Sunday, June 5, 2016


Graham Nash
Image by Amy Grantham
Currently on the road in Europe after completing the first leg of his U.S. tour in May, Graham Nash visits Long Island for a headline appearance on July 17 at the Great South Bay Music Festival. The legendary singer-songwriter is a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee—with Crosby, Stills, and Nash and with the Hollies. He was also inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame twice, as a solo artist and with CSN, and he is a GRAMMY Award winner.

Image by Amy Grantham

This Path Tonight, Nash’s new solo release, his first since 2002’s Songs for Survivors, showcases an artist who sounds for all the world like a 20-something year-old singing songs containing wisdom that only time and experience can inspire. This collection of ten songs that deal with Nash’s personal journey through music, life, and love has captured the imagination of a multitude of listeners worldwide, as evidenced by the album’s respectable chart positions in America, the UK, Japan, Holland, Italy, France, and Germany. Its Billboard debut at Number 93 for the week ending April 21 was Nash’s highest charting solo album since 1974’s Wild Tales.


Speaking with Nash backstage after his May 14 performance at New York City’s Town Hall, I had a burning question for him: How can I be, I wondered, that his voice sounded—to borrow a phrase surely known to Byrds aficionados—younger than yesterday?  Nash had no direct explanation for me, but the light in his eyes, the smile on his face, and the energy that emanated from his very being all bore testament to a man who has discovered the truth behind the phrase “You are only as old as you feel.” For Graham Nash, these are truly golden days.

Image by Amy Grantham

I spent some additional time with Nash via transatlantic telephone to discuss the present and future plans of one of popular music’s most endearing figures.


Roy Abrams: Long Island has played a pivotal role in your musical path. What are some standout memories of that time?

Graham Nash: That’s where we rehearsed the very first Crosby, Stills and Nash record. Our friend John Sebastian had rented us a house on a lake in Sag Harbor, and, well … I thought we were going to rehearse the album acoustically, but when I got there, Stephen had assembled a band, with Harvey Brooks on bass, and other people—Dallas Taylor, our drummer, of course. Yeah, many fond memories!


RA: You’re no stranger to outdoor festivals, obviously, with Woodstock perhaps being the most notable of them. How did your path lead to Long Island’s Great South Bay Music Festival?

GN: To communicate. The first thing writers do when they have new songs (is to) communicate them to as many people as possible, and that festival is reputedly great!


RA: You are on the road with one other musician, guitarist Shane Fontayne, who also produced the new album. The chemistry between you is as umbilical and unique as any formed with your previous partners. Can you describe the collaborative process between you, and how you developed such a deep bond of trust in him?

GN: I can tell you exactly, Roy. I’m always a little uncomfortable writing with other people. Writing is such a personal thing to every musician and composer, but with Shane, I can only liken it to writing in a mirror. And that’s how close this musical relationship is. It’s based on great respect; he’s a brilliant musician. I realize that what his main job is, as a producer and as a musician, is make the song come alive. Don’t play too much, don’t try and be smart; let the song come alive. That’s what Shane is brilliant at doing. 

Graham Nash and Shane Fontayne
Image by Amy Grantham

RA: You have always been as much of a teacher as an artist, always reminding your audiences that “everyone can make a difference.”  Your work with MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), the Cousteau Society, UNICEF, the Bridge School, and countless other organizations, offers living proof of that. What are some of the most important lessons you would teach a classroom of today’s young people?

GN: Wow … [pause] … I’m just thinking. Okay, I think we have to realize one very important fact: although children are only 25% of our population, they’re actually 100% of our future. We must take great care in bringing them up and feeding them and stuffing their life with beauty. That’s one way we could change the world; a great way to do it.


RA: Prior to this year, you have spent several years undertaking vast archival projects for your former partners and yourself. The new album and tour is a continuation of a lifelong journey, yet it heralds a new beginning. In conversations with you during the past few years, your view of time and the aging process had more of a fatalistic air. This has been entirely replaced with an energy, an attitude and outlook, of one fifty years your junior, with fifty more years of creativity ahead.

GN: I can only credit that to my girlfriend, Amy Grantham. Even though I’ve done a lot of work with many, many CDs in the last ten or twelve years, (plus) 400 shows with David and Stephen, in every combination, I was kind of pretty flat, emotionally. Susan—my wife of 38 years—and I divorced, and I fell in love with Amy, and now I’m back on fire. I’m back with a purpose in life, and I’m looking forward to my future. I think it’s going to contain a lot of creativity and a lot of beauty.

Image by Amy Grantham

RA: Are there any drawing-board plans for you after this current tour ends?

GN: I’ve always got plans! [laughs] I’m in the process of several things. One of them is, my girlfriend Amy Grantham is a wonderful artist and she does a lot of collage work; we’re working on a book. I’m trying to help her get it to as many people as possible. We have a book of her portraits of me, of our self-portraits—it’s very, very interesting. And musically, of course, I’m still writing. I still have seven songs left over from this project, and it won’t be 14 years before another Graham Nash record!


RA: With Memorial Day just past, do you have any thoughts to share on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Where does America stand, in your opinion?

GN: I vacillate between it being one of the greatest countries on the planet, and also the biggest purveyor of violence. The United States has promise to be an unbelievably great country. I know a lot of people who think it’s great, but we have done a lot of things (with our policies) that have been tragic and shameful. That’s the process of growth in any major empire. I’m still very proud to be an American citizen and I will continue to fight for what I believe in.
© Roy Abrams 2016


Sunday, April 3, 2016

Phil Varca & The SlamJammers: Then, Now, and Into The Future

April 16th at the Paramount with Robin Trower


“There's nothin’ I like more than opening for an act and playing to a crowd that is there to see someone else. Their people don't know you and they don’t owe you! We only get one chance to make a first impression ... so I love playing for those people ... turning them on to our music for the first time and seeing their reaction!” – Phil Varca

Phil Varca at the Paramount, 2014

In the mid-90s, Long Island was home to a hotbed of vast musical riches, a kaleidoscopic display of talent spanning across a myriad of genres. Perhaps no other band represented the best of what Long Island had to offer in the blues department than Phil Varca & The SlamJammers. Fronted by (you guessed it) guitarist/vocalist Phil Varca there was no mistaking the presence of the real thing when this band took the stage. Although a formidable force on the live music scene since 1989, their debut album, Ready, Willing & Able, was released in 1997 to widespread critical acclaim. I was blown away by the CD, and tracked down the band soon thereafter for a killer performance at a Long Island club. As excellent as the album was, the recording paled in comparison with the blistering set I witnessed firsthand.


