, the contest is on obviously, and some characters are more competitive than others and some are more receptive and communicative and others are more sullen and sometimes snappy… It runs the gamut of human experience, all of that. But it was a great time, and we had some wonderful moments and some terrible rows. What can I tell you?

SFBAC: What are you most proud of during that time?

Steve Hackett: The rows.. no, ha! What I’m proud of is all the albums that we did together, but probably what I’m most proud of is Selling England by the Pound (iTunes) where I got the guitar to do surprising things. But over and above that, some of the things that I wrote for the band as well, I’m still very proud of those, the pieces that I’ve written not only the playing. And I was very proud to be part of a band who started off playing clubs together, as we did, and ended up playing arenas, and sometimes filling out arenas for several nights running. And I felt when I left the band, the sky was the limit. But, politically of course, even though the band was extremely creative and we did great things together, nonetheless, there was the aspect of trying to unseat each other — not me of course, I’m a nice boy, but, you know, the aspect of complicated politics and all that and of course, when Peter left, the bands' future was by no means assured and most of us went off to do separate solo projects. Then we reconvened and I was the first to have a solo album released which became a hit and that made things a little difficult for me. I think some guys in the band were worried that would create another Pete, or another star within the ranks, especially not a new boy… so draw from that what you will… having a gold album when you’re still a part of a band, is probably not the best thing for band harmony. But I obviously I demonstrated that I didn’t need to be held ransom by the idea of composition by committee and that I could do it on my own. I wanted to continue to work on with the band, but the terms weren’t really acceptable. The terms were really that I should forget about having a separate parallel career and neither would I have a guarantee that anything I wrote for the band would be used by the band so if I don’t like it, you know what you can do kinda thing. So I thought that my allegiance at the end of the day, has to be to the music and not necessarily the worlds greatest band, even playing in the worlds greatest band wouldn’t be enough as far as I’m concerned because as much as I love the music — and I adore it — it’s survived so many decades and I’m back doing it because I love it, it’s my love of the music, but one detests the politics that bands are subject to.

SFBAC: Regarding your first solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte (iTunes), do you think most of the tension that resulted from the release was a direct result of how well the album sold?

Steve Hackett: Yes, I think so, I think my only mistake was that it was such a success. If I’d done it, and it failed miserably, it would have been ‘well done, old chap’, you know what I mean? No one could be patronizing anymore!  Hahah!

SFBAC: Did Mike or Phil get any heat for contributing to the album?

Steve Hackett: Ummm, no. No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that Mike and Phil got any heat from contributing to the album at all. Nooo, no, no, no, no.

SFBAC: When did you realize it was time to leave the band?

Steve Hackett: I think this thing about Genesis starting to lose members, first of all it lost Pete, then it lost me, and then eventually it lost Phil. Now obviously if a band’s going to start hemorrhaging members, now that’s OK if you’ve got one guy who’s the star — funny enough, i was reading something about AC/DC today, and the fact that he’s the only remaining original member — and I understand why that works. But with Genesis, you have to remember that Pete was the star. He was the front man, and nobody really knew if the band would survive without him. The band was initially unwilling to have Phil take over as front man. Even though I said, why don’t we do it and get him another instrumentalist; the band had to go through auditioning 400 other singers — I was proved right, eventually. But so much about a career in music isn’t about being right, it’s about timing; so I was very pleased that Phil became the lead singer, and very pleased for his subsequent success. You can’t keep a good man down. All bands need to learn… the lesson is that you’ve gotta let people go off and do their own thing. There’s no point in trying to be controlling about it. It doesn’t really work. And at the end of the day, people are going to do what they want to do. Pete wanted to have a separate solo career, Mike and Tony didn’t want him to do it, so he left the band. And the same thing for me. You know, there’s only a certain amount that you’ll put up with in terms of being told what to do, and if you’ve got something to say, then you’ve gotta say it.

SFBAC: I’m assuming that’s what you meant when you said in the recent BBC documentary “Genesis was a very competitive band…no doubt about that…very gifted, but with those gifts, there’s a price.”

Steve Hackett: Yes, exactly. There’s a price for that, and I think that it’s a band with a very promising past, you know Genesis is a band that is no more, yet the music is extremely well loved, and I decided to take the bull by the horns rather than wait for decades for each one of us to slowly die off to prove a point that it was never gonna reconvene, even though I’ve been up for it for centuries. And the point is, that when I do this stuff live, this music, the music is the star of the show. It’s not about me, any more than anyone else frankly. It’s the quality of the writing that’s survived. It cannot be down to just the cut of the singer’s trousers or the color of the guitarist’s shirt. After a certain point, once you’re no longer the young blade that you once were, what you’ve got left is the experience of the playing and the quantity of songs and whether it’s a real dream or not. Why’s it going to survive? Why should people indulge it? So it’s been great to bring back the dream of the real Genesis that I loved.

