Transcribed By Holly Quibell, Musicologist and Anglophile.
We travelled down on a Saturday in November to the deepest parts of Teddington, we arrived at Steve & Jo’s. We had a lovely catch up and the tea was flowing, it was hard to resist the Cheese on toast, so one of us gave in and enjoyed tangy cheese on toast. After about 30 minutes of catching up and other pleasantries. It was down to business, with the digital recorder on its was time to talk.
The Evil Jam (TEJ): Good afternoon, We’d like to talk about the new album At The Edge Of Light, what’s the direction that it’s taking?
Steve Hackett (SH): It’s got more orchestra on it than previous efforts. I suppose in the past I’ve really saved the majority amount of orchestral stuff for the acoustic albums that have had the Royal Philharmonic or a smaller orchestra tracked up. But on this one I thought, Yeah, let’s pretty much have strings with everything. Guitar players are string players, aren’t they?
Violinists, viola players… and I wanted to draw that kind of parallel between the two, have one reinforcing the other. This idea of, why should an extravaganza just happen live? Why not carry that thread through, and to say, well, you know, a small bunch of blokes can sound a little bit like an orchestra, but what if you have… what if you’re listening to the real thing? And I keep getting drawn back to it. But the main thing is, I’m so enthusiastic about this album. I’m just bowled over with the way it sounds, with the way Roger managed to come up with arrangements of things from my broad strokes. That’s what’s truly amazing about it. And the performances of people on it from the real sitar playing of Sheema Mukherjee… just amazing performances by people. Jonas Reingold on bass on quite a bit of it, just extraordinary. And then there’s a bunch of different drummers on it.
TEJ: Yeah I noticed that not only had you used the talents of Gary O’Toole, but you’d also used Simon Phillips, and… I’m trying to think of the other guy…
SH: Nick D’Virgilio.
TEJ: Yes, Nick D’Virgilio, who’s…(drummed for many including Genesis)
SH: And Gulli Briem, as well.
TEJ: Yeah. And he appeared on the last album, I believe.
SH: He did.
TEJ: So you’ve had a fair collection of percussionists there.
SH: And they all bring something new to it. We don’t do it straight however. The first drums that appear are really Gary’s. But, they’re put through a Marshall and it distorts, and that’s after it starts acoustically. So it throws you off the scent from the word “Go”.
TEJ: Yeah with the drums I think the way that you have used them it was quite interesting to hear them. Some of your previous experimentation with the drum sound on a song like “Two Faces of Cairo” on Beyond The Shrouded Horizon… sort of indicates this direction…
TEJ: The way the drums come in was such a surprise compared to how they normally appear in a song.
TEJ: That kind of arrangement, and as I say, that…
TEJ: Certainly, that experimental effect that you use there, and it’s great that you haven’t been stuck like some artists when they find that sound or that effect that they just over-saturate it in terms of live performance or every song on an album. You’ve obviously remembered that roughly how you did it for Beyond the Shrouded Horizon back in, what, 2011-2012? And you brought it forward, and perhaps used it differently now.
SH: Well yeah, I think you have to each time remember that it’s very hard when you start because if you’ve done anything decent at all in the past, the challenge is: how do I equal that, never mind top it? And it’s a strange process when it reveals itself very slowly and starts to take on a personality of its own. And if you’re lucky, you end up in the position that I am right now, feeling that this one’s the best I’ve done. Now, there are times when I’ve felt this is the best I’ve done, before certain other things. Like, Spectral Mornings, I felt this is the best I’ve done.
SH: First time I had my own band, touring, all of that, and so I loved the album. I was blown away again, I think from the input of everyone and the sounds that they made, because all songs that are written are just there to facilitate the notes that others play, or so it seems to me. So I’ve always been a big fan of what others do. I know what I can do. I know I can play guitar, I know I can sing, I know I can do various things, I can write. But, the surprise is always gonna be what do others bring to this?
TEJ: I suppose in some regards you’re almost like a circus ringmaster. You’re picking and choosing who’s performing in your circus.
TEJ: And trying to get the best or the most freshest, I suppose, ideas from them.
TEJ: And it’s more about how you coach those ideas…
TEJ: And bring them to life, I think, rather than you just go, “Oh well you can play drums, okay well just play us a bit of 4/4”. You’re able to sit there going, “Actually I think you could probably do a bit more than this. “Just stretch yourself with it and see what we could do”.
SH: Yeah. Well, I think it’s important not to tie the hands of your collaborators. You need to get the best out of them. And I learned very early on that you need to tear up the rule book because when I was working with Randy Crawford years and years ago, she had this great improvisational style. She could, you know, turn around the ending of every line and make it very much her own. It seemed as if every ending was like an instrumental solo. And when I saw her performing live, the audience were clapping that, you know, her ability to make the song her own. So, it wasn’t working, the song wasn’t working. And I said, “Look, forget the melody line. Sing around it.” And then it started to happen, the magic happened, you know. She was on the point of walking out and telling me that I should get Shirley Bassey to do it.
So that’s, you know, this is the point where you say, “You go to it!” You know? And she turned in this amazing, to my mind, amazing performance, which the other Genesis guys complimented me on and everything, so yeah, I was able to take full credit, but actually, without her ability given full reign, it wouldn’t have been the outstanding thing that it was. So I got this idea that you’ve got to set aside ideas of professionalism and not be the maestro, not be the composer, not be, you know, not be pompous about this and just go, “I don’t know, I’ve got a few ideas, I’ll throw them out there. Let’s see what they come up with”. There like, Jonas on bass, doing this virtuoso stuff on one of the tracks called “Under The Eye Of The Sun”. The fastest bass things I’d ever heard, but the quality of the sound of it is extraordinary. It’s got this extraordinary tone.
TEJ: And that’s what will set him out from perhaps a lot of other bassists. If he can put his feel and stamp on it by going, “Well, you know, my technique is this, but my tone is unique to me”, then that is what will set him apart.
SH: Yeah. I think so. It’s what defines singers, isn’t it? Their tone.
SH: There’s something about it, and very different singing can be appropriate for different songs. Edith Piaf sounds very different to Mick Jagger.
TEJ: Just a bit.
