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Interview: Steve Hackett and Chris Squire In Harmony With Squackett

With their new prog-rock duo, Steve Hackett and Chris Squire discover the joys of retro harmony in A Life Within a Day.

“It’s a genuine fusion of our separate ideas,” says former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett about his creative relationship with Yes bassist Chris Squire. “There seemed to be a natural harmony there. We listened to each other, which is refreshing. Musicians aren’t always good listeners. You often get gifted control freaks running bands, but they don’t always make the greatest listeners.”

These two progressive rock veterans came together to do sessions on each other’s projects, and almost before they knew it, they’d formed a duo called Squackett and finished an entire album. Produced by keyboardist Roger King, A Life Within a Day offers a seamless merging of the finer elements heard in Yes, ’70s-era Genesis, and Hackett’s solo work. Eschewing an epic self-indulgent note fest, A Life Within a Day focuses on tight songs, stellar vocal harmonies, signature musicianship, and a few stylistic surprises.

Recently, PG met with Hackett and Squire to find out how this project came together and explore the creative process that produced A Life Within a Day.

The new record sounds great.
Thank you.

Squire: I don’t know if it was luck or judgment that got us making this album, but it certainly turned out to be really satisfying.

How did you guys first meet?
I met Chris when I was doing a show with Steve Howe. We were doing GTR and playing a show in Los Angeles. We had a good conversation after it. We seemed to hit it off straight away and I complimented him on lots of the stuff that Yes had done. He told me how much he liked A Trick of the Tail with Genesis.

We seemed to have an immediate rapport. He asked me if I’d play on his Christmas album. That turned into him appearing on a couple of solo things of mine, and then eventually this combined project.

Squire: After the Christmas album was released, I went to Steve’s studio and played some stuff for him thinking it was going to be for projects of his own. As that process went on he gave me a CD of ideas he had. It progressed to the fact that we were working together on stuff that didn’t have any designation at that time. It just evolved organically, and we suddenly realized that we were sort of involved in making an album together. It was a very comfortable way of going in with no pressure. It was a very comfortable situation for both of us.

Were there any songs that the two of you created from scratch?
“Tall Ships.” Chris was trying out a bass in my studio in Twickenham and straight away he started playing what became the thing that anchors the whole of that track. I said, “Do you think you can repeat that? If you can, I think we can turn that into a song.” He said, “Yeah I think I can repeat that.” So he played exactly the same thing. Most musicians when you say to them, “You just played something great, can you play that again?” They say, “I was just messing around. I can’t remember that.” That’s 99.999% of what goes on in the studios and the moment is lost. But he said, “Yeah. I can remember that.” And that’s the first thing we put down.

The title track goes to so many places and has stylistic elements from both your careers.
It does and definitely gets the record going at the beginning.

Hackett:A lot of British bands have an aspect of all sorts of stuff. There’s an aspect of an Eastern influence, there’s an aspect of progressive stuff, and modern bands. There’s the syncopation that originally came from the States, but the Eastern Europeans had that with Béla Bart—k and their folk music. It’s a fast trip around the world of music with that composition. I think it’s the most developed track.

Once you realized you were working on a project for the both of you, did you attempt to mold it into some sort of specific vision?
Not really. We were just working on the individual songs. Then of course we said, “If this were an album, which song would go best before the other one,” etc. The whole thing evolved very organically. The last thing that we did was the first track, “A Life Within a Day.” We pretty much wrote it from the ground up together. It ended up being the first track on the album and indeed the title of the album as well.

Instead of an epic prog fest, it’s very much a vocal record. How did you divide up the vocal duties?
We enjoy working together as singers. Chris and I share this love of harmonies and bands that use harmonies well. I think we made up this third singer between us.

Squire: We discovered that if one of us sang in unison along with the first vocal, it made a really good noise. It had a sound with the combination of what our voices produced.

Hackett: It comes from our backgrounds of listening to everything from The Everly Brothers, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Mamas & the Papas—harmony bands.

