With the Tangent’s, A Spark in the Aether, due out shortly, I caught up with Andy Tillison (who’s never short of a word or two thousand) to chew the cud on the new album. And, when you’re done reading this, you can check out Jez Rowden’s review of the album Here.
Andy – thanks for speaking with The Progressive Aspect. A Spark in the Aether marks the eighth studio release for The Tangent and it’s markedly different from Le Sacre du Travail…
It is isn’t it?! I think that was always inevitable, Le Sacre was a unique thing that had its own little universe spinning around it. Of course it was “Tangent” by nature, but it was a big ask – you know, getting lovers of Prog Rock to get into an hour long orchestrally arranged discourse on whether we’re happy in our working lives. It really worked for some people and I’m still very proud of it as the most advanced recording I’ve ever made, and some of the most involved songwriting, but I didn’t feel that it would be right to do it twice – at least not straight away.
So A Spark is really a return to the core values of the Tangent – some rollicking rocking and rolling prog rock built around choruses, hook, lines and sinkers. As the album moves forward we start throwing in some new sounds and styles on top of the usual mix, I’m a big, big sucker for Funk and the long piece The Celluloid Road has plenty of that in there too. As it’s a piece about travelling through America in an imaginary journey led by TV images, it seemed right to make the music fit with the imagery and hence that American sound we’ve gone for….
This new album is probably the most up-beat and positive album we’ve ever made, and making it was actually FUN. We played together a lot in 2014 and that made the album so much easier to get right as a group.
Indeed, lyrically it’s a bit less cynical than some of your previous work (although it has a few moments), and there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek stuff. What caused that change?
Me!! Myself!! I!! There’s a lot more to any musician than just the one thing I’d hope. I think that in comparison to some, I do tend to show more of myself in my music than say Roger Waters. For all I know, Roger is a barrel of laughs or a loving parent, a kind hearted soul, but he always comes over in his music as an anguished observer of humanity. We all have our pleasures in life – and our displeasures and I feel just as happy working with either. I wanted a change myself. I was of a mood to be a bit more playful this time – more off the wall and I let these metaphorical sparks lead me into the music I was going to write. I have had an up-and-down type of life and feel very content and happy with where it has eventually led me although my own experiences force me to know that everything can change.
In 2007 I wrote a song – a very involved and personal love song (The Full Gamut) that extended a long way into the anatomy of a relationship breakdown. I was fastidious in pointing out as much good as bad – knowing that all the best relationships have their great points and their bad ones. This album contains Codpieces And Capes – as much of a love song as that earlier one I mentioned, except this partner is not human, but a musical genre with which I have had a love affair since I was 12 years old. A relationship which has been electrifying, embarrassing, shameful, overblown, inspiring, elitist, cruel and wonderful, all at the same time. A relationship like any other, but with what I listen to. So yes, I’ve been quite tongue in cheek about some of ELP’s antics and so on in the track’s lyrics, but I hope it’s apparent to all comers just HOW much I have loved this stuff over the years. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, it’s not fair to laugh at others. This album was me and four other people having some fun and letting off some steam… being funky, rocking out and quoting from our favourite songs and movies. Whoopee!
One could pick through the lyrics, but I don’t want to spoil it for the readers, let them discover in their own time, but while we’re on the subject of prog, it does come back in Clearing the Attic, where you indulge in a little whimsy…?
Attic is very whimsical I guess, yeah – it’s about trying to get rid of the lumber we bog ourselves down with. It’s about my own efforts to get rid of little grievances and niggles, forgive people in the hope that people will forgive me and we can move on somewhere better. At the end, there’s this little “what if” section where I fantasize about all my friends’ dreams coming true, my own too – and yeah, this includes a fair few folks from the UK prog scene who finally get what they always wanted. People like Guy Manning, Stephen Lambe, Geoff Banks, Credo and Magenta all end up really successful (as they should be), and Sally (my fiancé and champion) gets to ride a horse across the plains of America. It’s a nice little moment for me because even though all thoughts of being “A Rock Star” have been ejected from my head since I was in my mid 20s the mind sometimes wanders and asks “what would it have been like?”.
