Walking away from rainbows
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1993 Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
The phrase "Time Lapse" has a dual meaning for British guitarist Steve Hackett. It’s the title of his recent, career-spanning live album. It’s also a reference to his long absence from North America.
Hackett’s most recent activity on this side of pond involved GTR, a radio-friendly rock act he formed with Yes guitarist Steve Howe. The band released a single platinum-selling record in 1986 before breaking up. The group dissolved largely because of Hackett’s interest in following a less mainstream path.
That path revealed itself in 1988’s Momentum, an ambitious solo acoustic guitar album. But labels considered it too esoteric for North America and Hackett was forced to limit the associated tour to European territory.
Hackett, 43, has a pattern of joining commercially-successful musical ventures, only to leave them unexpectedly as his muse dictates. The most notable of those decisions was his departure from Genesis in 1977 for a solo career—right when the band was on the brink of transforming itself into one of the world’s biggest-selling acts.
But Hackett is aiming to reestablish himself in the North American rock realm. His 1992 tour in support of Time Lapse represents the first part of that strategy. The second phase arrived with the 1993 release of Guitar Noir, a studio album that showcases his most sophisticated lyrical work to date, embedded in both atmospheric and mercurial structures.
Innerviews joined Hackett on two occasions in the plush environment of the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, Canada. The first interview explores his long absence from the mainstream. The second, conducted more than a year later, reflects further on the renaissance of his creative instincts and career path.
Part One: August 1992
Describe why you’ve kept such a low profile in North America for the past six years.
I tend to joke about it rather than get into the reasons why the business has conspired to keep me off the road so long. I usually say I spent time in plastic surgery, detox clinics and I got involved with a number of gurus. [laughs] I've had tremendous amounts of legal hassles, as does any musician that's been around for 20 years in this business I suppose. But, I've been all over doing things including a lot charity work and film work. I did one jingle for an airline company. I've also done a couple of acoustic albums like Momentum and Bay Of Kings.
You've done a lot of label hopping too.
Oh yeah. I've done that because I haven't played the game you see—the game which is to do what you're told. I always wanted to rock the boat far too much musically and in every other sense. I'm a perfectly polite person. I don't put record companies off in that way. But, all of my politeness I reserve for society. When it comes to music, I actually feel, maybe it's my calling. For me, it's vocational and rather than be told what kind of music to do, I would simply rather do another job for a living. I'd rather do social work or film work. There have been a lot of reasons why, but they have nothing to do with my lack of commitment to music or lack of passion for music. I still feel passionately about music and still feel passionately about touring. It simply hasn't been possible to do it. Circumstances have not been on my side. I came to a point at which I said I literally have to go out on tour whether there's an album or not, whether there's a company behind me or not. Amazingly enough, I made that commitment. So, we conspired to produce this new live album which facilitated the tour. Normally, tours facilitate albums, but in fact it was the other way around this time. I kept my thoughts together. The business was just going to conspire to keep me silent and I wasn't going to let it. I wanted to go out and see if there are people that like what I do—if audiences are still there.
Yes, they are and it's been marvelous. One simply didn't know. It was nice to know the Quebec show sold out on the first day and this is someone that hasn't toured for six years. The last time I was touring it was with GTR and not with my own band. So, I've been greatly moved by the response and the level of response and it's just been a major, major thing for me. Unfortunately, I've been too tired to really appreciate things and to take it in to the extent I would like to do. As I say, I don't want to say I'm someone that lacks energy—quite the reverse. I run, I jog and do all sorts of stuff to keep fit. I'm a keep-fit fanatic, but I haven't had a single moment where I've been able to literally walk outside the hotel—you know, take those two steps by yourself. It's all been accountable, all the time—as one has to do if you're on the road. Sleep has been truly Napoleonic, I would say.
The purpose of doing this tour largely is to test new material in front of audiences and develop it further. But when I release the next album, Guitar Noir, it will be the best album I've ever done. I'm not just saying that to advertise it, but because it's the most crucial thing I've ever done. It's been the thing I've most wanted to do as an album because I've been reduced to silence for so long. The conspiracy of silence will be broken with this. I think of it as the undiluted concentrate.
Apart from Time Lapse, a new compilation titled The Unauthorized Biography is due out shortly.
