Q&A with John Hackett, known for his distinctive flute sound in the world of progressive music and as an accomplished soloist

"We live in such dark times with all the suffering caused by this terrible virus that people need hope. Certainly what I hear in good music is a sense of the possibility of a better, more loving world."

John Hackett: The Human Voice of Music

John Hackett is known for his distinctive flute sound in the world of progressive music and as an accomplished soloist. Solo flautist, guitarist, singer and composer, John is best known for his work with his brother Steve Hackett, the former Genesis guitarist. He began by learning guitar until aged 15, after hearing Ian McDonald playing with rock band King Crimson, he took up the flute. He collaborated with Steve on his early albums and toured with him playing flute, guitar and bass pedals. He was a founder member of Symbiosis, with Clive Williamson and Richard Bolton. He has recorded several classical solo and duo albums, but 2005 saw a change of direction with John releasing a rock album of his own songs, lyrics by Nick Clabburn, Checking Out of London which was given 5 stars in Record Collector magazine.  This was followed by an experimental flute/dance album Red Planet Rhythm with Moodi Drury. John has worked alongside Italian organist Marco Lo Muscio, in live performances across Europe playing a unique blend of classical and progressive music, and they have also collaborated on the Playing The History project.                  (John Hackett - The Book of Genesis, 2019 / Photo by Anton Dluzewski)

Since 2012, John has worked with classical guitarist Nick Fletcher. They have performed as a flute/guitar duo across England and recorded two albums of instrumental music, the first of which also featured Steve Hackett. The release of the rock album Another Life (on Esoteric Antenna) in 2015 was the catalyst to forming the new John Hackett Band with Nick, Jeremy Richardson and Duncan Parsons in 2016. Following several live shows, they recorded a new studio album We Are Not Alone, released in 2017 with a bonus live disc recorded in May 2016 at the Classic Rock Society in Maltby. He has published three books with backing CDs of original music written specially to help new flute-players to learn the instrument. John Hackett is one of the few flautists in the world to play a vertical flute.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Classical and Prog Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

My first experience of music was rooted in the blues. Growing up in the sixties, we had one of those “all in one box” kind of record players and I was dimly aware of enjoying the sounds of the Shadows or whoever was in the hit parade. But it was only when I got my first guitar at the age of twelve and my brother taught me to play House of the Rising Sun that my musical journey began. At the time he was going off to Eel Pie Island in West London some evenings and began playing all kinds of music back in the small bedroom he and I shared in Victoria (with a lovely view of the railway lines..). So I started listening to people like John Mayall and Paul Butterfield. What I loved about their music was the instrumental virtuosity of some of the playing and how they seemed to be able to make their instruments “talk” whether it was an harmonica or an electric guitar.

It was only later after hearing the original line up of King Crimson live that I took up the flute and started having lessons at school. Pretty immediately I discovered the playing of the great classical flute players like Jean-Pierre Rampal and William Bennett and again it was the virtuosity and ability to make the instrument talk that drew me to it.

Steve had this album of the music of Erik Satie which began with some great arrangements of his famous Trois Gymnopedies. I used to listen to them over and over and was drawn into another world. Whether it is blues, jazz, pop classical or whatever, music has that power to make us aware that there is a place beyond this world. As with all the arts, we are trying to create another “construct” if you like (I am currently watching Altered Carbon on Netflix with my daughter so that is why I use that word). In this construct we as artists have total control unlike the real world and we can make it as calm, agitated and as perfect as we like. Yehudi Menuhin used to say of playing the violin something along the lines that if he could make that little part of the universe perfect, then he had a chance of making the rest of it so.

So I guess music for me it is an issue of control in trying to take charge of the mayhem that is modern life but also with an awareness that there is something far greater than the reality that we currently experience.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?                            John Hackett / Photo by Mark Comish

My sound is rooted in the human voice. I am best known as a flute player and there is no question that with all the breath control necessary, it is similar to singing. But as I was saying earlier about instrumental playing, at its best it can seem as if it is talking to you. So as far as the flute is concerned, I am always varying the sound as with the human voice. This means constant change of sound with vibrato and the use of vowels. The low notes on the flute for example are some of the most beautiful but they only really start to come alive when you vary the vowel sounds as you play so that sometimes you get a reedy sound like an oboe using an “ah” sound and at other times you get more of an “ooh” sound. It is similar to what they used to call woman tone on a Gibson guitar. This is why, although I love the sound of a synthesizer,  it is never going to have the same depth of expression as a really well- played flute. If you listen to Jean-Pierre Rampal for example, his tone is packed full of information even if the listener is not so aware of it

You ask where my creative drive comes from. Ultimately I believe all our creativity comes from God.

