“I’m doing that thing that many may find tasteless but hopefully at least some may find thrilling… it’s not about control – it’s pure animal!” Why Steve Hackett ramped up the guitar attack on The Circus And The Nightwhale

Steve Hackett
(Image credit: Tina Korhonen)

With his first proper concept album in almost 50 years, guitarist Steve Hackett transports the listener back to bombsite-littered post-war London, as the record’s fictional character, Travla, tells a symbolic tale of a journey towards self-actualisation.

“It’s been extraordinary making this record,” he tells Prog. “I grew up in a time when music changed the world, and I’ve always felt the album can be a really powerful force. I really hope people enjoy listening to this one.”

“This is solo album number 30,” explains Steve Hackett. “I suppose if I keep at it there’s a possibility of the John Wayne award for ‘Most Westerns In The Saddle!’”

Pan out for the prairie wide shot, and it seems extraordinary that Hackett has done so much since leaving Genesis in October 1977. Then again, he’s one of prog’s great enthusiasts, passion undimmed. “I still so much enjoy music,” he affirms. “It’s my chosen medium, just as my father’s chosen medium was art. Dad painted the world, but I try and make it a film for the ear. And if ever I made a film for the ear, this album is it.”

Chatting from his New York City hotel room, Hackett is referring to his spectacular latest record The Circus And The Nightwhale. His first ‘proper’ concept album since 1975’s Voyage Of The Acolyte, it’s partly autobiographical; but Hackett also employs a fictional protagonist named Travla (geddit?) to tell a more symbolic tale of a journey towards self-actualisation. “It’s the arc of a life that starts literally,” he says. “Then it becomes more metaphorical and we start to embrace story, not just little Stevie Hackett and his guitar exploits.”

Famed for their stylistic breadth and innovation, “little Stevie Hackett’s guitar exploits” have kept us enthralled and entertained for more than half a century now. In recent years, January 2021’s Under A Mediterranean Sky (No.2 in the UK Classical Chart) was the mellower, more contemplative yin to Surrender Of Silence’s symphonic metal yang, the latter Hackett record arriving just months later, in September 2021. 

Ringing the changes – and often – is Hackett’s way, then, and he has also had the largesse to honour his and his former Genesis bandmates’ formidable legacy via the medium of live performance. The Circus And The Nightwhale is something else again, though: a landmark solo album in which he goes the extra mile.

“I was considering the hero’s quest that life is,” Hackett explains. “The changes we go through and the challenges we face. I’d also been thinking about Joseph Campbell’s [1949 book on mythical structure] The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and his take on what a life journey is. Homer’s The Odyssey comes into this album; Pinocchio comes in to it. It feels very special and personal, but I’ve tried to make it as inclusive as possible. It’s pan-genre, tapping into rock, blues, jazz and classical. It takes you to different times and different places.”

Having just completed the first leg of his Covid-delayed Foxtrot At Fifty + Hackett Highlights North American tour, he is ostensibly on holiday. Yet here the amiable 73-year-old is, taking two hours out of his morning to talk to Prog. ‘He who rests, rusts,’ as they say. But with a fine new record to promote and a 2024 touring schedule that might daunt men half his age, Hackett shows no sign of becoming a carpet crawler. “Keeping busy gives me energy,” he says. “Plus my hearing is good and my fingers still work well.” The coming days, he says, will take in a phone call to Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery, the pair having a project brewing.

Although Hackett has transported us back to old industrial Britain before (witness Spectral MorningsThe Ballad Of The Decomposing Man), The Circus And The Nightwhale’s opening track does so in a much more personal way. Using a sound collage comprised of 50s radio snippets sourced from Pathé Newsreel, the contemporaneous children’s radio programme Listen With Mother and the famed Ovaltine ad jingle sung by vocal trio The Beverley Sisters, People Of The Smoke zaps us back to post-war Pimlico, London, where Hackett spent childhood hours playing amid devastation wrought by German air raids.