Throughout the years, the band has appeared at numerous high-visibility events such as The New Music Seminar, South by Southwest Music Conference, North by Northeast Music Conference, Crossroads Music Conference, BluesStock 1999, and the 2002 Riverhead Blues Festival. In 2014, Varca and company had the honor of opening for six-string powerhouse Robin Trower at the Paramount in Huntington. Apparently, the combination was such a success that they’re going for a second round, coming up on Saturday, April 16th. Once again, Phil Varca & The SlamJammers are getting ready to take no prisoners. It’s a philosophy they’ve lived by for decades, and it has served both them and their audiences well.


I recently caught up with Phil Varca after many, many moons and we spent some time discussing the past, present, and future of one of the best blues bands to be found in this or any other dimension.


NOW – 2016:


Roy Abrams: It’s really cool to see that the band is still around!


Phil Varca: It’s the same guy on drums, Russell Stone. I’ve been playing with him since before this band—since 1985. That leads into another factor as to why we’re still together. The “Ron Wood” of the band (that’s my running joke) is on bass: Tom Porter. He’s been with us for 18 years, and I’ve known him a lot longer than that. One of the enduring factors as to why we’re together for so long is that we’re friends. We were friends before we were in a band. I happen to be really, really fortunate in that (these are) two of my closest friends. I think that is the glue that holds us together apart from other bands. These are guys I would hang out with if we weren’t at a gig. Other bands may be really good but the guys aren’t friends outside of the musical experience; they don’t even like each other.


RA: Has the writing experience changed at all for you over the years?


PV: It’s funny. You know, as a musician and songwriter yourself, you can’t sit down one afternoon and say “I’m going to write a song!” The creative impulse comes in waves, and sometimes it comes in ripples, sometimes it comes in tidal waves, and other times, nothing. I’m in the middle of a good time right now where I have a lot of ideas; that’s been for about the past year. Two years prior, I wasn’t happy with anything that I was coming up with. You can’t force it, you know? I have a song which we’ll be doing at the Paramount that’s been kicking around for about 13 years, (one) that I never finished. It’s a new song in that it’s finally finished, but it germinated from an idea nearly 15 years ago!


RA: In 2014, you performed for the first time on the same bill with Robin Trower at the Paramount. How did that happen?


PV: It ended up being one of those cases of who you know. Somebody that we knew was involved at the Paramount. He said, hey, we have a great band that would pair well with (Robin Trower). It was a stroke of luck, and they ended up loving us. They said, “Oh my God, we’d love to have you back and pair you.” The ironic thing was that the year before they were booking blues and blues-rock acts like mad, but after that Trower show, aside from Jeff Beck, they didn’t have a whole lot that we could pair well with. What I am going to pair with, Rick Springfield? That probably wouldn’t go well! [laughter] So when Robin came back, it was perfect for us, so that we were invited back. I would have loved to have done the Jeff Beck show last year, but he was touring with his own support. We’re a guitar band; people who like us are going to be guitar folks.


RA: In addition to the music, I always liked what you guys projected. It was straight-up, no-nonsense, here we are; it’s all about the music. From a musician’s perspective, again, I remember watching the band at the Branding Iron all those years ago, watching that interplay, in that tiny little space—


PV: —I appreciate you remembering that! You know where a lot of that comes from, Roy? I point back to us being friends, too. When you’re musicians and you’ve played together a lot, you speak a language to each other that’s unspoken; it’s body language. I have the benefit of playing with Russ for 31 years. He and I can have an entire conversation and never open our mouths. He knows from my body language how I want him to pick up, drop back, those kinds of things. It’s the same thing with our bass player, Tom. When you play together for so long, you learn all these little nuances. I think that aside from us being friends, it’s one of those things that it’s the sum of the parts. Could I go out and find a killer drummer and a killer bass player? I guess I could, but then all of those other “x-factors” wouldn’t be there. Believe me; I’m smart enough to know that the music would suffer. I know it. I know it. There’s a chemistry there; you can’t bottle it, you can’t recreate it, it just happens. A lot of that may be non-musical—just the way we interact with each other.


RA: What is the band’s performance schedule like these days?


PV: We’ve been trying to do shows not only in New York, but also in Florida. For all these years, we’ve been self-sufficient. We’ve done it the old-fashioned way: knocking doors. It takes its toll on you. After 27 years, I still have to get on my hands and knees and kiss someone’s ass to get a gig! [laughter] Sometimes it can wear you down, but I’ve been trying to connect lately with the folks at LiveNation because they control quite a few local venues and many times they’re looking for local support for a lot of acts which we would fit well with. If ZZ Top comes into town, we could pair well with them. If Joe Bonamassa comes in, boom! We would fit well with him. Jonny Lang—I could go down a list—Government Mule … all jam and guitar-oriented bands that we would fit well with and actually help sell tickets. That was another thing the Paramount noticed (at 2014’s pairing with Robin Trower): there were more ticket sales when they added us to the bill.


An interesting back story on Joe Bonamassa: In 2003, I was actually his liaison when he came to Long Island to play the Riverhead Blues Festival. I was his contact when he had an entirely different touring band and the promoter, who was running around like a chicken without his head that day with a zillion things, said, “Look, will you be Joe’s contact when he comes into town?” I had to help set him up, get him paid, and all of that jazz. Also, Joe’s manager and financial backer, Roy Weisman, happens to have a mutual acquaintance/friend with my bass player, Tom, in Florida. Back when Joe played the Riverhead Blues Festival, I know what he got paid—they got paid $1,000! And now, he’s playing the Royal Albert Hall! [laughter]


We want the show to be full; we want it to be a successful event. I don’t look at it as a moneymaking venture for us. I use it as a stepping stone into repeat gigs with the Paramount, and hopefully more recognition with LiveNation. Ultimately, I have no illusions. I’m 50 years old, I have this band, and if I can do support gigs even in this region—even if I did it on the East Coast, I’m fine with that. I’m not chasing a record deal, I’m far beyond that. I play music now for the enjoyment of it. I’m back to doing it for the reason I started to in the first place: because it was fun. Some people bowl. Some people watch football. This is what we do. We don’t listen to the new trends for “new sounds” … we play the same stuff that we’ve always liked, with the same grooves, with a lot of intensity. We’re a live band, so we want to show a lot of energy and let people go, Wow! These guys make a lot of noise for three people!”


