Interview: Former Genesis Guitarist Steve Hackett Talks Gear, Tapping and Squackett's Debut Album, 'A Life Within A Day'

by William Westhoven
Posted May 17, 2012 at 1:26pm

If you’ve ever wondered how the influences of classical guitarist Andres Segovia and The Shadows’ instro-rocking legend Hank Marvin might blend, no doubt your imagination could take you to many places.

It’s not that surprising, then, to learn that you might find Steve Hackett — a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in 2010 for his work with Genesis — at the end of your journey. An influential guitarist in his own right, with a list of disciples that includes Eddie Van Halen, Hackett’s enviable career covers a lot of ground.

There’s his groundbreaking progressive-rock work with early Genesis, the harder, louder pop sound of the supergroup GTR and his diverse and prolific body of solo work, which dabbles in jazz, worldbeat and a great deal of classical acoustic guitar, both with and without full orchestra.

And now there is his latest project, Squackett, which mashes in a wide range of styles and influences, not to mention his last name with that of his newest collaborator, Yes bassist Chris Squire. Their album, A Life Within a Day, drops on May 29. An advance single was released on vinyl April 21 for International Record Day.

Hackett, whose schedule includes some U.K. dates with his Electric Band, hopes to take Squackett on the road at some point, but Squire’s schedule won’t permit that just yet. Meanwhile, he took the time to speak with Guitar World, about projects past, present and future, including the latest on the Genesis reunion so many people are yearning for.

GUITAR WORLD: How long have you known Chris Squire and when did you first work together?

Chris and I first met in Los Angeles when I was doing GTR with Steve Howe and he came to our show, liked the two guitar thing very much and I was able compliment him on many of the things he’d done with Yes. He was telling me how much he enjoyed Trick of the Tail with Genesis, which he thought was our best album, which was post-Peter Gabriel as it happens. …

Then it was around 2007, Chris wanted to make a Christmas album and I played some guitar on it for him. I asked him to return the favor and so, you know, that was spread over three different projects, a couple of solo things of mine.

Who wrote the Squackett material?

Most of it we really wrote face-to face but were things we brought in separately. To give you some idea, when the record kicks off [with the title and lead track], the orchestral stuff on the front, I had that stuff all ready. But the idea of turning that into a song came up. Chris and I and Roger King, we all sat down and batted the ball backwards and forwards, and the idea for a melody, a vocal melody, and lyrics, we were literally all pitching in, it was written on the spot. I had a rough idea of the middle section with Roger King. We were working on an idea that we thought sounded quite Yessy.

So you’ve got something on the first track that had more than a nod to Led Zeppelin and also had a nod to Yes. Chris said to me, “This has got a slight sort of Muse feel.” I had not heard Muse at the time; I heard them subsequently and I could see what he’s on about, you know, the slightly hysterical vocal quality to it.

The second track, “Tall Ships,” was really an idea that came from something I heard Chris play on bass. He was trying out a new bass in my studio … So we turned that into a song. We worked on it instrumentally and then I had an idea for a lyric for it. Then Chris said, “Why don’t we do a bluesy melody for it?” So it was being batted backwards and forwards. Other ones were more fully formed in other ways. For instance, he brought in “Aliens,” which was more fully formed, and “Can’t Stop the Rain” and “Perfect Love Song,” Although the lyrics, I came up with the verse lyrics and he had the chorus for that. Songs like “Divided Self” I had, and “Stormchaser.”

Roger King is from your Electric Band?

Roger King is the keyboard player, engineer and producer of this record. He and I have done a number of projects together. He was originally trained as a cathedral organist. And he did some soundtracks for some major [movie] blockbusters. … a very thorough, very talented guy.

Who else is on A Life Within a Day?

On drums is Jeremy Stacey, and on vocals on the last two tracks, harmony vocals, is Amanda Lehmann [also from Hackett’s Electric Band].