Squire: We each brought in some of the melodies and I’d do harmonies on his stuff, and he’d do harmonies on my stuff. Eventually we were writing melodies together. On some tracks, he sang the vocal and on some tracks I did.

Who brought in “Divided Self?”
That was Steve’s. It’s a cool track.

It’s very different from what most people would expect from either of you.
It’s got a ’60s Byrds feeling about it and a bit of The Police in there as well.

I’m hearing XTC.
Very much. I’m very familiar with their work. That’s very much part of their arsenal as well.

Hackett: It’s mainly a harmony-based tune. Then there’s a chorus where we’re both singing on it and doubling every part that we did individually, so there are quite a lot of singers on it by the time we finished tracking up.

I was thinking of something that had a ’60s feel, but the track becomes progressively more retro as it continues. You have a guitar solo that sounds more like the 1950s with a clean tone. Then it ends up with a nod to the kind of music you might hear before the main feature in a cinema of the 1940s with the Wurlitzer coming up through the floor. There’s a little bit of English humor there with The Beatles and the vaudevillian approach. It’s a nod to an earlier era. It also gives it another dimension that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

Is that a Rickenbacker guitar on the song?
Yes. I’m using a 6-string owned by my cousin. With Chris playing a Rickenbacker and me playing a Rickenbacker, there’s something about those guitars. I’m also playing a Fernandes guitar with a Sustainer pickup a lot of the time. It’s a Les Paul-shaped Burny model. They made me one as a present, which was in the shape of my Gibson goldtop. It also has a Floyd Rose tremolo as well.

The acoustic sounds you’re getting on “Aliens” are gorgeous.
The acoustics are a Zemaitis 12-string and a Yairi nylon-string guitar. There’s also a bit of sitar guitar. I’ve been a fingerstyle player for many years and when I play electric, it’s without a pick. But when I was working on this stuff with Chris, I discovered that to get the 12-string sound he really wanted, I needed to use a pick. It gave a real percussive definition to the sound.

I’m actually very bad with a pick. I make a lot of mistakes, but it does create a different kind of rhythm sound with a percussive edge that can be very beautiful.

How did you get such a huge bass sound on the song “Stormchaser?”
Steve and Roger just wanted the bass to be loud. That’s all there is on it. They wanted it to sound like classic me. Who was I to complain about that? [Laughs.] That’s the Ricky. Apart from the first two tracks, the whole album is my Rickenbacker 4001. On the first track I play my green Mouradian bass, and on the second track I was beta testing a brand-new Yamaha they gave me.

The bass sounds on “Stormchaser” and “Divided Self” are so different.
It’s the same bass. I was happy to turn my sound over to Roger because he’s good at what he does.

You’re known for playing with a pick. Do you ever switch to fingers?
I do sometimes. Over the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve actually developed a style where after the very initial attack on the strings with the pick, my thumb hits the string as well. The very first attack is from the pick itself, but then the rest of the follow-through actually comes from hitting the string with my thumb. That’s something that’s developed organically within my playing over the years. That’s pretty much how I play now.

There’s a wonderful soaring guitar sound that you’re getting throughout the record.
That’s the Fernandes guitar with the Sustainer.

What are your main guitars?
These days I tend to use the Fernandes goldtop with the Sustainer and the Yairi nylon. I have several Yairi guitars—some are cutaways and some have more of the Ramirez shape. I use the Zemaitis 12-string a fair amount. I also have a Jerry Jones sitar guitar that’s called a Baby Sitar. It’s like a Danelectro copy and it works really well.

How about amps?
I enjoy using two Marshall 50-watt heads from 1987. I also use a [Tech 21] SansAmp, which is a mainstay, but everything else is interchangeable. I use various wah-wah pedals—sometimes a Cry Baby or a Vox. I use a DigiTech Whammy pedal and the green Line 6 [DL4] pedal that does some backwards effects. But there’s no beating a nylon-string guitar for writing.

