ANDY TILLISON GOES OFF ON ONE…
We are living in troubled times. Brexit, Trump, terrorism and racism are threatening to tear our world apart – and, inevitably, that is reflected in some of the music our favourite prog artists are producing.
Steve Hackett has sounded the Night Siren. Roger Waters has asked Is This The Life We Really Want? And The Tangent have warned that we may be going A Few Steps Down The Wrong Road.
As The Tangent release their ninth studio album, The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery, TPA’s Kevan Furbank talks to the band’s creative force Andy Tillison about why he’s one of those taking up the challenge to put politics back into prog.
The new album, The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery, certainly nails your political colours to the mast and contains some pretty controversial and possibly divisive material. What made you decide to get into political commentary mode this time round and did you have any qualms about how some of your fans would react? After all, 51.89% of Tangent listeners may well have voted for Brexit!
I’ll start by saying that way more than 51.89 percent of Tangent listeners are not, were not, never have been British and therefore will not have had any reason to vote in the referendum in the first place because they live in what we charmingly refer to in the U.K. as the “Rest Of The World”!
All my bands for which I have written since 1979 have had a social commentary implicit in the lyrics. This can be anything from observations on the way ex-servicemen are treated, poverty and exploitation, the 1980s miners strike, the ship breakers of Bangladesh, corporate corruption and a whole raft more… over 40 topics noted by one of our fans since The Tangent started to trade under that name in 2003.
Yes, I’m always concerned about how fans will react to my music, and that includes everything from whether we have included enough Mellotron, whether we’ve branched out enough (or too much) into contemporary styles and of course whether folks agree with the lyrics. The thing is that forming the band as a Progressive Rock group in the first place is already a divisive issue that rules out at a guess 99 percent of the population who don’t care for, or about, the music I chose to write anyway.
The new album is about division, from political ideologies on the broader scale – to the breakdown of personal friendships on the smaller. And astonishingly we are finding ourselves living in a world where someone who decides to write songs about the injustices done to refugees, migrants and the world’s poor can even be put into a (what even you describe as) “controversial and possibly divisive” category. After all, the press finds and falls in love with people like Katie Hopkins, gives her a platform on which to address millions, stabilises and cements her reactionary and hate-inducing position as a “legitimate point of view” and then turns the whole thing around so that when a musician makes opposing comments it is the musician that is being divisive.
Nice work by the Daily Mail et al, and, I suppose their way of keeping the business afloat in a technological era in which they have a future that is as uncertain as the future of the refugees they hate so much. Their way of embracing the new technology has been to create a website that is essentially a social network of hate, a magnet for trolls and a cathedral of verbal thuggery.
What made me turn to politics this time around? Politics did. It’s been a hell of a year (I write this on the anniversary of that referendum) and it’s not been a year to be proud of for many large and influential World Players. I write about what moves me (as all artists do) and, sorry, 2016/17 was not the time for another whimsical look back on Old England, The Great Western Railway or The Early Days of Prog. I hope there will be plenty of chances for those things in a better future.
I think what surprised people is that A Spark In The Aether came across as such a happy, upbeat, wistful album. Then you release A Few Steps Down The Wrong Road, which is almost punk-like in its anger. I know it divided opinion on several progressive rock websites, with some commentators saying politics should be kept out of prog. What do you say to people who believe prog should be a politics-free zone?
What I would say to them is go back to the very beginning, listen to Greg Lake spit the lyrics “Innocents raped with napalm fire” or “Death’s seed, blind man’s greed” and, of course, “Nothing he’s got he really needs”. If as is widely agreed that The Court Of The Crimson King is a blueprint for the future of Progressive Music – a Ground Zero for the genre – are these people pretending that these lyrics were not referencing political issues including Vietnam, Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc?
I always thought that Progressive Rock music was all too quickly homogenised into an inoffensive genre and much of its original clout was lost in that homogenisation – ergo, its replacement in 1977 by a music that was more focused on real world issues. It’s also often overlooked (particularly by Pink Floyd fans) just how politically open that band were in the crucial Roger Waters era – yet that too was softened by the focus on huge stage shows, spectacle and the general appeal of the band in other areas than its lyrics.
