Steve Hackett really doesn’t hang about. When Prog calls to get the skinny on his new album, the frankly spectacular Wolflight, he promptly announces that he’s off to the studio later to start work on the next one.
At 65 years of age, you could forgive Hackett for wanting to slow down and rest easy, but he’s having none of it. Remarkably, Wolflight is his eighth long-player in as many years.
“I feel the clock is ticking,” he offers, addressing a work rate that also makes room for a seemingly endless tour schedule. “There’s something about being able to play at your peak, and being aware of the passing of time. So, to quote the guy who wrote that ‘time seems to be slipping away into the future’ [Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like An Eagle, no less], it’s all going far too quickly.
“I have action-packed days. I’m a busy man and have been all my life. Last year was one of my best ever, for all sorts of reasons. It was breathless. And it’s a privilege to still be doing it, because many have fallen over. It’s a calling. What can I tell you?”
Hackett’s “breathless” 2014 saw the culmination of a two-year album-tour cycle for Genesis Revisited II, on which he eloquently retooled some of his best songs from that old band of his. Last year alone involved playing in 20 different countries. There was also, as it turned out, the rather controversial BBC documentary, Genesis: Together And Apart. But we’ll get to that later.
Like Hackett himself, Wolflight isn’t short on ambition. The album’s pan-cultural reach – taking in everything from Greek mythology and post-Communist Europe to the sands of the Sahara and Civil Rights-era USA – finds a mirror in the inclusive nature of the music within. There’s an orchestra, primal drums, crying wolves and nimble smatterings of exotica: an Arabian oud, Armenian woodwinds, even the odd didgeridoo. Above all though, it’s a compelling showcase for Hackett’s lyrical guitar playing, both acoustic and electric.
Some compositions, such as the epic title track or the equally grand Love Song To A Vampire, offer a fascinating clash of folk and classical styles, albeit rippling with electric guitar textures. In short, Wolflight feels like a vast musical dialogue.
“In terms of the spirit of music, I listen to everyone from Bach to Stravinsky to Jimi Hendrix,” Hackett explains. “The classical guys really did all the things that I’ve always meant to get around to, but I’d been too busy sketching in a number of styles that I haven’t had time to write a full symphony yet. But that’s not to say I don’t have an appreciation of what orchestras can do. And I think that’s where this album comes in. It’s a bit like several runners in a relay race: one might be folk music and another might be rock. Then there’s the kind of symphonic stuff, where orchestras can be pretty dark and disturbing too.
“I realise that many people resist the idea of orchestras because they think it would be like inviting a frumpy maiden aunt to an orgy, but I have no such prejudice. I love what orchestras can do and I’m interested in the place where different genres start to talk to each other. You end up with these complementary collisions and a complete scene change. It’s like going from a western to Star Wars.”
The sleeve of Wolflight finds Hackett presiding over a pack of Eastern European wolves, framed by the ruins of a crumbling monument and lit by the moon. This is no artfully Photoshopped conceit. Hackett and the wolves, he’s keen to point out, are very real. The shoot took place last summer, just outside Rome, during a break in his touring itinerary. He admits to a little trepidation at first, especially when he encountered the alpha male, but the more time he spent in their company, the more he fell in love with them: “They were climbing all over me and it was one of the greatest days of my life, to be honest. They were tremendously affectionate and responsive.”
It wasn’t merely a convenient photo op either. Hackett has used the wolf motif as an overarching metaphor for the nature of the album itself. Given the historical import of Wolflight’s subject matter, inspired by the tribes who helped shape our ancient past, Hackett found a peculiar resonance in the animals.
“There’s something about the wilderness and the shamanic idea of wolves as totems,” he asserts. “And the idea of being man’s best friend from the word go. There was always a relationship with them, from the earliest people, from Mongolia to the Carpathians. And having to function on the run, as our ancestors did so much.”
Hackett also stresses that the term Wolflight relates to the hour just before dawn. Neither day nor night, it’s a transitional time when dreams have yet to fully dissipate. It’s also the time that he often finds himself getting up these days. An ideal moment, he reckons, for songwriting: “If I’ve had one of my sleepless nights and I’m up at five or six, I can start to develop things. It seems to be a time of lucidity. Between sleeping and waking, logic is still put to bed. And logic gets in the way of good writing, at least for me. I wanted the music to be weird and wonderful and psychedelic, but without having to resort to the kind of drugs that are a bit of a no-no for me. That’s really the idea of Wolflight.”
Perhaps the most directly personal song is The Wheel’s Turning, which burrows deep into a childhood memory of Battersea Funfair. “1950s London was very much a grey, post-war world,” Hackett recalls. “Pimlico, the area where I lived, was heavily bombed during the war. And I couldn’t understand, as a child, why these great, long Georgian terraces were all leaning sideways.
“The first time I was taken to the funfair, it seemed like the first really colourful day of my life. It was sunny and I remember the smell of fresh doughnuts being baked. It seemed like there were thousands of people and it was just a riot of colour. I lived about 10 minutes away and by the age of 12 I was working there occasionally, dishing out change for the slot machines. That was a great part of my childhood and I felt so important in my brown coat, with a soundtrack of surf instrumentals like Wipe Out and Pipeline.