Doing the most difficult thing, even if it means breaking away from controlling influences… that’s what you have to do to find real love and have a wonderful soulmate

“With the bombsites, it was as if giants had stomped over that part of London,” he recalls. “You had these Georgian pillars leaning this way and that, like rows of blackened teeth.” Hackett could also see “a future Pink Floyd album cover” from his bedroom window – Battersea Power Station – as depicted with flying pig on the front of Floyd’s Animals. It was Battersea, too, that generated much of the noxious air pollution People Of The Smoke refers to. No wonder the Hacketts had mixed feelings about the building.

“It was this monstrously huge thing,” he says. “Consuming vast amounts of coal and spewing toxic waste, yet also keeping much of London heated. I had masses of chest problems growing up beside Battersea, but for my parents it symbolised the height of luxury. They’d come through the privations of war, so to have warm running water and underfloor heating felt like a very big deal.”

Hackett’s solo career, too, has generated much light and heat – and little if any waste product. The Circus And The Nightwhale seems to document how he did it, as well as flagging some of the obstacles he had to overcome. He repeatedly mentions ‘individuation,’ a term psychoanalyst Carl Jung used to explain the process by which our gradual separation from the crowd can bring enlightenment. But individuation can also be a challenging process involving growing pains.

“That’s why the album goes into another realm, as represented by the whale,” Hackett explains. “That part is about possibilities, facing fears and doing the most difficult thing, even if it means breaking away from controlling influences. Sometimes that’s what you have to do to find real love and have a wonderful soulmate.”

The soulmate Hackett is referring to is author Jo Hackett. His wife since 2011, and his co-lyricist on The Circus And The Nightwhale, Jo, he says, “mentored and partnered” him on the album. “If there’s something Jo doesn’t like, it’s usually because it’s too casual,” he adds. “She doesn’t do casual – she’d rather have heavy metal. Jo doesn’t do adult-contemporary, either; she wants something that’s heartfelt, whatever the genre.”

I never thought of drugs as a career move. I had too many friends who embraced the 60s dream and didn’t quite make it back

Another of the rites of passage the new album taps is first love and first liaisons, as explored on Found And Lost, a short, jazz-oriented interlude with Hackett playing smoky harmonica. He and his wife’s relationship, though, is clearly one born of experience, and most likely documented by Ghost Moon And Living Love, in which Hackett sings: ‘Whatever life brings, it has to be you.’ As is obvious from the blogs Hackett posts on his website, he and Jo are always together, inseparable.

Meanwhile, the “controlling influences” Hackett mentions took place “post-Genesis” and were “both personal and professional.” They also seem to inform the lyrics of heavy-riffing new songs Get Me Out and Breakout. ‘Held like a butterfly glued to a pin / Pulled up and down by invisible strings,’ runs part of the former, while the two songs’ titles speak volumes. Might Hackett be referencing the legal battle over his songwriting royalties, eventually settled in 2010, between him and his former wife Kim Poor, which also saw Poor challenge Hackett’s right to make new albums independently? Perhaps.

Get Me Out is also one of a number of songs on the new album that feature serious guitar shredding from Hackett. “Yes, that’s true,” he says with a laugh. “I’m doing that thing that many may find tasteless but hopefully at least some may find thrilling. That ‘wall of knives’ thing is something guitars do very well, and when I hear it I feel like a 16-year-old kid again and start to smile. It’s like you’re on a rollercoaster, and you’re not in control. But it’s not about control – it’s pure animal!”

Hackett goes into a little reverie about his early gig-going days in London. “I was just out of school and starting to do a bit of underage drinking – nobody seemed to mind in those days,” he recalls. “I saw many of Peter Green’s performances pre-Fleetwood Mac. My dream was to be a blues guitarist and harmonica player. Like most teens, I started to live the life as much as I could. But I never thought of drugs as a career move. I had too many friends who embraced the 60s dream and didn’t quite make it back.”

Elsewhere, the new album’s heavy, proggy blues on Taking You Down also seem to tap into the more misspent days of Hackett’s youth. Indeed, he’s said it’s about a young pyromaniac card sharp who taught him how to smoke.

