My interview with Steve Hackett, March 2000

It recently came to my attention that I’ve never published this interview, which was for a short feature that ran in Guitar Player Magazine in the July, 2000 issue.

Steve Hackett is a guitarist best known for his work with the band Genesis from 1971 through 1977. Since then he has mostly worked solo, alternating from electrified progressive rock to projects based around acoustic classical guitar. He has remained popular and successful throughout Western Europe since leaving Genesis.

At the time Guitar Player Magazine assigned me to conduct this interview, Hackett had not performed in the United States in many years. The occasion for the interview was that he had secured distribution to sell his  back-catalog of solo albums in the United States. The result, seen a few years after the interview, is that Hackett was able to do some successful limited touring in the United States. In 2010 Genesis, with Hackett, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Interview with Steve Hackett
Friday, 24 March 2000
by Wheat Williams
Phone interview from Twickenham, England
Copyright © March, 2000  by Wheat Williams
All Rights Reserved

Wheat: Do I understand that Guitar Noir, Many Sides to the Night and Tokyo Tapes are just being released in America for the first time?

Steve: I think some of them are being released for the first time and some are being re-released. I think in Guitar Noir’s case it’s re-released. As far as I remember correctly that was out on Viceroy for awhile. I may be completely wrong there. I find that, as ever, the distances between countries mean that it’s a far more complex equation. The idea of simultaneous worldwide release is no longer a reality, and really hasn’t been the case for about the past fifteen years or so. It’s just the way it goes.

Wheat: Is there any chance that Sketches of Satie and Darktown are going to be released in America?

Steve: I think it’s inevitable that they will be. But they always seem to have to wait their time until the deals are done. And as we don’t have a man on the spot to do that for our company, it’s always a kind of long distance fishing expedition.

Wheat: Maybe you ought to talk to Robert Fripp.

Steve: So many of us are in this position. Robert and I used to communicate at one time.

Wheat: When he had his own record label?

Steve: No, no, no, many years before that, before he worked with Peter Gabriel in fact, we used to talk quite regularly in the mid-70s.

Wheat: He’s regarded as one of the more successful people in terms of starting a record label where the artists own their own masters and doing their own marketing and all that.

Steve: Well, that’s what we’re doing in this country. We seem to have got the situation sorted out in England and in most of Europe. America always seems to be more difficult for us.

I was just reading an e-mail today from somebody who was saying they couldn’t find products by the various other artists, and he included people like Alan Parsons Project and many others. And I thought, ah, there are many more people in this position than I’d imagined. There were many names that I consider to be well-known in that list. This is just part of what happens to music from musicians of a certain age or a certain era. It’s just the way it goes.

Wheat: Let’s get right on to talking about Sketches of Satie.

Steve: Sure.

Wheat: I noticed that tracks 10 through 15 are for two guitars, and no flute. Is your brother John playing guitar or is this a double-track thing that you did?

Steve: That’s a double-track from me. John is specifically playing flute.

Wheat: Does John have his own career as a working musician?

Steve: Yeah, John has a couple of things on the go. There’s an outfit called Symbiosis that he does albums with, and which is basically mainly improvised stuff, atmospheric stuff. And then he’s worked with the English Flute Quartet. He has fingers in a number of pies in the classical world, but this is the first time he’s been a featured artist on a record.

Wheat: Satie originally wrote all these pieces for solo piano?

Steve: Yeah, that’s right.

Wheat: And the two of you worked out the transcriptions?

Steve: Well, it was a team. There was my brother and a woman named Sally Goodworth who did the tempo mapping. In other words she played piano versions of the songs on a MIDI piano so that we had the score both written out and recorded.

Wheat: And she played them in your transpositions, or you did that with the MIDI data afterwards?

Steve: It’s a complicated process. We did versions with flute and piano first of all which were just rough to audio then we did versions on piano with MIDI so we had references. Then we replaced the flute on the flute and piano versions. Only then did I play guitar to that. It sounds like a really arse-about way of playing it, but there are several reasons for that.

Wheat: Please tell me.

Steve: Okay, number 1, the Satie music doesn’t actually fit on the guitar. You have to keep retuning. The lowest note that’s played is actually not just an E below the lowest E on a regular guitar, but E-flat, a semitone below that. To get notes which were outside the range on the high end, I’d use harmonics. So to my mind it wasn’t possible to play arrangements that do it justice just sitting down with the two of us.

I’m trying to think how to describe the technical process. I spent a long time doing the guitar parts and the flute parts were done actually relatively quickly. But the guitar work took quite some time. Because the harmonies are very complex and plus I wanted to make sure it was recorded very, very cleanly. I think it’s a totally squeak free album.

Wheat: Can you play these live?

Steve: We can do some of them. We were rehearsing this up recently. But in the main, John’s not really up for touring. He’s got other commitments. It’s basically an album I don’t think you’re really going to be seeing us doing that live. We might do the occasional radio performance or the odd TV thing but we’re not really touring it around halls.

Wheat: Do you think that your transcriptions and your arrangements of Satie are something that other classical guitarists are going to want to get ahold of and perform?

Steve: To be honest, I think you would need a guitar quartet to be able to do, or certainly a trio, to cover the bases that I did. I don’t think it’s possible even with two guitarists. It would be too cumbersome. I don’t suggest it.

Wheat: So on some of these pieces, when I hear one guitar, I’m actually hearing multi-tracking of different tunings?

Steve: Yeah. I basically did it line by line you understand. So I didn’t keep track of of how many guitars there were at any one point. There might be as much as four at one point; there may be as little as one. This may well upset the purists; however, the ends justify the means, always, for me.

Wheat: So what classical guitar composers and performers have influenced you?

Steve: Well, if I could upset the apple cart a little bit here, I think the best music for classical guitar was never actually written for the guitar. I think it’s the transcriptions of Bach that Segovia did. That’s still the best guitar music, as far as I’m concerned.

Wheat: And it’s never been surpassed?

Steve: Never been surpassed, really. You know, the additional harmonies that Segovia added himself, things that were often solo violin or cello, have yet to be surpassed.