A few people have been highly critical of my decision to focus on current affairs and express an opinion, yet using another vehicle than music they have been quite happy to share their own opinions. These FEW have indeed complained about me using Prog as a political soapbox and I presume they have sent formal complaints to OFPROG who may or may not want to get involved and divest me of my right to wear a cape.
If such people only want their music to relax and unwind to, be entertained by, etc., there are plenty of bands who fit this requirement very well. Strangely enough, though they will be far more forgiving of vast-selling artists contributions like Gabriel’s Biko and Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut, many of my detractors used words like “Andy Tillison is a wannabe Roger Waters but he just doesn’t pull it off”. Fair enough. But come down to the big debate and Roger and I are on the same side of the chamber and we both want to speak. And he is the master, I am the apprentice. Oh my god… that word… associated forever with Katie Hopkins and Donald Trump. Scratch that. I’m not an apprentice. A student then.
The Tangent is formed in belief that Progressive Rock has a real ROLE (should it wish to take that role) in contemporary society. Therefore it follows that contemporary issues should be dealt with in the content of the songs – maintaining a relevance to today with a direct lineage going as far back as that King Crimson album. We are travelling on the main line here, not running a heritage railway.
As we talk the British government is sitting down with the EU to thrash out the all-important Deal. A year on from the referendum, are you a bit more sanguine about things? A Few Steps Down The Wrong Road contains a somewhat sinister warning at the end – but does the recent election result suggest that perhaps we have seen what could be lurking at the end of the road and we are beginning to draw back?
Time is of course a healer and things will run their own course. I am NOT a politician and I would not be trustworthy enough to operate in that area efficiently, nor would I be any good at public spoken debate. I might liken Brexit to the proposed building of 36 modern detached houses in a beautiful field full of primroses where I have walked my dog for 40 years. To me and everyone else, it’s a scandal, it’s a place I love being ripped to pieces and spoiled probably forever. That’s TODAY. But in another 40 years time, there will be 35-year-olds with teenage kids who have lived there all their lives, to whom this place will be home and to whom I will be a 98-year old-bloke who says, “I remember when it was fields around here”.
If we do Brexit, that WILL be the future. There will not be a sort of Quantum alternative reality where we didn’t do it running in parallel so we can compare. There will be just 98-year-old guys saying stuff like, “I remember forming a band with people from all over Europe, working with a German record company, a Swedish bass player, a Belgian keyboards player and we made albums in France, Germany, Austria and Scandinavia and we didn’t have to ask permission from anyone”.
At present our current Belgian keyboards player is not sure whether she has a permanent place here in the U.K. where she lives. Our former keyboards player does not know if she will be able to stay in France. But in 40 years we’ll all know, we’ll have coped or thrived, it might succeed, it might be a disaster – but we’ll be living with THAT reality and there will be no “if onlys” because how that might have panned out will be just as unknown then as a prediction for the future is now.
I personally think Brexit was a huge mistake. I don’t hate, dislike or disapprove of anyone who disagrees with me. But I am not a traitor, I love my country with a passion. I love the wider world. Europe is the place that Beethoven, Einstein, Da Vinci, Michelangelo came from. For 40 years I had the privilege of living there too. I am, and will continue to be and see myself as a European. An exile in my own country of birth.
Let’s talk about the other overtly political track on the new album. Slow Rust is a 22-minute examination of the refugee crisis from the viewpoints of both the manipulative media and the terrified human beings fleeing for their lives. Did you set out to create a “long song” or do these things just grow organically during the composing and recording process? And which classic prog epics from the past inspire you?
The Tangent and many other bands in the genre write long pieces. I cannot speak for all those bands, but I’m sure many of them would agree that these pieces are a crucial form for the genre, they are hallmarks thereof and there’s a reason for that. The music created by The Tangent is often cinematic, a dialogue, a journey, an exposé, an editorial rather than an advertisement or a news headline.
Of course we come into the realm of relativity here. An 80-minute film is considered “short-ish” where as a piece of music a quarter of that length is describes as an EPIC. I don’t consider an episode of Family Guy to be epic but they are about the same length as The Gates Of Delirium or Slow Rust. This is of course all to do with precedents and established templates made since the 1950s that rock music pieces shall be three to five minutes long, films shall be 80-120 minutes, advertisements shall be 30 seconds and 15 minutes is the amount of time McDonald’s hope you will spend in your seat eating what they have sold you.
