By Nick Tate
Photos by Jo Hackett
Steve Hackett is on a tear. His latest album, Surrender of Silence, is his third release in a year. He published a well-received autobiography, “A Genesis in My Bed,” during lockdown. And now he’s gearing up for a new “Genesis Revisited” tour of the U.K. and the U.S. At 71, the ex-Genesis guitar maestro shows no signs of slowing down.
“It’s a productive time despite all the challenges,” he says. “But it has also been a great release for us to do all the things we’re doing.”
In a pair of wide-ranging interviews, Hackett discussed the challenges of producing his genre-bending new album during the COVID-19 lockdown – on the heels of January’s Under a Mediterranean Sky and Last September’s Selling England by the Pound & Spectral Mornings: Live at Hammersmith. He also pulled back the curtain on something that may come as a surprise to fans – his unique co-writing partnership with his wife, Jo, who joined in on the conversation.
It’s unlike anything he’s done before and it’s producing what he calls the best music he’s ever made “with any songwriting team.” As he puts it: “I’ve never really had a songwriting partnership like it.”
It’s a remarkable statement, considering Hackett has collaborated with some of prog’s biggest talents over the past 50 years, including his Genesis cohorts in the ’70s, Yes guitarist Steve Howe in the ’80s with GTR and Chris Squire in the ’90s with Squackett.
Mr. and Mrs. Hackett, who celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary in June, collaborate on virtually everything — music, lyrics and ideas, and even the commercial side of things. “It’s a family business,” Hackett quips.
Jo shares co-writing credits on several tracks on Surrender of Silence and came up with some of the melodies on Under a Mediterranean Sky. She also helped co-write material on Hackett’s prior studio releases, including 2019’s At the Edge of Light and 2015’s Wolflight.
In addition to chatting about the couple’s songwriting partnership, Hackett previewed his new “Genesis Revisited” tour, featuring “Seconds Out” in its entirety. He also shared a few thoughts on the other band touring this year under the “Genesis” banner, headed up by his former bandmates, Phil Collins, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford.
Excerpts of the interviews follow.
Q: First of all, let’s talk about the new album. Surrender of Silence is your third release in under a year. So, what’s behind this latest burst of new music?
Steve: Fear of death, I think [laughs]. Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? The work ethic has never seemed higher, it’s never been a higher priority, I think, the older I get. Plus, the world is basically under siege from fire, flood, pandemic, you name it. So, I wouldn’t say it’s inspiring me…but don’t you just feel that everything is drubbing at your heels that was in your worst nightmares?
This is the thing: I don’t know why I’m so excessively productive at the moment, other than the fact that, of course, touring has been made so difficult, virtually impossible, it’s meant that, well…what else have I got do to with my time? I’m used to being busy, so I got busy making lots more albums and finishing off the book and really going for it.
Q: There must have been particular challenges in writing and recording this album during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Steve: That’s also true. I think that I’ve been used to not being in a room with people. I mean there were moments, of course, where people did come in. Christine Townsend [violinist] came in and we had some input from Rob Townsend [saxophonist], although they’re not related, same surname. So, those people came in and did their thing. But I didn’t share a room with a drummer – not by design, but just because that wasn’t possible.
Q: Does that give you any advantage, in terms of the individual players really focusing on nailing their parts, then delivering them through file sharing, as opposed to jamming in a studio with other musicians?
Steve: I think the advantage is that nobody sends you anything until they’re got it finished, whereas if you’re in a room with someone you hear them struggling through all their takes and mistakes. It’s not a spectator sport, I think, watching musicians trying to get something together. I say this all the time: If people could see the struggles musicians go through, they’d probably never buy another album.
You know, it seems like the gods just wave their hands and, lo, everything just comes up out of the Earth. But it’s not really so much like that – yes, there’s more perspiration than inspiration that goes into it, I think. Somewhere along the way the two seem marry up, although they are contradictory concepts. But somehow we manage to muddle though and get something really wonderful in the end.
Particularly, from the drummers, for instance. Nick D’Virgilio [drummer], in fact, sends us stuff and shows us the roughs and takes, and then says, “Oh let’s do it again, let’s try this one and let’s try that one.” And then he sends us alternatives and that’s great, to be able to edit together those things. And I’m quite sure that by the time it comes to a live performance, he would have it down because he’s obviously an incredible drummer.
