CIRCU5 is the project of multi-instrumentalist, Steve Tilling. Fairly accurately self-described as “like the errant offspring of Foo Fighters and King Crimson,” it certainly has a ‘prog’ feel, but this is artfully mixed-up with songs with strong melodies and some definite hooks. The album traces the life of a child raised as a psychopath in a secret government organisation. Obviously. We caught up with Steve and, with some relief, can confirm that this isn’t autobiographical; he’s actually a very convivial chap…
Sad Paradise: For the benefit of those new to your work, could you give us a brief résumé?
Steve Tilling: In the Swindon area, some know me from being in Bardiche – a metal band from the late 80s and early 90s. Music’s just in me, I suppose. I started playing classical guitar when I was 7. My parents panicked and steered me towards that when I said I fancied playing the trumpet. So, I learned classical for a few years – sheet music, grades, music stands, precociousness, the works.
Then aged 11, in 1982, my brother brought a cassette by Saxon home. I remember him sitting in a toy tepee in the garden, playing it on a cassette player. I heard it from my bedroom and liked it. Soon after, I gave up the classical lessons, forced out a collar-length mullet, and grew partial to stuff like Ozzy Osborne and Iron Maiden. I got into some prog bands, like Yes and Rush. I was also a bit of a space cadet, and loved bands like Hawkwind. And a Canadian band called Max Webster, who sported a natty line in yellow jump suits and frocks.
So, I see CIRCU5 as edgy alternative rock with a progressive twist. That all came from my childhood. I picked up more influences along the way, such as Jellyfish, who were master musicians and vocalists. If you’re interested, you should check out the Spilt Milk album, which is a classic.
SP: The sound is very much guitar based, which I’d characterise as post-punk-prog – it has a definite harder edge. There’s some piano but, overall, very few keyboards. Is this a conscious attempt to distance yourself from first generation prog (Yes/Genesis) where synth/Mellotron may have made the sound too ‘dated’? Or do you just really like lots of guitar?
ST: I like a lot of bands with keyboards. But the CIRCU5 story, and some of the music, is quite dark and wouldn’t suit florid keyboard solos. However, there are some vintage synth effects on the album. I like bands that rock and shock musically – such as Cardiacs, who were very punky and proggy. That said, I also love songs with rousing choruses, which are on the album in tracks like Stars, Blame It On Me, and The Amazing Monstrous Grady.
SP: ‘Concept’ prog got a bit of a bad name towards the end of the ’70’s, when albums got too long and tediously cryptic. And these days, streaming encourages a pick’n’mix approach to listening, risking the derailment of any narrative. Your songs definitely work standalone, but having a story-line is still a bit of a brave move. What are your thoughts on the story itself and the desire to have a connecting theme through the album?
ST: I think CIRCU5 has a story more than a concept, as there’s a definite narrative rather than a general mood or idea. I’ve always fancied writing a book, but never found the time or the right idea. But after writing a few songs for this, a psychopathic character started to emerge. I started thinking, what if this character was unknowingly shaped to be that way from birth in a secret government organisation? And he discovered the truth as an adult? Before long, I had a four-page plot. The CD packaging is very lavish with a 28-page booklet featuring lyrics, images and clues to the story, and a ‘secret document’ explaining the background. (All this is available digitally too, with a high-quality album download.)
I hope those that stream on sites like Spotify are intrigued enough to get the full package. But I’m happy if they just want to enjoy the music. As you say, the songs stand up separately too, and we all like different things. I’m just traditional in that I like something I can hold and read.
SP: Looks like you have an array of Swindon’s finest musicians guesting on the album. How was the recording process?
ST: Strenuously pleasurable, matron. It took five years because life and bills got in the way. It started as a challenge: could I write, record and release an album all by myself? Halfway through, I felt quite lonely and wanted to connect with others. So I called on guest musicians for support and a different flavour, such as Dave Gregory from XTC and Big Big Train, and Phil Spalding from Mike Oldfield’s band. And I approached Stu Rowe, a top mixer and musician, to mix and master it. They plopped a fat juicy cherry on an already tasty cake.
SP: Apart from the guest musicians, most of the playing is you. Does that mean you’ll not be playing any of this ‘live’?
ST: I’d love to do CIRCU5 live. It will just take time to get it together. I’d like to do an audio-visual event with videos telling the story while the band’s playing. I think it will take some rehearsing too. But if Mike Oldfield could launch Tubular Bells live while being on the edge of a breakdown, why can’t I?
SP: You’re obviously into the promotion phase of this project for the immediate future but any thoughts on what’s next?
ST: I see this debut CIRCU5 album as the first chapter in the story. If enough people like the album and want another, I’ll do it. That’s why I’m so grateful to those listening and supporting me. It means everything, really.