To be or not to be archived, that is the question. [laughs]. There are one or two things unreleased on that. One is a track I did with Brian May from Queen funnily enough. It’s basically hard rock, but we did one other track which was very acoustic and it's called "Don't Fall Away From Me."
Both you and Steve Howe said GTR was a long-term project. But it didn’t turn out that way. What happened?
Umm... [long pause] Let me hide behind these a minute. [puts on sunglasses and laughs]. Basically, GTR was a project that was a success, but the costs in order to maintain the running of this very successful operation were far in excess of the profits. In two years time, it was heavily in debt. I think there are various reasons for that, but the short answer is it basically ran out of funds. We could have continued to borrow. We could have continued to put ourselves further in debt.
How did the band incur so much debt after only one album?
I think that Steve Howe and I are in some ways similar—we both play guitar, we're both named Steve, we've both been in big bands and what have you. But he was used to making albums in a very expensive way. He felt to make a top album you needed to have a top studio. My idea at the beginning was to take the kind of mega-budget we had and invest in equipment. So, even if the band failed, we still had something at the end of the day to show for it. It had been my long-term aim to have my own recording studio which I now have, but at the time, Steve Howe wasn't interested in that. So, we spent a lot of money pleasing the individuals in the band and also pleasing the record company with various mixes, as well as Geoff Downes and the management. The whole thing was... oh dear... [long pause]
GTR involved many compromises for you.
There are artistic limitations with any successful band and it was a successful band. There's a certain price to pay and I think that in rehearsal, the band scaled some tremendous heights on things that will never be released—things not considered worthy of radio play and all the rest. I wanted to work with Steve because I liked his early playing so much and the idea of having a twin guitar-led project was interesting because it wasn't exactly all the rage at the time. This was prior to the advent of Night of the Guitars and I.R.S. doing their guitar compilations. So, it was an interesting project from that point of view. But I just didn't see how it could possibly do anything but make us enormously bankrupt at the end of the day. So, I didn't want to go on adding to the fiscal situation. Steve was going to continue with the band, but he decided not to for one reason or another.
The band’s manager, Brian Lane, once said "GTR is a project entirely motivated by greed."
Well, I think Brian Lane has probably condemned himself many times by statements like that. And of course his motivation was entirely artistic. [sarcastically] No, that project was not motivated by greed. It was motivated more by desperation than greed I would say. I have a love of touring and I feel the need to play in front of people and I realized that situation would be a vehicle for doing that. It was a way of approaching the business not from the side door which I resigned myself to doing for years and years and years, but from the front door with all the glory... [long pause]
I wanted to have it again. It's a bit like an actor embarking on a film that he realizes might not be the most wonderful piece of art, but it's going to do very well, and there's going to be a lot of backing behind it. So, frankly, I saw it in terms of personal exposure. You might expect Madonna to say the same thing. Frankly, it was a career move. To a degree that's true, but as I was 50 percent of the writing team for it, I felt I could creatively direct it and I hopefully wouldn't be too accountable to the conglomerate. But of course, I was. Every note was negotiated—every cup of coffee was negotiated. I'll be honest, it was a marriage of convenience. But, there comes a point in your life where in order to be able to do certain things, you have to make certain sacrifices. So, when I look back at it, I see it. I haven't admitted this to any other journalist, so you have a scoop to a degree. GTR was everything everyone's always suspected. I'm just putting it into concrete terms. Beyond that, I have no need to bad-mouth anyone in that situation. I just realized that it wasn't for me. Yes, we had a firm deal and I could have perhaps done it for life, but frankly, I prefer my albums to be more spontaneous and creatively free.
Was recording Momentum after GTR a cathartic experience?
Absolutely. Oh yes. That was a vindication—a therapeutic, cathartic thing. For me, that was doing it once again without all the props. Momentum was music without props and I went out and toured the album. I toured it extensively throughout Europe. I played to 100,000 people in Estonia, Russia and the Soviet Union—the biggest crowd I ever played to just with one acoustic guitar. I played the occasional piece of Bach for them and they went absolutely bananas. Rock is parochial in its thinking and reductionist and I've always tried to think expansively. I'm thinking of people that operate in both camps, like Leonard Bernstein who is in both the classical and the popular areas. I just did a thing with the London Chamber Orchestra in England as well. We played a program of Vivaldi at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. That was again the complete antithesis of this.