Wheat: Did you study classical guitar early on, before your career started?

Steve: No. I’ve never had any formal training other than the fact that for the past few years now I have been working with a guitarist named Theodore Cheng. He’s been doing transcriptions of my pieces. And we sit down and we give each other guitar lessons. I’ve passed on what I can do to him, and he passes on what he can do to me, and it’s very nice. It means that nobody is Herr Professor. Nobody is the Meister Glockenspieler, if you know what I mean. And neither of us has to lord it over each other. We just appreciate each others styles and techniques.

Wheat: Are the transcriptions going to be published?

Steve: Yes they are. And so far we are doing some on the Internet. I think they’re actually up and running.

Wheat: You’re just making those freely available?

Steve: No, as ever, one’s running a business. And have to recoup their costs. Quite a lot of my life has been spent working on these classically inspired ditties, so I’m pleased that they hit the airwaves.

Wheat: Is some of A Midsummer Night’s Dream included in that?

Steve: Yes it is, yeah.

Wheat: I have not had a chance to listen in depth to all these records, but I just love the playing on Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s very evocative and totally original.

Steve: Oh, thank you very much. You know I read some notes about Rachmaninoff. Many of his detractors said that he was too Romantic and that it wasn’t original, and he said, I don’t try to be original, I just try to play the music that I hear in my head and that’s been inspired by lots of people, including Tchaikovsky, etc. And I think that’s very honest.

That’s the way I approach music. If it comes out as original, fine, but I’d rather have something that was evocative. I think that’s a good word. In other words, it makes you think about something else. And you’re not quite sure what that thing is. Whether it’s magic, or if it comes from some deep spiritual source, we don’t really know, but it has a question mark. Why does it stop me in my tracks?

Wheat: Was A Midsummer Night’s Dream a successful album for you?

Steve: Yes, it’s been very successful. EMI in England signed me up for that one and they did a great job promoting it, and I was thrilled. It was a top-ten classical guitar album here for about two months. It was a total vindication of all the ideas that once got me in a lot of trouble, a lot of hot water.

Wheat: For instance?

Steve: It got me booted off my original record label, Charisma.

Wheat: For being too classical?

Steve: Yeah, for being too esoteric, airy-fairy, you name it.

Wheat: Have you heard Rick Wakeman’s Return to the Center of the Earth by any chance?

Steve: I did many years ago.

Wheat: No, the new one that just came out last year?

Steve: Oh, really? No I haven’t heard that.

Wheat: It’s Return to the Center of the Earth.

Steve: Really? A reworked version? No I haven’t heard that.

Wheat: It’s a pretty sad story actually. He collapsed and was in hospital from pneumonia as he was finishing the album. He could not do any touring or promotion of the record and it kind of just sank like a stone. It was a major international label, a huge symphony orchestra, and it’s beautiful stuff, but this is about a year ago. Patrick Stewart is the narrator. Wakeman took sick and there was no promotion, there were no live gigs, it was very sad. And I thought it was great music. But anyway, that’s ancient history already.

Steve: Yeah, well, let’s hope he recovers. We spent some time together over the years, Rick and myself. He had a TV show here called “Gas Tank.”

Wheat: Yeah, well, we don’t get to see that over here.

Steve: Well, it was a while ago, a long time ago now. It must have been early 80s. I did a guest spot on there, and we ended up playing together.

Wheat: Let’s talk about Darktown. Are there some contemporary artists that influenced your experimenting with sampling and looping and lots of digital editing in the music?

Steve: Many of them. It’s difficult to say a specifically. You’d be surprised at the things that I listen to and like. Like the Beastie Boys, there’s a band called Garbage that I like very much. I liked their first album very much. “Stupid Girl” I thought was a great single. Great guitar hook. One little guitar note that’s just such a fantastic sound. So I do listen to contemporary stuff.

Wheat: And on this record, your engineers, Roger King and Ben Fenner really came to the fore.

Steve: Oh, sure, and Jerry Peal. Yes, I think that the album was a massive engineering feat.

Wheat: Tell me about it. What was the recording method?

Steve: Well, instead of having a traditional band, in the sense of you have musicians lined up…take Garbage–three different producers are involved with that. All the guys in the band are producers. And I find that very interesting. So the band, for me, was three different engineer-producers who worked with me, and they’re all immensely talented people. I can’t sing their praises enough. There are other people playing on my album, but so much has been done from the producer-engineers’ archives.

When somebody who’s an engineer-player-programmer turns up, he’s usually got a suitcase full of their own sounds and samples. For instance, two days ago I was working with Roger on some rock stuff here at home. And I said to him, I got a lyric in a song that talks about the harbor lights calling me. It’s a jokey kind of tune. I said, “have you got the sound of a harbor, something like that?” And he did. Lo and behold, he had a CD of the sounds of a ship’s bell and a kind of foghorn, I think it was a lighthouse sound.. And it’s just wonderful. In stereo, those two sounds are on the track. And I’m amazed, you know, the things I’ll suggest to Roger or Ben or Jerry, that obviates the need for me to go on location with a microphone myself. I love personalized sounds as well, don’t get me wrong. I don’t do everything by myself, but I don’t think that covers half of it. But I have no prejudice. At the end of the day, whether it’s specimens or whether it’s to unique specifications, it really doesn’t matter. If it does the job, then that’s fine.

I do think there’s a tremendous difference between sampled strings and real strings.

Wheat: Of course.

Steve: As there is between a guitarist and a sampled guitarist. Even that I’ve used from time to time if I thought it was interesting. Again, one hopes to have no prejudice.

Wheat: Tell me about the actual recording process. Was this recorded to digital tape, was it recorded to ProTools?

Steve: Okay. The Satie album is all ProTools.

Darktown was put together in tandem with many other releases over a ten-year period. So that meant that it started out on a Studer 24-track analog machine. It went round the houses. ADAT recordings have been included. ProTools recordings have been included. So there were many different formats that we used. Lots of different levels of transfer that had gone on. But at the end of the day, I don’ believe that’s to the detriment of any of it.

Wheat: I was not aware that you spent ten years recording this album.