Returning to The Full Gamut – that was a song about a time in my life which I don’t remember too fondly – a period when I got bogged down with in the acrimony and general unhappiness that follows a relationship breakdown. I think Clearing The Attic is a lyrical footnote to that song, in that it’s about me escaping from that chapter, letting go and moving on, a process that requires some level of forgiving.
Indeed, it was a track born from pain and misery, but doesn’t that often produce some of the most meaningful music?
It certainly does. The trick is to STILL be able to write something meaningful when, for reasons beyond your control, you are not either miserable or in pain…!
Maybe moving away from the lyrics now, to the music itself. First of all, did the writing and recording of ASitA have any differences from your previous approach?
Technically, no, the writing and recording took the usual Tangent course of me writing a demo and the other musicians interpreting it in various parts of the world and as usual ended up with a whole raft of files for me to mix together to produce the final result. But this time, the fact that we toured before doing the album, with the same musicians, we got on famously well etc, all that contributed to a much easier recording process – the fun that we had on the tour continued into the making of the album and we gained a bit of momentum. Felt like a band again and the “venerable session musician atmosphere” of Le Sacre seemed a long way off… even though that had its merits too. Luke had a lot of input into the harmonic and soundscape content and I think you can feel that in the album. Of course, we used different instrumentations in places too, the Brass stuff was pretty new for us, and Luke’s new interest in clean guitar sounds and Morgan’s lovely 70’s style drum kit with loads of grace notes really gave this Tangent a new slant. One thing that I noticed is that since I stopped smoking nearly 2 years ago, my voice has begun to change – I can hold steadier notes, hit higher ones and a few other new options have opened up there. Never gonna make me into Pavarotti, but I’m quite pleased with the direction…
For sure, Luke has this mellow tone, but he also cuts loose quite a bit and lets the dogs out, from that perspective I think ASitA has some of the most relaxed music you’ve done for a while and also some of the heaviest and most technical…
Well Luke’s maturing as a guitarist of course, always finding something new to do with the instrument. I mentioned Steely Dan to him as a possible source of inspiration when we were considering what he’d do on the epic track The Celluloid Road. He wasn’t familiar with their music, but went off and had a listen and came back a few weeks later with a whole new load of additions to his vocabulary. Everyone knows just how impressive the soloing he does can be, for me this time the subtleties he puts into the music are equally appealing. He’s a naturally melodic guitarist in fact, probably his strongest point is that like Guthrie Govan he can blind with technique and speed – the difference is that you can often sing what Luke plays – even if it’s just a short fast fill it has a melodic content. That’s quite a feat.
The album IS quite technical in places for sure, and yup, there’s a few heavy sections that our Mums would have all told us to “Turn Down”!! Although that’s not uncharted territory for the Tangent, I think that I’ve always been impressed by bands who can use both sides of the noisiness spectrum (Luke’s Maschine, Opeth, Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson) with taste and dynamic shift – as opposed to the Mars Volta/Muse “ON/OFF” techniques.
It’s not just Luke who’s blowing out the weeds either, you’ve given a lot of space for all the musicians to shine.
I have, and I usually do – it makes sense. Tangent is about musicians playing together and although it’s – on paper – my band, I never ever wanted this to be a showcase for a keyboards player, indeed albums like that are not usually my thing. When I write the stuff, I write it with a view to it being played on Guitar, Bass, Drums, Sax, Flute, Voice and Keyboards. The other instruments are NOT the backing for the keyboards – it’s an ensemble thing. I have done my “keyboards player” album recently, the Multiplex album of course, and that was a good experience, but at heart, my main role in The Tangent is as writer, the keyboards player role is important, but secondary to the writing.
I don’t bring great musicians into the band to tie them down and then brag about who I’ve worked with, I bring them in so they can contribute to the music. Jonas’ work on the two most recent Tangent albums has been the work of someone at his peak of playing ability and inspiration, Morgan’s style is unique and fits perfectly with what I’m trying to do, and Theo is a constant presence within the band’s sound. The result is that there is very very little on the “Cutting Room Floor” – there are very few mails saying “could you try it again THIS way?” in our 12 year history. The lineup may have changed a lot, but the desire to have participants who CONTRIBUTE rather than replicate has never changed.
