Steve Hackett on His Rangy ‘Wolflight,’ the Joys of Collaboration and Genesis: Exclusive Interview
Steve Hackett's descriptions of his work are nearly as dynamic as the music itself. Ask him to detail a song's creation, and he typically responds with an epic poem.
Reflecting, for instance, on the disparate influences behind "Love Song to a Vampire" — the progressive centerpiece of his eclectic new album, Wolflight – the guitar icon references the ballroom "grandiosity" of Procol Harum's The Grand Hotel and becomes reminiscent about Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. He compares the nine-minute track to a "relay race," a perfect image to summarize the song's winding journey from flamenco to arena-rock to Slavic orchestrations.
That level of ambition is nothing new for Hackett, a former guitar wizard and songwriting collaborator during the prog-rock era of Genesis. But Wolflight is his most varied work in years, showcasing all sides of his musical personality — from classical-rock bombast ("Out of the Body") to multi-ethnic art-rock ("Coyrcian Fire") to gentle psychedelic pop ("Loving Sea").
Calling from his home on a snowy February day in Norfolk, England, Hackett spoke with Ultimate Classic Rock about the LP's impressive diversity; his songwriting partnership with wife, Jo; and the Genesis legacy.
You've worked with orchestral elements in the past, but it's really an integral part of the arrangements on Wolflight. I love how seamlessly they're woven into the sound. Did you know early on in the process that you wanted to use a lot of strings?
I think early on in the construction of this album, I thought, "I've got to be more outrageous with this and take more chances with the use of orchestra. I've worked with orchestras in the past, but what tends to happen is that they tend to do an orchestral piece, quite naturally, because they're good at that. Its wonderful. Orchestras can float. But at the same time, the percussive edge from stringed instruments is also very interesting. So, there's something about the drive of that, so I've used quite a bit of driving strings on the album — sometimes it's sampled, sometimes it's real. It was all real at one time. That's the important thing. Just because something wasn't necessarily recorded in real time doesn't mean you can't work with it wonderfully.
So, we got a girl called Christine Townsend, who plays both violin and viola, and she takes the occasional solo on the album. But she helped to layer up the orchestral side of things. She's a marvelous player, and she'll track up a ton of times for us. Sometimes we don't need that much, but she is an absolutely world-class virtuoso, and sometimes is able to play dazzling runs that you wouldn't think would be remotely friendly for a violinist to play.
To be honest, I wanted to able to use more real-time orchestra instruments on the album, but as ever, time constraints meant that at times we had to use samples of things – like, for instance, trombones, french horns and many other things. But as you layer up, you realize the tools are getting better and better all the time. The difference between "real" and "fake" is – there are times when only a real players will do it. But there's a ton of technology out there that's really come into its own. For example, the choir we used on "Corycian Fire" sounds absolutely real. You can see them standing in front of you. You can't believe people aren't actually singing in front of you. It's a mixture of ancient Greek and Latin, a phonetic approach.
I have worked with the real thing. A couple weeks ago, I was in Iceland working with a 70-piece orchestra and choir. So, I'm not trying to put anyone out of work here.
You've called Wolflight a "rock album," and it definitely has lots of guitar soloing and energy. Do you feel that the Genesis Revisited tours, which used the same line-up featured on the album, gave you some momentum going into this new album? They're obviously totally separate projects, but did it seem to influence it at all?
Yeah! I think the response to the whole Genesis Revisited idea was so strong, it really turned things around for me in every sense of the word. I still love the Genesis songs that we all wrote and crafted together, and I have been able to work with a wonderful band live for many years. The bass playing position, which is also a 12-string-playing position, had been somewhat flexible. So far, it's been between Nick Beggs and Lee Pomeroy, both of whom are great players and lovely guys. So, sometimes it's one, sometimes it's the other. And it may be that this year I have to work with some other player live, because they're much in-demand. I share Nick Beggs with Steven Wilson — so, some years, Steven gets the priority, and other years, I get the priority.
