With a career that spans decades, albums in almost every genre, and numerous awards and honors to his name, Steve Hackett is more than just a musician. He is an intelligent, philosophical, kind guitarist who happens to love the harmonica, adores talking about his musical friends and influences, and is always up to perform any and all music for an audience. With a massive tour underway, it was time to cover ground with this more than legendary progressive rock artist. (And we covered a lot of ground during our lovely, lively conversation.)
With such a long history and whirlwind career that spans over decades, it must be hard to think about all the exciting moments. But, are there any especially important or vital moments that happened that stick out in your mind that are really important to you?
Yeah, I remember playing Madison Square Garden and it was the very first night playing there. We [Genesis] had just begun to play and the whole audience stood up. It was an amazing moment. A standing ovation from the first note, which was an incredible feeling. That was one of the high points that I remember, yes. It was such a genuine gesture from the entire audience.
Wow, that must have been an amazing feeling.
It was an amazing feeling, yeah! Even to just play there in the first place, but to then have a heartwarming, positive response from everybody was an incredible experience that I won’t ever forget.
Of course! Also, I think that being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame must have been a highlight, as well.
Yes, it was! Absolutely! That is such a big deal and people often don’t realize what an honor that is. At the time, I was working with Chris Squire. We were doing an album together with Yes, and now his passing wasn’t too long ago, but at that time, I was trying to get him as my guest to the show, but it was so hard to get extra tickets. It was very difficult. But afterward, I told him that while we were up at the platform, I said that Yes should be inducted in, as well. So, I went publicly saying that, and, eventually, I believe that they were.
Yes, I believe that they have; which is a grand honor for them, as well.
I was very pleased, because I love to mention other artists. Paul Butterfield were also inducted posthumously, which Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield very much deserved. They always put on an incredible performance, which many people don’t know, but I know! I know because I saw them live and I thought they were so incredible and I spent quite a lot of time listening to the albums that they made together.
That’s lovely! I love that you talk about other people and other musicians.
Oh, sure! It’s not all about me. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well, sometimes it is. You’ve released over 30 solo albums, both studio and live. Although my personal favorite is Defector, which one do you think reflects who you are the most?
Well, you know, that is a hard one. Because there have been different songs and different styles. Most of them have been in rock, but some have been acoustic, classical, and forays into certain kinds of jazz, and into ethnic music, world music, too. I think I like the albums that are anomalies, the ones that people might not associate with me. It was not always progressive stuff. There were things that I picked up on the blues albums like Blues with a Feeling, that showed other sides of what I could do.
Not just as a guitarist, but sometimes as a harmonica player, because I grew up playing that. That is what I inherited from my dad, so I am very fond of that one, Blues with a Feeling. It is a lesser known album, but that doesn’t mean that I am any less proud of it.
Right, of course! Do you feel like not tying yourself down to one genre has benefited you?
Well, I was just thinking about this! Sometimes it is hard to know what kind of music to do next. Sometimes when you invest in diversity, you become well aware that you can create in a number of genres and do it well — and make records! The difference is a certain degree of fluidity. But then there is the question of identity. How much do you invest in identity?
In other words, doing things that people expect you to do, or you go at it like a character-actor and you go about it with a different mask with each character. Or someone like Bruce Lee, who was involved in so many different fighting styles, and in all that, there is still a personality that comes through. Versatility versus identity is the ongoing debate. There is the discussion that I have with myself. Do you sacrifice all your energy into one style or do you allow yourself to be drawn into a little of everything and let yourself learn instruments from all over the world? The nice thing about progressive music is that its shoulders are broad enough to capture so many different styles from so many different regions.
So, you have all these different genres that you appreciate and create, adding to your creativity as a guitarist and a musician, but who have been influences on your music?
Um, well, I think that the early work that I did was certainly influenced by all the guys in Genesis. I remember Phil Collins saying to me — actually it might have been one of the first conversations that we ever had once we knew we would be playing in the same band together — “We are bound to influence each other.” That is very true. He was being philosophical then, and I haven’t really taken that on board, but he had been an experienced performer. He had been a child actor and a singer, and then gradually known as a drummer. But, as well as the guys in Genesis, and all of the bands at the time who were experimenting with different styles, I think the influences stem from other guitarists.