Speaking of vocals and vocal harmonies, you and Chris do a lot of singing, but I rarely hear you speak about vocals. Do you enjoy singing?

I do like to singing, I think when I first started out singing many, many years ago people said you should be working with Peter Gabriel, Richie Havens or Phil Collins. But later I think people started to understand why I do things the way I do, the harmony approach and the fact that I think that I’ve gotten to know the sound of my own voice, the strengths and weaknesses. So I think I know where to place it, how to do it much better than I used to. I’ve gotten better.

You just mentioned three fine singers who don’t really much on harmonies. But the new Squackett project, like a lot of your solo work, contains a lot of vocal harmony, a lot of layers, a very lush atmosphere.

Yes, it’s something common to both my tastes and Chris’. We both love the use of vocal harmonies. We both adore the same bands that made that their calling card. The Everleys, The Beatles, Beach Boys, The Mamas and The Papas, The Who — let’s not forget The Who — Crosby-Stills, The Hollies, I’m sure there are more if I can think of them. I love the use of vocal harmonies, I particularly like three-part. That wasn’t something I got to explore very much with Genesis. I know Yes did that and they are all stronger for using that.

Will there be a Squackett tour?

I’m hoping there’s going to be some shows of this. I’m hoping that Chris will find time to do that. I’m hoping we can both fit it into our increasingly burgeoning schedules.

Your schedule, though, does include some upcoming shows with your Electric Band.

Yes. I’m also recording some Genesis songs with a bunch of friends of mine, some of them are very well-known, in order to produce a Genesis Revisited No. 2 [Hackett’s Watcher of the Skies: Genesis Revisited was released in 1997]. Which I will take on the road next year.

And who are these people you are teasing us about?

Ah, well, I am teasing you. One of them is John Wetton. On record, he’s recorded one of the tracks, “Afterglow,” which sounds wonderful. Again, a great lover of vocal harmonies.

Are you still doing acoustic recordings and shows?

Very often, yeah. I have done acoustic shows and exclusively acoustic albums in order to pay back some of what the guitar has given me. I don’t do these albums to outsell the Beatles. It’s something I do for the love of the instrument. If I do an album with six pieces of Bach, it’s in order to show people what a beautiful instrument the guitar is on its own. I also love working with orchestras with acoustic guitars as well. The sound of a gentle orchestra, with a gentle nylon guitar, is a winning combination. The stuff of many film soundtracks. It’s a great, really warm combination. Absolutely magic.

You are well-known as an influential guitar player. Who influenced you when you were starting out?

I think in the early days I was trying to sound like Hank Marvin of The Shadows, who were Cliff Richard’s backing band in England, covering much of the same material as The Ventures. In those days, the sounds that the guitar made were the kind of “Bonanza”-sounding soundtracks, that cowboy sound, cowboy themes.

And the surf sound.

Yeah, the lines are blurred between country and surf, of course. But as time moved forward, when the Stones hit the scene, the most exciting thing on the planet was Brian Jones playing “I Want to Be Your Man.” A year or so later, I got to hear [Andres] Segovia play Bach, and suddenly it was another revolution for me. It struck me that the guitar could take off into a whole different direction. I was smitten with that the first I heard it, and that started to influence the kind of music that I was trying to play. And I didn’t think that rock and roll, or pop music as we knew, was going to accommodate those two very separate styles of music. It wasn’t until really know that we look back on it, what we laterally call progressive, that those two very separate energies manage to fuse into something mighty.

What was your first guitar?

My first guitar was a Canadian F-cello hole guitar called Kay. It was my father’s guitar. He brought it back from Canada, circa 1958-59. It was built for country music; you need a Stetson to go with that, really.

What did you play mostly while with Genesis?

I was using a Gibson Les Paul for most of the lead work. I used a Fender Strat. I used a Yairi nylon. Also, during that time with Genesis, I used a Hokada 12-string and a Danelectro Sitar guitar.

I wonder, with his affinity for sitar, whether George Harrison ever used one of those.

