Featured Story
conducted by Robert Silverstein for 
mwe3.com and 20th Century Guitar 



DARKTOWN MELTDOWN

an interview with
guitar great
Steve Hackett

 

 

 

Part 2
continued from previous page

Robert Silverstein: RS
Steve Hackett: SH


RS: Your 1999 studio album Darktown is one of your great albums. You describe it almost like a musical exorcism.

SH: It’s a fairly haunted kind of record that one. Certain things that I felt I couldn’t quite get out of my system. My schooling, my early experiences with my first love, first time I fell in love with a girl who later became heavily involved with drugs. I got to thinking about both these things and I found that, alot of the time I would be casting around for ideas for songs, looking in books, looking in the newspaper and trying to come up with glib one-liners and what have you and trying to stitch a whole bunch of one liners together into a song. And that’s one way of working. That idea of sampling other phrases other people said. But then there’s another way of working which is to look at your own experiences, some of which have been too painful to include in a song.

RS: Among the Darktown instrumentals on there “Twice Around The Sun” is totally brilliant. You also say that song has possibly the longest sustained guitar sound ever. (laughter)

SH: That’s right, possibly. There’s a long held note at the end which runs through all of the chord changes. I think the chord changes, when I tried to come up with them at first, were designed with that in mind from the word go. That the playout would have the idea of a note that would run throughout the whole thing. It’s a trick I’ve employed before. I’ve often ended a solo on a sustained guitar note. The last thing that you hear is a very long sustained note. That also happens on “Rise Again”. There’s a long sustained note at the end of it. But that one was taken to the mountains as they say. Taking it to the mountains, in my book, means a long, slow deliberate fade out.

RS: The song “Darktown Riot” features what you call some ‘Mellotron plundering’. It’s starts off really funny too. Does it represent the funnier, lighter side of Darktown?

SH: Yes, it’s funny and cartoon-y. It featured the same theme that was in the “Darktown” song, but done in a more, kind of...it’s more of a kind of “Ghost Train” setting somehow. It’s more toylike, I think in a way and the fact that you’ve got the guitar line tremelo-ing through all of it, the sustained note, that’s shaky from the word go. So it’s kind of a parody of the guitar sound. And then we’ve got ‘marcato’ stings providing the bass line, marcato cellos really, and mellotron right in the middle doubling the melody line. So really there aren’t chords as such. It’s just a top line and a bass note and it seems as if all the areas are filled in with a chord, but in fact there is space in it. And the drums were also very...this guy called Roger King, that I engineered alot of the album with, he engineered the album and did program on it, works in the band that I play with at the moment. Roger did an album called Beats In The Hood and it was an album where you would sample things. The idea was you’d be able to sample from this thing and he gave me a copy of it and I loved the stuff. And so we included, on that track, quite a few ideas that he’d put together on that sample album. We reworked them to some degree, went back to some of the original elements, like the prepared piano stuff right at the end of “Darktown Riot”. Some of the stranger sounds. I think rhythmically, that really worked well, that track. It’s such an over the top drum sound and there’s so much going on. And also, there’s a sound that sounds like a car alarm is going off (laughter) and is actually the sound of the guitar sampled and played back through a harmonizer on one of those Zoom units I’ve got. The impression of the voice, the one that goes ‘yeah’, at the beginning, is just a guitar sound. There’s no voice box involved with it. It’s just a preset guitar sound but using the tremelo arm. Then we reversed it so it went ‘yeah’. So the talking guitar is purely done with tones not with any use of a voicebox. And then at one point you hear the same rhythmic pattern, but the EQ is severely altered so all the bottom is taken away and it sounds like someone has just stolen the speakers and all you were left with...like there was a riot and things were taken away and all you had were just the tweeters to try to carry the sound. So that is probably subliminally why I called it “Darktown Riot”.

RS: Your new live box set Live Archive: 70.80.90’s is quite impressive as well. Could you say something about how the Live Archive box set came about?

SH: Well I had the stuff around for a long time. It was in some ways in response to what fans had asked for. They’d asked for the occasional concert which was heard in it’s entirety without any editing. The whole damn thing. And so I had to listen to many, many concerts. It was Billy (Budis), my manager who came up with the idea of doing a personal box set. We’d been involved with the Genesis box set at that point, all following in the wake of The Beatles’ various box sets of course. It really combined the idea of three separate band line-ups and three separate eras, the ‘70s, ‘80s and the ‘90s and an attempt at a crosssection of material through that time.