I wanted to start Slow Rust with the Press feverishly getting the story, haggling over it, working out how to sell it and spin it. I wanted to then look at the way the public (including myself) consequently come to view the story that we have been told, reacting one way or another depending on the publication we have read/watched. And then, almost as an afterthought, I wanted to turn the camera of the song on The Actual Story. The people in the boats coming across the sea… because all this time, the writing and reports have all been about how this will affect US. The song then concludes by considering the question of who the journalists who write the hatred-ridden stories actually ARE, who taught them, is this really what they wanted to do and what do they hope to gain from it.
Now, I am simply not clever enough to get that conceptual set of questions into a three-minute song. That’s why it’s long. It’s that length because it needed to be. But saying that, the 20-minute prog epic IS a format. Established by the 20-odd minutes playing time of one side of an LP, it became a form, rather like, say, a sonnet which worked, people became familiar with and found pleasurable to hear. So yes… we follow this format. A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers by Van Der Graaf Generator, Close To The Edge by Yes, Zarathustra by Museo Rosenbach, The Truth Will Set You Free by The Flower Kings, All Of The Above by Transatlantic and Flight by Peter Hammill are among my favourites here. They have all had an influence, I have studied these pieces and wish to take them forward. That’s why we do this!
There are, however, an awful lot of dreary prog “epics” out there that sound as if the musicians are trying desperately to stretch it out to the required length! Slow Rust, on the other hand, hits the ground running and packs in loads of musical ideas. How do you make sure it sounds fresh and how do you avoid repeating yourself? Do the other band members have much of an input or is it pretty much fully-sketched out when you go into the studio?
The fact that you are asking about Slow Rust itself is pretty convenient, as this song was incredibly difficult to get right… and that’s under the assumption that it IS right. I am, personally, very happy with it but that was a difficult and painful road.
The story and overall concept of the song brought us at Christmas time last year to a piece that was 30 minutes long. It was still packed with ideas, each section sounded great to me, but the overall feel of the song was disjointed, over-weighted and as a result the 30 minutes felt like an hour. All of us knew that the aim was to have 20 minutes that passed in what seems like 10 and so the work of making the piece as listenable as it should be was begun, and this involved the whole band and the producer (Luke Machin) working together to solidify our ideas into something that would be an engaging experience for our listeners.
We used a series of test “edits” that each member of the band suggested, and from these personal Edit Decision Lists we were able to pool our ideas and come up with an overall edit that did not lose the piece’s focus, storyline or musical flow, but which got rid of a lot of deadwood and kept only the most engaging sections. The production played a role here in that instruments could be raised/lowered, rebalanced in the stereo, continue across edits, reverberations could cross edits, etc., and thus never sound like the old razorblade edits of the past. This shows just one musical input of production in which Luke demonstrates his long held belief (fact) that production is NOT just about mixing.
Ninety-five percent our songs to date are written here by me and I provide a fully working demonstration of the song with all instruments catered for including guitar parts, drums, bass and everything else. Rather than asking the musicians to learn and reproduce the temporary parts I have done, I ask the musicians to keep the flavour of the piece at that point, but play as themselves – their own parts, their own interpretations.
As long as the flavour is right, the notes they choose will almost certainly be better than the ones I did! And many times the song comes out all right straight away, and other times we have to work together to work out why the chorus doesn’t sound as good as it should, or if the whole thing is too long, too loud, too quiet. Each piece has a different set of outcomes, a block rule cannot be applied. Even the block rule that a block rule cannot be applied is somewhat wrong, because sometimes it can!
You have described the album opener, Two Rope Swings, as a “pocket symphony” that encapsulates The Tangent in six and a half concise (by prog standards) minutes. What is the story behind the song?
“Pocket Symphony” was a phrase I read which was in that context being applied to Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys. There are not many other notable examples of such things, 2+2=5 by Radiohead being one of these. I am sure your readers will be able to think of more.