Steve: Yeah, Darktown was ten years in the making. It’s gonna be a little complicated to explain this. I really wish I could give you the short answer. Mainly because of the politics surrounding it. There were many other projects that were easier to get off the ground whilst I was recording Darktown. Many other things.

There was, if I remember correctly, Guitar Noir, the Blues With a Feeling album, all of the other ones that you’ve received, were done after the start of Darktown, which was material that I always had that I was always putting to one side. There always seemed to be something else that was more pressing.

I was in love with lots of the tracks that were on Darktown, and I was playing it in my car for ages and ages and thinking, “Will this material ever see the light of day?” Also, during that period we started our own record label. It takes awhile to set those little things up! You know, we built our own studio, our record label Camino Records.

Wheat: Is the studio in your home?

Steve: Most of the studio is in my home, and we are building another one near where we have our office.

Wheat: And where is Twickenham? I’m not very good with British geography.

Steve: Okay, on the map from London, Richmond is side-by-side with Twickenham, which is the other side of the Thames. Richmond would be perhaps the better-known internationally, but Twickenham is kinda the home of rugby.

A lot of French nobles escaped during the French Revolution to Twickenham, which was a more sought-after address in the 1700s I believe. And lots of things were built in the 1790s, lots of Twickenham was built at that point. There’s a more picturesque part which might correspond with another area called Hampstead, which is now a London suburb. I totally recommend it. Richmond is fantastic, and has a wonderful park with deer that roam free. Walk up to them and feed them if they’ll let you. And Richmond has the river which is it’s a very beautiful town. Lots of musicians live in Richmond and Twickenham.

Wheat: And how long have you lived there?

Steve: Since the early 80s.

Wheat: What guitars are you playing these days?

Steve: Well, electric guitars, still the favorite, really, would be the Les Paul original that I have, from 1957.

Wheat: Is that the gold top?

Steve: Yeah, gold top. And I don’t care what Spinal Tap say, it’s still my favorite. And I’ve got another electric, I’ve got a Fernandes Japanese guitar which has a Sustainer pickup.

Wheat: Is that patterned after a Les Paul?

Steve: It’s a Les Paul shape, it’s black. It looks like a Les Paul Custom from a distance. I’m staring at it right now, in fact. It’s called a Burney.

Wheat: Is it an off-the-shelf model, or is it something that they built for you?

Steve: It’s one that they built for me. They built this one with a Floyd Rose tremolo and a Sustainer pickup. I have to say, it’s a wonderful guitar.

Wheat: Do you use a Roland MIDI pickup?

Steve: No, I haven’t got a Roland MIDI pickup on that one. I’ve got a Gibson Les Paul with a Roland MIDI pickup, and they look, from a distance, practically identical.

Wheat: Is that from your GTR days?

Steve: I think it is from the GTR days.

Wheat: I’m laughing because just about three months ago I saw its counterpart, belonging to that other guy named Steve from GTR. I went to see Yes and interviewed Steve Howe and he had his. His is cherry red, I believe. You have its counterpart.

Steve: I’ve got the black version. The cherry red versions look very nice, I must say.

Wheat: How do you record guitars? Is it a bunch of digital effects and straight to the desk? Do you mike amplifiers?

Steve: I try to employ all techniques so that we don’t get too stuck with one kind of sound or one kind of approach. I use a mixture of amps and a mixture of DI effects.

Wheat: What are your favorite amps?

Steve: Well, what I tend to use for recording these days is a Peavey Classic 50 which I originally bought as a harmonica amp. And just found out that it happened to sound great with guitar. It also sounded great with bass. I’ve recorded John Wetton’s bass through it and before now, and that sounds fabulous. It’s really a copy of the Fender Bassman that the harmonica players used to like using. So ironically, there you are. There’s this amplifier that was built for bass players in the 50s that harmonica players liked to play through at one time. Tweed-covered, and the levels of distortion were just right for harmonica. The Peavey Classic 50 has got many of the features of the Fender Bassman, but a more controllable level of distortion.

Wheat: What are the speakers on that amp?

Steve: They’re 2 x 12s. But in my time I’ve used, with some satisfaction, HiWatts and Marshall. In my new studio I think I’m going to try some Marshall gear again. With the size studio that I have at home, there isn’t enough room to mike up a Marshall stack. But I don’t feel it’s limited my sound. I’m pleased with what I’ve got. I do move away from the home studio at times, especially to go and record orchestras and what have you, but yeah, I’m interested….

[Break while the tape is turned over.]

I’ve also got a Groove Tube amp that I like to use. I’ve used it sometime recording DI in the studio and I’ve used it live as well. That’s a great sound, I must say. And I use a SansAmp as well, but I use it as a preamp in my amps.

Wheat: Was Genesis Revisited: Watcher of the Skies recorded in your home studio?

Steve: Yeah, partly recorded at home, but the drums were recorded in other studios, as was the orchestra.

Wheat: Was that pretty much an ADAT project?

Steve: That was an ADAT project. Yeah. In fact I’m very glad to have moved on to ProTools since, because it was really too big a project for ADATs.

Wheat: Do you do some of the ProTools recording and editing yourself or do the engineers come in at that point?

Steve: No, I that’s basically an engineering function. I prefer not to be involved. I’m a great fan of technology, but some people have called me a technophobe because I don’t particularly like punching the buttons. I like to listen. I must say, and I like to have a dialog with at least one other person. I find it ideal. A musical conversation between two people is great. I think three people, you’ve already got an argument.

Wheat: That’s a great quote, Steve.

Steve: Form a group at your peril.

Wheat: Do you think you’re ever going to function as part of a group again? It’s been 15 years I guess since GTR.

Steve: I think that is unlikely in this lifetime. However, recently I’ve been hired to play guitar for one or two people. And I may be part of their band for the project.

There’s something going on at the moment. I’m playing with some people that worked with the following bands: the Cocteau Twins, Spiritualized, Echo and the Bunnymen, Portishead, and Massive Attack.

Wheat: That’s marvelous.

Steve: Yeah. It’s a totally different crowd, much younger, but they seem to be giving me greater freedom to do pretty much what I want on top of their stuff.