As is Craig Blundell, who’s with our touring band. I never get to hear what he goes through before he knows the stuff like it’s second nature.
Q: They’re both very melodic and powerful drummers to have along with you.
Steve: It’s fantastic. And I’ve been spoiled for choice for quite some time. And we have many guests on the album. Like Phil Ehart [drummer]. It’s great to work with him again. He sends his stuff and then we incorporate it into the whole picture, we enhance what they do.
It’s like a ball that gets batted back and forth, sometimes across the pond, and it’s an extraordinary thing — hands across the water.
Q: It strikes me that Mediterranean Sky and Surrender of Silence neatly bookend the two sides of what you do – on the one hand, showcasing the acoustic and classical leanings that have always informed your writing and, on the other, the heavier electric prog-rock and more cinematic music that you make. Did you conceive of these two albums that way from the get-go or did they evolve more organically?
Steve: I think there was a certain amount of disappointment that weren’t able to finish our last American tour. Basically, everything closed down…halfway through the tour. And I thought, well, we can’t do what we normally do. So, first of all I’m going to do something that’s very personal. I thought now is the moment, we’re in down time, I might as well just enjoy myself.
And then we found that Under a Mediterranean Sky performed as well in the marketplace as one of my rock albums and I really wasn’t expecting that. But people are still responding to it.
And you’re quite right, it’s the other half of the coin, there’s so much love that goes into acoustic stuff and I think that with rock stuff, there is a tremendous amount of adrenaline. I don’t think of rock naturally as the most romantic form. I tend to think of acoustic music as more romantic, more organic.
But that’s not to say I don’t love it. You can have love without romance, you can have savage music, you can have blistering stuff and still love doing it, still love letting fly with those salvos. But it’s a different wrestling match. And I guess that’s really it — it’s a wrestling match versus a love affair.
Q: One of the common threads running through both albums is a kind of musical wanderlust. They both draw on trips that you and Jo have made to the Far East, the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East — reflecting the musical influences of the places you’ve visited and some flavor of the cultures.
Steve: Well, I think there’s a certain amount of nurturing your own natural wanderer. I always did wander off as a child and now I can wander off into other countries, or at least I could until very recently. Much has changed so much for us, but there is that desire to want to travel.
Many of the places I’ve seen I’ve been able to take Jo to. But, equally, she has visited places that I haven’t. And so, we hope to be able to visit Nepal, the Himalayas, but she has done that. So, in a sense I was constructing something for instance, with the song “Shanghai to Samarkand,” that incorporated her experiences. We constructed a virtual journey, as so much of stuff I’ve done recently has been, and I think probably heightened by the fact that you can’t do it in reality.
So, places that have been distant dreams get turned into songs. And our visits have been very productive. The various places we come back from, we very often come back with film and sometimes we come back with a song. We write these songs together, and we talk them over and I’m happy for Jo to run with the ball on some things.
Q: So, Jo, let me ask you: How does that all come together when you’re writing a song?
Jo: Well, when we travel abroad we get been fascinated by the culture of places, the spirituality, how the people live and the history of these places. For instance, when we went to Ethiopia, it was the most extraordinary places and it gives you a whole mixture of feelings. On the one hand, we were distressed by the level of poverty there, which I think fed into the song “Fox’s Tango.”
But then we were also incredibly impressed by the loveliness of the people, and the extraordinary expanses that you could see of Africa — from the Simien Mountains, which are actually known as the roof of Africa, right down to the plains and the Great Rift Valley, where all these tribal people live as well. And they have lines which go back over 100,000 years and traditions that go back so far that one could hardly even begin to imagine it and the whole place absolutely fascinated us. And that gave rise to the “Wingbeats” song.
Q: So, what you and Steve are really aiming to do here is take us on a musical journey.
Jo: It’s true. All of these places in different ways inspired us and it does induce music. Like “Natalia,” for instance…we did go to Russia and we could see the beauty of the place and at the same time, the repression. You could sort of sense what goes on there. So, you get these different feelings that different places give you, which inspire ideas for songs.
Q: Can you deconstruct your creative process for me, maybe detailing how a song or two came together?