Chris, give us a rundown of the gear you normally use.
I always take my Rickenbacker 4001, which I’ve had since 1964, and then the green Mouradian bass, which gets quite a bit of use in the studio. I also have a Lakland bass, which is sort of like a jazz bass. I also have a Fender Jazz bass, which I’ve used on various things over the years.

I have some Tobias 5-string basses and a specialized bass that Mike Tobias built for me in the ’80s. It’s a 4-string bass, but it has a really long neck. I tune it B–E–A–D. Currently I’m using it on this tour as a standup bass. On the summer tour I’m probably going to break out my triple-neck bass. Originally it was a Wal bass, but in actual fact that bass is hanging in a Hard Rock Cafe somewhere. [Laughs.] I had a copy made by a Japanese maker by the name of Kidz. He made an exact replica of the Wal bass and it’s actually much better than the original Wal.

Steve Hackett’s Gear

Fernandes goldtop, Yairi nylon string, Yairi cutaway nylon string, Zemaitis 12-string, Jerry Jones Baby Sitar

Marshall 1987 50-watt head driving Marshall 1960A 4x12 cabinets

Vox wah, DigiTech Whammy Pedal, Tech 21 SansAmp GT2 Distortion Pedal, Line 6 DL4 Delay

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Ernie Ball Extra Slinky (.008, .011, .014, .022, .030, .038), D’Addario EJ43 Pro-Arte light tension nylon strings, Fender medium picks, Ernie Ball straps, Boss TU-12 tuner

Chris Squire’s Gear

’64 Rickenbacker 4001, Mouradian 4-string, MPC Electra, Lakland 4-string

Marshall 100-watt head, Marshall 4x12 cabinets, two Ampeg SVT-2Pro, two SVT 8x10 cabinets

Maestro Fuzz-Tone, custom tremolo, TC Electronics Chorus/Flanger, TC Electronics Reverb, TC Electronics Delay, vintage ’70s Mu-Tron III

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Rotosound Swing Bass 66 (.045, .065, .080, .105), Herco heavy gauge picks, Manny’s Custom Straps, Samson UR-5D wireless system

How about amps?
For a long time I’ve used my ’60s 100-watt Marshall with a 4x12 cabinet. I’ve used that pretty much since the beginning. It’s got more top end on it than most of the lead amps. I use my SVT Ampeg rig as well, and also a couple of 8x10 cabinets that go with it. I always run both the Ampeg and Marshall live. They’re both mic’ed and mixed at the desk.

You wire your basses in stereo, right?
All my basses have stereo output jacks. That’s mainly to facilitate my effects rack, because I learned a long time ago that certain things like fuzz boxes always sound fantastic on the bass pickup, but sound too harsh on the treble pickup. So when I kick the fuzz in, it’s only the bass pickup that goes through it, and the treble pickup cuts out. For various other effects, I run the bass pickup or treble pickup, or sometimes both. It depends on the effect.

Tell us about your effects.
For years I’ve had a custom made tremolo unit that I still have. I still use a Maestro Fuzz-Tone, and TC Electronic chorus, flanging, echo, and reverb devices. I also have an auto-wah and a Mu-Tron pedal.

Any plans for the members of Genesis to ever work together again?
I’m working on Genesis material myself and I’ll take a version of that on the road at some point, probably next year. I’m revisiting the past with a difference with the Genesis material. I’m putting a fresh spin on it and I hope it will be finished this autumn.

It’s unlikely that the original band will see the light of day because some people are retiring. When I was approached some years ago, I said, “Yes. Call me when you need me.” My door is open but it’s unlikely to happen.

What’s coming up for Yes?
Yes is doing a summer tour in the states in July and August. Procol Harum are going to be opening for us. After that we’re looking at doing Squackett live stuff probably in Europe in the fall. We’re getting offers! [Laughs.]

Youtube It

Check out Steve Hackett’s solo on “Firth of Fifth” from 2004 in Budapest. He’s using his Fernandes goldtop with the Sustainer.

If you’re unfamiliar with Steve Hackett’s guitar work, this live version of “Spectral Mornings” will give you a good introduction to his soaring guitar style.