Most of the time, what you do as a musician, only a small part is perceived. Most of the time, there isn't a company on the planet prepared to accept you in total. I am a classical groupie if you like, I slobber over them shamelessly. [laughs] "I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy" I say to them and orchestras say to me "Yes, you're worthy, we know you." They respect what I do, because they feel I have to reinvent the wheel every time I do something, whereas the classical musicians feel once they've learned their jobs and gone through the agonies of achieving that fine blend of technique and discipline, they rely on the establishment in order to promote themselves. In fact, the London Chamber Orchestra perform where they can. They're all virtuosos. It's a great orchestra. It can be very intimidating to be on a stage with an orchestra of virtuosos, but it was the most marvelous experience. It felt and sounded absolutely wonderful.
A related project you took part in was the We Know What We Like Genesis orchestral album.
I do certain things to keep body and soul together and that was one of them. I think David Palmer missed the point to a degree, because the more classical moments of Genesis were not the things he concentrated on. What he did do were perhaps the poppier moments and when you translate those to orchestra they become frumpy and it sounds as if orchestras and rock don't really go together, whereas I feel they do go together. But they sound better doing certain things than other things. Palmer's talented, but it's safe to say I won't be doing any more of those projects with him in the future. He asked me originally to play like myself, but then it became plain that he wanted me to play the dots and I found it an uneasy experience—although I did it twice with him. I don't feel he got the best out of me or the material.
You've hit another Achilles' heel or tendon. We’ve been talking about the things I'm least proud of. [laughs] Obviously, it hasn't gone unperceived. There are certain things as I say that I've done for money and I'm not particularly ashamed of it. But I don't want it to sound as if everything I do is for money. I mean, I left the security of Genesis for precisely the opposite reason. And I could have made more money from GTR. But I'd far rather do what I do and do it well—the personal things, even if they only sell one or two copies. I'm far more interested in doing that if I can possibly make that happen. People then say "Oh, he's only interested in a small level of success." Of course, that's not true. I'd prefer to be selling billions, but the reality is when push has come to shove, most of the time I've managed to do exactly what I want to do.
You've written a song about this called "Walking Away From Rainbows."
That’s right. I think everyone gets the feeling at some point that it's time to move on from whatever situation. It might be a fledgling leaving the nest. It might be leaving home. It could be a person, place or country. It's not specific. It's just a feeling. You might be doing very well in a job you're in or it might be a favorite group. It might be the moment you told your mother it was time to leave home. Nobody knows why we all leave home, but there comes a point where we leave this wonderful woman that cooks, washes, sews and encourages us—a woman that does everything for us if we're lucky. Yet, one day we turn around and say "Mum, it's time I got my own place." So, it's akin to that feeling. There's a feeling of sadness, but there's also a feeling of resolve.
Some of your new songs incorporate a spoken word element.
Yeah, like "Many Sides To The Night"—the one about the prostitute. That one is one I do without a guitar around my neck for part of it. Funnily enough, in rehearsal, I found the only way the song worked for me was to do it as a singer and not a guitarist.
Is it a nervous experience for you to perform without a guitar?
Well, yes, indeed. [laughs] I realize that I'm not Caruso. I remember seeing Leonard Bernstein singing a Beatles song horribly and finding it totally endearing that he would sit down and do that. He sang it an octave lower in a gravelly voice and in a way it was laughable, but he wasn't afraid to laugh at himself. He was singing once to a bunch of kids. He was totally uninhibited about it and I thought, that's great you know, that's it. That was my approach to that song. It's an actor's approach to singing. I take the actor's approach rather a lot. I'm nowhere near it every night in terms of the tuning, but hey, what the hell?
Does the vulnerability during your performances mirror the song’s content?