Wheat: Does the band have a name?

Steve: Don’t have a name yet, no. They have a record deal. But it’s quite interesting, isn’t it? Suddenly, after all these years.

Wheat: I’m sure you were an inspiration to them for long before they called you up on the phone. They’ve got all the Genesis stuff in their heads.

Steve: Yeah. I think they’re as unprejudiced as younger players can be.

It’s Liz Fraser and her husband Damien. who are putting together the band. It’s a much younger scene.

Wheat: It sounds very exciting.

Steve: I played on two tracks on what’s become an album. I hope it materializes, now, you know, because hey, who knows what could happen? They could the band could break up, their record company should go bust, they might divorce. I should be wary of talking about things in the future too much! The people that are involved with those bands are aware of what I’ve done. It’s great. I must feel like Ronnie Scott felt when Phil Collins called him up to play sax on Face Value. Yeah, I’m pleased. And the nice thing is so far they have given what I’ve done a prominent place in the mix. It’s not just a case of wanting the name so that it fits the corporate image. They hired me cause they like what I do. So and that’s a refreshing change, believe me.

Wheat: I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about the Tokyo Tapes. Was this really just a one-shot show?

Steve: We did four gigs in Japan. By the third gig it was just turning into a really great band. But hey, you know, it would have been nice if we had taken that everywhere, but everyone had their own life to lead.

Wheat: Has that one sold well?

Steve: Yes, it has, yeah. It’s been one of our best sellers for Camino.

Wheat: What kind of sales figures are we talking about on Camino?

Steve: You’d have to ask my manager Billy about that.

Wheat: You don’t concern yourself with that part of it?

Steve: Well, I do and I don’t. But I’d rather not be misquoted. Suffice it to say we’re in business after several years here now. I’m not going to say it’s easy, because it isn’t. I mean I think decisions are made very carefully. But because we make in-house albums, I think the money is very well spent.

Wheat: You get a good return on your investment?

Steve: We get a good return on the investment.

What tends to happen is I may re-record a track as much as two or three times if I think that’s necessary. But that’s somewhat easier theses days due to ProTools. You keep the things that you want and you lose the things that you don’t. You know the concept of the demo record versus the master has become much more blurred in the past twenty years, really. And it’s much more flexible.

Wheat: I want to ask you this only because it’s in the first sentence in the bio that they sent me. They refer to you as the inventor of tapping. I know what they’re referring to, “Return of the Giant Hogweed,” aren’t they?

Steve: Also, “The Musical Box,” there’s a tapping solo. That was in ‘71. And there’s also a tapping solo, on Selling England By the Pound, the first track, “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.”

Wheat: [remembers and hums the lick]

Steve: Yeah, that one [hums along].

Wheat: Where did that come from? Did you just pick that up out of the air? Was there some other artist that was doing that?

Steve: No, no, no, no. It was my idea. I was just very frustrated one day that I couldn’t do the things that J. S. Bach could do on the keyboard. I suddenly realized that with the fuzz box that I had at the time that I didn’t need to pick every note. You could hammer on and off with one hand and use the nail, which I was using, the flat of the nail. I still do, which is a technique which no one else uses. As far as I’m aware of, everyone else uses the fingertip for it. But I use the flat of the nail to hammer on and pull off.

Wheat: Do you think that you directly inspired people like Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan?

Steve: Well, I would have to say that those people’s recordings appeared later than mine. So it may have been parallel development or they may have listened to what I’d done.

Wheat: We’re hoping that Darktown and Sketches of Satie will be available on this side of the pond.

Wheat: Are you doing much live performing these days?

Steve: No, not really. But I’m gonna be doing some dates in Italy in the summer. I’m putting together a band at the moment, and then I’m possibly going to do some gigs with Elizabeth and Damien if all goes well.

Wheat: When was the last time you played the States?

Steve: Oh, a long time ago now, isn’t it. Was it ‘92, ,93, ‘94? Can’t quite remember but it’s awhile ago now.

Wheat: Have you got any hopes for coming back over here?

Steve: I’d like to tour there from a position of strength rather than having to do every thing that’s on offer. It’s gotta be economically viable. I hate saying that kind of stuff, but you know I’m sure. I miss it all. I miss the clubs, I miss the theaters, I miss the stadiums in the States. And I miss the American audience, which has been wonderful to me.

Wheat: You know this just occurred to me. I saw them two years ago in a rare visit outside of Montreal, but have you ever heard of a group called The Musical Box?

Steve: Yeah, I’ve heard about them and I’ve heard that they create faithfully the era of 1973.

[Discussion of The Musical Box]

Steve: The presentation became very important to us as a band. That’s another reason why I find touring these days an immense drawback. Normally I want to take a presentation. I don’t really just want to stand there with a single light bulb and do it. But, yeah, if it’s up to me, I’ll deliver Disneyland on stage. There’s an aspect of that, Disneyland with music, I think is the real aim, isn’t it? It’s music to transport people and take them to different places.

Wheat: You had the opportunity to do that in the 70s with Genesis.

Steve: Many of those shows benefited from that. I think that the era of ‘73 was one whereby, I mean I wouldn’t say we necessarily peaked, musically, at that point, but we came pretty close to it. I mean I liked so much of what we were doing then, and the presentation, and what have you.

Wheat: The stuff of yours with Genesis though that really grabbed me and affected me the most was Trick of the Tale and Wind and Wuthering.

Steve: Well, I think we were getting more professional. We were playing to larger audiences, we had bigger budgets, and.

Wheat: But I just loved the writing, the pieces.

Steve: I thought you meant the live shows.

Wheat: I’m not old enough to have seen you live at that point, unfortunately.

Steve: Right, fair enough.

There was a lot of interesting stuff that was written after that period in time. I’m just remembering a time when it seemed to me that the live presentation and what we were doing on album seemed to be very much in sync. When we started to get our own light show and when we started to move into that area of controlling the environment and paying special attention to special effects, sticking out for it, and I think sticking out for what we believed in individually. I think it was a good time.

Wheat: Did you undertake some of that theatrical presentation and lighting in the Tokyo Tapes shows?