Within these very short pieces, a great deal happens – contrasting moods, feelings and styles give an epic feel to a very short piece. They are a bit of a difficult goal to reach and require a certain amount of musical design and a lot of thought. It was something I’ve tried to do before. My song In Earnest was an earlier attempt that ended up as a 20-minute long piece.
In Two Rope Swings there was a bit of luck involved. The tune and melodies were strong, the lyrics were concise yet evocative and my hand was forced because the original solo version of this song had a maximum seven-minute deadline – it was a track for a compilation album released to accompany an illustrated book about the fate of elephants in the wild.
When we did the Tangent version for this album, none of us wanted to lengthen it as it already seemed to work. For the record we managed to start with a dreamy acoustic section wistfully remembering summer days playing on rope swings, imagining people in Africa playing on rope swings and looking at elephants and other animals we imagined lived there. It goes into a dialogue about how my cliched view of what an African boy was, by wondering if he thought of an English boy as wearing a bowler hat.
The song looks at misconceptions that the west has about Africa and its animals – the poverty in which many of the people live, the ivory trade, the impending extinction of many species and the exploitation of the continent by richer world powers. There is a massive ‘Prog Or Die’ section with bass pedals and mellotrons, a guitar solo, an organ solo, a synthesiser solo, a rock section, a little African interlude and a tranquil and slightly sad ending as the two characters in the song find themselves standing where they had once built their swings all those years ago. We did that all in 6.5 minutes. I feel pretty good about that and think we need a good pat on the back
So what, in your view, is The Tangent sound? What influences, techniques and approaches make the band unique?
I’ll start off by saying that on day ONE I knew that I wanted to do a Prog band that owed as little as possible to Genesis. That band are (along with Floyd) probably the most influential band on other bands of today and yesterday and many groups deliver careful and meticulous recreations of Genesis, sometimes sounding like “Long Lost Albums” of that band. And it’s been happening with numerous artists since the early ’80s.
So really I decided to look around at all the other fantastic stuff that was around at the same time as they were, and drew more on Canterbury bands like the Hatfields and National Health, Caravan and Egg. I couldn’t keep those Yes influences down, and of course Van Der Graaf Generator were always my favourite. I chose a lot of English music to make central to the band’s style – after all, at that time other of my influences The Flower Kings and Änglagård (and later Beardfish) from Sweden and Spock’s Beard and Echolyn from the USA were in their ascendant, Porcupine Tree were making exceptionally good music on the more Floydy side of things and I wanted The Tangent to make a play for the sort of “definitive English Progressive Rock Band” – a hole in the market at that time.
I think this did happen – of course since then there have been other bands who have flourished in that area and made a great job of it, this itself being a good thing as we could then go on and do something else.
Transatlantic’s first album was the moment I formed the band in my head – a wonderful romp which contained many blueprints for what I wanted to do. The fact I got to do it with one of them (Roine Stolt) was a real honour and the fact that he brought two guys from another of my fave bands in the form of Jonas [Reingold] and Zoltan [Csörsz] merely made my happiness complete.
Keith Emerson is a huge factor in my life, a colossal figure in the world of Progressive Music and to not mention him in a “where does the Tangent find its roots” question would be folly. The Hammond organ is my weapon of choice for a lot of pieces and he, Jon Lord and Dave Stewart taught me how to play it. In this respect Jonas has Chris Squire and Jaco Pastorius as constant presences in his musical life and Luke has Francis Dunnery and Allan Holdsworth at the back of his mind, probably for the rest of his life. And of course, that’s just a small sample.
In The Tangent though we’ve always looked outside the progressive arena – sometimes into the neighbouring jazz rock genre, sometimes further afield into punk, funk and electronic dance music. Luke and I are very interested in Japanese music written for video games on 1990s consoles and we often reference these in our playing. Chumbawamba, the anarchist band who transcended punk, folk and electro dance, have been huge in my life, being the band who showed me that music is about the message not the money and gave me the main reason for starting the chain of bands that led to The Tangent back in the 1980s when I used to work with that band as a sound engineer. Add Igor Stravinsky to Chumbawamba, stir in some Roger Waters and the blueprint for our album Le Sacre Du Travail is pretty much all there.