I have to say that the Morgan and Jonas are a fabulous rhythm section. Of course they play together in Karmakanic and Kaipa, so know each other well, but they really mesh
Do you “direct” the players in what you’d like to hear, or just trust them to follow their own instincts?
Jonas is – to be honest – just a complete musician in every way. Obviously to most people he’s just a “wicked bass player” but there’s so much more than that to the man – he’s a skilled producer, a writer who has an enormous palette of techniques on which to draw. He’s multi-instrumental which means he knows as much about everyone else’s instrument, yet he’s friendly, good fun and a rock on which you can build a great sounding unit. Morgan is newer to me of course, but I really think that out of all the albums – the drumming for this one FITS the best. Gavin Harrison and Jaime Salazar are both remarkable, genius drummers to be sure – but Morgan – well he understood my music so well and that’s because he is himself really into a lot of the music I like. I’ve been pretty used to working with musicians who are “not really into” prog on the drum front – but being able to talk about Pip Pyle, Canterbury, Zeuhl and other stuff directly with Morgan was really great and made me feel we had a real contributor here. He is so human – there’s a sense of humour in the way he plays, he has a twinkle in his eye and I loved playing live with him – added to which he’s the easiest pleased drummer in the world, he can turn up at a venue and play on anybody’s drum kit, won’t fuss about anything and doesn’t walk onto the stage with a theodolite to make sure everything is going to be “just so”.
As for directions – the key word is “Flavour”. I never ask the musicians to copy my original ideas – unless it’s a fixed crucial melody and usually they have enough common sense to see that… what I ask for is for them to “keep the flavour”. That means, if I want something Funky – I get something funky, played by people who know how to make it sound that way better than I do.
And Theo gets to make a good racket too on AfterEugene – never heard him play like that, it’s like a cross between Bill Pullman from Lost Highway and Rodney Slater from the Bonzo Dog Band (think Death Cab for Cutie). In fact there’s a lot of Theo on this album, which will please his many fans…
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Theo hadn’t got involved. After David Jackson left the band to do VDGG again I didn’t really know whether to pursue finding a replacement. Ian Oakley (again) came up with the name, made the introduction and Theo came to play on our second album. It says a lot that he’s never missed one since and, deities being willing, we have no intention of letting him start now. It’s very nice that he’s maintained an input to the band both occasionally on stage and on every other product we’ve made – even despite the fact that his profile has risen sharply in recent years. He remains one of music’s nicest people, a thrill to work with, a total pro and full of imagination to boot. Theo and I have occasionally written together – AfterEugene on this new album is a co-write of something we’d both wanted to do for a while – a homage to early Pink Floyd stuff and it goes back as far as co-writing the song A Place In The Queue – Theo’s OWN version of that song is due to be on the next album by his band Double Talk – very much looking forward to hearing that!
In fact, yes, he’s very present on this new album particularly on what is side TWO of the vinyl edition, but actually I could have done with still more Theo… my own fault for not asking for more really. So yeah, if you’re a Travis fan, buy our album!!!
You’ve pitched ASitA as The Music that Died Alone Part II, what’s all that about then?
It’s a cynical and underhand trick to try to get all the people who liked the first album to listen to the new one! Well that’s one view which is bound to surface on some forum or other but in fact, the album does have very close links, that whole business of making the music itself the lyrical subject matter was an important part of the first album, as was that Joyful “up for it” sound that we’ve gone back to here. It’s a bookend of twelve years really and it just seemed to me that we were doing a second volume and it was my decision to subtitle the album as Part 2, not the record company. of course, we’ve made the cover have links too and Ed Unitsky has done a terrific job with that…
Yeah, Ed’s work is always great! But, funnily enough, *that* music hasn’t died, has it? We find ourselves in a new golden age for progressive rock; the number and diversity of bands is staggering.
