Steve Hackett / New album is ‘autobiographical with a narrative’

Recently, Steve Hackett was at Trading Boundaries to play his annual weekend residency. You can read Adrian Stonley’s review of the show for MetalTalk here. Before the show, Steve sat with Adrian to chew through a few topics. 

Steve Hackett will release his new album, The Circus And The Nightwhale, on 16 February 2024 via InsideOut Music. The album is already receiving critical acclaim. It has also been cited as a concept album, and a recent press release describes it as “A rite-of-passage concept album with a young character called Travla at the centre of it.”

Steve Hackett - The Circus And The Nightwhale. Artwork: Denise Marsh
Steve Hackett – The Circus And The Nightwhale. Artwork: Denise Marsh

“People are saying that it’s a concept album,” a relaxed Steve told us. “That’s what the publicist has said. It’s been around the houses a bit so its sounds like a direct quote from me. But I would prefer to say that it’s autobiographical with a narrative and that the songs are linked in the way they reflect certain watershed moments in my life.

“It’s a way of telling the story through music, and you can only do bullet points, to be honest. It’s very personal, but so far, I’ve had a better reaction to it from the media than anything I’ve ever done. It might be because of the way it starts I suspect. The beginning is a bit of a surprise… It goes through a number of changes, and that, in a way, is to frame it and to set it up as you go into it. It’s dear to my heart. It’s ambitious in so many ways.”

Autobiographical

Steve says that the introduction acts like a portal, and the album becomes autobiographical. “We start back in the 1950s with a radio snippet, a bit of a newscast, getting the feel of how radio sounded, tuning in and out of the stations and then ‘Are you sitting Comfortably?’….the famous line from Watch With Mother. 

“But instead of her saying after a few seconds pause, ‘then I’ll begin’, you get a baby’s cry and that becomes extended. The baby obviously isn’t comfortable, and that cry then goes over the sound of a steam train starting up, first slow, then getting up to full speed. Then it takes the sound of an incoming string orchestra, which then reaches the speed of a rock band coming in. 

“So, it’s like going through a series of doors, first one, then another one, in order to set it up. I think that’s what people like because it doesn’t get to ‘it’ immediately. It’s wait for it, wait for it…. It might be this, it might be that. It might be a classical album. It might not. Who knows? Then you get the rock band at full pelt doing their thing.  

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Steve Hackett says that lyrically, People Of The Smoke describes London. “It’s about 1950s post-war London. London is in recovery, with lots of bomb sites. Pimlico, where I grew up, everything was falling apart. It looked like a giant had stomped through it all.

“Much of Pimlico was in much need of repair, yet I’ve never seen photographs of just how extraordinary it was. I suspect it was because it wasn’t that uncommon. It’s not really documented.”

Steve Hackett - The Circus And The Nightwhale.
Steve Hackett – The Circus And The Nightwhale.

Pallet Cleanser

From here, the album moves into track two, These Passing Clouds, which Steve describes as a “pallet cleanser.”

“Taking You Down is about a young guy I knew,” Steve says. “We had been friends since we were about seven, maybe nine years old. The scrapes he got me into, and I guess it becomes more and more surreal as it carries on. Briefly, that’s the Circus And The Nightwhale.

“There were a lot of things on it that I wanted to say. There were things I wanted to do with guitar playing that required a certain degree of dexterity. A lot of it has taken years. Years to get a decent finger vibrato and with an electric guitar. So there are some interesting sounds and stuff on it.

“There are certain things that I wanted to be able to do. With a rock album, I have been aware for many years that I would start doing other things and then listen back and think, ‘Oh, I wish I was doing something that was more of a rock album.’ More masculine and not necessarily so romantic. But, of course, romantic things can be quite delicate. What’s more robust is to stick with electric guitar playing, as that’s what you know.”

Steve Hackett - Trading Boundaries, Fletching, East Sussex - 21 January 2024
Steve Hackett – Trading Boundaries, Fletching, East Sussex – 21 January 2024. Photo: Adrian Stonley/MetalTalk

“So, I’ve got these built-in safety features with it. Moments of tapping and shredding and that sort of stuff. You can’t really argue when you’re playing. But when it comes to writing songs, I can’t completely abandon the romance. My wife Jo was saying the other day, ‘It’s from rant to romance,’ and I was saying, ‘Yes, full rant and full romance’.

“Yes, there are love songs in it, but so far, people who have heard them have said how much they like the love songs. I’ve been surprised that there has been quite a contingent that goes for the love songs. Some of the love songs stretch over into rock, so you get this paradox that a rock song is not really supposed to be a love song.

“It can be a bit of a thrash, a bit war-like. It is a fight but to have something with a strong rhythm to it that is also a love song is a bit of a paradox.”

Steve says that he thinks he has managed to “pull it off on one of the tunes that has been released as a single so far.” I certainly agree with that.

It is plain that the music-listening public agrees, too. The video for People Of The Smoke is about to hit 140,000 views on YouTube alone, which Steve says is unusual for him. “I’ve not had that happen before,” he says. “Even before an album is released, so that bodes very well for this. Maybe it’s something to do with timing, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because there’s renewed interest in Genesis, and with Genesis having officially said ‘it’s all over’.

“I’m saying for at least half my shows, I’m still celebrating the early work of Genesis. The era that John Lennon liked.”

In Part Two, Steve Hackett talks about Genesis, his solo material, future experimentation and more.

Steve Hackett will celebrate the release of his new album with two HMV in-store events in London and Birmingham, where he will be taking part in a Q&A and signing albums. For more details, visit hmv.com/live/steve-hackett.

16 February 2024 – HMV Oxford Street

17 February 2024 – HMV Birmingham Vault

Steve Hackett – The Circus And The Nightwhale – is available to pre-order in several different formats, including a Limited CD+Blu-ray media book (including 5.1 Surround Sound & 24bit high-resolution stereo mixes), Standard CD Jewelcase, Gatefold 180g Vinyl LP & a Digital Album. Pre-order now here.

All feature the stunning cover painting by Denise Marsh.

The Circus And The Nightwhale is Steve Hackett’s first new music in over two years. Recorded between tours in 2022 and 2023 at Siren studio in the UK – with guest parts beamed in from Sweden, Austria, the US, Azerbaijan and Denmark.

The line-up includes some familiar faces alongside Steve on electric and acoustic guitars, 12-string, mandolin, harmonica, percussion, bass and vocals. Roger King (keyboards, programming and orchestral arrangements), Rob Townsend (sax), Jonas Reingold (bass), Nad Sylvan (vocals), Craig Blundell (drums) and Amanda Lehmann on vocals. Nick D’Virgilio and Hugo Degenhardt return as guests on the drum stool, engineer extraordinaire Benedict Fenner appears on keyboards, and Malik Mansurov is back with the tar. Finally, Steve’s brother John Hackett is present once more on flute.

Sleeve Notes

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