SH: But they do fit the bill of things, or the songs that they bring, or brought alive.
TEJ: Yeah they convey the message of or the meaning of the song. SH: Yeah.
TEJ: I think you can just read a lyric sheet, but as a singer, I suppose you are trying to touch that person, reach that person. And if you’re just singing it as though you were almost narrating it, you’re not doing that.
SH: No. I’ve learned quite a bit about singing. Funnily enough, on this album, I decided not to shout a single note. I thought, Nope, I’m not gonna use a hard edge on this. I’m just going to borrow more from the school of the crooners, the balladeers. And be gentle and if it gets loud at any point there might be a little hint of opera in there, not that I’m trained to be that, but to let it soar above the song, rather than try and be in your face with, you know, Ritchie Havens meets Rod Stewart, it’s not my sound.
SH: I love singers that can put on a hard edge. But horses for courses. You gotta choose the right singer for the right song.
TEJ: Yeah, but like everything, I suppose the problem with the singer is you can almost have it the same way that you can have a guitarist. For example, if you know a guitarist can do that sound, that lick, you don’t necessarily want to get your singer doing that all the time because you over-saturate that gift, that they have. Like you say, I suppose it’s about using that sparingly and not getting so desperate in the songwriting or the lyric writing that you go to that all the time.
SH: It’s a case of trying to find the sweet spot with your own voice, and it’s pretty much the same as playing guitar, but I think I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll recognise where that works like a third person, or like a piece of equipment. That’s all it is. The voice is that. Of course, yes, you can confuse it and say, “Yeah you are the voice, you are that person”, but actually it’s a piece of equipment. And I’ve shared out the vocals, I’ve done tons of vocals on it, but then there’s Amanda Lehmann doing stuff with me, and they’ve been times on it where we created this third voice that’s neither male nor female. It sounds androgynous. And we doubled unison lines and that’s been very successful. I say successful before it’s sold a single copy, but I mean successful in terms of an idea, punting an idea and seeing it working. So, we’ve done that, we’ve created choirs out of it. We’ve been very flexible with that. Sometimes it’s a single voice, sometimes it goes through harmonies, right up to and including choral and classical sounding voices. So I’m fine with that. I love doing that. I love, you know, doing the character actor aspect of that.
TEJ: That’s gotta be an interesting skill to acquire because anyone I suppose could write lyrics and could write music in the form of guitar, bass, drums, vocals, but to suddenly be having to think about what a choir is gonna be doing…
TEJ: And not necessarily having the skills of a conductor or an arranger in that way, must be quite daunting at first, really, to take that mountain of a task on.
SH: Well, you can do it. I think George Martin’s “All You Need Is Ears” is quite right. And I think enthusiasm, passion for it is gonna be what drives it along. Yes, I’ve been making a noise for a living for a long time now, ever since I was two years old, aspiring to try and make a musical noise. But there’s something that’s just happened with this album, where I seem to understand it, in a strange way. I’m sitting back from it thinking, How is that possible? Why did this sound so good? And why, when I listen to other things I’ve done I might be more dismissive overtime and say, “Yes I did the best I could at the time, but what the hell was I thinking?” You know? There wasn’t any point doing that, and so I’m not trying to be someone else most of the time, but character, yes, that, but I’m not trying to sound like another singer. There’s also the McBroom sisters who are on the album, who sang with Pink Floyd most famously. And the thing about, you know, working with two really strong singers like that telling a story, going through gospel and having an aspect of blues, but it’s almost country blues. I wouldn’t necessarily recognise myself within it, if someone handed said to me, you know, “This is it,” “Yeah, who’s that? Whose album is that?” So for brief interludes, we have that, then there’s more characterful stuff. But I’ve gotta let it wander off into the four corners, something that sounds convincingly Indian with the occasional Indian player on it.
TEJ: But you’ve been there before.
SH: I have.
TEJ: You found a way around the situation where you didn’t have either the time or the money to bring an audio solution to a song. “Loch Lomond” for example, you basically had a discussion with Rob Townsend and he turned the reed round in his saxophone, and played it all in one key. And suddenly, as you say, he became, or what you were about to allude to, he became a series of bagpipe players.
TEJ: So rather than just hiring a series of bagpipe players and really ending up with no neighbourly friends anymore, you managed to get Rob to do that. So if you’re able to do that, then, of course, that’s alchemy.
TEJ: That’s not a guy sort of doing some magic tricks, it’s the same with what you’re alluding to there with the Indian stretch. You’re not Indian, by any stretch of the imagination, but you have worked with sitar yourself and played the sitar. I believe you are the guy playing the coral sitar on “I Know What I Like”.
SH: Well actually, yeah that’s a sitar guitar, which was mine, but I played the same riff that Mike played. You know, we were both playing the same thing. And yeah, I mean, his sounded a little more like a steel drum on it.
TEJ: Yeah it did. But you then revisited the sitar.
TEJ: Yours is a Jerry Jones (Sitar), I believe.
SH: Well, as I say, I’ve got a sitar guitar, but I think, you know, this new album is the first time I’ve really worked with the real thing.
TEJ: So you’ve gone honest almost, then.
SH: I’ve gone honest and we’ve had a real virtuoso playing it as opposed to me. It was very complimentary, funnily enough, about the sitar that was on “Martian Sea”. Actually, it sounds really good. But, you know, she comes from a long line of virtuoso sitar players.
SH: And she was doing stuff in one go, which was just amazing, you know, just an amazing solo, and she’s hitting the sympathetic strings at the same time so it’s a whole rhythmic thing that’s going on. Far more difficult than I thought it would be, and watching her doing it… because I imagine that sympathetic strings were induced by whatever else you were playing.
SH: But actually she’s hammering those at the same time in between the notes. It’s an extraordinary skill to be able to do that.
TEJ: Enough so you’ve been able to emulate that, but also realised it by having a virtuoso player on and taking that part on this occasion.
SH: Yeah. Lots of virtuosos on this. Many of them women on this album. It’s extraordinary.
TEJ: It’s great to realise an album where you can employ the talents and the time of so many people isn’t always feasible. So the fact that you’ve been able to do it this time around, like you say, perhaps does mark a new chapter.