Steve: Yes, some of it did. We did have a presentation in Tokyo. We had lights, and they were very good indeed. And you know some of the lighting effects were absolutely wonderful and I would love to be able to wrap them up and take them home and present them in the future. It always seems as if it’s that kind of thing that’s kind of snatched away from you. Everyone has this in life to some degree. Something is hinted at and then it’s snatched away. But yeah, that was some wonderful effects.

Wheat: Where are Ian McDonald and John Wetton these days? Do they still live in England?

Steve: Ian lives in New York. Ian’s a very interesting character.

Wheat: Does he work as a session musician?

Steve: Oh, yeah. And he produces other people. He produced a really wonderful harp album, for instance. I mean concert harp, a guy who plays jazz concert harp, a guy called ???? Ian was the producer and Ian’s done an album of his own, which is called Drivers Eyes, on Camino again.

Wheat: Did you enjoy working with John Wetton?

Steve: Yes, I did. I’ve worked with John on record and live. You know, John’s immensely talented, has a wonderful voice, and is a great bass player.

Wheat: It was really fascinating listening to Watcher of the Skies, with all the great players you pulled together to do that. Was that recorded over a long period.?

Steve: There’s a video in fact of us playing in Tokyo as well, doing that set.

Wheat: And is Camino selling the video?

Steve: Yeah. You might be interested in that.

Wheat: Oh, I’d be extremely interested.

Steve: I think that’s available in more than one format as well.

[Long digression]

Wheat: Did you enjoy playing the Crimson tunes in Tokyo Tapes?

Steve: Yes we did, yeah!

Wheat: I know that Fripp was a big inspiration for you in the early days.

Steve: Well, and Ian as well, you know? I think it was the whole of that band at that time and I think what was interesting was the fact that there were players there who were a little bit older than me, which makes all the difference at that time, who were playing material that you would’ve considered to have been–I’m trying to find the right words–material that really shouldn’t have belonged side-by-side. And yet you’ve got those things side-by-side.

Wheat: Well, the essence of progressive rock and psychedelic rock is putting together a lot of unlikely elements.

Steve: Unlikely elements. I think that’s the word, isn’t it? And yet making it cohesive and making one seem stronger because of its juxtaposition with the other. And that’s motivated me for years and years. The Beatles started doing that stuff, but I mean it went back further than that. It went back to the Goons, it went back to Peter Sellers, it went back to the Temperance Seven, it went back to comedy records that I heard in the early 50s, and I’ve really been inspired by all of the same things. Yeah, you name it. I’d have to mention a thousand people. I’d have to go back to Danny Kaye and Django Rhinehart to Segovia. It’s just, where do you stop? You have to doff your cap to all of them.

Wheat: You’re one of the architects of progressive rock and that had a big influence on popular music at one time, and it still resonates, I feel. If people like Portishead and Cocteau Twins are calling you up and saying come play for us.

Steve: Sure. It’s interesting, isn’t it. It has to have a larger resonance than you could ever realize. And it also quashes the myth that some things are fashionable an other things aren’t. Because it means to the currently fashionable, those things are still fashionable. I know what I’m trying to say, but I’m getting my knickers in a twist here.

Wheat: No, I understand exactly what you are saying.

[Closing digressions and pleasantries]
END

Copyright March, 2000 by Wheat Williams
All Rights Reserved

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite, Conclusion

I cannot help but reflect that the original recordings of most of these songs were popular before the students in the KSU orchestra were born. It seems that very few of them were familiar with the material (may I use the word urtext?) before the charts were put in front of them for a few days of rehearsals. There were many old-timers like myself in the audience for whom these songs hold profound memories and evoke a deep emotional response. (Go back and re-read assistant dean Samuel Robinson’s program notes in the previous blog page, if you don’t understand what I mean.) Furthermore, divorcing the lyrics and melody from Gabriel’s own performance of these orchestral pieces thrusts the performers further away from “getting it” and understanding that millions of fans across the world held Gabriel’s music to be deeply moving, even in a spiritual way. To cut to the chase, the orchestra didn’t play all thirteen of these pieces convincingly, but that in no way diminishes my admiration for everyone involved for tackling such a difficult and rewarding musical project in such an unexpected setting.

The obvious template for Gabriel and Metcalfe’s work is orchestral minimalism, influenced by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as Gabriel explains in the bonus materials of his new blood DVD. This comes naturally from the original studio recordings of these songs in the 1970s through 2002, when Gabriel, very much influenced by classical minimalism at the time, used analog sequencers and drum machines, and later on increasingly sophisticated digital music technology, as the bedrock for many of the compositions. Ostinatos of metronomic sequences and counterpoints, often in odd time signatures, were overlayed with live drums, percussion, guitar, bass, and piano, and in the early days Gabriel’s own flute.

Each of the pieces in the new blood suite sound quite different, but most of them start with a quiet dynamic, with the musicians given the task of reproducing complex patterns transcribed from the original sequenced electronic sounds. This task often fell to the tuned percussion, employing a lot of hocketing between parts to cover what was originally composed with contrapuntal layers of monophonic synthesizers. It’s a big challenge to ask a percussion ensemble to play like a robotic handbell choir, while the movement and breath of the piece is conveyed by the other parts of the orchestra under the conductor’s baton. Yet it was not only the percussion section that had to deal with this. Minimalist melodic figures hocketed between instruments showed up in every section of the orchestra at various times. The ability to pull off this ensemble juggling act tended to dictate which pieces succeeded in performance and which did not.

I’ll digress a moment to comment on the presentation: the score necessitated amplification to be performed successfully. Joseph Greenway, the student sound engineer, was working almost as hard as the conductors, bringing soloists or small ensembles up in the mix at key points, and balancing sections off of each other in ways that would simply not work entirely acoustically. This is in the tradition of late 20th-century orchestral works, with another nod to Glass and composers like John Adams. Mr. Greenway and his team did a seamless job of pulling this off, although to my ear, when amplified, the cello section sounded dry and thin.