Yes. I'm more vulnerable and the woman I'm singing about is vulnerable too. She stands naked in front of the world. So, the character in that song just feels close to me somehow. I feel I can see her. She's all of those tough women in a moment where they're not tough. Also, I get the "there but for fortune" feeling from it. There's been many a woman that's done the same thing with honorable reasons or feelings—women who've supported entire families and have risked everything to do so. I do believe it's all in the eye of the beholder, which is why I leave the punchline until the very end which is "I do it for my child alone/Who would say it's just not right/Verily I say unto you/There are many sides to the night." I wrote it as a poem because I wanted the song to have music within the words. So, it starts out "Standing out under the lamplight" which is maybe a salute to the French chanson Lily Marlene in the past, and then...
[Hackett pauses and begins reciting the lyrics as a poem.]
Standing under the lamplight
In one of the nicer parts of hell
Behold this dreamer with rich red ruby lips
Some pay for the privilege
Some just pay to talk
Because there are many sides to the night
When Father Thames lies sleeping
His ever watchful sons
Divide up the spoils of the day's takings
A woman's work is never ever done
She's a child, a slave, a teacher and a fool
And then she vanishes from sight
Because no one ever told you
There are many sides to the night
Standing under the lamplight
Selling perfume, sweetcorn and lace
She looks beautiful from a distance
But it's too dark to see her face
I do it for my child alone
Who would say it's just not right
Verily, I say unto you
There are many sides to the night
Thus, her motivation. But I think it also tries to say something about cities. I try to turn things around to a degree. I used to write poetry at one time and then I started writing songs and the two didn't come together for many, many years. One thing was separate from the other and the lyrics were always an appendage to the song. I wondered why people said "Your instrumentals are much better than your songs." [laughs] I thought "No, this cannot be! I can't afford to let this happen! One day I must write real songs!" So, I've now started writing real songs.
You don't think your previous songs were real songs?
I think a real song I wrote was "Hoping Love Will Last" which Randy Crawford sung from the Please Don't Touch album. I think "Icarus Ascending" was a real song that Richie Havens sung. "Everyday" was a real song. "The Virgin And The Gypsy" was a real song. So, I did write some real ones. But to a degree, I'm happier with the new things. "In The Heart Of The City" is a real song as well. I don't write by checking myself with meter. I alter the meter to fit the song later on and the song grows up at some separate time. Usually, it's very rare for the two to come together at the same time and only if they naturally appear do I do it. But I don't sit down and write the thing and think "I must get a lyric straight away!" I try not to do that. I let it simmer and I allow a period of gestation—subconscious incubation. I take a pseudo-intellectual approach—I realize I do. These days, as well as approaching these things through the so-called intellect—what's left of it—I go for the instinctive thing as well.
I'm playing a lot more harmonica these days. At one time people would say "Your harmonica playing is much better than your guitar playing." I've reached the point now where people have said "Your guitar playing is much better than your songwriting or your ability to sing." This is why I've continued to chip away at the block and keep trying to do it even though I know I fall short. My most comfortable moments on stage are when I've finished singing—when I've stopped in a sweat and I start playing. I think "This is so easy. I can control this by comparison. Look at all the things I can do. I can sustain a note, I can vibrato, I can hold it, I can reel them off, I can fire off the rounds!" In other words, all the things I'd like to do with my voice.
You’ve significantly altered how you use your voice over the years.
I actually sing less loudly now. I sing very softly or talk, in fact. My voice is reed thin, but it's getting stronger because I'm doing it more gently and I think it has to do with words. The singing is as important even if I've done one 100th as well as the playing because the words have something I'm trying to get across. I think that to a degree, it's very easy to have a mediocre song sound very good and sound apparently bullet-proof with extremely fine singing. However, if you're not a singer with cast iron lungs, you have to develop something else to compensate for your inabilities. You can't fall back on technique, so you develop character to compensate and that might be a character within songs. I think that's the best way to go about achieving character.
I've gone a little bit full circle back to the musical or lyrical narrative, although the hardest thing to is to tell a story. It's an area that I'm exploring and I'm finding it very interesting because it seems to suit me very well. I'm dying to find out what happens to this character, whoever it happens to be. Right now, I'm thinking of my character from "Many Sides To The Night" and the one from "Vampire With A Healthy Appetite." When I write them, I don't know how they're gonna end up. I don't have it worked out what's going to happen, and then I let them talk back—much the same way a writer does. I have a character "In The Heart Of The City" which is really at that neurotic level.
[Hackett breaks out into verse.]