SFBAC: Have any of the original members seen the revisited tour?

Steve Hackett: Um, no, they haven’t. No. No. They haven’t. And after June, I’ll be very happy for them to come and see it, but I won’t be doing it anymore. So… yeah, for all sorts of complicated reasons, I can’t really go there with that one.

SFBAC: For legal reasons?

Steve Hackett: Yeah, I’ll get into legal hot water. I can’t go there. But after June… Yeah, that’s another story. So if any of us do anything together after that point, then I’m in the clear. But I will be going back to solo work, I’ll be going back to my after-life. Imagine that? Returning to your after-life, which is your solo career… I’m returning to my after-life. My second, third, and fourth… I have many lives… Genesis was one of them. ha ha.

SFBAC: How did the recent BBC documentary film come together?

Steve Hackett: Well, the idea of that was in parallel to the album (R-Kive - iTunes). The album which features Genesis hits and solo songs as well. It was sold to me as the idea of a two-pronged thing, a sister project. So there’s an album that has 37 tracks. It has Genesis hits on it, it has 3 solo tracks from me, 3 from Phil, 3 from Pete; Mike and Tony… So on the same album you’ve got “In the Air Tonight” (iTunes) along with “Solsbury Hill” (iTunes) and various well known Genesis ones. It’s great to be part of that. The idea was that the documentary was going to reflect that as well. And initially it was going to be called “Together and Apart,” so it was the idea of… we were all interviewed for many long hours, but unfortunately it came out rather disappointingly as far as I was concerned, so I’ve distanced myself from it. I’m not selling it via my website. I think the album is representative of the five of us, but I don’t think the documentary is sufficiently representative of the five man team that comprised it between ’71-’75 and then in my case, extending into ’77. So, yeah, it’s disappointing. other than that, I don’t really want to belabor the point.

SFBAC: OK! How about your biggest regret during that time?

Steve Hackett: My biggest regret during that time while I was with the band? Well, I don’t actually have any regrets in the early ’70’s. I was thrilled that the band took on board sufficient of my ideas to equip ourselves with. Like the mellotron and the synthesizer. I realized that the band needed to have certain things to be able to present themselves theatrically. So in a way, I felt like an outsider at first. I said we need all of these things, and it all fell on deaf ears. but I knew that’s what we wanted, so I kept going like a mantra or Chinese water torture, and I got my own way over the big things, I think. Sometimes more difficult with writing. Sometimes I’d get a whole song through. Other times, it would be killed at the committee stage. And not just ideas I was keen on myself, but other people's other really great ideas too. Joseph was famous for putting things on the back burner, and then perhaps reviving from album to album. But maybe it was a little bit like that with Pink Floyd as well. There just seems to be a lot of the past cropping up in their stuff. They always seemed to realize it was starring them in the face some years down the line, what they should have done. I wrote one or two of those songs, like “Deja Vu” for instance, which Pete kicked off, and I said “look, I really liked what we nearly recorded, how about I finish the song?” He said, “yeah, let’s do that and split the publishing 50/50.” Deal done! No problem! Then there was a song, “Shadow of a Hierophant” (iTunes), with Mike Rutherford. Partly written by him, partly written by me. Something rehearsed by Genesis, but that was never performed by Genesis. But felt great in the rehearsal room, and marvelous that that got done. I learned a lot with Genesis. More pluses than minuses!

SFBAC: Because we’re based here in the SF Bay Area, do you have any vivid memories from touring here?

Steve Hackett: Yeah, I remember that the first time through we did Winterland! I think we could have been any band on stage at that point. I don’t think we impressed. I got the feeling that it was very much like, ‘we’ve had them all in here’, ‘we’ve had the Grateful Dead in here for god sake man!’ ‘What are you guys coming up with?’ And gradually, over time, we whittled our way into the affections of the locals. And it ended up being a stronghold, and particularly for me, I’ve done acoustic shows there, I’ve done electric things. And I’m thrilled to be returning to it with this Genesis show. Believe me, it’s got all the bells and whistles and it’s wonderful.