I think he probably used the real thing. I don’t know if he ever used a sitar guitar, but you never know. I don’t know whether they would have approved, somehow.

You are known for your use of tapping. Eddie Van Halen has cited you as a primary influence. Have you ever had a chance to talk with him about that?

He and I have never had that conversation, but he’s a fabulous guitarist and I was happy to be an influence.

When did you start tapping?

I was doing that in 1971 on the first Genesis album and doing it live before that.

Did you pick that up from someone else?

No, no, I was trying to play a line from Bach, a line out of Toccata and Fugue, and I realized the only way to do that was to play on one string … gradually I realized that by using a series of hammer-ons and pull-offs, you could do that with both hands on the same string, on the fretboard, using it a little bit like a keyboard.

I read recently that Stanley Jordan is back from 10 years of music therapy study and doing more live shows.

I’m very well aware that he’s probably the most proficient tapper out there.

Have you had a chance to compare notes with him?

No, again, I’ve never met these guys, but I’m aware of their work.

What guitar players excite you these days?

Oh, goodness me. I can answer that in a roundabout kind of way. There’s a guy from Azerbaijan called Malik Mansurov who plays a thing called the tar. It’s from the guitar family and I think he’s one of the hottest string players out there at the moment. I think he’s really extraordinary.

Do you have a primary go-to guitar these days?

At home, I play nylon most of the time. Even when I write things for rock guitar. I usually sing it to myself on the nylon, the Yairi.

How about in the studio and onstage?

Well, it’s normally a Fernandez these days. Fernandez was taken over by the Japanese but they have the sustainer pickups and that makes a wonderful sound, rather like an onboard ebow. You are not dependent on volume for feedback. You can whisper with it.

The label of “progressive rock” was the kiss of death for a long time, but now it seems to be hot again. What is your take on the progressive rock label?

It’s funny, isn’t it? Yeah, I remember people were saying at one point it’s a terminally unhip genre. The other way of looking at it is if you take the pan-genre approach, it doesn’t mean to say you necessarily have to produce an opus every time out. It’s just flexible length, flexible form.

By the way, congratulations on your induction into the Rock Hall. Of course, Chris Squire is a founder of Yes, which is not in, and you can certainly make the argument that if Genesis is in, then Yes should be as well.

Funny enough, that was something I mentioned when I was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the many interviews we did in and around it. I was on record as saying I think Yes should be inducted as well. Yes should certainly be in there because they were a huge influence on us. It’s only right that they should be.

Who else from that era do you think is being overlooked?

I think there are many British bands that deserve that. It’s entirely possible, the more people that lobby, the more that’s mentioned, then I think it should redress the balance in favor of what we, again, laterally call progressive rock. At the time when bands like [Jethro] Tull and Genesis were doing our thing, we weren’t aware that we were supposed to be progressive at all.

Just pushing boundaries, perhaps?

I think we were doing what came naturally to us and trying to operate in areas that were being neglected by others.

OK, when you are not playing guitar, what do you do to kick back and relax?

Well you know, if I get the time, I go for a walk. But these days, I have to book an appointment with myself to find the time to do it. I’m involved with so many different projects, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like to read as well. That’s a quick way to have an out-of-body experience.

Finally, just because it always comes up, what’s the latest on the possibility of a Genesis reunion?

I think a Genesis reunion is probably unlikely. Phil has said he is retiring. The last time we tried to put together a Genesis reunion that included Peter Gabriel and myself, it ended up being the other three. All I can say is that I am recording Genesis material myself and I will take a show of that out on the road. There is a Revisited No. 2 coming up from me and I’m looking forward to. In the next few weeks, I might have a whole bunch of other people I can say for certain will be on this record. But they have to try it out first and see if it flies for them.

William Westhoven is a freelance writer. His novel, One-Hit Willie, takes place over more than 50 years of rock and roll history. For information, visit onehitwillie.com.