Steve Hackett is one of the greatest guitarists of all time, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted music legend and also a highly charming man of rare intellect – and what an honour has it been for me to run a quick but insightful interview with him.
The occasion for this straightforward conversation about progressive rock, guitar techniques, globalisation and Brexit was offered by Steve’s newly-released album Surrender of Silence, out in September 2021, and by his spectacular 31-date Seconds Out + More Tour that is travelling across the UK until October 2021 and will land in Europe in 2022.
Surrender of Silence is the second album Steve Hackett released this year after reaching number 2 in the English Classical Album Chart with Under A Mediterranean Sky in January; both records were composed during Covid lockdown and feature mature songwriting and futuristic vocals encompassing a variety of musical instruments that include electric guitar, organ, sax and bass clarinet, and a wide plethora of music genres, from classical-acoustic to World Music, from blues to metal.
The new, dramatic latest single taken by Steve Hackett’s Surrender of Silence titled Scorched Earth has just been made available; the lyrics and sounds explore the painful topic of the deterioration of the environment through intense guitar arrangements and beautiful melodies.
Steve celebrates this year the 50th anniversary since he joined the legendary progressive rock band Genesis in 1971 as a vocalist and lead guitarist after having placed an advert in a music magazine to seek “involvement with receptive musicians determined to strive beyond existing stagnant music forms”.
But, you know, he didn’t define 1970s music – which, by the way, was dominated by the likes of Queen, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin – “stagnant” the same way you and I just acknowledge that today’s music is crap.
He was actually expressing a much more profound appetite for innovation, the firmness not to settle for what(ever) had already been done by somebody else and the desire not to be defined by strict genre labels or confined into repetitive formulas; people like Steve were born free, and their nature is not negotiable.
Steve’s advertisement in Melody Maker was responded to by the then-Genesis lead singer Peter Gabriel; it was December 1970, and the band was laying the foundation of what would have been an epic journey of unbeatable prog rock and endless musical explorations that’s been around for more than five decades now.
Steve Hackett was inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 as a member of the group; by then, Genesis had sold over 130 million albums worldwide, making the band one of the 30 best-selling acts in the history of music.
He stayed with them until 1977, and while in the group, he contributed to six different studio albums and invented the innovative two-handed tapping and sweep picking guitar playing techniques he is also revered and famous for.
The extraordinary solo career he built ever since is still an unparalleled and honourable strive for freedom.
Steve, what should your fans expect from this tour?
From the top, well, they get classic Genesis, then they get the whole double Genesis album Seconds Out, and they also get some solo stuff from my recent album, Surrender of Silence, which has been on the charts in several countries – number 10 in Germany and number 16 in the UK. So we do both things: we do the past and we do the future.
What does Surrender of Silence mean to you?
I think, to me, it means to comment on things that I don’t normally do: aspects of the inequality of wealth in the world, and also climate change. So there are some social issues that are addressed in the album. I think it’s a very aggressive-sounding album, very dramatic, like a cross between a kind of metal macabre.
What’s the relationship between musicians and political and social responsibility now?
I think at this point in time, it’s important for people to realise what is going on in the world, I think it’s not a time to avoid these issues. So, I think that this album is part of the renaissance of a style that we used to call “protest songs”, so there’s a lot of anger in the album, it’s a very angry album, but I’m very proud of it.
What’s the legacy of progressive rock, in your opinion?
Well, at the end of the day, progressive is just a label, I think that inclusive music is what I’m interested in because even progressive music is the description of a limitation: unfortunately, if people hear the term “progressive rock” they assume that it is music that is deliberately complicated, and also orchestrated by vintage instruments. I don’t have any allegiance to any one particular musical style, I enjoy a pan-genre approach. For me, songs do not have to be overly long or complicated, they can be equally short. So, for me, it’s music without prejudice and music with no rules.
What do you think of the current state of music?
I think it’s pretty bad. I think the most popular stuff is the stuff of least quality. I deplore the fact that there are so few writers working and having hits, because most of the time these days, in order to have a hit record you need two people: one to sing, and the other person to programme, who is the producer and the writer. And so, most hits are just made with two people without any real instruments or, actually, any care, really. I find it overly processed, and a little bit like it’s a production line, it’s like a factory. I like handmade goods, I like tailored music, and I like it to be bespoke. I want to hear real players and real singers. And I want to hear a real performance.
What is the biggest difference in music between yesterday and today?
The biggest difference is that yesterday what we had was artists who were writing their own material: from the 1960s and the 1970s onwards, we had people who were writing and recording their own songs. Now, we’ve gone back to an earlier model, where it’s a separate person who’s writing and another person who’s performing, so you get this separation. Unfortunately, so it’s not evolution. It’s the opposite. It’s kind of entropy.
In your 1970 Melody Maker advert, you defined 1970 music forms “stagnant”. But the 70s was a decade of great music.
