Steve Hackett Revisits Genesis' Classics

For prog-rock devotees, Steve Hackett’s ’70s work with Genesis is the guitar equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount.

For prog-rock devotees, Steve Hackett’s ’70s work with Genesis is the guitar equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount. Since departing from the band in 1977, he has significantly expanded his horizons throughout a solo career spanning 34 diverse releases. His albums have drawn inspiration from a vast array of genres and influences that includes the worlds of classical, orchestral, blues, folk, Indian, Turkish, and flamenco. But the guitarist, who straddles both electric and acoustic realms, has always retained affection for his prog origins, and he revisits those roots on his two latest albums.

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Squackett’s A Life Within a Day [Esoteric], a collaboration with Yes bassist Chris Squire and producer and keyboardist Roger King, offers up a set of melodic, accessible songs full of lush vocal harmonies and addictive hooks. It’s sophisticated, prog-infused pop inspired by the late-’60s “anything goes” psychedelic era.

While Squackett favors brevity and tight structures, Hackett’s new Genesis Revisited II [Inside- Out] double-album revisits the epic heyday of his former band. It’s the second chapter of reworkings that began with the first Genesis Revisited album from 1996. Hackett calls the new disc a “revoiced, rewired, and restrung” take on some of the band’s most revered ’70s pieces, including “Supper’s Ready,” “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight,” and “The Musical Box.” He also reexamines signature Genesis-related solo tracks, such as “Shadow of the Hierophant” and “Please Don’t Touch.” An all-star prog lineup joins Hackett, including Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson and Marillion’s Steve Rothery on guitar; Dave Kerzner on keyboards; and Asia’s John Wetton, Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt, and intriguingly, Phil Collins’ son Simon on vocals.

What are the complementary elements that make Squackett an ideal partnership?

There was something similar between the approach of Yes and Genesis. They both started to take onboard symphonic ideas and each had a syncopated feel to their music. When they worked at their peak, both bands were very similar—almost interchangeable, rhythmically. So, we had that in common. Chris and I are also both huge fans of harmony vocals. I always wanted Genesis to do more of that. I’ve employed them extensively in my own stuff and Squackett. What’s also important is that we both have a sense of humor. Chris and I spent a lot of time together, as did our families. We went out to restaurants and gigs frequently. That comfort and chemistry came through in the music.

You record mainly in your living room these days. What are the challenges and benefits of working that way?

When you’re recording at home, there are constant interruptions. Children wander in, babies are born, and people are making toast. Things aren’t happening in a monastery- like way. In a typical studio, you’re in a place without windows. You’re functioning in a timeless void. At home, if it was sunny, I could see it through the windows. All of the drum tracks and about half of the bass tracks were recorded in a studio, and everything else involved months and months of chipping away at home over packets of crisps and bottles of wine. So, that does inform the thing differently. It’s a more relaxed way of working, and probably resulted in a more relaxed album.

Describe your current signal path.

For Squackett, my main guitar was a custom Fernandes Sustainer that’s Les Paulshaped, with a gold top. I also used my 1983 nylon-string Yairi and a 12-string guitar courtesy of the late, great Tony Zemaitis. There’s also a Jerry Jones Baby Sitar—a copy of the Danelectro sitar-guitar. In addition, I have a custom 1995 steel-string Yairi. Sometimes, I combined it with the Baby Sitar to create an interesting sound, which I used on “Can’t Stop the Rain.” It’s a laid back kind of track, somewhere between Burt Bacharach and Steely Dan. On Genesis Revisited II, I used the Fernandes Sustainer, the Zemaitis 12-string, a steel-string Yairi I bought in 1974, and a Rickenbacker 6-string.

For pedals, I use Dunlop and Vox wahs, a Pete Cornish treble booster, a DigiTech Whammy, a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, and a Tech 21 SansAmp GT2 to distort. In terms of amps, I use Marshall 1957 heads and 1960A cabs. There are also a variety of Apple Logic amp simulators on both albums, as well as some AmpliTube stuff on Genesis Revisited II.

What’s your overall philosophy when it comes to amp simulation?

These days, I don’t feel the need to work with the real thing in the studio. I like using Marshalls live, but these amp simulators allow you to switch immediately between cabinets and mix and match different heads. Sometimes, I want a very buzzy kind of distortion, and other times I want something that’s really roomy and different. It all depends on the track and how densely packed it is. My focus is thinking, “What can I do to make this sound like it’s going through an amp and moving a lot of air?” I’m also the kind of guy that sometimes wants to make my Les Paul sound like a Stratocaster. I’ll fiddle with stuff to make it happen.

Some of your contemporaries feel virtual amps sound inauthentic and should be avoided. What do you make of that?

I find the criticism surprising. Who are we hurting here? We’re not putting amplifier companies out of business. There’s always going to be room for them. If you have a studio that’s large enough, then you might have a Marshall turned up loud enough to be overdriven. Your engineer goes in and sets up a mic on it, but you can’t play yet, because if you did, you’d deafen him. So, he comes back into the control room and finds the sound a little too toppy. Next, he’ll go back out there and change it. And then, maybe the mic is a bit too close to the speaker, or not close enough, so out he goes again. And this business can go on for a long time. When it’s all in the box, it’s very different and more efficient. One day, Roger King said to me, “I changed the sound. I moved the mic.” We both laughed at this, as he meant he moved the mic virtually within Logic. So, I’m completely sold.