SFBAC: Yeah, we’re looking forward to your upcoming shows. Your Sunday show is at the Warfield which is a fantastic venue, and the show on Monday night will be at the Regency Ballroom.

Steve Hackett: Yes that’s right! I’m doing two different venues, which will be interesting because there’s so much interest in it. I think the last time through, Andrew Stanton of Pixar was there, and that was great. On this tour, in New York, Bruce Willis came to the show at the Town Hall, and it was great to talk to him. And it’s been extremely well attended, and it’s broken box office records in all sorts of places. And that’s been a thrill for me, that I can bring back the dream and that it wasn’t something that was purely a product of it’s time, I think it’s transcended its time and earned its spurs to mix a metaphor or two… There’s something about it that’s held deeply in the affection of fans, and no matter who disparages this genre or these songs specifically, it seems to have survived punk, and often survived the criticisms of the band members who actually wrote it, and who tried to draw a veil over it and distance themselves from it. But we realize that that’s all an aberration, and of course, completely magnificent, so the doors to the museum will be open once more. And the exhibits will be unveiled once more, and they’ve all been polished up and they look pretty good. They’re gleaming! It’s a bit like the mummy’s roadshow, it will always draw a cloud — crowd! A freudian slip. It’s great to be able to bring that to people again, but do it with a fresh coat of paint and different people to do it. And not try and make it look like 1973 again. We’re not a tribute band, I can’t be a tribute to myself. We reinvent it, there’s a flamboyant singer. There’s a lot of laughs on stage, it’s very funny. Yeah, it feels really great. This team loves doing it. Many of them grew up listening to this stuff, and I think it’s a dream come true for many of them as well. So, the music’s already proved itself. All I have to do is a fairly decent version of it, but I think we do more than that. I think we do great versions of those tunes, because we still feel it!

SFBAC: Well, I know we’re looking forward to it! When can we expect the Steve Hackett Revisited Tour?

Steve Hackett: Ah! Well, there’s a new album. It’s done, it’s mixed. It’s in 5.1 and in stereo, available in all formats — vinyl through to CD to download to bluray… It’ll be out at the end of March 2015, so I will be touring that. Whether it’ll be named Steve Hackett Revisited, I doubt that somehow, but it will have some revisited moments from my past, and new bits as well. It’s important to move on, and I do actually really love the new album. Thats been hard fought for in all sorts of ways. It does a lot of things that at one time I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do, but bravery is what it needs. Somebody has to be brave in music nowadays, there’s a lot of safe bets out there. Yeah, we need to shake it up a bit!

SFBAC: Does the new album have a title yet?

Steve Hackett: Yeah, it does, but it’ll probably change next week, so it’s probably best that I don’t mention that. There might be 50 prog bands out by the time they’ve read your article, and by the time they’ve heard this, there might be 150 bands all with the same title! hahaha.

SFBAC: If you’ve got time, I’ve got one last question for you… I wanted to go back to a story I heard about a hand injury that you suffered around the time of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Can you tell us about that?

Steve Hackett: Yes, certainly! I had just been to see the Sensational Alex Harvey Band in London as we were coming to the closing stages of the mixing of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway… And I was at a party, and I had a wine glass in my hand, and I was struck by something someone said… that they thought the Alex Harvey Band would be nothing without Alex. And I knew we were about to lose Pete as our lead vocalist, and I suddenly thought, yes, I can imagine people are going to be saying Genesis will be nothing without Peter Gabriel! And of course, Genesis was the sum of everyone’s input at that point.. And I tensed at that point, and I had a wine glass in my hand, and the damn thing broke, and I had a severed tendon and a nerve, and yes… It was an involuntarily surge of adrenalin due to stress…

SFBAC: And has the hand fully recovered?

Steve Hackett: Well almost, yeah, I’ve learned to compensate for whatever I couldn’t do beforehand, I can do much better now. Ironically, I end up using a more classical position. But yeah, I had physical therapy, and when I was touring on Lamb Lies Down the first time, I was having physio everyday, getting along to hospitals having electric-shock to make it work properly.. I was getting real AC/DC, at that point! Current going through my hand… and I did that a few times, and I realized that it wasn’t making a lot of difference, so I decided to avoid the bisexual nazi torturers and just go for playing… and that threw me into the deep end, and restored my strength right up to the present day. Those were some hairy moments!

SFBAC: Well, glad to hear that it’s regained its strength and once again, we’re looking forward to your upcoming shows and thanks again for your time!

Steve Hackett: Thank you very much, and all the best!

Genesis Revisited (Photo: Jim Buninx)

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