Steve Hackett

June 1, 2010

Steve Hackett provocatively refers to his new album Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth [Wolfworks] as a “series of ambushes.” It’s an apt description given the wildly diverse territory the album crisscrosses and connects within each song. Throughout the disc, listeners encounter Hackett combining genres including rock, pop, flamenco, jazz, and fusion, as well as Turkish, Indian, and Andalusian music.

Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth is one of Hackett’s most ambitious albums in a long, storied career. He was a key member of Genesis during its classic progrock era from 1970 to 1977, and since 1975, the British guitarist and singer-songwriter has released 30 albums showcasing a broad range of interests and talents. He’s particularly proud of his four highly-acclaimed classical albums that find him exploring the work of composers such as Bach, Vivaldi, and Satie, as well as his own compositions, in solo and orchestral settings.

The new album features a collaboration Genesis fans have long dreamt of: Anthony Phillips, the group’s co-founder, key songwriter, and guitarist until his departure in 1970, appears on two of the new album’s tracks.

“Steve initially played me some demos, including one with some pretty fine, speedy 12-string guitar and I thought, ‘What do you need me for?,’” says Phillips. “But he pleaded with me to come down.

“First he and his engineer and keyboardist Roger King, put on the lovely, gently-rolling, country-ish chorus for ‘Emerald and Ash.’ By a fortunate quirk of fate, the Guild F212 12-string I brought with me was tuned down a whole tone. What would have been quite tricky in the song’s key of Bb was suddenly much easier using a C major fingering, with all of those ringing open strings. The sequence was relatively straightforward and my part pretty much just flowed out. I also contributed to the main vocal refrain of ‘Sleepers,’ which has a haunting, delicate, shimmering mysteriousness about it, as well as a beautiful melancholic theme. It worked rather well combined with Steve’s many other guitar parts. I spent a lovely, lucky day in the studio contributing to a very fine album.”

Describe what it was like to collaborate with Anthony Phillips on the new disc.
I long wondered what it would have been like if Ant and I had worked in Genesis together. So, one day he showed up at a session thinking it was a rehearsal. Cunningly, I had an engineer here. I said to Ant, “Why don’t you put down some ideas? I’ll get out of the room until you have something you’re happy playing. The last thing you need is another guitarist looking over your shoulder telling you what to do or slapping your wrists. I’ll get the hell out of your way and let you do what you do best.” His contributions were absolutely gorgeous and I was thrilled. I hope to do more with him. I felt he really brought the material to life.

What drew you to incorporating such dramatic twists and turns on the new album?
I love using unexpected contrasts. The challenge is not making them too abrupt as you lead people to places they don’t anticipate going. I love mixing genres and having something aggressive followed by something unashamedly romantic. Having no formula is the way I work best. It’s always a big shot in the dark. Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth was my third attempt at making a rock album in recent times. There are two others that are unreleased due to contractual difficulties. So, this was my attempt to make a rock album free of the shackles of other people’s requirements. I think that made for a more personal album at the end of the day. I felt I should really indulge myself and make it exactly what I wanted it to be.

What guitars did you use?
I used my two custom-made Fernandes Les Paul-style electrics—a 2002 goldtop and a black 2005 model—both of which have the standard mahogany and maple construction, Floyd Rose tremolos, and the Fernandes Sustainer System, which I love. Years ago, I figured out if you took away percussion and decay from the instrument, you’d be left with something closer to the violin. I was interested in the tone of the guitar without it being compromised by the elements that typically characterize it. There’s also a little bit of steel-string work on the album performed on a black Yairi I was given in 1996. In addition, I use a 2005 Yairi acoustic with a deep cutaway and shallow body, because it has a bit more snap, particularly for the flamenco-inspired material. I also played a Jerry Jones electric sitar guitar on “Last Train to Istanbul.”

What’s your typical signal chain these days?
I usually run my electric guitars through some combination of a Vox V847 wah, a Digitech Whammy pedal, a Tech 21 SansAmp GT2 preamp, a Korg KVP-002 volume pedal, and a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler. From there, we prefer to record via my Marshall 1987X head and Marshall 1960A cabinet with a couple of mics—but given the circumstances, we had to do without the Marshalls, and instead used Logic plug-ins for amp and speaker emulation.
I find the amp-modeling universe very interesting. I did things like record a clean guitar for “Still Waters,” but then added distortion after the event. And at times we tried to emulate the Marshall amps and Eventide compressors. I’m not driven by equipment, though. I have a symbiotic relationship with Roger. I’m myopic, so I can’t see what’s happening on the screen. He’s the one who brings up various things on the screen and I use my ears to decide what to use and reject. I’m purely driven by sound.

You use the Whammy a lot. What do you like about it?
I love sticking the guitar through a fixed wah on full bass and then using the Whammy to take get an octave up and then the octave above that. It creates a lovely flute-like sound. Also, I used to use a Shaftesbury Duo Fuzz with a two-way switch on the early Genesis stuff to create really high harmonics. I can get the same thing from the Whammy because it functions as a mobile harmonizer and lets you climb and jump octaves. Recently, I started using the ring modulator settings too, which are a lot of fun when playing blues. I use it live more than I used it on the album. You can do really great, wacky things with overtones and notes that are quite humorous— like Donald Duck sounds.

Though you use plenty of gear, you prefer not to rely on it as a starting point.
Your tone really depends on how you’re physically playing the instrument—and you can do a lot with just your fingers. I think if you’re trying to do the same thing as everyone else, you have to play in certain, established ways. But if you’re looking at the corners of the instrument that haven’t been fully exploited yet, the key to the future has to be in the margins. So try hitting the guitar with something it shouldn’t be hit with instead of using your nails, fingers, or a bottleneck. Hit it with a mic boom or a tremolo arm. Or don’t actually hit it at all. Stroke the strings and caress the instrument into life.

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