It’s true of course. The silent and rhetorical question posed by the original title is really now answered by so many bands and artists that it’s obvious that The Music Did Not Die At All. Of course, still totally unrepresented in mainstream media, the Steven Wilson band has sold out the Albert hall but still not appeared on Jools Holland’s show in the UK despite being a fabulous story of hard work and determination that goes along with the man so many of us see as a leader. The prog scene is over-subscribed still by a huge number of artists wanting to join in the apparent success of the genre and filtering through the output is bewildering. All the while tribute bands and dodgy reformations of third division acts from the 70s don’t help really… The major record companies employ people to remaster their 70s output and don’t invest in the newer bands at all. A lot of fans are just happy to look forward to the re-issues and don’t even bother to find out what’s really happening – those people are there for sure, they are not reading this interview, they are reading yet another one with Nick Mason about Syd.
None of this can be helped – the fact that those guys were stars THEN means they never lose that mystique. A lot of us “newcomers” (and this will be my 28th album release) will always be seen as pretenders to a throne that the heroes once occupied. They can leave us for 35 years with not a good track anywhere in sight, but when rumours of a CD re-issue of their classic album from 73 surface, everyone gets really excited. Which is sad, because it’s GONNA BE THE SAME!!! And no matter who remixed it, it will still sound the same, otherwise you wouldn’t like it!! My own way of dealing with it all is, enjoy the old stuff – search for the new. How can that be wrong? All those guys watching that last Genesis thing in Rome would have wet their pants if English Electric had had the word GENESIS written on the cover. People can be so daft, and they block their own paths to enjoyment with blinkered vision and acceptance of BBC policy…
Well, who knows – perhaps in 40 years they’ll be re-issuing re-mixed Tangent albums in “immersive virtual-reality”…
Perhaps, but I’ll be dead and therefore immune to criticism for hypocrisy.
Back to the lyrics again, each Tangent album tends to revolve around a theme, or message, is there anything you’re trying to get across here?
There isn’t so much of a theme as previously in fact – other than a general invitation to join me and a lot of others in a continuing musical adventure that hasn’t stopped, and is not showing any sign of stopping. That’s of course what I was saying in my last answer… a lot of us who listen to and love prog rock are in late middle age – and we have a choice. We can either look at the photos we took on our holidays 30 years ago – or we can go out and take some more. That’s the message of the first couple of songs and for an encore we take you on a twenty minute voyage across an imaginary America. The choice is yours, come along with us, or Steve Wilson, or Neal Morse – take your pick, OR stay at home with Close To The Edge. That album is a great place to go, but surely its as familiar as the local park by now. On Le Sacre we postulated that life can become a drudge. Instead of just leaving it at that.. here’s a new album that invites us to beat that drudgery. Change your life. Listen to the band! 🙂
InsideOut have released a video of the title track, A Spark in the Aether, using footage taken from the gigs you did with Karmakanic. Do you see the possibility of live shows? I guess this is always a massive financial risk?
It is, as you say, a risky business and has to be very very carefully considered. We have to make sure that any one of 50 other bands are not on tour at the same time, that nobody is considering putting the original lineup of the reformed version of Druid together and that Steven Wilson is on the other side of the Planet. If you can do all this, plus make sure all the musicians are available and not working for one of the other bands they play for which could include the Steven Wilson band or maybe even the reformed version of the reformed original third lineup of Druid, then maybe you could just about think about putting a tour together. THEN if all that’s OK you just have to PRAY that YES do not decide to release some dodgy tapes of 7 concerts they did in 1972 – because if Yes do that, that’s where everyone’s money for music is going for the next few months and there will be nobody at the gigs in 2015 because everyone is at home listening to gigs from 1972 instead, and the only way we’ll ever manage to finance the tour is retrospectively by waiting until we are old and grey (sorry – waiting until LUKE is old and grey) and then releasing the “newly found tapes” of the concerts we did back in 2015 by which time people might be interested. And that’s how it is!!