SH: It does. It feels very fresh, it feels very different. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s from the very first note. There’s something that, you know, the first few seconds something extraordinary happens and I noticed when I played it for the record company, from the word “go” they went, “Oh this is good”. And I thought, Oh! If they like that, we’re quite in! Because this kind of energy keeps going. It doesn’t falter. There are no acoustic tracks on the album – first time in my life I’ve not stuck an acoustic track on a rock album. I wanted to keep the pace up. I mean, there is an acoustic moment or two, but the most acoustic track… there are moments of siesta in this, so in a way, it stays urban from beginning to end, really. There are those moments where, yes, you get a brief flash of the Spanish sunshine perhaps, but it doesn’t hang around. I don’t let people go to sleep on it. So the pacing is better than before, or so it seems to me.
Steve then suggests we have a listen through some of the album tracks.
[Song “Fallen Walls And Pedestals” plays, followed by “Beasts In Our Time”, “Under The Eye Of The Sun”, “Underground Railroad”, “Those Golden Wings”]
TEJ: Yes, there’s an awful lot there isn’t there, to talk about, actually.
SH: There’s a lot going on, yeah, for sure. Gives you an idea of some of that.
TEJ: But wow! The song with the Dobro [“Underground Railroad”]… wow. It’s a departure from your usual style.
SH: Yeah, well, dobro is… I think, yeah, if I hit dobro I think immediately it’s Americana, it’s no longer England suddenly with a dobro. Just straight away. Got quite heavy strings on that dobro, so I’m laying into them like crazy, playing them about as hard as I can to make them snap. Do it with fingers, most people with a dobro would do it with a plectrum, but I wanted to do it, you know, sort of busy kind of pattern to drive it along. Different kind of sound. Recognise this! It’s different. Those two are very different, to a sense.
TEJ: There’s such a great use of the two ladies as well, I mean, come on!
SH: Yeah, they’re great, aren’t they? They’re really amazing singers. In fact, Durga sounds more like Salena Jones, I think. She sang it an octave down. I thought she was gonna sing it an octave up. I thought, Well, we’ll leave it like this. You know, this works. We’re writing for female singers. You’re not always aware of, you know, their best range. I might have had to rewrite the melody completely, but no. Extraordinary. They’re got extraordinary power in their voices when they let rip. It’s Lorelei who does the “Yeah, yeah, yeah”. That thing. Once it gets going it’s just a great, great voice.
TEJ: Certainly. Yeah. It is. It’s gonna be one of those tracks on the album where you sit there and go, “This is different”.
TEJ: And this is, you know it is because…
SH: That’s “Underground Railroad”.
TEJ: Yeah. It’s blues, it’s gospel. There’s not a sudden emergency application of the brakes. You are comfortably going from one realm to the other but back again, and it’s, yeah…
SH: From one genre to another. It’s the genre-hopping aspect, isn’t it? The pan-genre thing. You go from style to style, the scenes of an imaginary film.
TEJ: Yeah, again yourself and Roger clearly know how to write arrangements that you could place in a part of a film where there was a sinister plot about to emerge…
SH: Sure, yeah.
TEJ: Or a scene of horror maybe.
SH: Yeah. I think it’s the most cinematic of all the albums I’ve done.
TEJ: Having heard some of the album earlier, its time to grab the pop corn.
SH: In fact, I meant to send it to… I don’t know if I’ll get around to this because, you know, life is so bloody busy, but Andrew Stanton, who’s now moved on to directing, I might just send it to him, because he and I talked about doing something at some point. You know, I think, well, if this isn’t film music, I don’t know if I can get any closer to film music. You done any orchestral rock? You know, bluegrass? Bring it on! You know, I’m not afraid of all that. I think that a lot of film scores these days are like some of the best, most experimental stuff that I’ve heard. You know, when you’re hearing orchestras that work, sometimes it’s with new movies, you know. You’re not always aware of the soundtrack going on, are you? The pace of the film, the star is the star on the screen going through the chase and all that…
TEJ: But it’s not because the chase would sound pretty flat without any music to give it that kind of mood and emotion.
SH: Yeah. Widens the frame.
TEJ: Otherwise you’re just sitting there watching someone run down an alley.
TEJ: There’s no drama, there’s no sense of urgency, it’s just an actor running down an alleyway.
TEJ: But suddenly, place some music in there, and the character or the longer scene, you know, where sometimes you can watch a film, you can have an idea of what’s coming next for the character. It’s the music that’s driving that, I think.
SH: It can act in a surprising way, you know, subliminally I think. Film music where I remember the film Angel Heart. Now, I might be wrong, I think it might be directed by Alan Parker, but I remember looking at the opening frame and thinking how very atmospheric it was. And I think it’s mainly sound effects, there’s a little bit of music, might be a little bit of drone, but there’s sort of a feeling of implied mystery and threat. But then you watch the same bit and you turn down the sound, and you go, “What’s happening?”
TEJ: Yeah, it dilutes it somewhat
SH: There’s nothing happening. The music is telling, or the sound rather, not the music per se, but you know, the story. You need that. And the frame is getting wider…
TEJ: You can apply it the same with some of the work that Spielberg’s done. I mean, could you honestly say Jaws would seem half as threatening if you didn’t hear, that famous simple string thing by John Williams, You know? Would you be sitting here, “Oh it’s just an aggressive shark”?
TEJ: But suddenly it’s night-time, you’re hearing the music, so it sounds – the shark suddenly sounds far more sinister and far more predatory than you’d give him credit for.
SH: I think John Williams was having a hard time selling the idea of that score to Spielberg because when you sit down and play those two notes on the piano, you gotta use a lot of imagination to imagine what that can become.
SH: See, there’s a lot of it that goes on when you listen to Beatles demos. You’ve got no idea what that song is going to become.
TEJ: Yeah I mean, like you I’ve got the deluxe Sgt. Pepper Box Set. And if you realise the hindsight now, cause we’ve heard the finished version or the version that they all like the most…
TEJ: But you can go back to something like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” it’s really funny as to where they take that song and then suddenly you’ve got the version that we all well know. Sometimes you cannot really appreciate the craft it took to get it there and how many different versions they went through, whether they pulled in the sitar and thought, Well we’ll let George have a go and give him a bit of an in. You’d never know without these demo’s.
