Monday, 5 December 2011

John Hackett

John Hackett (born 1955) is the younger brother of Steve (see below). He has not only been lucky enough to be in London at time when creativity and energy made it the centre of the universe, but he has lived and grown up around the best musicians in the business. Even given that, it is perhaps surprising that a classically-trained serious flute player can deliver a rock album that I cannot begin to praise enough.

We talked about John's career, his association with some crucial musicians, and the way to succeed at being both a classical and rock musician at the same time. John Hackett has indeed succeeded. There's a new flute and guitar record out and he tells me that work has started on a  new rock album.

John Hackett

JH: It was a very exciting time to grow up. I remember being at school when Sergeant Pepper came out and it seemed to be the most exciting thing on the planet.  Steve was five years older than me. He was always listening to lots of blues albums and guitarists, so I started guitar when I was about 12. There were a lot of excellent players who at the time were very young – Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and people like that.  My memories are of listening to those guitarists and then later on, Hendrix. You could feel an energy. We lived very close to the King’s Road though it might have been just as exciting had we lived somewhere else. I look back on it as a very optimistic time when you thought that everything was possible, both in terms of music and politics. Now of course you see the world with a perhaps more pragmatic view.
RL: This conveniently leads us into Checking Out of London.  It’s the best album I have heard all year.
JH: Really?  It was very much a group effort. A very close friend of mine, who I was at school with, Nick Clabburn, wrote the lyrics for all but one of the songs. They inspired me. Obviously we are different people and we come at life from different angles but I found there were things in his lyrics that led me off down creative paths I didn’t  know I had.  I have spent most of my life playing the flute and a bit of guitar and have done some writing before, but it was the first time I had attempted a rock album. Nick Magnus did a tremendous amount of work on the album; a lot of arranging and production work and did a fantastic job on that and then of course my brother came and played some stunning guitar solos. Tony Patterson took on some of the lead vocals on the album and also did some great harmony work. You get inspired by other people. I envy someone like Nick Magnus, who has tremendous production and keyboard skills and can produce highly polished professional stuff himself.  Also, Nick Clabburn’s lyrics. If it was left to me I’d probably write lots of drippy love songs.
It’s a direction I would like to explore much more and I do have another rock album in the pipeline.
RL: Checking Out of London seems to have appeared fully formed, as if all the influences over the years were ready, just at that moment, to arrive as an album.
JH: I do have very eclectic tastes. I am from two backgrounds, the Rock background, in that I started off playing blues guitar, then growing up with Steve and going to all the Genesis concerts and then playing in his band. Then there is also the classical side. I studied classical flute playing and did a music degree.
RL: Presumably you started on a transverse flute and then went over to the vertical flute?
JH: That was only in recent years. I had a car accident and after that I found it very painful to play a normal flute. I nearly gave up because it was just so bad. The vertical flute has been an absolute life-saver  for me because it is just so much more comfortable.
RL: The flute doesn’t appear on Checking Out of London.
JH: Nick Clabburn thought it would be a good idea not to include flute. I didn’t take him at his word, in that I did try some flute on some of the tracks but really it was almost like a different side of my personality. Generally the flute is a sweet-sounding instrument and on Checking Out of London, and particularly numbers like Ego and Id, which is much more of a rock number..
RL: You didn’t go down the Jethro Tull route?
JH: I have done that at other times. With Steve we do a piece called, “Jazz on a Summer’s Night” where I do do that scat singing through the flute and there is a little bit on my latest disc, Moonspinner.
RL: The riff on Ego and ID – did that just come to you?
JH: I do sort of thrash around. I’ve got a Telecaster. It’s incredibly simple; harmonically it’s probably the simplest piece on the whole album. The other ones have more complex chord changes and more structure and Ego and Id, in a way is just a bit of a blow.
RL: Moving forward to Whispers. When I heard it it reminded me of Genesis!
JH: I consciously wrote that in the style of Genesis, there is no question about it. And it’s got Tony Patterson on it.
RL: I think you are playing them at their own game and winning!

