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Liz Medhurst

liz medhurst

steve hackett
Photo ©Lee Millward

Prog rock pioneer and original Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett has a new box set out to mark the 40th anniversary of his first solo album. ‘Premonitions – The Charisma Recordings 1975-1983’ is a lavishly packaged collection of six solo albums, with remixes, bonus tracks and live versions spanning 18 discs.

I caught up with Steve recently when he was in Germany in the midst of his current tour which runs until 31st October in the UK before heading off to North America with dates until December.

With a retrospective paradoxically entitled ‘Premonitions’, this was the perfect opportunity to have a chat about revisiting the past while living in the present and looking to the future.

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When looking back over the albums it’s always interesting to see if any new perspectives come up for you, did anything different reveal itself?

“Yes, even though so much of it is a distant memory now. I worked a bit with Stephen Wilson with the surrounds and it conjured all sorts of wonderful things. I realised things on the track list I’d forgotten about for many years. With surround sound mixes, it does allow for more detail to be heard, and to create that completely immersive experience. It’s great to be in the middle of it, to be surrounded by the orchestra that was, or the team or the group that did it at that time, it’s a great feeling, that doesn’t go away, the thrill of that.”

With the early albums, especially ‘Voyage Of The Acolyte’ and ‘Please Don’t Touch’ I remember listening to them for hours as a teenager in my bedroom, poring over the photographs and artwork. This was pre-Fairlight, pre the sampling that is the norm now, and some pictures showed you taking a microphone and tape recorder into fairgrounds to record the sound. Technology has moved on almost infinitely, so how has the journey been with recording techniques then and now?

“You’re quite right, it was a little bit like going on location with a tape recorder, a little bit like making a movie. Now you tend to trawl through existing sound libraries that exist in their thousands if not their millions, you are dealing with a pre-selected, prefab world in that way, whereas then if you wandered into an interesting environment you could capture it.

“I was recording in Los Angeles at the time doing ‘Please Don’t Touch’ and the Santa Monica pier was looming large on the horizon and I wanted to record the calliope and various other things. Then back in London, recording various mechanicals in Jack Donovan’s shop in Portobello Road which doesn’t exist anymore, - he had all sorts of weird and wonderful things, and people have made TV documentaries about him and all of that strange stuff that he had.

“He had this one thing which was this woman’s head on the end of a pole that looked like some who had been newly guillotined, it was strange and macabre, with staring eyes and it looked so bloody real – who knows if it wasn’t, as I believe Madame Tussauds worked originally with dismembered victims of The Revolution, didn’t she?

“Yes, so all of that comes back. And the organ that’s on ‘Please Don’t Touch’ was a real steam organ that we recorded which was later burnt down funnily enough in The Record Plant so I think I was one of the last to actually use that thing, it’s extraordinary, you just don’t walk into studios these days and find a fully working pipe organ, that doesn’t happen very often in my book, although I have been known to go into the odd church or what have you to record one.

“Digital is great, and I had a conversation with Rick Wakeman a while back who said “well, frankly, although I’ve got the real thing, samples are so very good these days, you can’t really tell the difference”. Are you buying theatre or are you buying the sounds – what are you buying into, what mythology? It comes back to that whole sort of test tube baby factor – if it looks good who knows how it was cooked?

“There are lots of memories, lots of bands, it was wonderful working with the late great Richie Havens, who just had the greatest voice. Funnily enough I’m doing one of those tracks, ‘Icarus Ascending’, with the current band. Nad [Sylvan] sings it very well and seems to achieve, unbelievably a similar kind of voice. I thought there was only one guy on the planet who had that kind of voice. Richie was a one off and wonderful to work with, so lots of great memories of that time.

steve hackett

“The box set is The Charisma Years, from 75-83, all those albums plus some extras - three live gigs in their entirety, spanning a couple of band incarnations, and some BBC sessions as well as some anomalies and the odd extra track.

“‘Seven Of Cups’ was something that was due to go on ‘Please Don’t Touch’, then it started taking a slightly more jazzy direction than I was comfortable with. That’s been remixed, Mr Wilson did a number on that, so all these years later I’m still playing this material live.”

I’m very intrigued to hear that ‘Seven of Cups’ was due to go on ‘Please Don’t Touch’ as that is a tarot card, and its meaning of a bewildering array of choices and needing to stop over-analyzing and make a decision would have fitted in perfectly with the other tracks on Acolyte.

[All tracks on ‘Voyage Of The Acolyte are named after tarot cards and follow the protagonist from the first creative spark and the revelation of potential secrets, leading to major life changes, withdrawal to seek and gain knowledge, insight, freedom and joy, and then living with the repercussions and ripples of the choices made.]

“Yes, I was still thinking tarot cards at the time. I was fascinated by all things oracular, and right up to the present day there is a link - there is a track called ‘Corycian Fire’ on the current album ‘Wolflight’ which again is about divination and all things oracular, so that’s the link. I’ve been fascinated by possible futures, does the future exist - and I’ve had evidence to support that it does in fact - not that that’s got a lot to do with music but it brings in a lot of other ideas, pre-destination, possible survival, and that links with ‘Spectral Mornings’ which was really all about survival of personality post death.

“There aren’t too many rock albums that orientate towards those kinds of philosophical issues but that one did and gave that a kind of cohesion, albums number one and three had a kind of cohesiveness that some other things might have struggled for.”

I think more rock albums need to cover this subject in my view...

