The Genesis guitarist, who helped shape some of the most enduring music to come out of England in the ’70s—and who’s remained quite busy since—continues the unique and painstaking re-creation of his rich body of work. The opportunity to discuss the power and charm of his bandmate Phil Collins’ drumming was too good for MD to pass up.
“Genesis was one of the first professional groups I’d worked with,” legendary guitarist Steve Hackett says, “and Phil Collins just happened to be the drummer. I thought every drummer was as good as that.” Collins certainly played a crucial role, not only in transforming Genesis from peculiar progressive rockers to Hall of Fame icons, but also in acting as the group’s rhythmic guru. “Phil was a master at taking these unlikely constructions, these chord sequences that date back to early music, and making them flow,” Hackett says.
In the eyes of some, however, Hackett was every bit as integral to his former group’s early artistic successes, bringing atmospheric effects, classical-flavored acoustic passages, and pioneering two-handed fretting techniques to some of prog rock’s most sacred recordings. Simply put, few popular stringsmiths have demonstrated Hackett’s better-dead-than-shred aesthetic and commitment to experimentation.
“Part of the approach with Genesis was the attempt to make keyboards sound like guitars and guitars sound like keyboards,” says Hackett, who would later use the “fretboard as keyboard” by triggering synth samples via MIDI for the short-lived ’80s supergroup GTR, which he formed with Yes guitarist Steve Howe. “Lots of twelve-strings working together at once sounded like some third hybrid [of keyboard and guitar], where you couldn’t tell if you were listening to mass harpsichords or Paraguayan harp. I thought, We can create orchestras out of the stuff, if we’re careful. The ensemble could sound bigger than the number of guys on stage.”
Hackett brews anew this heady sonic concoction for his latest release, Genesis Revisited II, a sequel to his 1996 effort. The twenty-one-track double disc boasts reinterpretations of epic Genesis and Hackett tunes such as “Supper’s Ready,” “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” “The Musical Box,” “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight,” and “Camino Royale.”
A stellar cast of players, including Simon Collins (Phil’s son), John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia), Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth), Francis Dunnery (It Bites), Neal Morse (Flying Colors, ex–Spock’s Beard), Conrad Keely (…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead), and Steven Rothery (Marillion), manages to stamp its identity on these tracks without stomping all over the originals. Hackett’s sustain-driven performances remain utterly fresh and riveting, proving that the guitarist can still administer a shot of aural adrenaline as directed. Steve spoke with us from his HQ studio in England.
MD: The production value of Revisited II is crisp. The drums are captured nicely.
Steve: There are two main drummers on the album: Jeremy Stacey, who has a studio in London near Earls Court and played on the Squackett album I did with [Yes bassist] Chris Squire, and Gary O’Toole, who recorded in his home studio. On the song “Camino Royale” Gary was joined by Szilárd Banai of the Hungarian band Djabe. [Keyboardist/ recording and mixing engineer] Roger King did a fabulous job presiding over the drum recordings for Gary, and Ben Fenner did a great job with Jeremy’s tracks.
I really enjoy the sound from overheads. Sometimes this music requires a drummer to play quietly, as we had done with Genesis. But that can sound very tippy-tappy if it’s just close-miked. I don’t mind that slightly shed-y type of sound that you get from the overheads. I’ve done some good recordings in sheds in my time.
MD: Did you give direction to the drummers on Revisited II?
Steve: I think for the version of “…In That Quiet Earth” we used a bit of compression with the drums. That was my input: to slightly John Bonham–ize the drum tracks and make them sound a little bit like the latter-day Phil Collins.
MD: Was there a lot of compression used on the original Genesis drum tracks?
Steve: Well, in those days it wasn’t in general use. Each studio might have one compressor, and that might generally go on the vocals. There was a little bit of compression round about the time of the Foxtrot album . I can spot it on the original tracks.
MD: Your solo records are all over the map, musically and rhythmically. For instance, 1984’s Till We Have Faces features a full-on Brazilian percussion ensemble. Why the interest in Latin percussion styles?