JH: I don’t know about that. (mutual giggling ensues)
RL: Choosing a favourite on Checking Out of London is like choosing children but I forced myself, and it was More. That’s got you singing on it?
Track 10 - More

JH: Yes, I sing on that and Tony does the choruses.
RL: It’s a sort of Rock/Reggae/Baroque..
JH: (Laughs) The Reggae, there’s no question about that.
RL: It has all the hallmarks of a Bond Theme to me.
JH: I would be very  pleased if it was. The Reggae feel was there right from the beginning. But of course, Nick Magnus was able to realise that for me. I gave him my sketches of it and he did a lot of the arranging to bring it to life. And of course, coming towards the end of the album I wanted something that was quite grand, so it does have a big landscape.
RL: How would you react to the “concept album” label?
JH: It’s not a concept album as such but it was written in one go. From that point of view it does all hang together. If you look at the lyrics there is a theme of alienation.  The lyrics are quite poetic at times in that it is not always absolutely obvious what they are about.  The title track is a kind of hidden joke in that I moved out of London some years ago and I think that was Nick Clabburn having fun with that. The lyrics are quite dark at times.
RL: Let’s move on to Moonspinner – something completely different.
JH: The thinking behind it was to do something pretty much self-sufficient. Checking Out of London was a big project and I wanted to do something that was easy to produce and something that took the classical style and the kind of things I was doing with Steve.
Moonspinner has a classical style but also it is an album with a bit more edge to it, in terms of the rhythm. What I have always loved in both classical and rock is the virtuoso style – someone like Steve or Jeff Beck, playing the guitar really well. I have always loved flute concertos – somebody like Jean-Pierre Rampal, my flute hero when he was alive.  What I wanted to do with this album, and in a sense it is a classical album, I wanted to give it a more rock edge so I used a bit of scat singing through the flute, which is the signature of someone like Ian Anderson.
RL: Witchfinder comes to mind.
JH: Certainly, and tracks like Appassionata – they use the classical technique of double-tonguing but the chord sequence is one we used on Voyage of the Acolyte. Then it goes into some uneven time signatures. The track after that, Red Hair – I was trying to push that into a slightly different area, influenced by a Vivaldi flute concerto using typical Baroque devices.
RL: It brings me back to a question I asked Steve which was the relationship between classical music of the 19th Century and symphonic prog. What’s your feeling on that?
JH: There are some tremendous similarities. With bands like Genesis, what I have always liked about their music is that they don’t always go for the straight C Major chord. It may have an added 7th or a 9th in there and that’s what it has in common with the music of people like Satie or Debussy.
RL: In another interview, you quoted Holst, who said, “Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance.” You said that you knew exactly what he meant by that. Care to elucidate?
Track 1 - Witchfinder

JH: It’s absolutely true and in fact, Moonspinner is very much a case of that. Apart from the classical tracks and Thoughts turn Homeward, it was all written in about three weeks. I’d been busy doing other stuff and been wanting to do some writing and it was just bursting to come out. When I finally got the opportunity and cleared the decks and took the phone off the hook, it came pouring out in virtually one go – or over three weeks, which is a relatively short space of time I think.
RL: You are doing another rock album?
JH: I am about to start on it. It’s been written for some time actually – been sat there in the can, but of course it isn’t a can anymore! Most of the songs I wrote in about 2006 after Checking Out of London and it never got done. Now it’s a bit like what we were saying; the dam is about to burst and it’s got to come out. I have already talked to Nick Magnus about recording it and that will be happening very soon.
RL: Do you have a method of working that you apply every time?
JH: I am not very good at multi-tasking and dipping in and out of projects. When I did Checking Out of London we set aside a certain amount of time and went for it. Generally speaking it has to be done without too many breaks. I can’t work piecemeal – I can’t hold it in my head.  One of the problems I have is that because I am a flute player, in order to keep your standard of playing up, you have to practise regularly and it’s quite difficult to switch from playing the flute to picking up a guitar and then singing. It can be done but I find it difficult.
RL: Is there anything  that popped into your mind while we were talking that we never got around to?
JH: When we first had a conversation you were talking about the influence of classical music on  progressive music, and I was looking back at some of the albums I did with Steve, such as Voyage of the Acolyte, where he was using orchestral instruments such as the oboe and the cor anglais  and cello and of course me on flute.  I’m very proud of that work and Steve did some fantastic work in producing those albums because there are some unusual combinations of instruments.

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