Jo: Well, it tends to be a bit different for each song, it doesn’t always go the same way. But it’s usually something that develops over time.
So, we’ll talk about our experiences and then maybe he’ll say something like, “Oh, it’s amazing hearing those guys singing in that cathedral in Russia and it would be interesting to incorporate that vibe into something sometime?” And then maybe another year or so, we’ll go back to the idea and think, actually, there’s all this history as well and maybe we can combine it all.
And, for instance, with “Wingbeats” we talked about the African rhythms and all the different vibes that we got and how we wanted to celebrate that inspired us so much.
Q: Would you say that Steve tends to come up with the music and you the lyrics, or do you pass ideas, words and melodies back and forth?
Jo: It’s difficult to say — it’s a bit chicken and egg. It’s often an idea that comes first comes out of conversation and then Steve might come up with an initial melody line for something, or sometimes I might. But one of us will, and then the other will follow it an answering line – often he comes up with a melody and then I’ll think of an answering line – and then we’ll develop the ideas from there.
It’s like an evolving thing, really – it’s very difficult to sort of put a finger on our particular way of doing it. We kind of bounce ideas around a lot and we’re not afraid to throw out ideas, if anything is not working.
Q: But you two draw inspiration from other things, not just traveling, right?Jo: It tends to be a combination of things. You know, Steve and I might be talking about something and an idea just comes to us. One of us might be reading a book which inspires us and we’ll talk about it.
A lot of lyrics also come from conversations, if we’re feeling strongly about something — you know, social issues.
Q: Like the Syrian refugee crisis, with “Behind the Smoke” from At the Edge of Light.
Jo: Right. Refugees, we were feeling that. “Behind the smoke is black.” I think that one was my line. It’s just trying to give a sense that there’ve been refugees through the ages, as Steve has said. Both Steve and I have ancestors who came to England from abroad and if they hadn’t been let in, it would have been very tough for them.
People are escaping religious persecution, people needing to have a new life to start a new life. There are so many reasons why people need to travel to a new country.
Q: In the 1970s a lot of progressive music was about science fiction and fantasy — hogweeds and hermaphrodites, for instance. Today, a lot of what resonates with prog audiences is what you’re talking about – real-world events. Do either of you see a trend line there?
Jo: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because it seems to go through different patches. If you look at the late 1960s, there was all this protest movement and all the rest of it with the old Vietnam War thing. But that was actually the birth of progressive music at that time, with King Crimson and Procol Harum.
Steve: Well, I think nothing is off-limits when we write songs. We tend to include more social comment and political stuff because we feel that the world is in a bad place right now. Certain things that were taken for granted seem to be threatened — human rights, civil rights. The rise of the right, racism in politics becoming the norm. Deeply troubling, troubling.
But it doesn’t mean that we avoid the hermaphrodites and the hogweeds [or] fantasy-based stuff, whether it’s subscribing to an earlier mythology — the Greek stuff — or later.
Jo: “Corycian Fire” [from 2015’s Wolflight] was very much looking back to a primal era, where you could compare it to “The Fountain of Salmacis” [from 1971’s Nursery Cryme] or other things that were inspired by the whole magic of the classical world. So, we do get very inspired by that, as well.
Steve: Right. As I say, I don’t think there’s anything that’s off limits for us. But I’m very interested that Jo tends to start from the point of view that a song ought to be about something. Whereas, in the past I would often doodle and let the doodle tell me what it was. So, I would often just write these disconnected lines and then I’d look for a thread.
Jo: But you still do that. I mean, that is part of what still happens to this day. Steve will come up with like an idea and then run with it. I think, in a way, the song “Descent” started that way.
Steve: We pass the ball backwards and forwards, don’t we?
Jo: Yes. And “Hungry Years.”
Steve: Yes, well, sometimes I’ve written songs about Jo’s experience because I’m seeing it through her eyes. A place called The Hungry Years in Brighton is a place that, I think it still exists…
Jo: A disreputable disco that I just to go to [laughs].
Steve: And both Jo was involved with that, and Amanda [Lehman].
Jo: My sister.
Steve: So, in a way I was writing their history. It’s a love song and we don’t avoid love songs.
Jo: “Those Golden Wings” is a love song.
Jo: It’s sort of like a love song between Steve and me, actually. Because sometimes when you write something together, and it’s a love song…it’s not just about one person to the other, but it can be from the other person back, as well.