SH: “[I Am The] Walrus” is like that, isn’t it?
SH: You hear the demo of “Walrus” on acoustic guitar and a half-sung vocal all mumbled and you think, Oh there’s nothing there. What can I do with that? If you were required to work on that. But then…
TEJ: Suddenly there’s strings.
SH: As Geoff Emerick said, you know, he felt that the whole song was saved, and perhaps made in the orchestral arrangement and beyond. So it shows you that detail is the thing in a song. It’s not necessarily just the song. Some people can sound great with an acoustic guitar. You’ve got an amazing voice and an amazing song. But other times something needs to be fleshed out. You need to be able to see the emperor in all the new clothes. It won’t necessarily survive if it’s naked.
TEJ: Usually, when people do an acoustic version of a song, it’s because there’s a full-fat version of it already. So now you’re getting the semi-skim version, I suppose. That is, it makes a nice departure, but sometimes, as you say it’s nice to know that there is a full-fat version of it.
TEJ: There is a blue top version of it out there. I mean, milk’s not necessarily the best analogy, but I suppose it makes the most sense.
SH: No, I think the full-fat idea is good, you know, all sketch and portrait. Once it’s a little thumbnail sketch, and then it’s a portrait in oils. And you confer the title “Masterpiece” on it, as “Walrus” is, of course, and many of those Beatles things.
TEJ: Yeah. I mean, “Walrus” is… and the hilarity of it is, the lyrics are non-sensible. But then he comes back to the most damning, and sort of joining universal line, “I am hear as you are hear [as you are me] and we are all together”, and it’s just such a leveller, I think, when you listen to that particular song.
SH: The idea that actually perhaps we’re not separate beings.
SH: The idea that people are sharing a common consciousness.
TEJ: Pretty much.
SH: So it alludes to that, although I imagine each Beatle, were they all living, would poo-poo that and say, “No, no, that’s far too intellectual. We were just doing what came naturally. Never mind
about all that”.
SH: But the implication is there that in fact, perhaps we’re not singularities at all.
TEJ: No. So for me, that’s the bit that makes the song, the bit. The rest of it, you know, “Semolina Pilchard/Climbing up the Eiffel tower” is just whimsical. But it has to be there, otherwise, the message will be too stark and in your face. But it’s nice to see how they evolved from guitar, bass, drums and, you know from the point of, “She Loves You”…
TEJ: To suddenly going, into the really deep stuff.
SH: It’s very caricature in a way. At times it’s a caricature of a rock band but then it’s a caricature of an orchestra. There’s bits of brass that wander in. And then it’s almost as if you arrive right in the middle… it could be something out of the score to The Big Country. Suddenly the percussion’s taken away and the orchestra are leading the charge. And, you know, to my ears it goes Panavision. It goes wide, it’s big picture, it’s not diminished, as it goes down to that breakdown into the orchestral section. It’s intriguing! Yes, we’ve wandered off into another song, but then we’ve come back again, and why not? And it’s a sort of anthem of the preposterous.
TEJ: And it’s great because your music can do that sometimes.
TEJ: Albums I think can be collections, as we’ve discussed before, they can be collections of snapshots of the wide cinematic screen. But sometimes they’re not. And sometimes they’re just simple messages. This is how I feel today, this is what I think of this, this is how I love this person, or this is how I like to reminisce about this time and this place, or this is how I feel about the wrongs in the world or my utopian view, and there’s so many different ways to convey that.
SH: Well there’s much of that with “Beasts”, a track called “Beasts In Our Time”, which I think might have been the second one that I played you a bit of. So yeah, we allow it to go symbolic. That’s alright. I’ve written a lot of lyrics with Jo. Her input in it is critical, and Roger’s input is critical, and everyone who does anything on it at all, you know, without their contribution it just wouldn’t be the same. And there comes that moment when you say, “This is finished. This works”. The fact that we actually bought some golden wings, there’s a track called, “Those Golden Wings”. It starts off orchestral, it’s one of the ones I was playing you, that goes into the choral stuff, or one type or choral stuff, but I’m glad we bought those because, and we got some others as well, because it concentrated the mind on the idea of that love song relationship where the other person gives you wings. So that’s really it and it’s epic length. Complicated, but it’s not the length of the song, is it? It’s not the length of the play, it’s the quality of the acting, it’s the quality of the writing.
TEJ: You know I think people who have found that one can sometimes relate to someone else singing about the one that they found. And they might not necessarily share everything that they’re hearing, but they might sit there going, “Actually yeah, this is a warm feeling”. This is what unity feels like when you sort of share the same values, I suppose, without sounding very ethical as though I’m on a diversity course. And like you say, for you the symbolism is golden wings, hence why there’s a pair behind you on the wall, and hence why there’s a pair on the fireplace.
SH: Yeah. I think we bought them at the same shop. And then it also went with this kind of version of the sphinx that’s Greek, the idea of the winged mythical creature. So you have a collection of things over there too.
TEJ: It’s alright. You would say eclectic at first, but then the more you look at it, the more it seems to fit.
SH: Yeah, those things are all from different places up there, but they kind of belong together.
TEJ: But of course they mean an awful lot to yourself and Jo because you remember the moment you looked upon them, so they mean something to you both
SH: Yeah. The Greek things, the Indian things and, you know, beyond that as well. The Ganesha up there, the Buddha over here.
TEJ: Because both of you travel quite a bit, so again it’s almost… I don’t want to cheapen it by calling it a souvenir or a memento
SH: Yes. A souvenir of a journey, yes. Without using the word “travelogue”, it’s that, yes. Souvenirs, absolutely.
TEJ: I mean, at the start of the listening session, straight away you’re thinking Eastern Europe.
SH: No, I was just playing things to bring in and out…
TEJ: Romania, those kinds of places.
SH: There’s an aspect of that. Azerbaijan and cimbalom I think of as synonymous with the Hungarians because they do it awfully well.
TEJ: Yeah. So for me, that would feel like you’re influence from your work with Djabe.