As a songwriter I am still very much a novice but I usually try to be positive when writing lyrics. On the album We Are Not Alone by the John Hackett Band, for example, there is a song called Castles which is really about depression. I would not try to pretend that believing in God does not mean you cannot sometimes feel depressed. But I included the lyric  

“To the sea of despondence flows a river of hope, so hang on in there with me and throw me a rope.”

So, no matter how bleak things may seem, there is always hope.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

The emphasis on good songwriting. Growing up in the sixties was such an amazing time with all those great songwriters around from the Beatles , the Beach boys ,Joni Mitchell , Carole King to name but a few plus all those wonderful Tamla Motown records... Maybe it is me getting old but I don’t get the same sense of excitement that I used to from hearing a new album. But of course, there are some wonderful songwriters out there and maybe the problem is that they find it more difficult to be heard. I have recently recorded flute on an album by a female singer songwriter, Amy Birks (Beatrix Players) and she writes in a way that draws on emotions in a very expressive way.

The fear is that we will end up with too much copying of what has gone before. But I am certainly hopeful .With the possibility of home recording and the current lockdown due to the virus, I am sure there will be an explosion of creativity which could produce some excellent new material.          (John Hackett / Courtesy of Kt Parsons Photography)

"My sound is rooted in the human voice. I am best known as a flute player and there is no question that with all the breath control necessary, it is similar to singing. But as I was saying earlier about instrumental playing, at its best it can seem as if it is talking to you."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would put much more emphasis on music and all the creative arts in schools. I have to declare an interest here as I have spent much of my life teaching the flute. I am a great believer that music and all the arts should be for everyone not just the gifted few. After all, we don’t say you have to be gifted at maths or English to take those subjects, do we? But in music there is always this tendency to look at just those who have a natural talent for it and ignore all the rest. The benefits of making music together for young people (and people of all ages) have been well documented. But we do our children a disservice if we look at them as potential economic units as this current pandemic is showing. I heard the writer Margaret Atwood on the radio the other day saying that expressing yourself through creative writing lessens anxiety. It is the same with music. Here in England there has been a steep rise in mental health issues among young people. If they had more opportunity to express their emotions via the arts, I am convinced it would help

I know  in  my own life it has been when I have been at my lowest point  that  what has saved me , along with the love of my family of course, has been my faith and playing the music of JS Bach on the flute. Jack Bruce when asked who was the greatest bass player said Bach and the older, I get, the more I find solace in his writing.

What were the reasons that made the UK to be the centre of Progressive Rock researches and experiments?

Boy, that is a difficult question. I am no music historian but if I had to take a guess it would have something to do with the swinging sixties. After all, there is no such thing as spontaneous generation in music-it all grows from somewhere. If, for the sake of argument, you were to take Sergeant Pepper as the first prog album (I appreciate many would dispute that), where did the Beatles get their influences? Blues, soul, classical music, the writers of the great shows? American music? Eastern music? The list goes on and because it does, maybe there is the answer: that there are so many ingredients in that particular dish that it became something original leading on to the likes of Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd etc . The world of progressive music is a very broad church that includes influences from classical to folk to blues, jazz and beyond and that is why I have always been drawn to it, having such eclectic tastes myself.

"My first experience of music was rooted in the blues. Growing up in the sixties, we had one of those “all in one box” kind of record players and I was dimly aware of enjoying the sounds of the Shadows or whoever was in the hit parade. But it was only when I got my first guitar at the age of twelve and my brother taught me to play House of the Rising Sun that my musical journey began."

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

That music does not have to be complicated or clever to reach out to people and move them.

That it is not necessary to want to make a living out of music to be able to derive a great deal from it.

That it is very difficult to make a living out of music.

That twelve string guitars go out of tune very easily.

That it is very difficult to play the whole of the Rite of Spring on a kazoo…

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

We live in such dark times with all the suffering caused by this terrible virus that people need hope. Certainly what I hear in good music is a sense of the possibility of a better, more loving world. So when I play concerts, whether it is a gig with my band or a classical flute recital, I hope it will distract people from the problems they experience in their everyday lives. Maybe they have had a bad day at work or are having problems in their personal life. If  even one person at the concert feels they have been able to forget their problems for a while and feel transported to another place,  then I feel it has been worth the effort.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

My first instinct would be to go back in time and spend a day with JS Bach and watch the master at work, composing and playing the organ. There is a great image of him at the organ with both hands and feet going like the clappers and a long stick in his mouth reaching down to the keys  to be able to play even more notes .

But if it is a real time machine, then it could surely go forwards as well as backwards. So actually what I would really like is to go forwards , say three hundred years from now , and hear what the new music is that people are listening  to. And would Bach, Genesis and “I heard it through the Grapevine” still be playing on Intergalactic Spotify? .I like to think they would….

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