Incorporating forgetive songwriting, a wide range of musical styles, and a futuristic album concept that would make even Peter Gabriel jealous, the eponymous debut release from multi-instrumentalist Steve Tilling (aka Circu5), that tells the story of a child raised as a psychopath as part of a government experiment, was recently released to rave reviews from a number of publications.
With Circu5’s debut live performance set for March 2019, and an upcoming stint in October/November this year as a guitarist with ex-members of XTC, Steve was kind enough to chat to The Sound Of The Crowd about the making of his album, musical influences and his future plans as a solo artist.
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The Sound Of The Crowd: Listening to the ‘Circu5’ album, it’s obvious you’re an incredibly accomplished musician. Was playing music something you always knew you wanted to do?
ST: Yes, from a really early age. When I was four I wanted to learn the trumpet...my parents must have been thinking ‘oh no!’ But I remember going through Swindon when I was about five and seeing a bloke with a guitar and my parents asked if I wanted to learn to play that instead. So I took up classical guitar, I had lessons with my brother...that was my first instrument.
TSOTC: I know you play quite a few instruments now, what are the others you play?
ST: Obviously guitar, and also a bit of keyboards and drums although not to dizzyingly high standards. I play the bass too, and also the nose flute (I don’t, I’m only joking!)
When I was in the school band I played the bass, but a bit reluctantly ‘cos you couldn’t get the girls playing it! It was a bit ‘oh alright, if I really have to, if nobody else will’.
TSOTC: So who would you say were your main musical influences as a teenager?
ST: Well I was an ‘80s kid really, that was my era. When I was about 12 or 13 it was Tears For Fears and that sort of stuff, the bands that were more about the music, not the Wham! and Duran Duran-type so much. I always thought Duran Duran just reeked of pretension, swanning about on their yachts. I loved XTC as well but they were an antidote to the 80s, I suppose...completely different to the electronic music like Tears For Fears or OMD.
Learning guitar and bass, and being brought up on classical guitar meant I deviated towards prog music as well. Rush, Yes...for the musicianship really. I know some of it is so overblown but I found it really exciting! I have to admit some of the concepts lost me a bit...Rick Wakeman and his ‘King Arthur On Ice’ and all that.
TSOTC: So not the ‘fantastical’ stuff, as much?
ST: No, I was never keen on the concepts with dragons and wizards and things like that. I just liked anything quirky really.
But that was why in particular when I was coming up for the concept of the ‘Circu5’ album, I wanted to keep it grounded in reality in some way because that made more sense to me. It was more about the psychology which I find interesting too.
TSOTC: When did you start writing songs yourself?
ST: Well when I was a pretentious little kid with a side-parting (!) playing guitar I used to notate stuff, classical pieces...I think I’ve still got them now! That was when I was about ten. I suppose I really started writing when I was about 14 or 15, when I discovered rock music.
TSOTC: Talking of songwriting, I read that your solo album [‘Circu5’] took five years to make! How did it all come about?
ST: Ah, now when I say five years in the making, I don’t mean I got up every morning for five years and sat in the studio writing and recording! A lot of that time was spent thinking and coming up with the story.
The idea first came about when I was playing in a band...somebody suggested I should do a solo album. It got me thinking, should I really do this? Can I do it all by myself? There was a lot of self-doubt there initially. I put everything into it though, it’s a bit of a life’s work I think.
TSOTC: Is there anything you’d change about it, looking back?
ST: Well I re-recorded a lot of sections anyway because I wasn’t happy with how they sounded. I wanted it to flow from beginning to end in terms of the story.
[Thinks for a minute]
I mean I’m very pleased with the album really. I can listen to it and not wince. I remember thinking when I heard some of it, ‘you know actually, I’m pretty bloody proud of this!’. I’d tried to incorporate all the different styles of music that I like and that influenced me into it as well.
Most of the reviews I’ve read have been great, but there was one that said actually I’d tried to put too many styles into one album. But for me it needed all those different styles to reflect the character’s mental state throughout the story.
TSOTC: Well thinking about what the character has been through, surely there would be a lot of different stuff going through his head?
ST: Exactly. I mean, you know, I wasn’t just trying to be quirky for the sake of it. On some of the songs I go a bit nuts because it mirrors the story. Those parts where it’s all weird timings and tempo changes, like in ‘Transfiguration’, that’s [the character] spiralling into madness.
TSOTC: Considering the amount of work and time that’s gone into this album, do you think you’d ever undertake something like this again? Or have you got something different planned for the future?
ST: Well, I would maybe like to write a book. That’s always something I’ve wanted to do, and I’ve definitely got a storyline now!
TSOTC: Ah, so a book with the story of the album then?
TSOTC: Think of the box set possibilities!
ST: [laughs] It’s definitely something I’ve always wanted to do. Saying that though I’d like to think you can listen to the tracks on the album in isolation too...you know, where someone can listen to it and think ‘oh I like that part in that one’, so they can dip in and out.
But yes, I do think I will do another album. I’ve got the plot for the second one so it follows on like a sequel. And in the next one I’d maybe try hone down some of the styles a bit, and add a few more electronic ‘snippets’ as well.
TSOTC: There’s quite a list of guest appearances on this first album too, can you tell me a bit more about those?
ST: They're just friends I’ve made over the years really...through the gigs and recording I’ve done. Johnny Warman I play live with [for example].
I mean, 99% of the album is me, it’s just getting a different perspective from people. [Ex-XTC guitarist] Dave Gregory for example, I’ve sent stuff to him and it comes back sounding completely different from what I expected, I think ‘wow, I would never have thought of that’. It’s the little embellishments he adds, the slide guitar, just the icing on the cake really.
TSOTC: Talking of XTC, how did it come about that you’re one of the guitarists for the Colin Moulding/Terry Chambers [aka TC&I] gigs later this year?
ST: It was a phone call from [producer] Stu Rowe, completely out of the blue. I was sitting at home and he rang and asked if I fancied doing these TC&I gigs. Initially I said ‘I’d love to, but no...!’ It was a knee-jerk reaction I think, a sort of rising panic. XTC are my heroes. But I’m good mates with Stu and he seemed to think I was up to the job and managed to talk me round.
I didn’t actually meet Colin and Terry until about three months ago. We met up for a drink and got on really well...we talk the same sort of language and have the same self-deprecating sense of humour which helped.
TSOTC: How have rehearsals for the gigs been since then, from your point of view?
ST: Colin and Terry both have a really strong work ethic. We rehearse in Colin’s garage...Terry arrives at 9am every morning, it’s all quite intensive. They’re very fired up, like they’ve had a new lease of life.
I do have to refocus myself sometimes...I’m there thinking ‘wow, I’m playing with my heroes’! But I didn’t sleep the night before the first rehearsal, because even though I’d met the guys before then and they’d heard my album, they’d never actually heard me play.
But overall I think we’ve gelled really well and we’ve been rehearsing like maniacs. Hopefully it can only get better between now and October!
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Enormous thanks to Steve for taking the time to do this interview.
For more information on Steve’s solo project ‘Circu5’, please visit: www.circu5.com