RS: Disc four, the ‘90s CD on the Live Archive box features “Sierra Quemada” which was the lead-off track from your ‘93 CD Guitar Noir. That’s a favorite of mine.

SH: If there’s such a thing as ‘golden tone’, and I know I used the word on Darktown, it’s because the guitar, when it’s working at it’s best, really does seem to reflect the colors of silver and gold. When it’s got some kind of either reverb or echo on it, it just hits it dead right and it seems to soar and fly. This sound that I’m known for, I didn’t really invent it, other people had the sound before I did, but I exploited it because it was such a wonderful thing and it would just appear on other people’s albums. Just very occasionally you’d get a little bit of echo (and I’d say) ‘Hang on a minute! I really like that. Let’s have a whole album of that!’ (laugher) So that was where I came in.

RS: Could you mention a few of your all time favorite electric guitars you keep or have kept over the years?

SH: Okay well, the favorite still has to be the Les Paul, Gold Top Les Paul. Not so much what I’ve done with that guitar, but what I’ve heard others do with it. Well hell...Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jeff Beck alone had fantastic things with that instrument. So that’s wonderful in itself. That little guitar, but makes such a big sound.

RS: Do you remember your first guitar?

SH: You know, I don’t. The first electric guitar I don’t remember the make of. I remember it was Japanese. But, it was pretty dismal. But I remember the first acoustic I had. My father’s guitar in fact was a Kay F cello guitar, which I think may have been a Canadian make. A Kay guitar. But more recently I’ve been playing a Fernandes guitars in the shape of Les Pauls with the sustainer pickup and full reverse tremelo arms on them.

RS: Was the Les Paul gold top featured on those great Genesis albums?

SH: Yes it was, yeah. I think it was the guitar that was heard more than any others on the early Genesis stuff.

RS: What about classical and other acoustic guitars?

SH: I use a make called K.Yairi. They make wonderful guitars and I’m still working with them. I’ve got a favorite that I bought in 1973. First time I bought that and I sat down and started playing that in a group rehearsal, it might have been ‘74 actually just while we were rehearsing The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Pete Gabriel walked in the room and he said, ‘whenever I hear guitar played like that I always think of beautiful ladies’. So, (laughter) here I am, still making the sound of beautiful ladies. I have this phrase. There was a track at one point which is unreleased called “The Guitar Is A Woman”. And I’ve never released it because at the end of the day I never thought it was that strong a track. But there’s something about it that I think is inherently true.

RS: I was reading that you’re working on a new guitar concerto and another ‘modern’ album.

SH: Yeah, that’s right. An album that features electric guitar and another album which features nylon guitar and orchestra so they’re two separate things. One would be songs plus instrumentals. One would attempt to do the earth and the other one would attempt to do heaven of course.

RS: The Sketches Of Satie CD from 2000 - made with your brother John, was another winner. What is it about Erik Satie’s music that continues to make it a favorite with guitarists today?

SH: I know it’s certainly a favorite with flute players! Whether it’s a favorite with guitarists, I don’t know, but somebody said to me that John Williams had done a version of one of the Gymnopédies, if not all of them. But then I suspect he would tend to play it faster then I would. So the speed I play that stuff is not really suitable for guitar taking the top line, not acoustic, because the notes just don’t last long enough. There’s something about the simplicity of Satie’s work, the quirkiness of it, the humoresque attitude of it, or humoresque atmosphere perhaps. Well there’s a kind of wistfulness in it and an aspect of whimsy that tells you these things were started as little personal ideas that became great big ones.

RS: Do you want to do soundtracks?

SH: Yeah, I’d love to sure. I did a soundtrack for a documentary based on a holocaust survivor called Outwitting Hitler which was about this guy who managed to survive by forging Nazi documents in the war and traveled freely throughout the third Reich just because he had the balls and the skill to forge documents. He said that the Nazi’s, although they were ferocious, were terrified people themselves and they were great bureaucrats. If they saw something with a stamp on it, they’d click their heels and let you through. Anyway, so I did the music for a film called Outwitting Hitler. The soundtrack of that may be available someplace, but it was a documentary. It got very good reviews which I’m pleased to say.

RS: You made a great blues album back in the ‘90s Blues With A Feeling. What role does the sound of the Blues play in your music?