Hackett has usually – but not always – exercised great quality control when commissioning and choosing sleeve art for his records. That for 2021’s Under A Mediterranean Sky smacks a little of ‘Will this do?’ but the cover of The Circus And The Nightwhale is wonderful, another indication that Hackett is dreaming harder again.

Denise Marsh’s acrylic, ink-and-pencil drawing depicts a whale consuming a big-top tent, thus chiming with the long literary tradition (hello Jonah, hello Pinocchio) of folks being swallowed by vast aquatic beasts. Hackett has said the nightwhale represents both death and rebirth. But what of the circus? A metaphor for the carnivalesque world of rock’n’roll?

Music can be like a sport, or indeed a circus. Think of the contortions circus acts and musicians go through

“I think so,” he says. “More broadly, the circus is everything distracting that’s going on around you, but the metaphor for rock’n’roll is apt. Musicians show up in town overnight, we set up our show, and then the animals come in, if I can describe my very talented performing troupe in that way [laughs]. Then it’s pin back your lugholes and here we go! It’s the oxygen we breathe, isn’t it?”

Some of The Circus And The Nightwhale’s most frenetic playing is on Circus Inferno, which features soloists that include Hackett, tenor saxophonist Rob Townsend and Azerbaijani virtuoso Malik Mansurov on tar, a kind of Persian lute. “It just keeps coming at you,” says Hackett. “I often use the term ‘salvos,’ but with bombardments that are merely notes, nobody dies. I also reject the notion that just because something is fast it’s tasteless.”

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee, for example. “Exactly! There’s a reason for the speed. I’ve heard [percussionist/composer] Evelyn Glennie play Flight Of The Bumblebee on marimba at lightning pace as an encore, and it was quite brilliant. If you can play that at the same speed as Evelyn, good luck to you for putting yourself through that. So music can be like a sport, or indeed a circus. Think of the contortions circus acts and musicians go through.”

Remarkably, The Circus And The Nightwhale’s theatre and fantasia was recorded between tours in 2022 and 2023, in time Hackett snatched at Siren Studios in the UK. “Sometimes it’s useful to do things in stages,” he says. “That way you can step back from a song and think, ‘What does this particular portrait need?’”

Appearing on the record as well as Hackett and those already mentioned are Roger King (keyboards and orchestral arrangements), Jonas Reingold (bass), Nad Sylvan (vocals), Craig Blundell (drums) and Amanda Lehmann, Jo Hackett’s sister, who also contributes vocals. Many of these parts were ‘beamed in’ from territories as diverse as Sweden, Austria, the US, Azerbaijan and Denmark, but these days Steve Hackett is very comfortable working remotely.

“It’s something we first started to embrace when Covid struck,” he says. “But that lockdown period made me reassess all kinds of things, and I found it frustrating and fulfilling. I enjoyed doing lockdown videos to try and keep people’s spirits up. People say never apologise, but I had to do something for all those people who’d bought tickets for concerts they weren’t going to see for another three years. We’re still on Covid catch-up now; I was supposed to be touring the 50th anniversary of Foxtrot, but it will be the 53rd anniversary by the time I’m done!”

I thought, ‘Are people really going to be interested in things I’ve literally dreamt?’ But it felt like a gift, something otherworldly I had to use sooner or later

With those remote contributions to the new album, how much of a brief did Hackett give his musicians? “Most of these guys and girls I know well,” he says. “They’re all capable of great musicality and dexterity, so I usually just give them one word of direction.” An adjective, presumably? “In the main, yes! I might say ‘Frantic!’ or whatever. But in the case of the bass and drum parts, we tend to do a sketch on the computer and then send it over for the guys to listen to and embellish. You’re farming stuff out, I suppose. Sub-letting. It’s ‘I own the building, but do come in and enjoy yourselves!’ Music has to be fun, aside from all the detailed analysis that goes on.”

Intriguingly, there’s a melody on The Circus And The Nightwhale that was ‘flown in’ in a rather different way: it came to Hackett in a dream. Sung by Amanda Lehmann in operatic tones, the passage in question appears amid the choral opening of Ghost Moon And Living Love. “I dreamt that melody many years ago when I was recovering from [the often fatal] swamp fever,” Hackett recalls. 

