Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett returns with a new studio album, The Night Siren, on March 24. Joining forces with a multi-cultural assemblage of musicians from around the globe, the album’s theme is timelier than ever given the political/cultural upheaval in America and around the world.
“This latest waxing represents a bird’s eye view of the world of a musical migrant ignoring borders and celebrating our common ancestry with a unity of spirit, featuring musicians, singers and instruments from all over the world,” remarks Hackett. “From territorial frontiers to walled-up gateways, boundaries often hold back the tide. But while the night siren wails, music breaches all defenses. To quote Plato, ‘When the music changes, the walls of the city shake’.”
In February, Hackett embarked on a U.S. and European tour called ‘Genesis Revisited with Classic Hackett.’ In celebration of the 40th anniversary of Genesis’ classic 1977 long player, Wind and Wuthering, several choice tracks from the album were also showcased in the show.
Hackett spoke with Rock Cellar about his new album and more; enjoy the chat below.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Does the message behind this new album come into play in regards to the underlying tumult happening in the world?
Steve Hackett: Certainly, two tracks on the record that book end it, “Behind the Smoke” and “West To East.” In the latter track we have an Israeli and a Palestinian singing together. The subject matter is about unity and the idea of cooperation and the idea that war is never the answer. Apart from that it’s up to other people to make of the record what they will.
With the opening track, “Behind the Smoke,” the issue is refugees. Although it’s a current issue, whether to accept people or keep them out, the fortress mentality, or whether the idea of fellowship, cooperation, globalization, all those ideas, whether they will drive the current climate — no one really knows. My own ancestors in the late 1800s were escaping pilgrims in Eastern Europe. In a sense I’m honoring the background of my own family.
The words of both songs were co-written by my wife, Joan. She came up with the opening line, “behind the smoke is black,” which I felt was a great opening to a lyric; it tells the whole story of survivors with no option but to protect themselves and their families. Time will tell what’s gonna happen with the humanitarian crisis. No one can afford to take an isolationalist stance because if they do, there will be more and more cases of terrorism.
If we don’t make friends with our neighbor, it’s goodbye planet Earth.
What sparked the idea to work with a multi-cultural collective of musicians, singers and employ a broad swath of exotic instruments?
Steve Hackett: I’ve been privileged to be a world traveler just as a by-product of my job. My wife also loves to travel — she was given a globe as a kid and wanted to travel to every place she could. I’m very happy to join her on that quest, so in a sense it’s perfect that she’s married to a musician. I get to visit all over the world, Peru, Iceland, Hungary and work with all the instruments from these places, if not the players; you see, sometimes it’s the players and sometimes it’s the instruments. I’m lucky to be involved in this great adventure and it seems natural to me.
Music needs to be adventurous, it doesn’t need to be safe. There’s no point in doing that.
Steve, coming out of the ‘60s, you were involved in music when it first became a force and vehicle for social change. Do we still have the power to channel that today?
Steve Hackett: I think that ever since I heard the power of Bob Dylan’s early work armed with one guitar and a tape recorder… the power of the lone voice is hugely powerful and pertinent today. I think folk music has always addressed these issues because it gets right to the heart of the matter. I’ve got love songs on the album as well, but in a sense I didn’t want to do an album that was “aerie faerie.”
I felt it was the right time to do this now. On one level I’m very proud of the album and if it creates any ripples, I’d be only too happy if music and musicians start to live up to the power that they’ve had invested in them. Music is a great agent for change and a great ambassador for peace. We’re either seen as vagrants or ambassadors, depending on your mindset.
What’s the sense of success for you with the new record? Is it purely creative satisfaction or is it based on commercial sales?
Steve Hackett: Music for me is its own reward and its own currency. It’s always nice to have a hit record but I don’t want to dumb things down and play the game everybody else is doing and delivering the “I’m desperate for you to like me” type of songs. I think there’s nothing wrong with challenge. Nothing should be off limits.
We should raise the bar for what we expect from music and what we expect from filmmakers and from writers.
With your live touring show, Genesis Revisited with Classic Hackett, you’re dipping into songs from Genesis’ Wind & Wuthering album, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in December 2016. When you think of that album, what are the snapshots that go through your mind?
Steve Hackett: I thought it was a great record. At the time I felt I no longer needed the permission of the band to record, either with the band or outside. It was a great record but I was being prevented from recording stuff on my own.
Some of the guys in the band didn’t want me to have a parallel solo career but at the same time there was no guarantee that I would get my songs done by the band. I couldn’t stand the idea of having stillborn songs, either.
So I was very proud of that record and toured it and I wanted to honor it then.
But at the same time, I felt the band was in the fetal stage sociologically and I deplored the band politics, which in essence meant that the band was starting to hemorrhage members. We lost Peter Gabriel and they were losing me.
I’m hugely proud of Wind & Wuthering but it’s terribly important if you’ve got strong ideas that you get to express them. I’m only too happy to play songs on my current tour from our albums.
You’ll hear me play songs from “Foxtrot” to “Nursery Cryme,” “Selling England by the Pound,” “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” “Trick of the Tail” and “Wind & Wuthering.” In fact, all of the albums that I did with the band I’m playing stuff from on this current tour. We’ll be doing one set of solo things and do all of these Genesis things as well.
We’re doing all these storyteller moments; the band was good with it with Peter Gabriel and the band was good with it with Phil (Collins) too. This is before things were being edited to be more video-friendly. This was happening at a time when the emphasis on music was akin to films for the ear rather than music for the ear. I think music became more literal, and the need to express that came from video. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking video at all; I think it can be absolutely bloody marvelous and it’s a fine medium of expression, but then I’m very pleased there wasn’t a video for Sgt. Pepper.
That music on Sgt. Pepper evokes a magical sense of time and place and the creative vision and ambition of that album existed solely in our mind, a much more richly-imagined place than a straight music video representation of the concept could create.
Steve Hackett: Yeah, that’s right. The Sgt. Pepper album is in our minds and it’s burnt into our memory cells. It’s the music that we marveled to, the music that we made love to, the music that we took into our hearts and dreamt along with. It never really needed the movies. The album itself was more than enough; it’s all we really needed.
Speaking of The Beatles, share the story how you came to discover that John Lennon was a fan of the Genesis album Selling England By The Pound.
Steve Hackett: To my recollection, we were in New York City and were having to leave New York to do a tour. It was absolutely threadbare; we could hardly get a gig anywhere. There was two weeks of nothing. We were gonna play The Roxy in L.A. My recollection is we just heard the news that John Lennon had given a radio interview with Scott Muni at WNEW-FM in New York.
Lennon had said we were one of the bands that he was currently listening to. Our album that was out at the time was Selling England By The Pound. That’s an album that I was hugely proud of which has a certain degree of Beatle influence. The “koo koo a goo” aspect with “I Know What I Like” had it; that was our first single.
I was thrilled that John Lennon as even aware that we existed, frankly.
It is a surprising story, considering Lennon had a deep love of 50’s rock with artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran and Fats Domino. But then when you listen to Sgt. Pepper, you recognize that was art rock, stylistic elements of which prog rock bands like Genesis purloined over the years.
Steve Hackett: Yes, that is right. It’s funny, isn’t it? Well, out of the Beatles entire body of work, I think their albums, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and Revolver are head and shoulders above any of their other albums. Those were the ones that really engaged musicians.
Obviously the other Beatles albums had great songs on them but it is those three albums that stand as the pinnacle of their work. When I think of the Beatles remarkable evolution as a band, it doesn’t get any better than that.