THEN – 1997:

From Musicians’ Exchange—by Roy Abrams

There seems to be a resurgence of sorts regarding blues-oriented music on the Island, and if Phil Varca & The SlamJammers have any say in the matter, it’s a trend that will continue to expand. After reviewing their debut CD, Ready, Willing & Able a few months ago, I knew I had to track these guys down. I had the opportunity to take in a full set at one of their recent gigs at The Branding Iron in Wantagh, so I can confirm what appeared in the CD review once again:

This is one f---ing hot blues band!


Even though the majority of the set consisted of blues covers, guitarist/vocalist Varca, bassist John Dunn and drummer Russell Stone succeeded in transforming them into unique renditions. Whether it was an Allman Brothers tune, something from Stevie Ray Vaughan or the venerable Albert King, the trio displayed a finely attuned ability to listen to and play off of each other so that the interplay of musical ideas was a constant flow.


Dunn & Stone (does this sound like a law firm?) provided Varca with a foundation of blues bedrock that set the guitarist free to put his instrument through the kind of workout that practically burned the frets right off of the fingerboard. Time and again throughout the set, the room erupted in applause after a particularly astonishing display. Varca has absorbed the nuances of his many guitar idols, but his real talent shines through in the way he’s able to place his own stamp on his influences. Personally, I feel that Varca could be on stage or in the studio with any of his heroes and he wouldn’t be out of place in either environment. Then again, the vibe that’s happening with The SlamJammers is one that could well spread outward in giant waves. Oh yeah, they did throw in a couple of tunes from their album, “Maybe” and “Come & Get It”, and both tracks were well up to the standards of the classics they covered. Guitar fans, blues fans, music fans: Go see this band!



From Long Island Entertainment—by John Blenn                                                 

...The triumvirate of sizzling guitarist and lead vocalist Phil Varca, bassist John Dunn and drummer Russell Stone are inspiring players all, but what distances these guys from a very strong field is that they write their own material. Trading in universal, blue collar songs that hit on the day-to-day stuff that gets on our nerves, Varca gets his guitar to do some serious talking while the dense rhythm section drives home every song with power and finesse, depending upon need.  With a reverential respect of the blues, Phil Varca & The SlamJammers deliver the blues with equal parts sincere respect and fresh ideas. This ain’t tourist blues, but the passing fan will dig it. If you eat and sleep the blues, you already have this. If you don’t, don’t pass up one of the best albums that Long Island will produce all year. Expect big things ... you'll get ’em.

—Roy Abrams
     Long Island, NY

©2016 by Roy Abrams

 All Rights Reserved—Contact for permission to reprint

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Joe Bonamassa on Dream Venues, D.I.Y., and AARP

At 38, blues guitar legend Joe Bonamassa already has a career that spans a quarter century. One of the hardest working musicians in the business, Bonamassa’s touring schedule is relentless. While this is a godsend for his fans, it has also left the artist with a firm conviction not to follow in the footsteps of so many others who remain on the road well into their 70s. Regardless of his future retirement plans, Joe Bonamassa continues to break new ground, garnering more #1 Blues albums than any other artist in history and playing his dream venues around the world, all on his own terms as a fully independent artist. The guitarist is bringing his acoustic tour to Carnegie Hall in NYC on January 21 and 22. Some down time prior to a performance at Atlanta’s famed Fox Theatre back in November provided the opportunity for us to touch upon a few aspects of Bonamassa’s extraordinary journey.

Joe Bonamassa - image by Christie Goodwin

Roy Abrams: Congratulations on the upcoming Carnegie Hall shows! Added to the Radio City Music Hall shows from last year, we are seeing that you’re spending more time playing your “dream venues” … what’s the experience been like for you?

Joe Bonamassa: Yeah—Radio City last year, Carnegie Hall this year. Well, to play Carnegie Hall is a dream come true, obviously! We’re doing it acoustically, and with a very worldly band. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun; people are going to really enjoy it.

RA: From that famous moment of discovery by B.B. King when you were 12, here we are, all these years later. Does it feel like a quarter century for you?

JB: No, not really. It feels longer for me! This year will be 26 years (in the business). It feels a lot longer, to be honest with you. It’s been ten years in a whirlwind. We accomplished a lot in ten years.

RA: As a student of the entire D.I.Y. approach, one accomplishment of yours in particular stands out: J&R Adventures, the independent record label and music management organization that was founded with (manager and business partner) Roy Weisman. The more I researched it, the more impressed I became by its scope and by the integrity that it represents. Can we spend a few minutes talking about its origins, its goals, how it evolved over time, and what the experience is like in that insular world as opposed to having to deal with the “standard” music industry?

JB: One of the reasons why it exists is that the standard industry didn’t want anything to do with us. Necessity is the mother of invention. We get a lot of credit for it now, but nobody wanted to promote us, so we decided to promote our own shows. Nobody wanted to sign us, so we decided to start our own record company. It was pretty much as simple as that; it’s how it all kind of came about. We started this in 2002, and at the end of the day, it became very clear that we were on the right track. You can control your own destiny. It’s the difference between steering a Ferrari and a cruise ship. It’s the same winding road; the cruise ship is much harder to steer! It’s very easy to get conned by many or all forms of the industry.
image by Christie Goodwin

RA: But you have managed to stay as clear as humanly possible but still thrive as part of it.