Standard bearers march to the tick of the clock
It's a war against time when you're fronting the flock
Determined, resilient, defiant and strong
Nobel and savage, they know they belong
In the heart of the city
The battlefield of love
A ruffled feather bed
From fluid moist lips
The benediction said
You love them and leave them
With yesterday's guilt
Everything's on schedule
In the empire that you've built
In the heart of the city
You close a deal Thursday at 7:45
The train now is empty
You're the only man alive
You throw away your clothes
In a house of clouds
The window is sealed
The furniture enshrouds
In the heart of the city
So, it implies an emptiness even though it's chock full of bustle and musical detail to reflect life in the city—the microcosm. Yet at the end of the day, it's empty, it's lonely, it's deserted—it’s the anthill when the ants have all gone to sleep somehow. The instrumental at the end, having been very percussive and very tight, becomes very expansive and the guitar synth floats off into trumpet territory. It's the metamorphosis—the city going to sleep, the feeling of the city receding. I have this feeling when we're traveling a lot. It's a visual feeling. Sometimes it’s a woman in a slow-mo shot of a helicopter pulling away from skyscrapers. So, all of these big things are becoming small—a shift in perspectives. It’s all straight, not drug induced! [laughs]
Those are very intricate lyrics. Did you agonize over them?
I did agonize over that one. I took a long time writing them. I allow them to write themselves. I don't force them. I won't stick in anything unless it's good. And now, when I pick up an album, the first thing I do is don't play it. I read the lyrics. I set them up against Shakespeare. If I read Shakespeare, I don't understand what he's saying first of all, because you need the points of reference. You need to know—you need to work it out. But you can just read it for its music. It's all Shakespeare requires of you. If you read it for its music, it romances you in a different sort of way. Then you go into the textbooks and study it. But first of all, you should sing it for yourself—make it sing. I look for the same thing in lyrics. I look for description, honesty and metaphor—all of these things. Now, I get disappointed because there aren't that many times when a lyricist will allow himself to be lyrical. Most of the time they think "I'll go for cliches." For instance, when I wrote the lyrics for "When The Heart Rules The Mind," I did it from the opposite point of view and of course that was a hit song. So, I'm guilty of writing a hit song and did it with all the cliches in mind and for me, it's quite a simple exercise too—it's not that difficult to have a hit if you really want to. It's like committing murder really.
Is having a hit song really that bad?
Well, it's what it does to your conscious. I feel guilty about that, yeah. I feel I'm capable of a lot more.
You reach deep into your solo and Genesis back catalog during your concerts. Do you feel obligated to perform those old pieces?
I feel a sense of obligation to play "Spectral Mornings." I don't play it because I felt a sense of obligation towards something I know I consider to be a redundant form unless I can really re-arrange it. I think the soggy, leaden drums of that have been superseded by interesting percussion ideas and far looser, more enjoyable rhythms. I think too much of progressive rock felt that the rhythm had to be suffered and labored by too many ponderous, slow rhythms which really didn't facilitate the floating sort of nature of things. I'm not too interested in the time-signature based songs unless you've got a wonderful melody to back it up.
Having said that, I know the opening piece I do in concert is full of fast changes and is choppy and everything [a medley that combines well-known solo, Genesis and GTR material]. I was taking a leaf out of Paul Butterfield's "Rolling Show" vibe, in which he started out with that—something that sounded like five different numbers all in one. I was amazed and blown away with that. It was marvelous. Paul Butterfield is an unsung hero of mine. He was a blues harmonica player. For me, he was the God of the blues harmonica. He was a white man and he grew up in Chicago. The last thing I saw him do was a show with B.B. King. He had the respect of everyone.
During the current tour, you perform a blues shuffle. Given your love for the form, why does this mark the first time you’re doing that?
Insecurity of the past, but there's a better reason than that. When I first joined Genesis, I played them the blues and they laughed at me. In fact, they laughed the blues out of court at the time. It traumatized me in a way and made me struggle into the other areas of melodic dimension. But you know, what the hell? I might get run over by a bus tomorrow and no-one will know how much I loved the blues or the stumble or harmonica and that grassroots sort of stuff. I don't love it just because it's rootsy. I love it because it moves me greatly. I mean the harmonica, a little tiny instrument, when miced up right sounds big as hell and rips the pants off you. I just love the sound of it. I love it when it sounds like a trumpet. This is what Butterfield did to absolute perfection. It was a brass instrument in his hands. He did for me what Louis Armstrong must have done for so many other people. The man just never played a wrong note in his life. I listened to a couple of those albums the night before I packed my suitcases for this tour. I went "Hallelujah!" I say my prayers. I'm a believer. I believe he's still there. I don't believe talent like that ever dies. He died young. I believe he drank himself to death.