“I think rock’s shoulders ought to be broad enough to be able to encompass any subject whether it’s romance between people or whether it’s romance between place and time and to allow for storytelling and so many of those things.

“I find the songs that resonate with me after all these years are usually flashpoints in ordinary people’s lives with extraordinary events. I’m thinking of The Beatles connection in that way, some of their more poignant lyrics and I think the ideas of Jimmy Webb as well.

“All of that doesn’t relate necessarily to the box set, but I did take on the board the influence quite a bit with Jimmy Webb and the kind of chord sequences that he used, particularly when I was doing the title track for ‘Spectral Mornings’, which originally was going to be a vocal tune and there has been a vocal version recently, driven by others, so that’s brought attention to that.

“It’s very strange the way the past circulates, almost as if it’s got a life of its own, and people pick up on various things as you say - I remember being a teenager in my bedroom poring over every aspect of an album that I was even remotely interested in and thinking “yes, of course, even the very cardboard is magic is it not?”

There is a thread that runs through all of your albums, you have spoken about it specifically on ‘Wolflight’ and that is freedom, a very powerful element. Is that something you are able to incorporate on a physical level into the tour, is there freedom while you’re touring, while you are on stage or are you completely bound by structure?

“Well funnily enough it is a very structured set, because I’m trying to be two bands in one, I end up becoming my own support band, it’s very chicken or egg, I do solo stuff and then Genesis stuff.

“I like to think that people will probably go “oh solo album yes, he’s the bloke who made that”, but it’s always a team that does it. It’s the same way that Genesis worked, it was a team that made that music at that time - without any one of us it wouldn’t have sounded the same as you wouldn’t have had the same equipment, the same choices made, there is a team spirit, so as I say I’m being both.

“In order to give people the total experience as it says in the ads, the idea that you can literally become Genesis, I can turn back the calendar as far back as 1971 and do certain tracks that haven’t been done for quite some time – ‘Can-Utility And The Coastliners’, ‘Get ‘Em Out By Friday’, ‘Cinema Show’, so I’m able to do quite a lot of that as well as things from‘Acolyte’ that I’ve not performed for a long time, ‘Star Of Sirius’, ‘Ace of Wands’, sometimes ‘Shadow Of The Heirophant’ sometimes the whole thing, sometimes in part so there is a kind of flexibility to it.

“But it is a structured show and we use surround sound with it so it’s nice to have Genesis surrounded as well as my material expanded so I’ve kind of been carrying the candle for those early years, the 70s version of Genesis that I think has survived beyond the bell bottoms perhaps, the flares have gone for the moment but the music remains - it was a heady time.

“I think with the way music works it’s a little bit like a calendar of the emotions as a song gets flashed up, if I see a favourite band doing an old tune I’m instantly sixteen again of course and that’s lovely that it does that, that timeless moment.”

So that whole thing again, about the mythology, the archetypes, the legends, we just keep seeing them again and again, some of them in the same form, some of them different but the essence remains?

“It’s who you listened with and who you loved, it’s all of those things.”

So looking to the future, what’s happening next?

“The tour is going very well, couldn’t be going better in fact, I’m thrilled at the response to all ends of my career.

I’ve moved house, I’ll be touring up until Christmas and once that’s done I’ll be building a new studio. Once the last nail has been hammered in I’ll start doing something and I hope I’ll be able to expand on a lot of the ideas that I’ve got at the moment – there aren’t enough hours in the day to be able to do physically what we are doing, it’s completely mad really.

“Life at the moment is completely mental but it’s wonderful – it’s all too much and it can never be enough.”

steve hackett

The remaining dates on “Acolyte To Wolflight With Genesis Revisited - The Total Experience” are:

Wed 21st October LLANDUDNO Venue Cymru
Fri 23rd October LIVERPOOL Philharmonic
Sat 24th October LEICESTER de Montfort Hall
Sun 25th October SALFORD The Lowry
Tue 27th October IPSWICH Regent Theatre
Wed 28th October BRISTOL Colston Hall
Fri 30th October BIRMINGHAM Symphony Hall
Sat 31st October SOUTHEND Cliffs Pavilion
8 November - Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, Westhampton Beach, NY, USA
10 November - Hart Theatre, Albany, NY, USA
11 November - The Space at Westbury, Westbury, NY, USA
12 November - Tarrytown Music Hall, Tarrytown, NY, USA
13 November - Lincoln Theatre, Washington, DC, USA
14 November - FM Kirby Center, Wilkes Barre, PA, USA
15 November - The Newton Theatre, Newton, NJ, USA
18 November - Grand Opera House, Wilmington, DE, USA
19 November - Lynn Auditorium, Lynn, MA, USA
20 November - Keswick Theatre, Glenside, PA, USA
21 November - Scottish Rite Auditorium, Collingswood, NJ, USA
22 November - The Warehouse, Fairfield, CT, USA
23 November - Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ, USA
26 November - Academy Theatre, Lindsay, ON, CANADA
27 November - Academy Theatre, Lindsay, ON, CANADA
28 November - RBC Theatre Budweiser Gardens, ON, London, CANADA
30 November - Oakville Centre, Oakville, ON, CANADA
1 December - Oakville Centre, Oakville, ON, CANADA
3 December - Riviera Theatre, North Tonowanda, NY, USA
4 December - Hard Rock Live, Northfield, OH, USA
5 December - Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead, Munhall, PA, USA
9 December - South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, Milwaukee, WI, USA
10 December - Arcada Theatre, St. Charles, IL, USA
11 December - The Portage Theater, Chicago, IL, USA



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