“I heard this beautiful music that felt very healing. More recently I was telling the story to Roger Dean, and he said, ‘I find that fascinating! Why don’t you record it?’ I thought, ‘Are people really going to be interested in things I’ve literally dreamt?’ But it felt like a gift, something otherworldly I had to use sooner or later.”

Elsewhere, Enter The Ring is prog in excelsis, and takes a deliciously Jethro Tull-ish turn when John Hackett’s flute joins the fray. Now Hackett’s Travla character is in a filmic-sounding world with elements of fairground music. Into The Nightwhale, meanwhile, has an eerie heft symbolising trials and tribulations, Hackett using instrumentation to simulate whale song underwater. “I wasn’t all at sea [in my life], and I haven’t been in the belly of a whale,” he says in the album’s accompanying biog, “but I have been through things just as challenging.”

Whatever turmoil Hackett and his fictional foil Travla experience, their overlapping journeys eventually lead to peace and fulfilment, as signalled by the album’s mellow closer, White Dove. A poised and meditative Spanish guitar piece broadly reminiscent of Francisco Tárrega’s 1899 masterpiece Recuerdos de la Alhambra, it showcases Hackett’s masterful tremolo technique.

I’ve yet to talk to the rest of the band to see what is and isn’t playable live

“For me, Isaac Albéniz and Francisco Tárrega are the blueprint of a sound that’s very different to all the salvos, screams and dive-bombing that great electric players can do,” says Hackett, explaining his long romance with nylon-string guitars. “Jimi Hendrix was describing the Vietnam War, the falling bombs, all of that. But the Albéniz and Tárrega tremolo pieces feel like they’re describing fountains or hummingbirds. It’s this idea of a beautiful energy moving very fast.”

Does Hackett work hard to keep his tremolo technique in shape? “Sometimes I can do it, but tremolo is an elusive thing; one of the most challenging guitar techniques of all. Sometimes it can take me two hours of warming up to get anywhere near the consistency that’s required.”

The Circus And The Nightwhale has gone down very well with Hackett’s elders. His stepfather thinks it’s the best thing he’s ever done, while Hackett says his mother June, now 93, “wants me to crank it up, because she’s such a headbanger.” Will Hackett tour the new album at some point, so that June can hit the mosh pit? 

“I hope so,” he says, laughing, “but I’ve yet to talk to the rest of the band to see what is and isn’t playable live. I know that Roger [King, keyboards] doesn’t like to reproduce anything that he can’t actually play with his fingers, but if we’re going to do People Of The Smoke, which literally begins with radio snippets from elsewhere, we might have to think again. Maybe it could be our walk-on music.”

Hackett has said The Circus And The Nightwhale addresses things he’s wanted to say for ages. Which things? “There’s a lot of stuff, both personal and professional, embedded in its story,” he replies, a little cryptically. “I wanted to address what my life has been like and what has been unique about it. After that, it was a question of where to start – should I start in the 60s, when I was coming of age and discovering rock’n’roll?

“In the end I decided to begin much earlier, and that meant I could ask other questions, such as what creates music? Was rock’n’roll the thing that enabled polluted, war-torn London to get over its trauma? Healing is often the subtext of music, I think. At the very least, it can re-energise people.”

And so, we ask, is that how The Circus And The Nightwhale has left him – healed and re-energised? “Yes,” he says. “It’s been extraordinary making this record. I grew up in a time when music changed the world, and I’ve always felt that the album can be a really powerful force. I really hope people enjoy listening to this one.”

James McNair

James McNair grew up in East Kilbride, Scotland, lived and worked in London for 30 years, and now resides in Whitley Bay, where life is less glamorous, but also cheaper and more breathable. He has written for Classic Rock, Prog, Mojo, Q, Planet Rock, The Independent, The Idler, The Times, and The Telegraph, among other outlets. His first foray into print was a review of Yum Yum Thai restaurant in Stoke Newington, and in many ways it’s been downhill ever since. His favourite Prog bands are Focus and Pavlov’s Dog and he only ever sits down to write atop a Persian rug gifted to him by a former ELP roadie.