So, “Those Golden Wings” is very much a love song between us.
Steve: And on “Behind the Smoke,” the [line] that kicked off the song — “Behind the smoke is black, there is no turning back.” I think Jo got it that far. And I said: This is about war? This is about people escaping? This is about refugees? And she said, yes.
So, we started trading ideas from there. But I think it’s a wonderfully evocative idea — behind the smoke — and it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever been involved with, with any songwriting team.
I think it’s one of our very very best. And there’s an interesting video, too.
Q: It’s interesting how the collaborative nature of your songwriting has evolved.
Steve: It works very naturally between us. And I think I’ve never really had a songwriting partnership like it.
Jo: We have always functioned very much with batting ideas to and fro, imaginative ideas. I mean, we were batting ideas to and fro years and years ago, before we ever properly got together.
In fact, we even met in a professional capacity because I was involved with a little film production company and we approached this music company, saying we’d like somebody to do the music for this little film we’re trying to get together.
And the company sent the script to Steve — and it was a script I’d written. And he read the script, he liked it and so he wanted to meet the person who wrote the script. And he said I’d be interested in doing the music — and that’s how we met.
Steve: Jo is very modest. She is a powerhouse, actually.
Q: It’s interesting that a film was what brought you together because a lot of what I hear in the new music sounds like film scores, soundtracks. Would you say that Jo’s filmmaking background has been a chief influence on you, Steve?
Steve: Well, yes. There is that, and we often think, wouldn’t it be lovely to do a movie together. But usually, we’re doing concerts and have a lot of balls already in the air, we just try to catch them, sometimes we’re on permanent catchup between us.
Q: Speaking of which: Anything you can tell us about your expectations about the upcoming “Genesis Revisited” tour? At this point, it’s all systems go, right?
Steve: Yes, it is all systems go, everyone’s on red alert with this – in a good way. We’re all ready to go. And of course, yes, we wait with bated breath. But somehow I feel it’s going to come off, one has to be optimistic about this, and so, yep. A lot of people want it to happen and it will be great just to get out in front of people.
We’re in the middle of rehearsals now for our forthcoming British tour. I’m pretty fried. I find rehearsals do that for me. It’s like cramming for an exam. The trouble is I’m the chief examiner.
Q: Well, it’s a good thing that the music that you make is so simple, Steve!
Steve: Indeed, it’s a good thing the music is so simple and easy to play [laughs].
Q: So, where and how are you rehearsing? With the whole touring band, yet?
Steve: It’s individual rehearsals at the moment – myself and Roger we’re trading ideas and working out how we can do this and divide it up between us. Then, we’re going to hook up with the other guys and then we’re out in the world.
Q: Well, I wish you luck and hope that all happens according to plan, and the Delta variant doesn’t get in the way.
Q: So, I have to ask if you have any thoughts to share about that other band touring this year under the “Genesis” banner – with your former bandmates Phil, Tony, and Mike?
Steve: Any thoughts? Well, let’s put it this way. I love the work that we all did together, and I wish them the best of luck with their tour, as well. Their shows have been deferred as much as ours. It’s ironic that we will be touring in the same place at the same time, in the same country — one of the nights we’re actually in Manchester.
Q: I was just comparing the concert schedules for both tours and noticed that.
Steve: So, people will have the chance to see both our show and their show. Tickets will be validated. So, yeah, it’s extraordinary stuff. I thought they were going to be in the states while we were here [in the U.K.], but that got changed around.
I have to say it’s a totally different band, totally different music, completely different ethos. What it became is not what it started out being. You know, I’m albums, and I think they’re probably more singles.
Q: So, the last week of September, you’re all performing in Manchester. I have to ask: Is there any chance that you might step up on stage with Phil, Tony, and Mike for a song or two, or that they might join you at one of your shows?
Steve: I think it’s highly unlikely [laughs]. Highly unlikely.
Surrender of Silence is released on 10th September 2021 as a Limited Edition CD+Blu-ray Mediabook in hardcover slipcase, Standard CD Jewel case, Gatefold 2LP+CD & LP-Booklet and Digital Album via Inside Out Music. https://stevehackett.lnk.to/SurrenderOfSilence