SH: Yeah a bit and absolutely. They are in turn influenced by the people that they meet and they’ve assimilated into that band, which is an entirely flexible concept in the first place, you know. The idea of it being free. So yeah, it kind of… it wrong-foots you, throws you off the scent, but then, you know, wide dynamics has been the mainstay of this kind of genre-hopping music for quite some time.
SH: Fool people into thinking it’s had to be very quiet.
TEJ: Certainly, because they read the name on the album and they just assume, “Aha, we know that this guy’s gonna deliver”. And I’d say, compared to the last two albums, they’d be in for a shock now.
TEJ: Especially that the use of the… most certainly Durga and her sister Lorelei along with the playing of the dobro, is really going to mix people up, I think.
TEJ: Because it’s as close to the blues you can get without actually being it, I think.
SH: Yeah. It’s not actually blues, but it uses blues scales at times but it’s not 12 bar, you know.
SH: It’s moving, it’s not fixed, it’s not predictable.
TEJ: It’s that feeling you get when you hear a blues song, but never played, you sit there going, “This isn’t new, this is a theme that’s coming”, and then it suddenly becomes gospel, and you go, “Well I didn’t expect that”.
SH: But even that comes out of a tunnel of sounds, so it’s all reverb, first of all. And because it’s all reverb, you don’t get to hear what the figure is that’s being played in your ears. A distant noise and it’s like a train coming into view, yeah? You hear the rattle of the rails. So that’s also part of the storytelling and the imaginary camera, but it has to be the ears rather than the eyes.
TEJ: Yeah. It promises to be a really refreshing look at where you’re at this year, I think.
TEJ: And hopefully going forwards it’ll…
SH: Yeah. I think it’s the summation of everything I’ve been aiming at in certainly recent years. I don’t think there’s any lack of grandeur in it, so I suspect, you know, that the usual delusions of grandeur but it’s… I was reading something recently and there was a line within it talking about permanent delusions of grandeur.
TEJ: Yeah. Almost where the Ego takes control.
SH: Yeah. Let’s spread that out over the course of a whole album and be yourself to such a degree that it’s outrageously individual.
TEJ: But it’s very easy to do that. If you’re a drummer, you can make the drums the loudest on every song.
SH: Of course.
TEJ: If you’re a guitarist, you can make the guitar the loudest on every song and make it so that there’s no end of guitar playing on every song.
TEJ: And some people would like that, but the majority of people would come to the conclusion that their ears would need that dynamic, both it being off and there being something else coming into the song.
TEJ: And no one could ever levy that complaint but yourself, because you’re not wishing to take centre stage, you’re not the one who’s permanently singing, there are others who are singing.
SH: That’s right, yeah.
TEJ: And bringing their ideas to the table.
SH: I try and be my own gatekeeper, editor, at least in the imagination where I think the idea of guitar heroics can be absolutely thrilling. You get a great player and he’s playing away for all his worth, and yeah, we’ve got these sorts of moments of daring do and all that. But there’s a whole world outside of that. I’m rereading that book, C.S. Lewis, Of This And Other Worlds, and that’s about writers. It’s about the worlds they create. And in a way, there’s this implied invitation, you know, for anyone who writes. You can take people places here, it doesn’t have to be nationalistic, does it?
TEJ: No. It can be whimsical. And when the moment suddenly becomes whimsical, when that writer is creating a world that isn’t like reality at all, suddenly anything like a national identity is gone.
TEJ: You don’t watch Alice In Wonderland and go, “Clearly they’re all British”. You sit there going, “No!” The whole idea of what label or country they can be from is completely out of the window.
TEJ: You’ve now entered their realm and their world.
SH: I know that Astor Piazzolla, the Argentinean composer, who worked mainly with tango songs, was told very early on in his career that, “I don’t hear enough of your country in this”. And so I think he stretched the tango idea. He wanted to have an identity with the music and he wanted to celebrate Argentina, but at the same time, he stretched the idea of what a tango could be to such a degree. It was not just jolly dance music. It’s more than that. Took that, took it to the concert hall, and it’s very kind of… it brings in the ideas of grotesques and pastiche, characteur…
TEJ: Yeah. You, for example, I mean, we all like watching, last night the Proms on the telly.
TEJ: And we all expect the running order towards the end to be very similar. It’s always “Land Of Hope And Glory”.
TEJ: It’s always “Jerusalem”. What else is in there usually?
SH: “Rule Britannia”.
TEJ: Yeah. “Rule Britannia’s always in there. But if that was every night of the Proms…
SH: Yeah that’s three anthems right there, isn’t it.
TEJ: You could be sitting there going, “This is too Nationalistic. They’re ramming it down our throats and we don’t want it”.
TEJ: So the fact that it’s nothing like that for the other nights of the Proms, and that’s the last night and that’s, you know… The first half of the program is whatever it’s gonna be, and the last section of the second program is gonna be the nationalistic things that we all look forward to, that we shouldn’t have shame in celebrating. It’s great. But if they were rammed down our throats for the 49 odd other nights, we’d be sick to death of it.
TEJ: I don’t sit there going through a Steve Hackett gig going, “Oh Jesus, that’s very British”. I mean your influences are so wide and your music so adventurous in a way. But if you play Selling England By The Pound…
TEJ: Which you intend to do next year, parts of that sound British, but that’s because it was a product of its time and it was trying to reflect on the fact that American culture was making its way
into British life.
SH: Yes. Making a noise. Yeah.
TEJ: But it’s not Nationalistic, it’s not a flag-waving thing of going, “Oh, let’s look at us”, you know.
SH: Well, it does. That particular track, “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” does wander into other territories, you know.
SH: I think by the time you’ve listened through to the song from beginning to end, you’ve got an immigrant band there. We’ve migrated to other shores.
TEJ: Of course.
SH: Yeah, you’ve got the aspect of the dramatic, the Mozartian, if you like. And you’ve got fusion from wherever that hails from, somewhere between New York and Glasgow perhaps. That’s alright. It’s okay. We can allow that to happen. And even if you’re watching the last night of the Proms, you may well be watching a band of international musicians who are under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, perhaps.