The concert opened with “The Rhythm of the Heat,” whose original version appeared on the Security album in 1982. This strong opening unleashed the dark and menacing undertone in many of Gabriel’s songs, with one long crescendo thrusting forward the length of the piece as the strings furtively skittered out col legno patterns and the huge bass drum and brass drove the point home.

In the course of the new blood suite, the student orchestra got a thorough workout in late-20th-century extended performance techniques, especially the strings, being called upon for col legno, Bartok snaps, all kinds of unusual harmonics and left-hand techniques, more than I can catalog. This was no easy evening of playing orchestral classic rock behind a cranked-up rock band, as might have been said about the KSU Orchestra’s performance with the band Kansas at the Cobb Energy Center last year. (Of course I was there and I loved every minute of it; it just represented the conventional approach, which Gabriel didn’t see as suiting his aims).

The next piece, “Downside Up”, from OVO, 2002, is one of the least-well-known tunes, as OVO was not a commercial pop album. The low brass struggled to bring their part together. The piece concluded with a spirited and improvised jazz solo by bassist Britton Wright.

“San Jacinto”, from Security, 1982, started with intricate, delicate and somewhat polyrhythmic tuned percussion ostinatos and brought out Steven Bicknell on piano (he also played celesta later in the program). I could hear the orchestra struggling to come to grips with it, as it worked through another slow crescendo to a wistful ending.

“Intruder”, from Gabriel’s third solo album in 1980, is another of the darkest and most sinister of Gabriel’s works. As he mentioned in his own commentary, Gabriel’s template for this orchestral arrangement was the work of screen composer Bernard Herrmann in Alfred Hitchcock’s films: he was pointing straight to the “shower” scene in Psycho (1960).

The orchestra approached this piece timidly, struggling to seize it and imbue it with terror. A valiant viola solo was under-amplified and lost its impact. By the end, they’d managed to create a satisfyingly chilling conclusion.

“Wallflower”, from Security, 1982, is a delicate, wistful piece that Gabriel stripped down to nothing but piano and a quartet of two cellos and two violas (Robert Marshall, Zac Goad, Kyle Mayes and Rachael Keplin) until the rest of the string orchestra very quitely swept in underneath the amplified quartet and piano at the last moment to create a beautiful, serene mood.

“In Your Eyes” from So, 1986, is one of Gabriel’s best-known songs, and also in his live band version one of the longest and most slowly-developing records that ever got played on pop radio in the 1980s or 90s. The original is replete with Senegalise drummers playing deep rhythms, sharp jangling cross-picked acoustic guitar, and most memorable for a passionate descant by counter-tenor Youssou N’Dour, sung in the Serer language. For the new blood arrangement, Gabriel and Metcalfe simply took out every bit of the percussion and any sharp attacks and recast the piece for strings only, in what I can only describe as a Brian Eno-approved “oblique strategy” of swirling melody like feathers in a gentle whirlwind. The KSU strings perfectly captured the mood on this one.

The first half of the concert concluded with “Mercy Street”, from So, 1986, when out came two singers: Jonathan Stewart, to sing the Peter Gabriel part, and Chani Maisonet to provide the counterpart to a meditative melody. Once again, it was apparent that everybody here understood how to convey the beautiful mood of what Gabriel described as the piece that his fans appreciated the most in his concerts over the years.

The intermission ended with the strings marching into the hall from the back and riffing on a demented marching-band arrangement of Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, from 1986, for a bit of comic relief. The orchestra then launched into the epic “Red Rain”, from So, 1986, richly orchestrated throughout, and played with true confidence.

“Darkness”, from Up, 2002, was a piece less-well-known to Gabriel fans. This was another example of Gabriel’s selection of something that was not a “hit” but worked perfectly within the context he constructed for new blood.

The plaintive and heart-rending “Don’t Give Up”, from So, 1986, well-remembered for the contribution of singer Kate Bush on the original, was one of Gabriel’s enduring classics, again well-suited to the wistful, melancholy textures that the orchestra spun out in the highest point of the concert.

“Digging In The Dirt”, from Us, 1992, however, did not gel. It required hard-rocking syncopated rhythms, serious as a heart attack, that the arranger was asking an orchestra to pound out without the help of a drum kit or drum machines. Nobody seemed able to rise to the challenge.

“The Nest that Sailed the Sky”, from OVO, 2002, provided a short, ethereal interlude that brought the orchestra to its conclusion, bringing out the singers again for “Solsbury Hill”, from Gabriel’s first solo album in 1977 — certainly some of the best lyrics Gabriel ever wrote. I can attest that any ensemble playing any arrangement of this quirkiest of songs, almost all in 7/4 time with contrasting emphasis between groups of 3 and 4 in different sections, would have difficulty keeping it rocking like it needs to rock. I’m most sorry to say that the singers took a frivolous approach to a spiritual piece of music whose message they just didn’t seem to understand or convey, in unfortunate contrast to their moving, heart-felt rendition of “Mercy Street” in the first half.

At the end, though, the orchestra earned their standing ovation. Every musician in the production was challenged, stretched, and grew in their musicianship from the application of an unlikely collection of arrangements of obsolete pop songs of the sort that don’t get played on the radio much anymore, revealing the enduring appeal of Gabriel’s music. Bravo.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite, Part Two

Part Two of my review of the Kennesaw State University Orchestra’s performance of Peter Gabriel’s new blood suite.

Here are the program notes from the printed concert program.

A note from the Assistant Dean of the College of the Arts

I have been an ardent fan of Peter Gabriel for over thirty years. I began listening to him as a college student in the early ’80s when I stumbled across a used copy of Security at my local record store. Since that time, I have followed each step of his career, each new album he recorded, with admiration and anticipation. Of course, it was as a live performer that Gabriel truly shone. I will never forget the first time I was able to see him live, during the So tour of 1986-87. The concert was equal parts theatrical spectacle, fantastic rock show, and spiritual experience. I remember, particularly, when he performed “Mercy Street”, a song dedicated to Anne Sexton. The lights, music, and performance all combined to enhance the impact of an already emotional piece, and I can still feel the goose bumps on my arms as the song ended.

