Steve Hackett
Genesis of a virtuoso

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cc: Thinking about being awash with drink, as a tenuous link to my next question: Your new album, To Watch The Storms, is - to me anyway - your best yet. It's more rounded, more accomplished - do you feel like a good wine, improving with age?

SH: Yeah, I think I'm getting better with age.

cc: And does this come with the confidence of knowing who you are? You've got your own label. You've got the creative control at last . . .

SH: It's a good point. I no longer have to audition to an industry that has decided in its wisdom to ignore me. So the fact we've got direct contact with our fan base is great. And there's a number of people who do the same thing. Jimmy Page has got his own label too . . .

cc: Camel is another band that do their own thing.

SH: Oh yes. It's a good thing and it has meant that it doesn't exclude the shops. These days bands tend to show up in town and sell their products at gigs, but at one time the shops wouldn't have tolerated that. But it all helps at the end of the day. It's very good news for people like me. It means we've got the artistic freedom.

cc: It's good news for music in general. And good news for the fans because that music is still out there. It's not just the commercial, manufactured pop that is available - that has its place - but it is satisfying to know that 'real' music is still live and kicking.

SH: Yeah. I think there is a danger that if you're signed to a major label, you'll get major interference with your career . . .

cc: Did you find that a lot with yourself?

SH: I did. And the worst time was in the 80s where it was almost a case of [assumes affected management voice], "Account for that note!" And, "I don't hear a career song there, Steve."

cc: You can almost hear them saying it! The ignorance and arrogance of the big labels . . .

SH: [on a roll now with the scene] "The great American public are not ready for this. It seems a little bit too esoteric to me. We've market tested it and it's not quite the chord sequence we want . . ." One wondered why they bothered to sign it at all. The industry in those days seemed fully intent on turning a horse into a camel - not to denigrate the band of that name! What's also wonderful is that now we are able to do our own market research. In fact we couldn't stop it if we tried. Emails come in from the fans and they tell you whether they like something or not.

cc: That's about as direct and honest as it gets isn't it?

SH: It is, and luckily the comments seem very pro this album we're touring - the To Watch the Storms album.

cc: I think the level of control you have over your creativity shows in what you have done with this album. So more power to you and bands in a similar position like Camel and Marillion, and all the others that do, because it means it's getting out good music to an audience hungry for it.

SH: Well, it does and I think we're able to function in a more free kind of way. I can't stress how important that is, to be enthusiastic about what you do. I still love music. I love what I do.

cc: It shows. Now, you've had the same band for a few years. You operate as a pretty tight unit on stage, and in the studio for that matter. How do you get on off stage - are you all best mates or do you all just disappear after the shows and meet up only for gigs and recording?

SH: We all get on really well. Sometimes we show up at each other's things - the odd do or the odd gig. We are friends and that's a very big factor in how well we work together.

cc: Is that how you came together, through friendship, or did you develop that friendship as time passed?

SH: It's something that developed. I met everybody via recommendations, if you like, and I saw Gary [O'Toole, drums] playing live in a London club. He was playing with two separate bands. I couldn't really see who was on drums but I remember being struck by the sound and his playing. His two bands were completely different from each other. One was much more heavy and the second was playing time signatures and was more funky and I thought, "this guy's good."

cc: And diverse - which for your own sound is crucial.

SH: He is diverse - he plays in a big band as well. He does that for fun. He's very clever and we have a lot of laughs together. There's a lot of enthusiasm on the stage - he plays because he loves to play and this is what we do. I look at him and I see a genuine smile on his face, because he's loving it. That's a true currency.

cc: There's always been a sense of humour woven into your records. It's a very English humour of course . . .

SH: There's a kind of 'end of the pier' humour that runs throughout the more . . . erm . . . warped British contingent and I love that kind of stuff. I guess we're all frustrated comedians at the end of the day - "I'd like to throw in a bit more of that, but I don't know if people would get it." It's a great laugh though.

cc: Yours is never a predictable music. You came up with the phrase 'musical ambush' to describe some of the things going on. How do you go about incorporating all the twists and turns in to a song, for example a particularly complex piece like Mechanical Bride [from To Watch The Storms]? Are they discrete parts that you assemble or do you see the whole thing at once?

SH: It doesn't all come all once. It develops over time. I think the nature of the stop/start atonal jazz thing is a genre that's existed for some time. It really goes back to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Here you had the blueprint of a music that stop/starts . . .

cc: And in a rock sense you had bands like Henry Cow in the early 70s pushing the limit and making the listener wonder what was going to come next . . .

SH: That's it! So I'll continue with the musical ambushes. The main thing is that whenever I've spoken to people and they've said what it is they've wanted from me, as opposed to the sort of thing that the industry would like to hear, when it comes down to the man in the street, so to speak, he'll tell you that what he wants is a musical adventure. He wants to be surprised, to be taken off on a journey somewhere - no idea where he's going or how he's going to get there. In a sense it's a travelogue, a film for the ear rather than the eye. I think it's about the creation of atmospheres, but to achieve that effect of taking people to various places the music needs to be very colourful within itself. I'm not talking about the trimmings and the props that it surrounds itself with, but over and above video sensibility there's another kind of visual sense that comes into it. I hope that when I do something like the Serpentine Song [also from To Watch The Storms] I try to convey the sweetness of feeling that I've felt when I've taken that walk through Hyde Park . . .

cc: It certainly paints an image, but it will mean something different to me as it does to you or anyone else, but presumably that doesn't matter because it is creating some visual reference rather than just being a meaningless event. As you said, it creates the possibility of a journey. You can shut your eyes and go. Dreaming With Open Eyes [from Darktown] is a beautiful piece of music that does that particularly well. The idea of certain thoughts during a car journey being stimulated by the passing surroundings give the feeling of being in two places at once. Do you have a particular image in mind when writing?

SH: Well, with that one the song started to take shape and I had the idea that if it was going to be a car journey then it would be nice if there weren't too many repeats. So the musical detail, the arrangement, hinged on things appearing then disappearing. So you get one little sound that will appear just once and then it will go and never come again. They'll be like signposts on a road, like a building or hoarding you go past, or even traffic lights. So I was trying to create that journey and the idea of motion.

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