Yeah, I know, but at the same time, I think that music had a long way to go, a long way to travel and musicians weren’t keeping their standards. And so I was always an idealist, and I still am, I want to strive for the highest standards, the best quality of music with the best possible players, and also lyrics. So for me, music has to move on, it has to always develop and breathe. It has to be wonderful, it has to be emotionally overwhelming. And I think that music can still change the world: don’t aim low, aim high.
You still called it stagnant. Why did you feel that?
I think what was stagnant about music at the time was that most of it was based on an earlier model, it was a lot of blues derivation at the time, and I wanted music that included classical entrance rock music, pop, and also to have everything, to have every style: inclusive. Inclusive music and vision.
Do you ever wonder where you would be today if you didn’t place that ad in 1970?
Oh yeah, well, I would still be trying, of course. So, the important thing and the only difference between an amateur and a professional, is that a professional keeps trying.
Do you think a band could potentially never split? What does it take to remain together?
Well, I think that bands have an implode aspect. All bands are built on a fault line: it goes along for a while and then the earthquake takes over. In terms of longevity, there is only really one band who’s ever managed to survive it, and they’ve been The Rolling Stones. And then yes, of course, death will always take its toll. At the end of the day, I think that musicians’ religion should be to music, not to any flag or a band. You have to be wedded to the music itself.
What achievements are you most proud of, at this stage in your career?
The achievement I’m most proud of? Oh my goodness me, I think that the biggest achievement is that I am still knocking on heaven’s door!
Alright! And which one of your songs are you most attached to?
All of them. I love all of them. They’re all my brainchildren. My favourite one on the current album I think it’s maybe Held In The Shadows.
What’s the most important thing that you brought to the world of guitar playing?
I think the biggest thing that I brought to the world of guitar playing is probably the tapping technique.
Who have been your main influences in music?
I’ve been hugely influenced by everyone, from Bach to Jimi Hendrix.
What guitarists have been influenced by you?
Well, the ones that mentioned they were influenced by me were Eddie van Halen, Brian May and Alex Lifeson. There have also been others, and it’s wonderful, you know, but I’ve been influenced by them as well, so there’s a lot of love between guitarists for each other.
Are there any artists you would love to collaborate with, at this stage in your career?
Well, ideally with everyone. I’d like to work with everyone if I can.
What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?
I think that is one way to become successful. It’s not the only way.
What are you working on, at the moment?
I’m always working on new things and I’m always talking to musicians about what we can do next. So, most of the time, the albums that I’ve been making in recent years involve musicians from all over the world. Really, we kind of have a sort of United Nations of a band, I work with people from Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, the UK, Sweden, the United States, Armenia. I’ve been working with so many people recently who are brilliant and are from the four corners of the earth and I’d like to continue to do that, to work with musicians from India, from Hungary, to continue all of that. I’ve worked with people all over the world, from many, many places and there are many more countries and players that I would like to work with. I like the idea of a genuine World Music: people working together from different countries, in different styles. I think multiculturalism in music is the best form of peace ambassador – it’s better than nationalism, it’s a hope for the world.
Because you said that, I can’t help but ask what you think of Brexit and how this has impacted the world of music.
It’s been terrible. Brexit was a dreadful idea, and I think that it will be shown to be unworkable in the long term. Many people’s careers have been ruined through Brexit, many people’s jobs have been lost. It’s a terrible idea. It’s a stupid idea. And I hope that as soon as Brexit dies – this can’t be quick enough as far as I’m concerned as it’s just creating more bureaucracy and slowing down progress throughout all – we all need each other in the world, it’s so important that we don’t stand in each other’s way. And so Brexit to me is bullshit. And it has to go.
Do you think Brexit is going to be reversed one day?
It is, I think it’s a backward step. Brexit is a backward step, it’s stupid, it has taken and it’s taking England back 200 years, it’s a stupid thing. I’m from an immigrant family who was allowed into Britain in the late 1800s – and my wife’s family too. So, if Brexit had been around, you know, those people wouldn’t have been allowed in and I wouldn’t be talking to you. We should be celebrating the best in the world. I’m all for globalisation, I don’t care about nationalism.
That’s great. Thank you so much. What an honour has this conversation been.
Thank you to you! And I hope to be out there playing many more shows than just the UK very soon. Thank you from myself, my wife Jo, and from all of the band… it’s my wife’s birthday today!
Oh, wow! Happy birthday to Jo!
★ If you are into rock ‘n’ roll, you may also enjoy our interviews with Skunk Anansie, The Animals, Imelda May, Prince’s musical director Morris Hayes, David Bowie’s pupil Ozark Henry, Stone the Crows’ Maggie Bell, The Lumineers, HM Johnsen, The Zombies, Amy Macdonald and Danny Zelisko, the concert promoter who has worked with everybody, from Alice Cooper to Pink Floyd, from Queen to Guns ‘N Roses