Let's discuss the Sailing charity project you helmed. Did you achieve what you hoped for?
[Sailing was a 1990 charity single released under the group name Rock Against Repatriation. It was intended to raise money and awareness of several Asian groups that left the torturous conditions of their homeland, only to be refused entry into the Western countries they journeyed to. It featured artists including Brian May, the Moody Blues, Mike Rutherford, Phil Manzanera and Godley & Creme.]
I gave a lot of impassioned speeches on soapboxes to people in squares and on TV. I did a tremendous amount of stuff for NBC. I must have done over 20 TV shows here in North America. Mike Rutherford said to me afterwards "Although the track didn't get radio play, it got a tremendous amount of TV coverage all over the globe." It was certainly the most widely-publicized thing I've ever done. It took a year of my life. I researched the situation and the history of it. I knew my facts, so I was able to joust with the politicians I met. At the end of the day, what it came down to was that I was able to keep up with the politicians and I could quote as many percentages as they threw at me. My wife Kim and manager Billy and a lot of people worked very hard on it—not just the artists that came in and did their bit for it. I was very grateful.
I remember, I was sitting there with Brian May and we were overdubbing the song on Christmas Eve. I had gotten people to work in England on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. People were sort of saying "Well, I've got my family, you know." So, I was becoming a professional beggar as you do when you undertake charity work. I was worried that I pushed a lot of my friends, family and management to the limit with this. But even as we sat there Christmas Eve doing the overdubs, they showed us working on TV from when they filmed us earlier. It had everyone singing along and it was a nice buzz for Brian and Me. I was worried I pushed him on it, but he said "No, you got me out of myself by doing that. I'm glad you did that." So, it was a good effort. We had an album ready as well, but too many companies did the dirty on us and bounced checks on us, but fortunately, I didn't hand over the master tapes. But I do have an album which I am quite ready to release if there was a company that would do it. The songs are full of the same people. I guess the labels are a bit overloaded—there's a lot of causes that were taking precedence over it.
The single didn't accomplish what I wanted it to. But it highlighted the thing I was saying at the time—that we have so many charities that exist for the sake of supporting disasters, earthquakes, floods and acts of God. Yet, here's a man-made disaster and at that point people were just being forced to repatriate some of them. And recently they had fires and 20 people died.
[A long pause follows. Hackett is on the edge of tears.]
I wanted to do so much more with it and I couldn't. But I did what I could. The important thing was to make the point that nationalism is a very bad thing. There's a joke that goes "The first national anthem was ‘God bless all those in cave 13 and to hell with all the rest.’" That was in the last political speech I did for the release of the single. I felt the cause very strongly and still do. The fortress mentality that the West adopts worries me. For instance, Canada has such a low population. Yet, in other places, they're sticking them in camps and beating the shit out of them. And you've got plenty of room here. There’s plenty of room in Australia too. We've got more room all over the world and at the end of the day, I feel there is a higher authority and we will have to account one day to the higher authority. I don't know if it's going to be punitive. I don't believe necessarily that it's a score card. But I do believe many of us will have to hang our heads in shame. So, I feel one has to do what one can do. The conscience is a tireless, faultless mechanism.
Part Two: November 1993
The last time we spoke, you said Guitar Noir would represent the breaking of the conspiracy of silence. Has it turned out that way?
Yes. I think at the point we last spoke, I had recorded some of the tracks for the album. I was about 50 percent of the way through it. Then, we embarked on that tour. We brought out the live album as an excuse to go on tour and the response was very, very strong. It had exactly the effect I hoped it would. I said "Hell, we have to get an album out, even if we have to put it out ourselves." So, we built our own studio, formed a new band and started our own record company in England. We licensed it to various territories as well. The reaction to the tour was so enthusiastic right across Canada and the States. We knew we were going places again to a large degree. When you’re recording at home and just playing to your close friends, you really have no idea. You could be playing absolute bilge and they’d still say "Well done Steve! That sounds jolly fine!" [laughs] To a degree, everyone’s polite. My close friends are never going to say it’s complete bilge.