What made you want to further explore your ’70s history via Genesis Revisited II?

I wanted to reclaim that music. The reason could be as simple as wanting to change the tone on something or explore a different kind of stompbox. There are all sorts of reasons that music has been much applauded, but there are things that were recorded very quickly. At times it was absolutely brilliant, and at other times it would have been nice to spend more time working on certain things. I’ve had 40 years to consider that with some of the material. For example, I thought of some of the moments that were symphonic and wanted to take them a little further. It’s all in the details. There’s so much I wanted to do with the music at the time it was initially recorded with the band, some of which I achieved, and some I felt I still had to do. Some things that sounded good in rehearsal didn’t always sound great when they were first recorded. I’d like to think everything is more under control. It’s certainly more in time and tune than my earlier efforts.

The album opens up with a nylon-string introduction to “The Chamber of 32 Doors.” What’s going on there?

It’s a hybrid of jazz, flamenco, and classical influences that I play on my nylon-string Yairi. I was inspired by Julian Bream’s performances of “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquín Rodrigo, particularly the flamenco guitar part towards the end of the slow movement before the orchestra comes in. Bream sounds like a thousand fountains bubbling away and I’m in ecstasy whenever I hear that. There are a number of ways of employing that righthand flamenco technique. You can do it by using nearly all of your fingers to arpeggiate upwards, and then do a downward stroke from top to bottom, with a stiff forefinger. Another way is to use a sweep-picking technique so you can do it all with a firmly held plectrum. The way I prefer doing it, because I rarely use plectrums these days, is to use the nail of my forefinger, but held very stiffly and supported by the thumb very tightly.

I play the introduction using a new tuning that I developed, which is D, G, D, G, Bb, E [low to high]. As far as I know, I’m the only one using it. It’s a very Spanish-sounding tuning—kind of G minor in a sense—and chords played using that shape sound very melancholic, very Death in the Afternoon.

What else did you use to replicate or transform the original Genesis guitar tones for the album?

I used my ears as much as anything. We tended to switch amps and cabinets all the time in the virtual domain. Ben Fenner, who assisted with engineering, prefers to work with Pro Tools, so I’d be working with him while Roger King was finessing other tracks and mixing them. Roger prefers Logic, so these guys have different virtual things at their fingertips. I used the SansAmp GT2 pedal for the majority of distortion tones, but I’m using the parameters of the amps within the box as well. I’ve gone back to using vintage fuzzbox sounds so I can get that really toppy fuzzy thing happening that I first heard Jeff Beck use.

You’ve taken on the ultimate prog-rock sacred cow by rerecording Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready.” What did you change?

I committed sacrilege with the sacred cow [laughs]. There are more extensive guitar parts, as you might imagine, embellishing an already very dense picture—and for some of them I used three virtual fuzzboxes, all cranked up and working at once, which gave a real fizz to the fuzz. There are also multiple changes, atmospherics, and vocalists involved, including Simon Collins, Mikael Åkerfeldt, Francis Dunnery, Conrad Keely, and myself. Most of the guests participated as a labor of love. They’ve said this is highly influential material for them, so their involvement was not a business decision whatsoever. That does mean I owe a lot of favors, mind you, but that’s a nice position to be in.

Producer Roger King on recording Squackett’s A Life Within a Day

“The bulk of the recording’s clarity and detail came from Steve’s high performance standards and obsessive pursuit of tone. When it came to using plug-ins to simulate the sound of a real amp and speakers moving in an actual space, however, we began with the amp simulator in Apple Logic, the DAW I use when recording and mixing. We favored a small tweed head paired with a 1x12 cab combined with some small room sound from Logic’s Space Designer Convolution Reverb to provide a bit of woody resonance, and by and large it was very effective. We may have lost a small percentage of actual amp character, but we gained the flexibility of adjusting the tone right up to the final stages of the mix.”

Engineer Ben Fenner on recording “Supper’s Ready” for Genesis Revisited II

“All guitar processing was done inside of Pro Tools 10, using IK Multimedia AmpliTube 3 for everything, apart from some delays and reverbs. The sound for “Supper’s Ready” arose from a discussion with Steve about the old days in Genesis when he used two fuzzboxes to get extra sustain and emphasize the upper harmonics. An AmpliTube 3 preset that uses two Fender Blenders going into a ’59 Fender Bassman proved to be a great starting point. Once I tweaked the settings, it was sounding pretty good, but still needed something extra to capture the sound Steve heard in his head. This proved to be the XS Fuzz, modeled on the Roger Mayer Axis Fuzz, inserted after the second Fender Blender. That took the sound to a slightly more mental level of gain than we were after originally, but it did the trick, and Steve being the consummate master of controlling huge amounts of gain that he is, played it superbly.”