But not just them…also people who put out marvelous film music. I was watching the film Memoirs of a Geisha, and what an extraordinary thing. What a great job John Williams did on the music with that. He is a preceding genius, perhaps. But besides film music, classical music, and I am just influenced by everything, truly. Recent albums, oh my God…what was the last thing I heard? Oh, I think it was Steven Wilson’s album. He is a friend of mine, so I always make a point of checking out what he is doing, as he does with mine. I think his latest album was very, very good, indeed. I have yet to say that to him, actually, but we are going to be having dinner in a few days, so I will say it to him then. I think that is important.
I more than agree. You have had all these influences from your band members, which is wonderful. How different is it to be in a band than to be a solo artist?
Well, I think when you are a solo artist, you have a responsibility to yourself. Of course, to the audience, too. You have to say hello to yourself. It is a very weird thing actually, but I have been very, very busy lately visiting the Japanese and sitting in on shows and doing my own. I am at the point where I have not picked up a guitar in three days. I have just been so inundated with so many things, so many requests and demands, that that thing happens when you start to think, “I have to say hello to myself again.”
This is to find out what it is in your core, in those private moments, that you really need to say before you go back to the old stuff. Actually, I am just about halfway done with a new album and my thoughts are just extremely scattered right now, but it is a good position to be in. Uncertainty is actually very positive. The things you are least certain of, often turn into the things you adore the most. If you are not certain, it means that you are not falling into cliché.
That is quite prolific to say, but I believe that it does ring true. Do you think that doing things such as that help you stay authentic to your music?
Yeah, I think that authenticity is important. I think authenticity is more important than originality. Take Phil Collins, for instance. He went out and did a whole tour with a big band. That was not something he was known for doing and he didn’t play his hits, but it was music that he grew up listening to and grew up loving, so when he decided to go out and do a tour like that, he was being very honest and very authentic. You talked about the word authenticity and I would really take authenticity over originality. Originality is immersing yourself in music for a lifetime, perhaps, but authenticity is the big pearl that you can actually hold in your hand.
That is true! Being authentic really helps passion shine through in your artistry.
Yes, passion. I love that word.
Your artistry is music and playing guitar, so how did you get into that passion of yours?
I first started buying guitar records when I was nine years old, and the first single I ever bought was by a band called The Shadows, who were Cliff Richards’ backing band in England. They were having a moment and nobody was more famous at that time than Cliff Richards and The Shadows. Guitars were sort of twangy at that time, and, you know, as blues became re-popularized via white, British performers, guitars became more distorted, more angry, more fluid. And there was a tremendous amount of what we now call Afro-American influence, becoming so much more popular on our shores than where it was homegrown in the first place.
England was a good place to be. We had the influence of The Stones and The Beatles and John Mayall and just the guitarist that John Mayall had alone…that was hugely influential. Mick Taylor, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix…by the mid-60s you could see these guys at any night of the week performing somewhere in England and certainly the British Isles; before they even had international fame. It was a great time to be a young, aspiring guitarist.
I can only imagine how lovely and musically cultural that must have been.
Oh, it was wonderful. It was thrilling. I only wish that you could have been there to have seen them. I bet you would have loved it, since they are truly unforgettable.
They really were. I am going to ask one more question about the tour that you are currently on. How does it feel to be on the road again performing your new music, some old music, and some Genesis favorites, such as “Dancing with the Moonlight Knight”? How amazing is it to get you and the audience really involved and immersed into years’ worth of music?
I love performing live, it is a great privilege and honor. I love doing it. I do it with a passion. It is never easy, but it is always thrilling. Next year, you never know, it could be up in the air, but you could also hit the moon, like I have a few times.
Something that surpasses all your expectations is when a crowd is there to hear music that is very dear to them. As well as songs they have never heard before. On one level, I am performing what is familiar, which is almost ceremonial in a way. But, beyond that, the surprise factor of new music is also something that I want to do. I don’t want to just keep the museum doors open for the great and glorious, the great and old. It’s a tribute to a bygone age, but it is more than that, for I keep new music flowing always, as well.
See Steve Hackett performing Feb. 15 at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, or Feb. 16-17 at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, NJ.