SH: But that’s okay as well, as long as we celebrate people’s capabilities at the same time we’re going, “Yes, the British are wonderful, we did it all, we have an empire, we shall never be swamped”. And so far, you know, of course, the Romans have marched in, the Saxons, and the Normans. Yes, we have been conquered many times, so you realise that those “Rule Britannia” lyrics are complete hogwash. (laughs)
TEJ: They’re whimsical! We’re back to the whimsical again. But England, we will never be slaves, yeah come on.
SH: Yes, indeed.
TEJ: We haven’t had enough of that already in our history… And the hilarity of last night at the Proms is, apart from Sir Simon Rattle, there has been an international queue of conductors… American’s, someone from Canada and even someone from Turkey, who’ve conducted the entire last night of the Proms. There’s always a cast of everybody of the world, almost like your last three albums where you have utilised the talents of people around the world regardless of where they’re from. And to the surprise, in your case, where you had somebody from Israel and someone from Palestine working happily.
TEJ: Because they didn’t subscribe to the notion that somebody put a big line in the map and that’s why they can’t get along.
SH: Yes. And you’ve got the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, and they have Israeli Palestinian working together and playing Wagner, you know, the big anti-semitic…
TEJ: Yes, which can’t be played in Israel for good reason.
SH: But there you are, you know, but it’s the idea of healing, you know, these sort of musical untouchables…why not? Music should not be condemned. It should not be quarantined.
TEJ: It shouldn’t be misappropriated to belong to a cause or an idealism that is just abhorrently incorrect with sensible thinking. I think anyone can think irrationally and come up with some weird idea far from the left or the right of normality. But sensible thinking. I think it’s really harsh when people hijack songs, or idealism hijacks songs or music and tries to reinterpret it for its own end, I think.
SH: I haven’t got anything to live up to, other than idealism. You know, I walked out on one of the world’s most successful bands because my allegiance was to music, it’s not to any one particular flag. I know it’s got to be international, it’s got to be global, it’s got to be comprehensive. If I was working with Kalimba in 1977 and then a couple of years later or was it a year later, a Koto, a Chinese Koto. World music? Yeah, bring it on! I’m right there. I feel that you’ve got to celebrate music wherever it hails from, it seems to me. And some of those instruments are just wonderful.
TEJ: Yeah, I mean, where else in the modern… and it is the modern age, where you can have that instrument that perhaps originated in Turkey, have an instrument that originates in South America. We now live in a connected world where those things are possible.
TEJ: A musician could walk into the right music shop and have access to that. Or, you know, tune percussion that you wouldn’t even think that it would be the basis of music but it’s…
SH: Yes I know. It’s funny that, isn’t it? It sounds like a very dry thing when someone says, “Do you tune percussion?” That’s the way forward. But, you know, the guitar is a percussion instrument. Oh! I forgot that! The piano is a percussion instrument. You can still create washes with these things.
TEJ: It’s the same with the way in which you have this kind of thing when you play acoustic guitar. Your particular style at times means that you will hit the body of the guitar and then hit the strings.
SH: There are different ways.
TEJ: You wouldn’t listen to a Bob Dylan song thinking, When’s he gonna hit that body of that guitar? while he’s singing, “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man” you don’t expect him to go off the body of the guitar because you’d be like, “That’s not your usual style, Bob”.
TEJ: So the fact that…
SH: He’s a lyrically-intensive writer.
TEJ: Yeah that’s his area.
SH: And whether or not this is true, he was reported in saying the only thing that matters is the words. The only thing. But, it’s what others have brought to those tunes that I think has transformed, although he’s had a great band from time to time himself.
TEJ: Yeah. But I think it’s the fact that you can just take something out of his comfort zone, as we allude back to making a saxophone sound like a bagpipe.
SH: Yeah. Rob can do that.
TEJ: There’s three trains of thought there. There’s the experimentation, the fact that all the inspiration of an idea where he’s seen it.
TEJ: And he thinks, How do I achieve or obtain this? Or the third one going, “Wow, you know, when all else fails we’ll just get bagpipes”. So, the talent that took that, and it did take that, to get it off the ground. Because you listen to that moment, and you do, you transport straight away to that part of Scotland. Whereas now you’re saying that you’re coming back to the fact that you are being far more honest. You’re going, “Well let’s get that virtuoso sitar player in here”.
SH: Yeah. It’s more literal. Yeah. You’re quite right. It wasn’t the first time that Rob did that with a woodwind. You know, he had whistles and soprano sax at the end of “Set Your Compass”. He was doing that. Of course, we were remixing that for the box set (Broken Skies – Outspread Wings) recently doing it in surround. That’s one of the best tracks in surround because there were so many vocal harmonies. Armies of harmonies coming at you from different directions in the fully-immersive sound spectrum.
TEJ: It’s a good box set, the surround sound material adds value
TEJ: But in all honesty the tracks I’d have mixed in surround sound, compared to the tracks you chose to mix are not the same.
TEJ: That’s because we have different tastes.
SH: Yeah. And we might not have had access to all the sorts of material in a friendly way. It all depends, you see. It all depends how things go in the future for me. Depending on how this album does, if it does better than anything else I’ve done then, you know, the emphasis is, “Well, couldn’t you go back and touch some of those tracks that you didn’t do in that way?” If I can afford masses and masses of people to trove through, masses and masses of Dat Tapes in order to painstakingly make copies. But at the same time, I was putting that together, I was trying to finish a new album to move forward, so I didn’t have enough hands on deck.
TEJ: Fair enough that explains the choice of material.
We take a break for a cup of tea and biscuits, when we return we discuss how hectic and busy 2018 has been for Steve & Jo.
TEJ: The year that this box set came out was 2018. You played live a number of places this year. You’ve written and recorded a brand new album with a cast of others that have brought new additions to the cast in the form of the McBroom sisters, which no one saw coming, by the way. So what are your remaining plans for 2018
SH: The next stop is Ethiopia, it’s research. We come back with songs. We have these aural souvenirs, all of that, and it broadens the writing. So, you know, if I don’t go to India I don’t get to hear those drummers. Wherever I go. We’re going to go to Ethiopia, funnily enough. That’s the next journey. This is interesting. We’re gonna meet tribes. We’re going to do this. We’re gonna go full emotion into the strange.