JB: Well, there’s clearly a paradigm shift going on in the music business at this point. More bands are going to the do-it-yourself method, especially more on the record company side. Promoting their own shows, I’m not sure if they can get their head around it. You take a band that’s used to making money on tour working with Live Nation or something like that, and then you turn around and say, OK, here’s what we’re going to do: the guarantee is nothing, but if you sell the same amount of tickets, or even a little bit less than you did before, you’re going to make way more money. It’s a hard sell for people to swallow and get their head around.

RA: In your bio that appears on your website, you state that several journalists have asked you, “Isn’t it risky?” Based upon everything that you’ve just said, it would seem that having your own company would allow you take, if not 100% risk, then certainly a greater degree than a standard record company would allow.

JB: Take tonight, for example. We’re playing the first night of a two-night run at the beautiful Fox Theatre in Atlanta. The place holds 3,500 people. We have 3,250 tickets out for both shows; it’s 6,500 seats. There’s no promoter in their right mind that would have taken a chance. This is the second time that we’ve done two gigs since we sold out here at the Fox. Basically, at the end of the way, if you talk five or ten years ago, no promoter would have taken a chance on one night here at the Fox, at a $25 or $30 ticket price, they wouldn’t think that we could move 6,500 tickets in a weekend. That’s the difference: When you have the opportunity to believe in yourself—either we prove ourselves right or we prove ourselves wrong—either way, you at least have a 50/50 shot of being right. The other way, you’re kind of doomed to this circuit of whoever wants to book you in, where, and how, and it becomes self-defeating. I see a lot of people who I came up with 15 or 20 years ago really struggling now because they’ve been sucked into that vortex of the agent and promoter. They’re making deals for you, but they’re also making deals with stuff that’s new, the hot seat in town, and you’re kind of locked into all that, saying, “Give me a good deal on so-and so, and then we’ll do these other two or three shows … “ You quickly become a pawn in the system. When you work autonomously outside the box, you don’t have to worry about those sideline deals being done that are not in your best interest. The conversation (between) the manager and agent is, “Give me the best that I can get.” And the promoter is saying, “Well, just tell them that it’s the best I can do.” You know, they can either go dark on a Friday or Saturday night or you can come play Smith’s Old Bar. That’s the real long and short of it.

image by Christie Goodwin

RA: I was speaking with Steve Hackett last week, and he is travelling on a similar path as you; he and his wife are handling everything as a couple; no managers, no agents from what I understand. A lot of what you just told me, they’re experiencing as well. Have you ever crossed paths with him?

JB: Yeah, he came to a couple of shows at Shepherd’s Bush Empire with Chris Squire. I was blown away! I’m a big prog-rock guy. I knew Chris for many years; a really, really great guy. It was sad to lose him this year.

RA: I know that you’re working on a new studio album that’s coming out in March—

JB: —It’s already done. I recorded it secretly in July. I (also) recorded Live at the Greek this year … it’s been a banner year!

RA: We’re seeing so many established artists who are now in their mid-70s. At 38, you’ve got another half of a career span to go before you reach that point. I’m wondering from a musician’s perspective: Where does one take it from here?
image by Christie Goodwin

JB: Well, I committed to lasting until I’m (the) proper AARP age, which is 62. After that, I think I’d be overstaying my welcome. At the end of the day, I don’t see myself out on the road when I’m in my mid-70s; that’s not appealing to me. If I go to my 62nd birthday, it will be 50 years, and 50 years doing anything is plenty! I’ll be 62 and still have interests in other places, and a life to live outside of a road case.

 - Roy Abrams
   Long Island, NY
©2016 by Roy Abrams
All Rights Reserved—Contact for permission to reprint

Friday, October 23, 2015


As anyone who has ever been in a band can likely attest to, the complexities of creative personalities working in close quarters can often lead to tension, argument, and outright dissolution if the situation gets out of hand. Steve Hackett knows this all too well. From 1970 to 1977, Hackett was a member of one of progressive rock’s most influential and enigmatic bands—Genesis.

image by Armando Gallo

Hackett brought his unique brand of musical vision to the mix, and was eager to contribute more of his own material to the band’s studio albums. To his dismay and eventual disgust, Hackett found two insurmountable obstacles which prevented him from achieving his goal: keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist/12-string guitarist Mike Rutherford exerted a form of control over the band which ultimately led to not only Hackett’s departure in 1977, but also (according to Hackett) Peter Gabriel’s exit two years earlier and, in 1996, the loss of Phil Collins.

Steve Hackett is the only member of Genesis who has warmly embraced the band’s musical/historical record, and has toured the world several times performing selections from the seven-year period in which he was involved with the group. The global success of these tours bears witness to the enduring popularity—and importance—of the music to millions of fans. Hackett returns to the Long Island area on November 8 for a performance at the Westhampton Performing Arts Center and on November 11 at The Space at Westbury. This time around, fans are in for a multi-course feast of both Genesis gems from 1970-1977 and material culled from Hackett’s solo career which now spans 40 years and 24 albums, up to and including his brand-new release, Wolflight. The current tour is dubbed From Acolyte to Wolflight with Genesis Revisited—the Total Experience … which may be a mouthful but it’s an accurate description of what to expect when Hackett and band take the stage.

I first spoke with Steve Hackett in October 2014, not long after a much-covered incident concerning a Genesis documentary DVD which, to the majority of viewers, turned a blind eye toward Hackett’s solo career, resulting in a public demonstration of indignation during which Hackett vowed not to offer the documentary DVD for sale on his website. In conversation, Hackett’s tone was neither bitter nor petulant; rather, his voice conveyed mature wisdom interwoven with a dry sense of humor. Not only is the man a creative genius, he also possesses a keen intellect that encompasses art, literature, and science in the true form of a Renaissance man.

This year, I had the opportunity to speak with Steve Hackett twice during the past few months—once at the end of August and again in mid-October—to cover even more ground than our expansive conversation of last year. Hackett was friendly, candid, and eager to talk; in other words, an interviewer’s dream subject.

Once again, for his candor, friendliness, and most importantly, time, I thank Steve Hackett for spending part of his time with me.

Read on and enjoy!

image by Tina Korhonen


Roy Abrams: The title of this upcoming tour speaks to the enormous volume of art you have produced during the course of your career. Given that sheer volume, what were the logistics like in terms of putting a set list together?