At the time, I thought Guitar Noir may well have been the last album I ever did because it was so difficult to do. It was a brave album that I did in the face of much adversity. You reach a point in the business where if you haven’t followed the commercial dictates, you’re going to come across walls that have to be broken down. It was so difficult to get a release on it that I thought it would be very fine indeed if Guitar Noir has to be the last one. So, it was certainly the most detailed album I’ve ever produced and certainly the best-produced. Whether it’s the best written or not, I don’t know. It was certainly the most ruthlessly analyzed. [laughs] Some tracks were recorded as much as three times to make sure we got the best version. We tried it with machines, we tried it with men and we ended up with machines and men. I think I could not have produced better versions of those tracks. There can always be a different mix. Something can always be changed. There could always be a remake of Gone with the Wind. We can always correct the blurring of the red in the Technicolor process. Something that is hailed as a classic in its field will never be perfect. There’s no such thing as perfection. I’ve come to realize that. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I am satisfied with the album, but it came to the point where I wanted to move on from it. It took several years to knock in into shape. It’s relatively current, but I used to produce albums in six weeks. We used to think that was a perfect amount of time to record an album. With six weeks, you had something like the immaculate conception. It can be short and sweet and very nice when you’re dealing with certainties like a band, record company and release date. And before you know it, you’re on tour again. What happens in reality is things take much longer. Many more serous things go on in your life. I’m not talking about contracts that are written or broken or relationship that nearly formed. Rather, one moment your grandfather is alive, the next he passes on. That happened during the GTR thing that took longer than intended. I remember suddenly the engineer’s father died. So, these are the things that go on—the considerations outside the music. You try to hold them off. There are walls that hold the door, but they do encroach. So, Guitar Noir was a victory—a moral victory for all who were involved in it. Just the fact that it was released was success enough for me under the welter of all the things that added up to the conspiracy of silence.
The Viceroy label released the album in the States. Why did you go with them?
I had gone various routes and they were the company that came across with enthusiasm. They were hungry for it. We approach so many companies who seemed enthusiastic, but none of them came through with the goods. We wasted a lot of time. So, I will always champion the little guy over the conglomerate. It can be no great shakes when you are actually released on a big label. That’s only a part of the picture. So, I would advise anyone stating out in the business to think very carefully before signing with a major. I think a major is unlikely to offer me a big deal. They may very well offer me a medium, well-done deal. Normally, you get inklings of how an album is going to do with a large company. Before the GTR album was released, the noises that were made were such that we realized that it was going to be a hit. That sounds arrogant, but in fact, records, like films, have their success dictated at the boardroom level.
Viceroy reordered the tracks and included a bonus cut called "Cassandra."
They did, yeah. The stress is very much on the louder, brasher tracks and the more subtle ones are consigned to the second half of the album. I was quite happy to do that at Viceroy’s behest. I was quite happy if they felt that it made their job easier. I don’t stand alone. I’m part of a team. I’m the most visible part of that, but there are many helping hands who go to make up any artist. And the extra track "Cassandra" was eventually finished in that form after the album masters had been delivered. I felt the album needed something else. It’s a bonus track—a throwaway. I think it has to be that way. I tried to get a simultaneous release of the album with the bonus track everywhere, but it wasn’t possible. I don’t pull stunts with bonus tracks to get someone to buy one version over another. I wish that copy was available in England. The business conspires to all things current, but anything remotely historical is consigned very much to the bin, although things do sell consistently over time.
What is the fundamental difference between how the music business operates now compared to when you first hit the scene?
It’s the difference between listening and hearing. Listening is the conscious process by which you analyze, sift and grade things. Hearing is what happens when you encounter Jimi Hendrix for the first time. It’s the instinctive half, not the conscious half—two sides of the same coin. It’s like hearing a piece of music they’re blasting at you when you’re walking along in a shopping mall. Then something hits you and you go "Wonderful! Wow!" Then you take the same record home and you listen to it and you think "This doesn’t sound the same." [laughs] You have to listen to it while the brain is being tricked. It’s an immensely analytic computer thing. Music should always be a celebration. It should be part of something. It shouldn’t be the total focus. Even Mozart produced coffee table music that was never designed to be taken entirely on its own.