TEJ: That is another country, the moment you hear the word Ethiopia, two things emerge. You think of Michael Buerk’s report from 1983-84 when he’s filming people dying of starvation and malnutrition, or you think about the fact that there’s volcanoes in Ethiopia. But then we saw another program called Journey of the Silk Road. Two comedians driving, and they come to this church in Ethiopia, but you can’t see it from the road, because it’s dug into this hole that you would just drive past. You would think there’s a block there, but you access this church another way.
SH: It’s a funny thing talking about, you know, the unexpected. In India, we came across, you know, very early temples that had been hewn out of rock. So they take a mountain… this is their idea of sculpture. They take a mountain and they’ll carve a temple out of it, a building. And it’ll have, you know, a herd of elephants. It’s not like taking a piece of rock somewhere and moving it around and working it. No, they work with the mountain itself, and one wonders how that’s possible. And then we see the same thing Petra, in Jordan where we’ve just been where, out of a canyon, and arguably, things that are almost as tall as mountains on either side, they’re creating a whole city out of it. But it’s stuff that’s done on the spot.
TEJ: Yeah it was the part of Jordan, that you see in one of the Indiana Jones films, wasn’t it?
TEJ: Yeah. And it was again, it’s one of those things that until, without making assumptions here, until somebody you know goes and sees it, it just looks like a film set. In your head you think, Oh they just knocked that out for the film.
SH: Oh yeah. No, it looks unreal. And we were sitting there at that very famous bit that you see on film, but there are other things there that were equally thrilling, so it’s not just a one horse trick,
SH: You spend a day walking the length of this canyon, or you can do it on horseback or camel or donkey, depending on how fit you are, what your taste is. It’s an amazing place. It’s extraordinary. But the feeling was about Jordan that the star is the desert, really.
SH: The natural world out there. The biblical stuff. We spent the night with the Bedouins in a tent, and that was extraordinary. The feeling that you get sitting around a fire at the end of the day drinking strange-tasting tea.
SH: That’s an amazing feeling, and I’d recommend it for anyone who thinks, “Yeah let’s go out for an adventure. Let’s get a passport. If we’re American, maybe we need to move out of these shores.” Go get a passport, you know, no you won’t get killed. You can do this sort of stuff. It’s alright, you know. There’s a world beyond New York city, believe me.
TEJ: Or beyond London, even.
SH: Beyond London, yeah.
TEJ: I mean, you’ve been to Egypt a few times?
SH: Well, Egypt once. And that was a Rupert Bear trip. We happened to be in Cyprus and we were given a chance to go do a 24-hour trip. And you get up really early and you fly out there and do everything. It was amazing! We got to see the pyramids, the Sphinx, the Cairo Museum, a trip up the Nile on a boat. We saw whirling dervishes, we had at least a couple of meals, and you arrive back and it’s arguably the same day. It’s extraordinary. I saw the most wonderful stuff. Wonderful music, wonderful dancing, extraordinary architecture. And to see Cairo at that time before…
TEJ: The troubles. (The spring revolution)
SH: Yes. Before the troubles. But of course, yes, we came back with that tune. I was literally standing opposite the Sphinx looking at it and I got my notebook that I couldn’t stop writing down music, because it seemed to be working like a transmitter. It was the most amazing thing. Look at this thing. And it goes like this! (laughs) And it’s getting translated into mainly into guitar phrases for me, but equally, they could have been orchestral phrases. They were kind of harmonic minor things, eastern sounding anyway, the most exotic stuff. And we were utterly blown away by it. It was an extraordinary trip, but it is possible to do this. Jo and her sister Amanda at one point made a trip to Iceland and needed a Rupert Bear trip. Take a very early morning flight, see Iceland, come back the same night, you know.
SH: And it is possible to do that.
SH: So anyone who says, “Oh I haven’t got the time”, yeah, it can be done. Maybe you just have to spend less money down the pub and save up a bit. Everyone’s got a choice, haven’t they?
SH: I know we’re privileged, being able to do this, but…
TEJ: But it’s very easy to go, “Oh look at them.” You know, he’s toured and he’s made lots of money, but you…
SH: I’ve also spent most of it putting on shows.
TEJ: Yeah. If you’d have taken any of the career roles we’d discussed earlier as we were having our preamble, you know, you would have ended up perhaps as a chartered surveyor. You would have
gone to Egypt.
TEJ: You just wouldn’t necessarily have had… you would have perhaps had to have spaced it out and saved up a bit. But everybody has that option.
SH: Yeah. I’m basically unemployable. You wouldn’t want me to pack your vegetables. I got fired from that when I was 15, luckily perhaps.
TEJ: But yet it’s come good.
SH: Yeah. It has been. It’s been a great time. It’s been extraordinary. It really has been an amazing year, and the past few years have been particularly intense in a very good way. I’ve seen more places than I imagined.
SH: You know, I was a reluctant traveller when I first started out, but travelling started for me in 1957 when my parents emigrated to Canada. God, you know, for a kid from Pimlico where we’d see nothing but the fields of concrete of Pimlico, to be able to see the Atlantic and to see real icebergs and to see real mountains across the planes, the prairies of Canada, to see that…
TEJ: Almost the stuff of legends, I suppose
SH: Yeah. We eventually were in a house in a basement flat, where 30 seconds down the road there was Jericho Beach.
SH: There was a beach just literally at the end of the road. It was extraordinary. It was very hard coming back to England, and I wanted to forget the idea of travel because it was traumatic to me coming back to England with this sort of blinkered vision that they seem to have at schools. I had already seen some of the rest of the world. I knew it was different out there. I’d sung a different song. Not just “Rule Britannia” and “God Save The Queen”, but “O’Canada”.
TEJ: Of course.
SH: That was it, yeah. We did that, we did our silly thing, the flag thing every day, all of that. And it was a glimpse at another self. So yeah, we come back to “I Am The Walrus”, don’t we. The opening lines about how many are there of you. Not enough to go around…
TEJ: No. But at the same time, you fell in with a group of musicians that just so happened to start touring the world.
