Steve Hackett’s Under a Mediterranean Sky drops today, January 22, and after a year of being mostly homebound, fans and critics alike can relish in the bewitching journey it takes you on.
Being an artist means not always being graceful or clever; sometimes it means being strategic and contemplative. For Steve Hackett, world renowned guitarist and musical visionary, he experienced that firsthand upon the creation of his latest record, Under a Mediterranean Sky. While the experimental musician has released tens of record spanning various melodic genres (including classical), this new release was an acoustic undertaking based around the unforgettable galavanting he and his wife (Jo Hackett) had done throughout the striking cities in and around Mediterranean. Through warm-toned riffs and elaborate melodies, each and every person who tunes into this 11-track piece of musical artwork will feel as though they are connected with these stunning locations and displaced into Steve and Jo’s travels. Together, with the help of long-time collaborator Roger King, Under a Mediterranean Sky came to be – and, as discussed with Steve in the lovely following interview, in a perfectly imperfect, but still delectably atmospheric, way.
I am grateful that you are releasing this new album that is oh-so-superb. It’s going to continue to put 2021 on a much better path.
Oh, good. Well, it’s a different kind of thing. It’s a different kind of music in a way. It’s I guess it’s symphonic in one sense, but it’s acoustic and it arrives with more like a rock sensibility when it first blasts in, so it’s not an acoustic album in the usual style that I’ve been accustomed to doing in the past. We took a more dramatic view of what acoustic music could do this time. I think it’s more rhythmic than I’ve done before with acoustic stuff.
I was listening to it front-to-back – in one sitting because that’s how I personally love to enjoy a new album – and I found that it was very lively and powerful. In that same sense, though, it was very heavy on storytelling of this exploration of new places and the idea of going on a journey within these acoustics. Do you think that acoustic stylings go hand in hand with a storytelling aspect of music?
I think it can. Classical people talk about program music when they’re talking about music that tells a story. Progressive music has been doing the same thing. At least that’s the way the term has been used ever since the 1960s, and before that people were thinking of progressive music as free form jazz, but then you go right back to Elgar and the dream of Gerontius Richard Strauss describing that as progressive and that’s in the early 1900s. These ideas have been around for quite some time, music that tells a story, and I think this album is an attempt to tell a number of stories. When I’m trying to permeate somehow the zeitgeist of each of these regions that all are under scrutiny on these only songs…. I mean, there’s so many different kinds of cultures that are living side by side around the Mediterranean, so there is a diversity within the geography itself. My instinct in terms of how I see it for me, whether it’s a Middle Eastern scale, or whether it’s something more Western, or something that might be closer to the spirit at times with flamenco and opera rock music, it doesn’t really matter because I’m genre hopping from stone to stone, really, when writing the journey of this thing.
I believe that you are genre hopping and kind of genre bending, as well. I really appreciate that personally, because in these contexts, I think it helps tell the story. No story is stagnant the whole way through – there are ups, downs, feelings, and moments to capture all around.
Yeah, I think something like “Mdina (The Walled City)” where you have an Malta on the Capitol Valletta, which is heavily fortified, and then within that, you’ve got a Citadel city, the world city of Medina, a city within a city. Malta has this tradition of being invaded by so many places. It’s a little bit like Sicily, which is invaded by the Greeks, the Romans, the Phoenicians, it goes on throughout history. It’s been the same thing because it’s right in the middle of the Mediterranean. In some ways, it was always strategically of interest to the invader, whoever that happened to be. Of course in the second world war, there had been an incredible siege of Malta going on where people were starving. My wife, Jo, her grandfather was involved in the siege of Malta and bringing in relief supplies and money, running the gauntlet of bombers on the other side.
I was trying to do something that was reflective of an aspect of war and peace. I tend to get influenced by – sometimes it’s the same thing that George Martin was influenced by the Warsaw concerto that was written as a movie score, but that had already been used, his second piano concerto for Brief Encounter. The love story, though, Dangerous Moonlight was the one that used the Warsaw concerto – which was written to order, it seems. The movie was called Dangerous Moonlight and it was the idea of a lost airman. It was very evocative in the war because there were so many unresolved issues, so many lost people. People didn’t know if anyone was coming back or not. I wanted to try and convey that with the idea of Malta, so there is an aspect of the second world war about it for me. It really ends up with a love theme, a resolving thing at the end, so it’s a romantic piece really, but it’s descriptive, as well.
Similarly, another romantic piece that I think a lot of fans will gravitate to is “Andalusian Heart,” which is five and a half minutes of emotion and artistry and escapism (much like the rest of the rest of the record). Which of the tracks off the album do you think people will fall in love with and maybe understand the most?
Well, I think “Andalusian Heart” seems to fire people up, of course. Not everybody has heard the whole thing yet. I think “Andalusian Heart,” though, I can see why people would like that, because you get the statement, the theme at the beginning. Although it’s orchestrated, you get it in a more restrained kind of way. There’s that thing about the opposite. I think classical music works and concertos, they work in a very different kind of way to rock music, which is that rock music usually comes in full on from the word ‘go,’ but most of these tracks don’t – apart from the very opener. But then when it’s a return to theme at the end, it goes into glorious technicolor. It’s a heavier arrangement at the end and a mixture of octaves more heavily tracked on the strings side of things, so it sounds like a symphony orchestra. We were having to have a smaller pallet of colors, because we couldn’t access an orchestra. Even though I had an orchestra ready to make this album a week, we simply couldn’t do it. It’s a lockdown album. It took two months to complete and we did it with a handful of resources. I don’t believe it sounds like that – it sounds like no expense was spared and it sounds like a huge collection of individuals, but that’s down to the marvels of recording, of course. I love the whole thing. It’s straight from the heart, really. I love this stuff. It’s technically more demanding than a lot of the albums I’ve made. It’s more demanding for all the players, but I think that’s part of the beauty of what you can do with acoustic music. It seems to me, you have to have the strength of great melodies.
