We can’t prove it, but we’re roughly 86% sure that someone has popped a couple of massive Duracell batteries into Steve Hackett’s back. Perhaps due to the Genesis legend’s affable and unassuming demeanour, the frankly insane levels of activity that the now 68-year-old has been putting in over the last decade (and, in truth, for many years before that) are seldom remarked upon with the intensity they deserve.
Seemingly on the road more often than not – and, as was the case earlier in 2018, occasionally with a full orchestra in tow – but wonderfully prolific in the studio too, he has slowly but stubbornly re-established himself as one of the prog world’s most vital forces. Whether playing classic Genesis material or his own authentically successful recent solo material (2017’s The Night Siren was an unlikely top 30 hit in the UK album charts), Hackett is clearly riding a unique wave of creativity and accomplishment that has been a joy to witness.
A new year brings the release of Steve Hackett’s 26th solo album, At The Edge Of Light. As with most of his recent records, it’s a bewildering but endlessly fascinating tour-de-force of progressive ideas, spine-tingling melodies and bravura musicianship, delivered by a synapse-melting list of rock, prog and world music luminaries, with Hackett sharing the spotlight with typical humility. Almost certain to emulate The Night Siren’s unexpected chart success, it’s an album that Hackett seems to feel he has plucked from the ether, as inspiration arrived from all directions.
“Well, the album came out of conversations and it’s influenced by everything,” he notes. “Each time I sit down and think about making a new album, it’s a daunting task. I think, ‘So people really liked the last one... oh dear!’ [Laughs] But it all starts with a doodle, a bit of an idea, something that’s unformed. If you can hang on to the spirit that informs any one particular song and not get hidebound with the form of it, not get too involved with the construction of it, that’s the key. Of course you’ve got to play the right notes and bring all the nuts and bolts together that the machine and personnel require, but beyond that you’ve got be to thinking ‘What’s the idea of this one, in the end? What’s this song about?’”
The most obvious result of this open-ended approach to composition is that At The Edge Of Light sounds quite unlike anything else happening in music right now. At times mischievously esoteric, with sounds ranging from the expected wall of guitars to sitar, cimbalom and (as Hackett notes with a chuckle) “drums put through a Marshall cabinet”, the album boasts many changes of mood, but the overriding feel is one of wide-eyed joy at music’s kaleidoscopic potential.
“There’s no reverential thinking here. Everything is grist for the mill,” says Hackett. “So many things appear in cameo, shortly to be replaced by something else. There’s a tight turnover of events and that’s exciting. Whether it’s film music or classical music or big band stuff or jazz, I feel that when I make an album I’ve got to honour all those gods, all those influences, and I’ve got to go with all those things that moved people to play in the first place. That’s the legacy of having worked with Genesis. If you can make all those things happily co-exist within the same album, why not? It’s always a case of, ‘Dare I put this in? Will I get away with it?’”
And does he think he will?
“Well I think there’s something for everyone on this one. If you’re familiar with what we’ve been doing, there’ll always be things that are typically progressive and there will be something like a simple, 60s-style pop song like Hungry Years. I want to be controversial and say that it owes as much to Peter, Paul & Mary as it does to Clannad or The Beatles. There’s nothing remotely progressive about it whatsoever, but that’s the whole point: to not be afraid of contrasts. Not everything has to be an impenetrable equation. Contrasts are the best that the prog stuff has to offer.”
From the folksy gloom and soaring leads of Beasts Of Our Time and the blues-tinged clangour of Underground Railroad to its dazzling three-part finale, Descent/Conflict/Peace, At The Edge Of Light covers so much musical ground that, in less capable hands, it could’ve been a complete mess. Instead, it borders on a connoisseur’s guide to prog, both ancient and modern, replete with one song – Under The Eye Of The Sun – that boasts some gloriously vocal harmonies straight out of the Yes handbook.
“Yeah that’s funny because when those harmonies kick in, it’s really just one bloke and one girl,” Hackett grins. “It’s me and Amanda [Lehmann]. One reviewer said that it sounded like Crosby, Stills & Nash... not to mention Young! [Laughs] But it’s funny, because Jon Anderson has that androgynous quality to his voice, so there are times when there’s that whole other octave that I want to reach, and I think if you track up the vocals thickly enough it does end up sounding a little Yes-like.”
“You know, Chris Squire asked me to join Yes when we were working together,” he continues. “I was extremely flattered for about five minutes, thinking that I could have ‘Guitarist for Genesis and Yes!’ on my CV, but in the end I felt that Yes were very well served by a whole legion of great guitarists, most of whom I’ve worked with at some point! So that was a great compliment from Chris. But there’s an aspect of what I do where I think, ‘Well, if I had been working with Chris, that’s just the sort of song I might’ve presented to him!’ In all our thoughts, those of us who have been influenced by the great Chris Squire and his mega bass playing, it’s hard to pick up a Rickenbacker and not think of the wonderful things that he did with it. So in spirit, I’m always talking to Chris.”