I think Nick's probably the most brilliant stick player out there. His unaccompanied stick playing, harmonically, is worthy of the work of Bill Evans on piano. And Lee is tremendous, like an encyclopedia of every bass part of every song that's ever written, I think. He's got a photographic memory. I've gone on tour with him, literally, with no rehearsal. He just knows everything he's supposed to do. Unfortunately, working with great people means they're always busy. But that's a nice problem to have.
You've been collaborating with your wife as a songwriting partner for the past several years. Does Jo have a fixed role in your collaborative process? How does that process work? Does that bring you closer together as a couple?
I think she's starting to attract attention in her own right with this. She's very positive, and she's very passionate about music. From a musical family, and as a child, she played violin, but her father was a great player, and she realized that she would never be that, and she wanted to be a writer. So, in her earlier years, she was a writer, filmmaker, even an actress at one point. She's written books on psychology and history. She's a great Grecophile. But in terms of how this relates to me: At a very early point of any song idea, I run it by her — even a musical doodle. Like tonight, I said, "Oh, I've just dreamt up a phrase and I hear it as orchestral," and I'll share it with her. And she seems to get it straight away, so we bandy about lyrical ideas back and forth. We kick the football back and forth across the pitch, and then it settles as a song starts to form.
The other thing that she's very keen on is making sure that there aren't too many repeat sections without variation. She likes variation very much. I'm often aware of my own limitations when I'm writing a melody. Like one recently that went unreleased, I said, "I've got a bluesy melody for the verse here." I actually said to her, "I suspect you could come up with something better." Straight away, she came up with something very melodic, and it's actually a thrill to see it work. So, I was a little bit worried that it might go a bit too melodic and wouldn't drive enough, but I put some furious strummed guitar behind it to drive it along while the melody floats on the top. She said, "Make sure when you're singing the words that you really believe them, and that you really put yourself in the part of the person telling the story." And of course, in progressive rock, telling a story is all-important. She said, "Make sure your singing is emotional." So, I think I got more into the singing as a result of it — the character-actor's approach of putting on the make-up and becoming the character and inhabiting the song. She's very keen on me doing that.
She's been a huge force for positive thought, and she's very clever. She's very unassuming, but she does know what she wants with things. If she feels I can get more out of myself, sometimes in the studio, she'll say, "I'm sorry to interrupt because I know you're working very hard, but I've just heard a phrase, and I think this be a variation that would take it a bit further." So, the team — which is usually [producer Roger King] and myself — stops, and I hear her out and say, "Don't be shy with coming forward with an idea. Everyone's gonna respect you in the long term for doing this." She doesn't just work with Western scales, either. She wanted to be able to write music, but she knew she physically couldn't do it herself. But she hears great melodies. So, yes, we've become a songwriting team — along with others, of course.
One of your trademarks on recent albums is how you layer your voice into these really tight harmonies. But they seem more prevalent than ever on Wolflight. The vocals seem to be mixed even more prominently than they have before, and you sound especially confident.
For years, I didn't really think of myself as a lead singer. I was really worried that there are certain singers built a certain way with a certain tone, and that being a ballsy rock voice was what it's all about. But I realized that all of us have a number of voices. We can all go from a whisper to a roar, and we don't have to sound the same throughout the range. You can sing falsetto; you can sing flat-out. You can change it; you can sound like Mickey Mouse. Technology has been able to do that for you ever since the 1930s. But I think confidence is part of it — and wanting to sing. For instance, the singing on "The Whee's Turning," it took me quite a long time to get that right. There's me, plus two girl singers on that track. But we all kind of sound like one singer on it. Ideally, I wanted to be Roy Orbison. But, of course, even if I've got my voice completely under control, I'll never be him. So it's layered. It's a lead voice in front, and these other voices behind. Funny enough, sometimes when you hear his voice at his best, it's got female voices behind it. What you think is just that voice, there's actually a sweetness coming from somewhere else.
I've worked with great singers. I've worked with Richie Havens. These guys have the best voices in the world. Richie Havens said to me years ago, "You know what the most beautiful instrument is in the world?" I said, "Don't tell me," and he said, "Yes, it's the human voice." And I said, "Well, yours maybe! Not mine." But he encouraged me to work on it, like so many singers. And it's just having the time to do it — and if you can't get the vibrato, fake it. Jump up and down. Use technology. It's about working in a comfortable range.