In terms of TODAY’s Tangent, the most important and crucial influence is a member of the band. Luke Machin brought the wind of youth into our music back in 2010. He brought with him a massive musical knowledge, a whole wagonload of new musical influences ranging from It Bites to death metal via Return To Forever and hip hop. Such open-minded vision has been an inspiration on all of us and changed the band forever.
I love music so much that I can’t really count the number of things I would like to do. I like Prog so much because it offers, more than any other genre, the chance to fuse more things together. Juxtaposition, contrast and a huge palette and no rules. That’s good Prog in a nutshell. That’s what I want to do. If it works for you, great. If not, sorry, we tried our damnedest!
Let’s talk about what is, at the moment, my favourite track on the album – The Sad Story of Lead And Astatine. Maybe it’s my age (!) but I’m a sucker for a bitter-sweet tune with plenty of major sevenths that packs an emotional wallop – and then you go into an instrumental section that shows just what a great jazz pianist you are (and what a great bass player you have in Jonas Reingold). Talk us through that track and, in particular, the story behind the title.
This track sees the band in fusion mode and, although the piece has a lot of dynamic content, the feel is generally relaxed and gives time for the musicians to express themselves in improvisation. It’s not a piece that tries to cram everything into 6.5 minutes, it’s not a 20-minute prog epic – it’s just a performance and as such is something that may be enjoyed by people who are less keen on the structured rigidity of our other work.
Theo [Travis], Jonas and Luke have all played major parts in The Tangent and we’ve never really taken the time for out and out soloing, preferring to concentrate on structure and songwriting. Here the actual song which the improv circles around is a fairly short and sweet piece. It’s the first proper bass solo we’ve really featured, certainly the first drum solo of any type. There is a stunning scat guitar section that Luke played and sang (not a frequent Prog occurrence). And thanks for the roses on the piano solo – I was able to put in some stuff that I’d learned from Lalle Larsson this time and so even I got something new to do.
Jonas, as well as that amazing solo, also provided a wonderful feel to the song itself using a real acoustic double bass, which we have been trying to get him to use for us since 2002. ‘Bout time we let the guy shine!!
The Sad Story… is the “division” song that comes to a much more personal level. Where A Few Steps… looks at a country tearing itself to pieces over a pointless squabble, this song strips all of that chaos down to two old friends who fall out, seemingly permanently. Like the country, they have nothing to gain, and everything to lose yet continue their quarrel using the ultimate weapon – silence. Both of them choked with their own pride, they constantly repeat their own views on what happened… to themselves and refuse to talk it out, apologise or even call each other. In the meantime, their lives go on bereft of the good things that their relationship used to bring them – a relationship based on their differences. One day those differences stopped being the boon and started to be the problem. As time ticks by, they get older and the chances of setting it right become remote and all the great things they did together become tinged with sadness. The song’s ultimate message is: For all their pride, anger and bile, nobody else gives a toss. Nobody wins, and nobody cares that nobody wins.
While we are name-checking musicians we should point out that you use a female vocalist on this album – Marie-Eve de Gaultier. Your voices seem to blend together very nicely and I was reminded at times of Hatfield and the North’s Northettes! Where did you find Marie-Eve and have you ever worked with her before?
Marie is a remarkable young woman whose contributions to our album are really strong and yet demonstrate only the tip of an iceberg, as she is a gifted composer, writer and keyboards player too. She also plays keys and sings for Luke’s band Maschine and through her relationship with Luke I have known her for almost as long as I have known him.
She’s easy to work with, constructive and understanding and has an excellent ear for good harmonies, something she shares with Luke. The world will hear a LOT more about her when her own musical projects start to surface and it’s my personal belief that when that happens we’ll be looking at a highly individual career that many will want to follow. She’s musically diverse, she will not be stuck in any kind of “prog rut”, she has a whole wealth of musical inspirations at her fingertips and a lifetime ahead of her, surrounded by great musicians and friends.
This is your first album since your heart attack in 2015. I’m sure it was a terrifying and soul-shaking experience. Were you aware of any health issues beforehand or was it a bolt out of the blue?
I was aware of heart problems before the attack and indeed the operation to stop me having one had been scheduled for six months by the time the actual attack occurred with a month still to wait. All the same, on the night it happened it was the Bolt From The Blue, because in my mind it was all sorted and everything was going to be OK. It wasn’t.