Steve: I was interested in the polyrhythmic approach. For a samba rhythm, for instance, the surdo drum, which is like a bass drum, often takes the place of the snare. So it’s like the reverse of a rock rhythm. I was told that that was supposed to sound like a train. I’ve also heard the sound of two or three hundred drummers all working at once, playing this rhythm, which is an extraordinary noise. You think you’re hearing something amplified, but it’s sheer manpower.
South American percussionists often vary something busy with something very far down in the mix, which is what was done for a track called “What’s My Name” on Till We Have Faces. There’s all sorts of busy stuff happening in the background with [Simmons electronic] drums holding down the rhythm. At the same time, you have someone hitting pots and pans and all of this metalwork suspended from a frame. At first I said, “Wow, that sounds terrible. That’ll ruin the track.” But the idea was to use this really quietly,
like the chatter you’d hear in the jungle, you know? It’s insect life coming out at night. That was an eye-opener. We were doing this style a few years prior to Paul Simon and before the term world music was in common parlance.
MD: You’ve used some percussion on your recordings over the years. Did you ever record yourself playing kit drums?
Steve: The nearest I’ve come to it is with the nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. I do things with it that make me sound more like a flamenco player, tapping on the guitar body to produce rhythm. But I’ve never sat behind the kit, as much as I am tempted sometimes. I’d love to be able to play, but it’s a lifetime away for me.
MD: What was the approach to recording Phil Collins’ drum tracks on the original Genesis material?
Steve: We would do a few takes of each number. Sometimes we would do just one take, if we thought it was good enough. But it was often the case that we used the take where Phil felt he was most tired. I think in the playing itself you’re not hearing a tired drummer, or tired playing. It seems to me what you’re hearing is a great drummer, who may be physically tired.
In the early days we were trying to get a feel for all of us playing live. However, often the band would have a chance to overdub and fix tracks. Phil said, “You guys can do that, but as the drummer, I can’t.” So you’re getting whole takes from the drummer. Sometimes you’d have edits between performances, but in the main, what you hear is what you get.
MD: How do you think Phil dealt with this?
Steve: I think he was frustrated in those early days when it came to the drum sound itself. Those early albums were done very quickly, in the midst of hectic tour schedules. Later, when Phil had a partnership with [producer] Hugh Padgham, that was important; once his drum sound started to develop, then he would have that on tap. But in the early days of Genesis, his main role was as a drummer. He was also heavily involved with the arrangements of the melodies to make them swing more. Many times you might have a melody that would be good harmonically but was in need of a shake-up rhythmically. Phil had the ability to take almost any melody and give it that swing feel. Most everything was syncopated to such a degree that you wouldn’t recognize the original melody. You would hear a Buddy Rich influence, which was all important to us in the early days.
MD: Later on Phil had evolved, dare we say, beyond the drums.
Steve: His gift for writing songs is legendary. Some of us are a slow learn in certain departments. I’d often bring him something that I thought was harmonically interesting, like “Los Endos” [from A Trick of the Tail, 1976]. You can hear in the introduction the guitar is sailing in. [Sings guitar line.] That’s how I wrote it. I was thinking orchestral string melody, film music—not that I’ve ever arranged it that way. But Phil said, “Yes, we can do it that way, or we could do it with this fast baión rhythm.” The attack is fast from the word go, and accents, of course, are all important in that school of thought.
When we did the song “Dance on a Volcano,” from the same album, we were working on the introduction, and we all hit the accents together. There was some telepathy going on with the writing at that time. It’s always a marvelous moment when a band doesn’t have to sweat over every single thing. For some reason there was something going on over and above the expected, because we all seemed to take that introduction, the first thirty seconds, without conferring, which is pretty amazing. But I think it was because we were trying to think like drummers; we were trying to think like Phil. Even now, you know, when I write a melody I say to myself, “Would Phil have approved of my spacing and timing?”
MD: “Supper’s Ready,” from Genesis’s Foxtrot, is twenty-three minutes long, and you cover it on Revisited II. Was the original track recorded in parts, and did Phil play live with the band?
Steve: Genesis recorded the song in sections and then joined them together. The song starts with a lengthy acoustic basis. There was no point in having Phil sit around whilst everyone else was playing twelve-strings. We edited it together like a film, although it was written as a whole. Phil played live with the band [for the] long takes.