So, it is against this backdrop of nearly thirty years of avid fandom, that I welcomed the news of Gabriel’s newest project with great excitement. Early press about new blood and the New Blood Orchestra was very positive, and due to the “miracle of the internet,” I was able to hear some of the recordings before it was released I eagerly pre-ordered the CD from a very popular online media outlet, and through some happy circumstance (kismet, fate), received two copies of the CD. I decided to pass the extra copy on to my friend and fellow classic rock fan, Michael Alexander. I didn’t know if he would like it, but it seemed to be the right thing to do as the piece is entirely orchestral. As with many such seemingly innocent acts, I could not have predicted the direction that this was going to take.

Where Mike got the gumption to contact Peter Gabriel’s organization about the possibility of KSU performing new blood, I will never truly know. What I do know is that all of a sudden a dialog began about how we could make this happen at Kennesaw State. I watched with utter amazement and joy as Mike copied me on his email correspondence with folks in the “Peter Gabriel Administration.” My favorite exchange involved Mike presenting three options for the performance, the first of which involved Gabriel performing with our orchestra, to which my dignified response (in blind copy) was, and I quote, “Option 1! Option 1! Option 1!” Sadly, Gabriel’s schedule did not allow for this, but it is a mark of his significant generosity that he agreed to allow us the rights to perform new blood, making tonight a reality. Beyond my utter fanaticism and excitement about the fact that we are now going to be connected to one of my absolute heroes in a very tangible and intimate way (this is, after all, the first time that this work will be performed in its entirety by anyone other than the New Blood Orchestra), there are other reasons why tonight is important to me personally and, I think, to the students about to perform for you.

For me, Peter Gabriel has always been one of those musicians who is utterly unafraid to take chances in order to serve his art. He is constantly striving to say something of significance; to walk a line that is both consistent with who he has always been as a musician and artist, and at the same time stretch out into new areas and break new ground. This spirit of curiosity, commitment, craft, fearlessness and drive is something that our faculty constantly strives to inculcate in our students. Our students have much to learn from the example that he has set. There is a deeper dimension to him that is important to recognize as well. Gabriel has long been someone who has seen a greater role for his art than just as entertain- mint. His commitment to social issues, awareness of the intricacies and complexities of the world, and his willingness to use his talents in the service of a greater good represent the best of what musicians and artists can achieve. (See, for example, his work with WOMAD [the World of Music and Dance], Real World Studios, Amnesty International, and the Witness Project, not to mention the subject matter of many of his songs.) Again, this is an ideal that we, as educators, wish our students to strive for; to see something larger and more important in what they do than just playing to make people happy — we want them to be fully engaged in the world around them and to seek ways to effect positive change. After all, artists with integrity endure.

Of course, it’s important to recognize that there is another purpose to this specific artistic endeavor we undertake this evening; one that, I think, is entirely consistent with the spirit of Gabriel’s work. Proceeds from this concert will be used to enhance the scholarship opportunities available to our students. The commitment you’ve made as audience members will make it possible for many of these young musicians arrayed on the stage before you to pursue their dreams where they otherwise couldn’t. Our students are different from many who pursue careers in the arts. They largely do not come from privileged backgrounds. They do not have endless resources to support themselves throughout their college careers. They have chosen a path that is not greatly valued in the larger society, and, for the most part, do not stand to earn incredible salaries upon graduation. And our world will be a better place for the decision and sacrifice that they have made in the face of great odds. What they do they do out of passion, dedication, and commitment, all of which are values present in the work and life of Peter Gabriel. So it is apt, I think, that we present this concert for you this evening, not only because it is a unique musical experience, but because it is part of something larger. I am reminded of the lyrics of one of Gabriel’s most popular songs, “In Your Eyes”. This is a love song, but the spirit of the lyrics seem fitting. So, with great apologies for the liberties with Gabriel’s lyrics, let me conclude by saying: “In your eyes, we are complete; In your eyes, we see the doorway to a thousand churches; In your eyes, the resolution of all the fruitless searches. Thank you for your support of this unique event and of our students.

Samuel Robinson, Assistant Dean

new blood

The idea of working with an orchestra began with the Scratch My Back project. This was a song exchange concept, i.e. you do one of mine and I’ll do one of yours. Initially I had thought of working with home-made instruments, but as I explored the sounds we could use, I didn’t find the range of tone and expression that was clearly available in existing instruments that had been developed over time, with years and years of improvements.

I had never really explored an orchestra as the sole sound palette for a record, and that seemed very fresh. Although I had lots of ideas of what it could be, I didn’t have the breadth of knowledge or experience with the full range of orchestral instruments to do the job as well as I wanted, so I began checking out arrangers. I really liked the work of John Metcalfe who had been working on a project at our studio, and had been doing some very interesting live composing for a project The Bays and The Heritage Orchestra. We met and discussed favorite composers and approaches. I then asked if he could arrange a couple of tracks with me and loved the results.

My intention was to work outside of traditional rock arrangements or instrumentation, for us to be bold, innovative and to work with dynamics and extremes where possible, i.e. still and stark at one point, fat, fleshy, and emotional at another. The process was to discuss what each track needed, and then John would prepare a first draft, which we would bounce around a few times before settling on a final version. As this project evolved it grew into something different from anything else I’d done or heard, and I really wanted to take it out live — on its own terms and not as a support for “Scratch” — which we did.

There are fairly radical takes on some familiar and less familiar songs. We are proud of what we have done on this record. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it.

–Peter Gabriel

KSU Instrumental Ensembles

We are proud to present Peter Gabriel’s new blood to you this evening. This marks yet another milestone for the instrumental program at KSU in that we are the first university to be given the rights to perform this music. It also marks our continuing effort to give our students a wide breadth of experiences that will prepare them to be versatile musicians committed to great art, in whatever shape or form it may appear. A concert like this does not happen without a lot of help. We owe huge “thank-yous” to the staff of the Bailey Center and especially Joseph Greenway, who was a driving force in the lights and sounds you will experience tonight. We also want to thank Peter Gabriel for taking on such a bold project and his amazing management team, who were so supportive of us having this opportunity.