More unexpected than the attack itself was the depression that followed it. I really hit rock bottom for a while and there were periods when I really thought my music making days were over – indeed I stopped even listening to music for nearly a year. Just wasn’t interested in hearing or talking about it. A cocktail of prescription drugs and a couple that weren’t prescription didn’t help – but I’m back now as a near tee-totaller, a Vegetarian (near vegan) generally clean living person and I have a bit more of a spring in my step.
How did you find your musical muse again – and what affect has the heart attack and your subsequent recovery had on the album?
The title of our instrumental Doctor Livingstone (I Presume) is actually named after the search to find Andy the writer, Andy the mischievous, after being Andy the Heart Patient. In fact Mark Buckingham, artist for the project, pretty well nailed this one with this pic.
This was a good place to start, letting the music flow, unimpeded by the need to search for lyrical content – just letting the enjoyment of music making back into my life. I have often found solace in times of sadness and stress that music which does not call directly on emotions can be amazingly therapeutic. In the fallout of losing a long term partner 10 years or so ago I found listening to emotional or “romantic” (in the Beethoven sense of that word) music too mood-colouring, so I ended up really going back to Bach, National Health, Brand X – generally instrumental stuff that delighted and did not seek to poke my wounds with reminders. It was the same this time. When I started listening to music again a lot of it was Minimalist Techno, Ambient House and Old German Electronica as well as a healthy smattering of ’70s funk. I have not listened to much prog in the past five years, hardly any since I was ill. Still love it, but it’s in my head – not on the hi-fi.
I have to say Doctor Livingstone (I Presume) is fantastic, a really joyful, intricate jazz-rock track with some amazing work by your guitarist, Luke Machin – and drumming by you, it appears! And not just plodding Paul McCartney drumming – it’s powerful, busy and really drives the tracks.
I wrote Doctor Livingstone… as a guitar-led instrumental. In the absence of a vocal line, I needed something to take on that role and therefore decided that seeing as I have one of the greatest guitarists in the world as a band member and as a personal friend, it would be daft to do anything else. Luke took my original themes and developed them into a wonderful dialogue and his contribution to the track is so crucial that I decided to credit him as lyricist for the piece. The guitar playing is of a standard where it has become a language in itself and my writing “lyrics by Luke Machin” is not a joke. It’s a real credit.
I’ve been drumming since the ’80s, both kit drums and my own way of drumming using a keyboard. I find both equally valid and creative, and do not consider either method to be fake or cheating. Even when using keyboard drums, every note is PLAYED not programmed, and I do whole takes of songs, start to finish rather than using an eight-bar loop or copying and pasting verses and choruses, etc. Though I love people like Bruford, Collins, Peart and Pip Pyle, shades of whom I use in my attack, my fave drummer ever has to be Maurice White from Earth Wind and Fire whose groove and elegant use thereof is beyond criticism.
Doctor Livingstone… was done on a stick-played electronic drum kit by Roland with a couple of sections rethought at a later date when I didn’t have that kit available to me. The drum solo on Lead And Astatine was done on a keyboard and took me about 50 attempts to get the one that is on the album. But the one on the album is a single performance – there were 49 others that ranged from the “almost!” to the ridiculously bad.
Of course, the new album had all this at the back of my mind and it still is there. It’s actually the last album I am contracted to do and I knew as I made it that after this I am not obliged to write any more music, play any more shows, etc. But of course the natural instincts of The Tangent took over. A band who have fought tooth and nail for our being heard, never quite getting the breakthrough, every album being a huge effort to get that breakthrough… it means we’ve never been able to sit back on our laurels and think “what shall we do now?”
Every single one HAS to be the breakthrough. And there never will be a breakthrough, but as long as we keep up that attitude there will be a reason to come back and sing again. I guess this record made me realise that, and in that sense it’s important. It started as an album I didn’t want to make and turned into one I am proud of and want to follow up on.
The Slow Rust Of Forgotten Machinery is released on 21st July on the InsideOut label and you can read Kevan’s review of it HERE.
The band will be touring with Karmakanic from 26th August, including an appearance at this year’s Summer’s End Festival in October. For more information, follow the links below.