But you know… we’ll fucking do it, we always do. Not only that, we really enjoy it and the people who come have a blast. Last year’s tour was a great success, we even made a profit so we can’t complain. It’s the others I worry about. I’m starting looking at solo concerts which are going to be ambitious things where I play Tangent songs – in a way which people describe as “acoustic” although I don’t use anything acoustic except my voice, plus I’ll be incorporating my Electronica stuff and Jazz impro with the “one man band” approach I used on the Multiplex album.
The first of these shows will be in Sheffield on June 20th this year – my last day of being 55. Expect to see the Tangent live within the next 365 days because this is not stopping.
Some solo shows would be great… I’ve always thought a set of your more introspective songs, pared-down for voice and piano would be great. I’m always thinking of A Sale of Two Souls, but much of your work could work well in such a settling – I imagine the difference between a VDGG and Hammill gig.
Obviously I’ve often considered solo shows, but never really developed the format I’d be most happy using. The Peter Hammill solo shows would be a great model – except, to be honest, even I find those remarkably dull – love the songs though I do. The last time I went to see his solo show I finally said to myself… “I don’t want to come to any more of these”. A couple of hours of dark and gloomy songs bashed out on piano and acoustic guitar in a place far too big for that kind of event was just the last time for me. So I asked myself what I would have preferred him to do – and it came down to the fact that a solo show needed more colours and sounds. And – to get that variety, ironically the place I went to for inspiration was… er… Peter Hammill.
Hammill once made this amazing album that is possibly one of his most innovative and inspiring solo albums… which is saying a lot. It was called And Close as This on which, using the fledgling midi technology he had at his disposal at the time, he came up with the idea of an album which was performed by just ONE pair of hands and a voice. After the performance was done, he then routed the midi data from that performance to lots of different instruments, like strings, drums, synthesisers and other textures. The result was nothing short of astonishing. As soon as I heard it it became a dream of mine to be able to do this LIVE, onstage. And the really bonkers thing, is that – he just never did it himself – at least not as far as I was sure it was capable of going. I saw a couple of things he did where he was firing a couple of instruments live, but nothing like the depth he had available to him.
But here I am, a young wannabe of 55 years age, criticising the master of all things. How dare I? In the end, Peter has trodden the path he chose and he is far more successful than I am. But I want to make that system he invented work live onstage. And I want to do it for him. I did write to him to ask if he was interested in looking at the system I’d developed for this. He didn’t reply on that occasion, he’s often replied to my very very occasional mails before (notably the Full Gamut question – should I write/not write?). So I took it that this was not something he really wanted to do.
Of course… within that framework I would like to do just what you suggest… some songs pared down for piano and voice. But I don’t see that as a two hour entertainment for anyone… based on the fact that even my own hero can’t do that for me! I want to include various aspects of my career too… the Berlin Electronica stuff and the Jazz Rock of Multiplex, so there’s going to be a lot of variety in these shows.
Multiplex – you’ve mentioned this a few times and, I have to admit, that I’m not that up-to-speed with the concept, perhaps many readers haven’t even heard of it. So, what’s it all about?
Multiplex is my second solo project. The first of course are my solo “Electronica” albums like Fog, Murk and the third one Dank which is in production. Multiplex is entirely different and is a band with one person in it who plays everything. And it’s Jazz Rock music… like The Tangent’s 70 percent Rock/30 percent jazz turned around the other way and largely instrumental. The first album was about performing everything, from the drums and bass to the guitars and brass/wind entirely on keyboards, but with no programming – everything was played. The best way to describe this is to show you a video of how it works – although this track was not included on the final album:
Well… when I say it was “all about” that – well, that’s not entirely true. It was actually “all about” wanting to write some challenging music to play and fulfil my desire to make some Jazz Rock – a musical form that has been rather forgotten over the years as its original proponents prefer to call themselves “fusion players” as they get nearer to their Jazz audiences who can get a bit snotty about the use of the word “Rock”. Besides which, I’m a Rock player with designs on being able to play Jazz rather than the other way around, so I think the terminology works. The album has sold really well for an independent effort and helped fund The Tangent’s exploits this year. I found the whole process so enjoyable that I’ve already started working out how to do it live (WITH other musicians) and am already onto the second album as we speak. I think this is a good place for me to go in my work outside The Tangent, it caters to a discerning and attentive ear – which is something I like to play to. The album is still available, though probably not for that long, and it’s called Electric Sinfonia No 2 by The Andy Tillison Multiplex. There you go. A plug.