Steve Hackett: Well, I think people have been aware, they’ve been following the stuff I’ve been up to in recent years, but I devoted two years or so to doing exclusively Genesis work again, the stuff that was created in the ‘70s, mainly with Peter Gabriel and myself. The thing about that is, a number of other people who were interested in my Genesis afterlife were disappointed that I wasn’t doing anything from Spectral Mornings or Voyage of the Acolyte or Please Don’t Touch, all of those albums, so the tour, for me, is how to celebrate 40 years as a solo recording artist, and at the same time, promoters and agents (were) asking me to do Genesis Revisited (tour) again, because it did very good box office. So the solution to that was to divide the past up into two separate sets, one of which is vocal solo material, and the second set (is) Genesis songs, ones that I haven’t performed before in recent years, such as “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” and “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, “Cinema Show” … so I’m trying to celebrate both halves of this history and make it totally immersive by giving them surround sound. We’ll be using surround sound; it’s part of the flight back of audio, I keep thinking (of) a kind of audio crusade, I ought to really go for that with people who are prepared to accept narrow bandwidth and the kind of disposable aspect of music these days, (I wanted to) celebrate it ever more so. It’s the equivalent of the wide screen.

RA: Personnel-wise, are you bringing the same people out who accompanied you on last year’s (Genesis Extended) tour?

SH: It’ll be Nad Sylvan singing the Genesis stuff; I’ll be singing the solo stuff, and it’ll be harmony singers with the band. (Keyboardist) Roger King works as my collaborator and musical director. We also have Rob Townsend on saxes, flutes, and additional keyboards, percussion, and various other things. We have Gary O’Toole on drums, who is a singer as well, and on bass this time it’s going to be Roine Stolt, formerly of Flower Kings and Transatlantic. For lack of a better word, he’s going to be doing the Mike Rutherford parts, the double neck bass and 12-string stuff. He’s also part of the harmony-singing team. I’m hoping to hand over some of the bass duties so he doesn’t get saddled with them all, so that he and I can so some twin lead stuff, and kind of get the best of the whole team.

RA: “Wolflight,” the title track of the new album, is a marvel that I cannot stop listening to. It combines virtually every element of what makes Steve Hackett a unique artist, highlighting what, to these ears, is compositional genius, instrumental mastery, and stellar arrangement and production skills. Can you talk about the process of writing and recording that piece, as well as the rest of the new album?

SH: My wife, Jo, we wanted to lyrically celebrate the early history of the tribes that eventually (spread across) part of Asia and even part of Africa; the people for whom the Great Wall of China was built, in order to keep; them out, the Golden Horde; the people who brought down the Roman Empire eventually; the early guerilla fighters. They didn’t play by the rules, but they were great survivors. The more and more I read about their history, I find it fascinating. So “Wolflight”, the title track, was really designed to celebrate that. Those people used the wolf as a totem, very often they befriended wolves and (developed) a symbiotic relationship between those animals and humans, which formed the basis for their mutual survival. Compositionally, I wanted to work with a guy called Malik Mansurov from Azerbaijan, who plays an instrument called the tar, and working with him is a bit like working with a guy who’s a cross between Ravi Shankar and John McLaughlin. (He has a) wonderful spiritual quality to his playing and a fluidly fast technique; quite extraordinary. I worked with him, first of all, live, with a Hungarian band called Djabe, and I was thrilled to work with him in Hungary, get him into a studio, fly him in from Azerbaijan, and I have much more stuff recorded with him. So that was part of it, the world music aspect, I thought, how can you have acoustic music, folk music, world music, regional stuff, and rock, and orchestral stuff all in one piece? So that kind of pan-genre approach, working almost like a wrestling tag time where as soon as the energy might start to flag, the other guys kicks in, another team takes over. These different genres, I wanted to be able to fire salvos from one to the other.

RA: It’s one of the most remarkable pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

SH: Well, thank you! I’m glad you like it! I followed my instincts on it, and I really didn’t know whether people would like it or not, but it has had a great reaction. This aspect of something Slavic and Nordic and elemental with the orchestral bit … I always thought, what would it be like if guys like Tchaikovsky and Grieg and Borodin, what would they do if they got hold of a rock group? I was thinking along those lines, those dark elemental forces that they were so clever at conjuring with orchestras, where the orchestral stuff that they did rarely sounded flaccid; it retained that tension and that interest, it seemed to be highly charged emotionally, and very exciting. Having an orchestra is exciting; that’s the real challenge for us rockers. All of those elements came to bear on it.

RA: You have mentioned that songs will often be conceived out of dream experiences. What are some of the most notable examples of this?

SH: Funnily enough, on the first Genesis Revisited album I did, there was a track called “Valley of the King” where the music came complete in a dream, and I thought, I’ve got to try and do something like that. I had this sound in my head that sounded like a cross between the string instruments of the orchestra, and what the guitar could do. It makes up another kind of hard-edged sounding orchestra; a bit distorted, a bit raucous, but it’s got the size of an orchestra. It’s kind of cinematic rock, in that way.

RA: What are the similarities and differences between writing from the dream experience to writing from inspiration through books, films, fine art, or nature?

SH: I think what happens is, in my case, I work on paper; memory is fallible. I like writing things down in books, and I hope to God that I don’t finish the book before it’s time to do the album. I think to myself, God, if I spread this out over a number of books, I’ll never go back to Book One. It’s actually a diary, this thing. It’s got that idea of 365 pages (and) some of those things might be of relevance, if I update them as I go. It’s crawling around in the dark, really, and catching chinks of light, and stitching those into a pattern, working out which pieces of the jigsaw puzzle bear relevance to each other. Or, if they aren’t relevant to each other, how might they work ….

I found out many years after the event that John Lennon worked in that way. He said, you have ideas, and you join them up later. [laughs] That’s a very good way of working! It’s nice to know that The Beatles didn’t get it all at once. It’s very easy to assume, “It’s written from beginning to end.” Neither do filmmakers work in that way. If things don’t happen sequentially; you arrange that, that’s part of the arrangement of a song. No one can teach you how to write a song, and I don’t think you can even teach yourself. If you’re going to surprise yourself, you’re going to have to allow a certain amount of passive gestation.