One specific example of Chris Squire’s now distant but essential influence on Hackett’s musical life is that the much-missed legend cannily foresaw his fellow musician’s large scale orchestral endeavours. According to Hackett, Squire once pointed out that he was the only guitarist he knew that had a sufficiently robust ego that he genuinely enjoyed the idea of being surrounded by so many musicians.
“I might be doing a disservice to a few people here, but that’s truthfully what he said. I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t feel threatened by it. We’re all string players. We’re all musicians first of all and we all make a noise for a living and that’s what binds us.’ It’s safety in numbers and a case of ‘Why the hell not?’ I know Chris loved choral stuff and I have those aspects on this album, too. The solo singing, harmony singing, choral singing, gospel singing, improvised, fixed lines, it’s all there. They’re all different approaches and all designed to throw you off the scent, so if you say, ‘Well I don’t like that particular thing...’ well, here’s another one!”
Perhaps more so even than its recent, much-hailed predecessors, At The Edge Of Light is an album that celebrates the very notion of creative cooperation. A quick glance down the album’s remarkable roll call reveals contributions from Nick D’Virgilio (Big Big Train/ex-Spock’s Beard), Jonas Reingold (Flower Kings/Karmakanic), Simon Phillips (The Who/Toto), Pink Floyd vocalists Durga and Lorelei McBroom, sitar guru Sheema Mukherjee, saxophonist Rob Townsend and, of course, Hackett’s brother John: a mainstay of his live and studio work for decades. With several other eclectic protagonists thrown into the mix, it’s very much an album of ensemble and individual performances, all tastefully glued together with Hackett’s low-key charisma, elegant vocals and scorching leads. An heroic team effort, if you will.
“Oh yes, it’s all about the team and about everyone,” says Hackett. “I don’t take every solo. Whether I should take more or fewer solos, it all depends. If you’re coming from a heavy metal angle, you’d probably say there was a dearth of guitar solos on the album. Coming from the point of view from a pop songwriter, you’d say there was far too much guitar! But it’s what other people bring to it that makes the difference. And I find it amazing, the skills that others exhibit.”
It’s not hard to see how the late blossoming of Steve Hackett’s solo career has stemmed directly from his own delight at all the incredible musicians that are, not entirely surprisingly, rather eager to get involved. As he describes it, the long journey from adolescent dreaming in the 60s to nailed-on icon status has been fuelled by a profound and deep fascination with what other musicians can do and how that, in turn, could make his own music bigger, better and more enduring.
“Many of these people are used to playing in improvised forms, perhaps much more than me,” he says. “I came out of a school of songwriters and I just happened to be a guitarist. The emphasis is slightly different. In the 1960s, I used to advertise myself as a blues guitarist and harmonica player, Blind Lemon Hackett! The blues boom had died on me by the end of the 1960s, music was on the change and was due to become fully comprehensive by the start of the 70s, and so, luckily, that’s when I met Genesis. But, as I say, other people are very important to me and what they bring to it. We did the tour with the orchestra and it was like a small army onstage, it was about 50 people all going at it! How can that possibly be a solo performance? It just isn’t.”
If you caught Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited: Band with Orchestra tour earlier in 2018, you won’t require any further evidence that the guitarist is thoroughly enjoying expanding and exploring the more ambitious end of his repertoire. Today, he admits that the experience has fed directly into At The Edge Of Light: not in terms of specific orchestral embellishments, although there are plenty of those too, but more in terms of providing a fresh perspective on what is generally some very complex music.
“Playing with the orchestra was inspiring. Just the challenge of seeing if you can pull it off, you know?” he notes. “But because I’m thinking globally and thinking about comprehensive and inclusive music that includes all known genres and every corner of the globe, one is naturally working with orchestras, whether it’s some Philharmonic Orchestra or a collection of 20, 30 or 40 people that I might have on an album. It’s always an orchestra. We might track people up 100 times in order to get the best out of them. But it’s an army of generals, really. I guess I function the way Jeff Lynne has done with ELO, where it’s a small team that’s usually tracked up to sound like a very big team. If an orchestra’s name is on the flyer, that’s great, but didn’t a lot of these progressive bands already sound like an orchestra in the first place?”
One of prog’s most reliably adventurous souls, Steve Hackett has always assimilated a dizzying array of disparate influences into his music. It’s clear evidence of an open-minded approach to life that is also routinely reflected in his lyrics. Often world-weary but never devoid of hope, Hackett’s worldview is another element that makes his music so inclusive. On At The Edge Of Light, the grim spectres of war, conflict, social division and needless suffering all loom large amid the record’s darker moments, and while he is reluctant to stick his head above the parapet to make specific political declarations, it doesn’t take a genius to work out where he stands on the likes of Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far-right.