“Incidentally, I grew up opposite the site of Pink Floyd’s most iconic cover with the flying pig, Battersea Power Station. When I was a kid, that was the view from my bedroom window. Much later, when I saw Floyd’s album [1977’s Animals], I thought: ‘That should’ve been my album cover. How come I missed it?’”
The Wheel’s Turning is beautifully evocative, summoning the headspin of a carousel and the neon gaudiness of the fairground itself. It’s also striking for Hackett’s mean harmonica, a throwback to the first instrument he ever mastered, years before his dad bought him a guitar. Other tunes are more unsettling. Love Song To A Vampire, for instance, is an opulent thing, full of classical patterns and Nordic orchestration. On the surface it feels like some majestic celebration, though Hackett’s slightly sinister electric guitar, introduced near the end, points the way to its lyrical concerns: the song is actually about domestic abuse.
“The Beatles are a bit like Shakespeare – they’ve done it all, including the finest love songs,” he says. “But I wanted to do a love song with a twist, in the sense of that aspect of relationships when people start to consider that they own each other. The idea of ownership, the idea of the Stockholm Syndrome [a psychological phenomenon whereby hostages express sympathy toward their captors] and the books on psychology that I’ve read where people are in relationships that they think are good for them but actually aren’t, I find it a fascinating subject and I do want to write original love songs. I don’t feel that progressive music should avoid love and always be about war. But it is a tendency, so you just have to look for areas that other people haven’t covered.”
It’s notable too that Love Song To A Vampire features Yes bassist Chris Squire, with whom Hackett recorded A Life Within A Day, billed as Squackett, in 2012. (When asked, he says that a follow-up album is “thoroughly possible”.) Regulars on Wolflight include keyboardist Roger King (who co-wrote most of the album with Hackett and his wife Jo), drummer Gary O’Toole, bass player Nick Beggs, Rob Townsend on sax, and harmony singer Amanda Lehmann. In fact, harmonies form a central part of the album, be it the Carl Orff-like grandeur of Corycian Fire or the gentler CSN stylings of the largely acoustic Loving Sea.
Given the distinct concept of Wolflight – and, indeed, the singular vision that’s sustained him throughout his entire post-Genesis career – did Hackett always envision himself as a solo artist? “Before Genesis I had the idea of having a band of my own because I was so passionate about it all,” he says. “But I didn’t really have the experience to be able to run a band and found myself joining other people’s outfits instead. I joined Quiet World first, then of course it was Genesis. They were established in that they’d made two albums already and were up and running with gigs. I think they wanted someone to give them fire – and I tried my damnedest.”
There follows a warm burst of laughter. “The idea I always had was that there shouldn’t be a distinction between a group and an orchestra. It had to be possible. And that was part of what I wanted with Genesis. I wanted to steer it towards the classical side.
“They were all great chordsmiths, so we shared a love of that,” Hackett explains. “But what happened with Genesis was that we’d take the influence of classical stuff and syncopation – the Buddy Rich influence from Phil [Collins] – and fuse it into something different. It used to swing in a very unusual way. Something could be nostalgic, uplifting and exciting, but at the same time it could have something slightly historical, or hysterical, about it.”
This brings us round, of course, to that documentary. Hackett publicly expressed his disappointment with Genesis: Together And Apart, on the wholly understandable grounds that his own contributions to the band’s evolution were underplayed in the final edit. Moreover, his solo career – unlike those of Messrs. Gabriel, Banks, Collins and Rutherford – was overlooked completely. Hackett went on record to call it a “biased account of Genesis history”, one that “totally ignores” his solo work.
In the cold light of 2015, does he regret taking part in the film now? “There are times when I think that maybe it would’ve been better not to have been involved with that,” he concedes. “Because obviously I wasn’t involved with the edit and had given hours of my time and all the rest of it. But I don’t want to be forever bitching about the same old issues. For me, I think that’s ancient history. I move on, I’m still friends with all the guys. And it’s important to say, ‘Hey, that was a chapter and now that’s closed.’
“I’ve since had letters of apology from them,” he adds. “It was extraordinary. I’m still very proud of all the Genesis stuff I was involved with; it was a great band. It’s always going to be part of my DNA.”
Hackett fans will be pleased to know that the same DNA is pressed hard into Wolflight. But the real triumph is that there’s so much more besides. Put quite simply, it’s one of the best things he’s ever done. Not that the man himself is taking anything for granted.
“All I can say is that I’m in love with it and I love the idea of all these contrasts,” he says. “It’s the kind of album that I’ve really been trying to make all my life, to be honest. It feels very good to me. But I’m at that moment of time where I’m thinking, ‘Will people get it?’”
We can safely say he doesn’t need to worry about that.
Wolflight is available from March 30 on InsideOut. See http://www.hackettsongs.com for more information.