Tonight’s concert is also important because the proceeds go to supporting scholarships and opportunities for our students. We have remarkable students and we owe them the very best. They will be leading the cultural experiences in our region for years to come. Please consider making an additional generous donation to the Mattie Borders Proctor Fellowship for Undergraduate Instrumentalists, which supports these activities.

We are so lucky to have the opportunity to work in a great place with great students and colleagues. Thanks for sharing this experience with us tonight.

Michael Alexander, Director of Orchestras
David Kehler, Director of Bands

Personnel

Flute/Alto Flute/Piccolo

Catherine Flinchum
Dirk Stanfield

Oboe

Alexander Sifuentes

Clarinet

Kadie Johnston
Tyler Moore

Bassoon

Sarah Fluker

Horn

David Andres
Kristen Arvold

Trumpet

John Thomas Burson
Justin Rowan

Trombone

David Lennertz
Michael Lockwood

Bass Trombone

Joseph Poole

Tuba

Melinda Mason

Percussion

Katelyn King
Erik Kosman
Michael Standard
Harrison Ude

Piano

Steven Bicknell

Violin 1

Emily Ahlenius
Jarred Cook
Saraha Hoefer
Grace Kawamura
Danielle Moeller
Jonathan Urizar
Anneka Zee

Violin 2

Rachel Campbell
Michah David
Amanda Esposito
Terry Keeling
Meian Butcher
Joshua Martin
Kimberly Ranallo
Brittany Thayer

Viola

Justin Brookins
Ryan Gibson
Hallie Imeson
Rachel Keplin
Kyle Mayes
Aliyah Miller
Perry Morris
Alishia Pittman
Samatha Tang

Cello

Kathyrn Encisco
Rachel Halverson
Zac Goad
Robert Marshall
Avery McCoy

Bass

Jarod Boles
Jared Houseman
Matthew Richards
Neal Rodack
Nicholas Schoelfield
Nick Twarog
Britton Wright

Vocals

Chani Maisonet
Jonathan Stewart

Sound Engineer

Joseph Greenway

Next up, my review, in Part Three.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite performed by the KSU Symphony Orchestra, Part One

Review of

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Orchestral Suite

Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble

Michael Alexander and David Kehler, conductors

Bailey Performance Center, Kennesaw State University

Thursday, January 10, 2013. 8:00 pm

new blood

Composed by Peter Gabriel

Arranged by John Metcalfe

Program

  • The Rhythm of the Heat
  • Downside Up
  • San Jacinto
  • Intruder
  • Wallflower
  • In Your Eyes
  • Mercy Street
  • Red Rain
  • Darkness
  • Don’t Give Up
  • Digging In The Dirt
  • The Nest that Sailed the Sky
  • Solsbury Hill

Tonight I attended a fascinating concert by the KSU Orchestra, a suite of pieces that stretched and challenged all of the 58 student performers in unexpected ways, from an unconventional source.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood suite, which was presented by Gabriel with a professional orchestra in a globe-hopping tour that spanned months, has never been performed outside of Gabriel’s direct involvement until now. The KSU music faculty took it upon themselves to contact Peter Gabriel’s organization and obtain clearance to do their own production, for one performance only.

A couple of years ago rock star Peter Gabriel commissioned John Metcalfe to work with him in arranging a number of his songs, spanning 25 years of recordings, into an orchestral suite which he could take on tour, singing with the orchestra in a decidedly non-conventional context. What I mean by that is they dispensed with the way that countless classic rock acts have approached performing with an orchestra. They made a decision not to use any rock band instruments or rock musicians, not to use any electronic instruments or pre-recorded tracks, and they decided to make each piece in the suite sound completely unlike any of the others, by means of the techniques of 20th and 21st-century orchestration. Moreover Gabriel made an exceptionally wise choice not to orchestrate his “greatest hits”; he chose a suite of pieces with a few titles that even his most ardent fans might find obscure. He selected the pieces from his body of work that seemed to him would sound the best when adapted to a symphony orchestra. All of these turned out to be the right decisions.

He also decided to record and present, on a bonus CD in an album package, entirely instrumental arrangements of each of these pieces without anyone singing the melody and the lyrics. These arrangements, largely without melody and song, put the focus on the orchestration and the moods.

Tonight at the Bailey Performance Hall at KSU, directors Michael Alexander and David Kehler took turns with each successive piece, challenging their students to accomplish some prodigious musical achievements on what appears to be very little rehearsal. In the concert program, Assistant Dean Samuel Robinson waxed rhapsodic in a two-page essay about his lifelong admiration for the music of Peter Gabriel, and how important it was to various music faculty members to expose their students to these works.

Peter Gabriel covered a significant amount of territory in musical growth and innovation in twenty-five years. In 1975 he left behind the baroque complexity of his band Genesis, one of the most popular rock bands in England and Europe at the time, spent a lot of time in the United States, and started over with a sound that had more to do with punk than the folk-infused progressive rock for which he was known. Almost immediately expanding upward from his own new stripped-down, dark and angry sound, his music quickly came to incorporate intricate electronic music elements through the programmed sequences of electronic synthesist Larry Fast. Throughout the rest of his solo career, Gabriel’s compositions continued to incorporate sequenced and programmed technological elements, including plenty of drum machines, incorporating more and more sophisticated electronic music technology as he went. At some point in a strange juxtaposition he also began to incorporate world music, especially African drumming and singing from Senegal. But at no point, except perhaps for the instrumental soundtrack that he composed and performed for the motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ, did his music depart from being recognizable as rock music, played by a live rock band.

Adapting this sort of material into the form of the symphony orchestra — that’s where the fascination starts.

I happen to know musician Larry Fast, so when I heard that the KSU Symphony Orchestra was performing new blood, I wrote to him to ask him his opinion on the work. Larry said, “I was very impressed with the orchestral arrangements. Some were new, but interesting takes on the originals. But for some the orchestrator studied the original synth parts and just nailed them perfectly. I saw the two tours and really enjoyed them.”

Next up, my review of the KSU concert. I’ll have as much to say about the pieces themselves as I will about their performance of them.