RA: You have collaborated with an astonishing array of artists during your career. Two in particular I am most curious about: Richie Havens, who appeared on “How Can I?” and “Icarus Ascending” on 1978’s Please Don’t Touch, and (original Genesis guitarist) Anthony Phillips, who appeared on “Emerald and Ash”and “Sleepers”on 2009’s Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth. Can you talk about how those collaborations came to be, and what the experience was like working with each of those artists?

SH: Genesis were great friends of Richie Havens and we used to listen to him on the way to gigs. Particularly, with Richard MacPhail (former Genesis tour manager); sometimes I used to travel with the road crew, and he had tapes of Richie Havens. I was struck with what a marvelous voice he had, and I remember seeing him live at Jimi Hendrix’s last big gig at the Isle of Wight in 1970 and Richie was on a couple of acts before Jimi, and there was a thunderstorm raging at the time, and his voice just raised above the storm, and I said, “My God, this guy has a voice that has the power of the storm!” It all became one to me. If I can mythologize this slightly, it seemed as if the thunder and lightning were his percussion, almost Godlike. He was an immensely nice man. By the time we were playing arenas in London, we were doing three nights, sellout shows, to 18,000 people per night in London. We invited him to be the opening act. Unfortunately, the audience was keen on seeing Genesis. I went backstage and met him via his keyboard player, Dave Lebolt, who also worked on Please Don’t Touch. We shook hands and I said, “I’m sorry that the audience reaction in no way parallels the quality of your performance.” And he held my hand and shook it for a very long time. And I said, “Look, would you like to come to dinner at my home?” My mother was living there at the time; she had just broken up with my father. He helped her wash up; that’s the kind of guy he was. That was just great! At the end of the evening, he suggested, “Why don’t we work together?” I phoned him up three months later and said I’d written something with him in mind and he said, “I can hear it already. It sounds great, man.” He was so positive—he was the real thing. One of the most positive, wonderful characters I’ve ever worked with.

RA: What a great description! I had the pleasure of meeting him many years ago—

SH: It’s unforgettable, isn’t it?

RA: How did you cross paths with Anthony Phillips?

SH: Although we never played in Genesis during the same era, he and I became very good friends. We see a lot of each other, we have some mutual friends. He’s also very humorous, very talented, and a very nice man. I’d been trying to get him to play on something for quite some time. He said, “What do you need me for to do this?” I said to him, “Because I’ve got a feeling that you’ll come up with something that I wouldn’t think of!” Sure enough, that leap of faith was recorded. He showed up at what he thought was going to be a rehearsal at my home. I happened to have Roger (King) there, who was recording, and I said, “Look, I’m going to get out of the room, and if you record anything you’re happy with, just tell me, because you don’t need another guitarist looking over your shoulder when you’re doing that.” Ten minutes later, he’d come up with this gorgeous double 12-string part which fitted with my guitar part, this arpeggiated picking thing on the chorus of “Emerald and Ash” and it brought it alive, totally. He used open tuning because he figured it would make the notes ring on more. (He was) absolutely right and had done the thing I had predicted, which was something that I hadn’t thought of. That combination of chiming guitars was very much like Genesis; it very much captured that Genesis spirit. And then he did the same thing on “Sleepers” and I thought it was lovely. Over the years, I’ve tried to talk him into doing an album, with the two of us; so far, I’ve failed. He might just say to me one day, “Hey Steve, maybe it’s time we should do that!” [laughs]

RA: Listening to “Wolflight", my wife and I were struck by how eerily akin to Peter Gabriel’s atmospheric aura, if you will, the track was in parts. You and he seem to possess much in parallel in that regard. In all the years since you left Genesis, did the two of you ever talk about working together? If not, would you consider it now?

SH: It came close, at one point! At one point, we were sharing the same phone book with regard to Latin musicians, and I’d recorded some stuff in Brazil and he wanted to go there and said, “I guess you’re the guy I should get in touch with” with regard to that. I did an album (in Brazil) called Till We Have Faces. Funnily enough, I got Pete a copy of that, and I was hoping to play harmonica for him on one of the tracks, because he was also interested in blues harmonica. He was another Paul Butterfield fan, so we had that in common. It hasn’t happened so far, but maybe at some point that might happen. Again, we have friends in common and we’re interested in several of the same issues that concern the world, not necessarily in purely musical terms, but in other aspects as well.

RA: In the video presentation for the Tribute album which you released in 2008, you voiced your love of Bach’s music, saying “It’s like Beatlemania to me.” What lies at the root of that relationship?

SH: I think, if you were criticizing it, you’d say the complexity of it, but it’s not that, it’s the completeness, the self-sufficiency, that fact that you can conjure a world, with one instrument. Bach’s music is entirely indifferent to whatever instrument it’s being played on. It sounds wonderful on guitar, cello, violin, any number of keyboards, be they steam-driven or electronic.

RA: 1999’s Darktown seemed to have been a watershed moment for you as a lyricist. You were quoted as saying, “It was the beginning of a new way of looking at things.” Many fans view this as your Plastic Ono Band album. What forces coalesced to make this album such a pivotal experience for you?

SH: Darktown was kind of a hiatus for me. I was dealing with the fact that, in the 1980s, there was a high level of creative restriction for guys like myself who had grown up as an album artist, and I still felt that what was most commercial wasn’t something that record companies were necessarily going to understand. What (record company) people thought of as esoteric in fact was the very thing that was going to fire up fans. So there was this divide between the two. I’d like to think it was the first of many albums where I decided to go my own sweet way and let the publishing be damned. It was an album that was bringing me back fully to myself. I thought, the pursuit of excellence is really what it’s all about.

RA: You were credited with orchestration on that album. Is that area still under your exclusive creative domain?