Aron Friedman plays a significant role on Guitar Noir. Describe how he enhanced the proceedings.
He’s a keyboard player of many talents. He plays, programs, engineers and produces. He’s mainly involved in the dance scene in England. He has a jazz background. Over the course of recording Guitar Noir, he taught me how to read music, would you believe? I learned to at school, but I’ve forgotten and never really applied it. He gave me music lessons and that was marvelous because I had avoided them for years. I had wanted to be able to play some things and score. I found it useful. I don’t resort to that often, but it’s something I can now go back to. It also helps my love of classical music—a world of order that is the complete opposite of the chaos of rock and roll. I don’t make any apologies for being self-taught. It means I’ve never been graded, thank God. I was talking to Christopher Warren-Green of the London Symphony Orchestra. He’s a fabulous violinist. He said to me "I don’t think you should ever take lessons Steve. They’ll take away what you do naturally. What you do naturally takes years to be taught." I suspect too much schooling at an early age is possibly a bad thing. I’m not sure it’s a good thing for creativity, but total avoidance of it over the years is arrogance. So, I try to appease both Gods.
On this tour, you’re playing a lot more older music including "Firth of Fifth" and "Clocks."
Yes, I went right back to 20 years ago. During the last tour, a lot of people were asking for those old numbers and I decided to try them out on the band. They really liked the melodies and I thought that was interesting. These pieces are so old that it’s not a case of them being unfashionable anymore. They’re completely outside fashion now. [laughs] They’re part of such an old campaign that it doesn’t really matter. They’re simply part of classic rock. I try to play them with some extra fire they didn’t have at the time. I’m just pleased to see on some occasions that people have been moved to tears to hear that stuff. That’s great. You can’t ask for anything more.
I understand your next album will be a blues project.
Yes, I’ve been hard at work on a blues project which is a much more fun thing. It’s very throwaway, good time music. We’re probably going to call it The 13th Floor. [the album was released with the title Blues With A Feeling.] I have my band plus a brass section. There’s a bit of harmonica playing on the blues project. I get to be a harmonica player as much as anything else. The harmonica is the poor man’s trumpet. There are less notes though. I love the sound of it. It’s fun and recreation. It’s not something I’ll release as a career move. Four of the album’s tunes are covers and the rest are originals by me and the band. It was challenging, vocal-wise. I’m limited by voice and creed as it were. I would say one track on it that’s a cover version of "Born in Chicago" is done justice vocally. I sing it a full octave lower than intended and EQ it with a wah-wah pedal. Then it was compressed several times. Eventually, I managed to sound like maybe Robert Johnson would have without all the technology.
Describe your passion for the form.
The attraction to the blues is because the form varies so little. It’s really not about the writing. It’s about the playing and delivery. Blues is the least considered, least overdubbed and most spontaneous kind of music. Blues is the area where the guitar sound is the most authentic. It’s the place I first heard the guitar come alive for the first time. It’s the first place I heard harmonica tearing the speaker to shreds. It’s something that is both primitive and full of energy. It’s very, very basic and very, very earthy and very, very masculine. It’s music definitely for guys. It’s music that was never conceived as being radio friendly or intended to be programmed. And ironically, it’s become fashionable again. Gary Moore’s brand is done extremely well. It’s a very slick brand. I was after something maybe not quite so perfect with lots of rough edges deliberately left in—mistakes and all. I’ve wanted to do a blues thing for many years, but I’ve always managed to talk myself out of it. People would say it’s absolute suicide to do a blues album because you would be consigned to the bar room forever and a day. I was told it’s the last thing people do before being found dead in the bathroom being electrocuted with a guitar slung around their neck. [laughs] But I don’t see it like that. I see it as a rebirth and going back to the beginning and starting over. It’s the closest to primal therapy I’m ever going to come to. I just want to continue in music. I think of the guitar and hope I can get it to produce as many different sounds as possible on that which is already God’s given instrument.