"Love Song to a Vampire" is absolutely breathtaking. Your vocal harmonies are so lovely on that track, and there's a wonderful drama to how the arrangement continues to rise and fall. Could you talk about how that track came together?
The lyrics were mine, but I think Jo wanted to make sure that the vocal melody was emotional. And we had an original melody for it that was going to be quite bluesy, and I had a terrible feeling that it really wasn't going to work. So I thought, "It's a great idea, but I don't think it's going to be right as a blues." We thought about a girl singer, but I didn't know if that was going to fly. In the end, we were listening to the Bellamy Brothers. I really love what country voices do. They're often great at telling a story — often pitched a tad lower than rock singers. But whether it's Marty Robbins singing "El Paso" or Johnny Cash, there's something about telling the story. And the tone that Bob Dylan had when he did Nashville Skyline — completely reinventing his voice and approach, singing in tune with vibrato. Again, it's this thing about people having many voices that they can choose to use or ignore.
I think this idea of freedom being paramount, so that you'd feel free in the chorus. Just let that rip. The orchestral moments are also part of it. Right at the beginning, you've basically got a flamenco approach. I chipped one of my nails as I was doing the intro, and the sound of it is a little more spiky than usual. It's got a certain roughness to it — a kind of Spanish-y quality as it kicks off. It starts with just two elements: a voice and guitar. But then it grows. The orchestra starts to wander around the vocal. I was thinking of a piece of an evocative tone poem by Mendelssohn called "Fingal's Cave." You get the idea of water moving around, translucent yet there are waves within waves. So, we got that kind of sound to back the last verse. And then the idea of a heavy string section just before the rock moment kicks in. It's a bit like another team takes another — like a relay race. "Here's another runner."
"Loving Sea" is such a refreshing change of pace. It's one of the purest pop songs you've ever written, and it has a really lovely psychedelic quality. It almost harkens back to sunny 12-string vibe of Genesis tracks like "Happy the Man."
It just sounded very much like the '60s again in a way. It's a love song, and it came from an experience Jo and I had in Mexico, when we were on a boat. The song just popped into my head. We shared the lyric because we were on holiday in an idyllic situation just after Christmas a couple years back. It was lovely — we'd been working very hard, and we figured we'd earned it. So, we saw Mayan temples and this lovely nature reserve, and it was fabulous seeing giant turtles and sea life in its natural habitat — dolphins coming three or four feet away from the boat. It was that experience turned into a love song, and I wanted to dedicate it to her.
It is a much lighter moment, from a much sunnier place than those dark Norse harmonies and elemental, stormy stuff. It was a Mexican experience — where Mexico meets California. It's definitely a song from the sun: bright and optimistic.
I just wanted to echo the recent fan comments and say I was very disappointed with the recent Genesis documentary, which didn't include any info about your solo career.
Let's put it this way: I was disappointed with it, and I think that probably says it all. In answer to the disappointment a number of fans had shown to it, I said, 'Yep, I can echo that.' Other than that, it's a shame. It could have been definitive. But it's certainly not that, so hey, "C'est la vie."
The main thing is that the Genesis guys are all still pals — that's the important thing. I don't want anyone to get the wrong impression. We're all pals, and I think we're all hugely responsible for each others' performances, in terms of what we did then and now and in the future.
Some of my favorite Genesis songs are ones that you've written or co-written. I think your contributions to the band tend to get overshadowed sometimes, which is a shame. One of my favorite Genesis songs is "Entangled," which you co-wrote.
I'm glad you enjoyed that one. It's a song that I kicked off with Genesis — the verses and the lyrics were mine. The chorus musically was Tony [Banks],' and where it goes after that is where Mike [Rutherford] kicked in with a chord sequence, and Tony responded over the top. It's a group effort from the three of us, and of course, Phil [Collins] sang it wonderfully. And even people that I've worked with on the Genesis Revisited album — Jakko Jakszyk, who works with the current line-up of King Crimson, and Amanda Lehmann – I think all those singers have done that song proud.
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