SH: No, not at all. These days, I’m happy to either do it all myself or collaborate on it. I’m very open. I think it’s always a team that makes an album, even with composers of yesteryear (like) Max Bruch, doing his violin concertos, being influenced by the violinists that were playing it. There’s nothing wrong with having a musical conversation. (It’s not confined) to just the world of jazz. Listen to your collaborators or however you deem it! There are certainly ways of doing this. I understand that a thoroughly democratic process doesn’t always work. You’d have anarchy in an orchestra! There are times when I think it should be open.

image by Armando Gallo


(A day off between shows in Southampton and Basingstoke, UK)

RA: Thank you so much for speaking with me again! How’s the current tour going?

SH: It’s my day off today, but I’ve got interviews! [laughs]

RA: Well, thank you for taking some time on your day off and speaking with me! I’ve got a few more questions for you to wrap it up, OK?

SH: Sure thing!

RA: Fans of your music are not casual listeners; this music matters to them in a way that is more the exception rather than the rule in today’s everything-is-disposable environment. You have made it your business to connect with your fans throughout the world, from your personal involvement with your website to your global travels to perform for your fans in far-flung locations well off the beaten path of most tour itineraries. There is obviously a deep level of commitment displayed towards your fans. Can you talk about that relationship and the role it plays in your life?

SH: There was something a while back when I first met Jo, who became my wife. Basically, we started to run the business as a couple. I’d worry that she hadn’t really had experience in that area. Suddenly, we were self-managing, and I would say to her, “Oh, we may have to be a little careful here about the way we go about this.” But in the end, it proved to be the right thing. I’m talking about making no distinction between fans and friends; as much as possible, to let the people in. All those social networks that you talk about, (they all shared with us that) it’s really cool, what you do. Basically, before shows, we do a meet-and-greet; there’s an after show, there’s a few people who get invited to that, and I sign things for people outside the theater on the way in, and on the way out. There are more things besides meeting the crowd proper, (by) doing the shows. Largely, I owe it to her. She hasn’t really had any experience at this, and I thought, first of all, that we wouldn’t be able to maintain that level of accessibility. It’s completely opposite to this sort of Greta Garbo/David Bowie kind of approach. You know what? It’s actually worked really well for us. It’s increased the fan base and it means I’ve got a lot more friends! It’s actually worked out very, very well.

RA: I’ve seen your website and your Facebook page; you are continually dialoguing with people from all over the world.

SH: We get back to people, inasmuch as is possible, and it’s been extraordinary. We’re about six weeks in to what is basically a three-and-a-half-month stint on the road and I’m still standing! [laughs]

RA: Hopefully, because it’s your day off, today you can sit down!

SH: I’m actually sitting down; you’re quite right! [laughs] It’s an interesting time, all of it. Everything I’ve been up to has undergone this resurgence of interest. I think ever since my wife and I became a full-time couple, it made things a lot easier. It’s been an extraordinary ride. I don’t know at the level of interest; I suspect that part of was due to the fact that I started doing Genesis re-records and shows of exclusively Genesis material, so that put me in touch with fans that I once had with the music, with that band, but then we’ve extended it beyond that to several albums I’ve done since then. I’m doing a show that’s part Genesis, part solo, (having) very modern, up-to-date stuff with the old solo stuff, and the band stuff. So it’s a bit like I’ve become my own support band, it’s crazy. The doors of the museum are wide open again for the much-loved numbers of the 1970s, such as “Cinema Show”, “Get ’Em Out By Friday”, things that were kind of romantic, a little bit Gilbert and Sullivan, I think. But it’s been growing and growing and growing, and I think that’s extraordinary. There's a box set which is about to be released on the 23rd (October), a collection of all my Charisma (Records) stuff, the years 1975 to 1983 including live shows and, of course, Wolflight, which has done very well. The response … maybe it has something to do with having embraced the Genesis catalog again, and it’s probably influenced my writing style, to a large degree, but I think that I stopped making a distinction between what Genesis did and what I did, so if I wanted to do long songs, I went for the detail, which tended to be story-telling vehicles, then I worked on that. There’s something about the songs that stay with me of other people’s that I’ve enjoyed that tend to have this story-telling quality to them. Whether or not they are love songs, or they’re about other subjects, as far back as the Greek myth referenced stuff that Genesis stuff. They’re the ones that really worked for me.

RA: You frequently refer to “a film script in miniature” or “a film for the ears” … it’s such an apt reference, given your almost otherworldly ability to create visuals with sound. Is this an after-the-fact observation on your part, or does that concept play a role in the creation of the sounds themselves?

SH: The way I write things these days, there’s a whole ton of ideas, and I write them down in a black book, and I wait for them to haunt me. I wait for the strongest ones to surface; the ones that I can’t ignore. And I will go back and study every page and test out every melody. On a day when I come up with an idea, I’ll be telling myself that it’s the strongest thing since sliced bread, but the reality is that I can’t hold allegiance equally to all new ideas. They’ve got to have something about them; even instrumental melodies, they seem to conjure some kind of setting for me. I can’t put it into words properly, but there has to be some otherworldly or magical quality, as you say, to it in the first place. There’s got to be some kind of alchemy there, and I don’t really know why it works, but I suspect I’m probably taking a leaf out of several people’s books who write things. When you’ve been trying to write original stuff for as long as I have, I used to be very concerned, worrying about whether people would notice if I borrowed a style here, or stolen something from some other genre, but these days I’m only concerned about authenticity rather than originality. I tend to think that those kinds of things --- originality – it really has all been done. It’s just a case of how are you going to do it yourself?

image by Armando Gallo

RA: As a lyricist, it is immediately apparent how much of a student of history you are. Has this been a lifelong interest, or something that developed as you grew older?

SH: It’s a growing thing. I think in my early life I did a lot of sleepwalking, to be honest. I was adrift on a very apolitical and non-historical sea. There was so much that went on (on the news) that drifted past my head and I really didn’t have an opinion about those things. And then there comes a point where you go, Hang on a minute – that shouldn’t be happening! And it draws you in, and I think that current events have their (roots) in history, and it’s nice to be able to trace back, and not just look at some of the situations which you have some idea of how things are going to pan out. They often say that if Hitler had been more aware of history, he would have figured that Napoleon met his nemesis on the Russian wastes, and how come Hitler made the same mistake? Looking back is a way of having a surer future. (I’m not suggesting that you go and invade the rest of the world, of course!) So there’s something of that and the fact that Jo, my wife, is very literary; she’s written a couple of books, made films of various things, and she’s a great historian and a great detective. Wherever we travel, she tends to make it an event. She uncovers what’s going on in a particular place, and she’s a great teacher!