I absolutely agree. Like you said, I noticed that the album is very robust sounding – and I didn’t even know that there was a limited amount of resources available in the creation of it, because it does sound just so full.
Robust is a good way of describing it. The idea of something being both acoustic and robust is surprising. People think of acoustic music as delicate and like a slightly pale, sickly child, but that’s not how I see this. It’s something I’m very proud of. There’s a lot of love in it and I wasn’t the only person writing melodies on it. I’m not the only soloist on it. I’ve had help from a few geniuses on this, which I’m thrilled to say. I mean, Roger King, did great work on it. My orchestra team, my wife, Jo, great work with melodies and the suggestion of making it a broader palette. She was the one who basically came up with the idea of different places around the Mediterranean and using things that were rhythmic and adding that Middle Eastern flavor to give it a kind of exoticism. She had us reflecting on some of those visits that we made to certain places where the potential was there in Morocco, in Marrakesh, the Atlas mountains, all sorts of all sorts of stuff, Egypt, the Nile, Petra, and Jordan. These are just some of the places we visited. It’s very different. You can see it, there’s a picture, and it’s very different out there sitting out there under the stars with a fire and hot tea to keep you warm. Well, it’s a glorious experience sitting out in the open. I just haven’t experienced that kind of thing enough in my time and it was absolutely magical. Whenever I’ve been to Egypt, I seem to come away with masses of music and the notebook is out the whole time. I’m thinking, how do I describe this to people?
It must be difficult, because it’s just so beautiful and breathtaking. I was actually pondering this myself while listening to the record and living vicariously through the music: these songs, were they written after these trips, or did any of the ideas come to you midway through your gallivanting alongside your wife?
Well, many things were written on reflection trying to remember these places. I find that certain places that you visit just stay with you forever. Strangely, perhaps more than the country I grew up in, but to be in Spain and to be in the Sacromonte, in the same gorgeous valley that they have the Alhambra Palace, I find that there are very different kinds of music being played in each. I’ve seen films of Segovia playing in the Alhambra – absolutely beautiful, wonderful stuff. And then to see the gypsies, both playing and dancing in the Sacromonte in the caves was no less thrilling in its way. There’s both in there. I wanted to give the acoustic moments pace so that you didn’t feel that, “Oh, the orchestra stopped now. Now there’s a little doodle on guitar.” I wanted to try and orchestrate as much as you can self-orchestrate with one instrument – and to keep the pace up so that when it goes down to the guitar, the energy goes up. It’s a contradiction to keep the journey flowing, that was the idea behind a lot of it. Of course it’s all a big shot in the dark – All music is a big shot in the dark. You say, “Hey, I’ll try this. I’ll try that. Let’s see if it’ll work.” I think so much of music making is a salvage job at the end of the day, because you’re always correcting going “This bit works, this bit doesn’t work. Let’s change this, let’s write this, let’s rewrite that.” It’s a bit like writing a book and lots of rewriting goes on.
From what you’re saying, Steve, and from what I listened to, it seems like you paid very close attention to the order of the track list of the album.
Yes, that’s always a challenge. I find that when you’re putting together any album the difficulty is always when you’ve got fast tracks and slow tracks. You might have a number of slow tracks, but then you’ve got the idea of things that might be so slow that they’re timeless. Once it’s as slow as the introduction to “Casa Del Fauno,” where it’s just the strings, you’re not trying to give pace to things. You’re not being a slave to the rhythm. You’re living in the music, letting it float and evoke images in its own way. Then you can give it pace, so immediately you start doing anything that’s rhythmic with it with a percussion instrument. Of course, the guitar is a percussion instrument. Even though I’m always trying to change that at times, I wanted to create the kind of wash that’s in fast stuff so that it seems to be still within itself. You’ve got this sort of contradiction again of a lot of notes, but there’s a stillness behind it. I mean, I sometimes get that feeling when I listen to Bach stuff that has all this complication and complexity, and yet at the heart of it, there’s something very simple. I’m trying to get another melody across, always, so it’s been a lifelong quest for this sort of stuff. I always think, “Can I get away with it with acoustic stuff? Can I get away with it? Yeah. Will it take a rock audience with it? Is it likely to put them off? What is it about certain classical pieces that will fire up people who don’t like classical music?”
I remember years ago having a friend who didn’t like classical music. He only liked two pieces of classical music, one of which was Ravel: Bolero, and the other thing was In the Hall of the Mountain King by Grieg. They both have the aspect of crescendo to them, so I think that’s why that works. Something getting louder and more powerful, if not faster and faster. So we’ve used that from time to time – I’ve certainly used it in rock and I’ll use it with this sort of thing, for instance “The Dervish and the Djin.” Just the idea of creating musical landscapes out of something that’s bleak and distant, again, something that is so slow that it’s almost a kind of slithering melody, then introducing something to let it build with the addition of more instruments. Electric guitar not plugged in to keep it acoustic or the use of the tar from Azerbaijan. First of all, the tar is gradually introduced more and more into live instruments and then adding the Arabian fretless lute, which I absolutely love and I wish I was a virtuoso on it, was what I liked to use for atmosphere. These other instruments were important, I think, on this acoustic effort.
Under A Mediterranean Sky is out NOW on all streaming services and for physical purchase here.