“I suppose I have to preface this by saying that I’m cautiously optimistic about the world’s future!” he laughs. “I have to believe that we’ll pull ourselves out of the current nosedive. We’ve got all this wonderful technology and all this knowledge, and it seems that populist thinking is going to lead us back to the caves, if not back to war. I think there are several songs on the album that address that. You can’t pretend these things aren’t happening. The truth is that no international musician wants Brexit. Why would you want to back to the days of carnets and delays at airports and not being sure that you can show up for a show, because that’s how it was back in the early days? I remember we cancelled Genesis shows in Italy because we couldn’t get the truck across the border. Do we want those days again? No. So I am critical and I am angry.”
So does it feel even more important, at this precise moment in time, that At The Edge Of Light is such a proudly international record?
“Yes, it’s an international album. I can’t help that. I’ve tried to make it all bucket and spade, but it won’t wash! As soon as you start taking a bite of a pizza, you become a European. If you’re gonna be a true Euro-sceptic, then sorry, no more pizzas, no more coq au vin... it’s fish and chips for you, if you’re lucky!”
But does this album feel like a protest of sorts? It’s certainly unequivocal about rejecting much of what’s happening around the world at the moment.
“You know what, I noticed just the other day, I’d been into one shop to have a coffee and then into another shop to buy a new pair of shoes. We’d just had all the celebrations about commemorating the end of the First World War, and I noticed that in both places they were playing Dylan songs. Blowin’ In The Wind was high on the agenda! It is the quintessential protest song and I’ve been saying for a while that the protest song as a genre is ever more necessary. I don’t think that the Vietnam war would have ended if American students hadn’t taken matters in hand themselves. It was about communication.”
Communication is at the very heart of everything Steve Hackett does: communication between artist and fans and, between one musician and countless others. It might sound like a load of old hippie nonsense, but advocating an ethos of peace, love, compassion and hope is always something to be saluted. As he points out, it’s just a shame that the world has taken such an ominous turn, making troubled but emotionally uplifting records like At The Edge Of Light all the more necessary.
“You’d think that world leaders wouldn’t have to get to this point again,” Hackett states, ruefully. “But I do feel that, for instance, refugees have been so thoroughly demonised and are getting such a rum deal. I think the whole concept of countries is completely outdated when you have technologies that enable people to work together, in much the same way that this album was constructed. I recorded Durga and Lorelei and various other people at my home studio, but equally Jonas and the drummers were sending their performances in, so there were no borders for those people.”
Despite the daily horror of the news, Steve Hackett is definitely having fun. At The Edge Of Light will emerge in January, presaging yet another extensive tour which takes in most of Europe, Canada and an impressive 20 dates in the UK. There aren’t many rock veterans putting in that level of effort at this stage in their careers, but then most musicians aren’t as profoundly happy with their lot as Steve Hackett. Thrilled to be both a relevant, contemporary musician and guardian of the Genesis catalogue, he simply can’t wait to get back out there.
“I’m advertising that I will be playing Selling England By The Pound in its entirety, plus most of Spectral Mornings, plus some new stuff and some extra Genesis too!” he beams. “So there’s a lot to rehearse, put it that way. But I’m looking forward to it with absolute relish, in order to serve the best of the past, the present and the future. It’s quite a task! But it’s got to be done. I’ve got a terrific band that will involve all the guys that were onstage last time. We’re going for a change of drummer – we have Craig Blundell who’ll be doing the majority of the gigs next year, but also some gigs with Marco Minneman who’s going to be doing the two cruises we’re doing. They’re all great players, as indeed is Gary [O’Toole]. I’m looking forward to it all tremendously.”
Does it surprise you that the Genesis material is still so alive? The demand for it seems to be growing...
“Well, it was inspirational music back then and I was inspired by all the guys that I worked with. But it’s inspirational now too. A lot of people say how much it means to them. The audience gets the chance to say that every night, and I know it moves people. Beyond that, I think I’ve been blessed to be able to bring that once more in front of people. It’s beyond the museum doors for the glorious exhibits!”
His enthusiasm is infectious, his energy boundless. Maybe our Duracell theory is nonsense after all. All Steve Hackett needs to power him through another 12 months of triumph is the greatest energy source of all: music itself. Let the happiness and healing begin.
“Music still has the ability to set the world alight and lay a few ghosts to rest,” he concludes. “Music changed the world – let’s not forget this. And I think it can change the world again, for the better. Music can go to places that politicians can’t, and it knows no borders. It’s one of the greatest medicines in the world and it’ll do you good. Honest, guv! It’s the oxygen that we breathe and it’s a great motivator. This has been a great journey and it’s not over yet!”