RA: In our last conversation, we discussed your creative relationship with Chris Squire and Steve Howe, but did not touch on your experience working with Brian May. What are your remembrances of that time?

SH: I met Brian May in South America. This is ironic; he told me that he was influenced by the guitar work I did on a Genesis track called “The Musical Box” … I realized that at the end of that track, there’s a three-part guitar harmony. I thought, I don’t believe what I’m hearing! I mean, he’s the master of three-part guitar harmony as we know it. I had no idea I was an influence on him. I discovered that he was a very modest, very bright guy, and the driving force behind Queen. We became pals, and shortly after I did GTR with Steve Howe, which was a fruitful guitar pairing, we were talking about doing something together. After the initial enthusiasm, it seemed obvious to me that he had so many commitments and the stuff that I started (recording) with him, I kind of claimed it back, and said, “Are you happy to be on that?” and he said, “Oh yeah, fine.” There was also stuff we did called Rock Against Repatriation back in 1989-1990 [a charity project formed by Hackett to help stop the repatriation of the “boat people” in Hong Kong]. It was great working with him. (Material) resurfaced many years after the event in the guise of Feedback ’86, which was roughly the time I started working with him and Bonnie Tyler, a great Welsh singer. I noticed that Brian was very quick on the uptake whenever we were in the studio together. Ideas with him came thick and fast; I was amazed at his speed! I tended to be more the kind of guy who would mull things over a bit and then try them. He seemed like a whirlwind, and that was terrific, because we had a limited time together so we threw (out) as many ideas as we could. It was like an impressionistic painting, really, getting as many ideas down on the canvas as possible and refine them later, bring them into focus later. There are some really lovely things that came out of that.

RA: Sketches of Satie, released in 2000, is a beautiful collaboration between you and your brother John. The symbiosis is striking. Can you discuss that musical relationship and if/how familial ties influence it?

SH: That happened many years ago. John, who is five years younger than me, started to not only play guitar, but he became interested in the flute. There are a couple of things here that were important: We saw some stunning King Crimson gigs at the Marquis Club in London, and I think he really fell for Ian MacDonald’s work with that band—his flute work. We ended up buying a flute together and whilst I continued on pretty much exclusively guitar and harmonica at that point, John was basically taken up big time with the flute. There was another album I bought at that time; if you remember, what tended to happen in Britain in the 1960s or possibly even the early part of the 1970s, when you bought records, it tended to be in electrical stores, or it might be in a bookshop which had its own section for records; just cardboard boxes with albums filed alphabetically, so you literally had to thumb through until you found Elvis Presley under “P” … it’s extraordinary to think of the way records were sold in those days! I found an album that had an intriguing cover, and it turned out to be a classical album and I discovered a piece on this that I’d been looking for, for a long time. I knew it was a classical piece, didn’t know who wrote it, I would hum the melody to people, and I eventually bought it. I realized that it was Erik Satie’s work. This stuff had been arranged for orchestra; it was a bit of a variation on some of the arrangements that Debussy had done of Satie’s work. They were great pals, Debussy and Satie. There was a flute player on it called William Bennett who was a big influence on John, so I have to jump ahead a few years now to 1975 and my solo record, which John got to play on professionally, for the first time. I was about 24-25, John was about 19-20 and he’d just gone off to Cambridge to study languages; he’s very bright and got a scholarship there, but he decided that it was really music, after all, that he wanted. He didn’t really feel that he fit into the whole Cambridge thing, the whole kind of snobbish thing; I guess that would be the equivalent of your Princeton or Harvard. I think he just really wanted to get his hands dirty with music. John’s done lots of flute and guitar albums; he’s just done a rock album; his second rock album under his own name. It’s in the shops here. He’s also going through a resurgence. His album is on Cherry Red (Records). So we both got on board with Satie, we loved the melodies. I wanted to be able to produce something of John’s. I actually wanted it to be a John Hackett album, as the flute was taking the lead on most of these tunes, and I thought I’d play backup to him. The record company we had at the time was Camino Records. An ex-manager (involved in running) Camino Records suggested strongly that it would probably sell more if it was a double-header that had my name on it. Reluctantly, I agreed to that. It’s quite a good album, that’s all l can say.

RA: During last year’s conversation, we talked a great deal about Genesis, your dissatisfaction with the recent film documentary, and your relationship with Tony and Mike. Have you ever received feedback from them on the Genesis Revisited albums and tours? What is your relationship like with them today? With Phil? With Peter?

SH: Socially, absolutely fine! I think, when it comes to professionally, you have to remember that there’s a competitiveness about the core of Genesis. I haven’t heard any comments how they feel about that, I think the last time I did a Genesis Revisited in the 1990s, before I’d done a bunch of re-recordings, a double album—now there’s a Volume Two of Genesis Revisited. I think when Tony was asked, he said, “I haven’t been involved in it, therefore I don’t think I can comment on it.” It was no comment. In a way, it’s a politician’s answer … it’s in the nature of the way the band functions. I know that people find it very strange, but I was involved with a very strange band. Very creative—and if you speak to any of those guys, you may get a comment or [laughs] … or not! It’s very difficult, isn’t it? It’s like one guy said, “Well, I couldn’t comment on the presidency of Barack Obama because I wasn’t responsible for world events at that time!” So, funny, isn’t it, how all that works. Since the Genesis documentary—there’s been a documentary in which I was involved that we started filming five years ago that’s just been released, so I’ve kind of got my own version out there. I think it’s easier. You can try and do things in tandem, but at the end of the day it’s much harder to function as a group, and you get representation. The Americans know all about that, don’t you? “No taxation without representation,” you said, and here’s dear old England going, “Grumble grumble.” But the fact is (that) independent autonomy has to be at reach if you’re going to be a serious contender!

 - Roy Abrams
   Long Island, NY
©2015 by Roy Abrams
All Rights Reserved—Contact for permission to reprint