SH: Well I grew up listening to alot of that stuff and there seemed to be so much anger in it and it was a fantastically expressive medium for the guitar and for the harmonica—two instruments which I already played to some degree. So, in many ways it was the way I found...early guitar lessons. Good things to practice with the guitar. And you could get up to a degree on proficiency just playing blues. You’d learn eventually how to control a string and to get many different sounds out of one note. Finger vibrato was something that interested me greatly. I must be one of the few people who do free standing finger vibratos without the support of the thumb. That’s because I had an accident many years ago. I lost the use of a tendon and a nerve in my thumb. This little bit (point out on his hand) here that connects the thumb and the fingers. And so it actually means that my left hand is weakened. And many years earlier I’d seen Eric Clapton do finger vibratos where, if he wasn’t bending the string, he wasn’t supporting it with the thumb. He was just pulling up and down on the string. First night I saw him doing that, 1966 or ‘67 whenever Cream were first formed, I saw them in a club in London, in Brixton, called The Ram Jam Club. And that night I went home, played it and got it right off and that was wonderful. But then I wondered if the same technique could be applied to bending the string up. Much more difficult because the stress the string really relies on the support from the thumb. However, I have developed a technique, which is not worth patenting because you couldn’t, but I could describe this to people. If you are using a tremelo arm with a floating bridge and you want to bend up and get the same kind of tremelo sound that Paul Kossoff got on “All Right Now”, which is fantastically fast tremelo but relatively wide, the best way to do it, if you’re not very strong, is to bend the strings up with, usually in my case it’s...I’ve tried for years doing three fingered vibrato, a violin technique, but I tend to use my middle finger and my third finger and bend up. But then I also I also use the edge of my right hand to bend up the bridge as well so I’m sharpening the floating bridge by sometimes as much as a semi-tone, so I’m only bending up with this hand about a semi-tone. So it’s somewhere between two. So it’s taking the stress off this hand and that way you can also play the string very, very close to the bridge so you’re getting a very trebly sound. Getting the string at it’s most trebly and it makes for a fantastic finger vibrato and it’s taken me years to figure this one out. But I would love to show it to people because it’s a really great, great sound.

RS: I want to get some opinions from you about some well known guitarists. Could you just say a line or two about each, sort of the first thing that pops into your head. Steve Howe.

SH: Steve’s a great player. Phenomenal things in the rehearsal room. Phenomenal work with early Yes. He’s a great player.

RS: Robert Fripp.

SH: He’s a great player and a very eloquent spokesman for his unique approach towards music.

RS: Mike Oldfield.

SH: I think of Mike as an all around-er. I think of him as a musician...guitar is one of the things he does. (Steve’s manager Billy Budis enters the room) I loved his early work with his sister called Sally Angie.

RS: Hank Marvin.

SH: Hank Marvin... Came up with wonderful melodic lines in the early days. The first electric guitar record I ever bought was “Man Of Mystery” by The Shadows and it even had a psychedelic bit in the middle where he went, in those days, completely bananas! At one time I thought, ‘oh that sounds a little bit too wild, what’s happened there? Your not playing the straight notes.’ But then again I was probably only about ten years old or something.

RS: Jan Akkerman.

SH: Great player. Moving Waves, great album. Lovely work on electric and on acoustic.

SH: George Harrison.

RS: I think that George Harrison was a wonderful songwriter. I can’t separate out, these days, a Beatles song from his guitar work on it. I loved the guitar work on Revolver. I think that’s the best Beatle guitar album for my money. But I think that in time he managed to perfect the bottleneck style too at a very high and refined level. Yeah, I think he was tremendously underrated.

RS: You and Billy Budis recorded a really nice track way back in 1991 for the Guitar Speak III CD.

BB: (BILLY BUDIS): You remember that?

RS: Yes I do remember that.

SH: “A Life In Movies”... That one?

RS: Yes, I was thinking, do you have lots of rarities like that and will there ever be a Steve Hackett studio rarities CD?

SH: Funny enough, we’ve spoken about that and there may well be an album of anomalies or rarities or sore thumbs or whatever you want to call it. We tend to plunder things so it’s difficult to say whether that’s the case. Things which are anomalies really, in other words not really part of the mainstream of what I do. But I suspect that everything that I do is a little bit of a gamble because I’ll often try and break out of the mold of what’s expected from y’know, a progressive guitarist who behaves himself.



Thanks to Steve Hackett and www.stevehackett.com, Billy Budis, Camino Records at www.camino.co.uk - Bret at Chipster Entertainment at www.chipsterpr.com - Bob Snyder and Jim Pitulski at IOMA Records at www.insideoutmusic.com - This article originally appeared as the cover story / article of the August 2002 issue of 20th Century Guitar magazine. Photos of Steve Hackett at B.B. Kings courtesy Richard Cervone

















 


 

 

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