MD: Bill Bruford was an interesting fit for Genesis when he toured with the group in 1976. Did he bring a sense of improve and jazz to the dynamic?
Steve: I think he did. At that time, when we had lost Peter Gabriel as a singer, and the fact that we had Bill, who was such a huge star in his own right and an influence on Phil, it gave the band that seal of approval from on high, really. I couldn’t believe it when he came down to our rehearsal and just joined in with one of the numbers and said, “Yeah, it sounds great. I’d like to work with you guys, if you’re up for it.” King Crimson had ended at that point.
I think Bill gave the band a lot of energy. He’s a very clever and innovative player. I enjoyed working with him, as I enjoyed working with his successor in the live band, Chester Thompson, who was similarly phenomenally gifted and modest. Hugo Degenhardt, who was in my solo band, is another phenomenal player. He’s currently playing with the Bootleg Beatles. At times I would stand up on stage when he and bassist Doug Sinclair would do a bass-and-drum solo and think, I’m redundant here. Let them play.
MD: What does it ultimately take to record great drum tracks?
Steve: I keep coming back to the sound that Frank Zappa obtained on One Size Fits All. It’s essentially a crisp, small sound that fits right in front of the speakers. I can understand why drummers might like that. Then again, I can understand why they might hate it. The only way for a drummer to ever be happy with his drum sound is to become a producer. Some are lucky enough to do that. Otherwise you might have to commandeer the console.
The well-traveled vet, who lists Sheryl Crow, Yes bassist Chris Squire, and Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher among his credits, tackles two of Genesis’s most ambitious tracks on Revisited II. “When I got the call to do these sessions, I sat down and listened to the music and said, ‘This is going to be quite difficult,’” recalls drummer Jeremy Stacey, who appears on “Supper’s Ready” and “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” on Genesis Revisited II. “I knew these songs internally, but I never tried to learn any of the drumming. I think ‘Dancing With the Moonlit Knight’ is technically more difficult, because it’s faster and has all of those paradiddles going on. But, obviously, the 9/8 section of ‘Supper’s Ready’ [‘Apocalypse in 9/8’] is harder in a different way. Nine is not easy. But the great thing for me about recording that track was the fact that a riff is played throughout that section of the song. It provides a kind of guide.
“For the recordings I used a Gretsch maple kit featuring 12″ and 13″ rack toms, 14″ and 16″ floor toms, and a 24″ bass drum. I used a Camco brass 5×14 snare for ‘Dancing With the Moonlit Knight’ and a 6 1/2″-deep Ludwig Super-Sensitive 402 snare for ‘Supper’s Ready.’ It has just a little fatter sound, which I thought worked best for the song.”
The longtime Steve Hackett drummer was more than ready to tackle Phil Collins’ parts—at the kit, and at the microphone. “Phil Collins was a great influence on me,” says Gary O’Toole, who performs the majority of the drum tracks on Genesis Revisited II. “As we’d been doing more intense work, Steve said to me, ‘Do you want to sing lead?’ Suddenly I was singing and playing drums on about five of the old Genesis songs, including the classic ‘Watcher of the Skies.’ I’ve been singing and playing drums on those songs for a number of years. When it came time to record Revisited II at Steve’s studio, I sang ‘Blood on the Rooftops,’ ‘Fly on a Windshield,’ and ‘Broadway Melody of 1974.’
“I remember the first album I recorded with Steve, To Watch the Storms . He came out with a track called ‘Mechanical Bride.’ We played it on the road, but when we got into the studio Steve said, ‘Look, this might take some time.’ I counted it in, and it was absolutely note for note what Steve had asked for. He was blown away. It was kind of from that experience that Steve got the confidence in this band. Just prior to this, Steve was wondering whether he should retire. The early 2000s was like his last roll of the dice. Over time it’s been good to see the man flex his muscles and say, ‘Yeah, I want to do this.’”
For Genesis Revisited II O’Toole played a Mapex Saturn Pro kit featuring two 22″ bass drums; 8″, 10″, 12″, and 13″ rack toms; 14″ and 16″ floor toms; and an 18″ mounted bass drum.