I’ve seen Peter twice in solo shows and both times was a near-religious experience for me – I went through my mid-to-late teens wallowing in broken/unrequited love and Over was on repeat play for some years. So I guess it was a bit of nostalgia, but also I’m drawn to dark and melancholy music. The other thing with Hammill is that he pours his soul into every performance, which brings a new dimension to each song.
This of course is true… and the mark of someone very special. I’ve followed the man since I was 12 – and don’t think that I have the abilities to pull off what he achieves in that light. I have seen him do concerts where my emotional responses have been as you described, but of late I have found that it’s just not doing it for me any more and I yearn for another musician on the stage. My love for Hammill is beyond all musical loves I have ever had, it needs to be said, however, as with all relationships, there are things that irk. There are people who LOVE The Tangent… but boy they wish I’d get someone else to sing.
Having seen The Tangent (is it “The Tangent” or “the Tangent”?) more than a few times, you also have a similar approach to live performance, no? Play each show as if it’s your last…?
Well, there’s a simple answer to that. Every show IS the last one for all we know. It’s all about me and Jonas in some cheap hotel breakfast room in Germany counting the money to see if we’ve got enough to buy petrol to the Boerderij in Holland that night. Most bands on this circuit have similar experiences – some like to keep the illusion that it’s all going swimmingly well so people don’t find out what it’s actually like, and then there’s us who actually enjoy this haphazard sort of stuff and therefore are happy to woffle on about it in interviews. If life is built of our memories, it’s the nights when we were lost, skint, late, ill, hurt or in some sort of accident that we remember. A well oiled gig doesn’t go in the great diary of the mind…. unless the audience are particularly amazing – it’s the crazy bits we all remember. If I cast my mind back to the Russian tour, the bits I remember are the huge ride in a battered Korean bus across the Steppes, the fact we were too HOT – not , as we expected and had dressed for, too COLD. I remember the craziness of waking up hugging Dan Mash on that bus as we’d fallen together by accident, the bus being fixed by the driver with a hammer on a plain so big you couldn’t see any landmarks at all. I usually forget the 2 nights in the Moscow Hilton. They were ordinary – if slightly posher-than-normal ordinary. Well… I did get attacked by a drunken Muscovite in the lobby so I remember that bit quite well.
The Tangent live is about whoever is doing the gig – playing. The show is what we do with our instruments and our bodies. No projectors, fancy visuals or costumes. If the venue has lighting, we use it. If it doesn’t, we don’t care. We try to put on a rock and roll show every time, whether it’s in a pub or on a massive stage. We never take any lighting or effects with us, we hate it at festivals where other bands insist on farting about with projectors while everyone else waits for a soundcheck, of which, when projectors are involved is a rather slim chance. Our last gig in the UK was partially spoiled by a band who wanted the stage to LOOK a certain way for them, which involved having to hide our equipment so that they didn’t look as though they were “supporting” anyone on the subsequent photos. They ended up damaging some of my equipment permanently in the quest to satiate their own egos along with delaying the show for the audience.
Festivals are supposed to be an attraction in themselves… no one band doth a festival make… everyone should remember that. We do. Always. We’ve headlined more than 20 of them, and we know it’s not all about us. My equipment always breaks down. There’s nothing unusual about my gear. I look after it well… I just have the most terrible bad luck. I could buy a brand new Kurzweil, have it hand-delivered by Mr Kurzweil himself, set up by the greatest technicians in the world and the minute I place my hands on the keyboard, it will break down for no discernible reason whatsoever. This is The Tangent. Chaotic, improbable and usually fun for someone, often me.
Well I do hope to see the Tangent play live once again, and I hope it’s not the last time too. Best wishes with A Spark in the Aether, I personally love it and I think the fans will too – hopefully bringing some new on-board as well.
And thank you, Mr Andy Tillison, for your valuable time.
You’re welcome, Dave, always a pleasure to talk with you!