Steve Hackett on His New World Music-Influenced Album and Leaving Genesis 40 Years Ago
The progressive rock guitar legend offers a message of unity on his latest The Night Siren.
The arrival of another new record by Steve Hackett is not unusual given how musically prolific the veteran British progressive rock guitarist is. In almost the last 50 years, Hackett has recorded approximately more than 30 studio albums if you combine his work with Genesis from the '70s and as a solo artist. For his latest record, The Night Siren, the musician employs world music influences that complements Hackett's signature and stirring guitar playing—elements that he had incorporated on some past albums but perhaps more pronounced on this new one.
“There's a tremendous amount of travelogue stuff,” he tells PopMatters about the new record, which he considers the best produced of anything he's done. “Having visited Peru, I felt that to do a Peruvian inspired track [“Inca Terra”] was a good idea. The other thing is that we have people from all over the world on the record. We have one Israeli, one Palestinian working together, and people from Iceland and people from the States, Hungary, [and] Azerbaijan. So there is an aspect of world music about it...in a sense a musical United Nations.”
The Night Siren -- which coincides with Hackett's Genesis Revisited With Hackett Classics tour in the U.S., slated to begin on February 14—comes two years after Hackett's previous album Wolflight. “I just like doing new material,” the guitarist says of his industrious output. “When I'm playing live, I am very happy to deliver one-half of the show with a backward glance at Genesis,” he says, “and I think it's important to do new stuff as well. I can keep the museum doors are open for the old glorious exhibits, but at the same time I do like doing new stuff. This new one has kind of a different atmosphere to it than things that I've done before.”
But beyond the music itself, the overall theme of The Night Siren is quite relevant in the context of these current political and divisive times in the world, including the issues of refugees and immigrants. “There is a peace message that runs contrary to the extremist politics,” Hackett explains. “I am just trying to show people that people can work together.”
One of the tracks from the album that reflect that sentiment is the anthemic-sounding “West to East,” which is particularly symbolic due to the presence of singers Mira Awad and Kobi Farhi, both of whom collectively have Israeli and Arab roots. Hackett regards that track as a companion piece to the dramatic “Behind the Smoke,” which was first started by his wife Jo coming up with the initial lyric "Behind the smoke is black," and the thought of refugees in mind. “We were aware that in both cases that our ancestors not that far back were escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe [in the late 1800s] and made it to the U.K.,” Hackett says. “There seems to be a tremendous amount of parallels with what's going on at the moment. The wars were different, but still, it was the same thing—the idea of intolerance, prejudice, and anti-Semitic feeling."
“It's very much the influence of current events,” he later says, “that I'm watching so much stuff going with horror and thinking that war is never the answer. I don't think borders are the answer either. I think borders are overrated...but in a sense, I'm dealing with this in a way that I think that it can be most effective, which is to try to say something musically which explains my feelings and also Jo's.”
While its elements of world music is apparent (i.e., Latin, Celtic, Indian), The Night Siren is not a complete 180 degree turn from Hackett's progressive rock stylings—tracks such as the soaring album-closing track “The Gift”; the impressionistic “The Other Side of the Wall”; and the urgent and orchestral “El Nino,” are most likely be familiar to longtime fans of Hackett's music. In some cases, the stylistic and tempo shifts occur within the same song, as in the case of “Anything But Love,” in which the flamenco stylings morph into a conventional pop and rock number. “For me, that's what it's all about,” Hackett explains, “because without the element of surprise, I don't think you get the journeying feel, like the idea of handing over to another genre. Some of these sections were actually much longer and edited down because there was a sense of let's get to the point, because I am prone to do extremely long introductions to things, and I reigned it in a bit. Having listened back things, I thought, 'Let's try to make it an accessible album,' and I had great fun doing it.”
With the release of The Night Siren, Hackett is embarking on the Genesis Revisited With Hackett Classics tour, in which the guitarist will perform the music he recorded with Genesis from the early to mid-'70s as well as his solo works. For this particular live installment, Hackett will be playing songs from Genesis' 1976 record Wind and Wuthering to mark its 40th anniversary. “I think it was a very expansive album, a very well produced album. It's probably the slickest of all the Genesis albums I did with the band at that time,” he says. During the set, Hackett will also revisit a rare Genesis track, “Inside and Out,” which didn't appear on Wind and Wuthering but ended up on the band's 1977 EP Spot the Pigeon. “It was a very good track, slightly overlooked because it was only released on an EP. But it was the strongest of the contenders on the EP, the other two were kind of jokey tracks. It's got a typically Genesis feel about it, you could say of love going wrong.”
Certainly, a song that is guaranteed to be part of the Genesis Revisited setlist is “Firth of Fifth” from Genesis' 1973 LP Selling England by the Pound. That epic track is best known for Hackett's extraordinary solo showcase and stands out as one of the most memorable moments of Genesis' career. “I very rarely do a show live these days without doing that tune,” Hackett says of “Firth of Fifth,” “because I think it's the most iconic Genesis guitar solo. There's something haunting about it. It's a beautiful tune. I think it's a great song from beginning to end, frankly. It seemed to write itself. I'm very happy with that. I loved doing it back in the day. It felt important then, and it feels important now to be able to sew those things back to people that have held it in such high esteem.”
2017 also marks the 40th anniversary of Hackett's departure from Genesis, following that of singer Peter Gabriel's in 1975. It has been documented that Hackett left the band due to not being able to contribute more of his songwriting to the band. Over the years Hackett had participated with the other former and current members of Genesis on the group's archival reissue projects.
“To take risks is usually motivating for me,” Hackett reflects about leaving the band that he first made his name with. “Without risking, you don't get really to the real fruit or to the real heart of the matter. I was in two minds: I thought I could stay with the band, it's doing very well, but I'm restricted within it. So I wasn't allowed to have a parallel solo career, and I was starting to write more and more material, and I felt less need to have the permission with the band to record. The band was starting to hemorrhage members: Peter Gabriel left, a couple of years later I left, and of course eventually Phil [Collins] left.
“I do think it was a very fine band and I don't think any one of us really left the band because of musical differences,” he continues. “I think it's just inevitably the case of band politics...here's a great school of music [in Genesis], but then sometimes you think, 'Well I got to start my own school where I'm both pupil and master. I've got everything to learn but I'm only going to give myself points here, and no one is going to slap my wrists and tell me I'm doing it wrong.'”
As the current Genesis lineup of Tony Banks, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford is inactive as far as touring goes at the moment, Hackett's Genesis Revisited project—which goes back to his 1996 Genesis Revisited album that the guitarist recorded with other musicians released—is filling a void for audiences yearning to hear material from the band's classic period. “Many people have said to me that they're great fans of the band but unfortunately were too young and never got to see the band when we were a five-piece or a four-piece. In a sense, doing the Genesis Revisited albums was a great way of re-learning the stuff and a great way for other people to learn it as well—the fact they could record their own parts and refer to that. It was a major undertaking in each case when we did the first Revisited in the mid-'90s, then the more recent one Revisited II, which was a double album. So we had to work like crazy. Of course, the framework is there. Hamlet is a great play, but you still got to learn it -- you got to relearn it. It's one thing writing it, but it's another thing remembering it.”