SH: Yes. That’s right. There was a by-product of wanting to do music. Yeah.
TEJ: So you go to America, you’re sitting there, especially in the early days I imagine, going, “Did the gear make it alright? Is my guitar okay? Are the amps okay?”
SH: Will the amp work tonight? It blew up the first gig. Van Deer Graff Generator and string-driven thing, with the tour manager, Fred Munt at the time, God rest his soul he’s passed on now, he
said to me, “Don’t want to worry you, but for your stage debut your amp’s just blown up”. So I already had flu, and I got the jitters before going on, you know, Avery Fisher Hall, and all the rest, you know, Lincoln Centre. So yeah, that was quite harrowing. But hey, you know, luckily America continued to call. All stage performances when you first start doing it, it’s harrowing.
TEJ: Yeah it must have been, back in December 1972.
SH: I’m gonna try and write in my book just how nervous I was in the early days about, you know, sitting down and my knees would be knocking together. I could be so nervous you wouldn’t believe it.
TEJ: Yeah, well you did evolve. I think the phrase used is that as a guitarist you were so nervous that the volume pedal almost became a tremolo pedal.
SH: That’s right, yeah. And that went on for quite some time, but then, over time, over decades, things I dreamt of came, like being able to do finger tremolo. Took me decades to get to do it and to understand it. And anyone who wants to do a perfect finger tremolo on a rock guitar, I’ll say, “Well, practice it slow and wide, otherwise it will become a twitch”. Eventually, you’ll get disgusted with yourself and angrily you’ll do it right one day. But that took me decades to do that. Three fingers on the string, bend up. Yeah, and now I go on stage and even if I’m a bit nervous because I’m thinking, Oh there might be 50 people on this stage and we’ve all got to swing together. The fact is, you still, you know, the main aim is to enjoy it, and if you enjoy it, even if everything goes wrong, still, if you enjoy it, that will communicate. If you’re enjoying it, people will get it. They’ll understand that someone up there’s having a ball. So when I look around at the guys and see they’re enjoying themselves, that’s good, you know. Grace under fire and all the rest, they do that.
TEJ: I think it happened at both gigs we were at on this orchestral tour. The Musical Box is not so much like Afterglow, but I can sort of take it or leave it sometimes.
SH: The ‘Proggiest’ of the Prog anthems.
TEJ: But yes it’s in the set so, you know, we’re going to enjoy this. So we were there and you’ve got Nad, and normally Nad’s the centre of attention unless it’s time for a guitar solo or a drum thing or something else, you know. That’s what he’s there for, that’s why he’s seen.
SH: Yeah, sure.
TEJ: So we’re sitting there. Nad’s (Sylvan) He’s doing his thing and he’s in his costume, which is again, quite entirely focused on. And we could just see… now to the left of us, which is probably stage right for you, one of the ladies who was the violinist, she really likes the first half of the “Musical Box” and she was tapping along, giving a bit of that…
SH: I heard this.
SH: That’s Charlie Beresford. She’s the orchestra leader, actually.
TEJ: Yeah. She really… on both night she really liked that. Giving it this and…
SH: Yeah. Well they don’t get to play until the very end, but it’s fantastic when they kick in.
TEJ: Of course it is.
SH: Absolutely wonderful, because they’re doubling the guitar harmonies and my God, it really takes off like crazy, and that bit of music always did take off like a rocket, but suddenly it’s a rocket with quite a few other… I wouldn’t say passengers, but more fuel, and it’s an extraordinary thing.
TEJ: It was on both nights
SH: There was a lot of enthusiasm on that stage from Brad conducting to the orchestra, they were extraordinary, the way… I was still meeting people that had been on stage at the end of the first gig. I felt like I was Prince Phillip, “And what do you do?” Because we hadn’t had time to meet properly. We’re meeting in corridors, always in harness, straight into rehearsals on the first day. But then, you know, we had a do afterwards and some of them showed up afterwards and had a drink, and that was fun. Very good. I loved working with them. Doesn’t happen every day of the week, does it?
TEJ: It was a really nice dynamic, and for us, it was really enjoyable. I think it was interesting where we were sat. I think if you were sat in other parts of the auditorium you probably would have had a more, not better, a more clearer picture of what was going on, I think. The problem is, everybody wants to be sat at the front. They want to watch their artist or whatever, and the sound’s not always the best there. And in Birmingham, it wasn’t the best at the front. We were told by our German friends Volker and Michaela that where they were sat was just fine and they had a lovely time and everything seemed clear and balanced. For me some songs sounded like there was an awful lot going on, it was very mushy.
SH: Depends where you’re positioned doesn’t it, as well.
TEJ: Yeah. And other songs, clear as day. You could read the distinction between what was being added and…
SH: Are you in front of the guitar amps? That’s the other thing.
TEJ: Then you are going to get a blast of guitar.
SH: You might get too much guitar, depending on where you’re sitting, but I don’t really know how to turn down…
TEJ: Of course not. (laughs)
SH: …And hear myself at the same time, having resisted in-ear monitoring at the expense perhaps, but I need to hear myself.
TEJ: But at the same time, your team took all the relevant steps you could with Gary’s drums. They were screened off, so it wasn’t like you were sitting there going, “Oh come on, somebody turn the drums up”, it wasn’t quite like that. There were times when the arrangements were, “Oh! Gary’s drumming and the percussionist is drumming now. Okay”. But there were some songs that it completely nailed. Fantastic, that’s the way to do it, and there were other songs that were like, “Well that’s different”. But most certainly the material that turned around the most were any of the songs from the last album. They were completely invigorated with the orchestra, I found.
SH: Well I think because it was heading towards being more orchestral, where you’ve got “El Niño”, basically is an orchestra in a rock band, and on occasion a tribe when you get all that going.
TEJ: The shows were extraordinary at the Birmingham and Gateshead, the best version of “El Niño” was performed.
With that last gem our time was up, Steve & Jo had plans to visit Steve’s mum June so we wished them well.
Thank you to Steve and Jo, and Sharon Chevin, and sorry that Chris couldn’t make it this time.
You can purchase the brand new album – At The Edge Of Light from the below link.